Weekly musings, trends and takeaways from the weekend that was in the ACC…

The College Football Playoff era has slowly changed the way the sport approaches season openers, and for the better.

Gone — for the most part — are the days when your program opened the year at home against Western Directional U, easing into the 11 or 12 games to come with a comfortable victory on a weekend more about the tailgates than the talent on the field.

Instead, programs are challenging themselves. Case in point: Sunday night’s epic matchup between Florida State and LSU in New Orleans or Saturday night’s battle of the blue-bloods with one-time/part-time ACC institution Notre Dame visiting Ohio State. These games aren’t just great television and revenue generators. They are résumé-building opportunities for programs like FSU and Notre Dame that, if playing to their program’s traditional standards, hope to be in the thick of the College Football Playoff conversation in any given season.

The decision by the College Football Playoff committee to expand the playoff to 12 teams beginning in 2026 (and perhaps as soon as 2024) will accelerate the trend of high-level programs challenging themselves in the early season out-of-conference schedule.

The trick, and the challenge for athletic directors across the Power 5, is there’s a fine line between a game that offers a quality win and fertile fodder for the Playoff committee and a game that’s risky and foolish. In Week 1, no conference demonstrated this tightrope better than the ACC.

North Carolina played a game — which it paid money to Appalachian State to play — in Boone against a Mountaineers team most outlets picked to win the Sun Belt in 2022. The Tar Heels gave up 40 points in the 4th quarter … and somehow won.

Gene Chizik, who left a cozy analyst job at ESPN — a role in which he was quite good — to help his buddy Mack Brown rebuild a North Carolina defense that finished ranked 95th nationally in total defense and surrendered 32 points per game in 2022. The change hasn’t helped, at least not yet. First, North Carolina let FCS Florida A&M squad playing without 20 scholarship players due to suspensions score 24 points and torch the Tar Heels’ secondary for 279 yards in the air. It got worse Saturday, as the Mountaineers tallied a staggering 649 yards of total offense, 38 first downs, and of course, 61 points.

Do the Tar Heels get credit for escaping with a win? Absolutely. North Carolina also clearly has something in freshman quarterback Drake Maye, who followed up his 294-yard, 5 touchdown performance against Florida A&M with a 352-yard, 4 touchdown effort in Boone on Saturday. Maye leads the country with 9 TD passes.

The better question, though, is what in the world North Carolina was thinking scheduling this type of game. There’s zero value (or minimal value at best) in beating Appalachian State — even on the road — to the College Football Playoff committee, and that’s true whether the field is set at 4 or 12. There is, however, the risk that you fall on your face against a quality Group of 5 opponent and the loss not only damages your team’s confidence but also changes their bowl outlook.

There’s also no real recruiting value in the game to anyone except Appalachian State. If you are UNC, you’re the flagship university in your state, you have an elite apparel deal with Jumpman that recruits love, and you’re forfeiting a home game weekend for a road trip that not only showcases another in-state program but highlights their home-field environment and campus too. Playing that game in Boone is a lose-lose for North Carolina, and it about became a lose-lose-lose for the Tar Heels on Saturday afternoon.

North Carolina wasn’t the only ACC program, or even the only ACC school from the state of North Carolina, to schedule foolishly and almost pay the price Saturday. We’ll get to that. But the Tar Heels, who play a similarly foolish road game at Georgia State next Saturday, need to work harder at finding valuable out-of-conference games. If they can’t, it’s better to play a directional school cupcake than get blown up in Boone.

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.

This week? This isn’t a dig on Dabo, but …

It turns out NIL isn’t ruining college football. The sport is healthier and more compelling than ever. TV ratings for Week 1 were even higher than the COVID years, when fans across the country turned to sports on television due to social distancing and social safety measures.

Meanwhile, player safety measures are at an all-time high, NFL minimum salaries are better than ever before, and more student-athletes graduated with 4-year college degrees last year, at the dawn of the NIL era, than any year this century.

Count Dabo among those who thought NIL would destroy the sport. Fresh off inking a $93 million contract, you’ll recall Swinney had some things to say about NIL and its potential impact on college football.

