NCF Nation: Atlantic Division

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Well, it looks like I'm not the only one questioning Georgia Tech's ability to defend its 2009 ACC title. But guess what, Georgia Tech fans?

We don't know what we're doing.

The media has only correctly predicted the ACC champ once in the past four years -- in 2007, when the Hokies won. Virginia Tech is a safe pick. It's an easy pick. Bud Foster's defenses always reload and this offense looks like it has the potential to be spectacular. Add that up and it's a smart pick.

I just sense it's time for a shift in the balance of power in the league. While Virginia Tech has to replace six starters on defense, Miami has some of the best depth it's had under coach Randy Shannon. While Georgia Tech is in the midst of a coordinator and scheme change, Miami finally has staff stability. While North Carolina is answering more questions about off-field distractions, Miami has finally dropped any baggage Shannon inherited.

In the Atlantic Division, Boston College is being overlooked. Again. Here's my main reason for picking the Eagles third behind Florida State and Clemson, respectively: BC still has something to prove at quarterback. Anthony Castonzo told me on Sunday that Dave Shinskie has improved tremendously, and that he made a visible leap. He's going to have to if the Eagles are going to beat the likes of Christian Ponder and Kyle Parker.

As for buying into the Florida State hype? You better believe it. Even if that defense is only marginally better -- which it should be -- the offense is talented, experienced and deep enough to put up some eye-popping numbers this fall. Heisman numbers.

Truth is, nobody can predict this league. Not you, not me, not Paul Johnson or anyone else. Not with five ranked teams and a Coastal Division comprised of four teams that can legitimately contend for the conference title this year.

Despite the overwhelming vote of confidence in Virginia Tech from the media here, it's a slim margin that separates each of these teams, which is why ACC fans should be treated to another down-to-the-wire season.

Tiebreaker scenarios, anyone? It's about the only thing you can count on in this race.
In 2009, the Coastal Division was the strength of the ACC, with Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Miami all ranked among the Top 25 in the final Associated Press poll.

Expect a similar outcome in 2010, only add UNC to the mix.

The Atlantic Division should show improvement across the board, but it's still not ready to catch up to the Coastal.

Miami coach Randy Shannon and UNC coach Butch Davis are both facing higher expectations in their fourth seasons and have the personnel to deliver. Georgia Tech has numerous questions and holes to fill, but doesn't lack for talent or coaching. And Virginia Tech's offense should finally be clicking under Tyrod Taylor, who will have two 1,000-yard backs to work with. There are enough questions at Duke and Virginia to consider them status quo until they prove otherwise.

[+] EnlargeFisher
Jeremy Brevard/Icon SMIFSU first-year head coach Jimbo Fisher has plenty of talent returning on offense.
In the Atlantic Division, the expectations for FSU have increased threefold under coach Jimbo Fisher -- in part because of the talent that is returning on offense, the talent he has recruited and also because of the new energy he has injected into the program. While the Seminoles have the Gator Bowl momentum (not to mention the hype) to be considered a front-runner heading into the season, they're hardly a lock. (And the defense is still unproven.)

Despite the loss of C.J. Spiller, Clemson is still a very talented team, which should again contend for the division in the second season under Dabo Swinney. Boston College will be deeper and more experienced at the quarterback position, which will be key, and who knows what heights the return of linebacker Mark Herzlich can inspire the Eagles to. Maryland has nowhere to go but up after a 2-10 season, and the coaching staff at Wake Forest likes the talent on the roster, despite the uncertainty at quarterback. NC State has two legitimate quarterbacks to depend on, and winning a bowl game should be SOP for TOB in his fourth year.

Because of the progress we should expect to see in the Atlantic Division, this could be a season closer to the one we saw in 2008, where the conference was legitimately deep and there were an NCAA-record 10 bowl-eligible teams. Could be. Last year, the Atlantic Division simply wasn't very good.

Each team in the conference heads into 2010 with significant questions to answer, but the teams in the Atlantic Division have more to prove. Florida State, Maryland, NC State and Wake Forest combined for a 19-30 record last year. If the overall perception of the league is going to improve in 2010, that record has to improve first. Odds are, though, some of the toughest competition will come from the Coastal Division.

ACC's pre-spring power rankings

February, 10, 2010
It’s early, but it’s never too early for pre-spring power rankings -- especially since Duke kicks off spring practice on Feb. 15. Now that the NFL departures have been announced and signing day is over, it’s time for the first look at how the ACC might stack up in 2010. Keep in mind that this can -- and most likely will -- change. The ACC is all-too familiar with star players getting hurt before the season begins, and there are other factors like position battles to be won and coaching changes to acclimate to that can impact this later. For now, though, here’s how the ACC looks heading into 2010:

1. Virginia Tech – The Hokies’ spot at the top is based on their historical ability to reload on defense, but they can fall quickly if significant progress isn’t made this spring and summer in replacing six starters. In an unusual twist, the offense is in a position to keep this team in contention early.

