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

The road to “back” for Florida State is still a winding road, but it’s time to put the doom and gloom surrounding the FSU program under Mike Norvell to bed.

The Seminoles are 3-0 after a thrilling, come-from-behind road win over Louisville on Friday night, but it’s what they overcame to grab the victory that should make even the most strident Norvell cynic reconsider.

FSU lost starting quarterback Jordan Travis before halftime, playing on the road in a charged up, sold-out Cardinal Stadium environment. Travis began the game by completing his first 11 passes, helping FSU keep pace with Louisville while Adam Fuller’s defense struggled to figure out Malik Cunningham and the Cardinals’ offense. Whatever Travis’ injury is it didn’t look good — the Seminoles junior went straight to the locker room after a hit wrangled his left leg.

Every FSU team from 2017 forward likely folds after losing its star, especially after backup quarterback Tate Rodemaker ended the first half with a miserable read and interception. On social media, FSU fans and media alike (check the mentions!), certainly expected a Seminoles collapse.

This FSU team is built differently.

Rodemaker led the Seminoles on a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to tie the game at 21 to open the third quarter, and he connected with Johnny Wilson – who looks like the best FSU receiver since Kelvin Benjamin — to tie the game again at 28. Then, with the crowd on fire, Louisville up 3 and FSU stymied on 1st- and 2nd-and-goal, Rodemaker threw a dime to Wilson for the winning touchdown.

Rodemaker finished 6-10 passing for 109 yards and 2 touchdowns, and he was well-supported by FSU’s first effective run game since the 2016 season. How good has FSU been on the ground?

The Seminoles had 189 yards rushing against Lousiville, but that number was only under 200 due to sack yardage. FSU’s top 2 running backs, the walk-on turned bellcow Treshaun Ward and Oregon transfer Trey Benson, cut and ran like they had more than 3 recruiting stars between them, churning out 196 yards on just 20 carries. Throw in an effective run game in FSU’s win over LSU and the Seminoles’ absurd 406 yards in the opening day win over Duquesne, and suddenly, FSU has the type of efficient run game that defined the electric Norvell offenses at Memphis that were part of the reason FSU hired Norvell in the first place.

FSU’s defense also contributed to the victory. Jared Verse, the FCS All-American who has been a revelation for the Noles, was banged up and played only sparingly. No matter. The Seminoles were able to generate consistent pressure in the second half on Cunningham, especially on the final two Louisville possessions, which resulted in a stop and a turnover, sealing the win for FSU.

Long term, the status and extent of Travis’ injury will likely define whether FSU can contend this year in the Atlantic. Travis is a legitimate budding star. He isn’t just giving FSU its first steady quarterback play since pre-injury Deondre Francois — he’s making dazzling plays like this one:

He’s also improved as an accurate thrower, dropping dimes like this one for a touchdown.

Travis has tweeted that he’ll be back next week, but if he’s not, it removes the dual-threat component from FSU’s attack, meaning the Seminoles will be less multiple offensively and forced to rely on the more traditional run game. Will that be enough with games against three ranked opponents in succession around the bend?

It’s hard to say. In past years, you’d like FSU’s talent to give them a chance to compete against anyone. That’s not the case anymore. FSU is still talented: they rank 17th in the 247 2022 talent composite. That’s just not the top 10 talent we’re used to seeing in Tallahassee.

Long term, FSU needs to recruit better under Norvell to get the Seminoles “back” to the 1985-2015 program standard of consistently competing for conference and national championships. What’s clear this season, though, is that an FSU renaissance is not impossible under Mike Norvell.

As Bobby Bowden, patron saint of Seminole sidelines, once put it, “When you build a program, you do it in four steps. First, you lose big, Second, you lose close. Next, you win close. All the sudden, you win dadgum big.”

Is FSU entering phase 3 under Norvell in 2022? It’s starting to look that way, and with Boston College and No. 19 Wake Forest both visiting what’s likely to be a rocking Doak Campbell, a 5-0 start feels likely, with or without Travis. What happens after that, with Clemson and Miami and Florida to come on the schedule, will tell us just how close FSU is to Bowden’s step four.

