NCF Nation: Al Groh

Jackets put on the pads

April, 1, 2013
Georgia Tech had its first day in full pads on Saturday, and it was a chance for new defensive coordinator Ted Roof to get a better look at the defense.

"We've got a long way to go," he said.

The standards have been raised, and that's a good thing -- Georgia Tech struggled defensively in the first half of 2012, and former coordinator Al Groh was fired midseason. The Jackets showed significant improvement, though, in their Sun Bowl win over USC, and there have been positive reviews following the hire of Roof.

The challenge now is to get some positive reviews out of Roof.

"There were some good things, some mistakes, obviously," he said. "Things we've got to clean up. We’ve just got to be a lot more consistent, a lot more consistent from angles of pursuit, to finishing tackles, to finishing plays. We’ve got a lot of work to do in that area, but that's something we can correct."

A few other notes from Georgia Tech, according to the team's practice reports:
  • Injuries have created some opportunities for backups, especially at wide receiver, where Anthony Autry and Travin Henry are sitting out all spring, and returning starter Darren Waller was in red on Saturday. That leaves redshirt freshman Micheal Summers, who has impressed the staff, and junior Correy Dennis.
  • The A-back competition is heating up, as a number of players are working to take Orwin Smith’s starting job. Among those competing this spring: Deon Hill, Synjyn Days, B.J. Bostic, redshirt freshman Dennis Andrews and others. Tony Zenon will also be in the mix when he returns in August.
  • Sophomore Ryan Rodwell is the only experienced, healthy punter in camp, as senior Sean Poole is recovering from shoulder surgery. Poole initially injured his shoulder trying to make a tackle against Miami last September, but held off on surgery until the offseason. Poole and Rodwell, who had identical 39.7-yard averages in 2012, should compete deep into August for the starting job.
Ted Roof is back.

He’s back at his alma mater, Georgia Tech, and the former Duke coach is back in the ACC, once again as Georgia Tech’s defensive coordinator.

[+] EnlargeTed Roof
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsTed Roof returns to Georgia Tech to be its defensive coordinator.
The question is, how long will he stay?

Roof is one of the nice guys in the business, but he’s moved around as much as major-league pitcher Edwin Jackson. Journeyman Jackson played for seven teams in his first 10 seasons. This will be Roof’s fourth stop since 2008, as he spent last year at Penn State, 2010 at Auburn, and 2008 at Minnesota. Will Roof give Georgia Tech’s defense any stability? Because it’s in desperate need of some.

Paul Johnson fired Dave Wommack after the 2009 season, he fired Al Groh midway through last season, and interim coordinator Charles Kelly is expected to be hired at Florida State, according to a source. Roof’s ties to Georgia Tech would indicate The Flats would make a good permanent home -- he was a linebacker for the Jackets under Bill Curry from 1982-1985. He is in the Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Fame. He came back in 1998 as linebackers coach under George O’Leary and was defensive coordinator for three years.

He’s done this before.

And he’s left before.

It wasn’t since Roof’s tenure as head coach at Duke (2004-2007) that he stuck around anywhere for a while. Georgia Tech would benefit if it could find some consistency at the coordinator position.

Georgia Tech’s defense began to make significant strides in the second half of the season under Kelly, and with eight starters returning, Roof will inherit a solid, experienced group coming off an impressive win over USC in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. The Yellow Jackets closed the season by shutting out Florida State in the second half of the ACC Championship game and holding USC to just seven points.

Georgia Tech has hired one of its own to build off of that performance. The question is whether or not Roof will really call it home again.
Georgia Tech linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu has decided to return for his senior season, according to the Jackets' official Twitter account:

@GTAthletics: #GaTech LB Jeremiah Attaochu has decided to return for his senior season. He led the Jackets in sacks (10) and TFL (12) in 2012. #GoJackets

@GTAthletics: Attaochu on deciding to stay at #GaTech: "At the end of the day, you have to have trust in the program and trust in the guys around you."

Georgia Tech's sports information director, @Dean Buchan, pointed out via Twitter that: With Jeremiah Attaochu returning, #GaTech has 8 starters back on defense, plus Fred Holton & strong group of redshirt freshmen.

This is obviously great news for the Jackets and the defense, which made an impressive turnaround since the mid-season firing of former coordinator Al Groh. Attaochu probably wouldn't have stuck around if he didn't sense things were going in the right direction.
Georgia Tech fired defensive coordinator Al Groh months ago, but that did not stop him from voicing his displeasure with the environment surrounding the program.

In an interview with the Roanoke Times printed Wednesday, Groh said:
"Just to say it briefly, this circumstance here was the most unprofessional, divisive and negative environment in which I've ever been. To say more would be unprofessional of myself.

"It was just a bad cultural match."

These are the first public comments Groh has made on his dismissal. I reached out to Georgia Tech for a response from coach Paul Johnson. He said in a statement:
"I'm sorry to hear that Al feels that way. I'm surprised he would stay here for two and a half years if he felt like that it was that bad."

Interestingly enough, Groh put out a statement through the school when he was fired Oct. 8, saying he respected the decision. "I appreciate all the help and input from (assistant defensive coaches) Charles Kelly, Joe Speed and Andy McCollum, and the effort of all the players. I aimed to give the best that I had every day. It’s been an honor to be a part of the legacy of Georgia Tech football. I feel positive that this is a good time in life to move on to a new situation," Groh said.

