College Football 2010: Analyzing the Mess That Is the ACC
After his team's 21-16 loss to James Madison, Virginia Tech tailback Ryan Williams had one thing to say about the game.
"I don't know what's going on. I really don't."
Regardless of whether he knew it or not, Williams spoke for his entire conference Saturday night, following one of the worst weeks in ACC history.
And one thing is for sure--Virginia Tech and its fellow conference contenders better find out what's going on pretty soon, or their season could be over before the end of September.
Just how bad was the ACC's day?
Well the preseason favorite Hokies lost their second game in six days, this time to an FCS school. Virginia Tech tried as hard as it could to lose this game--making way to many mental lapses and fumbling in the red zone--and didn't have enough in desperation time.
So maybe Virginia Tech just isn't as good as we thought. There's nothing hurt there, right?
Well, that's true if the next best team in the conference can firmly grip the No. 1 spot. But Miami, generally regarded as the ACC's second best team, fell to Ohio State 36-24.
Save for the homers who think Miami could have been a National Championship contender, nobody expected the Hurricanes to win in the Horseshoe. But the way they did it was appalling.
Jacory Harris threw four interceptions and the Miami receivers spent more time taunting Buckeye players than catching balls. If special teams weren't there to help, the Hurricanes could have struggled with James Madison as well.
Georgia Tech, the ACC's Orange Bowl representative in 2009, also couldn't find the win column on Saturday. The Yellow Jackets fell 28-25 to Kansas, which typically isn't a horrible loss. But this is the same Kansas team that lost 6-3 to North Dakota State of the FCS.
Paul Johnson's defense was awful all day, and triple-option offense, which isn't meant to play from behind, didn't have enough to win the game in crunch time.
So, with the top three contenders out, upstart Florida State was the last chance for the ACC to make a statement Saturday night.
The Seminoles traveled to Oklahoma, and many writers--this one included--thought they had a reasonable chance to upset the Sooners.
Instead, FSU was manhandeled 47-17 and its defense was thoroughly dominated by Landry Jones and the Oklahoma offense.
So who's the ACC favorite now--Maryland? The Terps beat a solid Navy team in week one and blew out McNeese State 62-3.
How about NC State? The Wolfpack beat UCF 28-21.
Maybe Virginia? The Cavs almost beat USC in the Coliseum.
Truthfully, the ACC is still up for grabs. None of these games matter toward conference play and one of the top four teams will still probably win the conference and go to the Orange Bowl.
Nevertheless, the ACC's reputation was badly beaten on Saturday. Non-conference play is where a league can make a statement. And as the Big Ten learned a few years ago, failing to do so can make your team the laughing stock of college football-- deserving or not--for years to come.
And Saturday, the ACC just became this year's Big Ten.
Having contenders lose early has always been a problem for the ACC, just not in non-conference play. The league has been described as strong from top to bottom, as its teams beat up on each other throughout the year.
Its nearly impossible to tell who the ACC Champion will be until the final week of the season, and this year will be no different. But because of week two, the excuse won't be conference depth anymore. Instead, it will be because of the perceived weakness of the top teams.
It's sad that one bad day can damage a conference so much, but that's how college football works these days. How can the league get its reputation back? Win major bowl and big non-conference games over the next few seasons.
But before that can happen, the ACC's top teams need to address some key issues.
First and foremost, its top teams need to lose the thought that they can run past everyone else.
After last season, the stereotype that the ACC has more speed than other conferences is pretty much gone. Wisconsin ran past Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl and Iowa turned out to be faster and more athletic than the "star athletes" running Georgia Tech's triple-option.
Does the speed argument work against bottom-feeders in other leagues? Yes. But the same goes for contenders in other conferences. The "dynamic" offenses of Miami, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech need to find a new brand of football or find a new element to add to their game plans, because the argument that they can just run past everyone is now an old-school thought.
Second, the defense needs to improve.
The middle to lower-tier teams seem to already be making strides in this department, as Virginia held USC to just 17 points and Maryland was able to contain Navy's lethal offense, and allowed just 85 total yards against McNeese State.
But the top teams are reeling. Virginia Tech is in a rebuilding stage, but still needs to put up a better performance in crunch time--as proven by Boise State's game-winning drive. Georgia Tech looked like a JV team trying to tackle one of the worst teams in the Big 12, and Florida State gave up 47 points.
Defense is king in the SEC and the Big Ten, and it's no coincidence that those are also the top two conferences in the country. If the ACC wants to compete with the big boys, it needs to improve on that side of the ball.
Last but not least, the ACC's top teams need to know the fine line between confidence and cockiness.
Obviously, regaining confidence is a must for the top teams, but they need to be careful not to go to far, because there is a fine line between confidence and cockiness.
Miami should be embarrassed, not only for its play on the field, but for how much talking it did during the game. The Hurricane secondary was constantly harassing the Ohio State receivers, even when "The U" was down by 12 late in the game.
Virginia Tech let its emotions get the best of it against Boise State and eventually lost the game.
For instance, Hokie wide receiver DJ Coles got called for running into the punter on fourth and short, but then laid him out downfield again for no good reason. That's 20 penalty yards, a first down, and another Bronco touchdown.
Now all of this is easier said than done. It can take years to change offensive schemes or build a solid defense, but the ACC has to start somewhere.
As it begins to pick up the pieces from one of its worst days in history, the league has begun to realize that it isn't all it was hyped up to be.
And if they want any hope of reviving this once solid conference, Ryan Williams and company need to figure out what's going on, and fast. Because one thing's for sure--the ACC has lost its swagger.
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