ACC: Duke Blue Devils

ACC viewer's guide: Week 9

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
10:00
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Miami silenced Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium fairly early Thursday night. Will we find more drama in the rest of the Week 9 slate?

Noon

North Carolina at Virginia, ESPN3, #UNCvsUVA: Marquise Williams is coming off consecutive career outings. Virginia is looking to get back on the winning track after losing to reigning Coastal division champion Duke last week. Can its defense make another big stand and make life difficult for the red-hot UNC offense? Or have the Heels found their second-half groove after a poor start, much like they did last year?

3:30 p.m.

Boston College at Wake Forest, ESPN3, #BCvsWAKE: John Wolford is good to go for Wake after leaving last week's 30-7 home loss to Syracuse. He'll face a BC team that gave Clemson all it could handle last week before falling just short. Still, the 4-3 Eagles are on the brink of back-to-back bowl games under Steve Addazio in his first two years, and their rushing game (No. 9 nationally) should be a handful for a Demon Deacons defense that has been stout this season.

Georgia Tech at Pitt, ESPNU, #GTvsPITT: Is it panic time in Atlanta? A 5-0 start has been met with consecutive losses, including a 48-43 defeat last week at North Carolina in which the defense simply could not make a stop late. Pitt hopes it turned the corner last Thursday in its win over Virginia Tech, but it needs more diversity on the offensive side of the ball, which has been too reliant on James Conner and Tyler Boyd. Its defense does not have Aaron Donald and his dominant performance last year against the Yellow Jackets, but it has been playing well so far this season, ranking 14th nationally in scoring average (18.6).

7 p.m.

Syracuse at No. 21 Clemson, ESPNU, #CUSEvsCLEM: Scott Shafer and Dabo Swinney have made up after last year's Tigers rout in the Carrier Dome. Both teams are in their second straight week with their current signal-caller, as freshman AJ Long led the Orange past Wake Forest in their first career start and Cole Stoudt returned as Clemson's starter in its win at BC. Will the Orange's offensive line give Long a chance against the Tigers' stout front? This game ends a brutal stretch for the Orange, who faced Notre Dame, Louisville and Florida State before Wake last week.

ACC mailblog

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
5:15
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Enjoy the weekend, gang.

Ramon Capra (@RCap_UM) writes: Duke Johnson, ACC's best chance of Heisman?

Matt Fortuna: Ramon, no one is taking away from Johnson's dominance Thursday night, and throughout much of the season. But you still cannot ignore Jameis Winston. Yes, having won the Heisman last year makes it all the more difficult to win it this year. Yes, his childish antics cost him a chance to face Clemson (and nearly cost his team the game, division and repeat national title shot in the process). But on the field he has been, again, superb, especially in the second half last Saturday against Notre Dame, completing 15 of 16 throws for 181 yards and a touchdown. If the Seminoles win out and make the College Football Playoff, he will remain the Heisman front-runner from the ACC.


Stephen Lackey (@Slackeys) writes: If Duke wins out and beats FSU in the ACC championship game, do they go to the playoffs?

Matt Fortuna: Stephen, Duke reminds me a lot of Minnesota, in the sense that both lost an early game convincingly, have quietly won out since and now we're all realizing, "Holy cow, do we need to start talking about these guys in the playoff discussion?" The scenario you present is a big if — at least the beating FSU part — but there are still so many unknowns for me to really lean one way or the other. You have to assume the SEC winner will get in, and that conference might even get two, especially if Georgia or someone from the East tops the West in the league title game. If Michigan State wins out, I'd imagine that the Spartans are in good shape, considering their lone loss is at Oregon. Do Pac-12 and Big 12 teams then just beat each other up and ruin each league's chances? A 12-1 Duke team with a win over FSU could possibly knock out a potential 11-1 Notre Dame team, too, as the Irish's lone loss (at Florida State) would look worse, and they'd have no win to match Duke's best win. There will be so many fascinating subplots to all of this as we hit the home stretch in the inaugural year of the playoff. Also, wins such as Miami's rout at Virginia Tech last night certainly help Duke, too, considering the Hurricanes were the only team to beat the Blue Devils.


Wayne from Tallahassee, Florida, writes: So what's your take on the play in the FSU-ND game? I think the correct call was made and applaud the officials to make the call at that point in the game. I have always hated the philosophy to swallow the whistle in the final minutes. How far do you go with that --do you allow the receiver to just tackle a defender? I guarantee they wouldn't swallow the whistle on a late hit on the quarterback. PJ should have been flagged; that is one thing we can all agree on. I didn't see him remove his helmet live, but saw it on a replay.

Fortuna: Couldn't have said it better myself, Wayne. Well done.


Lynn Turk from Valley Center writes: Oh, oh! What about this view? From this vantage point, ND was robbed. Neither Fuller nor Prosise committed any fouls. FSU the aggressor in both cases. If ND wins out, will they be 11-1** (actually won)

Fortuna: Lynn, a wide receiver cannot block a defensive back on a forward pass like that. The call was correct. Now, if you want to talk about P.J. Williams not getting flagged for taking his helmet off after the play, as Wayne from Tallahassee just mentioned, then you have a valid argument, in my mind.

Assessing the ACC's slow starters

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
12:00
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Last week we looked at some of the best performances at the midpoint of the season, but there are more than a few stars off to slow starts, too. We dug into the struggles of five to try to figure out what has gone wrong.

Stacy Coley (WR, Miami)

The hype: As a true freshman in 2013, Coley averaged 18 yards-per-catch and finished with 1,461 all-purpose yards, fifth-most in the ACC. With a year of experience under his belt, expectations were high.