There is no question that Georgia Tech struggled defensively this year. At the time Groh was fired, Georgia Tech had given up 40 or more points in three straight games -- a school record that nobody wants to set.

Groh is a fired coach whose ego is bruised, no doubt. Things didn't work out for him, and nobody has called yet to offer him another job. So take his comments and interpret them however you see them. The Jackets did end up in the ACC title game and beat USC, and improved in every major statistical category since his departure.

This will be remembered as one of the worst seasons in conference history.

North Carolina was ineligible for the postseason. Miami won the division for the first time since joining it, but self-imposed a postseason ban for the second straight season. Georgia Tech fired defensive coordinator Al Groh midseason, dropped to 6-7 and needed a waiver from the NCAA just to play in a bowl game. Virginia Tech dropped out of the Top 25 only three weeks into the season and needed to beat rival Virginia in the final week of the season to become bowl eligible. Virginia regressed, winning just four games, and coach Mike London fired four of his assistants, including defensive coordinator Jim Reid.

And that was just the Coastal Division.

Two Atlantic Division coaches, BC’s Frank Spaziani and NC State’s Tom O’Brien, were both fired. Wake Forest suspended eight players, including four starters, over a two-week span during the season. Maryland announced it was out, leaving for the Big Ten, and the ACC announced Louisville was in. Clemson lost to South Carolina. Florida State lost to Florida. And the ACC decided it would sue Maryland in an attempt to force the university to pay the league’s $50 million exit fee.

The ACC went 0-4 against its SEC rivals in the final week of the regular season and for the second straight year had three strikes against Notre Dame. The conference had six bowl-eligible teams, two short of filling the league’s bowl tie-ins.

Hooray for Duke!

The Blue Devils, led by ACC Coach of the Year David Cutcliffe, were the first to become bowl eligible in the Coastal Division. Duke finished 6-6, earned its first bowl bid since 1994, and in November still had a legitimate chance to play for the ACC title.

It wasn’t all bad.

Florida State and Clemson put on a September show in Tallahassee for ESPN’s "College GameDay" crew, quarterback EJ Manuel had a Heisman moment in that game, and ACC offenses flourished under veteran quarterbacks this year. New stars, like Maryland’s Stefon Diggs and Miami’s Duke Johnson, emerged, while old stars, like Tajh Boyd and Giovani Bernard, shone brighter.

[+] EnlargeFlorida State's Bjoern Werner
Mitch Stringer/US PRESSWIREFlorida State's Bjoern Werner was the best and most consistent player in the ACC.
Florida State won its first ACC title since 2005, but lost defensive coordinator Mark Stoops to Kentucky the day after the game. The Seminoles had a good season, but left many wondering if it could have been a great season had they not lost on the road in the fourth quarter to NC State.

The good news?

It can only get better.

Offensive MVP: Tajh Boyd, Clemson. Boyd led the ACC in total offense with 376.4 yards per game, throwing for 3,550 yards and 34 touchdowns on the season. Though he won ACC Player of the Year and ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors by a whisker, we both agreed on Boyd as the best player in the league this season.

Defensive MVP: Bjoern Werner, Florida State. Werner quite easily won ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors for good reason. He was the best, most consistent player in the league this season, leading the league with 13 sacks and finishing second with 18 tackles for loss. He and teammate Cornellius "Tank" Carradine formed the best duo in the league.

Newcomer of the year: Duke Johnson, Miami. Stefon Diggs was great, too, but Johnson gets the nod here for having a better season. Johnson ended up with 2,070 all-purpose yards, second in school history to Willis McGahee (2,108 in 2002). He was a game-changer not just at running back but in the return game, as he scored 13 total touchdowns this season.

Biggest surprise: Hello, Duke! The Blue Devils are headed to a bowl game for the first time since 1994, and were in contention for the Coastal Division crown until the second-to-last week of the regular season. Easy to see why David Cutcliffe was named the league's coach of the year.

Biggest disappointment: Virginia Tech. Does anybody remember when the Hokies started the season ranked No. 16 in the AP poll? Us neither. Virginia Tech is about to finish up its worst season in 20 years. This is one season removed from being an at-large selection into the BCS. There were breakdowns all over this team, from Logan Thomas to the running game to what was supposed to be a great defense. Now the Hokies need a win in their bowl game to avoid finishing with a losing record for the first time since 1992.

Best game: No. 4 Florida State 49, No. 10 Clemson 37. The first meeting between two Top 10 ACC teams since 2007 did not disappoint. The Tigers jumped out quickly to a 28-14 third-quarter lead but could not withstand the Noles blitz that ensued. Florida State scored 28 straight points to take the win, as EJ Manuel had the best game of his career -- throwing for 380 yards and two touchdowns.

Georgia Tech D in search of consistency

November, 30, 2012
Just when the Georgia Tech defense gave you a little something to believe in, came perhaps one of its worst performances of the season.

On the heels of an impressive second-half showing in a win over Duke, the Jackets gave up 42 points to Georgia last week in a humbling 42-10 defeat. That is not exactly the type of performance you want to have headed into the ACC championship game Saturday against No. 13 Florida State.

We all know this defense has struggled all season long. Coach Paul Johnson fired defensive coordinator Al Groh back in October to shake things up. Though there have been some improvements, there simply is not enough consistency. Playing well for a quarter or a half is all well and good, but Johnson is seeking a four-quarter effort.

