ACC Notebook: Plenty riding on title game outcome

The Sports Xchange

November 29, 2015 at 8:54 pm.

Nov 28, 2015; Raleigh, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels running back Elijah Hood (34) runs the ball as North Carolina State Wolfpack defensive end Darian Roseboro (45) defends during the first half at Carter Finley Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 28, 2015; Raleigh, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels running back Elijah Hood (34) runs the ball as North Carolina State Wolfpack defensive end Darian Roseboro (45) defends during the first half at Carter Finley Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

It looks like a true showdown between top-ranked Clemson and North Carolina for the ACC championship.

The teams will arrive in Charlotte, N.C., for Saturday night’s title game with unblemished conference records. That’s the first time in the history of the ACC championship game that both teams went undefeated in league play.

There’s plenty riding on the outcome that extends behind the league hardware.

Clemson is in position to land in the College Football Playoffs. North Carolina has made a long climb up the standings since losing its opener to South Carolina — on the same field (Bank of America Stadium) as where the title game will be contested.

Clemson wrapped up its unbeaten regular season by defeating South Carolina 37-32.

The remaining games on the final weekend of the regular season were played largely to determining the pecking order for bowl selections. However, Virginia Tech became a bowl qualifier by defeating Virginia 23-20, and thus extending the coaching career of retiring Frank Beamer for one more game.


Game: Syracuse 20, Boston College 17. The Eagles managed only 239 yards of total offense, losing when Syracuse K Cole Murphy made a tie-breaking field goal from 35 yards out on the last play of the game. Boston College picked up only nine first downs in the road loss, completing 1 of 13 passes with two interceptions.

Takeaway: The Eagles ended the season with an eight-game losing streak, continually being exposed by a lack of offensive punch. A revolving quarterback situation probably didn’t help much.

The Eagles were saddled with a last-place finish in the Atlantic Division. A victory in the finale would have lifted Boston College into a three-way tie for fifth place.

Sorting out the offensive mishaps is certain to be a priority in the offseason. The Eagles couldn’t get much going for stretches against a Syracuse team that yielded more than 500 yards of offense to North Carolina State a week earlier.

The Eagles will want to get more mileage out of the good deeds of their defense. They had an elite-level defense without much to show for it and that’s will be how this team is defined.

Next: 2016 season opener

CLEMSON (12-0, 8-0)

Game: Clemson 37, South Carolina 32. QB Deshaun Watson ran for three touchdowns and threw for another in a road victory that was probably too close for comfort. The Tigers led 28-10 with one minute left in the third quarter, but South Carolina scored a pair of touchdowns in a three-minute span to make it interesting.

Takeaway: The Tigers didn’t have one of their vintage performances, but they came away with a victory on their arch-rival’s soil so that counts for something.

Clemson’s defense has shown some slippage at times and that could be severely tested by high-scoring North Carolina in the ACC championship game. North Carolina State and South Carolina both eclipsed the 30-point mark against Clemson during a month’s span.

For the ACC title game, it might be a matter of Clemson needing to get back up to speed to go against North Carolina.

Since clinching the ACC’s Atlantic Division, it has been a rather ordinary operation for the Tigers. They’ve defeated three times with losing records down the stretch in going against Syracuse, Wake Forest and South Carolina. Only the triumph against Wake Forest was remotely impressive.

The good thing for the Tigers is that they’ve shown the ability to turn it on with QB Deshaun Watson at the controls.

Given the breakdown of teams vying for the four spots in the College Football Playoff, there’s no guarantee the Tigers will be included if they fail to win the ACC title.

Next: ACC championship game Dec. 5 vs. North Carolina at Charlotte, N.C.

DUKE (7-5, 4-4)

Game: Duke 27, Wake Forest 21. QB Thomas Sirk threw for two touchdown passes and ran for another as the visiting Blue Devils won their regular-season finale by ending a four-game losing streak. Despite 135 receiving yards and a touchdown for TE Cam Serigne, the Demon Deacons ended the season with six losses in a row.

Takeaway: The Blue Devils were in danger of an empty November with a slide that basically began with a controversial loss late Halloween night in a setback to Miami.

It was far from a clean performance for the Blue Devils against Wake Forest, but they won for the fourth time in a row in the series.

It also was a chance for QB Thomas Sirk to re-establish himself as the starter after dealing with injuries since the Nov. 7 loss to North Carolina. QB Parker Boehme had been more effective at times recently, but it’s clearly Sirk who is more polished in the offense when he’s in a groove.

