No. 17/16 Clemson (3-1, 0-1) at Boston College (1-2, 0-1)
Moments in Clemson-BC history: In 2006, Clemson came into its game against BC ranked 18th and with a lot of optimism. They lost a heartbreaker, 34-33, in double overtime. They would then win six in a row, including upsetting then-No. 10 FSU the next week on the road. They got as high as 11th before losing four of its final five, including home games against Maryland and South Carolina.
Prediction: Clemson, 37-13. It would be the most ACC thing ever (not to mention the most Clemson thing ever) for the Tigers to lose this game, right? Boston College had an early bye week this past week, but the Eagles have played surprisingly well this year, averaging 26.3 points in three games, two against very competitive opponents (Miami and Northwestern). This will be a big test to see how much Clemson’s defense has actually improved. FSU has talent all over the field on offense, so even allowing 49 points is understandable. (And it’s still 21 fewer than West Virginia scored, am I right?)
No. 4 Florida State (4-0, 1-0) at South Florida (2-2, 0-1)
Mascot facts: South Florida held a contest in 1956 (shortly after the University was founded) to determine a mascot. The finalists included The Golden Brahman, the Olympian, the Cougar, the Buccaneer and the Golden Eagle. The Golden Brahman won; in the 1980s, it was shortened to Bulls.
Prediction: Florida State, 49-12. A letdown after an emotional win over Clemson would be understandable, but FSU really needs to win this one convincingly to keep the metaphorical ball rolling in the “FSU is back” discussion. And FSU’s defense should win the day: South Florida beat Chattanooga in Week 1 and Nevada in Week 2, but lost 23-13 to Rutgers in an ugly one and then 31-27 at Ball State last week in a shocker. The Bulls’ offense has been downright putrid at times.
Georgia Tech (2-2, 1-2) vs. Middle Tennessee State (2-1, 1-0)
Mascot facts: In 1934, a Middle Tennessee State football player known as Charles “Stumpy” Sarver won a $5 prize in a local newspaper contest to name the school’s mascot with “Blue Raiders”. (Nowadays, I’m sure that would be an impermissible benefit.) He borrowed that name from Colgate, which was known as the Red Raiders. The actual costumed mascot is a horse.
Prediction: Georgia Tech, 44-23. Considering the ease with which Georgia Tech dominated Virginia in Week 3, it was a complete stunner to see them fall at Miami in overtime last week. Middle Tennessee State has been a sneaky good program recently, and the Blue Raiders rebounded from a loss to McNeese State with wins over Florida Atlantic and Memphis in Weeks 2 and 3. Nothing earth-shattering. But…wait for it…Middle Tennessee State has had two weeks to prepare for Georgia Tech! Nothing to see here, folks.
Virginia (2-2, 0-1) vs. Louisiana Tech (3-0)
Mascot facts: Louisiana Tech’s bulldog mascot, Tech XX, was declared missing in late July. Turns out, a worker at the veterinary clinic let him out to use the bathroom and forgot to let him back in. He died of heat stroke as temperatures reached as high as 102 degrees. And the reason the bulldog was chosen as a mascot in 1899 allegedly is some students found a bulldog on campus and adopted it. When a fire started at their home, the bulldog barked at all of them until they woke up and escaped. The bulldog didn’t make it.
Prediction: Virginia, 24-20. Just when you think the Cavaliers will get a break….turns out Louisiana Tech might actually be good. They pounded Illinois – at Illinois – 52-24 last week. That’s not a misprint. The Bulldogs are averaging 54.7 points in three games. Virginia head coach Mike London will be under a lot of pressure to play backup quarterback Phillip Sims this week, though, and the offense could really use a spark. Virginia has played very tough games so far this year, and the Cavaliers are better than they played last week against TCU.
UR/No. 25 Virginia Tech (3-1, 1-0) vs. Cincinnati (2-0, 1-0) (FedEx Field)
Mascot facts: A bearcat is essentially a made-up thing (the Cincinnati cheerleaders made it up during a game against Kentucky in 1914 (based on fullback Teddy Baehr), but a bear cat is real. It’s called a binturong. No word on whether it too likes to throw snowballs.
Prediction: Virginia Tech, 27-20. Cincinnati blew out Pitt 34-10 in Week 1, so by transitive property, they should blow out the Hokies as well. But the Bearcats struggled with Delaware State in a 23-7 win on September 15th. They will have had two weeks off, which is certainly a factor.But Virginia Tech isn’t as bad as they played against Pittsburgh, and the Hokies likely have their annual awful loss out of their system at this point.
Last week: 8-1 (1-1 ACC)
Season: 26-4 (2-2 ACC)
The last time Duke (3-1, 0-0) beat Wake Forest (3-1, 1-0), Jim Caldwell was Wake’s head coach and Duke was led by first-year man Carl Franks. Duke would lose its next game at North Carolina, which began a 23-game losing streak that spanned three seasons.
Wake Forest has won 12 in a row against Duke dating back to 1999. From 2000-07, Duke would win nine games total. Since Jim Grobe was hired in 2001, Wake Forest has won the ACC once (in 2006) and knocked off some of the league’s big boys plenty of times. Grobe’s Deacons have done the kinds of things it seems Duke has been on the cusp of doing under head coach David Cutcliffe.
