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October 20, 2011

Week 8 preview in the ACC

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The division races in the ACC couldn't look much more different.

As the lone remaining unbeaten team in the conference, Clemson has established itself as the clear Atlantic Division front-runner (though Wake Forest also remains in control of its destiny). The other four Atlantic teams already have at least two conference losses.

North Carolina at Clemson, noon
Wake Forest at Duke, 12:30 p.m.
Boston College at Virginia Tech, 3 p.m.
Maryland at Florida State, 3:30 p.m.
Georgia Tech at Miami, 3:30 p.m.
N.C. State at Virginia, 3:30 p.m.
But the Coastal Division is a virtual free-for-all.

Each of the six teams in the division has lost at least one conference game. The only Coastal teams with more than one conference loss are Miami and North Carolina, though both remain talented enough to believe they still could make it to Charlotte.

The Coastal front-runner? Who knows?

Georgia Tech (6-1, 3-1 ACC) and Virginia Tech (6-1, 2-1) are the only Coastal teams with more than one ACC win. One of these two teams has won the Coastal title each season since the ACC began divisional play in 2005. So their Nov. 10 showdown in Atlanta could go a long way toward determining the Coastal champion.

[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas]

Then again, who's to say the Nov. 26 Virginia Tech-Virginia game in Charlottesville won't carry similar stakes? Virginia (4-2, 1-1) also has only one conference loss and just knocked off previously unbeaten Georgia Tech.

Now the Cavaliers must prove they can handle prosperity Saturday when they play host to N.C. State (3-3, 0-2) from the Atlantic Division. Last year, Virginia followed up a victory over a ranked Miami team by losing its last four games. The Cavs don't want history to repeat itself.

"We won a football game against a very good team, and there is another very good team coming into Charlottesville that's 3-3 and that's hungry for a victory," Virginia coach Mike London said. "They've been off for a week, so they've had an opportunity for all the defensive guys that have missed [time] to get healthy. I'm quite sure how it benefited us having an off-week. It's going to benefit them as well."

While Virginia must prove it can put together back-to-back solid performances, Georgia Tech must try to avoid a prolonged slump. After averaging 51.6 points over their first five games, the Yellow Jackets have scored just 21 points in each of their past two contests. Now they travel to Miami in a game that features quarterbacks headed in opposite directions.

[What to watch? Week 8 viewer's guide]

Georgia Tech's Tevin Washington was one of the nation's most efficient quarterbacks in the first few weeks of the season, but he has gone just 12-of-39 over his past three games. Miami's Jacory Harris has thrown eight touchdown passes without an interception in his past three games.

"I feel like our guys are going to have a positive attitude," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. "We're disappointed that we lost [to Virginia], but the sky isn't falling. The team is 6-1. Before you bury us, let us play two more games. It seems like everybody wants to end the season and bury the team. Maybe they're right, but let's at least go play and see what happens."

Right now, it's far too early to count out anyone in this division, let alone a Georgia Tech team that remains a half-game ahead in the Coastal standings.

Even Duke (3-3, 1-1), North Carolina (5-2, 1-2) and Miami (3-3, 1-2) have reason for optimism, though the Tar Heels' two losses to division opponents put them at a distinct disadvantage.

Georgia Tech's loss to Virginia didn't knock the Yellow Jackets out of contention, but it did let everyone else know that the Coastal title wasn't just a two-team race.

It instead is a six-way fight to the finish.

[Huguenin: Projecting the BCS bowls]

Best matchup: Clemson RB Andre Ellington vs. North Carolina run defense. QB Tajh Boyd and WR Sammy Watkins have garnered much of the credit for Clemson's fast start, but Ellington also has played well the past few weeks. Ellington rushed for 212 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 8.8 yards per carry Saturday as Clemson erased an 18-point deficit in a 56-45 victory at Maryland. Ellington faces a much tougher run defense this week against North Carolina. Although the Tar Heels have struggled to stop opposing passing attacks, they've been effective against the run. UNC is allowing just 108.4 rushing yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry. The Tar Heels held Miami star Lamar Miller to 29 yards on 16 carries last week in a 30-24 loss to the Hurricanes. If North Carolina does equally well against Ellington while also upgrading its pass defense, the Tar Heels have a decent shot at upsetting Clemson. Of course, that's much easier said than done.

