The ACC has arrived.
At the halfway point of the season, the once-beleaguered conference now has top 10 teams in No. 3 Clemson, No. 5 Florida State and No. 10 Miami. It has Heisman candidates in Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. It has four ranked teams, including No. 19 Virginia Tech. It has wins over Florida and Georgia. And it’s the No. 3 conference in the country, trailing only the SEC and the Pac-12.
Doesn’t matter that Virginia can’t score in the red zone, Syracuse can’t find a consistent quarterback and Georgia Tech has lost three in a row. All of the blemishes and imperfections of the others can be overlooked when there are two striking beauties walking down the runway first. With not one but two legitimate national title contenders, and the resurgence of Virginia Tech and Miami in the Coastal Division, the ACC’s premier programs have helped elevate the league’s perception through the first half of the season.
Even Boston College, a program that has won just six games in the past two seasons, has earned respect under first-year coach Steve Addazio. Nobody has played Atlantic Division heavyweights FSU and Clemson tougher than the Eagles, who have adopted their new coach’s blue-collar work ethic and passion. The Eagles have proven to be a fundamentally sound, well-coached team intent on running the ball first, and Clemson was lucky to escape with a win on Saturday night.
Much like Boston College, Maryland has already surpassed last year’s win total with its 5-1 record. Even with starting quarterback C.J. Brown sidelined with a concussion on Saturday, the Terps found a way to beat Virginia and come within one win of bowl eligibility. Virginia Tech, which needed a win over rival Virginia last year in the regular-season finale to become bowl eligible, has already reached that milestone with Saturday’s win against Pitt. Much improved from a year ago, and with one of the premier defenses in the country, the Hokies are now bowl eligible for the 21st consecutive year. Quarterback Logan Thomas continues to improve each week, and the players around him have gotten noticeably better. The Hokies are starting to hit their stride offensively just when it matters most.
The ACC enters the second half of the season with three unbeaten teams remaining in Clemson, Florida State and Miami, and four teams (Virginia Tech is the other) undefeated in league play.
Of course, it hasn’t all been Heisman happy.
League newcomers Pitt and Syracuse already have played themselves into irrelevance in their respective division races. Virginia coach Mike London’s seat is starting to sizzle. And Tobacco Road is ready for basketball season.
North Carolina, Duke and NC State are a combined 0-7 in league play. Wake Forest, with its lone ACC win coming against the Wolfpack, has underachieved and spent the first half of the season trying to find an identity on offense. UNC, meanwhile, has to win five of the final seven games just to get to a bowl game, and it doesn’t look good.
That’s not what the rest of the nation is watching, though, and that’s why the ACC is sitting pretty through the first half of the season.
Offensive MVP: Clemson QB Tajh Boyd -- He recently became the program’s all-time leader in passing yards with 9,836. He is second in total offense in ACC history. He has won 27 games as Clemson’s starter, and he’s the ACC’s best hope at a Heisman Trophy winner this year. Boyd’s leadership is one of the biggest reasons Clemson is ranked No. 3 in the country and in contention for a national title.
Defensive MVP: Clemson DE Vic Beasley -- The redshirt junior has emerged as one of the top pass-rushers in the country this fall. He’s No. 2 in the country in sacks at 1.5 per game, and he’s tied for fourth in the country in tackles for loss with two per game and 12 total.
Biggest surprise: Boston College -- After winning just two games a year ago, expectations were tempered for the Eagles, who are under the direction of first-year coach Steve Addazio. The Eagles have already surpassed last year’s two-win total, though, and have played with an intensity in every game that has exceeded the expectations of most.
Biggest disappointment: North Carolina -- The Tar Heels won eight games last year, but this season they might not even get to a bowl game under Larry Fedora. The offense and the defense have looked atrocious, and UNC has lost three in a row heading into Thursday night’s game against Miami. Despite losing Giovani Bernard and Jonathan Cooper, Fedora said this year’s offense could be better, but it only has gotten worse.
Newcomer of the year: FSU QB Jameis Winston -- He arguably has been the most exciting redshirt freshman in the country this year. He has gone from being Florida State’s biggest question to its biggest asset. He’s No. 2 in the country in passing efficiency, and he’s No. 4 in the country with a QBR of 91.3 In his first season as a starter, he’s already in the Heisman mix.
Best coach: Miami’s Al Golden -- He beat Florida. He has the Canes at 5-0 and ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 2009. Oh, and the program still hasn’t heard if it will face further sanctions from the NCAA. Golden has kept his team focused and winning, and brought the Canes back to relevance in the national picture.
Best game: Clemson 38, Georgia 35. This was the game that changed the entire perception of the ACC and legitimized Clemson’s hopes at a national title. Finally, the ACC had the upper hand against the SEC on the big stage in a season opener. Not only was it a win for the ACC, but the seesaw game lived up to all of the preseason hype and was an instant classic.