In ACC thus far, it's Seminoles and everybody else

jgiglio@newsobserver.comSeptember 24, 2012 

One-third of the college football season is already behind us, and for the most part it has gone according to the preseason script.

A peek at where the Triangle teams are as the ACC schedule hits full stride, and which teams will be in Charlotte on Dec. 1 for the ACC championship game:

1) Florida State is officially back.

The ACC has gone 12 years without a BCS title contender. Florida State, No. 4 in the country, certainly is in position to return to the national conversation after Saturday’s 49-37 win over Clemson.

Quarterback E.J. Manuel was spectacular with 380 passing yards and another 102 rushing, and the Noles defense, after falling behind 28-14 in the third quarter, shut down Clemson’s explosive offense when it had to.

A road game with Virginia Tech, on Nov. 8, and a home date with Florida, on Nov. 24, are the two biggest obstacles left on FSU’s schedule. Other teams would have to lose in front of them nationally, which is possible, but their fate in the ACC is up to them.

FSU would have to lose twice in the league for Clemson to pass them in the Atlantic Division. In other words, they can start packing for Charlotte.

2) No one wants to win the Coastal Division

Virginia Tech, the media’s preseason choice, didn’t exactly inspire confidence with a 35-17 loss at Pittsburgh on Sept. 15, but Pitt doesn’t join the ACC until next season. And the Hokies have lost early September games before out of the league (hello, James Madison), only to run through the ACC like Drano.

Still, Virginia Tech’s problems on the offensive line open the door for another team to win the Coastal, and be fodder for FSU in Charlotte.

Georgia Tech would have been the next logical choice, but the Jackets already have two ACC losses, and both in the division. The NCAA says UNC can’t win the division, which leaves Miami, Virginia and Duke.

Miami’s 2-0 in the ACC, despite giving up 68 points in conference play. You think that kind of defense is going to hold up?

Virginia’s first-team offense has scored three touchdowns in three games against Division I-A opponents.

So it’s either Duke or back to square one with Virginia Tech. Safest bet? First team to win five games takes the division.

3) N.C. State is, well, we don’t know what N.C. State is.

We’ll learn more about N.C. State with the next four games — at Miami, Florida State, at Maryland, at UNC — than we learned in the first four games.

The Wolfpack got run out of the Georgia Dome by Tennessee in the opener, a 35-21 loss, and has since won the three games from its nonconference schedule it was supposed to.

The offensive line has been shaky, so has the secondary, two areas that should be strengths for Tom O’Brien’s sixth team.

Running for 284 yards against The Citadel, and putting up 52 points, were good signs for N.C. State’s offense. And who knows, maybe freshman running back Shadrach Thornton, who ran for 145 yards in his college debut on Saturday, will be just the burst of energy the Pack needs to get through the next four games with the same 3-1 record.

4) There’s no place like home.

If North Carolina can figure out a way to play on the road as well it does at home, the Tar Heels could win out. No, really.

That’s a testament to both how well they’ve played at Kenan Stadium, in a 62-0 win over Elon and a 27-6 win over East Carolina, and how weak the rest of their schedule is.

Motivation had been one of UNC’s biggest problems the last few years, and despite the fact that UNC can’t play in the ACC title game or in a bowl, coach Larry Fedora has seemingly fixed that.

Now, Fedora has to work on getting UNC’s road act together. The Heels went 1-5 away from Kenan last season, compared to 6-1 at home. They’ve lost both road games, at Wake Forest and Louisville, thus far this season, and have manageable trips to Miami, Duke and Virginia remaining.

The defense has been the biggest issue on the road. The Heels have given up 33.5 point per game on the road, compared to 3.0 at home.

5) Duke wants to party like it’s 1994.

The Blue Devils (3-1) took care of business in the games they had to win (Florida International, N.C. Central and Memphis) and didn’t let a lopsided loss at Stanford (50-13), derail their mission.

That leaves Duke halfway to its first bowl trip since the 1994 season. The math remains the same for the final eight games, win three games, but the competition will be considerably more challenging.

Realistically, Duke needs to win at Wake Forest on Saturday. The problem is the Blue Devils have never beaten Jim Grobe (0-11), and they always seem to pick the most excruciating way possible to lose the Demon Deacons, who are also 3-1 and in their own desperate need of a win over Duke for their bowl hopes.

Big key for Duke going forward: cleaning up its turnover margin (minus-4 after four games). The Devils got away with four turnovers in Saturday’s 38-14 win over Memphis, but that’s not a winning formula.

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