“As far as paying players, professionalizing college athletics, that’s where you lose me,” Swinney said in 2019. “I’ll go do something else because there’s enough entitlement in this world as it is.”

Well, Dabo hasn’t gone to do something else. He’ll coach Clemson on Monday night against Georgia Tech. As for entitlement, players being entitled to compensation for their labor, just like every other hard-working American is fair, not entitlement.

That’s a positive thing. NIL is enabling that, and with the expanded playoff, the pot and pool for players to profit off their hard work will only expand.

The Road to Charlotte (Around the ACC)

FSU 24, LSU 23: What more can you say after the Noles blocked an extra point attempt with no time left to grab a key win in SEC country late Sunday night in New Orleans?

Star edge rusher Jared Verse said this:

“We’ve been saying it all week, this was our chance to prove that we’re not just some little one-and-done team, that we can’t just beat lower level teams,” Verse said. “Honestly, the simplest way to say it is that Florida State is ‘back.’

“That’s the simplest way to say it.”

We’ll see, but the ACC Atlantic just got a whole lot more interesting.

No. 13 NC State 21, East Carolina 20: Rivalries make college football sacred, and this is one of the juicier big brother/little brother battles in ACC country.

The Wolfpack and Pirates have played 32 times in football, and all told, the rivalry game has been relatively even, with NC State leading the series 19-13. The thing is, NC State built the big rivalry lead while playing every game in Raleigh until 1992, when the programs met in a bowl game in Atlanta. The programs didn’t play in Greenville until 1999 (a 23-6 Pirates win) and entering Saturday’s contest, NC State had just 1 program win in its history in Greenville.

This all begs the question: Fans on both sides love it, but why schedule this game if you are NC State? This game had danger written in capital letters.

The Wolfpack did find a way to win, despite Dave Doeren’s best efforts. Doeren’s decision to not put points on the board and take a 2-score lead midway through the 4th quarter was truly mystifying, and he earned every bit of the scare that followed after East Carolina stuffed NC State on 4th-and-goal. Before East Carolina’s All-Conference kicker missed both a game-tying extra point and a game-winning 41-yard field goal from a great angle, it was hard not to think about how valuable 3 more points would have been to an NC State team with dreams of crashing the College Football Playoff party this December.

All of that nearly went up in smoke Saturday afternoon on a muggy day in Greenville. It will likely go up in smoke soon anyway if NC State plays that poorly again. Devin Leary, the preseason ACC Player of the Year, was mediocre, completing 17-of-33 yards for 211 yards, a touchdown and an interception, and leading just one NC State scoring drive in the second half.

Most concerning, the Pack’s rebuilt wide receiver corps managed just 3 explosive plays (20 yards or more). That has to improve because this team isn’t going to run the football at a high enough level to offset a lack of explosiveness vertically.

Surviving is fine. But Doeren and his Heisman hopeful quarterback need vast improvement in week two.

No. 17 Pitt 38, West Virginia 31: More Backyard Brawls, please.

More opening week rivalry games, period.

The Panthers won a thriller Thursday night over rival West Virginia in the first meeting between the programs since 2011. That’s inexcusably too long and let’s hope there is never that long a gap between Backyard Brawls again.

A city of Pittsburgh sports record of 70,622 paid to see a back-and-forth game that saw the defending ACC champions rally for 2 touchdowns in the final 3:41 to finish a comeback and topple hated West Virginia 38-31.

The game-clinching touchdown is one of those plays that reminds us of the cruelty of rivalry lore: JT Daniels, who played quite well in his West Virginia debut, threw a good pass that was mishandled and tipped by his intended receiver, Bryce Ford-Wheaton. Naturally, the tip went right to MJ Devonshire, who history will never remember was beaten on the play, because Devonshire caught the deflection and took the ball 56 yards to the house to give Pitt the winning touchdown.

The Mountaineers finished the game with more total yards, more first downs, more sacks and more quarterback pressures than the Panthers. Pitt finished the game with more points.

Pitt will need to be better, especially in the run game, if they want to have a chance to impress the college football world with a win over upstart Tennessee next Saturday afternoon.

