Not only will Florida State's Thursday night showdown with North Carolina State go a long way toward deciding the ACC Atlantic Division champion, it also should help determine the division's best quarterback.
Only in this case, neither quarterback is playing particularly well at the moment.
Florida State (6-1 overall, 4-0 in the ACC) has won five consecutive games, but the Seminoles haven't relied on Christian Ponder as much as expected. Florida State instead has benefited from a powerful rushing attack and a defense that leads the nation in sacks.
Billed as a Heisman contender before the season, Ponder ranks 59th nationally in passing efficiency. He threw three interceptions and lost a fumble two weeks ago in Florida State's 24-19 victory over Boston College.
Florida State's off-week gave Ponder a chance to recover after injuring the bursa sac in his throwing elbow against BC. He returned to practice Saturday and will try to rebound from that four-turnover showing.
Then again, perhaps Ponder doesn't need to rebound at all.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher believes Ponder has done fine this season. He noted that Ponder's performance has helped the Seminoles lead the ACC in third-down conversion percentage and rank second in the league in red zone percentage.
"The guy has played one bad half," Fisher said. "He's played great. ... The guy has bounced back his whole career, and he had one bad half. He'll play well and do well."
Ponder's performance also has impressed North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien.
"With the offense they're in, the quarterback really has to be a smart guy to handle a lot of the things they ask him to do, and he is obviously able to do those things," O'Brien said.
North Carolina State's Russell Wilson has encountered his own turnover problems. He threw 11 touchdown passes and only one interception while helping the Wolfpack (5-2, 2-1) win their first four games. Wilson has thrown eight interceptions with seven touchdown passes as the Wolfpack have dropped two of their past three contests.
Wilson's slump has done nothing to ease Fisher's concerns about trying to slow down one of the conference's most dynamic quarterbacks.
"You cannot take a play off," Fisher said. "Say they have 60 plays. If you play 57 great plays, the three that you didn't [play great] could be the difference in what changes the game. That's the thing with him. You've got to be on your toes all the time."
As the last remaining Atlantic Division team unbeaten in conference play, FSU would take command of the division race by beating NC State, though a Nov. 13 home game with Clemson (4-3, 2-2) and a Nov. 20 trip to Maryland (4-0, 2-1) could complicate matters. A North Carolina State victory could make this a wide-open, four-team race.
"I think without question this is the most significant game since I've been here,'' said O'Brien, who is in his fourth season with the Wolfpack. "Generally, at this point, we're so far behind the curve because of the situations we've faced for these last two years. These kids have done a great job putting themselves in this situation at 5-2.
"It's the second half of the year and we're in a position to make a run at this thing, and you can't ask for anything more out of this football team except to show up on Thursday night and play a great football game. We're going to have to be perfect on Thursday night to win, and I think we know that."
Best matchup: Boston College OT Anthony Castonzo vs. Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers. While we didn't want to include Bowers in this category for a second consecutive week, how can we ignore this matchup between two potential first-round picks? Bowers leads the nation in sacks per game (1.41) and tackles for loss per game (2.5). Castonzo is a four-year starter rated among the top senior offensive tackles on most NFL draft boards. Boston College's offensive line has struggled with injuries and hasn't necessarily lived up to preseason expectations, but Castonzo remains one of the nation's most respected tackles. Plenty of NFL scouts figure to be watching this matchup over and over again for the next several months.
Players on the spot: North Carolina State OTs R.J. Mattes and Jake Vermiglio. North Carolina State's chances of knocking off Florida State depend largely on whether Wolfpack QB Russell Wilson gets enough time to throw. Florida State leads the nation with 4.29 sacks per game and ranks fifth with 8.43 tackles for loss per game. North Carolina State has allowed 2.43 sacks per game to tie for 85th place nationally. Nine Florida State players have recorded at least two sacks, but the toughest assignment goes to whichever tackle must handle Brandon Jenkins. He has recorded at least two sacks in three of his past five games and has seven sacks this season.
Numbers game: Boston College LB Luke Kuechly is the most prolific tackler in the nation. He's also the most consistent. Kuechly leads the nation with 13.9 tackles per game and has recorded at least 10 stops in 15 consecutive games. No other FBS player has delivered at least 10 tackles in as many consecutive games. Kuechly has averaged 12.75 tackles per game over the course of his two-year career, which represents the nation's highest per-game career average.