2. Florida State – Things are different under coach Jimbo Fisher, but this ranking is based on the assumption that the defense will be different -- and improved -- under first-year coordinator Mark Stoops. The Noles will have a championship-caliber offense led by quarterback Christian Ponder, who will be playing behind a standout veteran offensive line.

3. North Carolina – This defense is scary good. It should be one of the best in the country. But visions of last year’s offense should still be dancing in John Shoop’s head. The Tar Heels aren’t far from where they need to be, though, and this defense can take them places, even with an average offense. All T.J. Yates has to do is manage the offense without turning it over, but the players around him need to improve, too.

4. Miami – If Miami is going to take the next step under coach Randy Shannon, it has to protect quarterback Jacory Harris better and improve the running game. That will be difficult after losing three starters on the offensive line and having very little returning experience at tight end. The Canes will also be under the direction of new defensive line and running backs coaches, and have one of the most difficult schedules in the conference -- again.

5. Boston College – The Eagles were in contention for the Atlantic Division until November last year, and they can do the same again if they work out some trouble spots at quarterback and build the depth at running back. The linebacker corps can be one of the best in the ACC.

6. Georgia Tech – There are too many questions to give the defending ACC champs too much credit just yet. Having lost their leading rusher, receiver and top two defenders, the Jackets have some work to do. They also have to adjust to a new defensive scheme under first-year coordinator Al Groh. Odds are the offense makes a seamless transition with Anthony Allen at B-back.

7. Clemson – Some of the most accomplished players in school history have graduated, leaving this season a true test for coach Dabo Swinney. The recruiting has gone well under his direction, and there is still plenty of talent left on the roster, but the Tigers could be without quarterback Kyle Parker if he chooses baseball, and they will have to find a way to replace the production of C.J. Spiller.

8. NC State – The young secondary will still be an issue, and the Pack will be without their starting quarterback, Russell Wilson, all spring because of his baseball obligations. The defense should improve with the return of Nate Irving, but it’s still unclear how much he’ll be able to do this spring.

9. Maryland – There’s only one way for this 2-10 team to go, and that’s up. The pressure should be on in College Park to get back to a bowl game, but the Terps have questions up front on both sides of the ball, and there should be a quarterback competition this spring.

10. Wake Forest – The Deacs are in the lower half for one big reason -- they have to replace the winningest quarterback in school history, and right now, that job is wide open.

11. Duke – The big question holding Duke back right now is the graduation of quarterback Thaddeus Lewis and the fact his backup, Sean Renfree, will miss this spring with a torn ACL. The Blue Devils also have questions on the defensive line and need to improve their running game.

12. Virginia – Progress isn’t only measured in wins and losses, and first-year coach Mike London will make progress, but until he is able to put together a few of his own recruiting classes, Cavs fans will need some patience. First, though, they need a quarterback.

ACC decade in review

January, 18, 2010
The past decade was reason for the ACC to celebrate.

The conference had a Heisman Trophy winner. It had college football’s winningest coach. It had attendance numbers that continued to soar to record heights straight through the inaugural ACC championship game. Over the past 10 seasons, the ACC had some of the nation’s top defenses and most prolific passers. It had some of the swiftest kickers and most acclaimed coaches.

Tyrod Taylor
AP Photo/John BazemoreVirginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor led his team to a win in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Hokies have had six straight 10-win seasons since joining the ACC.
It also had expansion -- a dramatic, sweeping change that made the conference a 12-team league, added a struggling championship game, and has fallen short in producing the powerhouse image it intended. What the ACC added in swagger, it has yet to gain in substance. The past 10 years in ACC history can be divided into two periods -- pre and post-expansion -- a.k.a Florida State’s reign and Virginia Tech’s coup. Combined, the two programs have won seven of the past 10 ACC titles, moving over only for Maryland, Wake Forest and now Georgia Tech.

The purpose of ACC expansion was to bolster the conference’s image to the likes of the SEC and Big 12. But in the six seasons since adding Virginia Tech, Boston College and prize recruit Miami to the league, the ACC has won just one BCS bowl game, has yet to receive an at-large bid to a BCS bowl, and traditional powers FSU and Miami have yet to meet in the title game. Miami has yet to finish better than third in its division or win a bowl game under coach Randy Shannon, who is 28-23 after three seasons. What the ACC wanted -- national recognition and clout amongst its fellow BCS conferences -- it had earlier in the decade.

