Ranked ACC teams struggle as conference chaos arrives

Joshua S. Kelly/Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Over the course of a college football season given weeks occasionally acquire cliché nicknames, labels describing the evolving hierarchy of contending teams.

For the Atlantic Coast Conference, Week 7 could be remembered with the familiar title: “Survival Saturday. Lackluster slates have a way of producing high drama.

If there was any lingering doubt the lull in high-profile conference matchups — each of the league’s five ranked teams squared off against unranked opponents — it was quickly dismissed Friday night when Louisville, though in control throughout, allowed Duke to hang around. In Lamar Jackson’s quietest game of a Heisman-quality season, the seventh-ranked Cardinals led by just a field goal with two minutes remaining. So the stage was already set.

Of the ACC’s five ranked teams entering the weekend, two lost (No. 16 Miami, No. 17 Virginia Tech), one squeaked by in overtime (No. 3 Clemson) and another found itself in a one-score game in the fourth quarter (Louisville). The only team that built any resemblance of a “comfortable” lead in the final 15 minutes was No. 14 Florida State playing at home against Wake Forest — a showdown which boasted a 10-6 score by the mid-third quarter.

Style points were simply discarded.

Start with Clemson, the conference’s lone undefeated team and its best bet for the College Football Playoff.

The Tigers’ home date against NC State, a 4-1 team lacking a convincing win on the resume, appeared to be the calm before the storm: a decisive Oct. 29 date with rival Florida State. Instead, the Wolfpack indeed looked resurgent. Clemson had to fight for every single yard. Despite Deshaun Watson’s 378-yard, three-touchdown day, the Tigers’ offense — operating without injured running back Wayne Gallman — could not stay out of its own way, committing four turnovers. As coach Dabo Swinney said after the game, “I mean four turnovers, three in the red zone, two on the goal line, is really hard to overcome.”

But Clemson did … barely. It required second-half stops, a key blocked field goal, an overtime dart from Watson on an Artavis Scott crossing route and a game-ending interception from Marcus Edmond to make it happen, but it did happen. For a conference with one surefire playoff contender — Louisville still holds an outside chance, but needs help along the way — it was an outcome tinged with relief. Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren missed his first true signature win by a hair, but Ryan Finley’s only overtime pass attempt landed in the correct hands as far as the conference’s title hopes are concerned.

Perhaps no other ranked ACC contender escaped with such positivity.

Virginia Tech, coming off a lopsided win over reigning ACC Coastal champs North Carolina, suffered the conference’s first major upset of the season, falling 31-17 to two-win Syracuse. First-year head coach Justin Fuente’s group had won its previous three games by 117 combined points before it all fell apart in the Carrier Dome. And just like that, the Hokies potentially coughed up the division’s driver seat as Coastal Chaos returns. The Tar Heels’ successful road trip in Miami left the Hurricanes with two ACC losses, leaving Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Pittsburgh at the top of the division standings with one loss apiece and plenty of pivotal games left to play. (To be fair: Virginia also claims just one conference loss, suffered on Saturday against Pittsburgh.)

And if Florida State and, especially, Louisville were searching for polling style points, 24-14 and 17-6 wins over Duke and Wake Forest, respectively, are not going to cut it.

From a top-down perspective, Week 7 offered a front-row seat to the ACC skirting disaster — but not skirting negativity.

Upsets provide emotional moments, like Syracuse’s Dino Babers telling his players, “People don’t know what we went through.” Doeren narrowly missed out on that moment. Duke’s David Cutcliffe and Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson were not that far behind. Mark Richt’s potential storybook inaugural season Miami has unraveled a bit in recent weeks. Watching such moments unfold (or slip away) underscore college football’s staying power.

Still, past the season’s halfway point, brand-new Coastal favorite Virginia Tech falling to an unranked opponent and national powers Clemson and Louisville slogging through presumed routine wins amounted to arguably the ACC’s worst weekend of 2016.

The good news: A few survived, and a few more found renewed hope.