At 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday, the ACC was essentially up for grabs. Clemson, NC State, Virginia Tech and Miami all had clear paths to the conference championship game that were set to cross in the ensuing eight hours.
By the end of the day, the conference was all but set. After a 38–31 win in Raleigh, Clemson needs only to beat a struggling Florida State team next week to clinch the Atlantic Division. And with its 28–10 win over Virginia Tech, Miami remains undefeated, adds a meaningful win to its otherwise lackluster résumé and also gets a step closer to clinching the Coastal Division for the first time in program history.
In 8–1 Clemson and 8–0 Miami, the ACC now has two viable playoff contenders. The Tigers don’t have much more to accomplish this season beyond beating three manageable opponents (the Seminoles, the Citadel and South Carolina), but Miami’s schedule still affords it an ability to boost its profile—or destroy it. Next week, the Hurricanes get Notre Dame at home, and a win over a top-five team with College GameDay on campus would work to counteract any remaining belief that Mark Richt’s team has cruised to its undefeated record with help from its mediocre opponents. Miami also still has two conference games remaining, against Pitt and a surprisingly bowl-eligible Virginia team. Losing both of those might cede the division to Virginia, if the Cavaliers win out. Things on that end of the conference aren’t quite as settled as they are in the Atlantic, but Miami’s fate is now in its own hands—and Saturday’s action convinced many that the Hurricanes have what it takes to play for a conference title.
Facing a top-10 conference opponent for the second time this year, Virginia Tech again looked like it still has work to do under second-year coach Justin Fuente. The Hokies weren’t able to fully capitalize off Miami’s three giveaways, and their offense stalled late in the game. NC State also ran short on gas down the stretch, losing the third quarter 14–0 before clawing back into the game in the final minutes. There’s no question that both of Saturday’s losers are the second-best teams in their respective divisions and worthy of top bowl bids, but as far as the playoff goes, they’re still a step behind. It will be hard to size up the impending Clemson-Miami ACC title game until December: The Hurricanes and Tigers last met in 2015, when Clemson secured Miami coach Al Golden’s ouster with a 58–0 win. Don’t expect that a score like that should the two teams meet this year. Both feature physical, smothering defenses with a healthy dose of swagger, which should make for one heck of a championship game matchup, barring any late-November disasters.
Playing an opponent as talented as Clemson—especially on the defensive side of the ball—Miami won’t be able to get away with sloppy plays like it did Saturday. Hurricanes quarterback Malik Rosier threw three picks, although they resulted in just seven Hokies points. The entire game was relatively sloppy, as Virginia Tech lost two fumbles and threw two interceptions, the second of which came in the game’s final seconds when Miami cornerback Sheldrick Redwine picked off Josh Jackson as the Hokies attempted to break into the red zone. Redwine’s 45-yard return effectively ended the night, and after heading to the sideline he took a dry-erase marker and scribbled “BALL GAME” on a whiteboard, holding the message above his head to the home crowd.
Miami has its groove back, and Clemson hasn’t come close to losing its. This is shaping up to be a fun ride in the ACC.