But Pat Narduzzi and company must be thrilled with the performance of transfer quarterback Kedon Slovis, who threw for 308 yards and a touchdown and looked much more like All-Pac-12 Freshman at USC Kedon Slovis than the version of Kedon Slovis that struggled to move the Trojans’ offense consistently over the past 2 seasons.

Winning a battle of USC transfer quarterbacks — and another battle with Daniels — may give Slovis the confidence he needs to have the type of year Narduzzi needs from him if the Panthers are to have any chance of defending their ACC championship.

Another guy they’ll need more from? Talented wide receiver Konata Mumpfield, who caught 5 passes for 71 yards but did that on 9 targets. Mumpfield, a transfer from Akron who was a Freshman All-American in 2021, does not have to be and cannot replicate Jordan Addison’s Biletnikoff Award-winning production from a season ago.

But he is the biggest and brightest NFL-type talent in Pitt’s rebuilt receiving corps, and he needs to do a bit more than he did Thursday night, starting next week against Tennessee.

Syracuse 31, Louisville 7: We pegged Syracuse as a potential surprise team in the ACC last week on “The Road” and we looked smart Saturday afternoon in the big Dome.

Syracuse didn’t just rout Malik Cunningham and Louisville Saturday; they looked outright stylish doing so. The Orange’s new offensive coordinator, Robert Anae, brought in during the offseason to overhaul a “Sean Tucker and hope” operation that doomed a great defense to a dismal 2021, paid immediate dividends.

The Orange looked more than capable in the air, with Garrett Shrader an impressive 18-of-25 for 237 yards passing and 2 touchdowns, including this strike under heavy pressure to Oronde Gadsen II to salt the game away in the fourth quarter.

And yes, Sean Tucker was Sean Tucker, especially on this 55-yard catch and run where he made two initial defenders miss and then pulled away from everyone on the second level to stake the Orange to a 10-0 lead early.

Tucker would survive an ankle injury scare to finish with 163 yards and 2 touchdowns on 27 touches, and for once, he was easily the Orange’s second-best offensive player, thanks to the 332 yards of total offense produced by Shrader.

Meanwhile, the Orange defense was well, a Dino Babers defense. They harassed, harangued and made life miserable on Malik Cunningham, who threw 2 interceptions and was held to just 2.6 yards per rush on 13 attempts.

Scott Satterfield’s team is doomed if Cunningham doesn’t play like an All-ACC quarterback candidate, and Cunningham wasn’t close to that Saturday. This was the weekend’s most surprising result and a huge win for Babers and the Syracuse program.

No. 22 Wake Forest 44, VMI 10: One way to know college football is back in the ACC?

How about a Demon Deacon on a Harley?

Or how about a Dave Clawson quarterback lighting it up on opening night?

Sam Hartman’s absence opened the door for Mitch Griffis to play the role of QB 1 in Winston-Salem, and wow was he ready Thursday evening. Griffis completed 21-of-29 passes for 288 yards and 3 touchdowns, earning effusive praise from Clawson for both his statistical performance and his game management (no false starts, no delay of games, no turnovers.)

Griffis also got some help from his friends. Taylor Morin deflected praise, but he put in an early nominee for ACC catch of the season in the first half Thursday night.

That angle doesn’t really do the play justice, either. Try this one:

Whichever angle you prefer, it was a promising debut for Wake Forest, and it sets up an intriguing “Brain Bowl” matchup next week in Nashville when Wake Forest visits SEC foe Vanderbilt.

The Commodores, you may recall, throttled Hawaii 63-10 on the island in Week 0 and then beat Elon 42-31. It was the first time since 2012 that Vandy topped 40 points in consecutive games, suggesting that “same old Vanderbilt” may not be a thing in Year 2 under Clark Lea.

Just how good this Wake Forest team can be without Hartman isn’t a question that was answered beating up on the cadets from VMI. We’ll start to learn things next Saturday.

Duke 30, Temple 0: Not sure if this was supposed to be the most relatively impressive out-of-conference ACC performance of the weekend, but it might have been, just because Duke was so bad in 2021 and looked so utterly … competent Friday night in Durham.