“They’ve been able to develop an identity of taking care of the football, playing well in big games, being consistently competitive. They have developed an identity, which is what the development process is here (at Duke),” Cutcliffe said. “I hope that identity is starting to show itself here in hopefully the consistency of some of the things we’re doing.
“I think our program at times has gotten ahead of the team, if that makes sense. I feel very comfortable where our program is, how our guys go about their business in the weight room, off-season, at the practice level. And I think Wake has done that now for a period of time and kind of begets itself. That’s the most impressive thing they’ve done – they’ve built a program.”
Cutcliffe has never shied away from history with his team, good or bad. When it comes to the Wake Forest game, there’s plenty of bad history there. But a lot of the guys on this team right now have lived it. The biggest Wake Forest margin of victory in the last six seasons has been 11 points; three of the games have been decided by three points or less and five by a score or less.
“Heartbreak,” Duke center Brian Moore said. “We’ve come so close, and it’s not lack of want-to or anything like that. It’s just going out there and getting it done. That’s what we need to do.”
“We’re aware of it. It’s something that we hold in the back of our minds. We don’t want to always be like, ‘Oh, whatever.’ They beat you 12 times for a reason,” defensive end Dezmond Johnson said. “Our mentality now is to change that and not keep adding to it. Get better. You want to get better every game you play, so we want to take this game and use this time to get better.”
Cornerback Ross Cockrell was the only one who didn’t seem to know about the 12-game winning streak. “Okay…well,” he said. “It’s about time for us to get one. I’ll say that. Twelve straight, that’s…our time should be coming up soon, so.”
Cutcliffe has always said that Duke can’t talk itself into being a good football team. The same applies this weekend, when this game could very well come down to the end as it has so often. Wake Forest has always had more playmakers than Duke has had. To take the next step as a program, Duke has to scale the mental Wake Forest wall that stands in front of them.
“That’s been the most obvious thing, just: oh, so close,” Cutcliffe said. “You have to give credit to their playmakers for making critical plays late in a game. …. They take care of the football. they play the kicking game well. They do a lot of the little things right and they’ve done that for quite some time. That will win a lot of games for you and they’ve obviously done that better than we’ve done it to this point.”
Duke-Wake Randomness: David Glenn Show producer Hayes Permar put together this awesome (and hilarious) video tribute to Wake Forest wide receiver Michael Campanaro.
Former Duke kicker Will Snyderwine made an instructional YouTube video posted this summer called “Kickin’ It”. Duke fans, this is presented without comment. But I checked the date multiple times to be sure.
This is two years old, but searching for Duke football videos, I came across this guide to being a Duke football fan from 2010.
A very, very tongue-in-cheek look at the diversity on Wake Forest’s campus. (Some NSFW topics/language.)
Prediction: Duke, 34-27. Call it a hunch. As Ross Cockrell said, 12 in a row is a lot, and Duke seems due. The Blue Devils are as strong of a program as they have been since Cutcliffe’s arrival, and this would be an enormous win for them going forward. Getting Wake early should help, too (since 2005, Duke has played Wake in the first half of their schedule before attrition has hit just once). But Duke can’t make the types of mistakes that cause even big-name programs to drive away from Winston-Salem wondering how they could have lost that game.
Last week: 8-1 (1-1 ACC)
Season: 26-4 (2-2 ACC)
The word “potential” is thrown around a lot when it comes to North Carolina’s 6-4, 235-pound sophomore tight end Eric Ebron. He has the size and strength of a defensive end, but the speed and grace of a wide receiver. On every play, he has the potential to make a huge gain. But like a lot of young players, he also has the potential to make head-scratching mistakes.
A classic Ebron sequence: he committed his second false start of the game in the second quarter against East Carolina, turning a 3rd and 6 into a 3rd and 12. His slight twitch was not nearly as bad as his first false start of the afternoon had been when he stutter-stepped way before the snap.
“Right now, we do silent count, so (center) Russell Bodine – to me, when I jump, it’s because I see the ball fidget. I’m trying to move as soon as the ball is moved,” Ebron said with a sheepish smile. “As of right now, my new motto is just be delayed off (the line). When the ball is completely in (Renner’s) hands, then I’m going to go.”
On the very next play, though, quarterback Bryn Renner found him. Ebron lowered his shoulder into ECU defensive back Desi Brown, who fell backwards harmlessly despite being 6-2, 209 pounds. Ebron proceeded to leap over him as easily as he might step over a puddle and power down the field to the ECU 5-yard line for a first down.
“The coaches were giving me a hard time until I made that very creative play that I made,” Ebron said. “They were getting at me about that until then, and then I quit false-starting.”
Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? And just for good measure, Renner found him again when he was covered by a linebacker, who didn’t stand a chance once Ebron caught the ball. On his way to a 27-yard run, he stiff-armed a defensive back.
“That’s exactly how you make up for it,” Ebron said. “Two wrongs don’t make a right, and I had two big wrongs. I had to make them right, so.”
So he had two “wrongs”, and two big “rights”. Sounds about right.
At Louisville, Ebron had five catches for 38 yards and two touchdowns but two false starts, including a crucial one when Carolina was trying to score the game-winner. After the game, Ebron was simultaneously angry at himself and his team for the slow start while also defiantly confident in what they’re capable of doing.
