RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Duke’s opening-week rout of then-No. 9 Clemson served notice that the Atlantic Coast Conference wouldn’t necessarily fall in line behind the Tigers as it has for much of the past decade.
For that matter, the ACC doesn’t seem inclined to play second fiddle to other Power Five conferences despite nearly being left behind in a summer of realignment and internal discontent.
Fourth-ranked Florida State leads a foursome of 3-0 ACC schools ranked in the AP Top 25 including No. 17 North Carolina, No. 18 Duke and No. 20 Miami as conference play cranks up with five games this week. Clemson (2-1) is just outside looking in and seeking redemption when it hosts FSU in Saturday’s showdown.. Syracuse and Louisville also received votes.
The Seminoles were picked to finish second behind Clemson in a preseason media poll and have lost the past seven meetings. This early matchup could halt that slide and mark a huge step toward winning their first league title since 2014 and 10 years since winning the BCS national championship.
“Everybody knows this is a big game,” FSU coach Mike Norvell said. “You’ve got a team that the last however many years has pretty much led the ACC in how they’ve played and what they’ve done. But I’m not sitting here talking about Clemson. I mean, it’s about us.”
Duke, FSU and Louisville share the early ACC lead with divisional play scrapped this season. Not surprisingly, those teams also rank top-40 in scoring, one of several FBS statistical categories featuring a significant league presence.
Nine ACC teams are among the top 62 nationally in defense, with eight teams ranked top 60 in offense. Individually, Georgia Tech’s Haynes King, UNC’s Drake Maye – a likely Heisman Trophy candidate and top NFL prospect — Wake Forest’s Mitch Griffis and Miami’s Tyler Van Dyke rank among the top 30 quarterbacks. Louisville’s Jawhar Jordan ranks eighth with 344 yards rushing and UNC’s Omarion Hampton (317) 12th.
More impressively, the ACC boasts four wins each over Big Ten and Southeastern Conference schools, one more than the rest of the country combined. After September began with questions about the ACC’s future as the Big Ten and Big 12 picked apart the Pac-12 for newcomers – and before the league made news adding Stanford and Cal from that league and SMU from the American Athletic Conference – attention has shifted to the excellent early play.
“I’m really proud of our league,” said UNC coach Mack Brown, whose team topped South Carolina in the opener. “We’ve got a lot of good teams. And with all the realignment talk, it distracts from who the teams are. These teams are playing well and they’re well-coached.
“I’ve watched some of those games every Sunday night when I get in and I get to watch highlights. So, I watch everybody that we play and everybody I think is good nationally.”
This first month has featured plenty of noteworthy plot lines.
Duke has not only achieved its second consecutive 3-0 start under Mike Elko but has been dominant doing so. The Blue Devils have outscored opponents 108-28, including that signature 28-7 opening-game win over Clemson.
Elko wants his squad to follow up this strong start better than last year, when they dropped three of four before regrouping to finish 9-4 with a bowl win. Duke’s upcoming stretch includes a nationally televised prime time matchup with No. 9 Notre Dame on Sept. 30.
“There’s a lot of work and a lot of improvement that happens from the beginning of the season to the middle of the season to the end of the season,” Elko said. “I’m just happy with how we’re handling that part of the game.”
Georgia Tech’s Brent Key and Louisville’s Jeff Brohm returned to coach at their respective alma maters and opened their regimes with an intriguing ACC matchup the Cardinals won 39-34 in Atlanta after trailing 28-13 at halftime. Louisville kept it interesting in last week’s matchup against Big Ten foe Indiana, winning 21-14 despite being shut out in the second half.
The Cardinals have come up big on both sides of the ball when needed but seek a complete game in their return to league play on Saturday against Boston College. After all, the Eagles nearly erased a 21-point deficit against FSU before falling 31-29 last week.
Which proves that nothing can be taken for granted in a league determined to make its presence felt.
“When you’re playing really good football teams, you can try to have a perfect game and make all the plays and be clean, but that’s really probably not going to happen,” said Brohm, a star Cardinals quarterback who guided Purdue to last year’s Big Ten title game. “The other team is good too, and they’re well-coached. We have to find ways to make a few more plays in them and score a few more points than them.”