- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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What began as a season filled with potential has turned into a conference race on the backburner of the national radar halfway through the season. Five ranked preseason teams quickly shrank to one, and even the Florida State-Miami rivalry game couldn’t live up to its blockbuster billing.
The first half of the ACC’s season was defined by its lack of success in nonconference games, as the league’s best hope at a national title contender was shattered as early as Labor Day when Virginia Tech lost to Boise State. The conference went 0-for-4 against top-10 competition with losses to Boise State, Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State. They were resounding reminders of that gap that remains between the ACC and the nation’s elite.
Not only couldn’t the ACC hold its own against the best, it became college football’s punch line after Virginia Tech lost to James Madison, and Georgia Tech, the defending ACC champs, couldn’t beat Kansas, a 5-7 team in 2009. The ACC finished the first half of the season with a 3-9 record against the five other automatic qualifier conferences, and all three wins came against the lowly Big East.
The biggest story of the first half of the season, though, has been the ongoing NCAA investigations at North Carolina into improper contact with agents and possible academic misconduct. The entire saga has been an embarrassment to the university, the league, and should have coach Butch Davis concerned about his future -- regardless of how many games the team finds a way to win.
With no team a clear front-runner in the Coastal Division, though, North Carolina’s chances are as good as anyone’s. Separation has started to occur in the Atlantic Division, with Florida State and NC State leading the way. Their Oct. 28 Thursday night game is likely to determine the division winner, but on a weekend when a league-high five interdivisional games were played, the Coastal Division earned a 3-2 record and could still prove to be deeper.
Don’t confuse mediocrity this year, though, with parity. The ACC is comprised of mainly average teams that will continue to beat up on each other in the second half of the season. As Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said this past summer at ACC media days, the league has had good teams, but not a great one.
And at the midpoint of the regular season, that hasn’t changed.
Offensive MVP: Florida State offensive guard Rodney Hudson. Yes, Russell Wilson will likely win the people’s choice award, and he is a legitimate candidate, but Florida State, the ACC’s lone ranked team this week, would be nowhere without Hudson. Since the loss at Oklahoma, Hudson has earned grades of 94, 80, 87 and 94, respectively. He has had no missed assignments and 18 knockdown blocks during that span as Florida State has averaged 6.3 yards per carry, 258.2 rushing yards and 452.7 total yards per game.
Defensive MVP: Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers. He had two sacks for 16 yards in the loss to North Carolina. He now has six sacks in just five games and 11.5 tackles for loss. In five games he has already exceeded his 2009 season totals in terms of sacks and tackles for loss. Bowers ranks third in the nation for tackles for loss and is tied for fourth in sacks.
Best coach: NC State coach Tom O’Brien. He has guided the Wolfpack to a 5-1 record, the program’s best start since 2002. It’s not just the fact that the Pack is winning, though, that has been impressive. Consider that NC State entered this year having to replace all four starters on its defensive line and without a single tailback that had any starting experience. The program finally seems to have turned the corner and is a legitimate contender for an ACC title.
Best game: Boise State 33, Virginia Tech 30. The Hokies fell behind 17-0, but never quit. Instead, led by the dynamic play of quarterback Tyrod Taylor, Virginia Tech rallied to a 27-26 lead in the final quarter thanks to a critical fourth-and-5 conversion. Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore got the final word, but not until 1:09 was left in the game.
Biggest surprise: North Carolina. Even with seven starters missing on defense for the season opener against LSU, the Tar Heels could have won that game. The investigations into possible academic misconduct and improper contact with agents have overshadowed the on-field efforts and improvement of players who did no wrong. T.J. Yates has thrown just one interception, and running back Johnny White has come out of nowhere to lead the team in rushing. The backups on defense have proven capable starters, and UNC has been able to overcome the distraction.
Biggest disappointment: Heisman hopefuls. Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams has been sidelined with a hamstring injury the past three games, Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder lost the attention when the Seminoles lost at Oklahoma, and Miami quarterback Jacory Harris was overshadowed by Terrelle Pryor in head-to-head competition and has continued his turnover trend. Nobody else in the ACC has separated himself from the likes of Denard Robinson and Kellen Moore.