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October 27, 2011

Week 9 preview in the ACC

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Clemson and Georgia Tech played so well the first month of the season that their midseason showdown in Atlanta loomed as an ACC championship game preview.

Now that the game's only a couple of days away, the potential for a rematch seems much less likely.

Virginia at Miami, 8 p.m.
N.C. State at Florida State, noon
Virginia Tech at Duke, 12:30 p.m.
Boston College at Maryland, 3 p.m.
Wake Forest at North Carolina, 3:30 p.m.
Clemson at Georgia Tech, 8 p.m.
Clemson (8-0 overall, 5-0 in the ACC) has held up its end of the bargain by keeping up its torrid pace and soaring to fifth in the BCS standings, but Georgia Tech (6-2, 3-2) followed up its hot start by losing its past two games.

Georgia Tech now is a half-game behind Virginia Tech (7-1, 3-1) in the Coastal Division standings. Although the Yellow Jackets remain in the race, the Yellow Jackets certainly haven't resembled a BCS contender of late.

"The last couple of weeks have been disappointing, to say the least," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said.

Perhaps Georgia Tech's slump shouldn't come as much of a surprise. The Yellow Jackets went 6-7 last season and were picked to finish fourth in the Coastal this season. But the reason behind the skid is quite stunning.

Tech's much-maligned defense hasn't been much of a problem. Only one of Tech's first eight opponents has exceeded 28 points, and the Yellow Jackets rank 18th nationally in pass efficiency defense.

But the Jackets' high-powered option attack has lost plenty of steam the past few weeks. After averaging 51.6 points over its first five games, Tech has scored a total of 49 points in its past three contests.

Tech opened the season by rolling up 662 yards against Western Carolina, 596 yards at Middle Tennessee and a school-record 768 yards against Kansas. But the Yellow Jackets gained just 296 yards in a 24-21 loss at Virginia two weeks ago and followed that up with just 211 in a 24-7 setback at Miami.

In each of those two losses, Georgia Tech got beaten at the line of scrimmage. Now the Yellow Jackets are dealing with injury problems on the offensive line as they prepare to face the conference front-runner.

Starting center Jay Finch suffered a lower-leg injury early in the Miami game and probably won't play against Clemson. Nick McRae is the most likely replacement if Finch isn't available. Whoever lines up at center will have a tough time against Clemson defensive tackle Brandon Thompson, a potential first-round pick.

"It would be a stretch for [Finch] to play this week," Johnson said. "I don't know that we ruled him totally out, but it would be a stretch."

Georgia Tech wants to control the clock Saturday to keep Clemson's high-powered offense on the sideline, but the Yellow Jackets haven't produced many long possessions lately. Georgia Tech had a 9-minute touchdown drive against Virginia, but all of its other possessions in the final 40 minutes of that game lasted less than four minutes. Tech had a 20-play series against Miami, but only one of its other possessions lasted longer than five snaps.

Time of possession could play a major role in Saturday's game. Clemson leads the ACC in scoring at 40.6 points per game and has more possessions than most teams with its hurry-up, no-huddle attack. Georgia Tech wants to make sure Clemson doesn't get as many opportunities as usual Saturday.

"We have got to be more efficient offensively," Johnson said. "This is the type of game where [if] you give them 16, 17 possessions like they are used to playing, they are going to score some points. If we can make this an eight- or 10-possession game and we can be efficient on our end, that's the way you want to play this game. You don't want to keep giving them the ball over and over with a chance."

While Johnson is worried about controlling the clock, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is concerned about the quick strike. Georgia Tech has produced 14 touchdowns that went at least 20 yards. Those big plays haven't occurred nearly as often lately, but Swinney knows Tech can score from anywhere on the field.

"They put just a ton of pressure on you every single snap and force you to play with a lot of discipline," he said. "And if you don't, it's a big play. So we have got our hands full."

So do the Yellow Jackets.

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BEST MATCHUP: North Carolina WR Dwight Jones vs. Wake Forest CBs Merrill Noel and Kenny Okoro. This game could pit one of the ACC's top wide receivers against one of the nation's hottest cornerbacks. Jones has caught 48 passes for 703 yards and eight touchdowns and ranks fourth in the ACC in receiving. He also is eager to make a bigger impact this week after catching just two passes for 16 yards in last week's 59-38 loss to Clemson. Noel, a redshirt freshman, has 14 pass breakups in his past four games. Jones, a 6-4 junior, is six inches taller than Noel. Wake Forest also could line up Okoro, a 6-foot junior, on Jones at times. Noel is having the more productive season, but Okoro would offer more height and experience.

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Virginia Tech LB Barquell Rivers. After recording 96 tackles two seasons ago, Rivers ruptured his quadriceps tendon during an offseason weightlifting session and missed almost all of the 2010 campaign. His only playing time last season came on kickoff coverage in the Orange Bowl loss to Stanford. Rivers returned to action this fall in a backup role, but he likely will return to the starting lineup Saturday now that teammate Bruce Taylor is out for the season with a foot injury. Taylor had a team-high 53 tackles to go along with five sacks. Taylor's injury also could result in more playing time for sophomore Jack Tyler.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Maryland's quarterback situation. C.J. Brown seemingly had solidified his status as Maryland's long-term quarterback solution when he rushed for 162 yards and a touchdown and also threw three touchdown passes against Clemson in his first career start. But he followed that up by throwing for just 92 yards and running for zero net yards on 10 carries in last Saturday's 41-16 loss to Florida State. Brown left the game with a head injury in the third quarter, but he remained on the sideline even after being cleared to return to the game. So do the Terps stick with Brown or go back to season-opening starter Danny O'Brien, the 2010 ACC rookie of the year? Maryland coach Randy Edsall said it would be a game-time decision.

