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October 2, 2008

ACC: Are Hokies ready to step forward?

MORE PREVIEWS: Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC

Does anyone want to win the ACC?

Every team that seems on the verge of accepting the role as ACC front-runner immediately stubs its toe. No wonder the ACC has joined the Pac-10 and the Sun Belt as the only conferences without an undefeated team.

Clemson entered the season as the overwhelming favorite to win the league, but the Tigers opened the season with a 34-10 loss to Alabama. Just when it seemed they had regained their footing, the Tigers blew a 10-point lead last week and fell 20-17 to Atlantic Division rival Maryland.

Florida State and Miami seemed on the way to restoring their reputations as conference heavyweights with strong early season performances, but the Seminoles committed seven turnovers while falling 12-3 to Wake Forest and Miami gave up two late touchdowns in a 28-24 home loss to North Carolina.

Wake Forest, the last remaining unbeaten team in the league, turned the ball over six times last week in a 24-17 loss to Navy.

"Anytime you lose, it's pretty frustrating," Wake Forest nose guard Boo Robinson said. "Anytime you lose, you're going to be down on yourself."

Now it's Virginia Tech's turn.

The Hokies, the defending conference champions, seemed headed for a rebuilding season after they dropped their opener to East Carolina. They had to replace plenty of key figures on defense, had no proven running backs or receivers and were concerned enough about the quarterback position that they altered their preseason plans to redshirt Tyrod Taylor.

One month into the season, though, Virginia Tech looks stronger than anyone else in the conference.

Virginia Tech has won four in a row since the loss to East Carolina. The Hokies went on the road and handed Nebraska its first loss of the season last week. Darren Evans has brought consistency to the running game, while Taylor has offered stability and mobility as the Hokies' new starting quarterback.

The Hokies now must prove they can handle prosperity, an accomplishment that has eluded their conference rivals. The schedule should make that task much easier. The Hokies play host to Western Kentucky on Saturday and have next week off before returning to the grind of ACC competition.

"The big picture for us is can we improve as a football team," Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "That's what we've got to put our hope on and be a factor in this thing in the end."

Boston College at N.C. State, noon
Duke at Georgia Tech, noon
Western Kentucky at Virginia Tech, 1:30 p.m.
Florida State at Miami, 3:30 p.m.
Maryland at Virginia, 7 p.m.
Connecticut at North Carolina, 7 p.m.

  • Duke's pass offense vs. Georgia Tech's pass defense. Duke has emerged as one of the nation's biggest surprises, in part because of a passing attack that ranks second in the ACC. Thaddeus Lewis is a third-year starter who has thrown seven touchdown passes and two interceptions. Eron Riley already has six touchdown catches this year, while true freshman Johnny Williams showed his potential with an 11-catch, 135-yard effort against Northwestern earlier this season. Lewis likely faces his toughest test yet Saturday against a Georgia Tech team that ranks eighth in the nation in pass efficiency defense. Morgan Burnett has picked off three passes to lead a Georgia Tech defense that has forced six interceptions while allowing only three touchdown passes. Lewis' chances of success could come down to how much protection he has. The Yellow Jackets led the nation in sacks last season and are averaging 2.8 sacks per game this season.

  • Florida State RB Antone Smith . Smith, a senior and former five-star prospect who originally was thought to be headed to Miami, has endured an up-and-down career at Florida State. However, he may be back on the upswing after rushing for 154 yards and three touchdowns last week in a 39-21 victory over Colorado. Was that performance an aberration or an indicator of things to come? We should have a good idea by Saturday night. Smith faces a tough against a Miami defense that is seventh in the nation against the run. The Hurricanes are allowing only 2.1 yards per carry and 65 rushing yards per game, and no individual has rushed for more than 67 yards against UM this season. The Seminoles could use consistent 100-yard performances from Smith to take some of the pressure off young QB Christian Ponder.

  • Boston College RB Montel Harris has rushed for 255 yards and three touchdowns on 31 carries in his past two games. Clemson RB James Davis has rushed for 221 yards and four touchdowns on 28 carries in his past two games. Duke WR Eron Riley has four touchdown catches and LB Michael Tauiliili has 29 tackles and one interception in the Blue Devils' past two games. Florida State DE Everette Brown has recorded two tackles for loss in three consecutive games. After missing his first five field-goal attempts of the season, Maryland kicker Obi Egekeze has made five in a row. Miami WR Kayne Farquharson has caught a touchdown pass in back-to-back games. Virginia Tech kicker Dustin Keys has made nine consecutive field-goal attempts and went 4-for-4 last week in a 35-30 victory over Nebraska. Virginia Tech RB Darren Evans has rushed for at least one touchdown in each of the Hokies' five games.

