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ACC Blast: Action Heating Up

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The 2012 Atlantic Coast Conference football season kicks into high gear this Saturday with five conference games and a renewal of a heated 1980s rivalry that will be a future match-up between ACC affiliated schools.

Right now, it’s Florida State and Clemson in the Atlantic Division (and really overall) and the Seminoles have a challenging night road game at North Carolina State. The Tigers are home to face Georgia Tech in a rivalry game. In a game of Atlantic Division survivor, Wake Forest plays at Maryland.

Miami (Fla.) is out in front in the Coastal and the Canes play 1980s rival Notre Dame in Chicago. Virginia Tech and Duke are behind the Hurricanes. The Hokies game at North Carolina is big. A Tar Heels win could put UNC in the mix. In an interesting schedule twist (both Virginia schools going to Durham-Chapel Hill on the same Saturday), Virginia also heads to Tobacco Road to take on the upstart Blue Devils.

Here’s a breakdown of the weekend’s action.

Georgia Tech at Clemson (Game of the Week)

Kickoff- 3:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN

You have to like the chances of Clemson and Georgia Tech putting a lot of points on the board in Death Valley this Saturday. 

The Tigers (4-1, 1-1 ACC) return home after a nice 45-31 road win at Boston College where their offense was not slowed despite the absence of All-American wide receiver Sammy Watkins and fellow wide out Martavis Bryant. The Yellow Jackets, meanwhile, dropped a 49-28 home game to Middle Tennessee State where Blue Raiders running back Benny Cunningham gashed Al Groh’s defense for 217 yards rushing and MTSU quarterback Logan Kilgore was 17-of-23 passing. The rushing total that Cunningham (who was extremely impressive) put up has to be of concern for the Jackets considering they are about to try to have to stop Andre Ellington. The Tigers running back is the straw that stirs the drink in that offense and when he is gaining chunks of yardage, Clemson goes from tough to stop to nearly impossible. Ellington, who is averaging an ACC-leading 103 yards rushing per game, is one of the more under-appreciate running backs in the country, but there’s a reason he was rated as the nation’s No. 101 overall prospect in the Class of 2008 according to the 247Composite- he’s good. Watkins returns from an abdominal illness this week while Bryant is still sidelined.

Georgia Tech’s offense obviously was not enough last Saturday in the Middle Tennessee State debacle, but this is a capable unit and though it did have some moments of brilliance in Chestnut Hill last Saturday, Clemson’s defense has continued to be an issue, even under first-year coordinator Brent Venables. The Tigers rank No. 85 nationally against the run (177.4 yards per game) and No. 88 overall (440 yards per game). The Yellow Jackets’ option game is a tough out for nearly every team it faces and though the back-to-back collapses against the Blue Raiders and Miami (a 42-36 home loss after being ahead 19-0) are what folks remember, this team shellacked Virginia, 56-20, the week before that at home. It’s a capable offense that ranks No. 3 in rushing nationally at 329.4 yards per game.

The scoreboard operator will need to be very alert on Saturday.

Prediction- Clemson 56, Georgia Tech 35

Boston College at Army

Kickoff- Noon Saturday, CBS Sports Network

Both teams head into this game at West Point needing a win. The Black Knights (0-4) lost to Stony Brook, 23-3, last weekend while the Eagles (1-3) were outscored at home by Clemson, 45-31. Boston College linebacker Nick Clancy is No. 2 nationally in tackles while the Black Knights are third nationally in rushing offense. Quarterback Trent Steelman is Army’s all-time rushing leader for quarterbacks (set the record last week) but has been banged up. The Black Knights did hang 37 on Wake Forest in a 49-37 loss on Sept. 22 in Winston-Salem. Boston College quarterback Chase Rettig, 247Sports No. 6 pro-style quarterback in the 2010 class, threw for 341 yards last week against the Tigers and is second in the ACC in total offense. Don’t expect this to be a lay-up for BC, but the Eagles should win.

Prediction- Boston College 38, Army 21

Virginia Tech at North Carolina

Kickoff- 12:30 p.m. Saturday, ACC Network

Both the Hokies (3-2, 1-0) and Tar Heels (3-2, 0-1) are in need of a win to keep pace in the Coastal Division. Virginia Tech has suffered two tough losses to Big East teams away from Lane Stadium- one at future ACC Coastal opponent Pitt (35-17) and one against Cincinnati (27-24) at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., last Saturday. North Carolina dropped its only conference game under first-year head coach Larry Fedora at Wake Forest, 28-27, and also lost at Louisville, 39-34, as the Cardinals held off a late Tar Heels rally. In wins against Elon (62-0), East Carolina (27-6) and Idaho (66-0), UNC was dominant on defense. The Hokies edged Georgia Tech in overtime on Labor Day, 20-17, so they already own a conference win. Virginia Tech is No. 85 in total offense and No. 63 in total defense, so it has been an atypical year on both sides of the ball thus far. Three out of the next four are at UNC, vs. Duke, at Clemson and at Miami (Fla.) so the season is on the line. Quarterback Logan Thomas has underperformed so far for Virginia Tech, but is capable. Romar Morris is an explosive all-purpose player for the Heels. The Hokies likely will pull out a close one.