Duke avoided a devastating finishing stretch much like 2012, when it reached the six-win mark in the middle of the season and never won again.

Now there’s a matter of winning a bowl game, something that the Blue Devils haven’t done since the end of the 1960 season. They’ve lost in heartbreaking fashion in bowls the past three years.

Next: Await bowl assignment

FLORIDA STATE (10-2, 6-2)

Game: Florida State 27, Florida 2. RB Dalvin Cook rushed for 183 yards and scored on two fourth-quarter runs as the visiting Seminoles won in Gainesville, Fla., for the third consecutive visit. K Roberto Aguayo had field goals of 45 and 51 yards.

Takeaway: The Seminoles sometimes sputter on offense and it’s not always crisp, but they’ve found a way to churn out some solid result.

Yet the offense has clearly been turned over to QB Sean Maguire, a situation that seems to come with support throughout the team and the results tend to back up that decision as a solid one.

With RB Dalvin Cook, the Seminoles have the ideal playmaker to complement whoever is taking the snaps. Given the right situations, it’s possible that Cook could have been considered a worthy Heisman Trophy candidate, though missing some September time with an injury put him at a disadvantage.

The road victory at Florida was certainly reassuring as well. Since early victories at Boston College and Wake Forest, there had been road losses at Georgia Tech and at Clemson.

Florida State is lined up for an appealing bowl, and finishing in the Top 10 nationally is bound to result if the Seminoles win in their bowl.

But certainly it’s strange to head to the first week in December without an extra game in the ACC championship. The Seminoles had won the previous three conference titles.

Next: Await bowl assignment

GEORGIA TECH (3-9, 1-7)

Game: Georgia 13, Georgia Tech 7. The Yellow Jackets were on the verge of suffering a home shutout loss until scoring with 3:24 remaining to close out a disappointing season with another setback. Georgia Tech picked up 276 yards of total offense, wasting what was a pretty decent defensive performance.

Takeaway: It’s odd that the fingers were pointed so often at the offense with this Georgia Tech team not coming close to living up to its reputation as a tough-to-conquer offense.

Maybe some of the mystique of that triple-option offense has worn off.

For a team that began the season in the national rankings, the Yellow Jackets certainly didn’t see a nine-loss season coming in their direction.

The day after the season-ending loss to Georgia, the rival Bulldogs fired coach Mark Richt, so that probably sent some shivers through the Georgia Tech staff considering the type of season it endured.

Yet perhaps this gives the Yellow Jackets a window in recruiting that they can exploit with the change going on in Athens, Ga.

Still, there’s certain to be an evaluation going on with the Yellow Jackets in dissecting what went wrong. The triple-option offense that was once so feared pretty much fizzled, particularly with starting QB Justin Thomas not as effective this season as a redshirt junior as he had been in the past.

Next: 2016 season opener

LOUISVILLE (7-5, 5-3)

Game: Louisville 38, Kentucky 24. QB Lamar Jackson rushed for 186 yards and two touchdowns and threw a touchdown pass as the visiting Cardinals rallied from a 21-0 deficit. Kentucky didn’t score in the second half, held to a total of 14 first downs in the game.

Takeaway: The Cardinals showed the ability for some strong offense after falling behind against Kentucky.

That had to be a bright spot for an offense that at times didn’t show much spark or the ability to convert when things were going a little bumpy.

But with QB Lamar Jackson healthy, it creates problems for opponents. He’s apt to pick up huge gains by carrying the ball and there are still enough offensive weapons to make the passing game productive.

It would appear for now that some of the quarterback concerns can be put aside with Jackson at the controls, though he needs some fine tuning regarding the passing attack.

Louisville won seven of nine games after an 0-3 start to the season. Three of its losses overall have come to opponents in the nationally rankings as the regular season winds down.

Next: Await bowl assignment

MIAMI (8-4, 5-3)

Game: Miami 29, Pittsburgh 24. QB Brad Kaaya threw for one touchdown and ran for another as Miami finished the regular season strong with a road victory. The Hurricanes led 23-3 at halftime, though Pittsburgh’s two touchdowns in the last seven minutes made it interesting.

Takeaway: The Hurricanes showed the ability to deal with adversity after the firing of their coach at midseason. Under interim coach Larry Scott, they’ve posted 4-1 record with the only blemish a blowout loss at Coastal Division champion North Carolina.