It began in 2000 with the last great Florida State team. The Seminoles won their ninth straight ACC title (8-0, 11-2) before losing 13-2 to No. 1 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. FSU extended its NCAA-record of finishing in the AP top five to 14 straight years, and Chris Weinke became only the second ACC player to win the Heisman trophy. It was also a season in which the ACC had 13 All-Americans, 21 players were selected in the NFL draft, and former Virginia coach George Welsh retired as the ACC’s winningest coach with 134 wins.

The following season, the ACC sent a conference-record six teams to bowl games -- a number that now pales in comparison to the NCAA-record 10 the ACC sent in 2008, and falls short of the nine guaranteed bowl tie-ins the ACC now has. The 2001 season belonged to Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, who was a consensus pick for national Coach of the Year, and players like E.J. Henderson, Woodrow Dantzler, and Julius Peppers.

In 2002, the conference celebrated its 50th anniversary with a league-record seven bowl eligible teams and another ACC title for Florida State. NC State became the first school in conference history with a 3,000-yard passer, thanks to Philip Rivers.

In 2003, Bowden surpassed Joe Paterno as college football’s winningest coach with 342 wins. That season, the ACC was the only conference to have a winning bowl record for three straight seasons. Now, the ACC has gone four straight seasons without a winning bowl record. And Bowden has since retired amidst a swirl of controversy, and Florida State hasn’t had a 10-win season since 2003.

Virginia Tech, however, has had six straight 10-win seasons since joining the ACC. The Hokies have compiled a 99-32 record from 2000-09 (62-18 from 2004-09), and finished no worse than second place in the Coastal Division. Boston College has been the best team in the Atlantic Division (two wins ahead of Clemson) and has earned the third-best overall record (26-14) in the conference (behind Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech) since joining in 2005. BC’s 47 overall wins since 2005 is five behind Virginia Tech for the most in the ACC since 2005.

Expansion has treated the ACC well, if you’re a Virginia Tech or Boston College fan. The past decade has given ACC fans plenty to celebrate, but it’s also a reminder of what they’ve been missing.

2009 ACC conference overview

December, 8, 2009
The ACC entered this season with high hopes for a national title contender, and by the sixth week of the season -- when Virginia Tech held the No. 4 ranking in the country -- it seemed to be a realistic goal. Not only were the Hokies in the mix, but Miami was ranked No. 9, and with only one loss each, both teams seemed capable of great seasons.

Only Georgia Tech, though, was left standing.

Virginia Tech’s stumble against Alabama in the season opener wasn’t entirely a shock, nor was it a huge blow to the conference’s image, as the Hokies looked respectable in their 34-24 loss to the Tide. It was the back-to-back Coastal Division losses to Georgia Tech and North Carolina that sent the Hokies tumbling out of the championship pictures. For Miami, which successfully navigated its way through an unforgiving four-game start to the season, the 40-37 overtime defeat to unranked Clemson was tough to swallow, but it was the loss to North Carolina that closed the door on the Canes’ BCS hopes.

While the Coastal Division eventually handed the reins to the most consistent team of the season and eventual ACC champ - Georgia Tech -- the Atlantic Division was turned upside down. Two first-year coaches -- Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Boston College’s Frank Spaziani -- edged out the veterans in their division and fought for the top spot in the standings until Nov. 21, when BC’s loss to UNC guaranteed the Tigers a spot in the ACC championship game before they even set foot on the field to play Virginia.

[+] EnlargeRyan Williams
Geoff Burke/US PresswireRyan Williams finished the regular season ranked fifth in the country in rushing yards per game.
Clemson, which started out 2-3, finally exceed expectations instead of disappointing fans, and Boston College earned the overachievers award after forging through a season with two new coordinators and a 25-year-old rookie quarterback nicknamed “Uncle” Dave Shinskie. The entire conference rallied around BC linebacker Mark Herzlich, who was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma cancer but vowed to return in 2010.

Florida State, which was predicted to win the Atlantic Division, hit rock bottom with a 0-3 conference record in October. It prompted a closed-door meeting of high-ranking officials to discuss the future of the program -- a meeting that foreshadowed Bobby Bowden’s eventual retirement. Bowden was hardly the only coach in the ACC, though, that was scrutinized this year. Virginia coach Al Groh was fired shortly after his loss to rival Virginia Tech, and Ralph Friedgen’s job security was questioned for months leading up to the Terps’ 2-10 finish.

