By the time Wake Forest and Clemson finish their Thursday night showdown, the Atlantic Coast Conference Atlantic Division will either have a major shakeup or a clear front-runner.
Wake Forest, the only Atlantic team unbeaten in conference play, can take command of the division with a victory over Clemson. The Demon Deacons would already have victories over Florida State and Clemson, the two teams that entered the season as their most likely challengers for the division title.
"I think you have to be real careful about saying, 'If we do this. If we do that,' '' Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. "The bottom line is we've got a really good football team coming to town, and we need to play great to have a chance to win. We've got to stay focused on that and know there's a lot of season left."
If Clemson wins on the road, this division suddenly wouldn't have a favorite. The Tigers would temporarily own a half-game division lead with a 2-1 conference record. Boston College, Florida State, Maryland and Wake Forest all would be right behind Clemson with 1-1 marks in the division.
While the importance of this game is obvious, coaches for both teams are trying to downplay its potential impact.
"Every game is important," Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said. "Surely there is some importance to this one. We play a 12-game schedule. The most important game now is the sixth game. Regardless of what happens Thursday night, they are not going to call the rest of the season off."
This game's affect on the conference standings isn't the only motivation for each team.
Clemson, the preseason conference favorite, is trying to shed its tag as one of the most disappointing teams in the nation. Wake Forest has spent the past week and a half stewing over a 24-17 loss to Navy.
Wake Forest also is seeking revenge after losing to Clemson each of the last two years. Clemson rallied to win 27-17 at Wake Forest two years ago and breezed past the Demon Deacons 44-10 last season.
"(Clemson) beat us the last two years," Wake Forest linebacker Chantz McClinic said. "One was a heartbreaker and the other one was just a total destruction. So I think it's really easy for all of us to get motivated for this game. They're going to be motivated at the same level we are, so I think that it should be a good one."
Notre Dame QB Jimmy Clausen vs. North Carolina secondary. After struggling through his freshman season behind a woeful offensive line, Clausen lately has proved just why he arrived at Notre Dame as the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2007 recruiting class. In each of his last two games, Clausen has thrown three touchdown passes without an interception. Notre Dame ranks just 105th in the nation in rushing, but the Irish still have won four of their first five games mainly because of a high-powered passing attack. Now that he finally has time to throw, Clausen has continually made big completions to a talented young receiving corps that features Golden Tate, Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph. Clausen has played very well lately, but he certainly isn't perfect. He threw two interceptions in each of Notre Dame's first three games. Now he must face a North Carolina defense that leads the nation with 12 interceptions. Trimane Goddard has picked off three passes in his last two games and is tied for the NCAA lead with four interceptions. If the Tar Heels pick Clausen off a couple of times Saturday, they should beat Notre Dame.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Clemson QB Cullen Harper. One of Harper's best games in an exceptional 2007 season came when he threw three touchdown passes without an interception in a 44-10 thrashing of Wake Forest. Those types of performances helped explain why Harper was the ACC preseason player of the year, yet he has failed to match his 2007 performance. Harper has thrown five interceptions with only three touchdown passes while leading Clemson to a disappointing 3-2 start. The Tigers must win at Wake Forest on Thursday to have any realistic hope of winning the Atlantic Division title. If Harper plays as well as he did against Wake Forest last year, he could help resuscitate the Tigers' ACC championship hopes. If he struggles in a second consecutive ACC loss, the cries for backup quarterback Willy Korn will only grow louder.
Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji delivered three sacks Saturday in a 38-31 triumph over North Carolina State. Clemson kicker Mark Buchholz is 6-for-6 on field-goal attempts. Duke LB Michael Tauiliili averages 11.4 tackles per game to lead the ACC and ranks fifth in the nation. Florida State RB Antone Smith has rushed for seven touchdowns over his last two games. Georgia Tech RB Jonathan Dwyer has rushed for 300 yards on only 32 carries over his last two games. Georgia Tech WR Demaryius Thomas has scored in back-to-back games. His nine catches for 230 yards accounted for all of Georgia Tech's passing offense Saturday in a 27-0 victory over Duke. Maryland LB Alex Wujciak has compiled 35 tackles over the last three weeks. North Carolina SS Trimane Goddard has picked off a total of three passes in his last two games. North Carolina LB Bruce Carter has blocked four punts over the last two weeks. Virginia LB Clint Sintim has recorded four sacks over his last two games. Virginia Tech RB Darren Evans has rushed for two touchdowns in each of his last two games. He has scored at least once in all of the Hokies' six games this season.
