ACC Notes: Clemson carrying the load

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Week 2 across the ACC wasn’t one that necessarily left the league office in Greensboro brimming with excitement. Overall, the league’s showing in non-conference games left plenty to be desired, but one team still looks like a national title contender. Each week we’ll take a look around the Atlantic Coast Conference and examine the most important happenings.

TRIUMPHANT TIGERS: It’s already clear the ACC’s run as the best conference in college football is done. A week ago Florida State was hammered by Alabama, Tennessee stopped Georgia Tech, Cal took down North Carolina and South Carolina found a way to beat N.C. State.

This week, Penn State cruised past Pitt, Indiana won easily at Virginia and Middle Tennessee beat Syracuse.

There have been a few nice wins for the conference sprinkled in. Duke looked good in beating Northwestern, for instance. But right now, even with Virginia Tech and Louisville sitting at 2-0, the ACC’s reputation is in the hands of defending College Football Playoff champion Clemson.

It’s still very early, but Saturday’s victory against a Top 15 Auburn team has Dabo Swinney’s team holding its own Playoff destiny in its hands.

Kelly Bryant isn’t DeShaun Watson, few are. But he’s looked more than capable in two games so far, proving to be a true dual threat.

But Clemson’s identify in the post-Watson era will come from its pass rush. The Tigers sacked Auburn 11 times on Saturday. Defensive end Austin Bryant had four of them. Even in a conference that still boasts the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, Austin Bryant has potential to be the ACC’s most disruptive player if he continues to get to the quarterback like that.

MR. JONES…GONNA BE A BIG, BIG STAR: By now, the story of Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield going from walk on to superstar is well known. Could Duke’s Daniel Jones write a similar story for himself?

The sophomore from Charlotte came to Duke as a walk on who was also recruited by Princeton. Now he’s one of the ACC’s most intriguing NFL Draft prospects. At 6-5 and about 220 pounds, Jones has even better size than former North Carolina and current Chicago Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

He’s also more mobile, as evidenced Saturday against Northwestern when he threw for 305 yards and rushed for 108 more, with four total touchdowns.

Coached by quarterback guru David Cutcliffe, Jones might very well shoot up draft boards much the same way Trubisky did.

QUESTION MARKS: So Clemson is still good, but it’s much less clear where the second tier of ACC teams fit into the national landscape. Miami hasn’t had a real test and Hurricane Irma’s arrival means we don’t know what Florida State has in freshman quarterback James Blackman.

Virginia Tech got a nice season-opening win against West Virginia, but sort of slept walked through Saturday’s victory against Delaware. Louisville still has Lamar Jackson doing Lamar Jackson things with eight total touchdowns. But the Cardinals have allowed 31.5 points per game against average at best competition. The defense has to get better if Louisville is going to beat really good teams.

SETBACK IN C-VILLE: Bronco Mendenhall is not on the hot seat, but the second-year Virginia coach’s situation is a little less comfortable than it was a week ago.

Coming off a 2-10 season, the Cavaliers showed signs of improvement beating William & Mary last week, but Saturday’s 34-17 home loss to Indiana has the natives restless once again.

Mendenhall can coach, he averaged nine wins a season over a decade at BYU, and that doesn’t happen by accident. Virginia is also playing several freshman in key spots, which could payoff in the future.

But UVA is also looking for a new athletic director after Craig Littlepage announced his upcoming retirement last week. A new AD is the kind of thing that can make any coach that isn’t winning nervous. If Virginia doesn’t make big strides this season, how much leash will Mendenhall have with a new boss?

Mendenhall was a classic Littlepage hire, fitting in nicely with the current stable of UVA coaches. If you walked into a Virginia press conference blindfolded, it might be tough to tell if you are listening to Mendenhall, basketball coach Tony Bennett or baseball coach Brian O’Connor.

Their tone, demeanor and message are often that similar.

Littlepage certainly had a type, but a new AD might want to shake up a football program that isn’t selling out Scott Stadium and has fallen far behind its biggest rivals.

 

Shane Mettlen is a veteran journalist who lives in Virginia and also writes for The ACC Sports Journal. Follow him on Twitter @ShaneMettlen