Losses to nonconference opponents were a factor in all three of those coaches’ evaluations, as FSU lost to Florida, Maryland lost to Middle Tennessee for a second straight season, and Virginia lost to William & Mary. The ACC struggled again in its nonconference opportunities, as Georgia Tech and Clemson both lost to their in-state SEC rivals, leading to the ACC's 2-5 record against the SEC, but Virginia Tech helped with a win over Nebraska, NC State beat Pitt, Miami defeated Oklahoma, and Wake Forest’s win over Stanford now seems all the more impressive.

Overall, there were plenty of positive signs for the conference this year. Florida State has finally figured out which direction it’s headed, Duke made remarkable progress in just the second season under coach David Cutcliffe and was within arm’s reach of bowl eligibility, and the ACC championship game saw a significant boost in attendance. Although there was a drop-off in bowl eligible teams -- from an NCAA-record 10 to seven -- the ACC did will enter the bowl season with three teams -- Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Miami -- ranked among the top 15 in the BCS standings.

Offensive MVP – Clemson running back C.J. Spiller. He had three 300-yard games this year, including arguably his best performance of the season, which came in the ACC championship game. Spiller ran for a career-high 233 yards and four touchdowns on 20 carries in the loss to Georgia Tech, and has 1,145 rushing yards this year. His four kickoff returns for touchdowns equaled the total for the 11 other ACC teams combined this year.

Defensive MVP – Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan. He should be a top 15 overall pick in the NFL draft, according to Todd McShay, and is currently sixth in the country in sacks and tied for 18th in tackles for loss. Only one other player in the country has matched his 12.5 sacks, and he has 18 tackles for loss.

Newcomer of the Year – Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams. He finished the regular season ranked fifth in the country in rushing yards per game, third in total rushing yards and tied for third in rushing touchdowns. He became the first Tech freshman to rush for 100 or more yards in four straight games. His 1,538 rushing yards are the fourth-most in ACC single-season history. He set the ACC freshman touchdown record with his 20th score, and had nine 100-yard rushing games.

Coach of the Year – Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson. In just his second season, Johnson won the program’s first outright conference title since 1990, guided the Yellow Jackets to the school’s first appearance in a BCS bowl since 1967, a No. 9 ranking in the BCS standings this week and an 11-win season. Only three teams in ACC history have won 12 games in a season, but Georgia Tech could become the fourth with a win over Iowa in the bowl game. With the 39-34 win over Clemson in the ACC title game, Johnson improved to 10-1 in games decided by five points or less while at Georgia Tech.

Biggest surprise – Boston College. The Eagles (8-4, 5-3 ACC) were picked by the media this past summer to finish last in the Atlantic Division, but instead BC was in the hunt to win its division for the third straight year until late November. Under the direction of first-year coach Frank Spaziani, BC finished second in the Atlantic Division behind Clemson. They were able to overcome the growing pains of a 25-year-old first-year starting quarterback who hadn’t played football since high school, and the devastating news that Herzlich had been diagnosed with cancer.

Biggest disappointment – Florida State’s defense. It has to be painful for FSU fans to wonder what could have been had the Noles’ defense been a more formidable group this year. The offense was soaring under quarterback Christian Ponder before he was hurt, but the defense finished the regular season ranked 108th in rushing defense, 113th in pass efficiency defense, 110th in total defense, and 98th in scoring defense. This team was picked to win the Atlantic Division, and with a better defense, it might have been able to.

Game of the Year – ACC championship game: Georgia Tech 39, Clemson 34. Yes, there were other great games throughout the season -- Virginia Tech’s finish against Nebraska, Clemson’s overtime win at Miami, and Georgia Tech’s upset of Virginia Tech all come to mind. But the final conference game carried the most weight, and as far as entertainment value goes, it delivered. Both teams racked up more than 300 rushing yards, neither team punted and Clemson led 34-33 with 6:11 left -- plenty of time for Johnson’s offense to work its magic.
CLEMSON, S.C. -- They were watching the Boston College-North Carolina game in their hotel rooms. They were checking the score on their cell phones on the way to Memorial Stadium.

And in Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s pregame speech, he informed the Tigers that Boston College had lost, in turn making the Tigers this year’s Atlantic Division champs before they even set foot on the field.

AP Photo/Richard ShiroClemson wide receiver Jacoby Ford's career-high 211 all-purpose yards led the Tigers to a victory over Virginia.
But Saturday was about Clemson -- about avoiding yet another embarrassing letdown when the Atlantic Division was in the palm of their hands, about proving all of the doubters wrong, and about earning their first appearance in the ACC championship game -- not having BC hand it to them.

