No. 2 Clemson rules ACC, others set to challenge the Tigers

Appalachian State's Levi Duffield, left, catches a touchdown pass as Wake Forest linebacker Jaboree Williams, right, defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Boone, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Clemson’s status as the team to beat in the Atlantic Coast Conference is motivating other schools to prove the league goes beyond the second-ranked Tigers.

Schools are making early cases that they are up to challenging the defending national champions. There have upsets to start the year and several teams besides the Tigers are off to unbeaten starts. Three ACC teams are ranked in the Top 25 behind Clemson – No. 12 Virginia Tech, No. 14 Miami and No. 17 Louisville and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.

Five schools – Clemson, Wake Forest, North Carolina State, Duke and Georgia Tech – are unbeaten in ACC play. The Tigers, Demon Deacons, Blue Devils and Virginia Tech are 4-0 overall, while Miami is 2-0 entering its league opener at Duke on Friday night.

October should provide some clarity, but right now it’s anybody’s game in the ACC, even with Clemson again sitting atop the Atlantic Division.

It could start Saturday night in Blacksburg, Virginia when Clemson visits Virginia Tech for a rematch of last season’s championship game.

Clemson got all it could handle from BC, which battled them to a 7-all tie entering the fourth quarter last week. Clemson eventually pulled away by rushing for four touchdowns in a 34-7 win that again showed their ability to answer challenges.

”It used to be a really big deal, a once or twice a season kind of thing,” Tigers co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said of Clemson preparing for a big game. ”Now, it’s just kind of becoming the expectation. Coach (Dabo) Swinney does a great job of reminding our guys, `Hey, this is the biggest game of the year only because it’s our next game.’ It has nothing to do with any of that other stuff.”

Still, nothing is a given.

Just ask North Carolina State, which went wire to wire in a 27-21 victory over then-No. 12 and preseason conference favorite Florida State. Though the Seminoles returned from a 21-day layoff because of Hurricane Irma – and adjusted to the season-ending knee injury to quarterback Deondre Francois – visiting teams face a tall order winning in Tallahassee.

The Wolfpack weren’t fazed at FSU, and aim to maintain that momentum against Syracuse and Louisville the next couple of weeks in hopes of challenging Clemson in the Atlantic.

”You’re talking about trying to get a win that you know you can get, but doing it at a place that not many people get out of there that way,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said.

”It’s a hard place to win, so I think it’s a huge win for our players, not just to feel the benefits of their work but to have the confidence that they are a team that can finish anybody.”

The opportunity exists for teams to break through with quarterback Deshaun Watson gone from Clemson and FSU winless and without Francois.

While schools have circled those dates in hopes of making a statement, beating both the Tigers and Seminoles respectively remains difficult with each winning three conference crowns and a national title over the past six seasons.

”We’re better,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said, ”but if you’re going to play in the ACC Atlantic, right now those teams are ahead of us and to get where we want to get, you have to beat them and we haven’t done it yet. … These wins are never going to come easy.”

But then, good starts by Wake and N.C. State warn Atlantic Division teams not to look past anybody.

”It’s competitive,” said Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, looking ahead to next week’s meeting against the Wolfpack. The Cardinals (1-1) look to get back in the ACC chase after getting thumped 47-21 on Sept. 16 by a Clemson squad looking formidable on both sides of the ball.

But the ACC is still eager to show its not just Clemson and everybody else.

Though early, seeing Duke and Georgia Tech atop the Coastal isn’t shocking considering they’re among four division winners in as many years. The Blue Devils have posted several impressive wins the past few weeks, rolling past Big Ten member Northwestern (41-17) and Big 12 Baylor (34-20) before beating rival North Carolina 27-17 last week for the second straight year to drop the Tar Heels to 0-2 in the ACC.

Miami has rolled in non-conference play, averaging 46.5 points and 568.5 yards per game despite being interrupted by Irma. The Hurricanes look to prove themselves in the ACC starting with Duke, which is allowing just 15.2 points per contest.

But this weekend, it’s Virginia Tech’s turn to try and knock off Clemson.

There’s no fear in the Hokies after falling 42-35 to Clemson in last year’s title game. The Hokies were driving toward a possible tie before a fourth-down interception at the Tigers’ 23 left them with a TD short and motivated to contend again.

Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente isn’t getting caught up in the hype, saying: ”It’s a great opportunity for us to play a fantastic football team.”

AP Sports Writers Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, South Carolina; Hank Kurz in Blacksburg, Virginia and Joedy McCreary in North Carolina contributed to this report.

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