ACC Football Notebook: Week 11

Coastal Division could be settled soon, but no guarantees

GREENSBORO, N.C. ( – Top-ranked Clemson has secured the Atlantic Division’s berth in the Dr Pepper ACC Football Championship Game, and this Saturday’s action could determine the Coastal Division representative and firmly establish the matchup for the Dec. 5 game at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium.

Or maybe not.

In what has evolved into almost an ACC tradition in the past decade, mid-November finds the Coastal Division still unsettled. Even with 17th-ranked North Carolina unbeaten in league play at 5-0, a win by the Tar Heels over Miami on Saturday won’t decide the issue unless Pitt (4-1) loses at Duke earlier in the day.

A UNC loss and/or a Pitt win would leave the picture still scrambled, and it could conceivably stay that way until the regular season’s conclusion on November 28. Four teams currently remain in mathematical contention for the division title.

“All we can control is what's in front of us,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “It all starts with this one game this weekend …. We’ve just got to do our job, see what happens.”

All the same, Narduzzi admitted that – should Pitt win at Duke in Saturday’s noon game – he and his squad would be watching what transpires in the 3:30 game at Chapel Hill with a little more interest. The Tar Heels have a worthy opponent in the Hurricanes, who are 2-0 under interim head coach Larry Scott, stand 3-2 in the Coastal Division and clinched bowl eligibility with their sixth overall win last weekend.

“I know you’ve got a great Miami team that's playing North Carolina,” Narduzzi said. “You always have to keep the hope alive for our kids that there's always chances. You watch how some of these games finish every week, there's something crazy going on every week in college football. Anybody can beat anybody on any given Saturday afternoon. 

“Our kids have the hope that something may still happen. We control our destiny. We win our three games, whether we get to that championship game or not, it's a nine-win season for Pitt. We're focused on Duke.”

Similarly, UNC head coach Larry Fedora isn’t thinking long-term.

“If we keep our nose down and keep doing what we're supposed to do, when we look up at the end of the road, we're probably all going to be pretty happy,” Fedora said. “We just need to take care of our business, and we'll see what happens.”

In addition to the No. 17  ranking in both major polls, the Tar Heels (8-1 overall) earned a No. 23 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings this week, joining fellow ACC members Clemson (No. 1) and Florida State (No. 16). 

“It's really not going to matter until it gets down to the last one,” Fedora said “We just keep doing what we're supposed to do, and we'll see what happens.  Really, it's not something that I lose any sleep over or think about because I don't control any of that.  It is what it is.  I mean, we're just going to keep playing.  We just need to find a way to outscore Miami this week.”

Disappointing losses to Miami and rival North Carolina knocked Duke back the past two weekends, but that don’t expect to see a downcast group of Blue Devils take the field against Pitt on Saturday.

It will be Senior Day at Wallace Wade Stadium, where a special group of Duke student-athletes will suit up for their final home game. It is a group that helped head coach David Cutcliffe turn the corner, leading the Blue Devils from perennial cellar dwellers to a program that is set to play in a bowl game for the fourth consecutive year, has earned Top 25 national rankings and owns a recent Coastal Division championship (2013).

“I’m going to cry,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t like saying goodbye. Senior Day or when it’s the last game of the year is a little more difficult on a coach.”

It is fitting that the facelift at Wallace Wade happened in time for this year’s senior class to play its final home games in the updated, renovated venue. They are a big reason the Blue Devil community has rallied around the football program with a renewed spirit and commitment.

But more importantly, Cutcliffe said, they are simply good people.

“I’m very appreciative of this class at Duke,” Cutcliffe said. “They have earned a lot of respect from their peers who they’ve played with and their coaches. They’ve led us in a really good manner both on and off the field. It will be an emotional time, not only for our players, but for their families, too. So many of them are so close to their families, loved ones and siblings. We lead the country in good parents. How cool is that?”

With top-ranked and undefeated Clemson making the trip to Syracuse this weekend, Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney decided to name Jim Brown as a team captain for the game.

With the graduate long-snapper sharing his name with the legendary Orange All-American and NFL great, Swinney felt it a fitting way to pay tribute – but the significance of of the gesture was lost on most of his players.

“I’ve been waiting all year to name Jim Brown as captain for the Syracuse game,” Swinney said. “When I said that to the team, I got nothing. Crickets. Is that not sad? That is sad that arguably the greatest running back of all time, they don’t know who he is. That’s unbelievable to me. (But) that will be neat, to see our Jim Brown serve as game captain for the Tigers at Syracuse.”

Clemson is getting quite a bit of pregame notice in the Empire State. Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan donned a Tigers helmet at a press conference earlier this week. Ryan’s son, Seth, is a redshirt sophomore wide receiver for the Tigers and the team’s primary holder on field goals and extra points. With the Bills and New York Jets playing a Thursday night game this week, look for Clemson alum from both sides to make the trip to the Carrier Dome on Saturday.

“One of our social media guys was showing me pictures from the Bills’ college practice they had last week,” Swinney said. “Rex was decked out in Clemson gear, and of course all the Clemson guys were decked out in their gear. That was pretty neat. That’s one of the things I’m looking forward to with this trip is I can see some of our former players. We had a ton of guys at the game last week. All the Bills guys will be at our game this week, and Marcus Gilchrist (now with the Jets) said he would be there.”