“We wanted to win it the real way,” said senior wide receiver Jacoby Ford, who did his part in making that happen with a career-high 211 all-purpose yards in the Tigers’ 34-21 win over Virginia.

“We wanted to win it outright,” said offensive guard Thomas Austin. “We didn’t want it to come to a tiebreaker. That’s what championship teams do.”

Now, for the first time since 1991, Clemson has a chance to be a championship team again. Clemson will meet Coastal Division winner Georgia Tech at 8 p.m. on Dec. 5 ACC championship game. The Tigers did it with a group effort on offense, and with adjustments in the second half on defense. They did it on a senior day that bid farewell to some of the program’s most accomplished players. They did it with a first-year coach who just turned 40 on Friday, a 30-year-old first-year offensive coordinator, and a redshirt freshman quarterback.

Sometimes, though, change is good.

“Our first goal was to clinch the ACC Atlantic Division, and we did that,” said Swinney, who received a rendition of “Happy Birthday” from the crowd with about three minutes left in the game. “Our next goal is to win a state championship against South Carolina next weekend. Our third goal is to win the ACC championship game. Our fourth goal is to win a bowl game. We’re happy today, but we’re not done yet.”

They can finally exhale, though.

After watching the Atlantic Division title slip away in 2005, 2006 and 2007, despite being in position to win it, even some of Clemson’s most loyal fans had lingering concerns heading into Saturday’s game against Virginia. Clemson did little to assuage those fears in the first half, holding a precarious 24-21 edge over a Virginia team that entered with a 3-7 record and hadn’t won a game since mid-October. Those 21 points were more than UVa had scored in each of its previous four games. The Cavaliers surprised Clemson with a lot of gimmick plays in the first half, but ran out of them in a scoreless second half.

“We got in at halftime and made some adjustments,” said first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. “There were some technical things we needed to help them on, some calls, so we dusted off a few calls and gave it to them.”

Kavell Conner finished with a career-high 15 tackles, and the defense finished with seven sacks for 54 yards. It was a pedestrian performance for C.J. Spiller’s Heisman hopes -- he set the ACC single-season record for all-purpose yards, but finished with 58 rushing yards and one touchdown. Still, he got what he came back for -- the division title.

“I think people were still on the edge of their seats,” Spiller said. “I’m pretty sure a lot of people probably still doubted us, that we would have a letdown, but the good thing about this team, we never worry about what people say about our team. We worry about what we can control and the main thing for us is having a great week of preparation and going out and proving everyone wrong.”

That seemed to be the theme on Saturday -- quite a change from the program’s previous disappointments.

“It feels good to prove people wrong,” said Ford. “Can Clemson do it? Obviously yes, we can.”

What we learned in the ACC: Week 11

November, 15, 2009
With two weeks still remaining in the regular season, we’ve got an answer in the ACC:

Georgia Tech is the Coastal Division winner. And rightfully so. Georgia Tech left no doubt it was the better team in Saturday’s 49-10 romp of Duke and earned a chance to play for the ACC title on Dec. 5 in Tampa. The Yellow Jackets played a complete game and looked like one of the best teams in the country on Saturday. Many wondered before this season whether or not ACC defenses would be better prepared to face Paul Johnson’s spread option offense in the second season, but he constantly answered that question by saying the Jackets would be better at executing it, too, and his players have proven him right.

Clemson is one win away from winning the Atlantic Division. The Tigers showed no signs of a letdown in their 43-23 win over NC State in Raleigh, and need only to beat Virginia this weekend to guarantee the program’s first appearance in the ACC championship game. Boston College kept its hopes alive with a 14-10 win over Virginia, but the Eagles will need Clemson to stumble in final conference game of the season if they’re going to sneak back into the title game for a third straight year.

UNC finally looks like the preseason ranked team we thought it would be. The Tar Heels have now won three straight games, and knocked off two of the ACC’s ranked teams in the process in Virginia Tech and Miami. It’s amazing what a little help from the offense can do for one of the best defenses in the country. Since losing to Georgia Tech, Virginia and Florida State, the Tar Heels have made a remarkable turnaround and now have a bowl bid to prove it. This team looks capable of a nine or 10-win season in Butch Davis’ third year.

Florida State can exhale about its quarterback situation. For rookie E.J. Manuel to go on the road and outplay a veteran quarterback in the most dire of circumstances might be the best glimmer of hope for the future of the program Seminoles’ fans have seen all year. With so many questions surrounding Bobby Bowden’s future, the one thing FSU has been able to count on all year has been the play of its quarterbacks, and Manuel’s poise is a big reason why Florida State has a chance to extend its season with a win over Maryland.

