Friedlander: What's at stake for the ACC in Week 5
There’s a lot on the line for ACC football teams now that the bulk of the conference schedule is about to begin. But the consequences on the field are miniscule compared to what’s at stake for those who live in the path of Hurricane Ian.
The storm is big and dangerous, and while it’s not expected to cause the postponement of any games, its rain and wind almost certainly will affect the 2 most important matchups on the Week 5 slate.
That will only add an extra level of intrigue to the Top-25 Atlantic Division showdowns between NC State and Clemson at Death Valley, and Wake Forest at Florida State.
Here’s a closer look at what’s on the line:
NC State at Clemson
The winner will become the early frontrunner in the Atlantic Division, remain among the top 10 of the national rankings and become a legitimate contender for the College Football Playoff.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
For the 5th-ranked Tigers, it’s an opportunity to avenge a painful double-overtime loss to the Wolfpack in Raleigh a year ago. It’s also a chance for a defense burned for 48 points by the Deacons last week to to re-establish itself as one of the nation’s best.
No. 10 State has even more on the line. Coach Dave Doeren’s team will be looking to re-write history by ending an 8-game losing streak at Death Valley dating to 2002. A win also would be a major step in the right direction as the Wolfpack chases its first ACC championship in 43 years and only the 2nd 10-plus-win season in school history.
Although the game will feature marquee quarterbacks in State’s Devin Leary and Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei, turnovers and the running game could turn out to be the determining factors because of the weather.
The less-than-optimal conditions don’t figure to favor either team, based on recent performances. In 2016, the Wolfpack beat Notre Dame in a game played during the teeth of Hurricane Matthew, and the Tigers scored a victory against the Fighting Irish in a 2015 monsoon caused by the remnants of Hurricane Joaquin.
Wake Forest at Florida State
Though not as relevant nationally, the matchup between the Deacons and Seminoles is every bit as meaningful to the Atlantic Division race.
It’s especially important to the 23nd-ranked Seminoles, who cracked the national rankings for the first time in 4 years this week. Coach Mike Norvell’s team not only will be looking to build on its surprising 4-0 start, but also position itself for the remainder of a season-defining stretch that will have it play at NC State next week before hosting Clemson in Tallahassee on Oct. 15.
The Deacons, who are 22nd in this week’s Associated Press poll, can ill afford another divisional loss after falling just short against the Tigers last week if they have any designs on repeating as Atlantic champs.
Pittsburgh at Georgia Tech
All eyes will be on the Yellow Jackets, who will be playing their 1st game under interim coach Brent Key after the firing of Geoff Collins this week.
How much of an impact can the former Alabama assistant, who has been working with Tech’s offensive line since 2019, make on a struggling team playing under difficult circumstances on the road against the reigning ACC champions?
About as much as a Band-aid on a severed limb. But at this point, any signs of life would be an improvement.
On the other side of the ball, the Panthers will be looking to re-establish an effective passing attack to supplement the running of Israel Abanikanda, now that quarterback Kedon Slovis is back in the lineup. They’ll also have an opportunity to shore up an injury-riddled defense that, like Clemson’s, has yet to live up to its preseason hype.
Virginia Tech at North Carolina
The Hokies have to be licking their chops in anticipation of facing a Tar Heels defense that hasn’t been able to stop a parked car so far this season.
UNC ranks 123rd out of 131 Football Bowl Subdivision teams nationally in scoring defense at 39.5 points allowed per game and 126th in total defense with an average of 495.2 yards. Despite having an extra week to prepare, coach Mack Brown’s team surrendered 45 points last week in a loss to offensively challenged Notre Dame.
Tech has had an equally difficult time putting points on the board during its 1st season under coach Brent Pry. Some of that has to do with its inability to run the ball. The Hokies are next-to-last in the ACC in rushing offense. But there has been just as much self-inflicted damage by a team that’s committing an average of 80.8 penalty yards per game.
UNC has lost 5 of its past 6 meetings with Tech since spoiling Frank Beamer’s final home game at Lane Stadium in 2015. Besides reversing that trend and fixing a broken defense, the Tar Heels also have the incentive of getting off to a 1-0 start in a Coastal Division that appears to be as wide open as ever.
Virginia at Duke
The Blue Devils return home with the goal of regaining the momentum it lost in last week’s setback at Kansas in coach Mike Elko’s ACC debut. It’s the first of 2 straight league games in which Duke will be favored and could be a major step toward gaining bowl eligibility for the first time since 2018.
The Cavaliers’ focus will be on building off a promising performance in a loss at Syracuse. Their defense performed admirably, forcing 4 turnovers and keeping the game within reach until a dormant offense finally awakened after a scoreless 1st half.
While the struggles of quarterback Brennan Armstrong and a unit averaging only 18 points per game have to be frustrating for 1st-year coach Tony Elliott, the former offensive coordinator at Clemson, a 3-touchdown 2nd half against the Orange definitely was a step in the right direction.
Louisville at Boston College
The stakes involved with this matchup of Atlantic Division also-rans are obvious. Winner avoids falling into the division cellar.
For the Eagles, a loss would mean they’d have to run the table in their final 7 games to reach their goal of 8 wins by the end of the regular season.
The stakes likely are even higher for the Cardinals. With a brutal closing stretch that will have them playing 5 teams currently ranked in the national polls over the final 6 weeks, they’re going to need all the wins they can muster now to have any chance of qualifying for the postseason.
Not to mention keeping coach Scott Satterfield off the unemployment line.
Wagner at Syracuse
The Orange, ranked 25th in the coaches’ poll, should encounter little resistance in notching win No. 5 against a winless Football Championship Subdivision opponent that got lit up for 66 points by Rutgers while also losing to Fordham and St. Francis (Pa.).
The more important focus of this game, then, will be on cutting down on turnovers, getting star running back Sean Tucker more involved and preventing the kind of catastrophic big plays that nearly cost over the past 2 weeks in close wins against Purdue and Virginia.