The ACC, like it oughtta be

No, this is not an article about conference realignment. It’s an article about the ACC having three top-ten teams.

Well, let me rephrase that. It’s an article about the ACC having three teams ranked in the top ten. If you don’t know the subtle difference, you must not have watched quarterback Stephen Morris of the #10 Miami Hurricanes chuck his way to four picks against a UNC defense that only had four INTs on the season prior to last night. (If the UNC D could play against Miami every game, Heels DC Vic Koenning would be hailed as the new Bud Foster. As if there’s any such thing as an “old” Bud Foster. Bud’s the Energizer Bunny of defensive coordinators.)

And if you think Miami is truly #10, then you must not have watched a Miami coaching staff, whose team was running roughshod over UNC’s soft, cuddly defense (45 carries, 234 yards, 5.2 ypc), decide to let Morris air it out 35 times — and thus throw four picks in the process — when they could have just steamrolled the Heels all night long with Dallas Crawford, Duke Johnson and Miley Cyrus.

No, the Canes are not the #10 team in the country, at least, not the players and coaching staff I saw last night. Yet the AP Poll thinks the Canes are #10, and that’s what this article is about.

Clemson is #3 in the AP Poll, and Florida State is #5. They’re playing this weekend. You may have heard. ESPN actually took some time off from talking about the SEC to mention it.

When combined with #10 Miami, the ACC has three teams ranked in the top ten at the same time, for the first time since — insert Aflac Trivia quacking duck here — 2005.

On Oct. 30th of that season, Florida State was ranked #9, Miami was ranked #5, and the Fighting Marcus Vicks of Virginia Tech were ranked #3.

I’ll go one step further than that: The week prior — Oct. 23rd, 2005 — the ACC had four top-13 teams: #3 VT, #6 Miami, #10 FSU, and #13 Boston College. That’s heady times for a conference known for putting the ball in the hoop, not the end zone.

At the time, the SEC only had three top-13 teams, fewer than the ACC. I’ll give you a moment to ponder that in today’s SEC-heavy football world before we continue. Done? Good. Yeah, I miss those days, too.

From that Oct. 23rd date on, the ACC fell hard and fast. By season’s end, only Virginia Tech was left in the top-16, at #7. That was the start of some dark days for the league, in terms of national perception, because no ACC team has finished higher than #9 since then. VT was ranked #9 at season’s end in 2007 and #10 in 2009, and FSU was #10 at the end of 2012.

Since 2005, league champions have included (season ending rankings) #23 Florida State (2005), #18 Wake Forest (2006), #15 Virginia Tech (2008), #16 Virginia Tech (2010), and #22 Clemson (2011).

Which brings us to what’s happening this season, right now. For the first time since 2004 expansion, there’s a sense of order to ACC football, when you look at the league standings and the national rankings.

The top two teams in the Atlantic Division are #3 Clemson (6-0) and #5 Florida State (5-0). The top two teams in the Coastal Division are #10 Miami (6-0) and #19 Virginia Tech (6-1). Between the four of them, they’re a combined 23-1, with the lone loss coming against #1 Alabama in Virginia Tech’s season opener.

The other ten teams in the conference are 30-29. Only Maryland has distinguished itself, posting a 5-1 record and briefly entering the rankings, but the Terps’ credibility took a hit when FSU annihilated them 63-0. Among the remaining nine teams, only Duke (4-2) and Pittsburgh (3-2) have winning records going into the weekend. Everyone else is .500 or below.

It’s not good that 70% of the conference has a combined record hovering around .500, but it’s good that the top four teams in the conference are carrying the mail big-time. And it’s especially good that those teams are Florida State, Miami, Clemson, and Virginia Tech.

Those four schools are the conference’s “football schools.” They have the best combination of history, tradition, stadium size, and fanaticism. Among the other schools, NC State, Virginia, and North Carolina have the most potential to be better, but the others are short-term bets at best. No one thinks Syracuse, Duke, Wake, Pitt, etc. are going to be football powers any time soon, perhaps ever again.

There’s no better situation for the league as a whole than to have those four schools sporting a .958 winning percentage, all ranked in the top 20 — three in the top 10 — in mid-October. Yes, coming from a Virginia Tech guy, that’s arrogant, but it’s the truth.

In 2005, the four teams that were top-13 during that one week in October weren’t built to stay at that perch for long. In the next five seasons, from 2006-2010:

  • Florida State rode the Bobby Bowden Express all the way to the bottom, going 40-26.
  • Miami continued a hard fall from their early 2000s perch, going 35-29.
  • Boston College put up a solid 45-22 record, but never won the conference and finished ranked just two times in five seasons.
  • Virginia Tech had the best record at 53-15 and won the ACC three times in those five years (2007, 2008, and 2010), but failed repeatedly to win big out of conference games.

During that time, Clemson floundered to a 39-27 record under Tommy Bowden and Dabo Swinney (who got the job in mid-2008).

Since the end of the 2010 season, Florida State and Clemson have resurrected themselves and are clearly the class of the conference. They won the league in 2011 (Clemson) and 2012 (FSU) and have a combined record of 53-12.

Miami and Virginia Tech didn’t distinguish themselves in 2012, and neither one of them looks like a juggernaut, but they have found ways to win, and so they’re both ranked going into the weekend’s games.

It won’t last, of course. FSU and Clemson play this weekend, and one of them will lose and possibly tumble out of the top ten. Virginia Tech, with the #111-ranked offense in the country, could lose to any team at any time, especially if their #4-ranked defense lets up. Miami must travel to FSU on November 2nd and is capable of dropping multiple games the rest of the way, if Stephen Morris continues to play anything like he played last night. The Canes barely escaped Chapel Hill.

But for now, the ACC has its four best football schools in the best position:  all ranked, and nearly undefeated among the four of them. Next season, the league has the potential to be even stronger, when current #8 Louisville enters. We’ll find out if the Cardinals are more than just Teddy Bridgewater, but they have a strong athletic department and a strong fan base and appear to be built to last.

Admittedly, the rest of the SEC-centric college football world is barely noticing, but the ACC is currently functioning as envisioned in 2004 … the way it oughtta be.

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