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October 30, 2008

ACC: Virginia finds itself back in league race

MORE PREVIEWS: Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC

One month ago, Virginia looked ready to challenge Syracuse, Washington and Washington State for the dubious honor of being the worst team from any of the "Big Six" conferences.

Now the Cavaliers seem poised to compete for a different title the one that goes to the winner of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The same team that was outscored 128-20 in its first three games against "Big Six" opponents has since gone on a four-game winning streak with victories over Maryland, East Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia Tech. That surge has put Virginia alone atop the ACC Coastal Division.

Virginia has made this improbable surge behind the arm of Marc Verica, who was expected to start the season as the third-string quarterback. Verica got the job only after Jameel Sewell and Peter Lalich left school.

What happened?

"There were some players who had never been in games before, and no matter what any of us did for the first time, we were waiting for the first success," Virginia coach Al Groh said. "We were all reinforced by the first success. And when it comes, we feel a little bit better about the next time we attempt it.

"I think there were a lot of players that just hadn't had any it wasn't that they had experienced failure it was just that they hadn't had any tangible success before then. They were waiting to see that."

That first taste of success whetted the Cavaliers' appetite for more. Their opponent this week wants to get an entirely different kind of taste out of its mouth.

In its final game at the Orange Bowl last year, Miami fell 48-0 to Virginia in one of the most embarrassing losses in school history. Miami coach Randy Shannon downplayed the revenge motive this week by noting that the Hurricanes are relying on plenty of first-year players who weren't part of that humiliating defeat.

"Some of the older guys, you may talk to them and they will say yeah, they remember it, but most of the guys were in high school trying to win state championships and playoff games," Shannon said. "Revenge sometimes can hurt you, because it is all built up inside of you. You have to make sure you go into the game with a fresh mind. Most people make mistakes when they are tired or mad. You are going to say something wrong or you are going to make a mistake in those situations. So, we won't be tired and we won't be upset. We are going to be positive.''

Miami at Virginia, noon
Clemson at Boston College, 3:30 p.m.
Duke at Wake Forest, 3:30 p.m.
Florida State at Georgia Tech, 3:30 p.m.

Miami (5-3, 2-2 ACC) still has an outside chance of winning the Coastal Division title if it beats Virginia, but the Cavaliers find themselves in even better position. Virginia (5-3, 3-1) enters the final month of the regular season as the only Coastal team with one conference loss.

Cedric Peerman has come on strong the second half of the season and could emerge as the ACC player of the year. Clint Sintim leads all linebackers across the nation with 9 sacks. Even though Virginia lost plenty of talent from last year's team, the Cavaliers' knack for winning close games has continued.

The Cavaliers sure have come a long way in the last month.

If they keep this up, they could go all the way to Tampa Bay in December.

  • Best matchup
  • Georgia Tech running game vs. Florida State run defense: This matchup between the ACC's top running game and the league's best run defense should provide plenty of intrigue. The Seminoles rank seventh in the nation in rushing defense and have allowed only one individual (Colorado's Rodney Stewart) to run for more than 100 yards this season. Then again, the Seminoles haven't faced an offense quite like Georgia Tech's option attack. How will they respond? Florida State will try to react better than the other ACC teams that struggled in their first look at new Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson's system. Running back Jonathan Dwyer and quarterback Josh Nesbitt lead a rushing attack that has averaged 4.9 yards per carry and 236.6 yards per game. Florida State's defense doesn't have much margin for error. Georgia Tech's defense is so potent that its offense usually only needs to control the clock and score about 20 points to win a game.

  • Player to watch
  • Virginia RB Cedric Peerman: This senior standout has rushed for at least 110 yards three times during Virginia's four-game winning streak. During the one game in which he failed to reach the century mark, Peerman scored his team's only two touchdowns as the Cavaliers rallied for a 16-13 overtime victory over North Carolina. The hottest rusher in the ACC now faces a Miami defense that has allowed a league-high 170.5 rushing yards per game against ACC opponents. Miami's run defense is actually better than that number suggests. The Hurricanes are allowing only 113.9 rushing yards per game overall and rank 33rd in the nation against the run. But that shouldn't stop Peerman from getting the ball time and time again Saturday.

  • Who's hot
    A crew will be on location at the Duke-Wake Forest game Saturday to film scenes for an upcoming film about the family of former Demon Deacons linebacker Jon Abbate.

    Abbate helped lead Wake Forest to the 2006 ACC title just 10 months after his younger brother, Luke, was killed in an auto accident. Five strangers benefited from the Abbate family's decision to donate Luke's organs.

    Jon Abbate changed his uniform number from 40 to 5 in his younger brother's honor. Before the fourth quarter of the 2006 season opener, Abbate found his parents in Section 5 of BB&T Field, and they all held five fingers as a tribute to Luke. As the season progressed, fans all over the stadium followed suit each time Wake Forest headed into the fourth quarter of a game.

    Aidan Quinn is starring as Abbate's father, Steven Abbate, in the film. Andie MacDowell is portraying Abbate's mother, Maryanne Abbate. Ryan Merriman is playing the role of Jon Abbate. The film is tentatively scheduled for a May 2009 release.