Duke’s defense was downright nasty, bottling up Temple’s dual-threat quarterback, Georgia transfer D’Wan Mathis, limiting him to 8 yards rushing and just 83 yards passing on 21 attempts. The Owls finished with just 12 first downs, while Duke tallied 500 yards of offense and showed good balance behind a marvelous outing from quarterback Riley Leonard, who threw for 328 yards and ran for 64 more.

If the Blue Devils’ defense travels next week, there’s no reason Duke can’t compete at Northwestern and have a legitimate shot at entering October 4-0. If that happens, Mike Elko would need just 2 wins in the conference to go bowling in Year 1.

Old Dominion 20 Virginia Tech 17: This is awkward.

Loved the Brent Pry hire. Culturally, it made so much more sense than Justin Fuente ever did at Virginia Tech. Pry is a Virginia native who brings a Frank Beamer, Bud Foster lunch pail blue collar back to Blacksburg. Pry waited a long time to become a head coach and had proven he could be a great defensive coordinator wherever he was, whether it was Vanderbilt, where talent is scare, or Penn State, where talent supply is plenty.

It doesn’t always translate.

Pry fell flat on his face in his Hokies debut, falling 20-17 on the road at lowly Old Dominion.

Yes, Fuente lost to the Monarchs, too.

But the whole point of bringing Pry back was to return to a brand of football where Virginia Tech rarely beat itself and did enough defensively to win most every game it played.

That is precisely the opposite of what happened Friday night. The Hokies turned the ball over 5 times, leading to 17 Old Dominion points. The worst turnover came protecting a 4-point lead with 3 minutes remaining. That’s when Marshall transfer Grant Wells threw his 4th interception of the game, giving the Monarchs the football back with time to steal a win.

Still, if you were a Hokies fan, you had to like your chances. Old Dominion was 60 yards from the end zone with less than 3 minutes to get there. They had managed just 10 first downs all game. Unfortunately, when the Hokies needed a stop the most, they couldn’t get it, and Blake Watson’s 1-yard plunge with under 30 seconds to play sealed the deal in Norfolk.

The Hokies’ hopes for a bowl in Year 1 of the Pry era become quite complicated after Friday night’s debacle. They’ll have no hope, though, if they don’t get better play out of the quarterback position.

No. 16 Miami 70, Bethune-Cookman 13: Should we be impressed by the Hurricanes’ demolition of an overmatched, mediocre FCS opponent?

Yes and no.

On the one hand, any time you are at a place like Miami, and you tie a program record for points scored in an opener, you have to tip the cap.

On the other hand, it’s Bethune-Cookman!

Mario Cristobal will find plenty to nitpick. The Canes surrendered 250 yards passing, and while they played backups throughout the second half, so did Bethune-Cookman. Miami also missed 11 tackles, which is a big number against an FCS foe.

That said, Miami’s fast start (they scored on 5 consecutive offensive possessions), is absolutely a reflection of how potent this offense can be, and the bottom line is you can only play the team in front of you. A good start to a new era in Coral Gables.

Rutgers 22, Boston College 21: Talk about soul-crushing.

Boston College led for nearly 50 minutes of their opener Saturday against Rutgers. Then the Scarlet Knights drove 96 yards over 12 plays to steal a victory in the game’s final minutes.

Phil Jurkovcec was back and looked sharp early, but if the Eagles can’t figure out a way to get the run game going (they managed just 29 yards on 28 attempts in a home game!), Jurkovec is going to be a sitting duck in the pocket when teams stop respecting any threat of a run game.

Boston College also gave up far too many chunk plays on the ground: Rutgers hit 6 runs of 10 yards or more and 4 of 15 or more, offsetting what was largely a good defensive effort from BC.

A tough loss for Jeff Hafley, who now has to find a surprising win somewhere to get Boston College a bowl invite for a third consecutive season.

Virginia 34, Richmond 17: Dear UNC, NC State, and Virginia Tech: Want to play an in-state school in your opener? Do it the way Virginia did. At home.

The Cavaliers did fall behind 7-0 (Richmond’s Savon Smith is a big-time football player; but they didn’t panic and by halftime, the Hoos had opened up an 18-point lead.