Player on the spot: Miami OT Brandon Washington: After earning first-team All-ACC honors as a guard last season, Washington moved to left tackle this year because of a preseason injury to teammate Seantrel Henderson, who is healthy again. Now Washington is fighting to keep his spot in the starting lineup. Miami coach Al Golden said this week that Washington remains one of the team's five best linemen, but he added that Henderson is "gaining ground." "Brandon Washington is a really talented player," Golden said. "We need him to play better than he has been, and we certainly need him to play better than he did Saturday." Washington spent much of last week's game lining up against North Carolina DE Quinton Coples, a potential first-round pick who had 2.5 tackles for loss and one sack. Golden apparently doesn't have any interest in moving Washington back to guard, where he played so well last season. "Of course it bothers me," Washington told The Miami Herald. "I was an all-conference guard, and they asked me to move out there because of the injury to Seantrel. Now they're telling me the three inside guys are solid and that possibly won't change."

Keep an eye on: Florida State TB Devonta Freeman. Freeman, a true freshman, rejuvenated Florida State's slumping ground attack last week by rushing for 109 yards and a touchdown in a 41-16 victory over Duke. Freeman now gets a chance to face the ACC's lowest-ranked run defense when Maryland visits Doak Campbell Stadium. Maryland is allowing 214.7 rushing yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry. FSU's remaining schedule gives the Seminoles (3-3) a decent chance to finish 9-3, but that can only happen if they start running the ball more effectively. That makes Freeman the key to any potential late-season surge.

[Expert picks: Week 8 predictions]

Numbers game: North Carolina RB Gio Bernard and Clemson WR Sammy Watkins give the ACC the nation's leading freshman running back and the top freshman receiver. Bernard, a redshirt freshman, is averaging 109.6 rushing yards per game. Watkins, a true freshman, is averaging 104.0 receiving yards per game. Bernard also is only the second freshman in ACC history to rush for at least 100 yards in five consecutive games. The only other freshman to accomplish that feat was Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams in 2009. No freshman in the ACC ever has run for at least 100 yards in six consecutive games. Watkins' 345 all-purpose yards against Maryland last week represented the fourth-highest total in ACC history. Watkins became just the second FBS player in the past 11 seasons to compile at least 200 yards in kickoff returns and 100 yards in receiving and score at least three touchdowns in the same game. The other was Toledo WR Eric Page, who did it in 2010.

Quotes of the week

"Of course a lot of teams are going to look at film like [Virginia's 24-21 win over Georgia Tech] and say, 'You know, we're just going to run it down their throat,' until we stop them." - Georgia Tech DE Jason Peters, to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Clemson is a very good team, and they have a lot of offensive weapons. And I think this is going to be the game when we bring it all on the field to get a big-time win for this program." - North Carolina DL Sylvester Williams, to the (Raleigh) News & Observer

"Just move on. Don't worry about that. Winning programs, they don't worry about big wins. You win and you go to the next week. That's the problem around here. I think a lot of times, we get a big win and it sticks around for weeks. Let's go to the next one." - Virginia CB Chase Minnifield, to the (Newport News) Daily Press about how the Cavaliers would respond after their upset of previously unbeaten Georgia Tech

[Game tickets: Watch your favorite team in action]

"He looks like Spiderman. The ball just sticks to his hands. He has great hands and attacks the football better than anyone I've ever seen. He has great body control, and when you put that with his type of mentality and the fact he has gifted hands, you have a fantastic player. When he gets his grip on it, it's over." - Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, on WR Sammy Watkins

