Friedlander: First impressions of every ACC game in Week 6
Now that Clemson has established itself as the clear favorite in the Atlantic Division by beating top contenders Wake Forest and NC State in consecutive weeks, Week 6 in the ACC is an opportunity to turn our attention to the always chaotic Coastal.
After what happened Saturday, the potential for chaos is even greater than usual.
Defending champion Pittsburgh lost its conference opener at home to previously dead-in-the-water Georgia Tech in its debut under an interim coach. North Carolina finally showed its defense can stop somebody, albeit the league’s worst offense. And Duke suddenly looked like a contender while preseason favorite Miami got an extra week to lick its wounds from its Middle Tennessee State embarrassment.
This week’s schedule is highlighted by 3 divisional clashes that will likely muddy the Coastal waters even further.
It’s never too early to break down the matchups. So let’s dive right in.
Louisville at Virginia
When – Saturday, Noon ET
TV – ACC Network
This matchup had the potential to be interesting when the schedule first came out because of the quarterback duel between Malik Cunningham and Brennan Armstrong. Instead, it’s a clash between the worst team in each of the ACC’s 2 divisions.
Louisville (2-3, 0-3 ACC) earned that distinction Saturday with a 34-33 loss at fellow bottom-feeder Boston College that has turned up the heat on coach Scott Satterfield to a rolling boil. Virginia and its sputtering offense is coming off a 3-touchdown spanking at the hands of Duke, a team it beat 48-0 just 1 year ago.
At least we can look forward to the head-to-head battle between Cunningham and Armstrong. Right?
Not so fast, my friends.
Cunningham’s status is uncertain after leaving the game at BC in the fourth quarter with an undisclosed injury. With him, Louisville scored 33 points. In its final 3 possessions without him, it managed only 56 yards – all but 19 of which came on the ground – while backup Brock Domann went 1-of-8 passing. Cunningham’s absence would not bode well for the Cardinals. Then again, they’re playing a 2-3 (0-2) UVA team that ranks next-to-last in the league in scoring at 18 points per game. So they might not need much offense to win.
Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh
When – Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
TV – ACC Network
This figures to be an opportunity for the Panthers to right the ship and start building momentum for the run to their second straight ACC title. They’re at home against a team that has struggled mightily this season, especially on offense.
If that sounds a lot like the description of last week’s game against Georgia Tech, it should. It’s almost identical. The only difference is that instead of facing a new coach in his first game leading his program, the shine is already fading from the rookie coach of this week’s opponent.
The Hokies (2-3, 1-1) have scored only 10 points in each of their past 2 outings and were shut out in the second half against a UNC defense that had previously been as charitable as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to opposing offenses. What’s worse, a Tech defense that has helped keep things respectable for coach Brent Pry’s team was picked apart for 41 points by the Tar Heels.
It’s debatable whether Pitt (3-2, 0-1) can come up with enough offense to take advantage of the Hokies’ struggles. The Panthers lost Israel Abanikanda, the ACC’s leading rusher, to an injury late in the first half of the Georgia Tech game and committed 3 turnovers – all of which resulted in Tech points. And transfer quarterback Kedon Slovis has yet to show he has the ability to put a team on his shoulders and carry it when necessary the way predecessor Kenny Pickett did last season.
Duke at Georgia Tech
When – Saturday, 4 p.m. ET
TV – RSN
This is the juxtaposition of the Louisville-UVA matchup – a game that looked to be a dog when the season began but has since turned into one of the more intriguing entries on the Week 6 schedule.
The Yellow Jackets (2-3, 1-1) looked like a completely different team under interim coach Brent Key than they did under the recently fired Geoff Collins. They forced 3 turnovers on defense, ran the ball effectively on offense and – more importantly – took advantage of the opportunities they were presented.
Whether they’ll be able to sustain that kind of play now that the emotion of their midseason coaching change has begun to wear off is yet to be seen.
The Blue Devils (4-1, 1-0) have already gone a long way to proving their resurgence under first-year coach Mike Elko is no fluke. They bounced back from their first loss 2 weeks ago at Kansas by putting the hammer down on UVA early and cruising to a 38-17 win.
While quarterback Riley Leonard and a stable of capable running backs have been the most visible reasons for Duke’s early success under Elko, the real star of the show has been a defense that ranks among the top 10 nationally with a plus-6 turnover margin.
