Luke DeCock

A Saturday to set the Coastal tone

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Georgia Tech steamrolled through two weeks of lesser opposition to open the season. Saturday, we’ll find out just how good the Yellow Jackets are when they travel to Notre Dame.

Duke steamrolled through two weeks of lesser opposition to open the season. Saturday, we’ll find out just how good the Blue Devils are when they host Northwestern.

It’s still early, but this third weekend of the season will have a lot to say about how the Coastal Division plays out.

Miami, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech all play Big Ten teams as well. The task is slightly more difficult for the Hurricanes (vs. Nebraska) and the Panthers (at Iowa) than it is for the Tar Heels (vs. Illinois) and the Hokies (at Purdue), but each game will have something to say about the relative strength of the two leagues, not to mention the Coastal.

And not to be forgotten, 0-2 Virginia hosts William & Mary, a game the Cavaliers should win but are eminently capable of losing. It’s been equally hard to tell just how good Virginia is, because the Cavaliers were overmatched at UCLA before losing the home heartbreaker to Notre Dame. Virginia could well go 1-3 to start the season – Boise State is next – and win the division.

At this moment, it feels like Georgia Tech could run away with things, but the Jackets have to navigate a brutal schedule, and that starts Saturday in South Bend.

While Notre Dame remains a country unto itself in football and an ACC member in everything else, the Irish have won at Virginia, which is just like being a full member of the ACC. The Irish are ranked ahead of Georgia Tech and at home, which makes this game a great barometer of just how good Georgia Tech actually is.

“Two games into the season, most teams are still a work in progress, and we’re certainly there, too,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “We’re going to find out a little more about ourselves defensively. … We’ll have a little better idea after this week.”

With Justin Thomas running the triple-option, the Yellow Jackets have looked practically unbeatable If they can emerge unscathed from the shadow of 3-Point Jesus, those games against Clemson and Florida State will suddenly look potentially winnable.

If Notre Dame is too tough a task for Tech, that would open the door to the traditional scramble in the Coastal, with just about everyone but Virginia in the hunt. Virginia Tech would certainly be in that mix despite the season-opening loss to Ohio State. A few other teams have a chance to certify their credentials this weekend.

Duke may top that list. The prognosis for the Blue Devils was downgraded because of what Duke lost in the offseason – the most productive receiver in ACC history, a multiple-year starter at quarterback, a would-be all-ACC linebacker who tore his ACL again – but Duke coach David Cutcliffe has quietly been assembling talent that didn’t see the field last season. Duke’s depth may be underrated.

The Blue Devils better hope so, because they’ll need all of it against Northwestern, which outmuscled Stanford in Week 1. Duke will need to show ACC speed to beat Big Ten brawn, and if Duke has enough, the Blue Devils will be a legitimate Coastal contender. It’s been hard to tell so far, against Tulane and N.C. Central, but Saturday will be telling.

“It’s a big test for us. I think our guys understand that,” Cutcliffe said. “They are preparing with great intensity. It should be exciting to see how we match up against this kind of team.”

Wins for Miami and Pittsburgh would bolster their relative cases, although not as much as a loss by North Carolina or Virginia Tech would damage theirs.

Depending on how things shake out, by Monday, the Coastal could be Georgia Tech’s to lose or anyone’s to win, a seven-team scramble to the finish.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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