A look around the ACC
Is Clemson poised for another late-season run? Can Miami survive its injuries? Is Wake Forest the best 3-4 team in the country? Will Florida State claim a BCS spot? Our ACC notebook addresses those questions, along with looks at Georgia Tech's offense, NC State's turnover problem and more.
The fact that the ACC only has four teams that look like a sure-thing when it comes to the postseason (Miami, Florida State, Virginia and Virginia Tech) helps. Next on the list would be the Wolfpack (4-3, 3-2 ACC). Clemson's timing, at least, is good. NC State is coming off a disappointing loss to Miami in a game the 'Pack had been looking forward to since league schedules were announced last summer.
Consider Saturday's game a showdown of sorts for the league's fifth bowl slot. The Tigers need to catch NC State flat, then win two of their final three (at Miami, at Duke, South Carolina), which is far from certain, to qualify.
"He did a very good job for me and I told him he could have stayed here as long as I was here,'' Bowden said. "He was a really good football coach when he left and then he went and spent two years in the pros and that made him even a better coach."
Though NC State has slipped to eighth in the ACC in points allowed (19.6), the 'Pack remains No. 1 against the pass, allowing 121.4 a game. That's where Saturday's game should be decided.
"It stirs emotions in my gut,'' he said, declining to specify which ones.
Either way, Duke's progress compared to that loss a year ago can be measured almost entirely in emotion. The Blue Devils continue to play with it, despite their record (1-6, 0-4 ACC). That won't be enough to avenge last year's humiliation, and it won't make for a much brighter future at Duke unless Roof can find some of the recruiting success Jim Grobe has at Wake Forest.
"He's back in game shape, as opposed to just trying to bring him back from an injury," Roof said of Dargans. "The thing about him that jumps out at you is experience. There's no substitute for experience. He understands where things can happen.''
"If we can win the rest of our games, no matter what happens with Miami, that's all I can ask,'' Coach Bobby Bowden said. "I don't know that we will, but whatever happens with them, I don't have any judgment over that and I won't worry about it.''
This week, Booker gets a chance to become the featured back. Washington is out with a separated shoulder and most likely won't return until Nov. 11 at NC State.
"This is the first time I have faced that responsibility all alone. Usually, it's Leon and I,'' Booker said. "It's an opportunity to prove to the team, "Hey, I can do this. I can come through when you need me to.''
If not for the play of tailback P.J. Daniels, who leads the ACC in rushing at 105.8 yards a game, Tech would have no realistic bowl expectations. Instead, the most improved defense in the conference (since September), and Daniels, makes for an all-important game against the Hokies as far as post-season plans are concerned. Tech has a chance because the Hokies haven't exactly been lights-out offensively, either.
"I think our guys have a great deal of confidence right now," Gailey said of his defense. "We're not to the point where we have any kind of cockiness about us, but I think we have a lot of confidence. ... I think our guys understand if we do our job and everybody plays to their ability and does what they are supposed to do, we have a chance to be a very good defense.''
"I thought Joel played with rhythm and he played with confidence,'' Friedgen said.
Statham threw two interceptions, but completed 14 of 31 passes despite several drops by his receivers. He'll get his toughest assignment yet on Saturday against a Florida State defense playing better at the moment than any other in the ACC. Not only are the Seminoles peaking defensively, but Statham also will be without his speediest wide receiver after Derrick Fenner sprained his ankle last week.
Last week, he had 18 tackles at Clemson. Last year, he picked off a Chris Rix pass on Florida State's first offensive play against the Terrapins, returning it 58 yards for a touchdown, running over Rix on the way to the end zone.
Combined with the loss of offensive tackle Eric Winston to a season-ending knee injury, the loss of another offensive lineman could be a major disruption, and at a time when quarterback Brock Berlin has begun to play at a high level (11 TD passes, 2 interceptions over the last three games).
"We are a little deeper on the offensive line than we have been in the past, which helps,'' Coach Larry Coker said.
In addition, Berlin's backup, Kyle Weaver, is out of commission with a severely sprained left ankle and starting center Joel Rodriguez is playing in spite of a knee sprain. The Hurricanes won't get through their remaining five ACC games without a struggle, and if the injuries continue to mount, expect the regular season to end with UM in a three-way tie for the league lead with Florida State and either Virginia or Virginia Tech.
The question is what role those factors will play in John Bunting's evaluation at season's end if the Tar Heels are 4-7, which would leave them 5-19 in the ACC over the past three seasons. With 10 senior starters departing, including record-setting quarterback Darian Durant, Bunting's own return for a fifth season in Chapel Hill is far from guaranteed. The biggest strike against Bunting, who spent eight seasons as a defensive assistant with three NFL teams, is a Carolina defense that is last among ACC teams in all five major statistical categories (yards allowed, passing yards, rushing yards, scoring and pass defense efficiency).
North Carolina State
If there's one source of blame for NC State's struggles, look at turnovers. The 'Pack is 110th among Division I teams in turnover ratio at minus-10 (minus-1.43 a game), negating much of the improvement on defense, where NC State is No. 2 in fewest yards allowed.
His return strengthens a Tech defense that already has lifted the Hokies beyond expectations this season. "His conditioning and getting back into the flow of things will be issues,'' Coach Frank Beamer said. "Xavier is a linebacker who does things naturally, so we do expect him to play.''
Wake Forest plays Duke on Saturday, then has North Carolina and Maryland sandwiched around a trip to Miami on Nov. 20. Three wins in those four games would put the Deacs in position for a bid, though not a great one, considering NC State, Georgia Tech and possibly Clemson also could be hovering around the 6-5 mark in a league with only five bowl tie-ins this season.
"We've played hard in seven games now and need to give that same effort in the next four,'' said Coach Jim Grobe, whose four losses in the ACC this season include two in overtime (to N.C. State and Clemson) and two by a combined total of 10 points to Virginia Tech and Florida State. Both those games were decided in the final minutes.
"We have smart kids playing for us and we know we've played really good people,'' Grobe said. "I think we're a good football team, but because of the schedule and not taking care of business on our own part, we haven't won as many as we've wanted to.''
Doug Carlson covers the ACC for the Tampa Tribune.