CLEMSON, S.C. — North Carolina State is seeking to turn the Atlantic Coast Conference from a runaway into a free-for-all this season.
Halfway through the season, third-ranked Clemson (6-0, 3-0 ACC) is a heavy favorite to win its second straight ACC title and earn another berth in the College Football Playoffs.
But the Tigers’ path is shrouded with potential speed bumps — starting with North Carolina State (4-1, 1-0) on Saturday.
— Florida State has Oct. 29 circled on its calendar; that’s when the No. 14 Seminoles host the Tigers in Tallahassee. Clemson is just 1-11 in its past 12 visits to Florida State.
— ACC newcomers Syracuse and Pittsburgh bring feisty attitudes in seeking their first victories at Death Valley next month.
— Clemson wraps up its season at Wake Forest, which has been a house of horrors and crusher of Tiger dreams through the years.
The Tigers are saying all the right things about the possible pitfalls.
“It’s a long season and a lot of football left,” Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson said.
Clemson seized control of the ACC two weeks ago with its dramatic, 42-36 win against Louisville and Heisman Trophy favorite Lamar Jackson.
Still, college football history is filled with sure bets that went bust in some of the unlikeliest ways.
Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher, his team’s ACC chances last year cut down on an unlikely kick-six TD by struggling Georgia Tech , isn’t abandoning hope of a title run by his two-loss team.
Fisher believes even the best teams in the conference must scratch and claw for victory most weeks.
“That’s what the ACC has become,” the coach said.
Nearly everyone has a chance.
In the Atlantic Division, Wake Forest and Louisville are one-loss ACC teams hoping for a Clemson to get upset.
In the Coastal, once a mish-mosh of middling teams — at this point two years ago all seven teams in the division looked like they could finish 4-4 — perennial powers Miami and Virginia Tech are scrapping for the top.
The 17th-ranked Hokies (4-1, 2-0) and new coach Justin Fuente won a showdown game at North Carolina last week and will try and keep things going at Syracuse this week.
Virginia and new coach Bronco Mendenhall, also without a league loss in the Coastal, shook off an 0-3 start to win two straight.
“We got to keep rolling,” Virginia nose tackle Donte Wilkins said. “We got two good ones back to back, trying to make it three, trying to take over the ACC.”
No. 16 Miami, North Carolina and Pitt are right behind Virginia Tech and Virginia with one ACC loss — and lots of optimism about their title hopes.
“We still have our dream of an ACC championship,” Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman said. “It is not in our hands, exactly. But in a sense it is, because we have to go out there and win the rest.”
They face long odds: No Coastal Division team has won the ACC title since Georgia Tech in 2009.
Clemson’s road to the title game in Orlando, Florida continues Saturday with defensive minded North Carolina State, which slogged out a 10-3 win over Notre Dame last week in the midst of Hurricane Matthew.
“We’re dealing with a 4-1 record right now and moving on to be 5-1,” Wolfpack defensive end Kentavius Street said.
If they are able to win their fifth game of the North Carolina State is eighth in the country in yards allowed — and its group of all senior and junior starters wants to wipe away the odor of allowing 97 points and 1,116 yards the past two blowout losses to Clemson.
“I think we’re better than we’ve been,” North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren said.
Florida State knows something about that.
The Seminoles (4-2, 1-2) looked finished after its 63-20 drubbing at Louisville last month, but have revived their ACC title hopes after a 20-19 win over Miami on Saturday night.
“We took a step forward,” Seminoles tailback Dalvin Cook said of the Miami win, “and we’ll keep going from there.”
They’ll face the pesky Demon Deacons (5-1, 2-1) on Saturday before taking a week off to get ready for Clemson.
The Tigers have had trouble at Wake Forest, where they are just 4-3 since 2003. Their last loss in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 2008 led to the ouster of coach Tommy Bowden and elevation of young receivers coach Dabo Swinney to head coach.
Swinney, who has won 23 of his last 24 wins, is mindful of the ACC minefield awaiting his program the next month and a half.
The Clemson coach said he doesn’t know if this is the strongest the ACC has been during his tenure, saying “other people have to answer that.”
Swinney does know one thing about winning in the ACC these days: “It’s hard.”
AP Sports Writers Jimmy Golen in Boston, Hank Kurz in Richmond, Virginia, and Joedy McCreary in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.