NUMBERS GAME: Clemson has won 56-45 over Maryland and 59-38 over North Carolina in its past two games, making it just the third team in ACC history to score at least 56 points in back-to-back games. The 1990 Virginia team had three consecutive games with at least 56 points: a 56-14 rout of Navy, a 59-0 shutout of Duke and a 63-35 victory over William & Mary. Florida State beat Maryland 69-21 and whipped Tulane 70-7 in consecutive games in 1992.

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"He's the best linebacker in college football, bar none. ... He doesn't complain. He just gets it done. What Peyton Manning is to the Colts, that's what he is for us. He has that type of smarts, that type of athleticism. He's a guy that is consistent every day. I could be like Don King all day talking about him. It's unreal. His parents have done an outstanding job. It's hard to find a kryptonite for him." - Miami linebackers coach Micheal Barrow, to The Miami Herald about Miami LB Sean Spence

"People talk about how they ignore [hype and rankings], and I say that's a lie. You can't ignore it because it's everywhere. But what you can do is handle it and not allow it to make your head bigger and not get complacent. It's not good enough until we're No. 1. The rankings don't matter until the second week in December." - Clemson TE Dwayne Allen, to TigerIllustrated.com

"I'm shocked because I thought we had a chance to come in here and win. If we wouldn't have had those mistakes, we probably could have come out of here with a win." - North Carolina WR Jheranie Boyd, to TarHeelIllustrated.com after the Tar Heels committed six turnovers in a 59-38 loss to Clemson

"I don't think I've coached very well. It just bothers me. I mean, I'm not just saying that. It sincerely bothers me, but I can't do anything about it right now other than try to be the best I can be. But it's a very difficult thing to deal with as a coach, and certainly our players have had a difficult time with it." - Duke coach David Cutcliffe, attempting to explain his team's series of close losses to Wake Forest. Duke fell 24-23 to Wake Forest last week for its 12th consecutive loss in the in-state rivalry. Eight of those games have been decided by one possession

POLL WATCH: Clemson's No. 5 ranking is its highest spot ever in the BCS standings. This also marks only the third week ever that Clemson has owned a top-10 BCS ranking. Clemson had been ranked seventh last week and on Oct. 23, 2000. Virginia Tech is 12th in the BCS standings, the same spot it held last week.

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ETC.: North Carolina's Zach Brown, North Carolina State's Audie Cole, Boston College's Luke Kuechly and Miami's Sean Spence were included among the 12 semifinalists for the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation's top linebacker. No other conference had more than three semifinalists. ... Boston College (1-6) must win the rest of its games to become eligible for a 13th consecutive bowl bid. The Eagles also are trying to keep alive their school-record streak of 12 consecutive winning seasons. ... Clemson RB Andre Ellington left last week's game early with a sprained left ankle, but Swinney expects him to play against Georgia Tech. ... Duke WRs Donovan Varner and Conner Vernon are on the verge of breaking the school career receptions record that has stood for more than two decades. Varner has 180 catches, while Vernon has 175. Clarkston Hines played at Duke from 1986-89 and caught 189 passes, which was an ACC record at the time. ... Florida State WR Rashad Greene is expected to play Saturday after missing two games with a sprained ankle. Greene has scored in each of the five games he has played. ... Although Georgia Tech has struggled to move the ball during its two-game losing streak, the Yellow Jackets still lead all FBS teams in third-down conversion percentage (.586). ... Maryland LB Kenny Tate will miss the rest of the season with an injury that apparently will require surgery, though school officials haven't discussed the nature of the injury. Maryland coach Randy Edsall indicated Tate would play linebacker again next season if he gets a medical redshirt and returns in 2012. Tate was a first-team All-ACC safety last season. ... The Miami-Virginia game will represent a reunion of sorts for Hurricane coach Al Golden and Cavaliers coach Mike London, who worked together as assistant coaches at Boston College (1997-99) and Virginia (2001-04). ... Miami will try to continue its Thursday night magic against Virginia. The Hurricanes have an all-time record of 15-2 in ESPN Thursday night games, including a 10-0 mark at home. ... North Carolina FS Matt Merletti is out for the season with two sprained knee ligaments. Merletti had 36 tackles and two interceptions this season. ... North Carolina State CB David Amerson leads all FBS players in interceptions (eight), while teammate T.J. Graham ranks first nationally in all-purpose yards per game (185.7). ...The injury to LB Bruce Taylor leaves Virginia Tech without three of its season-opening starters on defense. Virginia Tech already had lost LB Jeron Gouveia-Winslow and DT Antoine Hopkins to season-ending injuries. ... Wake Forest RB Josh Harris will play Saturday at North Carolina after missing the Duke game with a pulled hamstring.

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Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can follow him on Twitter.

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