This season, ACC may as well stand for "America's Coaching Comebacks."
Maryland's Ralph Friedgen occupied one of the hottest seats at the start of the season. North Carolina State's Tom O'Brien wasn't in any immediate danger of getting fired, but he was starting to hear some criticism after producing three consecutive losing seasons.
Both coaches should feel much more secure now. Maryland and North Carolina State head into the final month of the regular season controlling their respective destinies in the ACC Atlantic Division race.
Florida State (6-2 overall, 4-1 in the ACC) technically leads the Atlantic Division by a half-game over Maryland (6-2, 3-1) and North Carolina State (6-2, 3-1), but the Wolfpack own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Florida State after beating the Seminoles last week. Maryland plays host to Florida State and North Carolina State in its final two regular-season games.
Whether either team is good enough to remain in charge of the Atlantic remains to be seen.
North Carolina State travels to Clemson this week and plays three of its last four games away from home. The Wolfpack must show they can handle prosperity after splitting their past four games.
"We win at Georgia Tech and we don't win against Virginia Tech," O'Brien said. "We win against Boston College and we don't win against East Carolina, so it's something that we've addressed. It goes back to the same problem that we talked about last week - hopefully, they'll listen to us this week - that there's a lot on the line and this is a big football game."
The stretch run
Key game the rest of the way
Virginia Tech at Miami, Nov. 20. If North Carolina State and Maryland keep winning, their Nov. 27 meeting in College Park to determine the Atlantic Division champion will be the biggest game in the conference. But that's a big - make that huge - "if." While Miami's loss to Virginia last week removed some of the luster from the Hurricanes' Nov. 20 game with the Hokies, it seems likely this matchup will go a long way toward determining the Coastal Division champion.
Offensive player of the year watch
We have to agree with Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson on this one: Virginia Tech QB Tyrod Taylor is the clear front-runner. Taylor leads the ACC in passing efficiency and ranks eighth in the conference in rushing. He has thrown 15 touchdown passes with only three interceptions, and he has rushed for 527 yards and three more scores while averaging 6.2 yards per carry. North Carolina State QB Russell Wilson also will get serious consideration if the Wolfpack win the Atlantic Division. Miami WR Leonard Hankerson and Boston College RB Montel Harris also merit consideration. And we shouldn't ignore Florida State G Rodney Hudson, the best performer on the conference's best offensive line.
Defensive player of the year watch
Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers looked like the obvious favorite until last week, when Boston College LB Luke Kuechly made 14 tackles and a game-clinching interception in a 16-10 victory over the Tigers. This now looks like a two-man battle between the NCAA tackle leader (Kuechly) and the guy who ranks second nationally in sacks and tackles for loss (Bowers). Dark-horse contenders include Florida State DE Brandon Jenkins, North Carolina State LB Nate Irving, Miami LB Sean Spence, Virginia Tech CB Jayron Hosley and Virginia CB Chase Minnifield.
Newcomer of the year watch
As long as Maryland remains in ACC title contention, it's going to be tough to overlook redshirt freshman QB Danny O'Brien, who has thrown 13 touchdown passes with only three interceptions. O'Brien has thrown seven touchdowns without an interception in his past two games. Wake Forest redshirt freshman RB Josh Harris has rushed for 453 yards and has averaged 6.3 yards per carry, but more than half his yardage came in a 52-21 loss to Virginia Tech. North Carolina State true freshman RB Mustafa Greene has been much more consistent while rushing for 495 yards and four touchdowns on 102 carries. Florida State redshirt freshman CB Xavier Rhodes has played a key role in the Seminoles' drastic improvement on defense.
Maryland also still has plenty to prove. The Terrapins are 11th in the ACC in total offense and have beaten only one FBS team with a winning record (Navy). They travel to Miami and Virginia for their next two games before welcoming Florida State and North Carolina State to Byrd Stadium. Miami will be playing without injured quarterback Jacory Harris and running back Damien Berry, but the Hurricanes remain as talented as any team Maryland has faced all season.
The Terps clearly have come a long way since finishing 2-10 last season. But are they legitimate ACC title contenders?