“The little mistakes that I made, I’ve got to polish them up. If you don’t start the way you’re supposed to start, then you can’t finish the way you want to finish,” Ebron said.
“I knew from the start that Louisville couldn’t hang with us if we played Carolina football. We came out playing football from another universe or something. In the second half, we got back down to earth. We buckled down and realized that we were the better team and tried to make a comeback.”
Renner had to grin when asked about Ebron’s false starts. “I know we had a play called for him when he jumped offsides both times (against ECU),” Renner said. “I think he was just chomping at the bit to go get the ball. But he’s a great player and he made up for it – after he jumped offsides, he made a heck of a play. So Coach will yell at him pretty good but the next play, he was praising him.”
But Carolina is so Ebron. At times, the Tar Heels look dominant on both sides of the ball, oozing with confidence and making plays in all three phases of the game. At other times, their defense looks like a sieve, the special teams unit commits penalty after penalty and the offense can only move the ball backwards. When it’s clicking, it’s beautiful to watch. Same with Ebron.
One Louisville touchdown came when a defensive end had no shot at covering him, and he trucked a linebacker in the end zone. At Wake Forest, he caught a touchdown on a balletic leaping grab over a Deacon safety. Who guards him, exactly? Defensive ends and linebackers aren’t quick enough, and defensive backs aren’t tall or strong enough.
He’s already got his sights set high, modeling his game after two of the best tight ends in the NFL that are also matchup nightmares. But Ebron is more than capable of being that good: someday. “I definitely look up to Jimmy Graham. I believe we kind of play alike,” Ebron said after the ECU win. “I’m not on his level because he’s a pro, but I believe that’s who I resemble and that’s who I look up to: him and Vernon Davis.”
Mascot facts: Idaho’s mascot, the Vandal, did not have as awesome an origin as anticipated. Turns out, former basketball coach Hec Edmundson’s team in 1917 was said to play so fiercely, they “vandalized” opponents on the court. According to the Idaho official athletics site, “The nickname exemplifies the spirit of the University in more than just athletics; as University of Idaho Vandals, we are fiercely competitive and independent thinkers and doers.”
Prediction: North Carolina, 59-12. North Carolina will want to score some points in this one, and Idaho has shown they are happy to oblige. The Vandals lost 20-3 to Eastern Washington, 21-13 to Bowling Green, 63-14 to LSU and 40-37 to Wyoming in their most recent game. So with the exception of LSU, they’ve been fairly competitive. The Tar Heels need to keep their defensive momentum going; they still haven’t allowed a touchdown at home this season.
Last week: 8-1 (1-1 ACC)
Season: 26-4 (2-2 ACC)
Maryland (2-1) at No. 8/7 West Virginia (2-0)
Mascot facts: Basically, the Mountaineer originated when people started dressing up like it at West Virginia games in the late 1920s. That’s continued ever since. But in some ACC-related trivia, this former Mountaineer (1952-53) said he liked to engage in pranks, including “tugging the unhappy wolf mascot of North Carolina State around by his tail”.
Prediction: West Virginia, 59-23. West Virginia beat Marshall 69-34 in Week 1, took a week off and then beat James Madison 42-12. Maryland has actually acquitted itself well this season defensively, but it’s way too much to ask after slowing the William & Mary, Temple and Connecticut offenses to slow down the West Virginia train.
Virginia (2-1, 0-1) at No. 17/16 TCU (2-0)Mascot facts: TCU’s horned frog mascot goes as far back as 1896, when legend has it that the field the team first practiced on “teemed with horned frogs”. A little bit of a letdown to learn a horned frog is actually a lizard, though.
Prediction: TCU, 23-16. Virginia has struggled offensively in its last two games, and that’s not a good sign as they will face a TCU team that’s traditionally among the nation’s best defenses. It’s difficult to know how good the Horned Frogs are, though: TCU has beaten Grambling State and Kansas. Virginia put up 184 yards rushing in Week 1 against Richmond, and in the last two games combined, the Cavaliers have just 130 yards on 53 carries. There’s been a quarterback controversy between Michael Rocco and Phillip Sims, but Sims wasn’t put in last week until the fourth quarter when Virginia trailed 49-7. Head coach Mike London insists Rocco is his starter, but if the offense continues to struggle, it’s only a matter of time.
Virginia Tech (2-1, 1-0) vs. Bowling Green (1-2)
Mascot facts: A sportswriter named Bowling Green the Falcons in 1927. And that was only because he was reading a book on falconry at the time, and he thought falconry was awesome. I think that’s awesome.
Prediction: Virginia Tech, 37-12. Calling Virginia Tech’s loss at Pitt last weekend disappointing doesn’t do it justice. That aside, the Hokie offense has struggled. Against FBS opponents, quarterback Logan Thomas has complete 35-of-69 passes (a hair over 50%) for 495 yards and three touchdowns, and has run the ball 22 times for 68 yards. He has as many carries in those games as starting running back Michael Holmes. This isn’t a great recipe. The Hokie offense needs to get back on track, and fast. And it won’t necessarily be easy: Bowling Green hung tough with Florida before beating Idaho in Week 2 and falling 27-15 at Toledo.