The reality: In six games, Coley has 11 receptions for 59 yards. He has yet to catch a single pass of 18 yards or more after averaging that last season.

The explanation: Coley suffered a shoulder injury in Week 2 that has hindered him all season. He hasn’t been able to match up with physical cornerbacks, and his routes have suffered as a result. The early season injury also kept him from building a rapport with new quarterback Brad Kaaya, and overall Coley has been targeted just 17 times in the passing game.

The fallout: Coley’s numbers are way down, but Miami’s passing game has remained solid. Kaaya has improved each week and become one of the top deep-ball passers in the nation, even without one of his top deep threats. With Coley struggling, however, Phillip Dorsett has stepped up. His 34.4 yards-per-catch average is the best in the nation.

Jamison Crowder (WR, Duke)

The hype: As a junior in 2013, Crowder led the ACC with 108 catches and topped 1,000 yards for the second straight season. He was a fixture of Duke’s passing game, earning the second most targets of any receiver in the nation. His senior season was to be a culmination of an exceptional career, including a good chance Crowder would set the conference record for receiving yards.

The reality: Crowder’s 40 catches are the second-most in the ACC this season, which is good. But he has yet to find the end zone against an FBS foe, and before a solid eight-catch, 99-yard day against Virginia last week, he had managed just 12 receptions for 90 yards in three games vs. Power 5 competition.

The explanation: The preseason injury to tight end Braxton Deaver, Duke’s second-leading receiver in 2013, meant there would be ample focus on Crowder from opposing defenses this season, so he has found a bit less room to maneuver. He has been a bit more prone to drops -- three so far -- but he is also catching just 47.6 percent of his targets, down from 62 percent a year ago.

The fallout: Duke’s passing game has been inconsistent this season, in part because of Crowder’s diminished numbers, but other receivers have stepped up. Max McCaffrey and Issac Blakeney have 50 catches and six touchdowns between them, better numbers than they tallied all of last season. But a more consistent Crowder would certainly be a big asset to quarterback Anthony Boone and the Duke offense, and last week's game could be a sign of what's to come.

Karlos Williams (RB, Florida State)

The hype: Williams was third on FSU’s depth chart last season, but he still rushed for 730 yards and 11 touchdowns. Moving into the starting role in 2014 behind a senior-laden offensive line, he was considered a darkhorse Heisman threat.

The reality: Last season, 23 of Williams’ 82 rushing attempts vs. FBS teams went for 10 yards or more. This season, just 11 of 73 have. He has rushed for nearly 2.5 yards-per-carry less than a year ago, and he already has more negative runs (12) than he did all of last season (8).

The explanation: Part of the Williams hype was conjecture. He posted big numbers in 2013, but he had just 18 carries in the first halves of games, with the bulk of his production coming in the latter half of blowouts. More problematic for Williams this season, however, has been the struggles of his offensive line. In 2013, he averaged 3.7 yards-per-carry before contact. This year, just 2.0.

The fallout: Florida State’s ground game has taken a major step backward from a year ago. In 2013, the Seminoles averaged 6.3 yards-per-carry on non-quarterback runs vs. FBS opponents (fourth-best in the nation). This season, they are getting just 4.4 (80th). As a result, Jimbo Fisher has been far more reliant on his passing game, calling for throws 55 percent of the time on first and second down, while averaging a yard-and-a-half less.

Ryan Switzer (PR, North Carolina)

The hype: As a true freshman, Switzer tied an NCAA record with five punt returns for touchdowns, earning All-America status for the effort.

The reality: After averaging 21 yards-per-return a year ago, Switzer has just 20 punt-return yards total against FBS teams this season. He hasn’t found the end zone, and he has managed double-digit yardage in the return game just once since the opener vs. Liberty.

The explanation: The dangers of Switzer’s immense success in 2013 were obvious this offseason. Teams simply wouldn’t kick to him because they didn’t want to get burned. Still, he had just 24 return attempts last season, the same number he has had through seven games this season. More likely, Switzer is trying to make something out of nothing a bit too often, and the blockers leading the way haven’t been quite as good.

The fallout: Beyond the lack of special-teams touchdowns, there really hasn’t been much of an impact. In fact, last season UNC’s average starting field position after a punt was its own 28. This season, it’s the 29. Moreover, what Switzer has lacked in special-teams flair, he has made up for on offense. Through seven games last season, he caught 16 balls for 121 yards and one touchdown. This season he has 34 receptions for 429 yards and three scores.

Florida State’s defensive backs

The hype: The Seminoles led the nation in pass defense in 2012 and 2013, and under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt last season, they utterly dominated opposing quarterbacks, allowing just 5.1 yards-per-attempt (best in the country) and picking off 26 passes (also tops in the nation). With rising stars like Ronald Darby, P.J. Williams, Nate Andrews and Jalen Ramsey all returning, the stage was set for another big season.

The reality: Through seven games, FSU’s pass defense ranks 61st nationally. The Seminoles are allowing a far more hospitable 6.8 yards-per-attempt, have allowed 11 touchdowns after surrendering just 14 all season in 2013, and have picked off just seven passes.

The explanation: Personnel has something to do with it. The Seminoles clearly miss Terrence Brooks and Lamarcus Joyner's leadership and playmaking ability. The transition from Pruitt to new coordinator Charles Kelly has earned some of the blame from fans, too. But perhaps the biggest culprit is the lack of pressure up front. FSU’s sack rate has dropped from 7.6 percent of dropbacks a year ago to just 4.5 percent this season.