[+] EnlargePaul Johnson
AP Photo/Rich AddicksThe Yellow Jackets are giving up an average of 391.9 yards per game, a worst during Paul Johnson's tenure.
"We've played good in spurts," Johnson said this week. "I think we've played a couple of halves decently in the last few games, but it's been a while since we really played a consistent what I would call 60minute game on defense."

What will it take for that to happen?

"Well, we're going to have to have guys do a better job of looking at what they're supposed to look at and playing their keys and playing with great effort than we've had the last few games for sure," Johnson said.

When Johnson fired Groh, the Jackets had given up 40 or more points in three straight games for the first time in school history. In the second half of the season, the Jackets gave up 40 or more points three times as well, but they were sandwiched in between much better efforts.

Charles Kelly has been directing the defense in the interim and made things less complex for the players, which has helped.

"I would just have to say we're playing faster," linebacker Quayshawn Nealy said. "We haven't had to think a lot on defense with all the calls. Coach Kelly has kept it very simple for us, and just guys are able to just play without thinking so much about, like, what gaps and all that they have to take care of or who they've got in the flats and stuff like that. Just know the call and just play. That's all we're doing."

Still, Georgia Tech is in the midst of its worst defensive season under Johnson, his fifth at the helm. The Jackets have given up an average of 391.9 yards per game, and an average of 30.7 points per game -- all highs under Johnson. That is about 10 points more per game and nearly 90 yards more per game than when Johnson arrived in 2008.

The Jackets will have their hands full with Florida State, which ranks No. 8 in the country in scoring offense -- putting up 41.5 points per game. They are going to need their best defensive effort of the season if they have any shot at pulling off the upset.

"Defensively, what you’re trying to do is get a few stops and maybe some turnovers," Johnson said. "We have to get into our kind of game; a grind game, with not a lot of possessions, and the stops become premium. If you get four or five stops it’s a big deal. But that’s how you play every game; I don’t think you approach this one any differently."

ACC weekend rewind: Week 8

October, 22, 2012
Here’s a look back at Week 8 in the ACC ...

[+] EnlargeClemson defense and Virginia Tech
Joshua S. Kelly/US PresswireClemson's defense held Logan Thomas and Virginia Tech to just 17 points.
The good: Clemson's defense. This highly criticized group played arguably its best game of the season, forcing Virginia Tech into four turnovers, including one interception safety Jonathan Meeks ran back 74 yards for a touchdown. The Hokies’ 17 points were a season low by an FBS team against Clemson this year.

The bad: Maryland’s quarterback situation. It started when Danny O’Brien transferred, and the hits just keep on coming for the Terps’ quarterbacks. As if it weren’t bad enough to lose starter C.J. Brown to a season-ending knee injury this summer, his backup, Perry Hills, was injured and taken out of Saturday’s game against NC State. And then there were two -- Caleb Rowe and Devin Burns, a former receiver who switched positions this summer just to help out.

The ugly: BC and Virginia are a combined 0-8 in ACC play.

The ugly II: Two calls in the Clemson-Virginia Tech game. The first was a sack that was called on Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas. It appeared the official blew the whistle too quickly, and it didn’t look anything like a sack. Maybe it was intended to prevent an injury? It nullified what would have been a momentum-changing first down. The other was a questionable call on what looked like a fumble by Sammy Watkins in the third quarter.

The historic: Duke’s sixth win. The Blue Devils are bowl eligible for the first time since 1994 and they are leading the Coastal Division standings after a 33-30 win over rival North Carolina.

The improved: Georgia Tech’s defense. After a tumultuous bye week in which defensive coordinator Al Groh was fired and assistant Charles Kelly was named the interim, the Jackets regrouped and showed progress in a win over BC. Georgia Tech shut down Boston College in a 37-17 win, holding the Eagles to 296 total yards and 32 on the ground.

The stat: The Hokies have four losses before the end of October for the first time since 1992.

The stat II: Duke had 234 yards rushing -- the most ever on the ground by a David Cutcliffe-coached Duke team.

The quote: "I'm still pretty darn young, and I've got a long time to go," he said, "but I want to leave this place much better than when we walked into it. That's when you know you've done something right." – Duke coach David Cutcliffe, according to USA Today.

The play: Duke quarterback Sean Renfree threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Jamison Crowder on fourth down with 13 seconds left to beat North Carolina 33-30.

The play II: With two seconds remaining against NC State, Maryland kicker Brad Craddock’s 33-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright to seal NC State’s 20-18 win.

The painful: Both Florida State and Miami lost their leading rushers to injuries on Saturday. FSU running back Chris Thompson suffered a knee injury and Miami’s Duke Johnson left the game in the second half with a foot injury and didn't return. Coach Al Golden said Johnson would have X-rays after the game, but had no update on the situation during his weekly Sunday afternoon teleconference, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

ACC power rankings: Week 9

October, 22, 2012
It's too bad Duke doesn't play NC State, because then we could really settle who the best team in the state is this year. The ACC race remains as clear as mud as we head into Week 9, but the league's two ranked teams have held their ground the entire season. Despite Florida State's stronghold on the top spot, the Atlantic Division race is still wide open, as four teams have one league loss each. The Coastal Division race is a jumbled mess, as Virginia Tech and Miami both lost AGAIN, and could still win the division. For now, these are the ACC's teams to beat ...