Miami won at Pittsburgh despite gaining only 116 yards on the ground. Kaaya is often the key with his ability to stretch the field and make opponents pay in the passing attack.

There will be questions for the school’s administration as they assess the direction of the coaching search. The Hurricanes have certainly performed well under Scott, going 2-0 at home and 2-1 on the road (spurred the controversial finish for a victory at Duke in the first game under his watch).

The Hurricanes have risen to spot where they’ll be pegged for an upper-tier bowl among the ACC tie-ins, so if there’s a victory in the postseason there would be a nine-win season that would be a nice foundation for whoever is the next coach.

Kaaya is a good player to have to build around as well. There’s still the matter of restoring the defense and putting that back on the track on a consistent basis.

Next: Await bowl assignment

NORTH CAROLINA (11-1, 8-0)

Game: North Carolina 45, N.C. State 34. RB Elijah Hood rushed for 220 yards and two touchdowns as the visiting Tar Heels completed an unbeaten conference schedule. RB T.J. Logan added touchdown runs of 42 and 40 yards as part of his 100-yard performance for North Carolina, which led 35-7 after the first quarter.

Takeaway: The Tar Heels have it clicking and that’s what it might take in the ACC championship game against Clemson.

Their 374 rushing yards against N.C. State showed that they’re far from one-dimensional. They didn’t need all that much threw the air, with QB Marquise Williams held to one passing touchdown.

The Tar Heels reverse a 28-point loss from a year ago to N.C. State, though for the most part the aftermath of this latest victory was centered on the program’s first trip to the ACC championship game.

North Carolina’s defense has been questioned throughout the season if for no other reason than the problems that existed the past two years. But the defense keeps coming through, with more evidence of that after the Tar Heels had three turnovers and yet at times the damage was limited.

Williams has been largely in the shadows of Clemson QB Deshaun Watson this season, but Williams will have a chance on a large stage to show what he can do in the conference title game.

North Carolina owns an 11-game winning streak, with lone loss (to South Carolina) coming in the same venue as where the ACC championship game will be contested.

Next: ACC championship game Dec. 5 vs. Clemson at Charlotte, N.C.

N.C. STATE (7-5, 3-5)

Game: North Carolina 45, N.C. State 34. The Tar Heels broke out to a 35-7 lead in the first quarter in racking up 553 yards of total offense in the road victory. N.C. State received two rushing touchdowns from QB Jacoby Brissett, who also threw two touchdown passes to TE David Grinnage.

Takeaway: The Wolfpack didn’t have much going its way in the regular-season finale, falling into a big hole and then failing to convert enough off three North Carolina turnovers to complete a comeback.

It was a disappointing result for the Wolfpack, particularly with North Carolina creating the big early advantage and leaving many of the home fans disgruntled.

N.C. State had won a year ago and the concept of building some momentum in the rivalry was appealing to the Wolfpack. But N.C. State wasn’t strong enough along the line of scrimmage and that was a disturbing part.

What the result did — on top of the outcomes for the final two months of the regular season — was expose the Wolfpack’s early schedule as perhaps not adequately preparing the team for the more rigorous challenge of conference play.

QB Jacoby Brissett showed that he could excel by running the ball especially when the passing attack wasn’t clicking. The Wolfpack might be dealing with more problems along the offensive line than has been regularly discussed considering some of the changes in personnel among the starting unit.

Next: Await bowl assignment

PITTSBURGH (8-4, 6-2)

Game: Miami 29, Pittsburgh 24. The host Panthers fell into a 23-3 halftime hole and saw their two-game winning streak snapped. QB Nathan Peterman threw for a touchdown and rushed for a touchdown in the last seven minutes, but those plays weren’t enough to complete a comeback.

Takeaway: The Panthers lost for the third time in their last four home games, a dismal development for what has been mostly an encouraging season.

They managed only 15 first downs in the final regular-season game, with the passing attack out sync with only 13 of 27 passes completed. Peterman had been steady for much of the season, but the offense couldn’t get untracked until it was too late against Miami.

The Panthers scored 24 or fewer points in three of their four losses.

Pittsburgh’s defense didn’t force a turnover, so that hurt its cause as well. The Panthers were denied their first nine-win regular season since 2009.

At the time of the finale, the Panthers still had a chance to share the Coastal Division title (though a tiebreaker would have sent North Carolina to the ACC championship game anyway). Still, that was a sign of progress for Pittsburgh under first-year coach Pat Narduzzi.