Wake Forest (2-1, 1-0) vs. Army (0-2)
Mascot facts: Army might be known as the Black Knights, but the mascot for the army itself is a mule (or mules: the Army Mules. But they didn’t officially adopt the Black Knight nickname until 2000: before, they were known as the Cadets.
Prediction: Wake Forest, 27-9. Wake Forest is somewhere in between the team that struggled with Liberty and got blown out 52-0 by Florida State and the team that beat North Carolina. Fortunately for the Deacons, though, Army isn’t very good. The Black Knights lost 42-7 at San Diego State and followed that up with a 41-40 loss at home to Northern Illinois.
Miami (2-1, 1-0) at Georgia Tech (2-1, 0-1)
Moment in Miami-Georgia Tech history: Hard to mention these recent games without talking about former Georgia Tech quarterback Reggie Ball. He had his share of struggles as the starter, but he began the Georgia Tech streak of four straight against Miami (from 2005-08) in 2005 with a 14-10 upset of No. 3 Miami. In 2006, Georgia Tech won despite Ball completing 3-of-16 first-half passes. (This was before the triple-option) But when Googling Reggie Ball, I came across this gem from Spencer Hall at SB Nation:
It is difficult to compare Tevin Washington to Reggie Ball, and deeply unfair. Washington played a fine game, and made one really ill-advised throw in a clutch situation at the end. Really, all they will ever have in common is an alma mater, a position, and breathing oxygen. Then again, somewhere in NASA, there is an aerospace engineer who makes a mathematical mistake, forgets to carry a one, and then places his head in his hands as an errant rocket crashes into the Pacific instead of soaring into orbit. And at that moment, a circuit panel pops out, and a Georgia fan hiding behind that panel yells out, “JUST LIKE REGGIE BALL GO DAWGS.” It just happens now in these situations, and there is nothing Tevin Washington or the world can do about it.
Prediction: Georgia Tech, 49-17. Did I mention that Miami isn’t very good? Yeah. And the Yellow Jackets are feeling it. Miami’s defense will be better as it grows up, but facing the triple-option isn’t the week that starts to happen.
No. 10/9 Clemson (3-0) at No. 4 Florida State (3-0, 1-0)
Moment in Clemson-Florida State history: Um, how about Bobby Bowden being ballsy enough to call for a fake punt – or “puntrooskie”, if you will – with 1:30 to go, at FSU’s 21-yard line, in a tie game? And evidently, Clemson knew about the play beforehand and still couldn’t stop it. So much Clemsoning involved with a team thought to be a national title contender in 1988.
Prediction: Florida State, 44-24. Considering FSU hasn’t exactly faced offensive juggernauts to date, it’s reasonable to think that an explosive Clemson offense will put up points. Andre Ellington has been dominant on the ground, and the Seminoles have yet to face a running game like this. Tajh Boyd has been efficient and crisp, completing 73.3% of his passes. DeAndre Hopkins has four touchdowns receiving, and Sammy Watkins returned last week with four catches for 52 yards.
The Clemson defense was much better last week: after allowing Auburn to score 19 and Ball State to put up 27, it held Furman to 7. But FSU is a completely different animal. The Seminoles are averaging as many points as their basketball team typically holds opponents to (58.7), and racking up 543.7 yards per game in the process. E.J. Manuel is averaging 175 yards per game but leads the league in pass efficiency and is completing 71.2% of his passes.
The difference should be FSU’s defense, which has been downright dominant, allowing one point per game and just 103.3 yards. Florida State looked like the Florida State of old last week in its 52-0 beatdown of Wake Forest, and they should have far too much on both sides of the ball for Clemson to handle.
Last week: 9-1 (1-0 ACC)
Season: 18-3 (1-1 ACC)
Even though cornerbacks are supposed to be able to forget bad plays, junior Ross Cockrell still remembers them. And he remembers when Duke opened the 2011 season against Richmond, taking the field for the game full of fire in their black jerseys, which were a surprise from head coach David Cutcliffe before the game.
About three hours and countless head-scratching mistakes later, Duke found themselves 0-1, having suffered an embarrassing loss to an FCS team yet again. “I think this year, we’re finally turning the curve and expecting to win,” Cockrell said. “Last year, I think we might have hoped to win more, but now we expect to win. I think now, the plays that didn’t go for us last year will start to go for us this year and we’ll see what happens.”
Cockrell is part of a Duke secondary that has been hit by a rash of injuries, particularly at safety. Taylor Sowell ruptured his Achilles and is out for the year, while projected starter Jordan Byas is out indefinitely after recent knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Walt Canty is the only experienced safety starting, and his backup, Anthony Young-Wiseman, is questionable with a leg injury. Three of the six healthy safeties on Duke’s depth chart are true freshmen, and they will almost certainly have to play on Saturday.
“What we have to watch with freshmen is cramping after pregame warmups, and that’s the truth. You expend way too energy as a young player, the anxiety, the pressure,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re going to be coming into that tunnel after pregame warmup, they’re going to be soaking wet. You’ve got to remind them to drink, take deep breaths.
“They’re pretty natural football players. I always remind them, it’s the same measurements on that field. Everything is the same that you’ve done all your life. Just forget it all when you get into the game. Then when somebody hits them really hard, all that nervousness is gone.”