1. Florida State (7-1, 4-1 ACC; LW: No. 1) -- The Seminoles got off to a slow start against Miami and overcame 12 penalties and five fumbles, two of which were lost, to beat the Canes 33-20. They’ll face a bowl-eligible Duke team this weekend and are looking for their third straight win.

2. Clemson (6-1, 3-1; LW: No. 2) -- The Tigers finally got a strong defensive performance and forced four turnovers in a 38-17 win over Virginia Tech on Saturday. The defense allowed a season-low in points to an FBS team and had three interceptions, but the Tigers have a quick turnaround, with a game against Wake Forest on Thursday night.

3. NC State (5-2, 2-1; LW: No. 3) -- It wasn’t pretty, but it didn’t have to be. Coach Tom O’Brien snapped a 13-game road losing streak against Atlantic Division opponents with the 20-18 win at Maryland. The Wolfpack can control the ACC race, but will likely have to beat rival UNC in Chapel Hill this weekend.

4. Duke (6-2, 3-1; LW: No. 8) -- The Blue Devils were the feel-good story of college football in Week 8, as they became bowl eligible for the first time since 1994 and took the lead in the Coastal Division standings with a 33-30 win over rival North Carolina. Their toughest tests remain, as they now have back-to-back games against the ACC’s two ranked teams, FSU and Clemson.

5. North Carolina (5-3, 2-2; LW: No. 4) -- The Tar Heels let their lead slip away, as the defense couldn’t make the stops on Duke’s game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. UNC allowed 510 total yards and 234 yards rushing -- the most it has allowed this season. The Tar Heels have another tough in-state test this week against NC State, which has won the past five games in the series.

6. Miami (4-4, 3-2; LW: No. 7) -- The Hurricanes started strong against rival Florida State, but they faded down the stretch and have now lost three straight games. They’re still in the hunt to win the Coastal Division, but will have to beat Virginia Tech at home in a Thursday night game on Nov. 1.

7. Virginia Tech (4-4, 2-2; LW: No. 5) -- The Hokies started fast in Death Valley, but the offense was stifled in the third quarter and they couldn’t overcome three first-half turnovers. The defense played one of its best games of the season, but it wasn’t enough to overcome yet another stagnant offensive performance.

8. Maryland (4-3, 2-1; LW: No. 6) -- The loss to NC State might go down as the most heartbreaking of the season for the Terps, who gave a valiant effort despite the injury to starting quarterback Perry Hills. The already-depleted quarterback position is in flux, and Maryland still has to play Florida State and Clemson.

9. Wake Forest (4-3, 2-3; LW: No. 9) -- The Deacs couldn’t get anything going on offense, but the defense played well enough to beat Virginia 16-10. It was a critical win for keeping Wake’s bowl hopes alive, but they’ll have to find some offense quickly in order to stand a chance against Clemson on Thursday night.

10. Georgia Tech (3-4, 2-3; LW: No. 10) -- The win over BC was a complete performance and exactly what the Jackets needed after a turbulent bye week in which defensive coordinator Al Groh was fired, but Boston College is so bad it’s hard to really gauge any improvement from Georgia Tech. The Jackets took the first step in turning things around, but they’ve got to keep it up against BYU.

11. Virginia (2-6, 0-4; LW: No. 11) -- What has happened to this team? Most reasonable observers probably thought the Hoos would struggle a bit this year, but this is more like a face-plant. Quarterback play has been a problem, but so has just about everything else.

12. Boston College (1-6, 0-4; LW: No. 12) -- The Eagles have yet to beat an FBS team. They rank No. 112 in the country in rushing offense and No. 119 in rushing defense. Can’t run the ball. Can’t stop the run. Can’t win. Next ...

ACC predictions: Week 8

October, 18, 2012
Undefeated. That’s right, you heard me: undefeated last week at 4-0. With that stellar performance, my overall record is now 48-11 (81.3 percent). Things get a little more difficult this week, with every team playing again:

Georgia Tech 45, Boston College 34: Defense? What defense? Neither team has much of it these days. This will be Georgia Tech’s first game this year without defensive coordinator Al Groh on the sidelines, so there will be some adjustments, but the bigger concern will be the Eagles’ inability to stop one of the nation’s most productive offenses.

Clemson 35, Virginia Tech 31: Clemson has had a bye week to prepare for this game, and it is going to get the Hokies’ best shot. Virginia Tech played its best and most complete three quarters of the season in last week’s 41-20 win over Duke, but it still isn’t going to be able to keep pace with the Tigers’ numerous playmakers.

Florida State 38, Miami 21: Al Golden said it best this week: The defense is still “light years” away from where it needs to be, although it has made some strides in recent weeks, particularly within the linebackers. Its inability to stop the run, though, is going to be the difference against a Florida State team that’s racking up 233.14 yards per game.

NC State 17, Maryland 14: Odds are we won’t see much of a running game from either team, as Maryland’s has been nonexistent this year and the Terps’ defense is good enough to stifle whatever attempt the Wolfpack will make. The difference will be at quarterback, where Mike Glennon has the edge, but the Pack will have to find a way to limit freshman phenom Stefon Diggs at receiver and in the return game.

North Carolina 45, Duke 28: This is less an indictment of Duke and more a vote of confidence in the Tar Heels as the best team in the division. UNC is rolling, and its offensive line is a major reason. Giovani Bernard will go up and down the field on the Blue Devils as UNC wins the battle up front.

