ACC Playlist: No. 14 Georgia Tech takes on first true test

The ACC Playlist is a weekly preview of intriguing games and matchups in the Atlantic Coast Conference, loosely tied to various artists or songs in some way, shape or form. That’s the plan at least.

The Atlantic Coast Conference will learn more about its member teams over the next three days than it did through the first two-plus weeks of the season. With all but a few top programs coasting into the season, the collective warm up is over.

The ACC’s three ranked teams — Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech — will each face a Power Five conference team for the first time. Throw Boston College, Duke, Miami and Pittsburgh into the same boat. (NC State, an annual soft scheduler, will have to wait until its conference opener on Oct. 3 to join the party.)

There is, of course, an obvious allure to avoiding non-conference heavyweights. Louisville, Virginia, Virginia Tech and North Carolina took on early-season challenges and those teams own a combined 2-6 record right now. Still, we have a better idea of what type of team Mike London has than we do of, say, David Cutcliffe. It’s time to pull back the curtain:

Notre Dame Stadium, Notre Dame, Ind., Saturday at 2:30 p.m.

No ACC team faces a bigger competition jump than Georgia Tech this weekend. Paul Johnson’s triple-option attack replaced talent at basically every skill position during the offseason and still treated Alcorn State and Tulane like 3-A high school teams. The 14th-ranked Yellow Jackets’ scoring margin through just two games: 134-16. They were tuned up from the first quarter of the season on.

ACC Playlist: Track List

Notre Dame, despite its ongoing question marks on offense, promises to put up much more of a fight.

Led by linebacker Jaylon Smith — one of the top defensive players in the country — coach Brian Kelly’s defense will be focusing its primary efforts on stopping the run and daring dual-threat quarterback Justin Thomas to beat them through the air. (The Fighting Irish gave up chunks of yardage through the air against Virginia last week while taking away running back Taquan Mizzell.)

Easier said than done against Johnson’s system.

"Georgia Tech has the most prolific offense in the country right now and have proven that over the last couple years," Kelly said. "This year with Justin Thomas at quarterback and great depth at the running back position and playing very good defense, taking the football away, it’s going to be a great challenge. We’re going to have to play our very best."

Notre Dame ranked 11th nationally against the run during its 2012 run to the BCS title game, but that ranking has plummeted into the 70s over the past two years. Ranked No. 24 at the moment, the Fighting Irish will learn just how proficient they are against the ground game on Saturday.

James Brown, "Lost Someone" — Notre Dame is already down three offensive starters, including standout quarterback Malik Zaire, so Kelly’s gameplan is still a bit of a mystery. Still, barring a complete debacle from redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer, Notre Dame has the talent to pull this win off at home.

Papa Johns Stadium, Louisville, Ky., Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

Bobby Petrino can vouch for the advantages of coasting into a season.

Facing arguably the most difficult non-conference schedule of his coaching career, the well-traveled offensive guru is now looking for a way to avoid the first 0-3 start of his career … and it will not be easy. The Tigers were the preseason ACC favorites for a reason, albeit not for the same reasons they’ve shown in the first two weeks.

Openers against Wofford and Appalachian State did not come without a cost for Dabo Swinney’s group, though, as top returning receiver Mike Williams is out indefinitely with a neck injury. In fact, despite sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson’s strong start, the offense is still figuring things out without Williams and offensive coordinator Chad Morris. In the meantime, the defense — presumed to be Clemson’s Achilles heel in 2015 after heavy personnel — has shown promise against lesser competition, forcing turnovers and ranking 10th in adjusted efficiency.

If Louisville hasn’t solved its offensive issues (the defense has been equally problematic despite a talent influx), this could be the Cardinals’ toughest task to date.

CHVRCHES, "Leave A Trace" — This Cardinals offense has looked nothing like past Petrino-led attacks. It could be altogether unrecognizable if Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables is somehow piecing together another excellent unit.

Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham, N.C., Saturday at 12:30 p.m.

Duke did not exactly emulate NC State’s non-conference strategy, but the emergence of Northwestern as a high-quality Big Ten foil was unexpected. The Wildcats will be the Blue Devils’ first scheduled non-conference opponent to be ranked in the AP poll since Stanford in 2012.

The Blue Devils have put up points behind new quarterback Thomas Sirk (758 total yards, 6 touchdowns), but they aren’t hanging 50-plus on a Pat Fitzgerald team. This is a defense-first matchup that could be decided simply by which team can manage to keep drives alive. Here are the two teams’ defensive success rates on third downs this season:

First team to 20? Sure.

Grimes, "Vowels = Space And Time" — I have no idea what this song title means. It’s allegedly a nod to some pre-Dada linguist movement spurred on by this surrealist group from Russia and … let’s just assume that all this could be explained more intelligently by someone heading to Wallace Wade on Saturday. Duke is attempting to beat the odds and stay competitive nationally despite missing significant pieces from last year’s team, but Northwestern gets the nod in the weekend’s Academia Bowl.

Alumni Stadium, Chestnut Hill, Mass., Friday at 8 p.m.

If Dalvin Cook puts together another showcase, this time against a well-coached defense, expect to hear the early Heisman-related aftershock.

In an absolutely loaded sophomore class of running backs — Nick Chubb (Georgia), Leonard Fournette (LSU), Nick Wilson (Arizona), Royce Freeman (Oregon), Peyton Barber (Auburn), Jalen Hurd (Tennessee) and so on — Cook stands out as a prime candidate to challenge for a rushing title. He ranks second nationally in rushing after putting up 422 yards and five touchdowns through two games. He’s a home-run threat whenever he touches the ball, he doesn’t split too many carries, the Florida State passing game is still evolving and he’ll be matched against a relatively weak slate of ACC defenses.

Cook has a chance, which is strange to say given the program’s underwhelming history at the running back position, and four of the past five rushing champs ended up at the Heisman ceremony. Oh, and a 100-yard performance against Boston College would be his sixth straight — tying Warrick Dunn’s school record.

The Eagles held him to 76 yards in a sloppy affair last season, but the next team to shut down Dalvin Cook when he’s Florida State’s No. 1 option will be the first.

Whitney Houston, "How Will I Know" — Technically, this is Florida State’s first test, an undefeated team from a top conference. But Boston College still finds itself in a rebuild. Wins over Maine and Howard haven’t changed that. The Eagles gave the Seminoles a scare last season, but that shouldn’t be the case this time around. The real question: How will we learn what Florida State is truly capable of until a three-game stretch against Miami, Louisville and Georgia Tech?

Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla., Saturday at 2:30 p.m.

Fifteen years ago, this would be the game on the college football schedule. This weekend, it hardly moves the national meter. The return march to the top is a steep incline.

The good news is that this is an evenly-matched game. If it weren’t for a miracle Hail Mary from a second-string quarterback, Mike Riley’s tenure at Nebraska would be off to a 2-0 start, while Al Golden’s group is off to an undefeated, albeit unremarkable, start. It might also be the best quarterback matchup on the ACC slate with Tommy Armstrong Jr. (589 yards, 5 TDs) and Brad Kaaya (460 yards, 3 TDs) taking center stage.

This is a coin flip. Miami has been better defensively. Nebraska has been better on the other side of the ball. Go with the home team and call it a day.

Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, "Familiar" — Two middle-tier programs searching for past greatness with near-identical efficiency rankings through the first two games of the season, this meeting requires little introduction. The one thing that will be unfamiliar: This is Nebraska’s first true road game in South Florida since 1951.