North Carolina at Miami
When – Saturday, 4 p.m. ET
TV – ESPN2
The combination of Pitt’s struggles, Miami’s no-show against MTSU and the signs of life shown by Gene Chizik’s defense against Virginia Tech has suddenly transformed the Tar Heels (4-1, 1-0) from a punch line into a legitimate Coastal title contender.
That defense, which is still dead last in the ACC in points, total yards and rushing yards allowed while ranking next-to-last in passing yards allowed, doesn’t have to play as well as it did in limiting the Hokies to 273 yards and only a single first-half touchdown for UNC to be a threat in the division.
The way quarterback Drake Maye has been dealing, especially since star receiver Josh Downs has returned from injury, the Tar Heels have the ability to outscore anyone on their remaining schedule if the number to beat isn’t astronomical.
Miami (2-2, 0-0) figured to be just as good offensively based on the way Tyler Van Dyke finished last season. The sophomore ranked 4th in the ACC in passing efficiency last season with a rating of 160.1. This year, he’s 11th at 123.0 while averaging nearly 100 fewer passing yards per game.
Some of his troubles can be traced to the loss of top receiver Xavier Restrepo to injury. The rest might be the result of a change in offensive philosophy brought about by the arrival of new coordinator Josh Gattis. Van Dyke was benched in favor of freshman Jake Garcia late in the MTSU game. It will be interesting to see who starts against UNC and how, if any, the week off to prepare has helped Miami get its mojo back.
Army at Wake Forest
When – Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET
TV – RSN
Get your calculators ready. If last year’s shootout between the Deacons (4-1) and Cadets is any indication, there’s going to be more points scored in this game than a Virginia basketball game.
The teams combined for 18 touchdowns and 126 points in a 70-56 Wake win that was the highest scoring game ever at West Point and the second-highest involving an ACC team. Most of the offensive weapons that contributed to that victory are back for coach Dave Clawson’s team and as they showed 2 weeks ago against Clemson, they’re more than capable of putting up a big number against anybody.
The problem is, that same game showed that the Deacons’ defense is just as capable of yielding a big number. And while Army is only 1-3 after Saturday’s 31-14 loss to Georgia State, the Cadets are still averaging better than 32 points per game and are fourth nationally in rushing offense at 302 yards per game.
Clemson at Boston College
When – Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET
TV – ABC
Despite the Eagles’ encouraging performance in Saturday’s win against Louisville, this game has mismatch written all over it. Dabo Swinney’s team looked like the Clemson of old in Saturday’s workmanlike win against NC State, especially on defense.
A week after being burned by the deep ball and getting torched for 45 points by Wake Forest, the Tigers (5-0, 3-0) put together a dominant performance. They protected their injury-riddled secondary by constant pressure on the Wolfpack’s Devin Leary, preventing him from having the time to throw downfield.
They’ll need a repeat performance against the Eagles (2-3, 1-2), because their pass defense is still a question. And as BC quarterback Phil Jurkovec showed Saturday, he and favorite receiver Zay Flowers have the potential to do some damage if allowed to get into a rhythm.
Jurkovec’s counterpart, Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, wasn’t as sharp throwing the ball as he was against the Deacons. But he made up for it by rushing for 73 yards and 2 touchdowns as part of a ground attack that accounted for 145 yards.
Florida State at NC State
When – Saturday, 8 p.m. ET
TV – ACC Network
The Wolfpack’s dream of ending a 43-year ACC championship drought all but ended with Saturday’s loss at Clemson. How quickly they can get over that disappointment and shift their focus on an equally elusive double-digit win season will play a major role in determining the outcome of another key Atlantic Division matchup.
Like NC State (4-1, 0-1), the Seminoles (4-1, 1-1) will be looking to bounce back from an equally damaging loss to a divisional contender. Their 31-21 home loss to Wake Forest showed that while improved, they’re still a work in progress.
One positive from the loss to the Deacons was the return of top pass rusher Jared Verse. His ability to get into the backfield and disrupt the passer has the potential to add to the woes of Leary and his offense.
Though both will need some help to get back into the Atlantic race, a win on Saturday will allow one of these teams to at least stay in the race a little while longer. That’s especially true for FSU, which has yet to play Clemson.