Wake Forest 24, Virginia 17: The Cavaliers’ quarterbacks have struggled, and so has the defense. The Deacs have had plenty of their own problems with injuries and suspensions, but they’ll get back on track this weekend because they’ll win the turnover battle and have the edge at quarterback with veteran Tanner Price. Having noseguard Nikita Whitlock back in the lineup will also help.

2012 ACC midseason report

October, 15, 2012
The ACC has done it again.

From hope to heartache in a matter of weeks, ACC fans and their teams have run the gamut of emotions in the first half of the season.

The conference started out strong with a nationally televised showdown between top-10 teams Florida State and Clemson. It was prime-time entertainment with ESPN’s "College GameDay" crew in Tallahassee, Fla., and both teams lived up to the billing and looked worthy of their preseason hype and rankings. The conference puffed out its chest even more with the news that Notre Dame would commit to playing five games against the ACC annually, a solid steppingstone to the Irish possibly joining the conference full-time one day.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
Rob Kinnan/US PresswireFlorida State's stunning loss at NC State not only hurt Seminoles receiver Kelvin Benjamin, it resonated throughout the ACC, depriving the league of its best hope for a national champion.
For six weeks, the ACC had its national title contender in unbeaten and No. 3-ranked Florida State. It had its Heisman hopeful in FSU quarterback EJ Manuel. And it had enhanced its stability and reputation for the future with its partnership with Notre Dame.

And then came the crash.

What was pure bliss for NC State in Week 6 was devastating to the ACC. In stunning, dramatic fashion, NC State quarterback Mike Glennon completed three fourth-down passes in the final drive of the fourth quarter, leading the Pack to a 17-16 upset of Florida State. Instantaneously, the league faded back into irrelevance in the national picture. No longer could the ACC mask an otherwise abysmal season with its top-five team.

Suddenly, the rest of the ACC’s warts seemed uglier.

Georgia Tech fired its defensive coordinator, Al Groh. After coming up short in losses to two Big East teams, Bud Foster’s Virginia Tech defense allowed North Carolina to score more points -- 48 -- than any other ACC team has ever scored against the Hokies. Boston College lost to a previously winless Army team, further indicating this could be Frank Spaziani’s last season as head coach. Wake Forest suspended six players for its game at Maryland and two more the following week. Two of the league’s brightest stars -- NC State cornerback David Amerson and Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins -- have yet to shine like they did a year ago, but two rookies -- Maryland’s Stefon Diggs and Miami’s Duke Johnson -- emerged as household names in ACC country.

With Duke and Miami briefly leading the Coastal Division standings, and Maryland atop the Atlantic Division standings, the ACC was officially turned upside down in the first half of the season. Preseason Coastal favorite Virginia Tech was out of the Top 25 by Week 3 and Georgia Tech sank into a four-loss crater, leaving the door wide open. The Blue Devils knocked it down with a 5-1 start, and the wildly unpredictable Cardiac Canes elbowed their way to the top of the division standings. Miami overcame its youth, and Duke found a way to overcome numerous injuries -- including ones to several key starters on defense and also to starting quarterback Sean Renfree -- for its best start since 1994. Duke entered Week 7 with the best record in the state of North Carolina, but couldn't hold onto the magic and was shut out for the final three quarters of a 41-20 loss at Virginia Tech. Meanwhile, the postseason-ineligible Tar Heels looked like the most complete team in the division.

Four teams in the Coastal Division have one league loss. Maryland is the only ACC team still undefeated in conference play. About the only predictable thing in this conference is its unpredictability -- and its failure to maintain a national title contender through November.

Offensive MVP: Clemson WR DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins needed only the season opener to set the Clemson single-game record for receptions with 13 against Auburn. Hopkins has been near the ACC lead in receiving yards per game all season, and has a 129.5 average entering the game with Virginia Tech. He has 370 receiving yards on 18 catches in the past two games and was leading the nation in total receiving yards entering games of Oct. 13.

Defensive MVP: FSU DE Bjoern Werner: Werner has looked like a pro this season. Nobody had more sacks in the opening weekend of FBS college football, and he has been relentless in pursuit of opposing quarterbacks. Of Werner’s 21 tackles on the season, 10 are tackles for loss, including 6.5 sacks.

Biggest surprise: Duke. The Blue Devils’ 5-1 start was their best since 1994, also the last time the program went to a bowl game. Duke started out 2-0 in ACC play with wins against Wake Forest and Virginia. That the team was able to overcome so many injuries to key players and leap Virginia Tech in the Coastal Division standings was evidence the recruiting and depth have improved significantly.

Biggest disappointment: Virginia Tech. The Hokies were ranked No. 16 in The Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll, but fell out entirely after an embarrassing road loss to Pitt in Week 3. Instead of that being an anomaly, Virginia Tech went 0-2 against the Big East and lost back-to-back games against Cincinnati and North Carolina. With eight starters having to be replaced on offense, struggles were expected, but the defense fell far below expectations.

Best game: Florida State at NC State. This one changed the entire season, and it couldn’t have come in more thrilling fashion. On fourth down with 16 seconds left, Mike Glennon threw what would be the game-winning 2-yard touchdown pass to Bryan Underwood for the 17-16 win. It was the highest-ranked opponent NC State has defeated since beating No. 2 Florida State 24-7 in 1998, and it opened up the Atlantic Division race.