Next: Await bowl assignment

SYRACUSE (4-8, 2-6)

Game: Syracuse 20, Boston College 17. K Cole Murphy booted a 35-yard field goal on the last play of the game for the home victory, ending an eight-game losing streak. Syracuse’s defense held the Eagles to 239 yards of total offense (including 9 yards through the air).

Takeaway: The Orange pulled off a victory in coach Scott Shafer’s final game after his firing was announced at the beginning of the week.

The Orange players generally were offering support for Shafer, so at least they gave him a good send-off.

Syracuse’s defense, which was Shafer’s specialty, was up to the task in the finale, but that might have had more to do with facing an inept Boston College offense than anything else.

The Orange has back-to-back losing seasons and the program has yet to make much of an impact at all in three seasons in the ACC.

For the most part, Syracuse’s deficiencies have come on offense. This year, those problems were heightened by injuries to the quarterback position. While some of the players on the depth chart at quarterback gave solid contributions, the ongoing changes there were tough to overcome.

The Orange also learned prior to that finale that QB Terrel Hunt, who suffered a season-ending injury in the opener, was denied an NCAA waiver a sixth year of eligibility so the new coach will have some sorting out to do at quarterback.

Next: 2016 season opener

VIRGINIA (4-8, 3-5)

Game: Virginia Tech 23, Virginia 20. A 41-yard field goal from Virginia Tech K Joey Slye with 1:38remaining gave the visiting Hokies their first lead since the first quarter. The loss left the Cavaliers with defeats in three of their final four games, each of those by seven points or less.

Takeaway: The Cavaliers haven’t exactly been clutch enough, perhaps that best describing Mike London’s tenure as head coach. His departure was announced the day after the final game, a cloud that had been lingering for weeks.

The last game might have summed up Virginia’s reach fortunes, sticking close with rival Virginia Tech but unable to pull off a victory on Senior Day.

To make matters more complex, there was no real way to totally define this team.

The Cavaliers weren’t an efficient offense, too often plagued by turnovers. Yet there were glimmers of hope, but sometimes that game with a ground attack and other times with a passing approach. But there was nothing there that was really overwhelming.

The same might have been said about the defense. At times, it looked like that unit might carry the Cavaliers. At other times, there wasn’t nearly good enough execution for the rewards to come by the end of games.

The next coach will have a chore to restore confidence. There also will be new direction at rival Virginia Tech, which also will have a new coach.

Next: 2016 season opener

VIRGINIA TECH (6-6, 4-4)

Game: Virginia Tech 23, Virginia 20. A 41-yard field goal from K Joey Slye with 1:38 remaining broke a tie and propelled the visiting Hokies to bowl eligibility. It was the third field goal of the game from Slye, while QB Michael Brewer threw two touchdown passes during a 17-point fourth quarter for Virginia Tech.

Takeaway: The Hokies found a way to get it done by pulling out the victory at Virginia.

Perhaps it made sense that they would figure out a way to conquer Virginia once again. If nothing else, the Hokies have been in so many close games — with mixed results — that they’re bound to have some go their way.

They were probably particularly excited to avoid overtime given that they lost overtime encounters at home to Duke and to North Carolina.

QB Michael Brewer has proven to be a rock for the offense. His toughness is something that the Hokies have latched on to and he has found ways to pull the team together even when situations begin to look ragged.

This Virginia Tech team has fallen under considerable pressure. There’s no doubt they’ve felt the weight of coach Frank Beamer’s impending retirement, desperately striving to reach the six-win mark for bowl eligibility and dealing with the emotions of Beamer’s final home game in Blacksburg, Va.

Now they’ll go through one more round of this in preparation for the bowl game. This time, it really will be Beamer’s last game as the team’s coach.

Plus, with a new head coach arriving there will be the process of proving themselves all over again.

Next: Await bowl assignment

WAKE FOREST (3-9, 1-7)

Game: Duke 27, Wake Forest 21. QB Thomas Sirk threw two touchdown passes to WR Max MaCaffrey and the visiting Blue Devils held on after building a 24-7 lead through three quarters. Despite 135 receiving yards and a touchdown for TE Cam Serigne, the Demon Deacons ended the season with six losses in a row.

Takeaway: The Demon Deacons couldn’t shake some of their problems that had surfaced in September and lingered throughout the season.

QB John Wolford threw two interceptions in the finale, contributing to the team’s three turnovers. Wake Forest didn’t have any takeaways in the last game.

