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ACC Power Rankings: Taking stock at the midway point of the football season

We make preseason predictions based on the schedule, the track record of the head coach and the number of returning starters but without really knowing what a team will look like once the lights come on and the popcorn starts popping.

It’s not a great business model but it’s the best one we have. Six weeks into the season, we know more about each team. A lot more.

So let’s put the traditional format of the “Only* ACC Power Rankings That Matter” aside for one week and delve into where each team stands as we enter Week 7 (the halfway point) of the season. Teams are listed in order of ACC standings:

Atlantic Division

Clemson

Record: 5-0, 3-0 ACC

What we thought then: The Tigers are an undeniable juggernaut, with sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence as the best NFL prospect since Peyton Manning, and will cruise to a third national championship in four years.

What we know now: Lawrence is human. He bleeds. So does the Clemson offense, which hasn’t exactly found fifth gear. The rebuilt defense, however, is still excellent and motivated to prove it’s not the weak link.

Ceiling: The national title (duh). Lawrence (8 TDs, 5 INTs) has to be better. So does the offensive line and the play-calling. LSU, Oklahoma and Ohio State all look capable enough on offense to derail the Tigers in the College Football Playoff semifinal so Clemson-Alabama, Part V is not a given.

Prediction: The scare at UNC (a 21-20 win on Sept. 28) will be good for the Tigers. Their true strength is scouting and game prep and that tends to show up more later in the season (when just like us, they have more information. Such a crazy concept). It would be stunning, and a serious canary in the coal mine, if they played another close game before the playoff starts.

Wake Forest

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Wake Forest’s Sage Surratt (14) fumbles a punt return in the first quarter against North Carolina on Friday, September 13, 2019 at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com


Record: 5-0, 1-0 ACC

What we thought then: With a smart coach and a promising quarterback, the Deacs will continue their winning trend under Dave Clawson.

What we know now: Jamie Newman (14 TDs, 3 INTs), the aforementioned promising quarterback, is having a better year than Lawrence and every other quarterback in the league.

Ceiling: This is Clawson’s chance for a big breakout. Even if you factor a Clemson loss and another stumble (Duke the week after the Clemson game?), the Deacs should be able to pull this into the barn at 10-2 and nose out the Coastal Division winner for the league’s contracted spot in the Orange Bowl.

Prediction: Clawson joins Jim Grobe (11-3 in 2006) as the only coach in school history to win double-digit games.

Florida State

Record: 3-2, 2-1 ACC

What we thought then: The Noles will be better than last year’s disaster but are not ready to reclaim their spot at the top of the league alongside Clemson.

What we know now: The fans really don’t like second-year coach Willie Taggart. The offensive line is still a mess. There’s considerable talent at the skill positions.

Ceiling: If he can stay upright, grad transfer Alex Hornibrook can get the Noles to 7-5 and start a new bowl streak in the Music City or Sun Bowl.

Prediction: The Noles will drop the next two games (at Clemson, at Wake) and the finale at Florida but Taggart will do enough (barely) to get to Year 3 of his incredibly generous contract.

Louisville

Record: 3-2, 1-1 ACC

What we thought then: The Cards might pick off an ACC win but will be in serious rebuild mode after Bobby Petrino left the program in a fiery pit of despair.

What we know now: Scott Satterfield was a really smart hire, the best of the offseason. The Cards already have one ACC win (Boston College).

Ceiling: You can get a little crazy here if you’re a Cards fan and find three more wins on the schedule. That’s probably asking too much but there’s no harm in a little optimism.

Prediction: The Cards fall one win short but pour it out in the finale and beat Kentucky in their “Super Bowl” to send Satterfield into the offseason with a very satisfying 5-7 debut.

Boston College

Record: 3-3, 1-2 ACC

What we thought then: With deep personnel losses on defense, it will be a challenge for Steve Addazio to get back to the Addazio Line (seven wins).

What we know now: Any defense that gives up 48 points to Kansas (in a home loss) is not good.

Ceiling: The Eagles need that old Chestnut Hill magic to kick in against N.C. State and Florida State and then hope they can get a road split with their Big East comrades (Syracuse, Pitt) to make a fourth straight bowl.

Prediction: It’s not coming home for the Eagles but most of their fans would trade a miracle win at Notre Dame (Nov. 23) for another low-end ACC bowl trip.

N.C. State

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N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren leads the field onto the field before N.C. State’s game against Florida State at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com


Record: 3-2, 0-1 ACC

What we thought then: There is young talent in the program but this will be a transition year with four new assistant coaches and after sending 13 players to the NFL from the 2017 and ‘18 teams.

What we know now: The young talent bubbles in spots but the depth has been challenged by injuries in the exact wrong spots. The absence of Tyrone Riley (starting left tackle), Nick McCloud (best cornerback) and Dylan Autenrieth (tight end and best run-blocker) has hit the Wolfpack hard.

Ceiling: Some fans erroneously looked at the schedule in July and thought this could be another 9-win season. That would have required all of the things that have gone wrong to have gone perfectly. That’s not realistic. N.C. State needs three wins from four games with Syracuse, Boston College, Louisville and Georgia Tech to make a sixth straight bowl.

Prediction: It would be poetic for N.C. State to ruin Wake Forest’s big season. There are also many Wolfpack fans who would love to throw some cold water on the Mack Brown lovefest with a 10th win in 13 years over UNC. Neither outcome is likely but three more wins and a trip to the Military Bowl is in the cards.

