Anyone familiar with the current, endlessly divisive POWR-RNKING!! of college football conferences knows where the critics like to put the ACC these days—above the Big East, adrift in a murky Atlantic fog, far away from the powerhouses and frontrunners. Aside from their obligatory autobid in the BCS, the ACC is routinely trotted out as the conference that does the least with the most middling talent; that they routinely underwhelm; and that they won't field a BCS contender outside of the autobid for the foreseeable future.
But if we take the opening weekend of college football, and the most recent clash on Thursday night, as indications, the competitive level in the ACC is definitely improving, if in some admittedly unorthodox ways.
Consider first the Alabama-Virginia Tech game last Saturday. By the numbers, that game shouldn't have even been close. Alabama brought speed, played with reckless abandon, dominated Tyrod Taylor on defense, allowed 155 yards of offense in total—and were still losing in the fourth quarter.
To say that in spite of being behind, they would eventually triumph is, in my opinion, taking the result of that game as far too inevitable. Two late Mark Ingram touchdowns sealed the game against what must have been a gassed VT defense. But to paraphrase Bobby Knight, Virginia Tech was in a position to win in the fourth quarter.
VT forced turnovers and was almost unerringly successful in scoring off them when in Alabama territory. They held off two Tide drives deep in their territory, again by way of forced fumbles. They also created plays on special teams, including the long kickoff return for a touchdown that gave them a 7-6 lead in the first quarter.
To minimize these accomplishments or cast them in a light of futility is to misunderstand the chaotic and opportunistic nature of football in general. Turnovers occur, and what's more, turnover differential is often the defining statistic in a game, more so than yards gained or average field position.
In addition, the VT effort should be lauded from a pure recruiting standpoint. Consider that Alabama's defense, offensive line, and running game must have been even more overwhleming than the unit that dominated Clemson in the Tide's coming out party last year. After one more coaching year under Saban, two consecutive top five draft classes heavy on defensive talent, and the loss of vastly overrated Andre Smith at right tackle. Virginia Tech hasn't come close to recruiting at the level the Tide has over the same period.
Another criticism fielded at the ACC is that they lack a standout program, a USC or Texas or Florida that the country can consider a consistent representative of the conference. The truth is that the ACC is probably the conference that is closest to parity, both in terms of talent and in offensive performance. To say this equals mediocrity seems unfair in an era when the avowed goal of the NCAA in limiting recruiting and practice time is to produce league-wide parity.
In addition, the power structure of the conference as a whole stratifies to about the same degree as the other conferences (not named the PAC-10). There exist two or three consistent frontrunners, three or four three upstarts who can compete, and the remaining teams, well, vary in levels of mediocrity (don't worry, Boston College; another Matt Ryan will come along soon enough).
My defense of the ACC also relies on the unquestionable watchability of their premier games this year. The fact is that the average college football fan doesn't have a dog in every race. The outcome of every game can't naturally be compelling to most people. Fandom in college is not like the NFL, where the phenomenon of fantasy football makes the Bills/Dolphins game naturally intriguing because of what Marshawn Lynch or Ronnie Brown might do for your team. The best the average college fan can ask for is an exciting, close game.
In that sense, this season, the ACC's inter and intraconference play has produced the two closest, most exciting college football games to date. Jacory Harris's breakout game in the Labor Day matchup between Miami and Florida State was an instant classic, and Thursday night's game between Clemson and Georgia Tech was an offensive slugfest decided by a field goal in the closing minute.
About that Clemson-GT game: for those of you who didn't turn it off after the first quarter, GT jumped out to a 21-0 lead on three huge plays, took a 24-7 lead into halftime after giving up a fluky bomb to Clemson's true freshman quarterback, then sat in idle while Clemson's offensive skillplayers, including the unbelievably elusive Jacoby Ford, gashed GT for 27 straight points, taking the lead in the fourth before squandering the would-be winning drive on a holding call.
That's pretty watchable stuff. In fact, these games were the furthest thing from mediocrity, both as athletic performance and as entertainment. Georgia Tech's defensive line was a thing of beauty to see in action—defensive end Derrick Morgan is going to be beastly; their pass rush hasn't lost a step replacing All-American end Michael Johnson, who was drafted to the Cincinnati Bengals earlier this year.
Clemson's skill players—Ford, but also running back CJ Spiller and quarterback Kyle Parker—never gave in, a testament to both Dabo Swinney's cool head and the talent still on that roster, still slated for ten more games. Not to mention the playcalling performance from Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and Miami's Mark Whipple on Labor Day.
There's as much or more competitive drama going on in the ACC as in any conference, and what's more, the relative parity at the top promises some tight, close games. In light of that, I'd like to anoint the ACC the preliminary title of college football's Most Exciting Conference so far this year.
Now, let's look at four ACC games that might, like their predecessors, keep the heart rate up, light up the scoreboards—and keep it close—in September:
Thursday, Sept. 17: No. 15 Georgia Tech @ No. 20 Miami. This one's another Thursday night game, which means it can absorb all your attention (props to the ACC commissioner for locking down the Thursday night spots, formerly occupied by the Big East; it really makes for good coverage). Look for Jacory Harris to have another 300+ yard game as Georgia Tech's weak secondary gets exposed - while Tech rushes for another 300 yards and three touchdowns in a nailbiter.
Saturday, Sept. 19: No. 22 Nebraska @ No. 12 Virginia Tech. Frank Beamer's team will look to better their out of conference record against a rebuilt Nebraska team. A big key to the game will be making sure Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh keeps his mitts off Tyrod Taylor. VT's defense should give them the edge at home, but expect it to be close.
Saturday, Sept. 26: No. 20 Miami @ No. 12 Virginia Tech. If Miami can get past the Yellow Jackets, this might decide the ACC Coastal Division title early. Don't be surprised if Harris needs to lead another scoring drive, this time against a much tighter secondary, to win the game.
Also on this date: No. 19 North Carolina @ No. 15 Georgia Tech. If it's GT that bests the Hurricanes on the 17th, this could also be a shootout for the Coastal title. UNC looks to reload on the outside after Hakeen Nicks' departure to the NFL. Georgia Tech should run wild on them.