ACC's second tier still a mixed bag

When Saturday's game ended, NC State coach Dave Doeren had little choice but to be relieved.

The Wolfpack survived a gritty game from FCS foe Richmond, needing a final-minute field goal to snatch away a win after a mistake-prone performance. Doeren's substitute quarterback struggled, but Pete Thomas engineered a drive when he needed it. Doeren's team hardly impressed, but still, it's undefeated. The immense transition the program has undergone the past nine months didn't end when the season began, and now NC State's biggest game of the season awaits.

"I told our guys I'm proud of them," Doeren said after Saturday's win over Richmond. "We made a lot of plays, and we made a lot of mistakes, too."

And so it goes for virtually the entire second tier of the ACC through the first two weeks of the season. Clemson knocked off Georgia, Miami thwarted Florida, and Florida State appears to have found its next superstar quarterback. But continue down the conference's depth chart, and it's hard to know what to make of the middle of the pack.

Is NC State a team rejuvenated by a new coaching staff, simply waiting on its injured starting QB to return before it makes a run at a fourth straight bowl appearance?

Or what about Duke? The Blue Devils have started 2-0 as well, but they lost their starting quarterback to a broken collarbone last week, too.

Maryland has a healthy quarterback at long last, and C.J. Brown has turned in consecutive games as productive as any player in the country. His 97.3 Total QBR is tied for second-best in the nation, and he's already accounted for nine touchdowns. Of course, the level of competition has hardly been stiff, and the Terrapins still have plenty of question marks on both sides of the ball.

Then there's North Carolina and Virginia Tech. Both figured to hover near the top of the ACC standings, but were thumped by ranked SEC opponents in Week 1. The Tar Heels and Hokies managed easy wins Saturday against second-tier competition, but it's clear there are some flaws in both programs' games.

Pittsburgh was thumped by Jameis Winston and Florida State in its opener, but the Panthers still have a few playmakers to work with and a more manageable schedule moving forward. Virginia picked up the league's third-best win of the early season when its defense carried it past BYU, only to get smoked by Oregon a week later. Georgia Tech rolled through Week 1 against overmatched Elon, but coach Paul Johnson admits few questions were answered, while lowly Boston College, the cellar dweller of 2012, has shown signs of life under new coach Steve Addazio, already matching last season's win total after beating Wake Forest last week.

Clemson and Miami made a statement for the conference by knocking off two heavyweights from the SEC. But in the other five games ACC teams played against teams from top-tier leagues, they went winless, doing little to establish a clear pecking order for a league that features nine teams that won between five and eight games a season ago.

There's a cache with having strength at the top of the league, and the ACC now has three teams ranked in the top-15 of the AP poll. But where the SEC still separates itself is with depth, including seven teams ranked in this week's Top 25. The next closest contender in the ACC is Virginia Tech, a team that failed to complete a passing play longer than 19 yards against an FCS opponent last week, which earned 15 votes in this week's poll -- good for 31st overall.

That's not to say the middle of the ACC's pack isn't without a potential contender.

The Hokies' defense thwarted Alabama in Week 1, sending the fans of the two-time defending national champs into a frenzy. As bad as Virginia looked against Oregon, the Cavaliers certainly earned a bit of extra credit when the team they shut down BYU in Week 1. The Cougars went on to rack up nearly 700 yards of offense in its next game against Texas. With USC struggling, Boston College could potentially run its record to 3-0 this week. Maryland's offense appears stacked with playmakers in Brown, receiver Stefon Diggs and running back Brandon Ross. UNC may have the second-most stable, established quarterback situation in the league.

But for all the potential, there remains numerous questions when trying to define any real order to the chaos beyond the ACC's big three.

Answers will come in time. Duke and Georgia Tech face off this week. NC State gets a look at Clemson in Week 4. Maryland and Boston College each have more challenging nonconference tests upcoming.

In the meantime, however, assessing the state of the league is a lot like Doeren's assessment of his own team. They've made some plays, and they've made some mistakes. But for now at least, the ACC is feeling plenty of pride.