Neil Blackmon’s weekly musings, trends and takeaways from the weekend that was in the ACC …

It’s still Clemson’s world, and the rest of the ACC is just living in it. That’s what we learned Saturday night at a sold-out Death Valley, where the Tigers vanquished No. 10 NC State 30-20.

The scoreline flatters the Wolfpack, who were flattened at the line of scrimmage by the latest incarnation of a dominant Clemson defensive line. How good have the Tigers been up front over the past 6 seasons, a span which includes, of course, 2 national championships? Here are the national numbers, per CFB Stats and Stats Solutions:

  • 2016: 3rd in sacks, 5th in pressures
  • 2017: 1st in sacks, 1st in pressures
  • 2018: 1st in sacks, 1st in pressures
  • 2019: 6th in sacks, 8th in pressures
  • 2020: 1st in sacks, 2nd in pressures
  • 2021: 9th in sacks, 7th in pressures

That’s a staggering level of dominance, and it was one that seemed on the wane entering Saturday night’s contest against NC State. The Tigers entered the game in the bottom half of the country in sacks and hovering around 60 in pressures.

Put those concerns to bed.

The Tigers sacked NC State quarterback Devin Leary 3 times and generated a season-high 17 pressures. They also gathered 5 tackles for loss, and bottled up NC State’s electric screen passing game, which came into the evening averaging over a first down per screen pass attempted. Saturday night, on 7 screen concepts, the Wolfpack gained a total of 21 yards.

For Clemson, Brent Venables or no Brent Venables, the path back to the College Football Playoff starts and ends with the defensive front. The path “back” to a Playoff is different than whether Clemson can win, which, as we wrote in this space last week, will come down to DJ Uiagalelei’s ability to move the Clemson offense against the elite (SEC) defenses you have to contend with in the College Football Playoff. Uiagalelei continues to answer the bell, by the way, silencing more and more critics with each impressive week.

But Clemson, after being shredded in Winston-Salem by Sam Hartman (more on that great gunslinger below), largely due to the inability of their defensive line to do much to bother the Wake Forest star, found its footing defensively against State.

There’s plenty to say about how State’s continued inability to run the football (the Wolfpack now rank 94th in the nation in rushing offense and are ranked 64th out of the 75 teams I rank in success rate) has really neutralized the effectiveness of Devin Leary, the preseason ACC Player of the Year, this season. That will continue to be a problem for Dave Doeren’s team, which may find advancing to the program’s first New Year’s 6 bowl a challenge unless they can get a better push up front.

But the story this week is the Clemson defensive line. Rotating 7, because Clemson recruits well enough to rotate 7, the Tigers aren’t a one-man band up front. Everyone, from defensive tackle Ruke Orhorhoro (3 pressures) to senior KJ Henry (4 pressures, a pass deflection, and a tackle for loss) was involved. And Clemson’s stars, like preseason All-ACC selection Myles Murphy, were stars (1.5 sacks, 4 pressures). Keep in mind that Clemson did this without preseason All-American Bryan Bresee as well, who missed the game with a medical issue. When you factor that into Saturday night’s performance, it’s frightening how talented and deep the Tigers are up front.

“That was a great, physical offensive line we played against, but this was all about us,” Henry told the media after the game. “We had not played well this year. We knew we could play better. We knew we could play as a collective for four quarters. If we play like that moving forward, it’s going to be a problem for people.”

It will definitely be a problem for Clemson’s opponents, but mostly, it will be an asset in big October games at FSU (Oct. 15) and against currently unbeaten Syracuse on Oct. 22. Escape those with wins, and survive a tricky trip to South Bend Nov. 5, and the Tigers close with a November homestand and a clear path to an unblemished regular season.

There’s a lot of football left, to be certain. But Clemson is improving every week, something we couldn’t say about the past 2 teams. The path to the Playoff is clear — as is the fact that Clemson are national championship contenders again.

Hot Plates and Hot Seats

“Preaching Like Dabo” will return next week. This week? We look into great eats on campus in the ACC — and visit “hot seats” in the aftermath of Geoff Collins’ dismissal from Georgia Tech last Sunday

Hot Plates: Sunnyside Café, Clemson

If you get an early start on gameday, or you just need Sunday brunch with all the fixins’ on your way out of town the next day, Sunnyside Café at 101 Market Street in Clemson is the place to be.