The fallout: Florida State avoided the worst possible consequence last week when an offensive pass interference call kept its undefeated season alive. Beyond that, teams are completing a higher percentage of third-down throws (54.4 percent, up from 46 percent last year) and converting a higher rate for first downs (37 percent, up from 28 percent), keeping drives alive and keeping Jameis Winston and the offense off the field. More impactful, perhaps, is that FSU scored 197 points off turnovers last season. So far this season, it has scored just 45.

ACC Week 9 predictions

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
9:00
AM ET

Fortuna: UNC's confidence is extremely high, coming off a close loss at Notre Dame and a last-second shootout win over Georgia Tech. Marquise Williams is playing the best ball of his life, hoping to turn the Heels' season around in the second half like he did a year ago. Virginia's defense will be challenged by the UNC tempo, and if that defense can't create scoring opportunities for itself, the Cavaliers' offense may not have the weapons to keep up if this contest turns into a shootout. Williams and the offense bail the Heels' defense out once again, signaling a recovery not unlike last year's for UNC.
North Carolina 42, Virginia 31

Hale: Yes, North Carolina got up off the mat last week to eek out a last-minute win over one of the most generous defenses in the ACC, but let's not assume all the Tar Heels' woes are behind them. They still allowed Georgia Tech to rack up 611 yards of offense, and they won't find nearly as many yards of their own against Virginia's stout D. The Hoos' pass rush should play havoc against UNC's work-in-progress O-line (remember what Virginia did to UCLA?). Virginia's improving passing attack threw for 325 yards last week against a good Duke secondary. What do you think the Hoos might do against those struggling UNC defensive backs? Kevin Parks has been waiting for a breakthrough performance, and North Carolina has nearly 600 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground in its past two games. Add a home-field advantage for the Hoos, and last week's momentum for UNC won't last long. Virginia 30, North Carolina 24


Adelson: The Jackets match up much better against Pittsburgh than they did against North Carolina a week ago. The Tar Heels did a majority of their damage offensively through the air, as Williams threw for 390 yards on the Jackets' D. Pitt does not have the same type of passing-game threat, and there will be room to run on the Pitt defense. Though the Panthers shut down Virginia Tech's ground game a week ago, the Hokies are the worst rushing team this group has faced. As long as Georgia Tech holds on to the football, the Jackets should be able to gain yards on the ground and hold on to the ball long enough to win. Georgia Tech 24, Pitt 21

Shanker: At least on paper, the Panthers look as if they could be Georgia Tech and the option offense's kryptonite. The Panthers get off the field on third downs (No. 7 nationally), stop the run (18) and limit the number of long rushes by an opponent. Pittsburgh is a ball-control offense, too, relying on James Conner to move the chains and wear out defenses. The Yellow Jackets are 95th in run defense, too. Pittsburgh has an average time of possession of 33:09, which should keep its defense fresh against Georgia Tech.
Pitt 28, Georgia Tech 27

Unanimous picks

Miami at Virginia Tech: Duke Johnson is a beast, and the Hokies will be without Luther Maddy and Chase Williams. Brad Kaaya has been a magician with the deep ball, and Virginia Tech has allowed 24 pass plays of 20-plus yards. The Hokies are used to Thursday night magic, but this offense might need more than that to get going. Miami 27, Virginia Tech 17

Syracuse at Clemson: Clemson's offense has been stuck in neutral since Deshaun Watson went down with a hand injury, but its defense has more than made up for it. Now, Syracuse sends true freshman AJ Long to deal with that dominant pass rush, and it could get ugly. Clemson 20, Syracuse 7

Boston College at Wake Forest: The Deacons have scored just one offensive touchdown and averaged just 2.2 yards per play in ACC games so far, with more than half their drives failing to garner a first down. Wake won't be able to keep Tyler Murphy and the BC offense off the field, and that's going to lead to a long day for the Deacons' defense. Boston College 31, Wake Forest 10

Current standings
Shanker: 48-10
Adelson: 46-12
Fortuna: 45-13
Hale: 44-14

ACC playoff watch: Week 9

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
3:00
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We’re down to two playoff contenders left in the ACC, and as top teams around the country continue to tumble, the urgency of each upcoming matchup is magnified more than ever. Here’s how things stack up for the ACC after eight weeks.

Where the ACC stands: From now until the end of the season, it’s not about profile or reputation for the ACC. It’s simply about wins and, more specifically, wins for Florida State. The league continues to have just two ranked teams and now has just two officially alive for the playoff. That would be FSU, which beat Notre Dame in controversial fashion, and Duke, the defending Coastal champs that continue to chug along.

[+] EnlargeShaun Wilson
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesShaun Wilson and Duke have quietly put together a 6-1 record and are still a College Football Playoff contender.
Top playoff contenders: Florida State (No. 2 AP, No. 7 FPI), Duke (NR AP, No. 38 FPI)

Nonconference record: 36-14 (1-0 last week), 22-14 vs. FBS, 5-7 vs. Power 5 and Notre Dame

Week 8 recap: Let’s start with Duke, perhaps the most overlooked playoff contender in America. There are 23 teams yet to be plucked from the ranks of playoff possibilities according to our Eliminator, and only two -- Duke and Minnesota -- remain unranked in the AP poll.

But if any team is used to being overlooked, it’s Duke. The Blue Devils don’t seem to care. They just keep winning. One week after ending Georgia Tech’s time atop the division, they pulled the same trick with Virginia, and suddenly the chances of Duke finishing out the regular season at 11-1 seem somewhat realistic.

If that happens, it will almost certainly be Florida State that awaits the Blue Devils in Charlotte. More and more, the narrative around the Seminoles is that they’re a flawed team teetering on the brink of a loss.

