September 22, 2011

Week 4 preview in the ACC

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Florida State just played arguably the most highly anticipated game at Doak Campbell Stadium in 15 years. Clemson is coming off a victory over the defending national champions.

Yet, in reality, the most important game of the season for both arrives this week.

THE SCHEDULE
THURSDAY
NC State at Cincinnati, 8 p.m.
SATURDAY
North Carolina at Georgia Tech, noon
Temple at Maryland, 12:30 p.m.
Massachusetts at Boston College, 1 p.m.
Southern Miss at Virginia, 3:30 p.m.
Tulane at Duke, 3:30 p.m.
Virginia Tech at Marshall, 3:30 p.m.
Florida State at Clemson, 3:30 p.m.
Kansas State at Miami, 3:30 p.m.
"It's a challenge, but we're definitely looking forward to it," Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said. "This is a group ready for battle. We won't back down from anything."

Clemson needs that attitude to survive a grueling three-game stretch that began last week. The Tigers passed the first test by rallying from a two-touchdown deficit to win 38-24 over Auburn. Now comes Florida State. Clemson follows that up by facing defending ACC champion Virginia Tech in its first road test of the season.

If Clemson makes it through that stretch unscathed, it will emerge as the early front-runner for the ACC title. Winning all three of those games likely would catapult the Tigers into national title contention.

Of course, that's easier said than done.

"I think they are a better football team than Auburn this year," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of FSU. "Auburn is a very talented team. They have got a lot of young players, and I think they will continue to get better and better as the season goes and they are going to win some games. But Florida State, in my eyes, looks like a legitimate top-10 team. I know they slipped out of the top 10 this [week], but only because they played the No. 1 team and got beat."

That 23-13 loss to Oklahoma took a physical toll on the Seminoles. Starting quarterback EJ Manuel suffered an AC sprain in his left (non-throwing) shoulder against Oklahoma. If Manuel can't play, redshirt freshman Clint Trickett would make his first career start this week.

The timing of Manuel's injury is unfortunate because it comes just as FSU plays its first road game of the season against probably its toughest Atlantic Division opponent. Although a loss this week certainly wouldn't knock the Seminoles out of ACC title contention, they'd need plenty of help to win the division.

FSU also realizes the type of reception it can expect this week.

"All they have to do is look at this past weekend at our stadium and just flip it and what it's going to be like for the opposing team," Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said of his players. "But you mentally prepare them and talk to them. You don't want to scare them because I mean, in the end, those fans, they can't jump on the field and jump all over you. It's still a football game, and they still are just yelling.

"It's just the ability to have maturity and be able to block things out and focus on what you need to focus on."

This game likely will come down to which team focuses better.

FSU can't look back on its missed opportunity against Oklahoma; Clemson can't revel in its victory over Auburn. There's no reason to dwell on the past with so much at stake right now.

"Last week was a great win," Boyd said, "but we definitely can't look back on that. We have to get that out of our heads and be ready for the ACC. That's what's most important."

[Y! Sports Radio: ACC commissioner John Swofford]

Best matchup: Georgia Tech offense vs. North Carolina defense. Nobody in the nation is moving the ball as effectively as Georgia Tech right now. The Yellow Jackets lead the nation in yards (675.3) and points (59.3) per game. They set a school record with 768 yards of total offense in Saturday's 66-24 rout of Kansas. Now they face their toughest challenge of the season thus far when they face UNC's star-studded defense. A defensive line that features NFL prospects Quinton Coples, Donte Paige-Moss and Tydreke Powell has allowed just 2.4 yards per carry. Georgia Tech is averaging a whopping 7.9 yards per rush. Something has to give.

Players on the spot: Florida State QBs E.J. Manuel and Clint Trickett. Whichever quarterback takes the field for the Seminoles this week is going to have the toughest job in the conference. If a sprained AC joint in his left shoulder doesn't sideline Manuel, he will have to find a way to remain effective while playing at much less than 100 percent. If Manuel doesn't play, how might Trickett respond as a skinny redshirt freshman making his first career start at Death Valley? Trickett - the son of FSU offensive line coach Rick Trickett - showed his toughness last week by keeping Florida State in the game and even throwing a tying touchdown when Manuel's injury pressed him into duty. But at least he was at home for that game. He can look forward to a much different reception at Clemson.

Keep an eye on: Miami's offense. Perhaps it's the benefit of opening the season against Eastern Kentucky and Kent State, but Kansas State currently leads the nation in scoring defense (3.5 points per game), total defense (164.0 yards per game) and pass efficiency defense (58.76). Those statistics - skewed as they may be - certainly indicate Miami can't take anything for granted this week. The Hurricanes have proved they can run the ball quite well with Lamar Miller, but they also have continued turning the ball over at an alarming rate. If Miami takes care of the ball, its running game and defense should perform well enough to win this game. If not, the Hurricanes could have a fight on their hands.

Numbers game: Boston College junior LB Luke Kuechly made a career-high 23 tackles last week in a 20-19 loss to Duke. He is averaging 19.3 tackles per game this season and 13.8 tackles per game over the course of his career. Kuechly has 399 career tackles. If he stays for his senior season, Kuechly should end his career as the nation's most prolific tackler since the NCAA began keeping records for that statistical category in 2000. The player with the most career tackles since 2000 is Tim McGarigle, who made 545 career stops for Northwestern from 2002-05. Maryland's E.J. Henderson holds the career record for tackles per game with 12.4 from 2000-02.

