Clemson could have used its rugged early-season schedule as an easy explanation for a slow start. The Tigers instead saw it as an opportunity to make history.
Clemson already has knocked off defending national champion Auburn and preseason ACC favorite Florida State, giving the Tigers back-to-back victories over ranked opponents for only the fourth time in school history.
If Clemson continues its roll Saturday with a road win over defending conference champion Virginia Tech, it would become the first team in ACC history to win three consecutive games over ranked teams in the same season. The 1959 Georgia Tech team and the 2002 Virginia Tech squad also accomplished that feat, but neither school was an ACC member at the time.
"I think our guys are ready," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "They've been an easy group to refocus every week. Our schedule has helped us. We haven't had a chance to think about the last game because we've had to focus on the next game.''
Clemson (4-0) enters the game ranked 15th in the coaches' poll and 13th by The Associated Press. Virginia Tech (4-0) is ranked 10th in the coaches' poll and 11th by the AP. These two teams could meet again for the ACC championship Dec. 3 in Charlotte.
Then again, we may be getting ahead of ourselves. Although Clemson already has beaten Florida State, the Seminoles' easier ACC schedule could allow them to win the Atlantic Division title. Clemson plays host to North Carolina and travels to Georgia Tech later in the season. Florida State doesn't have to face Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech or North Carolina.
Virginia Tech, seeking its fourth conference title in the past five seasons, must travel to Georgia Tech on Nov. 10 in a Thursday night game that could end up determining the Coastal Division champion.
But at least for now, it's hard to imagine a more intriguing ACC matchup than Clemson-Virginia Tech.
"We're going to need all the help we can get this week," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "We've got as talented and as good, confident, playing-at-a-high-level team coming in here [to face us] that I can remember. They're really, really good."
This also marks the first time Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris' hurry-up, no-huddle attack has faced Virginia Tech, which annually boasts one of the ACC's top defenses.
Clemson ranks 13th in the nation in total offense (502.8) and 23rd in scoring (37.8). The Tigers have scored at least 35 points in each of their first four games and picked apart a highly regarded Florida State defense last week.
Virginia Tech ranks fourth in total defense (231.3), sixth in scoring defense (10.0), second in run defense (43.0) and sixth in pass efficiency defense (88.59).
"Virginia Tech is, in my opinion, the best team in this league," Swinney said. "They've earned that. They've got the best coach in this league, and he's earned that."
At least for now, Swinney's assessment is accurate. But if Clemson wins Saturday, Swinney's team can stake its claim as the best in the ACC.
BEST MATCHUP: Clemson WR Sammy Watkins vs. Virginia Tech CB Jayron Hosley. The nation's hottest receiver goes up against one of the game's best ball-hawking defensive backs. Who could ask for more? Watkins, a five-star true freshman, has rivaled Boston College LB Luke Kuechly as the ACC's best overall player through the first four weeks of the season. Over the past two weeks, he has caught 17 passes for 296 yards and four touchdowns while sparking Clemson to victories over Auburn and Florida State. In the first road game of his college career, Watkins will spend much of the evening trying to beat Hosley, who led the nation with nine interceptions last season. Hosley has produced three takeaways in his past two games, as he picked off two passes against Arkansas State and forced and recovered a fumble against Marshall. The team that wins this matchup will have an excellent chance of winning the game.
PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Maryland QB Danny O'Brien. No quarterback in the ACC had more of a proven track record than O'Brien at the start of the season, but the 2010 ACC offensive rookie of the year has shown serious signs of regression. After throwing 22 touchdown passes and eight interceptions last season, O'Brien has five interceptions and two touchdown passes this season. He has thrown four interceptions with just one touchdown pass during Maryland's two-game losing streak. O'Brien ranks 97th nationally in passing efficiency. He hasn't been the only problem thus far, as Maryland ranks 103rd nationally in total defense and scoring defense. But the Terps won't bounce back until O'Brien regains his 2010 form.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Virginia Tech's special teams. A strong kicking game typically is a hallmark of Beamer's teams. Not this season. Virginia Tech K Cody Journell is just 4-of-7 on field-goal attempts, with a long of 41. He has missed at least one field goal in three consecutive games and also had an extra-point attempt blocked last week. Virginia Tech also ranks just 110th in net punting. That area was enough of a concern last week that WR Danny Coale took over the punting duties from Scott Demler in the second half, though Beamer plans to stick with Demler for the Clemson game. Virginia Tech has played well enough in other areas to withstand its special-teams problems and remain undefeated against a soft schedule, but the Hokies face their toughest challenge this week. Clemson and Virginia Tech are so evenly matched that special teams could make the difference.
NUMBERS GAME: Boston College TB Montel Harris finally returned to action Saturday after missing the Eagles' first three games with a knee injury, but his time away seriously hindered his chances of setting the ACC career rushing record. Harris rushed for 27 yards on nine carries in a 45-17 rout of Massachusetts, increasing his career total to 3,627 yards. The ACC's leading career rusher is North Carolina State's Ted Brown, who rushed for 4,602 yards from 1975-78. If Boston College (1-3) reaches a bowl, Harris would need to average 108.3 yards in the Eagles' remaining nine games to reach 4,602. If the Eagles fail to earn a bowl bid, Harris would have to average 121.9 yards the rest of the season to get to 4,602.