The Demon Deacons were thin for the last game because QB Kendall Hinton missed the game with reports that he has mononucleosis. Hinton had shared the quarterback duties at times with Wolford and he offers a chance of pace, but instead missed the game against a school (Duke) from his hometown.

If there was a positive it came from 338 passing yards. Those were a boost to an offense that’s still trying to find the right balance. RB Tyler Bell rushed for 94 yards, including his first career touchdown so that was a boost for the freshman.

The Demon Deacons showed progress based on the margins of many of their losses. But when it was added up at the end of coach Dave Clawson’s second season, it was the same number of victories as in 2014.

Next: 2016 season opener


–There are vacancies at several schools in the ACC.

The latest was the expected ouster of Mike London as Virginia’s coach.

That made the finale between Virginia Tech and Virginia farewell type of event, though Beamer has another game courtesy of the 23-20 victory that will send the Hokies to a bowl.

London had one solid season with the Cavaliers, but they were otherwise undone by too much losing and some difficult schedules.

So there are openings at Virginia and Syracuse. There’s also the situation at Miami, where Al Golden was fired in late October and interim coach Larry Scott went 4-1 since taking charge of the program.

Virginia Tech filled its vacancy by announcing the hiring of Memphis coach Justin Fuente.

That might leave Miami in a bit of lurch with the Hurricanes doing so well under Scott, who’s bound to be campaigning for the permanent job.

Even Miami keeps Scott, there will be a turnover of more than a one-quarter of the head coaching positions in the ACC since the start of the season. And there’s no guarantee that other schools might have changes as well.

–There wasn’t much homefield advantage for teams on the so-called rivalry week to end the regular season. Of the nine games involving at least one ACC team, the home team won only one of those.

That came for Syracuse, which sent Boston College to another loss with a field goal on the last play of the game.

Yet Syracuse lost three times at home this season (going 4-3 at the Carrier Dome).

Speaking of lack of homefield success, a surprise in that category would be North Carolina State. In three seasons under coach Dave Doeren, the Wolfpack is 2-10 in ACC home games.

The ACC made some noise in non-conference games on the final weekend. Conference teams went 3-1 against Southeastern Conference teams, with road victories by Clemson (at South Carolina), Florida State (at Florida) and Louisville (at Kentucky).

“That’s what I’m so proud about — their poise, their competitive spirt and their toughness,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said of his team. “I think it says a whole lot about the leadership and the quality of guys we have on the team.”

–The field of ACC teams for bowls was mostly set before the regular-season finales, with only Virginia Tech joining that mix by winning in the last game of the regular season.

There’s still lots of uncertainty for ACC teams about where they’ll end up.

Aside from ACC championship game combatants Clemson and North Carolina, the team that has set itself up the best is Florida State. After that, it’s a little murky.

Eight-win teams Pittsburgh and Miami both have some warts, particularly with Miami having already made a coaching change. Pittsburgh lost three of its final five games, so the Panthers aren’t exactly on a roll.

The most appealing team for the bowls is Virginia Tech, but the Hokies have only six wins and might be able to move up only so far in the bowling mix. The Hokies put together a strong finish to the regular season, winning two of three games since longtime coach Frank Beamer announced that he’ll retire at the end of the season (and three of their last four games overall). The lone loss in that stretch came in overtime to North Carolina.

Beamer was thrilled to have one more game.

“It just worked out,” he said. “Our players and coaches made it work out. The ball bounced our way at the end.”

With a reputation for a strong fan following and the fact that Beamer, who’s the winningest active Division I coach in the country, will be in his final game directing the team, there’s bound to be considerable interest in the Hokies.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “We’ve done everything that we can do to this point, and now we’ve got to go play the No. 1 team in the country.” — Coach Larry Fedora of North Carolina, which has reset goals after achieving two of them by claiming the ACC’s Coastal Division and the unofficial state championship. Now, the Tar Heels have their eyes set on the ACC championship and beyond.



1. Clemson might lose some support for its top ranking despite the road victory at South Carolina, in part because of the 37-32 final score.

2. Florida State took care of business against Florida, then had to be kicking itself for that slipup at Georgia Tech.

3. North Carolina has been on cruise control for most of a long stretch and that sets up an intriguing showdown with Clemson for the ACC championship.

4. Miami’s coaching changed worked out all right in the short term, with a 4-1 mark and two road victories after the 29-24 surprise at Pittsburgh.

5. Virginia Tech will play in the postseason in Frank Beamer’s final season, so there will be a few more weeks of tributes for the long-time coach.