They said it
"He plays like Michael Vick, basically. He's very dangerous. You have to wrap him up and you have to stay in your rush lanes. You just have to go back to your basics." - Florida State DE Brandon Jenkins, discussing North Carolina State QB Russell Wilson to Warchant.com
"You get frustrated. I am competitive, and I hate to lose. I hope more people hate to lose. It has been my experience if you hate to lose bad enough, you don't lose a lot. When I lose, I am miserable. I don't know how the players feel, and I can't tell you how they feel about it. I know if you hate to lose, you put up a pretty good fight most of the time." - Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, toJacketsOnline.com . Georgia Tech (5-3) already has matched its loss total from last season, when it won the ACC
"We just take pride in saying that we're not going to give up a touchdown. It's like somebody coming into your house and taking anything they want. If anything, we can give up three points. That's a huge four-point swing in a game that could be the difference." - Maryland S Kenny Tate, discussing the Terrapins' red zone defense to The (Baltimore) Sun. Maryland leads the ACC in red zone defense and made big fourth-down stops in victories over Navy, Florida International, Duke and Boston College
"He sort of came out of his shell. When you see your head man, the leader in charge, having fun, that just electrifies the whole sideline. Then everybody understands, 'OK, Coach Shannon is into it. Let me get into it.' " - Miami CB Brandon Harris, discussing Hurricanes coach Randy Shannon to the (South Florida) Sun-Sentinel after a 33-10 victory over North Carolina. Shannon chest-bumped Miami OT Orlando Franklin after a touchdown
Etc.: Boston College DE Alex Albright will miss the remainder of the season with a fractured right fibula. ... Boston College RB Montel Harris has rushed for 3,051 career yards. If he gains 223 more yards this season, he will have run for more career yardage than any junior in ACC history. The record is currently held by former North Carolina star Amos Lawrence, who rushed for 3,273 yards in his first three seasons and finished his four-year career with 4,391. The ACC record holder for overall career rushing yardage is former North Carolina State standout Ted Brown with 4,602 yards. Brown had 3,112 yards by the end of his junior season. ... Duke WR Conner Vernon is the first wide receiver in school history to catch at least 40 passes in both his freshman and sophomore seasons. ... Duke should hope Saturday's game with Navy isn't decided by turnovers. Navy is tied for fourth in the nation in turnover margin, while Duke is 119th in that category. Navy has committed just six turnovers all year. Duke has thrown 16 interceptions and has lost five fumbles. ... Georgia Tech QB Joshua Nesbitt is 42 yards away from breaking the ACC career record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Nesbitt has run for 2,720 yards. Clemson's Woodrow Dantzler rushed for 2,761 yards from 1998-2001. ... Maryland WR Torrey Smith is 11 yards away from breaking the ACC career record for kickoff-return yardage. Smith has gained 2,678 yards on 108 kickoff returns. North Carolina's Brandon Tate gained 2,688 yards in kickoff returns from 2005-08. ... North Carolina's game with William & Mary matches North Carolina offensive coordinator John Shoop against his older brother. Bob Shoop serves as William & Mary's defensive coordinator. ... Miami RB Damien Berry has rushed for more than 100 yards in four consecutive games. ... Miami OT Orlando Franklin has an injured left knee that has left his status uncertain for Saturday's game at Virginia. Seantrel Henderson, who has started the past four games at right tackle, has been taking reps at left tackle this week. ... North Carolina CB Kendric Burney will make his season debut Saturday against William & Mary. Burney had missed the Tar Heels' first seven games as part of the NCAA investigation into North Carolina's football program. ... According to the (Raleigh) News & Observer, 26 North Carolina players have missed at least one game this season because of injuries or NCAA-related issues. That includes 17 defensive players. ... When Jimmy Howell threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Trey Womack in a 48-21 victory over Eastern Michigan last week, it marked the first time Virginia had reached the end zone on a fake punt in the program's modern history. Virginia defines the football program's "modern history" as the start of the 1945 season. ... Virginia has outscored opponents 58-16 in the fourth quarter this season. The Cavaliers allowed 111 fourth-quarter points last season. ... Virginia Tech's slow didn't merely knock the Hokies out of national title contention. It also apparently eliminated its top players from major awards contention. QB Tyrod Taylor isn't one of the 16 semifinalists for the Davey O'Brien Award, even though he ranks fourth in the nation in passing efficiency, has a 15-3 touchdown-interception ratio and ranks seventh among all quarterbacks in rushing. Last week, Taylor joined former Clemson star Woodrow Dantzler as the only ACC players to run for 2,000 yards and pass for 5,000 yards in their careers. ... Wake Forest could be starting five freshmen on defense Saturday at Maryland. The first-team defense on Wake's current depth chart includes two redshirt freshmen (NG Nikita Whitlock and DT Frank Souza) and two true freshmen (Kenny Johnson and A.J. Marshall), though the cornerback positions remain up for competition. Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe indicated Wednesday that redshirt freshman John Gallagher is competing for a starting job at defensive end.