The date to circle on the ACC calendar is Nov. 7. Not one but a pair of division showdowns will take place to ultimately decide two division titles.
One is Clemson (4-0, 1-0) playing host to Florida State (4-0, 2-0). The other is Duke (4-1, 2-0) bussing a few miles down the road to North Carolina (4-1, 1-0).
In the Atlantic, I’m expecting No. 12-ranked Florida State to have stumbled once by Nov. 7. Clemson might have, too, but the Tigers should beat Florida State to keep alive slim hopes for the College Football Playoff as a one-loss team.
Clemson, which already benefitted from a bye week preparing for last week’s 24-22 upset of then-No. 6 Notre Dame, has home games the next two Saturdays against Georgia Tech and Boston College. Then the Tigers face Miami, N.C. State, Florida State, Syracuse, Wake Forest and a non-conference regular-season finale at in-state rival South Carolina.
One reason Clemson is better than Florida State is the Tigers have strong play from sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. Florida State doesn’t have a quarterback to carry it. The Seminoles’ first loss could be this week against Miami.
In the Coastal, Duke is on the verge of joining the Top 25 with 31 points to equal No. 27 in the AP poll, but it is doubtful the one-loss Blue Devils or one-loss Tar Heels will finish the regular season without suffering defeat.
North Carolina has gained sudden attention as a Coastal favorite, claiming a tag that was vacated by Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech with early-season losses.
But let’s remember three weeks ago the Tar Heels wide receiver Bug Howard complained on Twitter about lack of fan support with 20,000-plus empty seats for a 48-14 win over Illinois. That’s not a good vibe in the locker room if he expressed what others were thinking. Then UNC struggled for the first half against lower-level FCS Delaware before pulling away in the second half behind backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
North Carolina bounced back to beat Georgia Tech, but the Tar Heels trailed 21-0 before inconsistent starting quarterback Marquise Williams found his game for a comeback 38-31 win.
Duke, which plays a non-conference game this week at Army, also lacks consistent play at quarterback, but the Blue Devils are stingier on defense than any Coastal school. Duke led Georgia Tech from the first quarter on (19-3) and held the Yellow Jackets to a season-low 316 total yards. North Carolina yielded 417 to Georgia Tech and the Yellow Jackets gained 337 on Notre Dame.
But even if Duke won out, the Blue Devils don’t have a ranked team remaining on their regular-season schedule. Duke follows Army with a bye and then faces Virginia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, Pitt, Virginia and Wake Forest.
The same is true of the Tar Heels. They have a bye this week followed by Wake Forest, Virginia, Pitt, Duke, Miami, Virginia Tech and N.C. State.
How far can Duke climb in the poll before facing Clemson in the ACC Championship game? Not far enough to be a factor in the CFP. But the Blue Dvils are good enough to spoil any of Clemson’s last remaining hopes.
But what do any of us know?
Consider that last year the talking heads who pose as experts on cable television were all proven wrong when Ohio State won the national title. The 2014 CFP entries were No. 1 seed Alabama, No. 2 Oregon, No. 3 Florida State and No. 4 Ohio State. But five weekends into last season, Florida State was ranked No. 1, Oregon No. 2 Alabama No. 3 and Ohio State No. 20. That is not a typo – 20th.
History repeats itself, and we may have an example to point to already in 2015.
Three weeks ago Alabama was written off following a 43-37 loss at home to Ole Miss. The Crimson Tide tumbled from No. 2 in the AP Top 25 poll to No. 13. Two weeks later Alabama went on the road to Georgia and routed the No. 8 Bulldogs 38-10. The Alabama Death Star is back to No. 8.
Thankfully, the CFP was wisely set up to release its first rankings well into the season. This year’s initial rankings will be announced by the selection committee on Nov. 3.