They deserve even more credit for how they’ve handled this weekend, given they lost their computer system to Hurricane Ian on Friday and were serving good food up on waiter notes and memory all NC State weekend.

You can’t really go wrong with the menu, and it’s the best cup of coffee in town — period, end of discussion — but I can’t recommend the Fried Green Tomato, Egg, Cheddar, and Bacon biscuit enough or, if that dish isn’t southern enough for you, give the Pecan Praline stuffed French toast a run.

You’ll build a base for any gameday libations — or soothe any Sunday headaches — with the hearty portions and heft of that meal. Sunnyside also is completely farm-to-table, using local Carolinas agriculture for everything that finds its way to your plate and stomach, from the sausages at McCall’s Farm in Honea Path, South Carolina, to the stone ground grits from Hurricane Creek Farms in Pelzer. Sustainable, delicious food that supports local farmers? What more could you ask for on a college football Saturday or Sunday?

Hot Seats

Geoff Collins didn’t make it to October, as Georgia Tech had seen enough after the Yellow Jackets were blasted at home by Ole Miss in Week 4. Will anyone join Collins on the chopping block this year? Here’s a look at the warmth of ACC seats, from the eternally safe (Dabo) to the spicy and sweating (Scott Satterfield).

Safe Forever: Dabo Swinney (Clemson), Dave Clawson (Wake Forest)

Safe (either due to performance or “too new to get fired”): Dave Doeren (NC State), Mario Cristobal (Miami), Pat Narduzzi (Pitt), Tony Elliott (Virginia), Mike Elko (Duke)

Should be safe, but college football is weird: Mike Norvell (FSU), Brent Pry (Virginia Tech)

Not on the hot seat anymore: Dino Babers (Syracuse)

Will he retire/lukewarm because results aren’t on pace with expectations: Mack Brown (North Carolina)

Warm: Jeff Hafley (Boston College)

Hot: Scott Satterfield (Louisville)

The most interesting ones are Pry and Satterfield. The Hokies’ start under Brent Pry couldn’t be going worse. Virginia Tech looks listless on offense and the defense plays well but tires. The result, for now, is a 2-3 football team that doesn’t look like it will qualify for a bowl game. The Hokies also aren’t recruiting well. Could they make a quick change? Would Shane Beamer be interested?

Satterfield’s Louisville program has reached a point where they just aren’t consistent enough for the administration to stick with the current course much longer. A third consecutive losing season seems in the offing after Saturday’s defeat at Boston College, and a program that has had a Heisman winner and played in New Year’s 6/BCS bowls under multiple head coaches feels like it is falling behind, both in its division and worse, in-state, where Mark Stoops and Kentucky reign supreme. Barring a turnaround, a change seems imminent.

The Road to Charlotte

No. 22 Wake Forest 31, No. 23 Florida State 21: It’s a testament to just how special a program culture Dave Clawson has built that Wake Forest could respond to last week’s heartbreaking double overtime loss to Clemson by going on the road and beating a quality FSU team playing with tremendous confidence after a 4-0 start.

Count “The Road” among those who still thinks FSU is pretty darn good — Jordan Travis is a budding star and the Noles led 7-0 and made a furious rally to make things interesting in the fourth quarter on Saturday — but Wake Forest’s ability to put the Clemson loss behind them is all about the Demon Deacons. After the win, which featured 28 unanswered points from Wake Forest after they fell behind by 7, Clawson gushed about his leadership.

“That was a great, gutty, incredible team win,” Clawson said. “Last week was a soul-crusher. I was concerned with our ability to get back. Instead, our seniors and our leaders put in a great week of practice, prepared, and we came here expecting to win.”

Wake Forest beat FSU for the 3rd consecutive year.

Wake Forest also found its running game, punishing Florida State’s front for 191 yards on 54 carries. A week after averaging just 2.8 yards per rush in the loss to Clemson, finding their footing on the ground against a strong FSU defense is an encouraging sign as Wake Forest keeps its eyes fixated on a New Year’s 6 bowl game.

The Demon Deacons also bounced back on defense. After surrendering 51 to Clemson, Wake Forest forced 6 consecutive stops Saturday in building their 28-7 lead. Wake Forest isn’t going to be great or even good defensively this season, but merely “adequate” should give the Demon Deacons a legitimate shot at 10-2 and with it, a New Year’s 6 bowl game.

Georgia Tech 26, No. 24 Pittsburgh 21: When you fire a coach midseason, things tend to go one of two ways. Either the program bucks up and closes a season strong, or things fall apart. There does not tend to be any in-between.