Syracuse

Record: 3-2, 0-1 ACC

What we thought then: Everyone was bullish on the Orange after a 10-3 breakthrough in 2018. A preseason top 25 team, Dino Babers was tagged as the official Atlantic Division challenger to Clemson.

What we know now: Quarterback Eric Dungey was criminally underrated and underappreciated.

Ceiling: The most difficult part of the schedule is behind the Orange but there’s only coin-toss games left. Seven wins feels like the max for this group.

Prediction: Some Syracuse fans laughed when oddsmakers set the Orange’s initial season win total at 5. Unless there’s a dramatic improvement on defense, it’s going to be difficult for the Orange to get to six.

Coastal Division

Virginia

Record: 4-1, 2-0 ACC

What we thought then: After six different Coastal winners in six years, it is the Wahoos’ turn.

What we know now: As long as Bryce Perkins doesn’t turn the ball over five times a game (as he did in the loss at Notre Dame), the Cavaliers should be able to hold off UNC for their first division title.

Ceiling: Even with a pair of ACC losses, the Cavaliers would be 9-3 and enter the postseason with a chance at its first 10-win season since 1989 (and only second in school history).

Prediction: Perkins improves his ball security, the Wahoos win the Coastal, get crushed by Clemson in ACC title game and land softly in the Camping World Bowl in Orlando.

UNC

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North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell connects with Dyami Brown for a nine yard gain in the third quarter against Georgia Tech on Saturday, October 5, at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. Howell passed for 376 yards and two touchdowns in the Tar Heels’ victory. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com


Record: 3-3, 2-1 ACC

What we thought then: Rejuvenated by the return of coach Mack Brown, the Tar Heels will survive a tough early schedule to get back to a bowl game.

What we know now: Freshman quarterback Sam Howell is a keeper and defensive coordinator Jay Bateman was Brown’s best hire.

Ceiling: There’s no reason UNC can’t win its final five ACC games and take the Coastal title.

Prediction: The Heels split with Duke and Virginia but feisty Pitt gets one of their wins from the past two seasons back. That adds up to 7-5 overall, 5-3 in the ACC and a spot in Charlotte for the Belk Bowl or the Music City Bowl.

Pittsburgh

Record: 4-2, 1-1 ACC

What we thought then: With a new offensive line and without a pair of 1,000-yard rushers, the Panthers will take a step back from the Coastal title perch.

What we know now: The Panthers play to the level of their competition, which is both good and bad.

Ceiling: Another Coastal team with a puncher’s chance to run the table in its final six games. With a stumble by UVa, that would put the Panthers back in the ACC title game.

Prediction: I don’t trust the Panthers’ offense but they’re tough enough to win four of the final six and take an 8-4 record into the Pinstripe Bowl.

Duke

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Duke quarterback Quentin Harris (18) scores on a four-yard touchdown run during the second half of Pittsburgh’s 33-30 victory over Duke at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com


Record: 3-2, 1-1 ACC

What we thought then: The Blue Devils will miss quarterback Daniel Jones but David Cutcliffe will have them in position to make a bowl game for the seventh time in eight years.

What we know now: Cutcliffe has a blind spot for Pitt (1-6) but you have to wake up early, and minimize your mistakes, to beat one of his teams.

Ceiling: There’s a Georgia Tech reprieve this week but the Blue Devils will likely only be favored once in the final six games. So 7-5 feels like the max.

Prediction: “Cut” finds three more wins and the Devils get some quality Christmastime in Birmingham or Tampa.

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Virginia Tech

Record: 3-2, 1-2 ACC

What we thought then: The Hokies will bounce back from an off year and the defense will rally around retiring coordinator Bud Foster.

What we know now: The beleaguered defense has not improved and head coach Justin Fuente is losing his status as a certified quarterback whisperer.

Ceiling: The schedule remains atrocious so there might be three more wins out there.

Prediction: Maybe Fuente has found something in sophomore quarterback Hendon Hooker, who accounted for four touchdowns in the surprising win at Miami this past Saturday. The embattled fourth-year coach better hope so. Fuente might decide to find an escape hatch after this disappointment.

Miami

Record: 2-3, 0-2 ACC

What we thought then: With the most talented defense in the league, and just a little improvement at quarterback, the Canes will win the Coastal title in Manny Diaz’s first year.

What we know now: The offensive line is “Florida State bad” and the team is amazingly undisciplined (No. 126 in the country in penalties).

Ceiling: In theory, the Canes are yet another Coastal team who could win out. There’s not one game left that you would consider an obvious loss but Miami makes too many mistakes to magically put it all together.

Prediction: The Canes will get to 7-5 and mercifully close out the ACC’s unpopular contract with the Independence Bowl. Fare thee well, sweet Shreveport.

Georgia Tech

Record: 1-4, 0-2 ACC

What we thought then: It is going to be a difficult transition from Paul Johnson’s option offense.

What we know now: It has been a difficult transition from Paul Johnson’s option offense.

Ceiling: One ACC win. Circle that Virginia Tech trip on Nov. 16.

Prediction: There are brighter days ahead for the Yellow Jackets and Geoff Collins. Just getting set at quarterback, with freshman James Graham, is a positive step forward in an otherwise lost season.

Joe Giglio has worked at The N&O since 1995 and has regularly reported on the ACC since 2005. He grew up in Ringwood, N.J. and graduated from N.C. State.
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