Miami's quarterback causing concern. Jacory Harris began the season as Heisman hopeful, but he’s ending it as one of the nation’s leaders in interceptions. Harris threw four against North Carolina, including two that were returned for touchdowns, and he now has 16 for the season. Only Ohio quarterback Zac Dysert has more in the FBS. It could be because he’s making too many mental mistakes, or because they’re asking the sophomore to do too much. Maybe he’s not getting the protection he needs. Regardless of why, it’s become a noticeable problem for the Canes in the second half of the season.
Posted by’s Heather Dinich

Brace yourself. There could be a first this weekend in the ACC. With three weeks still remaining in the regular season, it’s possible the ACC could know who will be playing in the conference championship game by the last snap on Saturday. Since the ACC title game has existed, this race has always gone down to the last or second-to-last weekend in at least one of the divisions.

Clemson could clinch the Atlantic Division this weekend IF the Tigers beat NC State AND Boston College loses at Virginia. Georgia Tech can clinch the Coastal Division by beating Duke in Durham, as it’s the Jackets’ last conference game.

Boston College still has a chance to win the Atlantic Division, but the Eagles need Clemson to lose again. Right now the Tigers hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. If Georgia Tech loses, things could get rather confusing again in the Coastal Division, and the tiebreaker scenario would depend upon how many teams finish with two losses. There could be as many as three, and we could revert back to that old scenario we were discussing a few weeks back, with Georgia Tech, Miami and Virginia Tech all in the running.

For now, though, let’s stick with what we know -- it’s Clemson’s and Georgia Tech’s trip to Tampa to lose.
Posted by’s Heather Dinich

The ACC finished Week 10 with five teams bowl eligible -- Clemson, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Miami and Virginia Tech. The conference also got one other answer: it’s mathematically impossible for Maryland (2-7) to make it to the postseason.

There are still some lingering hopes, though, and they’re mainly in the Atlantic Division, where Wake Forest, NC State and Florida State can still extend their seasons. The catch is, Wake and FSU play each other this weekend, and the Demon Deacons can’t afford another loss. Florida State can, but that would mean it must beat rival Florida in the regular-season finale.

In the Coastal Division, Duke’s chances decreased with its loss to North Carolina on Saturday, but it’s not over yet for the Blue Devils. They need to find two more wins with Georgia Tech, Miami and Wake Forest remaining. Virginia (3-6) needs to win out, and North Carolina (6-3) is one win away with opportunities remaining against Miami, Boston College and NC State.

At this point, I’m counting out Maryland, Duke, Florida State, NC State and Virginia. That's right, the Demon Deacons need some love, and I'm gonna give it to them.

Here are the latest bowl projections for the ACC:

FedEx Orange Bowl: Clemson vs. BCS at large

Chick-fil-A Bowl: Virginia Tech vs. SEC

Gator Bowl: Georgia Tech or Miami vs. Big East or Notre Dame

Champs Sports Bowl: Georgia Tech or Miami vs. Big Ten

Music City Bowl: North Carolina vs. SEC

Meineke Car Care Bowl: Wake Forest vs. Big East

Emerald Bowl: Boston College vs. Pac-10

EagleBank Bowl: N/A

GMAC Bowl: N/A
Posted by’s Heather Dinich

Live and learn ...

1. Clemson has gotten over the hump. Admit it, Clemson fans, you were waiting for it -- the self-destruction following the win over Wake Forest. There were hints against Miami, and plenty of missed opportunities against Florida State, but the Tigers have been able to overcome their mistakes this year and put themselves in prime position to win the Atlantic Division and play for the ACC championship. Their toughest opponents are behind them -- and so is their one "Clemson flop." It came against Maryland. You can stop waiting for it now.

2. Even the best quarterbacks can’t do it alone. Riley Skinner. Thaddeus Lewis. Christian Ponder. Three of the ACC’s most productive, efficient passers and leaders all lost this past weekend. It certainly wasn’t for lack of effort. Skinner couldn’t shake Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan. Lewis got tied up with UNC defensive end Robert Quinn. And Ponder threw as many interceptions (four) as he had all season. All three of them are still searching for bowl eligibility, but for seniors Skinner and Lewis, it’s their last chance at the postseason.

3. C.J. Spiller is a Heisman Trophy candidate. For the second time in three weeks, Spiller had more than 300 all-purpose yards. He surpassed the 3,000-yard mark with 3,074 career rushing yards. Against Florida State, he earned his first two-point conversion of his career. He breaks a record literally almost every week. Against FSU he became just the second player in school history to go over 3,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving. He moved ahead of Reggie Bush on the all-time NCAA all-purpose list with 6,702 yards. He rushed for a career-high 165 yards, and had his 20th career touchdown of 50 yards more, his eighth this season. Spiller is one of the best players in college football. Period.

