ACC Football: Five Storylines to Watch in Week Two

1) The Battle for Bowl Eligibility — Wake Forest vs. Boston College

It sounds rather absurd to label this game as the “Battle for Bowl Eligibility” when we are only heading into Week Two of the college football season. With that being said, this game is so incredibly important for both of these football teams. When you find yourself playing in the Atlantic Division with Florida State, Clemson, Louisville, and NC State, every other game you play becomes extremely important in order to reach the six-win threshold needed for bowl eligibility.

Hence, Saturday’s game is the “Battle for Bowl Eligibility”, as the path for these teams making bowl games becomes increasingly more difficult if they drop this Week Two tilt. Consider the schedules for these two teams moving forward outside of the four teams at the top of the Atlantic that I mentioned. Both Wake Forest and Boston College draw Notre Dame in their respective non-conference schedules, which are both likely losses. BC draws Virginia and Virginia Tech from the Coastal Division, while Wake Forest draws Georgia Tech and Duke in their crossover games from the Coastal. It is completely conceivable that both Boston College and Wake Forest split their crossover games with the Coastal Division.

Therefore, if we run under the assumption that both the Demon Deacons and the Eagles lose each of their four games against Florida State, Clemson, Louisville, and NC State, the loss totals for both teams would reach six after additional losses to Notre Dame and one of the Coastal opponents. As a result, both Wake and BC would need to win every other game on their schedule in order to reach bowl eligibility, which of course, includes their game on Saturday against each other.

With all of that said, the importance of this game on Saturday for these two schools cannot be understated. The winner will remain in good position to get to six wins, while the loser will need to pull off a major upset in the coming months in order to reach the six-win threshold for bowl eligibility.

2) How good is Kelly Bryant and how good is Clemson?

The #3 Clemson Tigers cruised past Kent State in their opener last weekend by a final score of 56-3. It was a dominant defensive performance against a team in Kent State that had no business being on the same field as the Tigers, but more importantly, it was a strong debut for new Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant. Bryant completed 16-of-22 passes for 236 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. He also added seven carries for 77 yards and a score before handing over the keys to true freshman Hunter Johnson once the game got out of hand.

We learned very little about the defending national champions in this game, as they simply handled their business against an inferior opponent. However, all of this will change on Saturday night when #13 Auburn comes to town. I won’t bore you with statistics after one week of action, because they tell us very little. What I can assure you though is that Auburn has one of the most talented defenses in the SEC, and should be right in the mix to challenge #1 Alabama for the conference championship at season’s end.

As a result, Kelly Bryant will be asked to do much more in this game on Saturday, especially if Auburn keys on the running game of Clemson and forces Bryant to throw to beat them. He flashed his arm talent against Kent State, but will need to be every bit as good, or better, against Auburn on Saturday night. My gut feeling is that Clemson’s offense will have an easier time moving the football against Auburn’s defense, than Auburn’s offense will against Clemson’s defense.

In a game of this magnitude, that should end up being close throughout, mistakes will be magnified. The team that most limits mistakes and big plays should win the ball game. Whether or not it is Clemson on the right side of the final score remains to be seen, but we should learn a ton about what kind of football team the Tigers will be after this game.

3) Can Pittsburgh make things interesting against #4 Penn State?

My personal sentiment here is probably not, especially in Happy Valley, but stranger things have happened. As many will remember, Pittsburgh pulled off the unlikely upset at home against the rival Nittany Lions last fall. Pat Narduzzi and Co. found a way to steal that home game before anybody realized just how good Penn State would become in the second half of last season. This year is quite a bit different. Penn State isn’t sneaking up on anybody, and needs to avoid a letdown against the Panthers to keep their College Football Playoff hopes from running off the rails in the season’s second week.

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley should feast on a short-handed Pitt secondary that is coming off a Week One where they allowed 311 yards and three touchdowns to Hunter Wells of 2016 FCS-runner up Youngstown State. Youngstown State is a fine program coached by former Nebraska head man Bo Pelini, but there is no reason for a team like Pittsburgh to give up three touchdown passes (and nearly lose in overtime) to a lower-level opponent like the Penguins.

As bad of a match-up as this is for Pittsburgh defending the passing game of the Nittany Lions, it’s even worse in the running game. Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is a sure-fire Heisman candidate, who just torched Akron last week to a tune of 224 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. Yes, it is Akron, but Pittsburgh’s defense has not proven that they are much better on that side of the football than the Zips. Because the match-up between Penn State’s offense and Pittsburgh’s defense is such a massive mismatch, the only way for the Panthers to keep this one close is to run the football effectively and keep Penn State’s offense off the field.

While I think Pittsburgh can hang in early, I’m not sure that they have anywhere close to enough firepower to pull off the upset, especially on the road.

4) Can the ACC bounce-back from a rough opening weekend?

As I mentioned in my piece recapping Week One, it was a tough start to the 2017-18 football season for the ACC. The conference was a combined 2-5 against other members of the Power Five, which doesn’t include near misses by Boston College against Northern Illinois (Eagles escaped 23-20), and Pittsburgh against FCS-foe Youngstown State (Panthers won 28-21 in overtime).

For all the talk of the ACC being the premier conference in America following the bowl season dominance and national championship victory with Clemson, it was a weekend laden largely in disappointment for the conference as a whole. While there shouldn’t be too much stock put in one weekend, the ACC will need to bounce-back in Week Two and capitalize on their opportunities in the non-conference match-ups.

Pittsburgh will look to make it two wins in a row against in-state rival Penn State, who enters the contest ranked fourth in the nation. #3 Clemson takes on #13 Auburn in a prime-time home tilt in Death Valley. Virginia hosts Indiana in an intriguing afternoon match-up against a team that hung tough with #2 Ohio State for a good bit of the opener a week ago. If the ACC can come out of this trio of games with a winning record, it will be a strong bounce-back for the conference after a brutal start in Week One.

5) Can NC State limit their mistakes after a lackluster effort against South Carolina?

There is little question as to who the better football team was last Saturday when NC State hosted South Carolina in Raleigh. The Wolfpack compiled 504 yards of total offense to the 246 yards for the Gamecocks, but they still found a way to lose. Two costly turnovers, combined with poor kickoff coverage that led to South Carolina wide receiver Deebo Samuel returning the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, proved to be the difference in a disappointing loss to begin the season for the Wolfpack.

NC State hosts Marshall on Saturday, which should provide an excellent opportunity to rebound from last week’s loss with a much-needed victory. The Wolfpack are heavily favored in this one, so the real storyline will revolve around whether or not they can limit the mental mistakes in this football game. Marshall likely is not talented enough to capitalize on enough NC State mistakes to steal the game like South Carolina did a week ago, but the ‘Pack will need to play a clean football game in order to regroup and get their confidence back.

NC State needs to get their ducks in a row before facing Florida State, Louisville, Clemson, and Notre Dame later in the season, and the match-up on Saturday against the Thundering Herd provides a good stepping stone game that will get things moving back in the right direction for Dave Doeren’s ball club. Whether or not they can capitalize on the opportunity at hand will be one of the things to keep an eye on tomorrow in Raleigh.
Thanks for reading everyone! Follow me on Twitter @MikeMcDanielACC and check out InsideTheACC on Facebook and on Twitter @InsideTheACC. You can also follow Mark Rogers for all of his college football coverage on Twitter @MarkRogersTV.


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