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Quotes of the week

"At the end of drives, if they're kicking field goals instead of kicking extra points, you've probably had a successful day." - North Carolina coach Everett Withers, on the challenge of slowing Georgia Tech's offense

"If we don't play well, we'll get embarrassed." - Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, on the difficulty of facing North Carolina's defensive line

"I carry his blanket with me to every game. I always feel like a piece of him is with me." - Miami DB JoJo Nicolas, to the Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, about his son, Joseph Nicolas Jr., who was born prematurely July 17 and died a month later. He weighed just 1 pound, 4 ounces at birth. Nicolas spent the latter part of the summer attending preseason practices and spending nights at the hospital with his child

"He has to understand he's one-eleventh of the defense. I think he's trying to do too much as opposed to just taking care of what he's supposed to take care of." - Maryland coach Randy Edsall, to The (Baltimore) Sun about how LB Kenny Tate has fared so far this season. Tate was a first-team All-ACC safety last season before moving to linebacker this season

"The way this thing is going, you've got to position yourself to be strong. And I think we made ourselves stronger in the last week. I think that is exactly the way we needed to go." - Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, discussing the ACC's additions of Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East

[Related: Week 4 expert picks]

Poll watch: Florida State and Virginia Tech finally have some company in the polls. Clemson is ranked 21st by The Associated Press and 22nd in the coaches' poll after its victory over Auburn. Georgia Tech is 24th in the coaches' poll and 25th in the AP rankings. North Carolina is 25th in the coaches' poll and unranked by the AP. Virginia Tech is ranked 11th by the coaches and 13th by the AP, while Florida State is 11th in the AP poll and 14th in the coaches' poll.

Etc.: Kuechly isn't the only Boston College player making lots of tackles this season. Sophomore LB Kevin Pierre-Louis ranks 11th in the nation with 11.3 tackles per game. Kuechly has 58 tackles and Pierre-Louis 34 this season. Duke S Matt Daniels is the only other ACC player with as many as 30 tackles. ... Three games into the season, Clemson WR Sammy Watkins already has tied the school record for touchdown catches by a freshman with four. Watkins set Clemson freshman single-game records for catches (10) and receiving yards (155) against Auburn last week. ... Duke QB Sean Renfree matched a school record with 41 completions Saturday in a 20-19 victory over Boston College. Five Blue Devils had at least five catches and 50 receiving yards, the first time that's happened at Duke since a 27-24 loss to Wake Forest in 1980. The Duke players to reach those plateaus last week were Brandon Braxton (nine receptions, 60 yards), Cooper Helfet (6-59), Juwan Thompson (7-50), Donovan Varner (12-78) and Conner Vernon (6-116). ... Florida State WR Rashad Greene scored on a 56-yard reception against Oklahoma after catching a 69-yard touchdown pass against Charleston Southern a week earlier. He's the first Florida Sate player with a touchdown catch of at least 55 yards in consecutive games since Peter Warrick in 1998. ... A victory this week would give Georgia Tech its first 4-0 start since 1990, when it won a share of the national title. ... It should be interesting to see which team gets an early lead in the North Carolina-Georgia Tech game. Both teams have played great in the first quarter, with UNC outscoring opponents 21-0 and Tech outscoring foes 63-7. ... Maryland redshirt freshman DT Andre Monroe may be on the verge of cracking the starting lineup. Monroe is listed as a first-team tackle on the Terrapins' preliminary depth chart this week. Junior A.J. Francis started at that spot in the Terps' first two games. ... Maryland hasn't allowed a sack this season. The Terrapins hadn't gone back-to-back games without giving up a sack since the 2000 season. ... Miami OT Seantrel Henderson is expected to return to action next week. Henderson, a starter as a true freshman last season, hasn't played this season as he recovers from back surgery and could play guard in his first game back. ... NC State LB Terrell Manning will miss the next three weeks with a knee injury. Manning joins DT J.R. Sweezy and RB Mustafa Greene on the list of sidelined starters. The good news for NCSU is that DE Jeff Rieskamp should return Saturday after missing two games with a shoulder injury. ... NC State's game with Cincinnati on Thursday night represents a homecoming for Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien, offensive coordinator Dana Bible and tight ends coach Don Horton. All three are Cincinnati natives. Bible also played cornerback for the Bearcats and worked as their quarterback coach from 1978-80. ... Virginia has scored seven touchdowns and five field goals on its 12 trips into the red zone this season. The Cavaliers scored on 39 of their 49 trips inside the opponent's 20 last season to rank 80th nationally in red zone offense. ... Virginia Tech WR Dyrell Roberts likely will miss the rest of the season after breaking his left arm while getting tackled on his return of the opening kickoff last week. ... A Wake Forest receiver has accumulated at least 100 receiving yards in each of the Demon Deacons' first three games. The last time Wake had produced a 100-yard receiver in three consecutive games was 1998. Chris Givens had 170 receiving yards against Syracuse and 111 against NC State, while Danny Dembry had 126 receiving yards against Gardner-Webb.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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