In total, Duke will be down 11 scholarship players and that number could grow to 13 against a good Florida International team coming off of an eight-win season.
But this particular Duke team is prepared to face whatever lies ahead of them. When sophomore wide receiver Blair Holliday got in a watercraft accident on July 4 and suffered a serious head injury, his prognosis looked bleak at first. He has continued to improve steadily, and Duke will wear a No. 8 sticker on the back of their helmets this season.
Cutcliffe updates Holliday’s condition as often as he can, and on Wednesday, he went to see Holliday for the first time since he was moved to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. The Duke head coach saw Holliday’s mom and brother first. While he was speaking to them, he saw a tall and lanky person walking down the hallway towards him.
“He walked up and I was able to give him a big hug. It was the first time I’ve been able to hug him. You couldn’t hug him before. (He’s) free of monitors, free of wires,” Cutcliffe said. “It was pretty neat. I liked feeling small around him. He’s a big man in lots of ways.”
Holliday’s injury understandably shook his teammates. They have been inspired by his fight to recover. But even before his injury, that was a close-knit group. Since, it’s become something entirely different. They’re not just teammates and friends. There’s a deep bond that comes with shared experience.
“If a team that was out there that could handle this kind of adversity, it’s this team. And it’s a tribute to the older guys on the team, the quality of the character, the investment they’ve put into each other, the investment they’ve put into this program,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t know if people really understand the mentality here. I think it’s carried us to even another new place that we maybe needed to go, or found out we could go. There’s a closeness when you walk in our team room.”
Season Prediction: 5-7 (2-6). The final six games of the season will make or break bowl eligibility for Duke. If the Blue Devils get to that stretch of hosting Carolina, Clemson and Miami and traveling to Virginia Tech, Florida State and Georgia Tech with at least four wins, they’ll have a chance. But it’s hard to find even two more wins in that slate. It’s just the bad luck of the draw in ACC scheduling, but it may be what holds Duke back from reaching its first bowl game since 1995.
Junior quarterback Bryn Renner has been known to ride the proverbial emotional rollercoaster with the best of them. When he threw one of his 13 interceptions, his anger at himself was visible minutes later as he paced the sideline. But when he completed a long pass for a touchdown, his jubilation would be just as obvious as he fist-pumped and jumped into the waiting arms of his teammates with a big grin on his face.
His statistics often reflected his mercurial nature. In a home win over Wake Forest, Renner completed 21-of-28 passes for 338 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The very next weekend at NC State, he completed just 9-of-17 passes for 76 yards and two interceptions.
Those two defenses were very different, but when Renner was brimming with confidence, he was difficult to stop. The NC State game was one of the first times that the pain Renner was feeling in his ankle showed on his face, and ended up leaving the game with a concussion.
And in the spring, coming off of surgery to remove bone spurs in his ankle, he tried too hard to impress new head coach Larry Fedora. “Until the spring game, I practiced like crap to be honest. I was terrible during the spring. As far as health-wise, trying to get the playbook down, it was a transition for me. But until the spring game, I practiced like crap and (the coaches) were probably saying the same thing.
“You get a new boss, so you want to go out there – if you had a regular job, you’re always going to want to impress the boss and make sure he knows you’re the right guy for the job. I put a little to much pressure on myself and I just didn’t come in and play my game.”
Renner has always been known as a gunslinger. But he also knows that in order for this team to be successful, he has to take better care of the ball. He completed 42 of his first 49 pass attempts last season, but four of those incompletions were interceptions. In Carolina’s seven wins, Renner threw 16 touchdowns to five interceptions. In six losses, he threw ten touchdowns and eight picks.
At times, it was like he wanted to push the limits of his own talent, trusting it sometimes even above his own better judgment. Now, he knows better. “I’ve got to be a game manager and protect the football first and foremost. If I do that, I think we’ve got enough skill players and enough talent around me to be a good football team,” Renner said.
“Obviously, the offense is only going to go as far as (Renner will) take us, or as far as he’s willing to take us. I know this…that guy’s got a lot of fire in him,” Fedora said. “He’s got a lot of want-to. So we’re going to be fine.”
Sophomore tailback Giovani Bernard will help that Carolina offense run smoothly, as will a very experienced offensive line (anchored by a preseason All-America selection at right guard, Jonathan Cooper). How good the wide receivers will be remains a mystery, but Carolina will have plenty of pass-catchers with a solid group of tight ends and backs. Fedora will implement his spread offense, but some pro-style elements likely will remain.
The Carolina defense, though, could struggle. Dan Disch and Vic Koenning are co-defensive coordinators, and the duo have implemented a 4-2-5 defense. The Tar Heels have two elite defenders in nose tackle Sylvester Williams and linebacker Kevin Reddick, and there are solid starters in both of those units.
While the secondary has experience returning, that’s not necessarily a good thing; Carolina’s pass defense was atrocious last season. The Tar Heels can only hope that Tre Boston’s move back to safety benefits the talented junior. Jabari Price and Tim Scott both started last season and showed flashes.
Elon likely won’t test Carolina’s secondary much, but a Week 2 trip to Wake Forest certainly will. The Elon game will gave everyone an indication of how far the Tar Heels have come on both sides of the ball in learning the new schemes.
