What we've learned about the ACC at the midway point:
Boston College is good. Maybe. If a potentially unbeaten Big East is going to take heat about its mythical championship aspirations, the same skepticism must be extended to Boston College, which has beaten only one team with fewer than three losses, and that team is Wake Forest, whose third (and fourth, and fifth, in all likelihood) defeat will be in the books soon enough. Georgia Tech looked good, briefly, until it was painfully obvious how little the Jackets' win over Notre Dame really meant and B.C.'s success against Tech was immediately replicated by Virginia and Maryland.
The Eagles' stock should have plummeted during its four-week run against Army, UMass, Bowling Green and ND, but the attrition in front of them in the polls opened up a fast rise to number three, which in all likelihood will hold if B.C. does its part against the closing meat of the schedule:
Nov. 3 Florida State
Nov. 10 at Maryland
Nov. 17 at Clemson
Nov. 24 Miami
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I don't think the hat came off against UMass.
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It was clear at the start of the year the Eagles had drawn the short end of the stick by drawing favorites Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Miami from the Coastal, and that remains true within the conference perspective (division rival Wake Forest, for example, rather ridiculously gets Duke, North Carolina and Virginia from the Coastal), but for a championship aspirant, wins in those games are the minimum standard for the BCS in lieu of a more prestigious carcass to throw on the scales in December.
Nothing in Boston College's history suggests it can win all five of those games, not to mention the ACC championship game on top of it, but nothing in the current season suggests history will have the slightest bearing on any of the results at season's end. Either way, the criteria will be the same for B.C. as it's been for would-be contenders from the Big East, which is now for all intents and purposes the ACC's equal: go undefeated, and hope there are no fellow unbeatens from any of the other five power conferences in line for the second spot. If status quo holds - note: status quo will not hold - Arizona State would certainly move in front of BC with the Pac Ten pelts it would have to rack up to get to that point, and even one-loss LSU would try to launch a secession movement or something if it came to that; the only team without a loss right now that might still find itself behind Boston College if both are still blemish-free in December is Kansas, and it would be close. Well, Hawaii, too, I guess, but the Warriors aren't really part of this thought process, for obvious reasons.
Speaking of which...
Matt Ryan is not a candidate for the Trophy Which Must Not Be Named (not yet). I do this only because I trashed Colt Brennan's credentials Tuesday, and immediately afterward read on the Worldwide Leader's that Ryan had moved into the frontrunner role on the heels of Darren McFadden's lackluster game against Auburn.
I think Ryan has better credentials than Brennan, simply by virtue of playing better competition than UNLV and San Jose State if nothing else, but the Eagles' schedule hasn't been that much better. Ryan has some big games, but the only game in his first seven I'd classify as H*i*m*n-worthy is his flawless night against Georgia Tech: 30 or 44 for 435 yards, only one touchdown but no interceptions.
Otherwise, he's put up a lot of yards, but always under suspect circumstances: 408 and five touchdowns against Wake Forest came on a whopping, Hawaii-like 52 attempts and was accompanied by two interceptions, as was his 356-yard, three-touchdown game against woeful Army. Ryan is also only the nation's 37th-rated passer so far, rather distant for the nation's Most Outstanding Player™. Anyway, do the numbers against Army, Bowling Green, UMass and Notre Dame matter? I think they do not. Ryan's candidacy will have to be made against real defenses over the last month, and with Va Tech, Miami, Clemson and Florida State, he'll face some for a change.
Rumors of Virginia Tech's demise are greatly exaggerated. This is not a recording. I dunno, where I come from, teams with lousy quarterbacks who get pulled for a true freshman on the road in the midst of a 41-point trouncing a week after surviving a late scare from East Carolina aren't really `contender' material. But this is the ACC, and Virginia Tech's done this possum collapse bit before - the Hokies did it last year, actually, when they struggled offensively against Cincinnati and North Carolina, were beaten down at home by Georgia Tech and then on national television again in a lame effort that brought the disgusted wrath of Kirk Herbstreit in the second half of a 17-3 loss at Boston College, two weeks before blasting streaking Clemson on Thursday night for the second in a six-game win streak to close the regular season, which Tech ended as the top-ranked team in the conference. They did it in 2004, too, losing a second game early to NC State and rolling off eight straight to win the conference before running into the undefeated Auburn buzzsaw in the Sugar Bowl.
Why do you keep acting like we need offense?
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So here we are, with a team in flux, without a quarterback, one of eight teams in the entire country averaging less than 300 yards a game in total offense, that struggles to beat East Carolina by ten and North Carolina by a touchdown, and wham!: overnight Clemson gets Hokied for the second year in a row - by the special teams this time, rather than `06 Tiger killer Branden Ore - heretofore competitive Duke goes down by 29, and the Hokies are well en route to another championship game. The offense still occasionally seems bottom rung (as mentioned, 112th in total yards), but the defense and special teams have already accounted for eight touchdowns in seven games. The remaining five are brutal, and Tech might be a favorite in every one: Boston College next Thursday, at Georgia Tech, Florida State, Miami, at Virginia.