Brennan Armstrong posted 351 total yards of offense — a huge number — and showcased why Virginia will be able to score quickly again in 2022:

Tony Elliott won a Broyles Award as the nation’s finest assistant and bided his time waiting for the right fit. Early returns were good Saturday in Charlottesville.

Don’t forget the Irish …

No. 2 Ohio State 21, No. 5 Notre Dame 10: As I wrote Sunday, how you view Notre Dame’s 11-point loss at The Shoe Saturday night is probably a matter of how you feel about moral victories. If you are 100 percent against them, at all times, then this game was more of the same. Notre Dame lost to a superior opponent in front of a national audience.

If you believe in building blocks, well, then perhaps your take is that the Fighting Irish led Ohio State for most of the game and limited one of the most explosive offenses in America to 21 points. Further, Ohio State had to drive the length of the field to score both of their 4th-quarter touchdowns. Notre Dame simply didn’t give up big plays to a Buckeyes offense that was fantastic at scoring fast last season (3rd in the country in explosive plays and 2nd in touchdown drives of 5 plays or less).

Eventually, however, Notre Dame is going to need its offense to win a game. They didn’t do much of anything Saturday night at Ohio Stadium, and they lack the elite talent on the perimeter to really challenge teams in the vertical passing game. That’s a recruiting problem, and one Marcus Freeman needs to address sooner rather than later if he wants to turn Notre Dame from College Football Playoff participant to College Football Playoff champion in his tenure in South Bend.

The Bobby Bowden Awards

(Honoring the ACC’s best ever by honoring the best of the ACC every week).

Charlie Ward Award (Offensive Player of the Week): Garrett Shrader, Syracuse

Shrader held off a challenge from Carlos Del Rio Wilson and Dan Villari to win the starting job and he looked terrific in Robert Anae’s spread offense.

It wasn’t just the yardage total (332 total yards), though if Shrader is going to be what Brennan Armstrong was for Anae, the Orange may win 8 or 9 games, that’s how good they are on defense. It was his general command of everything happening on the field. From checking down to Sean Tucker on a huge touchdown in the first half to dropping back shoulder dimes on corner routes, Shrader was a sight to see.

This offense is going to run the football: Sean Tucker is too good to not make some plays every game. But if they can establish a downfield passing game, look out.

Mickey Andrews Award (Defensive Player of the Week): Shyheim Battle, NC State

The preseason All-ACC corner was all over the place for the Pack, collecting 5 tackles, including 1 for loss, and breaking up 2 passes. He also made this drive-killing interception, which helped NC State take a lead they would never relinquish into the half.

Battle and the NC State defense came up big Saturday on a day their ballyhooed offense was pedestrian. If there’s a positive to be taken from the Wolfpack’s 1-point win over East Carolina, it has to be that Doeren’s defense is good enough to win a tight game.

The Janikowski (Special Teams Player of the Week): Matthew Dennis, Wake Forest

The Demon Deacons’ new kicker connected on all 3 of his field-goal attempts and totaled 13 points in Wake Forest’s rout of VMI. Until Sam Hartman returns, being able to convert field goals will matter immensely to Wake Forest, who showed that without Hartman, finishing drives will be a bigger challenge for the Demon Deacons than it was in 2021, when they ranked among the nation’s best at converting red-zone trips to touchdowns.

I Can’t Wait Until Saturday Because: Tennessee at Pittsburgh (3:30 pm, ABC).  

Pitt outlasted the Vols at Neyland Stadium last autumn, thanks to 285 yards and 2 touchdowns from Kenny Pickett. That was also the game, however, that Josh Heupel discovered Hendon Hooker could move his offense. Hooker came off the bench for Tennessee and led the Vols to 34 points, throwing for 188 yards and rushing for 50 more.

Pickett is in the NFL, but Hooker is back at Tennessee, which looked like an offensive juggernaut in routing Ball State in its opener.

For the second consecutive week, Narduzzi’s program gets a terrific opportunity against a quality opponent at home. How vastly improved Narduzzi’s team is defensively — and Tennessee’s, for that matter- may decide this game.

Either way, it’s one reason I can’t wait until Saturday.