4. Bowl fates still murky in the Atlantic Division. Clemson is eligible. BC is eligible. NC State, Florida State and Wake Forest are still livin’ on a prayer. Maryland, however, is not. The Terps needed to win out and not only did they lose the game to NC State, their starting quarterback, Chris Turner, suffered a knee injury in the process. It’s time for Maryland to start playing for the future, while half the Atlantic Division is still trying to become bowl eligible. With its overtime loss at Georgia Tech, the Deacs now have to win out in order to become bowl eligible, as does NC State. The Seminoles only need two more wins, but their season finale is against Florida, who, like Clemson, has a defense. The twist? FSU and Wake play each other on Saturday. Somebody’s gotta lose.

5. Paul Johnson is fearless. We always knew he was a fourth-down kind of guy, and you don’t need to talk to him long to sense his confidence that often tilts the scale toward arrogance. But those traits are the keys to his success. His players pick up on it, and that’s why, on fourth down, when it’s on the line, he wins.
Posted by’s Heather Dinich

Things have changed in the ACC.

Last year, it took until late November for the division champions to emerge with any certainty, and there were an NCAA-record 10 bowl-eligible teams. This year, the conference has official frontrunners in each division, and it’s not even November yet.

That’s not necessarily a good thing.

The conference isn’t as deep, and it’s possible as few as six teams become bowl eligible this year. (The ACC has agreements with nine bowl partners.) Now that both Miami and Virginia Tech have lost two games each, the national shine on the ACC has dulled without any teams ranked in the top 10 of the BCS standings.

No. 11 Georgia Tech is creeping up and could still work its way in, and if Clemson continues to build upon its back-to-back conference wins, it’s possible the Tigers could be nationally ranked heading into the ACC championship game in Tampa on Dec. 5. Clemson received 11 votes in the Associated Press poll this week, so the Tigers are at least on the radar now.

The ACC title game should feature Georgia Tech and Clemson -- should. There’s no reason for the Yellow Jackets to lose to Wake Forest and Duke -- teams with a combined 8-7 record -- and Clemson controls its own destiny against Florida State, NC State and Virginia -- teams that have combined for three conference wins. It’s an exciting potential matchup considering how close the regular-season game was, with Georgia Tech winning 30-27. With all due respect to Boston College and Virginia Tech, new faces in Tampa this year would be a welcome, refreshing change, and could give the struggling venue a much needed boost in attendance and interest.

Overall, though, this season seems to have fizzled, with the impact games already behind us and the thrilling prospect of having a three-way tiebreaker with Georgia Tech, Miami and Virginia Tech all finishing with 7-1 conference records now impossible. A likely scenario, though, is for the Jackets and Hokies to finish tied, but Georgia Tech would win the head-to-head tiebreaker. As for Virginia and Duke, which are tied and technically still in the mix, both teams still have a lot to prove before they’re considered serious contenders in the division.

Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Miami are still the ACC’s best teams, and the future is bright for all three programs. Miami is still young -- Jacory Harris is just a sophomore -- and the Canes’ mistakes finally added up. The Hokies’ best player, Ryan Williams, is only a redshirt freshman. And Paul Johnson will have Georgia Tech among the nation’s best on a consistent basis.

But we’re still in the midst of the 2009 season, and the ACC’s best hasn’t been consistently good enough to produce even the nation’s best one-loss team. So while October has provided more clarity for the conference race this year, it’s revealed some unwanted separation at the national level, too.

ACC power rankings: Week 9

October, 26, 2009
Posted by's Heather Dinich

There are only two teams in the Atlantic Division with winning records. Nine teams have at least three losses. Really, the question in this league is not who is the best, it’s who’s the worst?

Is it North Carolina, which hasn’t won a conference game yet and suffered a complete meltdown in the second half on national television against Florida State on Thursday night? Is it NC State, which hasn’t won a conference game yet and got beat at home by Duke? Is it Maryland, which has lost five of its past six games and refuses to take the wins when opponents try to hand it to them?

All three are trying to make their case, but one thing is for sure -- it’s not longer Duke.

1. Georgia Tech (7-1, 5-1 ACC; LW; No. 2) -- The Yellow Jackets have established themselves as the frontrunner to win the Coastal Division, and only need wins over Wake Forest and Duke to cement it. They beat Virginia, winning in Charlottesville for the first time since 1990, and have perfected their offense to the point where nobody can seem to get it off the field.