"I think we are kind of approaching each game individually," Friedgen said. "We're going to continue to do that. Whether we are under the radar or over the radar, we're just focusing on the next game."
NCSU is taking the same approach as it continues its own improbable path to a potential date in the ACC championship game.
"Certainly each and every week, the games get bigger, but that's the exciting thing," O'Brien said. "It's neat to be in this situation and be playing for the things we're playing for right now."
It certainly beats the alternative.
Best matchup: Georgia Tech QB Joshua Nesbitt vs. Virginia Tech defensive front seven. Nesbitt has enjoyed plenty of success against Virginia Tech's highly regarded defense. He rushed for 151 yards and a touchdown in a 20-17 loss to the Hokies two years ago, then ran for 122 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-23 victory over Virginia Tech last season. Virginia Tech has won six in a row since opening the season with back-to-back losses, but the Hokies have allowed 4.4 yards per carry this season. Nesbitt has rushed for 2,720 career yards, and needs just 42 more to break the ACC record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Woodrow Dantzler rushed for 2,761 yards while playing for Clemson from 1998-2001.
Player on the spot: Miami QB Stephen Morris. Morris, the former fourth-string quarterback, will start Saturday's game against Maryland in place of Jacory Harris, who sustained a concussion last week in a 24-19 loss to Virginia. Morris was expected to redshirt this season, but the freshman entered the Virginia game in the second half and went 9-of-22 for 162 yards, with two touchdown passes and two interceptions. Morris bounced back from a slow start against Virginia and nearly rallied Miami all the way back from a 24-0 deficit. Miami's hopes of remaining in ACC title contention depend on whether Morris can maintain the poise he showed in the fourth quarter of the Virginia game.
Numbers game: Critics of Florida State's rushing attack in recent years have noted that the Seminoles haven't produced a 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn accomplished that feat every year from 1994-96. That drought likely will continue for one more year, but Florida State's balanced rushing attack this season has achieved something arguably even greater than one 1,000-yard rusher. Already this season, three Florida State players have rushed for at least 400 yards: Chris Thompson (64 carries, 484 yards, four TDs), Jermaine Thomas (74-446-6) and Ty Jones (56-426-2). All three have reached the 100-yard mark in at least one game this season. FSU hadn't produced three 400-yard rushers in a season since 1985, when Tony Smith gained 678 yards, Victor Floyd ran for 619 yards and Cletis Jones rushed for 405 yards.
They said it
"He's without a doubt right now, from what I've seen, the premier player in the league by a mile. He keeps so many plays alive, and he can beat you so many different ways. Not only is he throwing the ball so much better, but he can kill you running the ball and keeping thing alive. We haven't been able to tackle him in the two years I've been here. I'm not sure we could get him down if we had him in a phone booth." - Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, on Virginia Tech QB Tyrod Taylor
"Oh, yeah, we've been waiting on it. We're just ready because we felt like they did some things that were dirty to us, and we've got to come out and play our type of ball and our type of defense and just hit them." - Virginia Tech FS Eddie Whitley, to The Roanoke (Va.) Times about Thursday's game with Georgia Tech
"There's nothing wrong with the coaching. There's nothing wrong with the schemes. There's nothing wrong with the players. The odds are going to be in our favor. We're a 4-4 team with 8-0 talent." - Clemson TE Dwayne Allen, discussing the Tigers' late-season outlook with TigerIllustrated.com
"I'm really excited to get this opportunity to start. It is what it is. Coach put the confidence in me, has a lot of trust in me to run the offense. I'm not going to do anything heroic. [I] will just go out there and give my playmakers the ball, see what they can do with it." - Miami QB Stephen Morris, toCanesport.com .