Still among the top 16 of the College Football Playoff Rankings and sporting a 7-2 overall record, Florida State retains the foundation for a highly successful season as it prepares to play host to NC State this Saturday. But head coach Jimbo Fisher knows that the Seminoles must forget the “what ifs” of last week’s 23-13 loss at Clemson and focus on an NC State team that has historically been one of FSU’s tougher ACC opponents.

“We'll move on and get ready for NC State this week,” Fisher said. “As you turn on that film, it makes you forget Clemson real quick. This team is a very good team, very dynamic on defense. Great front four, big, physical guys up front that can rush the passer. (Defensive end Mike) Rose and those guys can sack the quarterback. (Defensive tackle Kentavius) Street, (defensive tackle B.J.) Hill, (defensive end Bradley] Chubb, all those guys are active. Play a lot of press man coverage. They're aggressive there.”

And it doesn’t stop defensively.

“The quarterback (Jacoby) Brissett, is a playmaker,” Fisher said of the Wolfpack’s signal-caller. “(He) can create big plays, hard to get on the ground. A different kind of runner than Deshaun [Watson], but he's mobile and strong. They get the ball down the field. They run the ball in a lot of different formations. They have good returners. They ran a kickoff back against Clemson that was a touchdown in that game. We'll have our hands full.”

At 6-3 overall, NC State clinched bowl eligibility for the second straight year with last week’s win at Boston College. Now there is a chance for the Wolfpack to accomplish much more, beginning with Saturday’s game in Tallahassee.

“It’s a ‘raise the bar’ opportunity,” NC State head coach Dave Doeren said. “It’s been 10 years since we have won on the road at FSU. The last (NC State) team that won five road games was in 1957, so this weekend would have a lot of meaning to it if we can win. 

“I think every senior class wants to be able to make a mark in history. We have nine seniors that have been playing pretty good ball, and I know for them that they would love to have the opportunity to do something like this. They’ve done two things – road wins at Boston College and Wake Forest. Now this is another opportunity.”

Having reached the five-win plateau last weekend versus Syracuse, Louisville (5-4) could become the ACC’s eighth bowl eligible team with a win against Virginia this Saturday.

“We want to get to a bowl, and obviously we know this is the most important game for us to get that done,” Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino said. “We have just really tried to concentrate on one game at a time, but all the time you know what is sitting out there. Our best way to get there is to just focus and practice and get ready to beat Virginia.”

Petrino, who guided the Cardinals to a Belk Bowl appearance last season during the first year of his second stint at the program helm, wants a postseason appearance for his senior class, which was forced to adjust to a coaching change after Charlie Strong left for Texas in 2013.

“I think change – in no matter what it is – is something you have to learn how to adjust to,” Petrino said. “I remember the first meeting I had with them I said, ‘Things are going to be different here because as a coach you can only coach what you know and everyone is going to be different. The better we accept it and the better we understand that it will be different, the quicker we have to become a good team.’ 

“I think it is a good lesson for everybody. I think it is one of those good things … Let’s say you reach your dream and make it to the NFL. At one point or another you are going to have a coaching change there or be traded or be a free agent, so learn now how to get used to change and be positive about it, and it will help you in the long run.”

The ACC’s football weekend kicks off tonight, when Virginia Tech visits Atlanta for a Coastal Division battle at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Kick off on ESPN is set for 7:30 p.m.

Virginia Tech leads all ACC teams with 20 wins on ESPN Thursday Nights, while the game is the 20th ESPN Thursday Night game Georgia Tech has hosted since 1991.  The Hokies and Yellow Jackets have met head-to-head on Thursdays three times in the past five seasons and five times since Virginia Tech joined the conference in 2004 .

Tonight’s game is the also the 425th for Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer, tying him with Paul “Bear” Bryant for fifth most in history. Beamer, who has announced he will retire at the end of this season, has at least two games remaining after tonight, and the Hokies, currently 4-5 overall, remain hopeful of earning bowl game eligibility for a 23rd straight year.

Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson was asked if he remembered a time Beamer was not coaching the Hokies. Beamer actually returned to Blacksburg to coach his alma mater in 1987, but to Johnson it seems longer ago.

“I mean, he's been there forever,” Johnson said. “Certainly, what he has accomplished there is Hall of Fame material. I'm sure that he'll be in the College Hall of Fame. Well deserved. I think if you go back and look at all that he's accomplished, in today's world, you wonder if they would have let him accomplish that. 

“But he's been a fixture in the ACC, and I think he's probably as respected or more respected than anybody in our profession as a head coach. So certainly the game of football is going to miss him.”

Nonetheless, Johnson and the Yellow Jackets will be playing to win. It has been a disappointing season in terms of wins and losses thus far, but that doesn’t mean Georgia Tech will be lacking emotion or effort.

“I think if you look at this year, we've probably played a little better at home,” Johnson said. “We didn't win the North Carolina and Pittsburgh games, but we probably played a little better. So you hope. I mean, it’s Thursday night, national television, home game … you would hope that you would be geared in to play. And we’re playing a team, while this year it's not going to happen, every year but one since we've been here, the winner of this game had won the Coastal Division. 

“So it's as much of a rivalry as anybody we play. Or it has been since I've been here.”