Rumors of Florida State and Miami's demise are about right. The Bermuda Triangle of offense that engulfed last year's Labor Day punt fest was in the opener, too early to be dilluted by the season's most spectacular falls from grace, so this Saturday's rivalry game is the least anticipated in the series in more than 25 years. Much-anticipated coaching shakeups haven't made a cosmetic difference: Miami was humiliated in Baylor-esque fashion at Oklahoma, Florida State beaten in a scoreless second half at Wake Forest. Neither team knows who its quarterback will be week-to-week, despite an ex-all-world high school slinger on each sideline, or has the offensive line to protect him if it did. Very fast receivers drop half of what finds its way to their vicinity Scoring averages are dipping to historic lows. Both are two games back of the division lead, and even for an advocate of the "Coaching Change=Attitude Change" bandwagon for both teams in the preseason, that doesn't seem all that odd anymore. The cycle has passed the old warriors by.
North Carolina is some scary shit. UNC is 2-5 but positioned to be the fastest riser in the conference, sooner rather than later. The Heels' latest win over Miami was in all likelihood a much healthier sign of overall progress than its last win over the Canes, when it upset top five UM in the midst of an otherwise miserable 2004. That win, a harbinger of nothing but coming Hurricane doom, might have singlehandedly set Carolina back two years in its search for a new direction by temporarily saving John Bunting, who continued to make the team in his image: slow and soft around the middle.
Butch Davis handled that immediate problem on his arrival by aggressive recruiting on the defensive line, and another by promoting redshirt freshman T.J. Yates at quarterback and lining up a sophomore, receiver Hakeem Nicks, as his best offensive weapon. UNC's all-purpose yardage leaders through seven games are Nicks, junior Brandon Tate, freshman Johnny White, freshman Anthony Elzy, junior Brooks Foster, freshman Ryan Houston, freshman Greg Little and sophomore Bobby Rome. Two of the starters on the offensive line are sophomores, as are the first string tight end and H-back, and Carolina's defensive depth chart against South Carolina listed freshmen and sophomore starters on the line (Marvin Austin and E.J. Wilson) at linebacker (Wesley Flagg and Quan Sturdivant) and especially in the secondary (Jermaine Strong, Deunta Williams, Charles Brown and Kendric Burney).
For all that youth, UNC has played five straight games against teams with a combined 28-6 record and managed to beat one of them (Miami) while losing to three of the other four (Virginia, Virginia Tech and South Carolina) by two, seven and six points, respectively. By comparison, the rest of the schedule - Wake Forest, Maryland, NC State, Georgia Tech and Duke - is manageable, at worst; the Heels might be good enough to win four of those and push for a bowl bid, or at least play well enough to create some momentum for a much more experienced, optimistic outfit going into 2008.
Whatever happens with Butch Davis and T.J. Yates, Carolina, never forget. Never forget.
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North Carolina State is worse than Duke. Tom O'Brien inherited a disaster and to date has only presiding a more disastrous disaster. The Blue Devils remain an atrocious team, particularly on defense, but at least Duke has knocked off a team from the Bowl Subdivision (Northwestern, on the road, however sketchy in the details; when you've lost 25 straight, a win is a win is a win). Besides ranking last or next-to-last in the conference in rushing offense, scoring offense, rushing defense, total defense and scoring defense, N.C. State has only managed to beat I-AA Wofford and not come very close against Boston College (17-37), Clemson (20-42), Louisville (10-29) or Florida State (10-27).
Duke might even get itself another win, with Notre Dame and North Carolina approaching at the end of November, but the Pack's last good shot at I-A victory may be this week against East Carolina, to whom it lost last year, 21-16. Four of the five conference games after the Pirates are against teams currently sitting on winning records (the fifth is against the aforementioned Tar Heels), and since the Devils and Pack don't play each other, both could be staring at an 0-8 conference record. At least one of them is used to it.
Virginia is tied for the Coastal lead; Wake Forest is one game back in the Atlantic. The Cavaliers laid what I still consider to be the season's biggest egg to date in their first game, a 20-3 disaster at Wyoming in which UVA was outgained by a mediocre Mountain West team by 352 yards (452-100), but since have somehow won six straight through indecision at quarterback, manager-inspired replays and a pressure-oriented defense that's had to overcome an offense that happens to be good at absolutely nothing - UVA is ranked 83rd or worse in all four major offensive stat categories.
But Wake Forest...do we really have to deal with this again? The Deacons are not - I repeat, the Deacons are not - a good team, having lost at home to Nebraska, for heaven's sake, and mounted a four-game win streak by an average of less than a touchdown purr. Wake's offense staggered to 213 total yards against Army, turned the ball over four times in an overtime win over Maryland, hung on to beat Duke by five and brought on recurring nightmares in the ACC front office and the Orange Bowl committee by coming from behind to beat Florida State in one of the sloppiest games on television this year.
Mathematical contention through three or four conference games is one thing, but there's only one excuse for UVA or Wake to still be in or around a true front runner position at this point in the season, and that is...
It's kind of a crappy league. The ACC's signature non-conference win is probably Florida State over Alabama, which is not the worst thing you could say, but the only three teams that made it out of the non-conference season unscathed (so far) did so by beating Army, Bowling Green, Notre Dame, UMass, Samford, Notre Dame again and, finally, the respectable combo of Alabama and Colorado, in FSU's case. In that sense, maybethe Noles are still a sleeping giant. Just as long as they don't have to play Wake Forest.