"I haven't had that thought once all year. It's because the decision was made. We're moving forward. That's where we're going." - North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien, responding to a question about whether he wondered during a 44-14 loss last week to Cincinnati if the Wolfpack would have been better off with QB Russell Wilson. O'Brien named Mike Glennon his starting quarterback last spring and allowed Wilson to transfer to Wisconsin
"When you come in with the type of program you are going to run, it takes time, most especially if young people aren't used to being held accountable or they are not used to doing things correctly all the time." - Maryland coach Randy Edsall, in his weekly news conference after a 38-7 loss to Temple. Edsall never mentioned predecessor Ralph Friedgen by name while making those comments. Friedgen led Maryland to a 9-4 record last season and was named the ACC coach of the year before getting fired in December
"[It's] frustrating as hell and embarrassing not to get it in from 2 yards out with the game on the line. ... We'll address it and get it done next time." - Miami offensive line coach Art Kehoe, to The Miami Herald after the Hurricanes failed to score four times from within 2 yards of the end zone in its final possession of a 28-24 loss to Kansas State
"We can go around the mulberry bush 100 different ways. In the end, it doesn't matter if you're playing a spread team, an I[-formation] team, a wishbone team or whatever type of team. You have to get them off the field on third down." - Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, to The Orlando Sentinel after Clemson went 9-of-17 on third-down conversions in a 35-30 victory over the Seminoles
"There's been guys pretty much since I've been here that you try to feed the ball to. You try to feed Jon [Dwyer] the ball, so you try to scheme to get him the ball. You didn't want to let them take him away. Anthony [Allen] was a little bit like that. This bunch ... it doesn't matter [who gets the ball]. You know what I'm saying. You just kind of run the system. If they want to take away David Sims, then OK, we'll give it to Orwin Smith. If they want to take away Orwin, then we'll give it to whoever. It's not so much tweaking it to get the ball to certain individuals as it is just kind of running the system." - Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson
POLL WATCH: Virginia Tech remains the highest-ranked ACC team. The Hokies are 10th in the coaches' poll and 11th by The Associated Press. They were 11th in the coaches' poll and 13th in the AP poll last week. Clemson is ranked 15th by the coaches and 13th by the AP. The Tigers were 22nd in the coaches' poll and 21st in the AP poll before beating Florida State last week. Georgia Tech is ranked 21st in each poll, up three spots in the coaches' poll and four spots in the AP poll. The loss to Clemson dropped Florida State to 24th in the coaches' poll and 23rd in the AP poll. FSU had been fifth in both polls before its two-game skid.
ETC.: The ACC has produced 24 touchdowns of at least 60 yards, the most of any conference. Georgia Tech is responsible for eight of those plays. The SEC ranks second with 23 touchdowns of that length. ... Boston College tied an NCAA single-game record Saturday by scoring on two fumble returns in a 45-17 rout of Massachusetts. Nick Clancy scored on a 16-yard fumble recovery and Kevin Pierre-Louis had a 96-yard fumble return. It wasn't the first time the Eagles had accomplished this feat. Jo-Lonn Dunbar returned two fumbles for touchdowns in the first 3½ minutes of a 38-16 victory over Maryland in 2006. ... This marks the first time since 2000 that three ACC teams have entered the fifth week of the season with 4-0 records. The unbeaten ACC teams are Clemson, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. ... Duke DE Kenny Anunike will miss the rest of the season after injuring his left knee against Tulane last week. Anunike had four sacks in the first three games of the season. ... Duke is the only FBS team that boasts two wide receivers with at least 150 career catches and 2,000 receiving yards: Donovan Varner (168 catches for 2,183 yards) and Conner Vernon (154 catches for 2,107 yards). ... Georgia Tech continues to lead the nation in total offense (630.5), passing efficiency (283.59) and scoring (53.25). The Yellow Jackets are second nationally in rushing (398.75). Air Force leads the nation in rushing at 411.67 yards per game. ... Georgia Tech is the second team in ACC history to score at least 200 points through its first four games. The Yellow Jackets have 213 points thus far. The 1995 Florida State team scored 238 points in its first four games and went on to finish 10-2 with an Orange Bowl triumph. ... Maryland WRs Ronnie Tyler and Quintin McCree return to action this week after being suspended for the Terps' last two games. ... Miami TB Lamar Miller has a sore shoulder, but it isn't expected to sideline him for the Hurricanes' game Saturday with Bethune-Cookman. Miami DE Anthony Chickillo - a true freshman - is atop the depth chart and expected to make his first career start Saturday. ... North Carolina RB Gio Bernard, Virginia RB Kevin Parks and Clemson WR Sammy Watkins are tied for the ACC lead with six touchdowns. All three players are freshmen. ... North Carolina State WR T.J. Graham leads the nation with 230 all-purpose yards per game. Graham's 336 all-purpose yards against Cincinnati last week represented the fifth-highest total in ACC history. ... Virginia QB Michael Rocco is expected to play Saturday despite taking a shot to the ribs during a 30-24 loss to Southern Miss last week. Virginia coach Mike London said he would decide Friday or Saturday whether Rocco would start. ... Saturday's matchup with Clemson marks Frank Beamer's 300th game as Virginia Tech's coach. Beamer's Virginia Tech debut also came against Clemson. ... Wake Forest WR Chris Givens has 366 receiving yards, the most a Wake player ever has accumulated through the first three games of a season.