Conference Play Kicks Into High Gear

PHOTO: Louisville's Tobijah Hughley
Credit: Michelle Hutchins - Louisville Athletics

Steve Phillips, Special to theACC.com

GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – The first month of the season offered several intriguing league matchups, but the drive to December and the Dr Pepper Atlantic Coast Conference Football Championship Game is set to begin in earnest.

Six ACC games – all division matchups – highlight the weekend schedule as conference play takes center stage throughout the league.

It starts at the Carrier Dome on Friday night in a battle of contrasts, as Syracuse plays host to Louisville before a national ESPN audience. The Atlantic Division game will be the first ACC test of the season for the Orange (2-2 overall), while the Cardinals (4-1, 2-1) will be playing their fourth conference game.

A bit of recent history adds spice. The teams last met in November of 2012, when the Orange defeated an 11th-ranked and previously unbeaten Louisville squad led by quarterback Terry Bridgewater by a 45-26 score. 

A number of things have changed in the nearly two years since – including the head coaches of both teams, though Syracuse’s Scott Shafer was part of the game as the Orange’s defensive coordinator.

“From a coach's perspective, that was a long time ago and a lot different situation that we're confronted with right now,” Shafer said.

Shafer is primarily concerned with a Louisville defense that ranks first nationally against the run, having yielded less than a total 300 yards on the ground through five games. And offensively, Bobby Petrino’s return as head coach after eight years gives the Cardinals what Shafer aptly describes as a “great mind” when it comes to putting together an offensive game plan. 

Petrino says he’s indirectly heard some rumblings from his veteran players as they prepare to face the Orange, but not to the point the rematch is shaping up as a grudge match.

“I just heard it after our Wake Forest game (last week), the players being excited about going back to Syracuse,” Petrino said. “I asked one of our coaches, ‘What's that all about?’ And they said, ‘Oh, well, a couple years ago … they were undefeated at the time and lost the game.’

“But really since then I haven't heard a whole lot.  Our focus is really just to get ready to play and go up and do a good job of playing the game right.” 

COASTAL DIVISION SCRAMBLE

Georgia Tech, Miami, Pitt and Virginia each picked up a September ACC win, setting up a Coastal Division battle the heats up in earnest this weekend.

Georgia Tech (4-0, 1-0) puts its unbeaten mark to the test at home against Miami (3-2, 1-1) on Saturday night, while Pitt and Virginia (both 3-2 overall and 1-0 in ACC play) meet in Charlottesville.

“Hopefully they understand the magnitude that it's a conference game and a division game,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Jonson said of his players’ mindset as they prepare for the Hurricanes.

The Yellow Jackets had an open date last weekend following their 27-24 Coastal Division road win at Virginia Tech on Sept. 20, but Johnson stressed the need to maintain the momentum. 

“We've certainly talked about it for two weeks,” Johnson said. “They understand the ramifications when you play a division game and a home conference game that it's imperative that you win these games. It means that we could be 2-0 in the league against two teams that we've struggled against the last couple of years in our division.”

Virginia Tech owned four straight wins over Georgia Tech prior to the Yellow Jackets’ victory in this season’s ACC opener. Similarly, Johnson noted, Miami has claimed the last five meetings against his team.

“It will be a great challenge,” Johnson said of Saturday night’s 7:30 ESPN game. “Miami already has a loss (in ACC play), so we are going to get their best shot. So we better be ready to give them ours."

Hurricanes head coach Al Golden says Miami’s recent success against Georgia Tech will be irrelevant Saturday night.

“I think every game is different, and the only game that matters is this year,” Golden said. “None of the other preceding games matter.  Two years ago up there, we were fortunate to come out of there with a win.  You could look at that and say we didn't really play that well at times in that game, but we came out with a win,  some breaks maybe thrown our way.

“But it's not really about the past.  It's about the (2014) teams.”

Both Virginia and Pitt took a bit of a roller-coaster ride through their first five games.

The Cavaliers have been competitive in every contest, defeated Louisville in their first ACC test and have already topped their win total from the 2013 season. But after coming up short despite battling nationally-ranked UCLA and BYU gamely, head coach Mike London and his players are anxious to take another giant step. A Coastal Division title after being picked to finish seventh in preseason would send a distinct message.

But one step at a time, says London.

“When you look at the conference as it is now, there's a lot of competitive games being played,” he said. “I can sit here and tell you. as I'm sure all the other coaches in the Coastal [Division] will, it's a conference that's wide open for the taking, but that requires you playing, that requires you executing, that requires you winning those games.  

“So for us, before we even start thinking about passing beyond Pittsburgh, the most important thing is winning this game to go 2 0 in the conference. That's what's relevant for us now, and we approach all the other games as they come up on the schedule.”

Pitt rolled to a 3-0 start, including a league road win at Boston College. But nonconference losses each of the past two weekends have the Panthers hungry to get back on the winning track.

“Certainly the last couple of weeks haven’t gone as we would have liked,” Pitt head coach Paul Chryst said.

“I think we all have to take ownership in it, and we’re going to all take ownership in correcting it. We’ve got a heck of a challenge this week. Virginia is a good football team … it’s what we do going forward. Part of going forward is making sure we accurately assess, and look at, and clean up things that need to be fixed.“

Yet another Coastal matchup is set for Saturday at North Carolina, where the Tar Heels (2-2, 0-1) play host to Virginia Tech (3-2, 0-1).  Nothing will be close to settled by the end of the day, but a few pieces in the always crowded division race may begin to fall into place.