FSU reinforced that storyline against Notre Dame, struggling throughout the first half and requiring a controversial penalty that overturned what would’ve been a game-winning TD for the Fighting Irish with just seconds to play.

If irrelevance is Duke’s burden, lofty standards are Florida State’s. When Auburn pulled off one miracle after another last year, it was hailed as a team of destiny and marched into the BCS title game at 12-1 riding two of the more unlikely wins of all time against Georgia and Alabama. Florida State has fought back to win games against Clemson, NC State and Notre Dame, but the storyline seems to be much different. The Seminoles are no team of destiny. They’re a team that keeps narrowly scraping by. Chalk it up to the high standard set by last year's national championship crew. It might not be fair, but it’s reality.

What's that mean for FSU? Well, just look at the FPI rankings. Despite beating a top-5 team, FSU tumbled from No. 4 to No. 7 -- now trailing five SEC teams and an Ohio State squad that lost at home to Virginia Tech in Week 2. Again, FSU belongs in the playoff, but it still can't afford a loss in spite of clearing its biggest obstacle of the season.

Paradoxically, Notre Dame's loss appears to have only burnished its playoff pedigree, which might also be a good thing for the ACC. Given that the league plays four games against the Irish this year, and that they’ll likely be the highest-ranked team FSU plays all season, respect for Notre Dame is respect for the ACC.

That loss, however, did knock another team from the ranks of the undefeated, as did Baylor’s stumble against West Virginia. Florida State is now one of just four teams in the nation without a loss.

Also of note, Georgia Tech fell to North Carolina in the final minute Saturday, thus officially eliminating the Yellow Jackets from playoff contention.

Week 9 preview: The slate in the ACC is ugly, with both of the remaining playoff contenders enjoying a bye. FSU has a particularly daunting task against Louisville the following week, and Duke has a showdown with Pittsburgh that could decide the leader of the Coastal Division. For Week 9, however, it’ll be a little bit of scoreboard watching for the league’s contenders.

Oregon, Alabama, Mississippi State and Ole Miss -- all ranked in the top 10 -- go on the road for conference games this week, which could set up for some more chaos in what’s already been a chaotic season. While the first three teams are favored by at least two touchdowns, Ole Miss heads to LSU for a night game in Baton Rouge -- always a tough place to win. At this point, chaos is good for Florida State, assuming the Seminoles can avoid the absurdity. The more top contenders that have a loss on their resume, the better Florida State’s winning streak looks -- even if those wins came in close calls.

ACC Show: Week 9 (2 ET)

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
10:00
AM ET
Join ESPN.com ACC reporters Andrea Adelson, Matt Fortuna and Jared Shanker as they discuss the Week 9 slate and answer your questions live on screen.
Notre Dame and the ACC announced their playing dates Tuesday through 2025, which rounds out the average of five league opponents a year for the Irish for 12 years.

"The football partnership between the ACC and Notre Dame is a terrific enhancement for all parties," ACC commissioner John Swofford said in a release. "Notre Dame not only adds to our league's already highly ambitious schedules, it also provides the opportunity for almost all of our student-athletes to play against Notre Dame during their careers. When you add in the excitement that it brings to our fans, there's no question that this partnership is significant."

Dates were finalized through 2019, with opponents and sites set up for the six years after that. The full 2015 and 2016 schedules had already been announced last December, when this season's schedule -- the first of the ACC football agreement for Notre Dame -- was released.

"Nine additional seasons of games against Atlantic Coast Conference opponents again adds both variety and quality to future University of Notre Dame football schedules," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in a release. "Over those nine years, four ACC programs that have never played in Notre Dame Stadium (Louisville, NC State, Virginia and Virginia Tech) will come to South Bend, and two others that have only played at Notre Dame one time (Wake Forest and Clemson) also will travel to our campus.

"On the other side of the coin, during that period we will take our team to four ACC campuses at which Notre Dame never has played football (Louisville, NC State, Virginia and Virginia Tech), plus three others (Clemson, Duke and Wake Forest) where our team has played only once."

Some notes on the Irish's future schedules:
  • Notre Dame will get its shot at redemption against Florida State in four years, when the Seminoles visit South Bend on Nov. 10, 2018 -- three days shy of the 25th anniversary of the 1993 "Game of the Century" between these two. The Irish will return to Tallahassee on Sept. 6, 2021, Labor Day, before the Noles go back to Notre Dame Stadium sometime in 2024.
  • That holiday date at FSU is actually the second of two Labor Day road games for the Irish, who travel to Louisville on Sept. 2 (Labor Day) in 2019. As of now, it does not look like Notre Dame will play any Thursday night games.
  • That 2019 opener at Louisville is the first of a strenuous slate of road games for the Irish in 2019: They also go to Georgia (Sept. 21), Georgia Tech (Oct. 19) and Duke (Nov. 9). They are also expected to travel to Stanford that year, since it is an odd-number year, though no official date has been set. You can bet the Irish staff will point out this year to Peach State recruits, who will get a pair of trips back to their home state in a span of a month.
  • Notre Dame gets six ACC games in 2019 and 2023, while playing just four in 2022 and 2024. The Irish, of course, have just four ACC games this year, but will play six next season.
  • Notre Dame will play seven of the ACC's 14 teams in consecutive years: Miami in 2016 and 2017 and 2024 and 2025; NC State in 2016 and 2017; Wake Forest in 2017 and 2018; Virginia Tech in 2018 and 2019; Duke in 2019 and 2020; UNC in 2021 and 2022; Clemson in 2022 and 2023.
  • There remains no clarity on Notre Dame's Shamrock Series game -- in which it moves a home game off-site to a metropolitan area -- beyond 2016, when it faces Army in San Antonio. Next year's game against BC is at Fenway Park.
  • Not pictured in the graphic (and not-ACC related): As of this past summer, Notre Dame and Michigan State had a verbal agreement for two games in the 2020s, though they have said they may look at a single neutral-site contest.