Season Prediction: 8-4 (5-3). Carolina’s schedule is easy enough; a road game at Louisville will be tough, and Virginia Tech at home seems like a loss. It’s tough to know what exactly to expect with this team. Everything will be new. Still, Fedora’s enthusiasm combined with the talent remaining on this team (particularly offensively) should be enough for Carolina’s third 8-4 regular-season finish in the last four seasons. The Tar Heels seem like the type of team that might beat a team that is better than they are on paper (like an NC State) and lose to a team they should arguably beat (like Duke). But considering Carolina’s penchant for 8-4 finishes (and its relatively easy ACC schedule) 8-4 seems reasonable.
NC State is not heading to Atlanta carrying the ACC banner when they face Tennessee in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff game on Friday night at 7:30. “We’re going to play this for ourselves first, for this football team. We’re going to play it for our university, our student body and our faculty and our fans,” NC State head coach Tom O’Brien said. “The ACC falls in line after that.”
The ACC has lost early high-profile non-conference games in recent years that have made the league irrelevant later in the season without a national title contender. The ACC could really use a win over an SEC team. But O’Brien’s Wolfpack needs the early-season momentum even more.
Since 2007 (his first year at NC State), the Wolfpack has won their first game against an FBS opponent just once. That came in 2010 at Central Florida. And 2010 ended up being the Wolfpack’s best season under O’Brien (9-4). NC State has started the season with a winning record in its first five games just twice in the O’Brien era. Not coincidentally, the Wolfpack’s best start (4-1) also came in 2010. Last year, they started 2-3 (0-3 against FBS foes) but rallied with six wins in their final eight games.
Two of NC State’s five season-openers under O’Brien were against South Carolina, and NC State lost both. South Carolina was on the rise, and Tennessee was just 5-7 last season. But the Volunteers are rebuilding under third-year coach Derek Dooley. And Tennessee is still, as O’Brien put it, a brand-name program.
“It’s the third time in six years that we’ve opened with an SEC team, so it’s not like we haven’t been there before,” O’Brien said. “I think it’ll give us a great measuring stick of where we are and where we’re headed. It’ll be a big challenge but I think our kids are looking forward to the challenge.”
O’Brien knows better than anyone that the start of the season doesn’t determine how it ends. But he also knows that this team is special, and that an opportunity to beat an SEC team on national television shouldn’t be taken lightly. “It’s a great opportunity for us. We’re looking at it that way,” O’Brien said. “It’s a chance to do something special with our program and we’re looking at it in that light.”
And this team is more than capable of taking advantage of a big win to start the year. NC State’s 2012 squad is loaded with talented experience, something that’s been hard to come by in recent years, particularly defensively. State’s defensive line rotation is loaded with juniors and seniors, and the linebackers don’t have a lot of depth but are led by veteran Sterling Lucas.
But it’s the secondary that is NC State’s best unit, featuring arguably the nation’s best cornerback in David Amerson, who led the nation with 13 interceptions a year ago. A lot of the Wolfpack’s starters had to play earlier in their careers than they anticipated because of injuries, and that experience is paying off now.
The Wolfpack will also have its best offensive line under O’Brien, and quarterback Mike Glennon is coming off of a stellar end to 2011. “I think just the fact that I had been through so many experiences – in the beginning part of the season I hadn’t gone through particular situations, and then by the end of the season I had pretty much seen everything I could see,” Glennon said of his late-season surge. “The speed of the game continued to slow down and my managing of the game really started to improve.”
The only question marks are at running back, wide receiver and tight end. And O’Brien hopes to fill those roles by committee. At tight end, it was assumed junior Asa Watson would start, but he’s listed as third on the depth chart behind senior Mario Carter and junior Anthony Talbert. O’Brien says all of them will get work.
At wide receiver, Tobais Palmer is the only known commodity returning with Bryan Underwood out indefinitely. Junior Quintin Payton will start at the other wide receiver spot, and some freshmen will figure in to the mix as well. Sophomore running back Tony Creecy ended 2011 on a hot streak and after a strong spring and fall, he was named the starter. But sophomore Mustafa Greene and senior James Washington will also carry the load.
“There’s three guys, I’m not sure how they’re all going to play but they all will be in the game probably in the first half sometime on Friday night,” O’Brien said. “I think it’s a thing that as we play and go on, it will shake itself out. How it’s going to end up, it might be different certainly midyear than it is starting the year off. But those three kids all will be given opportunities and maybe the hottest guy will be the guy that plays in the second half.”
Season Prediction: 9-3 (5-3). Considering how slowly NC State has started some of its past seasons, so much depends on this first game. As O’Brien said, there are 11 more left after the Tennessee tilt, but it feels like NC State needs it to get some momentum. Win that, and the Wolfpack is likely to start out 4-0 and could be 5-0 by the time Florida State comes to town on October 6. And after that, only games at North Carolina and at Clemson remain as potential road blocks. Strange things happen in ACC football, and the Wolfpack has struggled with teams it should beat like Wake Forest and Boston College in the past. But it’s reasonable to think that if NC State wins its first game, barring a few strange happening in the ACC, the schedule sets up nicely.