Preaching like Dabo

Because no one preaches about pigskin better than Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, this section will revisit one topic a week in the ACC that should be the subject of a Dabo sermon.

Scott Frost was fired by Nebraska last week after Georgia Southern strolled into Memorial Stadium and dispatched the Cornhuskers 45-42. The decision to dismiss Frost in September cost Nebraska $7.5 million more than it would have had the school simply waited until Oct. 1, thanks to a restructured contract negotiated last year that bumped Frost’s buyout from $15 million down to $7.5 million on Oct. 1, 2022.

Apparently, the embarrassment of the Nebraska student section chanting “Fire Frost” after the loss to Georgia Southern was worth paying the Nebraska legend 7.5 million extra to go away two weeks early.

Early November or even midseason firings have become more common in college football, as athletic directors believe being “first” into the coaching search ring gives them a leg up on the competition for the sport’s most coveted coaching names. The fact the sport seems to be playing with “funny money” in the age of Power 5 conference revenue sharing and television contracts, also incentivizes schools to make quick, albeit expensive, changes. When you know the big money will be there, you don’t sweat the extra 7.5 million bucks.

Any other explanation from Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts is disingenuous. This wasn’t about “giving the program a breath of fresh air” or “keeping the focus off Frost’s future” ahead of a rivalry game against Oklahoma. Nebraska scored first, but otherwise wasn’t competitive against the Sooners on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, losing by a lopsided score of 49-14. The risk that players got a jolt from interim coach Mickey Joseph was, at best, equal to the risk that players pouted and played poorly after the departure of Frost, a player’s coach to the bitter end.

Nebraska, now 1-3, isn’t salvageable now and whether it is a good job anymore, despite the program’s storied history and the state’s love of football, is debatable.

In that vein, starting now, being thorough in a search, and vetting every possible program-changing coaching hire, matters. This is a legacy hire for Alberts, a dear friend of Frost, whom he just fired.

Then again, Frost lost 22 of his 31 games by one score or less. Is a new hire changing that, or was this just impatience run amok? Time will tell but saving 7.5 million dollars and waiting a few weeks would have made more sense.

It’s just that in the current college football universe, very little makes sense, especially if you can get your moribund program trending on Twitter, whatever the reason.

Was Frost an early-year anomaly, or a sign of things to come? Well, on Sunday, Arizona State parted ways with Herm Edwards following a home loss to Eastern Michigan.

It’s difficult to imagine it isn’t the latter, given the “funny money” from television, NIL’s potential to improve parity, and more and more schools earnestly believing they can be the next Clemson or Georgia, rising from the ashes of 1980s or 1990s glory to consistently compete for national championships in a new century.

In other words, as surprising as those phone notifications of Frost’s termination were last Sunday or Edwards’ exit a day ago, expect to see that happen again sooner rather than later in this brave new world of a sport.

The Road to Charlotte

No. 24 Texas A & M 17, No. 13 Miami 9: An anemic offense doomed the Hurricanes from making its first statement of the Mario Cristobal era in an 8-point loss at a sold-out Kyle Field Saturday night.

Tyler Van Dyke did not play well, pressured frequently by Texas A&M’s formidable front and even when he had clean pockets, unable to make tight throws in small windows against one of the nation’s best secondaries.

Miami found success in the run game in the second half, with both Henry Parrish Jr. and Jaylan Knighton averaging over 5 yards per carry. In that vein, it is curious why Miami offensive coordinator Josh Gattis opted to throw 41 passes and only run 31 called run plays. Only a week after Appalachian State gutted the Aggies on the ground, Canes fans from Coral Gables to California will wonder what Gattis was thinking.

Miami’s defense played well enough to win, led by James Williams, Keontra Smith and Mitch Agude. But Texas A&M finished its drives, scoring on each of its trips to the red zone, while the Hurricanes settled for 5 field goal attempts on theirs, connecting on just 3 of the kicks.