ACC morning links

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
8:00
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It appears as if Virginia Tech will lose its second defensive starter to a medical redshirt this season.

Starting defensive tackle Luther Maddy said Monday night on Twitter that he needs a second surgery on his knee and will sit out the rest of the season.
Maddy initially tore the meniscus in his right knee against East Carolina in Week 3, but played 48 snaps with the injury against Georgia Tech. He underwent surgery last month, and the timetable for his return was listed as two-to-four weeks. Though he was listed as probable to play against Pitt, Maddy did not and was not scheduled to play against Miami on Thursday night.

His loss is a big one for the Hokies, who have had to make do without him for the last three games. Nigel Williams replaced him in the lineup, but it's tough to make up for Maddy's experience and skill-set. The four-year starter was a preseason All-ACC team selection after he had 6.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hurries a season ago. In four games this season, Maddy had seven hurries.

Virginia Tech also plans on redshirting Brandon Facyson, who started the season at cornerback opposite Kendall Fuller. Facyson has been slow to heal from a stress fracture to his shin and has not played since Week 3.

In one other Virginia Tech injury note, running back Marshawn Williams is expected to play against the Hurricanes after missing last week with a sprained ankle.

Over at Georgia Tech, the Jackets got some tough injury news of their own when coach Paul Johnson said that starting B-back Zach Laskey probably won't play at Pitt on Saturday. Laskey hurt his shoulder late against North Carolina last week and was in a sling Monday. Laskey has been terrific this season, with a team-high 120 carries for 595 yards and five touchdowns.

He gained 70 or more yards in each game this season.

Now let's see what else is making headlines in the ACC:
The celebration in the Duke locker room was rather subdued. It was a big ACC win against a Coastal contender for the Blue Devils, but no one in Durham, North Carolina, is satisfied.

Bowl eligibility, even if only 16 FBS team can boast the claim through Week 8, doesn’t provide an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, a stark contrast from just two years ago. For a Duke program in its seventh season under coach David Cutcliffe, bowl eligibility is no longer enough.

"I wasn’t even on my mind [Saturday]," Cutcliffe said. "... We have young people now that expect to compete for an opportunity to play for a championship. They prepare for it."

[+] Enlarge Josh Snead
AP Photo/John BazemoreThe Blue Devils have lost only one of their past 15 regular-season conference games.
With its win against Virginia, which several believed to be the Coastal’s best team, the Blue Devils are 6-1 and tied atop the division. They have a bye this weekend before traveling to Pittsburgh, and a win against the Panthers would give Duke a head-to-head advantage over probably the two teams best positioned in terms of remaining schedule -- Pitt and Georgia Tech --- to win the division.

It wasn’t long ago -- 2012 to be exact -- that the Blue Devils were in the midst of an 18-year bowl drought. But then came double-digit wins in 2013, a trip to an ACC title game and bowl game in which Duke nearly ruined Johnny Football’s finale.

Last season was a giant leap for the Blue Devils but a surprising one. Duke was the feel-good story -- a perennial pitied program turned title game participant -- but nationally the perception was of a mediocre team that took advantage of a volatile division widely considered the worst within the Power 5. Even the Blue Devils were built more on hope than belief as it puts it team together that spring.

There still is a sense the Blue Devils aren’t respected nationally or regionally -- they are unranked and were not picked to win the division by ACC media -- but there is a different sense at Duke. Cutcliffe felt that this spring.

"I thought our spring practice was different. I go back to that point: This team prepared different in spring ball," he said. "I told our staff that’s a significant change from what we had to do and what we got out of spring practice [in 2013]."

Duke has been building toward annual ACC success under Cutcliffe. The Blue Devils have lost only one of their past 15 regular-season conference games, and their 22 overall wins since 2012 is fourth in the conference.

Now, with a schedule that sets up nicely in the second half -- only Pitt has a winning conference record among future opponents -- the Blue Devils are moving toward a second consecutive berth in the conference title game.

That is something worth getting excited over at Duke.

Said Cutcliffe: "It’s been a long time coming."

By the numbers: Week 8 recap

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
2:00
PM ET
Digging into some numbers from Week 8 in the ACC ...

Winston is the comeback kid

Amid all the off-field chaos, it's easy to forget how good Jameis Winston is on the field, and he's been particularly impressive when his team needs him most. Winston is awfully good at rallying his team. In the second-half comeback against Notre Dame on Saturday, Winston was a sterling 15-of-16 for 181 yards, leading two touchdown drives.

This is nothing new. While Winston hasn't been tested often, his numbers when playing from behind are off the charts. Since the start of last season, Winston has completed 81-of-109 passes (74 percent) for 1,104 yards (13.6 yards-per-attempt) with 12 touchdowns and one interception when FSU is trailing. That's absurd.

Winston also excelled against the blitz Saturday. In 2013, he completed 69 percent of his throws, averaged 11.8 yards-per-attempt and tossed 21 TDs to just three picks vs. the blitz, but to start this season, his YPA dropped to 8.1 and he had just three TDs on 54 attempts. Against the Irish, however, Winston was 9-of-11 for 113 yards with two TDs and no picks when facing the blitz.