Record to date: 13-2
Strength so far: A much-improved offense. Carolina’s defense was excellent last year, and it is again this year. But the biggest surprise has been how much better the Tar Heels are offensively. Last year per Ken Pomeroy, Carolina’s offense was 38th and the defense was 6th. That’s what likely held them back from reaching the Final Four in the loss to Kentucky: prolonged scoring droughts. This year, Carolina is 12th defensively and 6th offensively.
Needs improvement: Forcing turnovers. Carolina is seventh in the ACC in loss of ball percentage forced (16.1%). Only three Carolina opponents have had a loss of ball percentage of 20% or higher this year and only six have been over 15%. Carolina is going to be facing ACC teams that want to slow the game down, and one way to avoid that is by forcing turnovers. Wisconsin dictated tempo because it committed just four turnovers in 72 possessions (5.6%). Carolina has still managed to score points off turnovers (18.0 per game on 14.0 turnovers forced), but in two losses, they’ve averaged just 4.0 steals.
Most important player: Harrison Barnes. A lot of people have focused on his early-season “struggles”, and with what he was able to do to close out last season, that’s understandable. He is still averaging 17.1 points on 49% shooting (49% from three), adding 4.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists and a steal. Just observationally, he’s had some games where he’s seemed off, and Carolina has suffered because of it: in two losses, he has shot 7-of-22 (31.8%) from two, 4-of-6 from three and averaged 14.5 points. In all other games, he has shot 67-of-129 from two (52%). He’s averaging 21.3 points on 59% shooting in the last three games to go with 6.3 boards, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals in just 22.3 minutes.
Reason for optimism: Three-point shooting. Carolina was missing Reggie Bullock for most of last season and he was hobbled when he came back. Leslie McDonald was their best three-point shooting threat at 38.1%; he and Bullock combined to shoot 80-of-232 (34.5%). No one else on Carolina could get much going, though Barnes got better from three later. Carolina’s bench three-point shooters this year, a healthy Bullock and freshman P.J. Hairston, are 44-of-134 (39.5%).
Reason for pessimism: Free-throw shooting. The Tar Heels have shot 64% from the foul line, 283rd in the nation and worst in the league. For a team that goes to the line as much as it does, they need to start making a higher percentage. It could cost them in a close ACC game this year.
Surprising stat: Carolina’s non-conference schedule has been bashed lately, likely because of a spate of cupcakes at the end of it. But to date, Carolina has beaten the No. 9, 2, 27 and 39 teams (per Ken Pom), losing only at No. 24 UNLV and No. 3 Kentucky. Even if Carolina wins all its ACC games, it will have beaten the same number of top-40 teams (Duke, FSU, Virginia Tech and Virginia) total.
Most likely wins (11): BC (1/7), Miami (1/10), @Va. Tech (1/19), NCST (1/26), Ga. Tech (1/29), @Wake (1/31), @Maryland (2/4), Duke (2/8), UVA (2/11), Clemson (2/18), Maryland (2/29)
Most likely losses (1): @Duke (3/3)*
Toss-ups (4): @FSU (1/14), @Miami (2/15), @NCST (2/21), @UVA (2/25)
*This is listed as a “toss-up” for Duke, but Carolina’s not going undefeated in the league. Even Ken Pomeroy gives Carolina just a 42% chance to win.
Best-case scenario: 15-1.
Worst-case scenario: 13-3.
Record to date: 12-2
Strength so far: Inside game. Mason Plumlee has averaged 11.9 points and 9.9 rebounds on 63% shooting and his brother Miles has added 7.3 points (on 67% shooting) and 6.5 boards in 17.9 minutes a game. They have over 45% of Duke’s rebounds (230, or 16.4 per game) and 66% of their blocks (46 of 68). Mason has 29 assists (fourth on the team) and the two have committed just 49 fouls between them (3.5 per game). If there’s a knock on either, it’s their foul shooting: Mason is shooting 40% (32-of-80) and Miles 22-of-34 (65%). Duke is shooting 68% from the line as a team and it would be 77% without them. Still, they’ve had a huge impact and given Duke the kind of balance it hasn’t had in years.
Needs improvement: Defense. Already, Duke has allowed opponents to shoot 43.9%, which would be the worst it has allowed since 2003 (44.4%). Luke Winn did his weekly power rankings, at SI.com, and he broke out some stats from Synergy Sports Technology:
My dig through Synergy Sports Technology’s stats yielded two noticeable ways in which the Blue Devils are struggling to contain opponents:
• Their transition defense has dropped from 0.835 PPP (which put them in the 95th percentile last year) to 1.000 PPP (in the 64th percentile).
• They’ve struggled to contain pick-and-roll ballhandlers, too, going from 0.638 PPP (90th percentile) to 0.822 PPP (28th percentile).
While it’s a problem, there aren’t too many teams in the ACC that can hurt Duke from an offensive standpoint. But it’s a problem, particularly on the perimeter, for Duke and will likely continue to be one against teams with good guard play.
Most important player: Austin Rivers. He’s had a pretty good freshman campaign so far, averaging 15.1 points on 44.2% shooting (42.3% from three). The only issue is he has just 30 assists (one more than Mason Plumlee) to 32 turnovers, adding 12 steals, one block and 2.6 rebounds. Despite perceptions about Austin Rivers’ ball-hogging, five Duke players have taken between 96-156 shots this season and those five have between 102-212 points each. As a point of comparison, J.J. Redick took nearly a third of Duke’s shots in 2006 and had over a third of their points.