    The production crew is filming around Winston-Salem, N.C., at BB&T Field and on Wake Forest's campus throughout the first two weeks of November. Several scenes will be shot before, during and after the game.

    Wake is encouraging fans to remain in the stadium after Saturday's game as the crew re-enacts several games from the 2006 season.

    Florida State RB Antone Smith has run for nine touchdowns in his last four games. Florida State kicker Graham Gano has made 13 consecutive field-goal attempts. He has made a kick from at least 50 yards in four consecutive games. Georgia Tech DE Michael Johnson has compiled 6 tackles for loss over his last three games. Georgia Tech SS Morgan Burnett has picked off three passes in his last two games. Burnett leads the nation with six interceptions. Maryland LB Alex Wujciak has 63 tackles over his last five games. Miami kicker Matt Bosher has gone 12-for-13 on field-goal attempts this year. North Carolina WR Hakeem Nicks has caught 23 passes for 370 yards and three touchdowns in his last three games. North Carolina SS Trimane Goddard scored on a 51-yard interception return last week in a 45-24 victory over Boston College. Goddard has four interceptions over his last five games. North Carolina State QB Russell Wilson has thrown eight touchdown passes without an interception in his last four games. Virginia WR Kevin Ogletree has caught a total of four touchdown passes in his last four games. Virginia LB Clint Sintim has recorded eight sacks in his last five games. Virginia Tech DE Orion Martin has delivered at least one sack in four of his last five games.

  • Who's not
  • Boston College QB Chris Crane has thrown three interceptions in back-to-back games. Clemson RB James Davis has rushed for 51 yards on 20 carries over his last two games. Virginia Tech wide receivers haven't caught a touchdown pass this season. Wake Forest QB Riley Skinner has completed less than half his passes in back-to-back games.

  • What they're saying
  • "Somewhere along the line, it has gotten to the point where if we lose a ballgame, players say, 'Here we go again.' It should be a shock to them when Clemson loses a game. That's the way it is supposed to be."
    - Clemson interim coach Dabo Swinney.

    "The thing you have to do at this point is not hang your head and feel sorry for yourself. You just have to believe that good things are going to happen."
    - Wake Forest DE Matt Robinson. The Demon Deacons held a players-only meeting Monday as they try to end a two-game losing streak.

    "I don't know. If I knew, we wouldn't fumble."
    - Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in response to a question about whether inexperience was the cause of the Yellow Jackets' fumbling problems. The Jackets have fumbled a league-high 26 times, though they have only lost 14 of the fumbles.

    "It's very exciting. Like I told somebody today, I didn't want it this way. But things happen for a reason, and if this is my time to shine and God has given me an opportunity, I've got to make the best of it."
    - Virginia Tech QB Cory Holt to The Roanoke (Va.) Times on the possibility of starting next week against Maryland. Tyrod Taylor and Sean Glennon are questionable for the Maryland game after spraining their left ankles last week at Florida State.

    "I was asked about the season's start, and I said this team would be defined in November, and no doubt that's where the definition comes. Whether it's the opportunity to play in a bowl game or just to scratch out a victory, you don't know what's going to happen - so to be the best you can be playing five games in November takes total focus. I told the team, 'Welcome to November.' It's their first real trip to November in college football. I want them to enjoy the challenge and the opportunity they have. Now we have to fight like crazy to stay in it."
    - Duke coach David Cutcliffe.

    "Certainly the way that Cam's playing, barring any unforeseen injury or anything, Cam would continue to be the guy. As I've told the players all along since the day I took the job, the guy who gives us the best chance to win on Saturday, regardless of position, is the guy that we're going to play."
    - North Carolina coach Butch Davis on how he would handle his quarterback situation after T.J. Yates returns to health. Yates returned to practice on a limited basis this week after missing five games with a fractured left ankle. Cam Sexton has taken over in Yates' absence.

  • Etc.
  • Clemson QB Cullen Harper will start Saturday's game at Boston College. After losing his starting job two weeks ago, Harper replaced an injured Willy Korn and threw two touchdown passes and a pair of interceptions in a 21-17 loss to Georgia Tech. Wake Forest kicker Sam Swank's status remains uncertain. Swank has missed three games with a quadriceps injury. Shane Popham has gone 3-for-8 on field-goal attempts in Swank's absence. The ACC owns a combined 11-7 record in non-conference games against the "Big Six" conferences and Notre Dame. Miami's victories over Duke and Wake Forest gave the Hurricanes back-to-back ACC wins for the first time since October 2006. North Carolina's 45-24 victory over Boston College made the Tar Heels bowl-eligible for the first time since 2004. Clemson WR Aaron Kelly has 200 career receptions, which puts him 16 away from the ACC record held by former Wake Forest player Desmond Clark. Wake Forest CB Alphonso Smith leads the nation in passes defended. Defense continues to dominate the ACC. The conference has seven teams ranked in the top 36 in total defense: No. 3 Florida State, No. 7 Boston College, No. 12 Georgia Tech, No. 15 Miami, No. 28 Virginia Tech, No. 30 Wake Forest and No. 36 Clemson. The highest-ranked ACC team in total offense is No. 38 Florida State.

    MORE PREVIEWS: Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC

    Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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