Why might a game matching two unranked teams be even more critical than a showdown between two top-25 squads?
The loser of the Florida State-Miami game will remain in contention for an ACC title. North Carolina and Clemson entered the season with high hopes, but both teams lost their ACC opener and must win Saturday to have any realistic shot of getting to Charlotte.
This game is particularly crucial for Clemson, which is trying to avoid its third consecutive loss. Clemson followed up its heartbreaking overtime defeat at Auburn by committing six turnovers in a 30-21 loss to Miami.
"Life is about adversity," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, "but the whole key to it is that when adversity comes, you either get bitter or get better. It's either a steppingstone or a stumbling block. How you respond to it, that's what matters.
"The hardest thing to do is use it as a steppingstone. That's why there are a lot of quitters in the world. I'm not a quitter. I'm a winner. I've got players and a staff that's full of winners. When things don't go our way, get back to work. We've got hope."
North Carolina finally is showing signs of bouncing back from adversity. The Tar Heels dropped their first two games while missing 13 players who were held out of action amid an NCAA investigation into academic issues and improper contact with an agent. UNC since has delivered consecutive victories over Rutgers and East Carolina.
Slowly but surely, the Tar Heels are getting reinforcements. Running back Shaun Draughn returned for the second game of the season and rushed for 137 yards and three touchdowns against East Carolina. Strong safety Da'Norris Searcy came back last week and scored on a 46-yard interception return in the East Carolina game. Free safety Deunta Williams returns from his four-game suspension this week.
North Carolina's three interceptions against East Carolina bode well for the Tar Heels' chances against a Clemson team that continually gave the ball away against Miami.
"I think we're at a stage where we're trying to gain some confidence, trying to gain some experience, especially on the defensive side of the ball," UNC coach Butch Davis said.
Saturday's game could test the Tar Heels' confidence. Clemson's two-headed rushing attack of Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper has helped the Tigers average 5.3 yards per carry. While the NCAA investigation continues to keep North Carolina defensive end Robert Quinn on the sidelines, Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers has taken over as the ACC's best pass rusher.
"Clemson's probably the most talented and the most complete football team we've played against this entire season," Davis said.
The Tigers are talented enough to compete for a conference title. They're about to discover if they're mentally tough enough to remain in contention.
"We haven't laid an egg this year," Swinney said. "This team hasn't done that. We just have some self-inflicted wounds. All we have to do is control the things we can control. We don't have to play perfect, don't have to be supermen. We just have to do our jobs."
Best matchup: Florida State offensive line vs. Miami defensive line. This matchup features major strengths for each team. Florida State boasts one of the nation's most experienced lines, while Miami ranks second among all FBS teams in sacks per game. Miami allows just 3.2 yards per carry and is deep and athletic in the front four. Florida State's line features a legitimate All-America candidate in senior guard Rodney Hudson. This matchup also includes the most recent ACC offensive lineman of the week (Florida State C Ryan McMahon) and defensive lineman of the week (Miami DT Marcus Forston). Florida State averaged more than 6.0 yards per carry and allowed just one sack last week. The Seminoles must continue opening up plenty of running room Saturday and need to provide adequate pass protection for QB Christian Ponder, who will be trying to beat a secondary that has allowed just one touchdown pass all season.
Player on the spot: Boston College RB Montel Harris. BC's poor passing attack has neutralized one of the conference's best running backs. Harris gained 1,457 yards and finished second in the ACC in rushing last season, but he has rushed for just 334 yards on 82 carries this season. Harris hasn't reached the end zone since the season opener, and he gained just 28 yards on 15 attempts last week in a 31-13 loss to Notre Dame. Harris is having a much tougher time because BC's passing attack doesn't scare anyone. That's likely to continue until the Eagles sort out their uncertain quarterback situation. For the moment, opposing defense know that if you stop Harris, you've stopped the Eagles. Harris got off to a great start against Virginia Tech two weeks ago, but he hasn't been quite the same since. If he can repeat what he did in the first half of that Virginia Tech game, BC has a decent shot of winning at N.C. State. But if the Wolfpack handle Harris as well as Notre Dame took care of him, the Eagles have little to no chance.
Numbers game: Five ACC players are ranked among the nation's top 10 in tackles for loss. Wake Forest E Kyle Wilber and Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers are tied for second (2.5 per game), Miami LB Sean Spence is eighth (2.0), Virginia Tech LB Bruce Taylor is ninth (1.9) and Virginia E Cam Johnson is tied for 10th (1.88).