Noles' ground game struggling

On Saturday, FSU mustered just 50 yards on 26 rushing attempts -- a dismal 1.92 YPC. Last season, FSU averaged 5.6 yards per rush, but it has yet to hit that mark in any game against an FBS foe this season.

It's not all on the tailbacks, however. The biggest difference appears to be the O-line.

.

FSU's runners are averaging roughly the exact same number of yards after first contact as they did in the previous two seasons, but they're getting more than two yards-per-carry less before contact than they did in 2012.

Boyd and nothing else

Pitt toppled Virginia Tech on Thursday despite QB Chad Voytik completing just 10 passes (on 17 attempts). What's perhaps even more noteworthy about Pitt's passing game, however, is that the only wide receiver to catch a pass was Tyler Boyd, who had six receptions on nine targets.

That's hardly a surprise. For the season, Boyd has 34 catches against FBS teams. The rest of Pitt's receiving corps has 22.

Overall, Boyd has accounted for 41.4 percent of Pitt's targets and 49.7 percent of its receiving yards vs. FBS foes -- both the highest rates in the nation.

Clemson stuffs the run

Remember in the opener when Todd Gurley ran all over Clemson's defense? Georgia racked up 328 rushing yards and five TDs on 41 carries. It was ugly.

Since then, however, the Tigers have surrendered just 395 more yards in six games. Clemson is allowing just 2.0 yards-per-carry since the opener, the best rate in the nation. Against Boston College on Saturday, it held the Eagles to nearly 200 yards below their season rushing average, and the Tigers racked up 14 tackles for loss. It was the fourth time in the last six games Clemson has had double-digit TFLs, and since that opening game against UGA, no defense in the country has created a higher percentage of negative rushing plays than Clemson's (36.5 percent).

Marquise the magician

For the second straight week, North Carolina QB Marquise Williams was terrific. Williams enjoyed his third 300-yard game of the season (Winston is the only other ACC QB with as many), chucking four TD passes and adding a fifth score -- along with 70 rushing yards -- on the ground in a win against Georgia Tech.

It's the second straight game Williams had 300 passing yards, 70 rushing yards and at least three total touchdowns. In the past decade, the only other Power 5 conference QB to do that in back-to-back games was Heisman winner Robert Griffin III.

Heels, Jackets struggle on D

Entering Saturday's game, the only Power 5 conference team allowing more yards-per-play than Georgia Tech (6.3) and North Carolina (6.2) was South Carolina (6.35), so it was no surprise that the two defenses coughed up 1,190 yards and 91 points when they faced off.

For Georgia Tech, it's the continuation of a downward trend. In Ted Roof's first eight games against FBS teams as Tech's defensive coordinator, the Yellow Jackets allowed 5.5 yards-per-play and held five opponents below 101 yards rushing. In his last nine, opponents have rushed for an average of 173 yards per game and are averaging 6.5 yards-per-play overall, good for 115th in the nation in that span.

But things are even worse for the Tar Heels. In the last decade, just five Power 5 conference teams have allowed more yards in their first seven games than UNC (3,659) and only four have allowed more touchdowns (40).

Quick hitters
  • Entering the game, Virginia QBs were completing 63 percent of their throws to wide receivers this season, but against Duke, the Hoos completed just 45 percent. Matt Johns targeted wideouts on 70.2 percent of his throws in the game — the second-highest percentage of throws to WRs for Virginia quarterbacks this season. Cavaliers wideouts haven't caught a touchdown pass in their past three games after hauling in six in the first four.
  • Johns did hit running back Khalek Shepherd for a passing touchdown. It was just the third one Duke has allowed this season. Only San Jose State and Ole Miss have allowed a lower rate of touchdown throws in the nation.
  • Ryan Switzer in 13 games last season: 32 catches, 341 yards, three TDs. Switzer in seven games this season: 34 catches, 429 yards, three TDs.
  • The two highest completion percentages for Power 5 wideouts (min. 30 targets) reside in the ACC, and both are true freshmen: Clemson's Artavis Scott (38 catches on 46 targets) and NC State's Bo Hines (28 catches on 35 targets).
  • UNC's defense has struggled, but it has also been opportunistic. The Heels have 80 points off turnovers this year, the third-best total in the country. On the flip side, the Heels have allowed 77 points off turnovers, the second-worst total in the country.
There is a simple bit of clarity confronting the ACC and Florida State eight weeks into the season: Perfection seems the only way to get the Seminoles into the College Football Playoff.

No other Power 5 program will be held to such a standard. But no other Power 5 conference has its reputation in a sinkhole the way the ACC does. That is why it was so important for Florida State to beat Notre Dame on Saturday. As long as the Noles keep winning, they are assured of a spot in the top four. But lose? Florida State may as well be playing in Conference USA. That is how little respect the ACC has nationally right now.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsJameis Winston was fired up after Saturday's victory over Notre Dame, but the Noles will have to keep winning if they hope to make the playoff.
Just look at the most recent AP and coaches Top 25 polls. While the College Football Playoff selection committee will put together its own rankings next week, it is instructive to look at how the media and coaches perceive the ACC -- outside Florida State.

Because the league as a whole is what will drag Florida State down if the Noles lose a game.

Besides Florida State, the ACC has only one ranked team. In the AP poll, Clemson (5-2) is No. 21 behind two other two-loss teams: Oklahoma and USC. Reigning Coastal champion Duke (6-1) cannot even crack the Top 25 after back-to-back victories over ACC teams with winning records. East Carolina (5-1), with wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina, is ranked No. 18.