Newcomer of the year: Maryland wide receiver Stefon Diggs. He became the only Maryland freshman to record back-to-back 100-yard receiving games since at least 1985, and one of those performances came against West Virginia. Diggs is the only player in the ACC, and one of two nationally, with 350 receiving yards, 150 punt return yards and 150 kickoff return yards (joining Bernard Reedy of Toledo). Diggs leads the ACC and ranks third nationally with 21.5 yards per catch.

Best coach: David Cutcliffe, Duke: He kept his players believing, and the program turned the corner in his fifth season. It is only the third Duke start of 5-1 or better in the past 30 years (5-1 in 2012; 6-0 in 1994; 5-1 in 1988). With home wins against FIU, N.C. Central, Memphis and Virginia this season, the Blue Devils also have opened the year with four consecutive home wins for the first time since 1994.

ACC power rankings: Week 8

October, 15, 2012
Last week was all out of whack. Virginia Tech restored some normalcy to the league with its win over Duke, and North Carolina did its part by humbling Miami in Sun Life Stadium. That’s not to say this pecking order isn’t still in flux. The Coastal Division race is wide open, and there are plenty of teams still jockeying for position in the division standings. Here’s a look at how the league shakes out at the midway point of the season:

1. Florida State (6-1, 3-1 ACC; LW: No. 1) -- The Seminoles bounced back from their deflating loss to NC State with a convincing 51-7 drubbing of Boston College. They’ll get more of a fight this week when they face rival Miami on the road, but on paper, this is another game the Noles should win.

2. Clemson (5-1, 2-1; LW: No. 2) -- The Tigers had a bye week, and they’re going to be catching Virginia Tech right when the Hokies might have turned the corner with an historic comeback win against Duke. Clemson owned the Hokies in two wins last year, including the ACC title game.

3. NC State (4-2, 1-1; LW: No. 5) -- The Wolfpack had a bye week to digest their upset of then-No. 3-ranked Florida State and turn their focus to Saturday’s trip to Maryland. Quarterback Mike Glennon made three fourth-down completions in the fourth quarter last week and will be looking for another important Atlantic Division win.

4. North Carolina (5-2, 2-1; LW: No. 6) -- The Tar Heels got their first road win of the season against Miami, but UNC committed 15 penalties for 140 yards in the 18-14 win over the Canes. It didn’t matter in the end because Miami had no answer for running back Giovani Bernard, who ran for 177 yards and two touchdowns.

5. Virginia Tech (4-3, 2-1; LW: No. 8) -- The Hokies scored 41 unanswered points in the final three quarters to beat Duke 41-20 on Saturday in the biggest comeback the program has seen under coach Frank Beamer. Virginia Tech avoided a second Coastal Division loss and has some momentum heading into Death Valley.

6. Maryland (4-2, 2-0; LW: No. 7) -- The Terps are the only ACC team still undefeated in league play, and they are leading the Atlantic Division standings. They’ll face much stiffer competition when NC State visits on Saturday, but Maryland’s defense has kept it in every game this season and is one of the best in the ACC.

7. Miami (4-3, 3-1; LW: No. 4) -- The Hurricanes’ rushing defense has been one of its weakest links this season, as Miami is allowing 253.71 rushing yards per game. UNC ran for 272 yards against the Canes, and Florida State has the capability to do the same this weekend.

8. Duke (5-2, 2-1; LW: No. 3) -- The Blue Devils probably wouldn’t have dropped so far in the rankings so fast had they played a more respectable final three quarters, but squandering a 20-point lead brought Duke crashing back to reality. The team had a chance at a marquee win for the program, but four turnovers put the bowl bid on hold for now.

9. Wake Forest (3-3, 1-3; LW: No. 10) -- The Deacs had a bye week, and they needed it after losing back-to-back conference games and suspending eight players in the past two weeks. Wake Forest travels to UVa this weekend in a game that will be critical to the Deacs’ bowl hopes.

10. Georgia Tech (2-4, 1-3; LW: No. 9) -- It’s been a tumultuous season for the Jackets, who fired former defensive coordinator Al Groh last week. Interim Charles Kelly at least had the bye week to make the transition in preparation of Saturday’s game against Boston College. The main game plan, coach Paul Johnson said last week, is to simplify things for the defense.

11. Virginia (2-5, 0-3; LW: No. 11) -- Not much has gone right for the Hoos, who have lost five straight games heading into Saturday’s matchup against Wake Forest. Virginia is No. 99 in the country in scoring defense, allowing 33 points per game, but has also struggled offensively with quarterbacks Michael Rocco and Phillip Sims.

12. Boston College (1-5, 0-3; LW: No. 12) -- The Eagles are still looking for their first conference win of the season, and have lost four straight as they head into their third straight road game. The Eagles haven’t been able to run the ball or stop the run this season, but the passing game has shown improvement under coordinator Doug Martin.

Friday Mailblog

October, 12, 2012
Step into my office ...

Aaron in Missoula, Mont., writes: Hey HeatherI am a Miami fan and I am happy with the outcome of the season so far. I mean at least the losses came against top 10 opponents. But in whole the ACC seems pretty embarrassing? specially defensively. Al groh is gone, Miami doesn't even seem like they have a defense, the almighty Bud Fosters defense isn't even close to being as dominate as it once was. Is this a down year or is this conference always going to be the "at least we are better then the big east" conference. Thanks for your time!! p.s. Do you think we would be a huge laughing stock if Duke won the ACC championship

HD: Yep, not good, not good at all, Aaron. I talked to one former ACC assistant recently who said he thought the league has hit rock bottom this year. You're right in pointing out the defenses. They've been well below-average in most cases. I don't think Duke is going to win the ACC title, Aaron, but at this rate you never know. It would be amazing for Duke's program, but certainly not in the best interest of the ACC's image problem. And P.S. it's not better than the Big East right now, either.