This isn’t a crippling loss for Miami. It doesn’t impact Miami’s ACC goals, its New Year’s 6 prospects, or even a path to the College Football Playoff.

It was, however, a missed opportunity, and a sign that while Cristobal inherited a talented roster (Miami is in the top 20 of the 247 Talent Composite), they aren’t quite ready to challenge a team with a top 5 roster when they make too many mistakes.

Cristobal will change that in Coral Gables. This is a sleeping giant coming back to life. It just wasn’t ready to vanquish the old Jimbo Fisher demons (Fisher is now 8-1 vs. The U) Saturday night in College Station.

Syracuse 32, Purdue 29: If you missed this one, you missed a great football game during an otherwise dreadful noon window Saturday.

Last week, we wondered whether Syracuse was “for real.” For a half Saturday at home in the big dome against Purdue, it looked like perhaps they were not. Purdue shut down Sean Tucker, Garrett Shrader, the ACC offensive player of the week in this space in weeks 1 and 2, was inaccurate and ineffective, and the Syracuse defense, playing admirably, was left feeling like it was 2021 all over again.

Just in time, the Orange offense came to life in the second half.

Shrader led 2 long Syracuse touchdown drives to stake the Orange to an 18-15 lead, using his arm to throw 2 touchdowns and his legs to extend drives on multiple third downs. Shrader would finish the game with 264 yards of offense, accounting for 3 touchdowns.

Syracuse’s defense made a big play late as well, when pressure up the middle forced a horrific pass by Aidan O’Connell which was intercepted by Caleb Okechukwu and taken to the house.

But Purdue didn’t go away. O’Connell bounced back from the interceptions, connecting twice on long passes to Charlie Jones. The first, a 55-yard touchdown strike, cut the Orange lead to 3 points. The second set Purdue up for a game-tying field goal, but Purdue’s All B1G kicker, Mitchell Fineran, pushed a 41-yard kick wide to the right, squandering a chance to tie.

The drama wasn’t done there (see, I told you this game was wild).

The Boilermakers got the ball back after a 3-and-out, and O’Connell promptly marched Purdue down the field for what looked like a game-winning touchdown with 51 seconds to play. Purdue committed 2 personal fouls on the touchdown though, meaning that they had to kick to Syracuse from their own 5-yard line.

That’s when Shrader went hero mode, guiding the Orange on a game-winning touchdown drive and delivering this back shoulder strike, under heavy pressure, to Oronde Gadsen II to win the game.

Jeff Brohm’s early Purdue teams never beat themselves. They executed offensively, tackled well defensively, and rarely committed penalties. That program was absent late Saturday at Syracuse, and in the end, it was 55 yards of Purdue penalties in the game’s final minute that gave Shrader and the Orange a chance to win.

The thing is—Syracuse had chances to win plenty of games last season. They just didn’t take any of those chances because they couldn’t score. This year, they are capable offensively, and it’s made all the difference. Now 3-0, it’s time to start talking about Dino Babers’ team as a likely bowl team, and with All-American Sean Tucker at running back and a salty defense, a potential thorn in the side of Atlantic division contenders Clemson, Wake Forest, and FSU.

No. 5 Clemson 48, Louisiana Tech 20: A weird game.

Clemson led just 13-6 at halftime, their third slow start of the season, but erupted for 5 touchdowns and finally got the run game going in the second half to cruise to a 48-20 win. The brightest spot for the Tigers? Seeing Will Shipley, who entered the game with just 110 yards in Clemson’s first 2 games, erupt for 162 yards on just 13 carries, including this beautiful touchdown run to start the avalanche of Tigers points in the second half.

Shipley’s second-level burst is positively McCaffrey-esque, and if Clemson is finding balance again, they’ll start to improve offensively, because DJ Uiagelelei is quietly playing efficient football at quarterback. The Tigers junior was sharp Saturday night, throwing for 221 yards and 2 touchdowns while adding 62 on the ground in the win.