Prediction- Virginia Tech 24, North Carolina 19

Virginia at Duke

Kickoff- 3 p.m. Saturday, RSN Network

This is one of the biggest games at Wallace Wade Stadium in years in terms of what it may mean for Duke football (the Alabama home game was big in 2010, but was not much of a game).The Blue Devils are off to a 4-1 start (1-0 in the ACC) under head coach David Cutcliffe, who despite his overall record (23-35) has done a very good job in Durham and is one of the more underrated coaches in the country. Duke starting quarterback Sean Renfree is No. 47 nationally in total offense with 258 yards per game and Duke has the nation’s No. 24 passing offense at 304 yards per game, but Renfree suffered an elbow injury last week in a 34-27 win against Wake Forest. The Blue Devils snapped a 12-game losing streak in that series. After a promising 2-0 start that included a 17-16 win against Penn State, the Cavaliers (2-3, 0-1) have lost three straight at Georgia Tech (56-20), at TCU (27-7) and at home to Louisiana Tech (44-38) last weekend (how good are the Bulldogs?). Alabama transfer Phillip Sims, who led a Virginia rally last weekend is likely to make his first career start for the Wahoos. The Cavaliers have not been able to put points on the board at times this year, but they do average 425 yards per game. Cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, the nation’s top-ranked cornerback according to 247Sports in the Class of 2011, leads a UVA pass defense that ranks sixth in the ACC. It’s a big game for both programs, but the thinking here is Sims provides a spark and Virginia gets its first conference win.

Prediction- Virginia 34, Duke 28

Wake Forest at Maryland

Kickoff- 3:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPNU

Statistically, the Demon Deacons are one of the worst teams in the country. Despite holding a 3-2 overall record (1-1 in the ACC), Wake ranks No. 94 in total offense and No. 99 in total defense. Quarterback Tanner Price is capable, but has struggled at times this year. Maryland starts a true freshman quarterback in Perry Hills and a true freshman running back (Wes Brown) is its starter, is more inept on offense than Wake statistically, ranking No. 116 in total offense. Another true freshman, receiver/returner Stefon Diggs, likely needs the ball in his hands more. Conversely, the Terps are a little salty on defense, ranking No. 8 nationally (total) and they played at West Virginia two weeks ago (a 31-21 loss). This game in College Park is between two teams that if you look at their recent games are heading in different directions. Will the Deacs turn it around or will the Terps poke their heads above water for perhaps the first time under Randy Edsell? The guess here is the home team gets the victory.

PREDICTION- Maryland 28, Wake Forest 13

Miami (Fla.) vs. Notre Dame (Chicago

Kickoff- 7:30 p.m. Saturday, NBC

We all remember when this was “Catholics vs. Convicts” during the Lou Holtz era at Notre Dame and the great games the two titans of college football played during that time period. With the Fighting Irish set to play five ACC games a year in the future, this is a series that definitely is on the path to resurrection. These two teams last met in El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 31, 2010 in the Sun Bowl, a 33-17 Irish victory. The Canes (4-1, 3-0 ACC) are out in front of the Coastal Division and have have proven capable on offense this year in most games- particularly in come-from-behind wins at Boston College (41-32) and Georgia Tech (42-36) and a thrilling victory at home against N.C. State (44-37). The last time they faced a formidable defense, however, they were blown out at Kansas State, 52-13. Notre Dame will be by far the stiffest test for the Miami offense- the Irish have an outstanding front seven and the No. 3 scoring defense in the country. This is going to be a stiff challenge for Miami.

PREDICTION- Notre Dame 30, Miami 14

Florida State at North Carolina State

Kickoff- 8 p.m. Saturday, ESPN2

They are thinking BCS Championship Game in Tallahassee and the Seminoles (5-0, 1-0) have looked outstanding thus far with the nation’s third-ranked total defense and ninth-ranked total offense. Quarterback E.J. Manuel has gone from an enigma to a Heisman Trophy contender and the 1-2 running back combination of Chris Thompson and James Wilder Jr. has proven tough to stop. N.C. State (3-2, 0-1) has been up and down on both sides of the ball. The Pack struggles against the pass (No. 97 nationally) as cornerback David Amerson has gone from All-American candidate to the player many offenses go after, so Manuel could have a big day. State quarterback Mike Glennon has all the potential in the world and if he gets hot, this could get interesting for the Noles. Carter-Finley Stadium at night is not the easiest place in the country to play, so it isn’t a game FSU can just show up and win. That being said, the Noles were not dominant in a 30-17 win at South Florida last week, so the focus should have been there in practice this week.

PREDICTION- Florida State 34, N.C. State 17

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