Storylines continue to take shape in the ACC through three weeks. Whether it be the emergence of the Louisville Cardinals, the improvement of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, or the pitiful play of both Boston College and Virginia, we have learned more and more about the conference by the week. As we put a cap on Week Three of the 2016 season, here are the five things we’ve learned in the ACC.
1) Louisville: They’re for Real
Well, duh. That seems obvious.
However, when you play against the nation’s second-ranked team that is a very popular College Football Playoff pick and blow the doors off of them on national TV by a final score of 63-20, there isn’t much doubt that your team is for real.
It was gospel entering the season that Louisville was very talented, but was likely the third-best team in the ACC Atlantic Division behind Clemson and Florida State. Admittedly, I was one of the many that saw Louisville as formidable, but likely a bit short of the firepower necessary to take down the two bona-fide frontrunners in the ACC in Clemson and Florida State.
The emergence of Lamar Jackson, the passer, has been the second biggest development behind the much more consistent pass rush that the Cardinals have possessed this season on the defensive side of the football. With the defense rolling at an all-time high after making a mockery out of Florida State redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois, and Lamar Jackson’s FBS-leading 18 total touchdowns placing him atop the Heisman race after the opening three weeks, it appears to be full speed ahead for the #3 Cardinals as they face a road test at Marshall this Saturday before traveling to Death Valley on October 1st in a prime-time match-up against #5 Clemson.
2) Injuries Have Caught Up With Florida State
The Seminoles were torched on Saturday against Louisville, with little to no pass rush or answer in the secondary for everything that was thrown their way. Florida State entered the match-up against the Cardinals without their All-American safety Derwin James, who is expected to be out at least a month after undergoing knee surgery, and his loss was felt early and often as receivers ran wild through the Florida State secondary.
Additionally, the ‘Noles missed the presence of sophomore defensive end Josh Sweat, who participated in the match-up, but was far from 100%, causing him to rotate in the game on a limited basis. As a result, Lamar Jackson and the rushing offense went wild, accounting for 314 yards on the ground.
Despite the blowout loss, the Seminoles are still as talented as any team in the country, but they will need to get healthy on defense in a hurry in order to become a realistic one-loss contender come the end of the season.
3) Pittsburgh Has Serious Issues in Their Secondary
This has been a bit of an issue for the Pittsburgh Panthers for a couple of weeks now, but the pass-heavy Oklahoma State Cowboys made a mockery of what was slated to be a very talented Pittsburgh secondary entering the season. Oklahoma State junior quarterback Mason Rudolph threw for 540 yards and two touchdowns in the 45-38 victory over the Panthers, which dropped Pitt to a very mediocre 66th ranking in Passing Efficiency Defense through the opening three games.
Despite all of the hype that Pat Narduzzi’s defense garnered after a very good first season under his watch in 2015, the Panthers have a pretty glaring weakness in their defensive backfield right now, which will need to be corrected in a hurry this week before traveling to Chapel Hill to face North Carolina’s 34th-ranked passing offense and all of the weapons that they have on that side of the football.
4) Through Three Weeks, Wake Forest is the ACC’s Most Improved
After Saturday’s 38-21 throttling of FCS opponent Delaware, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons are off to their first 3-0 start since the 2008 season, and with nine games remaining are just three wins short of bowl eligibility. The Demon Deacons entered the season with questions across the board both offensively and defensively, but have quietly found an identity as a team keen on rushing the football effectively on offense, and stopping the run effectively on defense.
Wake Forest’s offense remains a work-in-progress, but the strides made on the defensive side of the football are apparent despite a light schedule to date. Regardless, the Demon Deacons have put themselves in excellent early position to make their first bowl game since the 2011 Music City Bowl, as they go for their fourth straight win to start the season this weekend against Indiana.
5) North Carolina’s Rushing Defense is a Sieve
The obvious Achilles’ Heel of North Carolina entering last season was their defense. In 2015, North Carolina vastly improved overall on the defensive side of the football once the season kicked off, with their passing defense perhaps showing even greater improvement than expected in the first year under the command of Gene Chizik.
The rushing defense still had room to grow and mature entering this season, especially after the shellacking at the hands of Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl finale last December that saw the Bears run for a record 645 yards against the Tar Heels defense. With optimism coming out of fall camp that there would be progress made in defending the run, many were excited to see if the ‘Heels could take the next step in that area of the game, much like their passing defense took a step forward a year ago.
However, the first three games of 2016 have shown us many of the same defensive issues as a year ago. Nick Chubb and Georgia ran all over the ‘Heels in Week One, with Chubb rushing for 222 of his team’s 289 yards in their 33-24 victory. In Week Two, the Tar Heels bounced back with a 48-23 win over Illinois, but their rushing defense struggled yet again, yielding 189 total yards on the ground with the ‘Illini ball-carriers averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Finally, in this past weekend against James Madison University, an FCS-foe, the Tar Heels surrendered 209 yards on the ground in a 56-28 victory, which could be considered their most disappointing performance against the run yet, considering that the Dukes are not an FBS-level opponent.
The most important thing right now is that North Carolina is winning football games and off to a decent start despite their season opening loss to Georgia. Moving forward though, they’ll need to find a way to stop the run if they want to contend for ACC crown.