A date with Wake Forest, the Tigers’ first ranked foe of the campaign, awaits next week.

No. 20 Ole Miss 42, Georgia Tech 0: With Scott Frost fired last week, it appears Geoff Collins is next up on the gallows pole.

The Yellow Jackets sold out Bobby Dodd Stadium Saturday afternoon on a chamber of commerce September day in Atlanta, but by halftime, most the Jackets fans had poured out into the streets of Atlanta to drown their sorrows in a Varsity Orange and a chili dog or, more than likely, something a little stronger.

Georgia Tech is a wreck, and not the Ramblin’ Wreck.

It’s hard to pinpoint where it all went wrong for Collins in Atlanta, and you’ll never convince me that Georgia Tech isn’t a top 25 job in the sport. The recruiting base is too good, the boosters care, and there is a winning tradition.

But the Jackets looked rudderless, and worse, they ran 66 plays offensively and their best player, Dontae Smith, touched the football on only 6 of them. That’s bad coaching, and while Collins is a defensive guru, he’s the CEO. Anything that involves only getting your best player 6 touches at home against a ranked opponent falls on his shoulders, right or wrong.

It will get worse for Tech before it gets better, thanks to one of the nation’s toughest schedules.

No. 19 Wake Forest 37, Liberty 36: Dave Clawson’s team was nearly caught looking ahead to next week’s huge home tilt with Clemson, but the Demon Deacons came up with a stop on Liberty’s game-winning 2-point conversion attempt with just 1:11 to play to avoid the upset.

As omens for Clemson go, returns aren’t good.

Wake Forest couldn’t get Hugh Freeze’s offense off the field, with Liberty keeping the ball nearly 36 minutes and gaining 428 yards of total offense. The Demon Deacons did register 4 turnovers, though, and needed every one of them to come from behind and win the game.

Sam Hartman was good, but not great, throwing 2 interceptions of his own, but Wake Forest’s real issue Saturday offensively was they lacked any semblance of balance. The Demon Deacons rushed for just 21 yards in the game, and Hartman, who had 11 of those yards, was the team’s leading rusher.

They won’t come close to beating Clemson without balance next week.

No. 16 NC State 27 Texas Tech 14: The NC State the media pegged as good enough to challenge Clemson for ACC supremacy this season hasn’t shown up yet, but NC State’s defense keeps dominating anyway. Saturday night, NC State smothered the Texas Tech Air Raid 27-14. The final score was flattering to the Red Raiders, who trailed 20-0 and 27-7 Saturday before adding a big chunk of yards — and a late touchdown — in garbage time.

This Wolfpack’s defense is among the nation’s nastiest, especially in the secondary, where Shyheim Battle and Aydan White are budding stars. While Battle lifted the Wolfpack in their rivalry win over East Carolina, it was White, in his first career start, who delivered the big plays Saturday night. None was bigger than this pick-6 of Texas Tech quarterback Donovan Smith, which turned a 13-0 contest into a rout.

Texas Tech dropped 6 and 7 a play into coverage, complicating life for Devin Leary, but the Wolfpack’s run game responded, with 57 yards from Jordan Houston and 54 from Demie Sumo-Karngbaye helping NC State do enough to give their defense a rest throughout the game and salt away the big first-half lead late.

A big game from Leary against a capable opponent (or even UConn next week!) would do wonders to silence lingering doubt about whether NC State is championship ready. It hasn’t happened yet, and Clemson is now just 2 weeks out.

The good news? Even as Leary finds himself, the Wolfpack defense can beat anyone. Even Clemson.

No. 22 Pittsburgh 34 Western Michigan 13: Pitt pulled away in the fourth quarter to win a game that I never would have scheduled, traveling to Kalamazoo to play a primetime, televised game against a historically quality MAC program.

With Kedon Slovis and Nick Patti out, the Panthers winning with third-string quarterback Nate Yarnell makes the win all the more impressive.