Reason for optimism: The Blue Devils’ offense is good enough to outscore most ACC tams. Duke has faced some of the better offenses in college basketball (seven of the top 38), so their defensive numbers are a bit skewed. And the Blue Devils won’t see many more offenses like that (just four ACC offenses rank in the top 50 and six in the top 100).
Reason for pessimism: No one is creating shots for others. Rivers and Seth Curry, Duke’s primary ball-handlers through 14 games, have combined for 72 assists and 71 turnovers. Mark Watson over at Blue Devil Nation talked about the rest of the Duke players standing around and watching, waiting for someone to make a play against Temple. Too much 1-on-1 play, as Watson pointed out, has been an issue and has led to some of Duke’s struggles with turning the ball over.
Surprising stat: Duke’s opponents have scored 62% of their points from two-point range; only two teams allow a higher percentage scored from two. That’s because Duke’s opponents score just 20% of their points from three (327th nationally) and 17.8% from the foul line (276th).
Most likely wins (12): @GT (1/7), UVA (1/12), @Clemson (1/15), Wake (1/19), @Maryland (1/25), FSU (1/21), Miami (2/5), Maryland (2/11), NCST (2/16), @BC (2/19), Va. Tech (2/25), @Wake (2/28)
Most likely losses (2): @UNC (2/8)
Toss-ups (2): @Virginia Tech (2/2), @FSU (2/23), UNC (3/4)
Best-case scenario: 14-2.
Worst-case scenario: 12-4.
Record to date: 13-1
Strength so far: That pack-line defense. Five opponents have had their least efficient offensive outing of the season against Virginia (including their best opponent to date, Michigan). Their scoring defense (50.4 ppg allowed) can’t be chalked up to slow pace; the Cavaliers are second in points per possession allowed (0.72) and FIRST in loss of ball percentage forced (20.2%). When you only get 60-70 possessions a game and you’re turning it over even 12-15 times, it’s too many against Virginia, which will limit your possessions by making sure you don’t get offensive rebounds.
Needs improvement: Consistency. It’s hard to say that about a 13-1 team, but for Virginia to lose to TCU is bad. Narrowly beating Seattle on the road is excusable, considering the circumstances. Squeaking by Towson, arguably the worst Division-I team, a group riding a 34-game losing streak, is awful. Especially at home. Last year’s team – albeit without Mike Scott – gave Wake Forest its only ACC win last year and blew a TEN-POINT LEAD with 43 seconds left in the first round of the ACC Tournament.
Most important player: Mike Scott. If Virginia finishes in the top 3-4 in the league and he continues on this pace, he could win ACC Player of the Year. He’s fifth in scoring (16 ppg), first in field goal percentage (61.9%), 4th in rebounding (9.0 rpg) and 7th in free-throw percentage. Scott has done this in a slow-paced offense for which he attempts 68.1% of their total shots when he’s on the floor and plays 72.7% of available minutes.
Reason for optimism: Multiple perimeter scoring options. Joe Harris, Malcolm Brogdon and Sammy Zeglinski give Virginia three perimeter players who can score fairly reliably. That, combined with Scott on the interior and the stingy Cavalier defense, should result in a lot of ACC wins.
Reason for pessimism: Lack of depth. Scott, Harris and Zeglinski all average double figures, but the other two starters – Jontel Evans and Assane Sene average 6.0 and 5.2 points, respectively. K.T. Harrell was seventh in scoring, but he transferred. That leaves only Akil Mitchell (3.5 points, 18.0 minutes), Darion Atkins (2.9 points, 8.7 minutes) and Paul Jesperson (1.7 points, 6.3 minutes). Maybe one of them could emerge as a fourth scorer, but it’s not likely. If any of the top four scorers get hurt, Virginia is in trouble.
Surprising stat: This is from the blog From Old Virginia, which pretty much nails the Cavaliers’ situation:
UVA’s non-conference strength of schedule is 261st right now, worst among the RPI top 50. …. My best guess is that an 8-8 record in-conference would send us to Hokieland – that dark place where you sit in front of the TV (or worse, Jumbotron) on Selection Sunday and never hear your name … We don’t wanna be Greenberged. Our schedule does not put us in a happy place, because we get all the crap teams just once. … And if UNC and Duke are losses, that makes us 5-3 with eight tossups. …. Assuming I’m right about the other half of the schedule, even 4-4 would get us to the tournament. Worse than 4-4 in those eight games, and you’re really sweating Selection Sunday.
Most likely wins (9): Miami (1/7), @Ga. Tech (1/19), Va. Tech (1/22), BC (1/26), Clemson (1/31), Wake (2/8), @Clemson (2/14), Maryland (2/18), FSU (3/1)
Most likely losses (3): @Duke (1/12), @UNC (2/11), @Va. Tech (2/21)
Toss-ups (4): @NCST (1/28), @FSU (2/4), UNC (2/25), @Maryland (3/4)
Best-case scenario: 13-3.
Worst-case scenario: 7-9. (But only with an injury to a rotation player.)