How will things go for Georgia Tech? Perhaps it will go well? Geoff Collins was dismissed 8 days ago, and Georgia Tech defeated a ranked opponent 6 days later.

Jeff Sims was the star, tallying 184 total yards (102 passing, 82 rushing), including this game-clinching touchdown run late in the fourth quarter.

Kedon Slovis threw for 305 yards in defeat for Pitt, but the Panthers got next to nothing from Israel Abanikanda, who entered the game as the ACC’s leading rusher but managed just 31 yards on 10 carries. Unable to run the ball, Pitt had to rely exclusively on the pass game, which might have worked had the Panthers not turned the football over 3 times as well. Georgia Tech scored half of its 26 points off Pitt turnovers, helping the Yellow Jackets secure the upset.

Boston College 34, Louisville 33: A huge win for Jeff Hafley and a horrible loss for Scott Satterfield. The result of this game felt that impactful for both programs.

First of all, credit where it is due. It’s been a year for Phil Jurkovec, who is a talented quarterback stuck on a mediocre football team. The senior hasn’t been bad: He threw for 283 yards and 3 touchdowns in Boston College’s heartbreaking loss to Rutgers, for example. But Boston College’s anemic ground game has made the Eagles one-dimensional, and those problems hit their apogee a week ago in a humbling 44-14 loss at FSU that saw Jurkovec toss 2 interceptions and throw for just 105 yards. Jurkovec, who projects as a first 3 round pick in the NFL Draft in 2023, bounced back in a huge way Saturday. He completed 18-of-21 passes for 305 yards and 3 touchdowns, including this dime to Zay Flowers to give the Eagles the lead for good.

Jurkovec wasn’t perfect — he tossed a pick and held the ball too long on 2 of Louisville’s 3 sacks. But he did enough to get Hafley a much-needed victory.

For Louisville, this loss is a disaster.

The Cardinals’ path to bowl eligibility depended on a win Saturday. It’s tough to find 4 more wins on a schedule that includes 4 more ranked opponents (as well as a date with Pitt, which fell out of the Top 25 on Sunday).

Will Satterfield survive a third straight losing season? Should he? It’s hard to make a good-faith argument he should be retained. Louisville, after all, is a program with tremendous administrative support, a beautiful home stadium, a recent Heisman Trophy winner, and multiple BCS/New Year’s 6 bowl games under multiple coaching staffs this century. The Cardinals should be better, and Saturday’s loss may be the death knell for Satterfield.

Duke 38, Virginia 17: The Mike Elko “ACC Coach of the Year” train still has room, but there sure are more occupied seats after Saturday’s rout of Virginia at Wallace Wade Stadium. The win snapped a 13-game ACC losing streak for the Blue Devils. Elko’s team won the way they have all season — with stingy defense. They held Brennan Armstrong and UVA to just 295 yards and came up with this huge play to cement a goal-line stand and quell a Virginia comeback attempt late.

Elko’s Duke defense ranks 28th nationally in scoring defense, and with a run game that continues to improve weekly (the Blue Devils had 248 yards rushing Saturday), the Blue Devils find themselves only 2 wins from bowl eligibility.

North Carolina 41, Virginia Tech 10: The Drake Maye Show continues! The freshman sensation threw for 363 yards and ran for 73 more, accounting for 5 touchdowns in the Tar Heels’ rout of the Hokies. More of those numbers and Maye may threaten for All-American honors as a freshman. Either way, Maye’s blossoming star turn has softened the blow of Sam Howell’s departure in Chapel Hill.

Brent Pry’s first season in Blacksburg continues to be defined by an inept offense: The Hokies managed just 273 yards on 70 plays against a Tar Heels defense that came into the game ranked in the 100s nationally in total defense and 74th of 75 in my success rate defense metric. That must improve or Pry may enter Year 2 in a precarious position, given he inherited a program that was average, not bad, and was expected to elevate their play immediately.

Syracuse 59, Wagner 0: Sean Tucker finally shook loose, gaining 232 yards on 23 carries, helping Syracuse wallop overmatched Wagner. The Orange are 5-0 and on the cusp of bowl eligibility. A brutal schedule will see Syracuse play as an underdog in each of the next 6 weeks — but 1 win in that stretch will send the Orange back to a bowl game and, in all likelihood, see Dino Babers return for an 8th season as head coach.