To get back to Charlotte without Slovis, Pitt is going to need to rely on Pat Narduzzi’s defensive acumen and emerging star Israel Abanikanda, who was a monster Saturday night. Abanikanda posted 133 tough yards on 31 carries Saturday, and through 3 games, is averaging 101 yards per game and leading the ACC in all-purpose yards at 158.7 a contest.

Abanikanda can make the devastating cut, as he did against Tennessee, or grind it out against 8 men in the box, as he did throughout the second half last night. If he can help Pitt control the ball, the Panthers will still have a chance to meet their goals, given the continued improvement of Narduzzi’s defense.

Last night, Pitt built on a great second half defensively against Tennessee to limit Western Michigan to just 180 yards on the game and only 50 yards rushing on 30 attempts. It’s too soon to say this defense is all grown up, but certainly the last 6 quarters have been overwhelmingly positive — and given Pitt’s devastating injuries — they have needed to be.

Virginia 16, Old Dominion 14: The Cavaliers clinched the Virginia State championship in Charlottesville on Saturday with a skin-of-their-feathered-hat 16-14 win over Old Dominion. The same Old Dominion, Hoos fans no doubt recall, which upended Virginia Tech in Week 1.

Brennan Armstrong bounced back from a miserable game at Illinois to lead a game-winning field goal drive in the game’s final minute, sealed by this Sebastian Janikowski Special Teams Player of the Week clinching field goal from Brendan Farrell.

The Hoos have work to do to be a factor in the Coastal Division, but if you are Tony Elliott, you have to like your defense. For the second time this season, the Cavaliers were tough against the run, limiting Old Dominion to just 89 yards on 32 attempts and producing 7 tackles for loss. A week after giving up two touchdown throws and 200 yards to an efficient Tommy DeVito and Illinois, Virginia’s secondary was active and improved, coming up with 9 pass deflections to help secure a hard-fought victory.

Virginia Tech 27 Wofford 7: After 2 tight games to open the Brent Pry era, it was a feel-good Saturday in Blacksburg for the Hokies.

Grant Wells, the Marshall transfer, struggled mightily in Virginia Tech’s split with Old Dominion and Boston College. He looked like the guy Pry thought he could be Saturday. Sure, it was FCS competition, but Wells was accurate, decisive and confident in throwing for 314 yards and 2 touchdowns in Virginia Tech’s 20-point win over the Terriers. Jadan Blue, the Temple transfer who Saturday Road pegged as one of the biggest impact transfers in the country before the season, busted out, catching a deep pass and this touchdown pass in leading the Hokies passing game in yardage.

If there is a concern for Virginia Tech, it has to be the inability of the Hokies to run the football for the third consecutive game. Virginia Tech mustered just 133 yards on at a paltry 3.2 yards per carry, which is woeful production against an undersized FCS front.

Virginia Tech needs more success in the run game, or the Hokies will struggle against top-tier opponents this season. For at least one September Saturday, though, it was a fun afternoon to watch Virginia Tech play football.

Boston College 38, Maine 17: The Eagles grabbed their first win, riding a monstrous performance from Phil Jurkovec (320 yards, 2 touchdown passes). The win will ease early season heat on Jeff Hafley, but the Eagles’ inability to run the football (just 3.4 yards per carry against an FCS Maine defense) is likely going to prove fatal to this offense’s efforts at maintaining balance — and getting Jurkovec in the play-action deep throws where he thrives — this season.

Duke 49 North Carolina AT&T 20: Mike Elko continues to impress. This week, riding a 2-0 start and playing an overmatched FCS opponent, was the type of game that spelled letdown late in the David Cutcliffe regime. Not Saturday. Duke stormed to a 28-3 lead and never looked back, easing their way to a huge win.

Elko won’t be pleased with the way his second-team defense played — they gave up 2 touchdowns and allowed North Carolina AT&T to break the 200-yard mark running the football. But the starters played great, building a 42-6 advantage before leaving the game, and junior DeWayne Carter was this week’s defensive hero, a week removed from it being Brandon Johnson in the Blue Devils’ win at Northwestern.