"N.C. State, they really utilized their quarterback and his running ability. But I feel like they spread us out and let him do his thing. And I can honestly say we [were] outcoached on that one." - Florida State LB Kendall Smith, talking to the Orlando Sentinel about the Seminoles' loss to North Carolina State last week
"We've got a snowball effect going right now. We're hemorrhaging right now, trying to stop the bleeding." - Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, discussing his team's six-game losing streak to the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal
"There was never really any point where I said, 'I feel pretty good,' or felt that I was in a groove. A lot of our passing game was short, quick throws. It wasn't like I was making spectacular throws." - Duke QB Sean Renfree, discussing his 28-of-30 performance in a 34-31 victory over Navy to the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal. Renfree completed 93.3 percent of his passes and was just shy of the NCAA single-game record for any quarterback who attempted at least 20 passes. Tennessee's Tee Martin went 23-of-24 (95.8 percent) in a 49-14 victory over South Carolina in 1998. Duke coach David Cutcliffe was Tennessee's offensive coordinator at the time
Etc.: Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers and Florida State G Rodney Hudson are among the 12 semifinalists for the Lombardi Award, which goes to the nation's top lineman or linebacker. ... North Carolina's Bruce Carter, North Carolina State's Nate Irving, Boston College's Luke Kuechly and Miami's Sean Spence were included among the 12 semifinalists for the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation's top linebacker. ... Virginia Tech's Chris Hazley, Florida State's Dustin Hopkins and Duke's Will Snyderwine were on the list of 20 semifinalists for the Lou Groza Award, which goes to the nation's top kicker. ... Boston College S Wes Davis - a team co-captain - announced this week that he was giving up football because of health concerns. Davis suffered a season-ending neck injury three years ago. He told reporters that his arms went numb for about 15-20 seconds after making a tackle two weeks ago against Maryland. Although tests showed he was fine, Davis didn't want to take any additional risks. "This wasn't like a shaky knee," Davis told The Boston Globe. "They told me the next time anything happened, I could be walking with a cane or the next time I might not be able to walk at all. Or the next time I could be eating out of a tube. If it were any other part of my body, there wouldn't be a decision. But it was 'the next time' phrase that got to me. It was a risk I felt I couldn't take. And it wasn't just for me. It was for my family. Everyone around me was a lot more scared than I was." ... Saturday's game between Boston College and Wake Forest should mark the first FBS game this season in which two true freshman starting quarterbacks have faced each other. Boston College is expected to start Chase Rettig, while Wake Forest likely will counter with Tanner Price. ... Clemson redshirt freshman QB Tajh Boyd said he's been told he will play Saturday against North Carolina State, though sophomore Kyle Parker remains the starter. Parker hasn't been quite the same since bruising his ribs against Auburn last month. He has thrown five interceptions and two touchdown passes in the five games since. ... Richard Jackson has replaced Chandler Catanzaro as Clemson's main kicker. Catanzaro missed two field-goal attempts last week in a 16-10 loss to Boston College. ... The winner of the Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech game has represented the Coastal Division in each of the first five ACC championship games. ... Maryland WR Torrey Smith is 11 yards away from the ACC record for career kickoff return yardage. Smith has 2,678 yards on 108 kickoff returns. Brandon Tate had 2,688 while playing for North Carolina from 2005-08. ... Maryland tied its highest point total in an ACC game Saturday when the Terps trounced Wake Forest 62-14. Maryland beat Virginia 62-24 in 1971. ... Miami WR Leonard Hankerson is about to join some select company. After accumulating 801 receiving yards last season, Hankerson has caught 44 passes for 681 yards and nine touchdowns this season. Hankerson is on pace to become just the third Miami receiver ever to put together back-to-back 800-yard seasons. The others? Michael Irvin and Andre Johnson. ... Consider it a testament to Johnny White's production or North Carolina's lack of star running backs over the years. White has rushed for 713 yards this season, which puts him on the verge of becoming just the second Tar Heel to reach the 800-yard mark since 1997. Shaun Draughn rushed for 866 yards in 2008. ... Virginia CB Chase Minnifield has six interceptions to tie for the NCAA lead with Buffalo CB Domonic Cook. Minnifield picked off two passes against Miami last week. ... Virginia Tech CB Jayron Hosley is tied with Oklahoma's Jamell Fleming for the NCAA lead in passes defended. Each player has 1.57 passes defended per game.