Wake, NC State control destinies in ACC Atlantic

While it’s a long shot, UNC could still win the Coastal Division — if the Tar Heels take care of business and get a lot of help

NC State coach Dave Doeren and Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson, pictured in 2015, have their teams atop the ACC's Atlantic Divison, and the matchup between the two teams Nov. 13 could decide who will play in the ACC Championship Game. (Chuck Burton / AP Photo)

Wake Forest opened some eyes by putting up a basketball score against Army on Saturday, while NC State did what the Wolfpack often does by losing a game it should have won at Miami.

Neither result, however, changed the status of the race to determine the Atlantic Division’s representative in the ACC Football Championship Game on Dec. 4.

Barring any further hiccups, the road to Charlotte will run directly through Winston-Salem when the Deacons and Wolfpack meet at Truist Field in three weeks.

For that, the two surprise Atlantic frontrunners can thank Clemson. Or more specifically, Pittsburgh.

By losing to the Coastal Division-leading Panthers on Saturday, coach Dabo Swinney’s Tigers didn’t just cripple their chances of winning a seventh straight conference title, they gave State a virtual “get out of jail free” card for its self-inflicted disappointment in South Florida.

The reason is tiebreakers.

The Wolfpack already holds one over Clemson on the strength of its double-overtime victory earlier this season. It would also gain one on Wake by winning the upcoming showdown.

So even though State, at 2-1, currently trails the 4-0 Deacons by a game in the loss column of the Atlantic Division standings, the Wolfpack would earn the division crown and the trip to Charlotte if both teams were to win the rest of their games and finish with 7-1 conference records.

“We still control our own destiny,” said Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren, whose 5-2 team faces a key divisional test at home against Louisville this Saturday.

“I know a lot of fans were disappointed, upset or whatever you may say about the loss we just had. So were we. But we still have it all in front of us. We’ve got to win one game at a time to make that a reality.”

The same is true for Wake, which improved to 7-0 for the first time since 1944 and just the second time in school history by outscoring Army 70-54 last week.

Coach Dave Clawson’s 13th-ranked Deacons don’t figure to have much trouble extending their winning streak to eight on Saturday against struggling Duke.

That will be the last gimme on a schedule that closes with trips to Chapel Hill and Clemson’s Death Valley sandwiched between the State game before finishing with yet another road trip, this one to Boston College.

The North Carolina game, however, is officially a nonconference matchup — which means the Deacons could afford to lose to the Tar Heels and Tigers and still win the division as long as they take care of business in the other two games.

But what happens if Wake doesn’t lose, running the table through the ACC title game and finishing with a perfect 13-0 record? Would a win against a ranked Pittsburgh team and its Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Kenny Pickett in the ACC title game be enough to make the Deacons the most unlikely participant in the short history of the College Football Playoff?

Maybe, maybe not.

Then again, there’s still no guarantee the Panthers will get to Charlotte.

They’re certainly sitting pretty with at least a two-game lead over everyone else in the Coastal. But with five conference games remaining, anything can happen. Especially in a division with as whacky a history as theirs.

There’s even a scenario in which North Carolina could somehow sneak in and steal the title.

The Tar Heels would have to win at Pitt on Nov. 11 to have any chance of that happening. They also can’t afford another conference loss. Coach Mack Brown’s team would then need the Panthers to lose to Virginia and at least one of the other teams remaining on their schedule — Florida State, Duke and Syracuse.

Oh yes, UVA would also have to lose at least once along the way, while Virginia Tech — which beat UNC in the season opener — would have to cooperate by losing twice in its five remaining conference games.

But if that were to happen and the division ended with multiple teams tied at 5-3, UNC would get the nod over Pitt, UVA and Miami because of wins in their head-to-head matchups.

“We can’t just put our heads down and just give up on the rest of the season,” Tar Heels quarterback Sam Howell said. “So from an expectation standpoint, we’re just going to give it everything we’ve got every single game. We’re not worried about bowl games or anything like that, we just want to try to win the next game, try to go 1-0 every single week.”

Is it a long shot? Absolutely. Farfetched? Of course.

But it’s the ACC and the Coastal Division, so anything is possible.