Francis in Blacksburg, Va., writes: Now that the ACC is officially sticking to the eight conference game format. Do you foresee Notre Dame joining the conference as a football member also? It is only three more games per year against the ACC now than their current deal.

HD: I can see how on the surface that might be enticing to Notre Dame, but I don't think that move is going to be what pushes the Irish over the edge and into the conference. It seems like it's only a matter of time before it happens, but I think the general landscape of college football and the playoff system as it emerges will be what eventually tips the scale in the ACC's favor.

Ryan in Fort Mill, S.C., writes: Heather,My fandom is still completely shattered for this season after our inexcusable lose to a mediocre Wolfpack team Saturday night. Can you tell me something positive about my Noles to get my spirits back up? Thanks, Ryan

HD: All is not lost, Ryan. The Noles still have a great shot to finish with one loss, win the ACC title, and get a win in the Discover Orange Bowl. It's a consolation prize, no doubt, but remember -- only one team can win the national title every year. FSU is in good company. How's that for your positive spin of the week?

ACCecil in Orlando, Fla., writes: Do you think the Seminoles loss to NCST makes the ACC irrelevant this year in the hunt for the national championship or do you think a 1-loss Clemson or FSU can get back into it?

HD: Never say never, but ... well, never. Not when FSU has two wins over FCS teams and the rest of the ACC is struggling so much.

Gregory Jones in Wake Forest, N.C., writes: Heather,You are sadly mistaken about NC State beating FSU. I am a State alum but I am also a sports junkie. State beating FSU proves that they just can't throw their hat on the field and win anymore. They actually have to play the games to win them.I graduated from State in 1992. I remember looking at the schedule back then, seeing the FSU game date knowing we would lose. The only questions was by how much.When FSU came into the league there was a wide gap between the talent they had and the talent the rest of the ACC had. That gap has closed now to the point where in the ACC, if you don't bring your A game every single night, you run the risk of going home with an L, regardless of who you are.FSU's days of running through the ACC unbeaten are over. Case in point, State has beaten FSU 5 out of the last 8 times they have played them. Back in the day, some would say that is impossible. Now, it just goes to show that FSU isn't scaring anybody the way the used to.I would love to hear your response to what I have said.Take care and God Bless,Greg

HD: Thanks, Greg. I agree that FSU doesn't scare anybody anymore, and I will also tell you that Tom O'Brien is one of the best when it comes to doing more with less. What he did at Boston College and what he's doing now at NC State doesn't get enough credit. With that being said, Florida State is talented enough that it should be able to separate from the rest of the ACC and avoid a letdown like that, especially during a season in which the rest of the conference is so blatantly struggling. I appreciate your thoughtful comment and think you make a valid point -- FSU is never going to truly dominate like it used to -- but it can certainly find a way to be a more consistent winner.

Scott in Atlanta writes: HD,Al Groh may know a lot about football, but he has serious issues influencing the emotions, motivations and responsiveness of collegiate players. There was a clear disconnect between him and the players in football matters. Knowing x's and o's has never been enough to be a successful coach...Groh's programs in UVA and GT have declined in his presence. Mike London is great proof that success takes knowledge alongside player relations and influence. London gets the most out of his players. Groh does not, and that is why he is gone from GT. It has nothing to do with his knowledge or GT's option offense in practice.

HD: I completely agree, Scott. Groh is not the easiest person to talk to, let alone play for, when you're an 18-20-year old. I have no doubt that his players have had trouble relating to him. Heck, I would guess even NFL players have trouble relating to him. Add to that the fact he was asking them to do something they couldn't, and Groh's firing was inevitable. Here's the thing, though: Paul Johnson knew exactly what he was getting when he hired Groh. Johnson coached against him and prepared for that defense, in the same division. This is the second coordinator Johnson has fired. He picked 'em.

Paul Johnson had his (good) reasons

October, 10, 2012
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson had his reasons for firing defensive coordinator Al Groh midway through the season, and he candidly shared them on Wednesday during the weekly ACC coaches’ teleconference.

Johnson wasn’t defensive about his decision; rather he took the time to explain it.

“It was apparent to me that our guys were having a hard time doing what we were asking them to do,” Johnson said. “I think we had 47 missed assignments in the Clemson game. Some of the stuff we were trying to do was good stuff if you can do it, but we were having a hard time doing it.”

[+] EnlargeAl Groh
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThe Yellow Jackets will keep the 3-4 base defense used under Al Groh, but will move away from the two-gap technique he employed.
Johnson's reasons were all valid, and Groh's firing was hardly unexpected. It was the timing of it that caught many by surprise. The focus during the bye week will be getting back to basics and playing faster on defense, Johnson said. The Jackets aren’t going to shy away from Groh’s 3-4 scheme -- this year or next season -- but they are going to move away from the two-gap philosophy, which was giving the players fits, and revert to the one-gap. The two-gapping is rare at the collegiate level, but pro teams have stronger, faster athletes who can get it done. It requires a player to fight off a block, and make a tackle to his left or right.