Clemson QB Cullen Harper has thrown a total of three interceptions and no touchdown passes in his last two games. Maryland WR Darrius Heyward-Bey hasn't caught a pass in back-to-back games. Miami has allowed teams to score each of the 16 times they have reached the red zone. Fourteen of those trips into the red zone have resulted in touchdowns. Wake Forest QB Riley Skinner is coming off a four-interception performance in a 24-17 loss to Navy. Skinner has thrown only one touchdown pass in his last two games.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
"You really don't know who's going to get the ball because they have so many options. No. 1 (James Davis) and No. 28 (C.J. Spiller) in the backfield are both pretty good runners. They both are patient and fast. Sometimes you get confused which one is 'Thunder' and which one is 'Lightning' because they both can hit you with the big play at any time." - Wake Forest LB Stanley Arnoux on dealing with Clemson's offense and its "Thunder and Lightning" backfield, which earned that nickname because of Davis' power and Spiller's breakaway ability.
"This is definitely a must win for us. It is really going to come down to that, quite frankly. We have to approach this game like we did the Boston College game last year." -Clemson QB Cullen Harper to The (Columbia, S.C.) State about the Thursday night game with Wake Forest.
"I'm feeling great, but I'm feeling even better for my mom. My mom wanted me to go to Miami a lot. To see her come down here and notice that we still can be successful against that team that she really wanted me to go to. I'm happy, she's happy, my family's happy."- Florida State RB Antone Smith to Warchant.com after rushing for four touchdowns Saturday in a 41-39 victory over Miami.
"Play for pride. That's how I see it. We have games still left. (There are) a lot of 'if' questions I keep hearing. The reason we all play this game is for pride. What got me started going? It's just for pride, love of the game. We're going to keep playing, keep at it." - Miami QB Robert Marve to CaneSport.com about the team's motivation after back-to-back ACC losses.
"It was time to either do it or not do it. And we had to know so that we could move forward. I was pretty explicit with him during the week that we were going to take the gloves off and come play. I was going to put it in his hands, and he just had to prove that he could play aggressively smart, not aggressively reckless. He did for the most part." -Boston College offensive coordinator Steve Logan to The Boston Herald about QB Chris Crane's breakthrough performance last week against North Carolina State. Crane threw for 428 yards and two touchdowns and ran for three more scores in a 38-31 victory.
"You guys must think I am trying to throw these games. I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. I think, 'What could I have done?' It's a question of whether they hear you or whether they want to hear you.'' - Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen to The Washington Post after a 31-0 loss to Virginia.
"We weren't nearly as bad as everyone said we were. Everyone made it seem like we were the worst team in America.'' - Virginia LB Clint Sintim to The Washington Post after the victory over Maryland. Virginia had lost its previous three games to Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-A) foes by a combined score of 128-20.
Wake Forest K Sam Swank has a strained quadriceps muscle that could prevent him from playing against Clemson. Swank, an All-America candidate, handles both the kicking and punting duties for the Demon Deacons. Miami LB Colin McCarthy has a shoulder injury and DE Eric Moncur has a leg injury that will prevent both from playing the rest of the season. Miami OT Reggie Youngblood sat out the Florida State game with a leg injury and also could miss the rest of the season. Virginia Tech RB Kenny Lewis will miss the rest of the season after rupturing his Achilles tendon last week in a 27-13 victory over Western Kentucky. Georgia Tech QB Josh Nesbitt returned to practice Tuesday after missing the Duke game with a strained hamstring. Nesbitt said he hoped to play Saturday against Gardner-Webb. This week marks the first time North Carolina has played host to Notre Dame since 1975. This week also marks the first time Miami and UCF have faced each other. Bruce Carter's three blocked punts against Connecticut gave him four consecutive blocked punts. He also blocked Miami's last punt attempt against North Carolina two weeks ago. The NCAA doesn't keep records on consecutive blocked punts, so there's no indication of whether Carter made history. Chris Crane's 470 yards of total offense against North Carolina State represented the 15th-highest single-game total in ACC history and the most by any ACC player since North Carolina State QB Philip Rivers compiled 495 total yards in the 2003 Tangerine Bowl. Florida State QB Christian Ponder rushed for 144 yards against Miami. Ponder tied for the sixth-highest single-game rushing total by a quarterback in ACC history.