In the year of the coronavirus pandemic, traditions — and logic — matter not.
There are five games in the Atlantic Coast Conference this weekend, all important to the teams playing but none involving No. 2 Notre Dame or No. 4 Clemson. The league gave the Fighting Irish and the Tigers the weekend off before they meet in the ACC Game of the Year, Part II, in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Dec. 19 for the ACC title.
But the 10 teams that are playing are focused on this week.
No. 9 Miami and the 20th-ranked Tar Heels meet at North Carolina in a pivotal matchup that will determine bowl position. Virginia will visit Virginia Tech and renew a fierce rivalry that grew more intense a year ago when Bronco Mendenhall’s Cavaliers ended a 15-year losing streak in the series with a 39-30 victory.
The rest of the games — Wake Forest at Louisville, Pittsburgh at Georgia Tech and Duke at Florida State — largely involve the bottom half of the ACC standings, with only Wake Forest (4-3, 3-3) having a winning record. The Demon Deacons, because of the pandemic, have played four fewer games than expected and are slated to play two more.
But the most of college football looking at the ACC are talking about Notre Dame and Clemson. The Fighting Irish won the first, at home, 47-40 in overtime, when the Tigers were without Trevor Lawrence because of a COVID-19 infection. The Heisman Trophy candidate and probable No. 1 choice in the NFL draft is back for the rematch.
The league traditionally wants all eyes on its two top teams battling for a spot in the College Football Playoff, but this year on championship Saturday, Georgia Tech also will play at Miami and Florida State will play at Wake Forest.
While it could be a case of television money driving the proverbial bus in the ACC, coaches and players refuse to see it that way.
“These guys are competitors. We are a young football team. We’re one of the youngest teams in college football. We need every rep that we can get,” said Florida State coach Mike Norvell, whose team (2-6, 1-6) has played only twice in five weeks. “I understand the challenges that come with that, but our guys are excited about being able to go through a week and implement a plan to do all you can to prepare for a game.
“When that’s taken away from you, it is emotional … we want to play,” he said.
Duke junior running back Mataeo Durant will get his last chance for the year at Florida State on Saturday and isn’t inclined to pass up the opportunity to play again.
“It’s all about competing. Everyone wants to go out there and compete to the best of their abilities,” he said. “At the end of the day, we all play the same game and so we’re in it for the same reasons, trying to go out and get a win every weekend.”
All teams hope to be playing games that matter at the end of the season, and that’s the case for the Hurricanes and Tar Heels. With a dwindling list of bowl games available, North Carolina coach Mack Brown has told his players “it’s their responsibility to stay clean so they get to play, because that’s not happening in a lot of different places.”
That is true for after the game against the Hurricanes as well, he said.
“We do the same thing with bowl games. We’ve told them that: ‘Here is the list of ACC bowl games,’ when one cancels out. We’ve told them the Pinstripe Bowl will not be played this year, the Sun Bowl will not be played this year,” he said. “‘Coach, do you think they’re going to have enough bowls for us to go to?’ ’Yes, so plan on having bowl season.’”
The Virginia-Virginia Tech rivalry has taken on new nastiness, adding even more intrigue to the re-scheduled game in Blacksburg, Virginia. The teams are going in opposite directions: The Cavaliers have won four in a row; the Hokies have lost four in a row.
They were slated to play to start the season and the Hokies couldn’t because of a COVID-19 outbreak, and a Twitter battle about responsibility and willingness emerged between the teams.
Though COVID caused the game to be postponed, now its being played when it normally has been — at the end of the regular season.
“All bets are off, you know,” Hokies defensive lineman Jared Hewitt said Tuesday. “We definitely would have wanted things to be differently, but we’re just going out all the way. Who cares? We’ve got UVA. Let’s go win.”
AP sports writers Aaron Beard in North Carolina and freelancer Bob Ferrante in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed.
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