The news that South Carolina relieved Will Muschamp of his duties as head football coach has dominated the college football conversation, not just for what it means for the Gamecocks but also the expectations for a coaching carousel season that's loaded with uncertainty given the ongoing pandemic and rapidly approaching Early Signing Period.
So what does South Carolina's coaching search have to do with the ACC in Week 12? Well, it's the stage for one of the hottest coaching candidates of the season and the conference has played a key role in how he and his team have been viewed across the national landscape. Hugh Freeze leads undefeated Liberty to Raleigh on Saturday night to play NC State in a game that provides the opportunity for the Flames to improve to 3-0 against the ACC in 2020. Liberty has won the previous two games, against Syracuse and Virginia Tech, on the road, and to complete the three-game sweep against Power Five opponents would be quite a statement. It would not only continue to draw attention to Hugh Freeze as a potential target for a Power Five job but Liberty as one of the top teams in the country outside of the Power Five.
But there is the opponent on Saturday night, and it's an NC State team that has been outperforming expectations all year. The Wolfpack have won nail-biters against Wake Forest and Pitt, come up one possession shy of taking down top-10 Miami and recently dominated Florida State. Dave Doeren has done a fantastic job with this group in a challenging year that included a COVID-19 pause which delayed the start to the season plus an injury to starting quarterback Devin Leary, and enters the final stretch of the season with a 5-3 record and likely to be favored in all three remaining games on the schedule.
So in that sense, it's a spotlight opportunity for both teams. Just because the eyes of the nation will be on Raleigh to see if Hugh Freeze and Liberty can remain undefeated and go 3-0 against the ACC doesn't mean that will be the takeaway at the end of the night. It could emerge as proof positive that NC State is a top-five team in the ACC and one of the best stories in the conference in 2020.
Week 12 ACC odds, picks
Friday -- Syracuse at Louisville
On the surface this looks like a big number for a team that just lost handily to Virginia and had its top running back opt out, but Louisville is running several weeks behind a Syracuse team that has been dealing with similar disappointment for much of the season. Neither one of these teams has sustained enough success to be trusted for the cover, so I'm eyeing the total on a short week for the Cards. Pick: Under 56.5
No. 4 Clemson at Florida State
Fascinated to see what kind of response we get from Clemson this week. After nearly three years of winning every ACC game, there's a possibility for a letdown against this undermanned Florida State team. The Seminoles have fully committed to the youth movement at this point in the season, meaning they're inexperienced but could be playing even more freely than a team that has checked out of the season. Home dogs of 34.5 points or more are 15-12 against the spread over the last 16 years, too, but that's still not enough for me to feel confident in picking against the Tigers in bounce-back mode. Pick: Clemson -34.5
Virginia Tech at Pitt
After some concern about the status of this game due to COVID-19 issues for the Panthers, the good news is that Pitt practiced on a normal schedule on Tuesday. That's a good sign for how Sunday's testing went, and should point to a return to action this weekend after last week's game against Georgia Tech was postponed. This spread falls within in the Pat Narduzzi sweet spot, where Pitt has been a profitable play for spreads that cover the touchdown between +3.5 and -3.5, so we're going to ride the trends and take the home dog with the hook. Pick: Pitt +3.5
No. 21 Liberty at NC State
If you're going to play the spread, you have to become an armchair sports psychologist, kind of like what we do every bowl season judging teams' motivation. Hugh Freeze could be extra motivated to put on a show given the attention he's received this week, or he could be somewhat distracted by the ongoing sweepstakes for his future services. The Flames should be dialed into the opportunity to remain undefeated and take on a regional rival from the ACC, but what has this week's news done to the team? Or, does NC State see an undefeated top-25 team coming to town, regardless of narrative, and get fired up for the opportunity to notch a ranked win? Dance with these mind games all you want, I'm sticking to the hard evidence of this matchup. Malik Willis is a problem on offense and will be able to get yards and points on the ground for Liberty, while I don't expect the Flames to do a great job stopping NC State's offense either. Pick: Over 67
Last week: 2-3 | 2020 season: 30-32
Each week, we'll be offering these top-half power rankings for the 15-team, one-division ACC. Results matter, but won't match the standings necessarily as we look to identify the teams that have the best chance to contend for one of the top two spots (by winning percentage) and play for the conference championship in December.
1. Clemson (Last week -- 1): Like we said last week, no change at the top. If Clemson and Notre Dame play 10 times on a neutral field, I think the Tigers win seven times. That's why I'm keeping them No. 1 in the power rankings. But I will admit the gap between the top two is much smaller after yet another impressive performance from Ian Book.
2. Notre Dame (2): If Book is able to keep repeating the performances of the last two weeks, this is going to be a team that not only could beat Clemson in the rematch in Charlotte but cause some real problems for a team in the College Football Playoff.
3. North Carolina (4): After 550 passing yards and six touchdowns, Sam Howell took all of the headlines from Saturday's shootout win against Wake Forest. But the real key to the offense is running back Javonte Williams, who currently ranks first in the nation in total touchdowns, first downs, and runs of 10 yards or more.
4. Miami (3): While the Hurricanes remain a one-loss team near the top of the ACC standings, it's tough to have surging confidence in a team that seems to be playing with fire after back-to-back squeaker victories against unranked foes. D'Eriq King has been a difference-maker and Miami's defense deserves credit for helping seal the win against Virginia Tech, but it appears the Hurricanes' best football of the year came at the beginning of the season.
5. NC State (7): Facing his former team, quarterback Bailey Hockman took some big-time steps forward in the win against Florida State. After Devin Leary went down with an injury, there was discussion about (and even an appearance by) freshman quarterback Ryan Finley, but Hockman has seized control of the starting job with strong play in the last two weeks.
6. Wake Forest (6): Hard to penalize a Wake Forest team that checked most of the necessary boxes in terms of winning football under Dave Clawson. The only issue is they came up six points short against the best offense in the ACC, so no major adjustment in the power rankings. This will be the "better than their record" team at the end of the season, since Wake Forest is the only ACC team to draw Clemson, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Virginia Tech in 2020.
7. Boston College (5): We need to monitor the status of Phil Jurkovec after Jeff Hafley revealed that the Eagles quarterback suffered a separated shoulder against Clemson and played through the injury against Syracuse and Notre Dame. Boston College has played great football to this point, but there could some more losses in its future if QB1 misses time.
8. Virginia Tech (8): The absence of a surefire pick to jump Virginia Tech keeps the Hokies in the Elite Eight. Pitt has a chance to do it on the field this weekend, but it's either the Panthers or rival Virginia in the mix and I'd still give the edge to Virginia Tech in those debates (for now).