Okay, after another week off to recover from the sting of that defeat from the Seminoles (I kid, I kid. Kind of), we’re back to look at the state of the ACC through 7 weeks, or about halfway through the regular season. The conference suddenly looks less settled than it used to after a few big upsets, but do any of those upsets really change how we think about the teams that won or were they flukes? In a ten-game season, can you even afford to think of anything as a fluke? Let’s get to it:
1. #1 Clemson Tigers (6-0, 5-0 ACC)
Dabo Swinney’s team probably only had one dud to give this whole season and they used it on a hapless Syracuse team, leading just 27-21 midway through the 3rd quarter before scoring 20 straight points to make the final score look less threatening than the game was. For context, the Tigers were favored by 49 before the game started. Now they’re probably going to steamroll the rest of their competition, though I should say that a visit from Boston College would propose a reasonable challenge this week to a Clemson team that was mortal.
2. #3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (5-0, 4-0)
So there’s the Irish we had all been told we were getting when they joined the conference for the year. After a string of decent but uninspiring wins and Ian Book looking like he might not be better than the quarterback that ND let transfer this offseason, Notre Dame pounded Pittsburgh 45-3, with Book throwing for over 300 yards and 3 touchdowns. He only completed 53% of his passes doing so, so there’s still some shakiness there, but when you’re bombing a team like that you can afford some inaccuracy. The Irish visit Georgia Tech this weekend, where we’ll see if they can repeat this performance.
3. #12 Miami Hurricanes (5-1, 4-1)
Miami, on the other hand, struggled to handle a not-fantastic Virginia team on Sunday, punting 5 times and scoring just 19 points. Their defense more than made up for it, allowing just 14 points, but it was still the shakiest that Miami has looked all year (minus the Clemson game). They still won, though, and they’ll look to get adjusted with an off weekend before starting the back half of their ACC schedule.
4. #15 North Carolina Tar Heels (4-1, 4-1)
Now these are the Heels we’ve been waiting to see all year long — offensively dominant, defensively at least good enough to not let decent opponents keep up and then take advantage of game script-induced desperation. NC State was the unlucky victim of the ensuing 48-21 loss, which could have been worse if not for some excessive sportsmanship on the part of Mack Brown. There was no time better than the start of a rash of rivalry games in the middle of the schedule to show up like this, and the Heels will hope to maintain this form into a spooky Halloween matchup at Virginia.
5. Boston College Eagles (4-2, 3-2)
You know what, I’m going to do this. Jeff Hafley (who has to be the easy front-runner for ACC Coach of the Year right now) has put his stamp on this team quickly, and they’re playing good football together — tough to do as a first-year coach in normal circumstances, unthinkable in these ones. The Eagles put a 48-27 beatdown on Georgia Tech and seem to look more impressive every week, the previous week’s embarrassment by Virginia Tech notwithstanding. We’ll see if they can challenge Clemson with the blueprint that Syracuse gave us.
6. Virginia Tech Hokies (3-2, 3-2)
After starting it hot, Virginia Tech has completed its tour of North Carolina just 2-2, with their 23-16 loss to Wake Forest on Saturday finishing it up. The Hokies are starting to show real deficiencies in stopping the run, Hendon Hooker threw three picks to a walk-on freshman defensive back, and Khalil Herbert has come back to Earth a tad since that bonkers start. Has VT regressed to the mean after overachieving to start the year or are they in a slump? A visit to Louisville seems like a pretty good opportunity to find out.
7. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (3-2, 2-2)
Is... Wake Forest good now? They’ve now won three straight games, and their latest, a win against Virginia Tech, was genuinely impressive (see above). Some of it seemed a little fluky, like the walk-on with three picks or the second-string running back hitting 10 yards per carry after being mediocre so far this year, so I’m not putting them above VT yet. But Dave Clawson, as he does, seems to have adjusted to his team’s early-season struggles, and they might be dangerous now. They’ve got a chance to extend their streak with a visit to Syracuse this weekend.
8. N.C. State Wolfpack (4-2, 4-2)
Gosh, imagine making a whole thing about how you represent the tough, hardworking, blue-collar side of a rivalry and then getting blown off the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball en route to getting doubled up and playing against backups the whole 4th quarter. Couldn’t be me. After the loss of Devin Leary, State now has a choice to make: Keep trying to play with the not-good veteran Hockman, or just give the keys to maybe-good freshman Ben Finley, knowing he’s got a free redshirt regardless? Actually, now that I write it out, that doesn’t look like much of a choice at all. They’re off this week to regroup, but we’ll see if they come out of their extended break having made the smart decision.
9. Louisville Cardinals (2-4, 1-4)
Okay, so are we doing this now, Scott Satterfield? Are you trying to impress us now, after the absolute dud we’ve seen from you the past 4 weeks? It’s going to take more than a 48-16 rout of a Florida State team that had clearly used up all its resources to beat UNC the previous week, but I guess it’s a start. This week they’ll really get to show us if they’re for real now, as Virginia Tech will pose a stiff challenge.
10. Pittsburgh Panthers (3-4, 2-4)
Even without Kenny Pickett, I don’t think anybody quite expected the level of domination that Notre Dame showed against Pitt. A once-promising (so long ago!) season now looks pretty done for and Pat Narduzzi seems to have reached his ceiling with Pitt and has a contract that runs through 2024 — things are rather bleak for Pitt at the moment. They’re off this week to hopefully get their starting quarterback back after the break.
11. Virginia Cavaliers (1-4, 1-4)
A respectable showing against Miami doesn’t really hide that Virginia hasn’t done much of anything this season other than be weirdly consistent in their mediocrity. Even against Miami, the defense was constantly bending and not breaking: a 12-play drive led to a missed field goal, an 11-play drive led to a punt, a 10-play drive and then a 16-play drive led to field goals, and an 8-play drive led to a punt. That’s not super sustainable for them, and UNC has the kind of explosive offense to break those floodgates open this Saturday night.
12. Florida State Seminoles (2-4, 1-4)
So this is the annual team that beats UNC and spends the rest of the season making that loss look worse and worse for the Heels, huh? FSU looked utterly spent against Louisville and I’m not sure they’re ever going to look as good as they did against UNC, and that’s just frustrating. They’re off this week, so maybe they’ll come back to action with some of that energy.
Something something rebuild something something unexpected results something something no real expectations for the year. Does that about cover it? This team just gets harder and harder to figure out as the season goes on, and they continue to defy expectations both positively and negatively. Their game this week against Notre Dame should by all accounts be a bloodbath, so watch it come down to a last-second field goal attempt for the Irish.
14. Syracuse Orange (1-4, 1-5)
Following up a loss to Liberty with maybe the strongest performance against Clemson we’ve seen this year is... a thing that Cuse did. It’s hard to have expectations for a team that wasn’t very good before losing its starting quarterback, but if they can keep playing like that, maybe they can play spoiler to a few teams with more wins than them. They’re off this week.
15. Duke Blue Devils (1-5, 1-5)
Duke was off this weekend but still got weaker, with the announcements that their center is out for the season and #1 cornerback Mark Gilbert is opting out of the rest of the season to prepare for the NFL Draft. They’re about a half away from benching Chase Brice after pinning all of this season’s hopes on him, but maybe this week’s game against Charlotte can get them some mojo back. Or maybe it won’t — that’s how bad Duke has been.