Signs of separation showing in the ACC

Posted by ESPN.com’s Heather Dinich

There were an NCAA-record 10 bowl-eligible ACC teams last year, and it wasn’t until the final two weeks of the season that the division winners finally emerged. The 2009 ACC media guide boasts “unprecedented balance,” as the conference had nine teams with at least seven wins and four teams tied with 5-3 conference records last year.

Not this year.

It’s still early, but because of how the schedule falls, and based on the first three weeks of the season, it looks like separation is finally occurring in the ACC. While it doesn’t make for as exciting of a conference race come November, it does increase the chances for a national championship contender to emerge in the near future.

In the Atlantic Division, Wake Forest and NC State are still a mystery, as they haven’t started conference play yet. Maryland and Boston College have too many issues to contend right now. Clemson and FSU, as expected, are the frontrunners.

In the Coastal Division, Miami and Virginia Tech will answer who the frontrunner is this weekend, but so far, the Canes are the most complete team because of quarterback Jacory Harris. Georgia Tech has already lost the tiebreaker to Miami should it be needed, and we’ll find out where UNC stands in the race on Saturday, but it’s defense has played better than Georgia Tech’s so far. Virginia is hapless and hopeless, and Duke is still Duke.

Let’s review what the early trends indicate:

• Clemson is going to have to win with its defense if it’s going to win the Atlantic Division. The Tigers have zero rushing touchdowns and five total offensive touchdowns in three games against Middle Tennessee, Georgia Tech and Boston College.

• Florida State and Miami, both who have played ranked opponents this month, lead the ACC in scoring offense with 35 points per game. (NC State actually leads the conference with 37.7 points per game, but they racked up all of their touchdowns – literally – against Murray State and Gardner-Webb.)

• Miami and Florida State are leading the ACC in total offense.

• Seven of Virginia Tech’s 10 touchdowns came against Marshall. If you exclude the Marshall game, in which the Hokies piled up 605 yards of total offense, Virginia Tech is averaging 216.5 yards of total offense and 20 points per game. By comparison, Virginia is last in the ACC with 278.3 yards per game and 20.7 points.

• Georgia Tech’s defense has allowed 377 total yards per game and nine touchdowns. Only Duke, Florida State and Maryland have allowed more.

• North Carolina’s rushing defense is incredible, allowing just 52.3 yards per game. That doesn’t bode well for the Yellow Jackets, who have struggled to execute their offense against conference opponents. Jonathan Dwyer’s name doesn’t even show up among the ACC’s top 10 rushers.

• Jacory Harris and Christian Ponder have looked like the two best quarterbacks in the ACC against the best competition. They both lead the ACC in total offense and passing average per game.

Considering how poorly Maryland and Virginia have played, how much Boston College struggled offensively at Clemson, and that Duke doesn’t quite yet look like a six-win team, it seems unlikely that the ACC will even fill it’s allotted nine bowl tie-ins, let alone match that NCAA record of 2008.

It’s too early to say Florida State and Miami are back, but with strong quarterback play and wins over ranked teams, both programs have separated themselves, and it’s exactly what the ACC needs. Of course now we have to see if they can keep it up.