Duke and Minnesota are the only 6-1 teams from Power 5 conferences that are unranked. That fact not only speaks to their status as “non-football powers,” but to the idea that their respective leagues are weak. The Big Ten has been panned for its mediocrity this season. But the ACC ranks lower than the Big Ten in the ESPN.com conference power rankings, sitting last among the Power 5 conferences.

Everything we heard during media days about the ACC being stronger? Everything we heard about the ACC gaining more respect since it boasted the national champion? False propaganda. As it turns out, an ACC world with the reigning national champion does not look much different.

Florida State is still alone holding the flag, while Clemson is a distant second. It is hard for a program to fight off the weak-conference stigma when it does not beat its most difficult opponents (Clemson) or play anybody tough out of conference (Duke).

Clemson lost to two Top 10 teams this season -- to Georgia and Florida State. Both teams were ranked higher than the Tigers at the time they played. Yet Oklahoma lost to two teams ranked lower (TCU and Kansas State) and is still four spots higher than Clemson in the AP poll.

These are the ingrained notions that follow programs around, no matter what they do. Clemson “chokes” and the ACC is constantly disrespected. Put them both together and you get critics completely dismissing Florida State’s win over the Tigers earlier this season.

Falling flat nationally hurts, too. While ACC teams like Virginia Tech, Boston College and Florida State have big wins over then-Top 10 opponents, the league also has some head-scratching losses to Colorado State, Akron and ULM. Plus, there were blown opportunities against UCLA, Nebraska, Iowa and Maryland.

So essentially, Florida State gets no lifelines from its conference foes. Even a beefed-up nonconference schedule has not engendered much goodwill from the rest of the country.

Funny to think that before the season started, many believed a one-loss Florida State team would survive and make it into the College Football Playoff based on a strength of schedule that looked much better than it did last season.

As it stands today, Florida State is on pace to play fewer ranked teams than it played in 2013. Right now, the Noles have two ranked teams behind them and none remaining. Last season, they played four Top 25 teams at the time of the matchup (two of them ended the season unranked).

Four of Florida State's remaining five games are against teams with winning records. But nobody wants to hear that going to Louisville and Miami won’t be easy; that Virginia is vastly improved; that Boston College gave the Noles fits last season. Florida State will be expected to win them all.

That’s really the only way the Noles can guarantee themselves a spot in the playoff.

Once again, Florida State is on its own.

ACC bowl projections: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
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The win over Notre Dame certainly wasn’t the final piece to Florida State’s playoff puzzle, but it was clearly the biggest hurdle the Seminoles had remaining on the schedule. That has secured FSU’s spot in our postseason projections, but for now, we’re still predicting the Irish will get a bowl game shot at another ACC power.

College Football Playoff: Florida State
Capital One Orange Bowl: Clemson versus Notre Dame*
Russell Athletic Bowl: Duke
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Louisville
Belk Bowl: Virginia
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Miami
New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Boston College
Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman: Georgia Tech
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: Virginia Tech
Quick Lane Bowl: Pittsburgh
BITCOIN St. Petersburg Bowl: NC State

* Note: If Notre Dame is not invited to the College Football Playoff or a New Year’s Six bowl game, it will assume one of the ACC’s bowl spots.

ACC Power Rankings: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
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ACC mailbag

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
4:00
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Since the ACC Black Cat has nearly jinxed all of you, I am doing my best to reverse the fortunes of the ACC by (temporarily) seizing control of the mailbag.

Anonymous Eagle from California writes: Boston College total rushing yards allowed: 599. Clemson total rushing yards allowed: 603. Seems pretty even to me. And with Clemson’s main QB out with an injury, Clemson might have to depend more on the run. That Louisville game was messy. BC has issues -- they dominated USC then completely failed to contain Colorado State -- but I think this game will be a lot closer than everyone thinks.

Shanker: OK, so you’re really not asking a question Anonymous Eagle, but your analysis that 599 and 603 are “pretty even” is an accurate assessment. I agree the game will be close, but I’m not sure anyone sees this as a blowout with the Tigers reeling from the loss of star freshman Deshaun Watson. This is obviously an entirely different team with Cole Stoudt at quarterback, and I’m not sure anyone would be shocked if Boston College, a five-point home underdog, pulled off the upset. The Clemson rushing attack has been ineffective much of the season, and now the Eagles will be able to load the box, although they still need to do so at their own peril as the Tigers are loaded at receiver. However, Boston College is one dimensional on offense, too, which means Clemson can also focus on just stopping Tyler Murphy as a runner and daring him to throw. You can talk about rushing numbers all you want, but this game probably comes down to which quarterback can make enough plays through the air. And enough plays might mean just one or two.




Jeff Miller from Perry, Georgia, writes: What are Georgia Tech’s chances of winning the Coastal?

Shanker: I’d say very good, it is probably in the second-best position to win the division. The loss to Duke is a real buzz kill, though. With wins against Virginia Tech and Miami the previous two weeks, the Yellow Jackets were putting some distance between them and some of the other Coastal contenders. Now Duke owns the head-to-head tiebreaker, and the Blue Devils' schedule is soft. I’ll spell it: s-o-f-capital T ... sofT. If they clear these next two games against Virginia at home and at Pittsburgh, it’s hard to find another loss on their schedule. Pitt’s schedule sets up nicely, too, but the Panthers are not convincing anyone they are legitimate contenders yet. Miami has to play at Virginia Tech on a Thursday, at Virginia and against No. 2 Florida State. Though Virginia might be the best Coastal team, it’s an uphill battle for the Cavs to clinch a berth in the ACC title game with road games against Duke, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Virginia Tech, plus a home game against Miami to end the season.