The best thing about this game wasn’t Tucker going off though. It was the fact the two teams agreed to play 10-minute quarters in the second half.

Obviously, Syracuse is back to being a football school, waking up the echoes of Jim Brown and Ernie Davis.

The Bowden Awards

Every week, The Road pays homage to the ACC’s best ever- Bobby Bowden- by honoring the ACC’s best over the weekend

Charlie Ward Award (Offensive Player of the Week): DJ Uiagalelei, QB, Clemson

Clemson started slowly, but Uiagalelei wins the Ward Award for the second consecutive week thanks to a dominant final 2 1/2 quarters.

The key drive of the game came late in the second quarter. Just when it looked like NC State and the Wolfpack defense would take a 10-6 lead into the half, Uiagalelei led the Tigers on a gorgeous 8-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in just 80 seconds to stake the Tigers to a 13-10 halftime advantage. The Tigers never trailed again. The best play of the drive? This pass to Will Shipley, which set up Uiagalelei’s 1-yard touchdown plunge.

The drive settled the Tigers and fired up their junior quarterback.

“I’ve waited my whole life (for a 2-minute drill),” Uiagalelei said after the win. “I’ve seen video of Peyton Manning doing it, Tom Brady doing it. I never had the chance to do it. It’s great it worked out.”

Uiagalelei continues to work out as Swinney’s starter, and his 282 yards of total offense (he was Clemson’s leading rusher Saturday night as well with 73 yards on the ground) came against a defense that entered the game ranked 8th in both total defense and success rate defense. Clemson has won the national title twice under Swinney, both times led by sterling quarterback play. The preseason narrative was that Uiagalelei couldn’t play at the Deshaun Watson or Trevor Lawrence level. That criticism increasingly looks mistaken, and the Tigers are national championship contenders as a result.

Prior Winners: Garrett Shrader, QB, Syracuse (Week 1 and Week 2); Johnny Wilson, WR, Florida State (Week 3); DJ Uiagalelei, QB, Clemson (Week 4).

Mickey Andrews Award (Defensive Player of the Week): Myles Murphy, DE, Clemson

Murphy tallied 1.5 sacks and was a factor all evening in Clemson’s big win. Even when he didn’t sack Devin Leary, he made his presence felt, with 4 pressures.

Murphy and the Tigers’ defensive line dominated, holding NC State to just 4.0 yards per play — the Wolfpack’s low total since a 55-10 loss to Clemson in the 2019 season.

Prior Winners: Shyheim Battle, DB, NC State (Week 1, Week 4), Brandon Johnson, DB, Duke (Week 2); Aydan White, DB, NC State (Week 3).

Sebastian Janikowski Award (Special Teams Player of the Week): Gavin Stewart, K, Georgia Tech

The Road didn’t expect to give these to kickers most every week, but for now, it’s been a quiet year for kick returners and other special teams performers. This week’s winner is Stewart, who connected on all 4 field goal attempts in Georgia Tech’s stunning 26-21 victory over No. 24 Pitt. The final kick sealed the win for the Yellow Jackets, who won for the first time in the ACC since a 31-27 win over Duke almost a calendar year prior to Saturday (Oct. 9, 2021).

Stewart was making his first career start, making his Janikowski Award especially impressive.

Prior Winners: Matthew Dennis, Kicker, Wake Forest (Week 1), PJ O’Brien, DB, Pitt (Week 2); Brendan Farrell, K, Virginia (Week 3), Andre Szmyt, K, Syracuse (Week 4).

I Can’t Wait Until Saturday Because: North Carolina at Miami (4 pm, ESPN2)

Talk about a big game for two coaching staffs, albeit for very different reasons.

The Tar Heels have unearthed a star in Drake Maye, who will head to Miami Gardens ranked 7th in the country in passing yards per game and 4th in passing efficiency. That’s amazing stuff for any quarterback, let alone a freshman!

He’ll face a Canes defense that played stout football for the season’s first 3 games but then collapsed in Week 4, surrendering 38 points to Middle Tennessee and 408 yards passing, including this 98-yard bomb that put the game to bed in the fourth quarter.

The Tar Heels need a quality win because, well, it’s been a while since they had one under Brown.

The Hurricanes need a quality win because, well, Mario Cristobal starting 2-2 wasn’t part of the plan in Coral Gables.

Desperate football teams tend to deliver great football games, and this one is why I can’t wait until Saturday.