  • Boston College QB Chris Crane is 35-of-70 with five interceptions and two touchdown passes in the Eagles' past three games. Clemson QB Cullen Harper has thrown five interceptions and three touchdown passes this season. Harper, the preseason choice as the ACC player of the year, had 27 touchdown passes and six interceptions last season. North Carolina RB Greg Little is averaging only 3.4 yards per carry. North Carolina State QB Harrison Beck has thrown five interceptions and no touchdown passes in the Wolfpack's past three games. . Virginia QB Marc Verica has thrown five interceptions without a touchdown pass in his two starts. Wake Forest QB Riley Skinner threw four interceptions last week in a 24-17 loss to Navy. They were his first four picks of the season.

  • "What we saw is what we were hoping for throughout his career. He can't do it without some blocking. We had good blocking, but he still made a lot happen on his own. One of (the) things that concerned us was that it seemed like when he ran, he could get what was there but he didn't (go) by anybody. If you had a hole opened and blocked for about 8 yards, he would get 8. (Against Colorado), if you had it open for 2, he would get 6. If you had it opened for 6, he would get 12. That was real good running on his part."
    Florida State coach Bobby Bowden on Smith's performance against Colorado.

    "I think we're playing as hard as we can. I can't define that as underachieving. I think we're doing the best we can."
    Clemson offensive coordinator Rob Spence to the Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail after the loss to Maryland dropped the Tigers to 3-2.

    "It's unfortunate to see. You kind of wish people would have your back more, have your coach's back, because this program's done a lot of great things under Coach Groh here. And for things just to be down at this point, to turn your back or to get down on someone, that's not the right way to handle it. It's easy to assess blame and it's easy to point fingers. But what I do know is that it's hard to be accountable and to take ownership of things. Coach Groh does that. He's accountable to us, he's accountable to the coaches. He takes ownership in things."
    Virginia QB Marc Verica to the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch in response to criticism of Cavaliers coach Al Groh.

    "The streak being over is great. What's even better is a streak has started."
    Duke NT Clifford Respress to the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer after the Blue Devils beat Virginia 31-3 to end a 25-game ACC losing streak.

    "You see guys hit him on the thighs, you see guys hit him down on his legs, and they don't knock him down. He'll spin. He'll jump. He'll bounce off guys."
    North Carolina coach Butch Davis to CarolinaBlue.com about NCAA rushing leader Donald Brown of Connecticut. The Tar Heels will try to slow down Brown this week when they play host to UConn.

  • ETC.
  • The North Carolina-Connecticut game will be a battle of backup quarterbacks because the Huskies' Tyler Lorenzen broke his foot last week to join North Carolina's T.J. Yates on the injury list. Connecticut's Zach Frazer and North Carolina's Cameron Sexton came off the bench and rallied their teams to road victories last week. The status of Georgia Tech QB Josh Nesbitt and North Carolina State QB Russell Wilson remains uncertain for their games. Nesbitt strained a hamstring Sept. 20 against Mississippi State, while Wilson sat out last week's loss to USF because of an injury to his right (throwing) shoulder. Harrison Beck is currently listed as North Carolina State's starting quarterback for the Wolfpack's game with Boston College on Saturday. Clemson's 20-17 loss to Maryland last week was the 1,100th football game in the Tigers' history. Florida State has not allowed a rushing touchdown in 16 consecutive quarters. Maryland is figuring out how to utilize the speed of WR Darrius Heyward-Bey even when the Terrapins can't throw him the ball. Heyward-Bey has run for 186 yards and a touchdown on six carries this season. Virginia Tech has blocked at least one punt in 16 consecutive seasons. Stephan Virgil made sure the streak continued last week when he blocked a punt at Nebraska. Boston College is leading the nation in pass efficiency defense. . The ACC has gone 18-6 against non-conference opponents since the first week of the season.

    MORE PREVIEWS: Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC

    Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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