ACC a free-for-all with upsets, injuries, last-minute wins

Clemson has fallen, and Miami is on the rise.

Upsets, last-minute victories and injuries have made it a free-for-all race for the Atlantic Coast Conference crown, and there are some unexpected contenders in the mix.

No. 7 Clemson, the defending national champion, is still the highest ranked team in the conference, but the Tigers’ loss at Syracuse last Friday night put No. 16 North Carolina State in the driver’s seat to win the Atlantic Division. The Wolfpack (6-1, 4-0 ACC), enjoying their highest ranking since 2003, have this weekend off, but faces No. 13 Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, next weekend and hopes to still be on top when Clemson visits on Nov. 4.

Coming off its big victory, Syracuse running back Dontae Strickland believes the Orange (4-3, 2-1) belong in the discussion, too. They will get another chance to prove it; Syracuse plays at No. 8 Miami on Saturday.

”It’s something that’s a goal for us, to win the conference,” Strickland said. ”In conference play, having one loss and being able to play for a conference championship if we win out, it’s something that is very exciting, very motivating for us to become a top dog in the ACC.”

The Orange have little room for error, though, having lost to the Wolfpack, 33-25, on Sept. 30.

In the Coastal, preseason favorite Miami (5-0, 3-0) leads the division, but surprising Virginia (5-1, 2-0) is off to its best start in a decade in its second season under Bronco Mendenhall. Virginia plays at Miami on Nov. 18, and things could change well before that matchup.

The Hurricanes beat Georgia Tech (3-2, 2-1) 25-24 to gain the tiebreaker advantage last week, but still also need to play longtime rival and 14th-ranked Virginia Tech (5-1, 1-1). The Hokies, meanwhile, have road games remaining against the Yellow Jackets on Nov. 11 and against the Cavaliers the day after Thanksgiving.

It’s quite a change from the days when it seemed Clemson-Florida State could be penciled in for the championship game.

”Usually, what everybody’s talking about is whoever wins that game is probably going to win the ACC,” Syracuse linebacker Zaire Franklin said. ”It is different. With Power Five football, a lot of people could get knocked off. You don’t know who’s going to come out on top. That’s what football is all about. That’s why you put the pads on.”

Miami, in its second season under Mark Richt, has never won the division since joining the league in 2004 and will be without top running back Mark Walton the rest of the season after he had ankle surgery.

”Injuries obviously play a big part in it, but I think dealing with young people and the emotions that kids go through, you just never know who’s going to win,” Richt said. ”Other thing, too, in college football and our ranking system of ranking teams early, a bunch of top-10 teams might get beat. We were top 10 last year, but were we really a top-10 team? We were at that moment, and somebody got a victory … Florida State, they beat a `top-10 team,’ because at the moment we were a top-10 team. But were we really that? I don’t know if we were or not.”

Virginia hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2011 and was 2-10 in Mendenhall’s first season. The Cavaliers’ start this year is their best since the 2007 team under Al Groh won seven of its first eight games, and Mendenhall said while they are still in the early stages of what he’s hoping to build, success has become contagious.

”Now that there have been some results that have gone in our favor, there’s an air of confidence and expectations that they would be disappointed if they don’t play at a certain level or have success in terms of wins and losses,” he said.

Pittsburgh is hoping for a similar turnaround under Pat Narduzzi, but he knows it won’t be easy.

”The conference is unbelievable,” Narduzzi said. ”I think it’s better than it was a year ago. … I think it’s great there’s competition. That’s what you want. We’re going to be playing for a national championship again in the ACC.”

AP sports writers John Kekis in Syracuse, New York, Tim Reynolds in Miami, Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, South Carolina and Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed

More college football coverage: http://www.collegefootball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Top25

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