"Those are the same guys that said, 'Don't take the Temple job' [to me]. He had that thing humming at Navy and he didn't have these kinds of kids. I know he was beating Notre Dame and all kinds of people there. He has some [new] dimensions. He has more speed. His offensive line is bigger. He has added some dimensions to the perimeter game that are pretty cool." - Miami coach Al Golden, discussing the skeptics who believed Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson's option attack wouldn't work in one of the six major conferences

Poll watch: Clemson is ranked seventh in the initial BCS standings. No. 8 Stanford, No. 11 Kansas State and No. 19 Houston are the unbeaten teams ranked below Clemson. This matches the highest BCS ranking ever for Clemson, which also was No. 7 in the BCS standings on Oct. 23, 2000. Other ACC teams in the initial BCS rankings are No. 12 Virginia Tech and No. 22 Georgia Tech. The only teams ranked ahead of Virginia Tech that also have losses are No. 9 Arkansas and No. 10 Oregon

Etc.: Boston College LB Luke Kuechly remains on pace to break the NCAA single-season records for total tackles (99) and tackles per game (16.5). Clemson's rally from an 18-point deficit against Maryland last week was the second-biggest comeback in school history. Clemson beat Virginia 29-28 in 1992 after falling behind 28-0. Duke's Donovan Varner and Conner Vernon have 323 combined receptions, the fourth-highest career total for ACC teammates in common seasons. The ACC record is held by Clemson's Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham, who combined for 364 catches from 2005-08. Florida State DT Jacobbi McDaniel will miss the rest of the season with a dislocated ankle. Georgia Tech LBs Jeremiah Attaochu and Daniel Drummond practiced Tuesday, raising hope that they could return to action Saturday against Miami after missing the Yellow Jackets' past two games with leg injuries. Tech coach Paul Johnson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Attaochu was at "75, 80 percent, and we've still got time." Attaochu has 29 tackles and a team-high four sacks, while Drummond has 24 tackles. Maryland QB C.J. Brown rushed for 162 yards against Clemson last week in his first career start. That represented the highest single-game rushing total for an ACC quarterback since Clemson's Woodrow Dantzler ran for 184 yards in a 45-37 victory over N.C. State on Oct. 13, 2001. Brown's 162-yard effort was the eighth-highest total by a quarterback in ACC history. Brown may be playing without his top receiver this week. WR Kevin Dorsey wasn't listed on Maryland's preliminary depth chart after apparently getting hurt in the Clemson game. Dorsey has 29 catches for 361 yards to lead the Terrapins in both categories. Dorsey's situation could result in more playing time for true freshman Marcus Leak. Miami K Jake Wieclaw could take over the punting duties as well this week. Coach Al Golden hasn't indicated whether Wieclaw or Dalton Botts will handle the punting assignments Saturday. Botts has averaged 39.8 yards per punt and Miami ranks 84th nationally in net punting. Miami DT Micanor Regis has been suspended for the Georgia Tech for a violation of team rules. Regis reportedly punched North Carolina WR Dwight Jones in the groin during last week's game. ... North Carolina LB Ebele Okakpu has been dismissed from the program for "conduct detrimental to the team." Okakpu made 14 tackles and started five games this season. N.C. State RB Mustafa Greene, who hasn't played this season because of a foot injury, officially was ruled out for the rest of the season this week. Greene led the Wolfpack with 597 rushing yards last season. Virginia owes its surprising success in part to its trio of tailbacks. Kevin Parks (67 carries, 368 yards) has run for seven touchdowns this season, which already gives him a share of the school's freshman record. Perry Jones (98-514) has run for 100 yards in back-to-back games. Clifton Richardson (39-239) is averaging a team-high 6.1 yards per carry. Virginia Tech's 38-17 victory at Wake Forest last week marked the 11th consecutive time the Hokies have won on their opponent's home field. That's the longest such streak of any FBS team. Virginia Tech hasn't lost in an opponent's home stadium since falling to Georgia Tech on Oct. 17, 2009. Wake Forest is seeking its 12th consecutive victory over Duke this week. Duke last beat Wake Forest in 1999.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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