The Washington Times - September 18, 2008, 08:54AM

Eight games on tap this week, and it’s a little tougher than usual: Virginia isn’t playing, so there’s no picking the Cavaliers to lose.

Virginia and Duke are both off, but there are a couple conference games in play (and a couple more nonconference games that should be interesting).

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It also marks my first flips of the year from the preseason. Miami’s looked better than expected and had two weeks to prepare heading to Texas A&M. I like the Hurricanes’ chances far more now than a month ago. This is also the point where I hop on the Carolina bandwagon.

Onto the picks:

* East Carolina at N.C. State (Noon, ESPN): Pirates 24-12. This is always a fun rivalry game, at least when the teams see fit to play. The Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day 1992 – during which East Carolina’s Jeff Blake engineered a fourth-quarter rally while down three possessions – remains one of my favorite underrated comebacks in recent memory.

But there shouldn’t be a comeback today, because you need to score to require an opponent to rally. And the Wolfpack just doesn’t do that on offense. As long as the Pirates can silence (i.e. don’t throw it to) N.C. State secret weapon Nate Irving, they should escape with a second straight road victory.

* Mississippi State at Georgia Tech (Noon, Chs. 20, 13): Yellow Jackets 16-4. Here’s rooting for the visiting Bulldogs to double their scoring output from last week’s 3-2 loss to Auburn. As for Georgia Tech, Paul Johnson’s team is a bit nicked up and not quite efficient on offense. That will come. For now, Tech’s defense has the goods to pull out a victory over an SEC team at home.

* Central Florida at Boston College (1, ESPNU):Eagles 21-20. I’m not sure any team in the ACC stands to learn more about itself this week than Boston College. A team just a couple weeks removed from pushing South Florida to overtime visits the Heights, and the Eagles haven’t exactly distinguished themselves on offense. Toss in the season-ending injury to Alex Albright, and the ingredients for an upset are there.

* Eastern Michigan at Maryland (1, ESPN360): Terps 31-13. Nope, not going to go for the rout in this one. The process of rebuilding the Eagles is a Sisyphean task, and Eastern Michigan is 0-30 against BCS opponents since 1988 (it does have a victory over then-independent Connecticut to its credit). Perhaps there’s even the chance for a full series or two of Josh Portis in this one.

* South Carolina State at Clemson (1, ESPN360): Tigers 52-3. At least when Clemson plays a team from the former Division I-AA, it has the decency to invite an in-state team to Death Valley. The Citadel, Furman and Wofford have all been to Clemson this decade, and now South Carolina State receives its payday.

* Virginia Tech at North Carolina (3:30, Ch. 7 in D.C., ESPN in Baltimore): Tar Heels 21-14. Here’s what we know. Carolina will probably rattle off two or three simply magnificent gains simply because of the assembled talent in its receiving corps (Brandon Tate and Hakeem Nicks the most notable of the bunch). Based on last week’s game against Georgia Tech, the Tyrod Taylor Era v 2.0 will be extremely run-reliant.

So, if the Tar Heels can stop the run and get those two or three big plays, odds are they beat the Hokies for the first time since the 1997 Gator Bowl.

* Miami at Texas A&M (3:30): Hurricanes 20-16. I’ve listened to Miami coach Randy Shannon on the ACC teleconference each week, and the guy just sounds friendlier and happier than last season. Part of it is probably because his team is better than it was at this point last year.

The Hurricanes still haven’t proven they can pass, but at least this year they have freshmen at QB rather than older players who everyone in the stadium knew wouldn’t manage much. Still, this is an important week for Robert Marve to show progress from his understandably mediocre debut at  Florida.

The Aggies have an opening-week loss to Arkansas State and a victory at New Mexico to their credit. This has the look of a coin-flip game between two 6-6 teams, though Miami probably has the talent advantage in its trip to College Station.

* Wake Forest at Florida State (7, ESPN2): Demon Deacons 19-16. Two routs in guarantee games don’t tell much about the Seminoles, other than that they scheduled wisely while they were dealing with suspensions. Florida State’s defensive performance is probably a little more telling than what its offense managed, but this certainly looks like a better team than the last two years.

Wake, though, is the sort of team that just rolls along and does its thing and (lately, anyway) gets its eight or nine wins and in the process poaching one or two in adverse conditions. This just has the look of a field goal battle, and when one team has Sam Swank on its side in a field goal battle, you pick them.

Last week’s record: 5-2 (2-0 conference games)
Season record: 21-7 (2-1 conference)
Preseason picks record: 21-7 (2-1 conference)
Preseason picks changed for this week: Virginia Tech-North Carolina, Miami-Texas A&M

Patrick Stevens