The scoop and score was also the second straight week with a big play for Carter, who forced a fumble on a sack in the Week 2 win over Northwestern. Elko’s defense is making plays, as an Elko defense tends to do.

As long as Duke keeps taking care of the football on offense, they’ll be a tougher out this year than anyone expected. A credit to a smart, even if not sexy, hire by Duke Athletic Director Nina King.

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): Johnny Wilson, WR, Florida State

A Seminole captures a “Bowden” for the first time on “The Road,” and there really shouldn’t be any debate or argument.

Wilson caught 7 passes for 149 yards and 2 touchdowns in FSU’s win at Louisville Friday night, including the game-wining touchdown score. Even more impressive? He did it on only 8 targets! Perhaps Mike Norvell needs to, you know, target him more?

Wilson now has at least 1 catch of 20 yards or more in all 3 of FSU’s games this season. He’s averaging 23.6 a reception, which would be the highest number for a Seminoles receiver since Snoop Minnis posted a 21.3-yard-per-catch mark on his way to consensus All-American honors in 2000.

At a minimum, Wilson is the best perimeter weapon FSU has had since Kelvin Benjamin, and at 6-7, he’s similar to Benjamin schematically because you can just throw it up and ask him to use his frame to win a 1 v 1 down the field.

Wilson was Arizona State’s No. 2 option behind Ricky Pearsall (who transferred, ironically, to Florida) while in Tempe, but that was more about his being limited by injuries than it was talent. Healthy, Wilson is a handful, and it wouldn’t be stunning if he ends up on this list again in 2022.

Prior Winners: Garrett Shrader, QB, Syracuse (Week 1 and Week 2).

Mickey Andrews Award (Top Defensive Player): Aydan White, DB, NC State

White didn’t just make a house call pick-6 in NC State’s win over Texas Tech. He added a sack on a corner blitz, another tackle for loss in run support and 5 tackles. Targeted frequently as the Red Raiders stayed away from Shyheim Battle, White allowed just 4 completions on 8 targets, and his break on his interception was tutorial “how to play corner” stuff.

NC State is playing sensational defense and adding a player that delivers the way White did in his first career start just adds depth to an already outstanding unit.

Prior Winners: Shyheim Battle, DB, NC State (Week 1), Brandon Johnson, DB, Duke (Week 2)

Sebastian Janikowski Award (Top Special Teams Player): Brendan Farrell, K, Virginia

Farrell’s game-winner was sweet redemption after Farrell missed a kick to give Virginia a two-score lead earlier in the fourth quarter. To have the resolve to not let that impact your psyche and go out and connect on a game-winner? That’s not easy.

A senior from Atlanta, Farrell has been a consistent kicker for Virginia throughout his career, having missed only 3 field goal attempts in 2 seasons as the starting kicker. But no kick was as big as the one he buried Saturday, and with it, the Hoos secured home-state bragging rights, at least until they play Virginia Tech in November.

Prior Winners: Matthew Dennis, Kicker, Wake Forest (Week 1), PJ O’Brien, DB, Pitt (Week 2)

I Can’t Wait Until Saturday Because: No. 5 Clemson at No 19 Wake Forest (Noon, ABC)

What’s not to like about this matchup?

Late September in the Piedmont. Temperatures cooling. It almost feels like autumn. Truist Field isn’t super loud or intimidating, but the tailgate scene in Winston-Salem is one of the most underrated in the sport. The hospitality is amazing, students dress to the nines, and black and gold tailgate spreads will feature breakfast buffets, which makes my “Breakfast for dinner” heart sing.

The game is also a pivotal divisional clash between ranked teams in the Atlantic and it represents a legitimate test for Clemson. You have to score points in bunches to beat Dave Clawson’s Wake Forest. Sam Hartman is going to challenge the Clemson defense. Playing at home, Wake Forest is going to play well defensively. Can DJ Uiagalelei do enough to get Clemson out of Winston with a tough win?

That question is one reason I can’t wait until Saturday.