What they're saying
"Either you're garnet and gold or orange and green. You hate each other. When Florida State plays [Miami] in Tallahassee, I think the Leon County jail has one of the highest rates of incoming inmates that night. You can speculate why." -- Miami CB Ryan Hill, discussing the heated nature of the Florida State-Miami rivalry to Canesport.com. Hill graduated from Tallahassee (Fla.) Rickards
"I had a horrible game, honestly. That's something our fans, our coaches, our players don't have to worry about from here on out." -- Clemson SS DeAndre McDaniel, discussing the Tigers' loss to Miami to The (Columbia, S.C.) State. Clemson gave up touchdown passes of 22 and 65 yards against Miami. McDaniel was playing with a broken right wrist, and he had four teeth knocked loose during the game
"I know I shouldn't take the opinions of everybody, but some of that stuff was coming from Hokies fans themselves. That's big on you, when the same people who are rooting for you are also kind of rooting against you -- rooting for the guy behind you or in front of you. I shouldn't have taken it the way I did, but I'm using it as motivation rather than being mad at anybody." -- Virginia Tech RB Darren Evans, discussing to The Roanoke (Va.) Times how he used criticism from fans as motivation. Evans rushed for 160 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday in a 41-30 victory over N.C. State
"That's inexcusable." -- Virginia coach Mike London, to The Roanoke (Va.) Times about the Cavaliers' nine penalties for 86 yards in a 34-14 loss to Florida State last week. Virginia also was penalized nine times for 101 yards in a 17-14 loss to USC on Sept. 11
"That is what I do. That is who I am. It lets me be the person that I am. [My wife] Ann and I spoke very quickly afterward, and despite what many people were saying to me ... they were trying to give good advice and were saying, 'You have had a lot of good times in your career. You have been to Super Bowls. You have been head coach in the NFL. You have been the head coach in college and are well-set financially. Why don't you take a little time off and see what you want to do? Go to Europe. Why go through all this some more?' I very quickly said to Ann, 'I appreciate that advice. I could probably retire from football, but I am just not ready to retire from me.' " -- Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Al Groh, discussing his decision to continue coaching after getting fired as Virginia's coach last year. Groh will be coaching against his former team Saturday
Etc.: Florida State QB Christian Ponder and Miami QB Jacory Harris could have trouble staying upright Saturday evening. Florida State leads the nation with 25 sacks. Miami has 17 sacks and ranks second in the nation with 4.3 sacks per game. … Miami RB Graig Cooper is expected to return to action Saturday after missing three games with an ankle injury. Miami RB/KR Lamar Miller has a shoulder injury that likely will sideline him this week. … Florida State starting OT Andrew Datko has returned to practice after missing three games with a shoulder injury. … Virginia Tech CB Jayron Hosley was named the Walter Camp and Bronko Nagurski national defensive player of the week after recording three interceptions in a 41-30 victory at N.C. State. This marks the second straight week that the honor went to an ACC player. N.C. State LB Nate Irving won the award last week. … Boston College QB Chase Rettig sprained his ankle last week against Notre Dame, leaving his status uncertain for this week's game at N.C. State. … Boston College K Nate Freese's 49-yard field goal Saturday against Notre Dame was the longest by any Boston College player since Sandro Sciortino also connected from 49 yards against Virginia Tech in 2002. … Wake Forest QB Tanner Price has returned to practice after a concussion forced him to miss last week's game with Georgia Tech. … Florida State has rushed for at least 200 yards in three consecutive games for the first time since the 2000 season. … Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe isn't sure whether his team will benefit from facing an option attack for the second straight week. The Demon Deacons play host to Navy on Saturday after losing 24-20 to Georgia Tech last week. "It lets us know that we're capable of playing against the offense," Grobe said. "We can certainly look at thing we did wrong so we can correct those mistakes. One of the issues is that Navy now has a good bead on us. They saw how we attacked Georgia Tech, so they'll have a pretty good plan and have some wrinkles for us that we don't expect. One of the other issues is that we're beat up a little bit. That's a physical offense, and to go against it two weeks in a row makes it tough." … Duke's Sean Renfree is the first quarterback in school history to throw at least one touchdown pass in each of his first five starts. … Maryland's Tony Logan is just the third player in ACC history to record two punt returns of more than 80 yards in the same season. The others were Maryland's Steve Suter in 2002 and Florida State's Willie Reid in 2005. … N.C. State WR Owen Spencer has a chance to break the ACC record for career yards per catch. Spencer has caught 86 passes for 1,885 yards, an average of 21.92 yards per reception. Herman Moore, who played at Virginia from 1988-90, averaged 21.96 yards on his 114 career catches. … Virginia has thrown nine touchdown passes this season, which already surpasses its 2009 season total of eight. … The Virginia Tech-Central Michigan game represents a reunion for Virginia Tech C Beau Warren and Central Michigan C Colin Miller. The two were linemates at Centreville (Va.) High School, where Miller played left guard and Warren played right tackle. Both were all-state selections as seniors before graduating in 2006.