Tyler from Athens, Georgia, writes: Hey, Andrea, I was wondering if this could be the year, even with the struggles on offense, that the Hokies get back to 10 wins?

Shanker: I’m not Andrea, which is bad news for the Hokies. Stick with me here. Virginia Tech is 4-3 after Thursday’s loss and needs to win out and either play in and win the conference championship, or their bowl game. With a decently tough second half of the schedule (by ACC standards) and a conference title game almost certainly against FSU, the odds are the Hokies don’t get 10 wins. Alas, if Andrea was answering this question, she certainly would say Virginia Tech won't get 10 wins, thus Black Cat-ting that prediction and causing Virginia Tech to win out.

But seriously, there was an outside chance if Virginia Tech beat Pittsburgh, but now the best they can finish the regular season with is nine wins. I think best-case scenario is they close out the regular season at 4-1, which still puts them at 8-4 going into a bowl game as the odds of making it to Charlotte are slimming by the week.




Wayne from Tallahassee, Florida, writes: Andrea, I think your black cat is worse than HD's Kiss of Death. Please no black cat for my Noles this weekend..........PLEASE!!!!!

Shanker: The Black Cat nickname actually originated in the press box of the Clemson-Florida State game, and it took an all-time Clemsoning effort for the Seminoles to stave off the curse that night. So far the Seminoles have been impervious to the Black Cat spell, but Notre Dame could be the toughest opponent they face all season. If Florida State loses, though, it won’t be because of Andrea, although feel free to blame her.

It’s a pseudo cop out to say this game comes down to turnovers, because a lot of games do, but it is especially key Saturday given the recent history of the teams. Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson is making critical mistakes that are either costing his team points or directly putting points on the board for the opponent. Though the Seminoles’ defense has been susceptible to big plays and a lot of yards, they squeezed Syracuse in the red zone last week. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has had a few costly turnovers this season, too, and Florida State’s defense is not good enough this season to continuously bail out an offense that puts it in a bad situation. The Seminoles have been great at doing that so far this season -- colleague David Hale with a stat that has their defense allowing just three touchdowns on drives beginning in their zone -- but it’s not the kind of situational football FSU coach Jimbo Fisher wants to continue playing.

ACC viewer's guide: Week 8

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
10:00
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Pittsburgh snapped a three-game skid Thursday by beating Virginia Tech. Here's the rest of the ACC action for Week 8.

Noon

Syracuse at Wake Forest, ESPN, #CUSEvsWAKE: AJ Long gets the start for Syracuse after Terrel Hunt and Austin Wilson both went down. The true freshman saw extended action last week against defending national champion Florida State, and he now faces a stingy Wake Forest defense that is coming off a bye. The Demon Deacons also start a true freshman under center, though John Wolford has been the guy for Wake since Day 1. Expect defense to rule the day in this contest.

12:30 p.m.

Virginia at Duke, ESPN3, #UVAvsDUKE: It is the current Coastal Division leaders against the reigning division champions. What gives? The Cavaliers are coming off a bye after looking impressive in wins over Pitt and, earlier this season, Louisville. Can the Hoos' defense deliver once again? The Blue Devils did hand Georgia Tech its first loss of the season last week, but their offense needs to play within themselves.

3:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeWill Gardner
Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportsWill Gardner is expected to get the nod at quarterback for Louisville, which hosts NC State on Saturday.
NC State at Louisville, ESPN3, #NCSUvsLOU: It's 11 straight ACC losses for the Wolfpack, who are still seeking that first league win under Dave Doeren. A team that looked so good so early this season has struggled immensely on the offensive side of the ball in the past two weeks against Clemson and Boston College. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are looking to erase the sour taste from their mouths after last week's heartbreaker against the Tigers. They will turn back to Will Gardner under center to try to get them back on track. Receiver DeVante Parker, who has yet to play this season, is questionable.

No. 24 Clemson at Boston College, ESPNU, #CLEMvsBC: Alumni Stadium holds a special place in Dabo Swinney's heart, as it was the site of his first career win as Clemson's head coach. The Eagles nearly shocked the Tigers last year back in Death Valley, and they did manage to knock off USC earlier this season, so they cannot be taken lightly. BC's run game has been simply astounding at times, with the Eagles outrushing their opposition 1,513-134 in their four wins. Clemson turns back to Cole Stoudt this week at quarterback after Deshaun Watson suffered a broken finger last week.

7 p.m.

Georgia Tech at North Carolina, ESPNU, #GTvsUNC: The Yellow Jackets lost their first game of the season last week, a delay-filled affair against Duke. But that option attack might still be tough to defend for a UNC defense that cannot seem to get out of its own way. Marquise Williams played a terrific game last week at Notre Dame, giving the Tar Heels a tremendous chance to win. But surrendering 50 points for the third time this season did the Heels no good, and, unless that changes, questions will remain about this team.

8 p.m.

No. 5 Notre Dame at No. 2 Florida State, ABC, #NDvsFSU: Everett Golson is 16-1 as a starter. Jameis Winston is 19-0. "College GameDay" is on hand for this game with huge College Football Playoff implications. Brian Kelly and Jimbo Fisher are both in their fifth season with the Fighting Irish and Seminoles, respectively, and [at least] one might have the chance to be in the national title mix for the second time in three seasons. Notre Dame lost in the title game in 2012; FSU won it all in 2013. Chaos has subsided with the Irish, who finally know the fate of the five players who were suspended back in August as part of an internal academic probe. FSU, meanwhile, has dealt with the circus that is Winston seemingly all season long, with the heat amped up this week amid news of a potential disciplinary hearing and an autograph controversy.

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