“It became apparent to me we were struggling with it,” Johnson said. “We did not have the personnel to do what we were doing. Now do we have the personnel to do something else? We’re going to find out.”

Johnson said simplifying things will help the players, as will a more conventional approach. Johnson said every facet of the game needs to improve, but that the most glaring problems have been with the defense.

“The weakest link right now had been there and it didn’t seem to be getting better,” Johnson said. “In fact, it seemed to be going the other way.”

Johnson said his decision to fire Groh was about 12 games in the making, and was an “ongoing process” dating back to last season.

“It just came to the fact we weren’t playing very well,” Johnson said. “We’ve played football for a long time here at Georgia Tech, and we managed to give up 40 points in three consecutive games for the first time in the history of Georgia Tech football. Statistically we were 107 or 108 in the country on third downs. We were 91st in scoring. Any way you look at it, it wasn’t good. If you keep doing the same thing -- and I think Al Groh is a very smart man, he’s a good man -- but clearly it wasn’t working for us. He has a system and he runs his system. His system was not working for us, so we have to try to change. The definition of futility would be to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results. It wasn’t working.”

“We have to play better than that,” Johnson said. “In my opinion, we need to see if we can. Maybe we won’t be able to, but I feel like we will. I think we can play better than that. Ultimately, I’m responsible for it, so I have to do what I feel gives us the best chance to win.”

Miami coach Al Golden, who spent four seasons (2001-04) at Virginia as defensive coordinator under Groh, said he was surprised by the decision.

"I was shocked," Golden said. "I don't think there's any question. I think everybody knows how I feel about Coach [Groh] and what he's meant to my career, and the opportunities that he afforded me. But I'm not there, I don't know what's transpired. I know Al, if he wants to continue to coach, he'll bounce back. He's an excellent coach."

Paul Johnson finds his scapegoat

October, 8, 2012
Firing defensive coordinator Al Groh wasn’t a surprise. Georgia Tech’s defense has been terrible. Doing it midseason, though? That was harsh. It was the kind of knee-jerk reaction fans make, not coaches. After an ugly 2-4 start, including just one ACC win (ironically against Groh’s old Virginia team), Paul Johnson needed a scapegoat. Groh was it.

The challenge now will be finding the next one.

[+] EnlargePaul Johnson
AP Photo/Rich AddicksPaul Johnson plans to be more involved in Georgia Tech's defense.
How many coordinators out there want to coach a defense that has to practice against the triple option every day, only to face an offense like Clemson one week and Virginia Tech the next? How many coordinators out there more knowledgeable than Groh will take that job? Groh has his faults, but ask just about anyone in the business and they’ll tell you he knows defense. That’s not enough, though, and Johnson didn’t hesitate to point that out last week with this pre-emptive strike:

“I’m not going to sit here and try to defend how we’ve played the last couple weeks,” Johnson said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’d be stupid because we’ve played terrible, but I don’t think the man forgot everything he knew in the last couple weeks. But, ultimately, we’re responsible. We’ve got to get it on the field. It doesn’t matter what you know, it’s what happens.”

Johnson should have considered that before he hired Groh.

Finding a seasoned defensive coordinator to work alongside Johnson isn’t going to be easy. The most likely scenario might be a younger assistant willing to do what he’s told while Johnson hovers.

Johnson said at his news conference today that he will likely be more involved in the defense. That’s good, because the defense needs some help when Johnson decides to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the opponents’ 37-yard line only to put the defense right back on the field.

Johnson also acknowledged today that Georgia Tech’s problems aren’t only on defense. He said the entire team and staff have to do a better job, and he’s right. The majority of Johnson’s success to this point has been with former coach Chan Gailey’s recruits. Johnson’s critics love to point that out, but the truth is, until the staff starts recruiting better players all around, it won’t matter much who the defensive coordinator is.

Groh's firing was almost inevitable, but ultimately, Johnson is the one who will be held accountable for Georgia Tech’s failures and successes, and right now, it’s not looking good for the program. A midseason firing isn’t going to suddenly catapult the Jackets to the top of the division standings. Nor will it help Georgia Tech tackle better. The best thing the program has going for it right now is a bye week to regroup and let everyone within the program digest this news and adjust to it. One thing that won’t be changing anytime soon is Johnson.

His current contract runs through 2016, and according to Ken Sugiura of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it would cost the athletic department $10.485 million to fire Johnson after this season. Georgia Tech is already on a tight budget.

Not to worry -- Georgia Tech already found its scapegoat.

Georgia Tech DC Al Groh fired

October, 8, 2012
Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Al Groh has been fired, the school announced on Monday.

This announcement isn't a surprise, considering how much the Jackets have struggled defensively, but the timing of it is. Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson is expected to name an interim coordinator at his 3:30 p.m. ET news conference. The most likely candidates are defensive assistants Charles Kelly or Andy McCollum.

Georgia Tech has allowed more than 600 total yards in two of the past three losses, and an average of 46 points per game over that span.

“The Institute has decided to go in a different direction, which I respect,” Groh said in a prepared statement. “I appreciate all the help and input from [assistant defensive coaches] Charles Kelly, Joe Speed and Andy McCollum, and the effort of all the players.

“I aimed to give the best that I had every day. It’s been an honor to be a part of the legacy of Georgia Tech football. I feel positive that this is a good time in life to move on to a new situation.”