2. Virginia Tech (5-2, 3-1; LW: No. 3) -- The Hokies had a bye week but move ahead of Miami because Virginia Tech lost to one of the top teams in the nation in Alabama and ranked Georgia Tech on the road, while Miami lost at home to an unranked, three-loss Clemson team.

3. Miami (5-2,2-2; LW: No. 1) -- This is not a bad football team, but it’s still very young. Quarterback Jacory Harris -- through no fault of his own -- has been acting his age lately instead of playing above it like he seemed to do in the first half of the season. What could have been a great season has been minimized to a good season, and there’s no shame in that.

4. Clemson (4-3, 3-2; LW: No. 6) - C.J. Spiller morphed into the Heisman contender the athletic department promoted him to be this summer, and he proved a triple threat as a running back who can catch the ball out of the backfield and a return threat. The Tigers proved their flash of offense against Wake Forest wasn’t a one-hit wonder, but something to build on.

5. Boston College (5-3, 3-2; LW: No. 4) -- The Eagles had their six-game winning streak against Notre Dame snapped, but they can take some solace in the fact they put up their first respectable road performance of the season. And the fact still remains that nobody in the Atlantic Division has more overall wins.

6. Duke (4-3, 2-1; LW: No. 9) -- The Blue Devils strung together their first back-to-back conference wins since 1994, and matched last year’s win total with five games still remaining. They continue to struggle to run the ball, but have been able to compensate for it with a passing game that can only be slowed, not stopped.

7. Virginia (3-4, 2-1; LW: No. 5) -- The Cavaliers played their toughest opponent to date on Saturday, and it was reflected in the loss to Georgia Tech. Virginia’s wins over North Carolina and Maryland helped turn around the Cavaliers’ record, but considering the struggles both of those opponents have, it will take more than those two wins to change outside perception.

8. Wake Forest (4-4, 2-2; LW: No. 7) -- The Deacs faced a Navy team that was playing without its starting quarterback, and for the second straight year Wake Forest lost to the Mids during the regular season. After back-to-back road losses, Wake Forest is now tasked with rebounding against Miami, and has to win two of its last four games to get to a bowl game.

9. Florida State (3-4, 1-3; LW: No. 11) -- The lasting impact of the Seminoles’ win over North Carolina on Thursday night can’t be measured, other than to say it was the kind of win that could propel FSU into the postseason and quiet some of Bobby Bowden’s loudest critics. Quarterback Christian Ponder put on another spectacular show in front of a nationally televised audience, and rallied the team from an 18-point deficit, proving this team can come from behind in the big picture, too.

10. Maryland (2-6, 1-3; LW: No. 10) -- It’s hard to believe this team’s one conference win could be over the Atlantic Division champs, Clemson. The Terps have sunk into a hole so deep the bye week won’t do anything to help them climb out of it. In order to reach a bowl, Maryland has to win out, and Virginia Tech alone is enough to keep that from happening.

11. NC State (3-4, 0-3; LW: No. 12) -- The Pack had a bye week, but they’ll restart with an emotionally charged Florida State team that will have home-field advantage. If UNC’s defense struggled to stop Ponder, odds are NC State will, too. The difference between NC State and North Carolina right now? The Pack have an offense, the better quarterback and at least a win over nationally ranked Pitt.

12. North Carolina (4-3, 0-3; LW: No. 8) -- The Tar Heels have officially won the title of biggest disappointment in the ACC this year. It’s looking worse than Butch Davis’ first year instead of the improvement expected to see in his third year. Ponder exposed weaknesses in North Carolina’s defense that previous opponents did not, and odds are Virginia Tech will do the same in Lane Stadium on Thursday night.
Posted by’s Heather Dinich

Finally, some clarity in these divisions …

1. Georgia Tech and Clemson both control their own destiny. Clemson has already beaten Boston College and Wake Forest, so the Tigers would win their division with wins in their final three ACC games -- vs. FSU, at NC State and against Virginia. With Miami’s loss, Georgia Tech can represent the Coastal in the title game. All the Jackets need are wins over Duke and Wake Forest in their final two conference games.

2. Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech are the ACC’s top two teams this year. They’ve been the most consistent, well-coached teams in the conference. The Jackets are leading the entire pack now, but Virginia Tech, using the eyeball test, isn’t far behind. Their two losses came to two nationally ranked teams, Alabama and Georgia Tech, both on the road. The only team the Jackets have lost to is Miami on the road. Both Techs have established their running games and improved their passing games and gotten enough out of their defenses on a consistent basis.

3. There is no quit in Florida State. Not after a poor start to the season, and not after a dreadful start in the first half at North Carolina. FSU battled back from an 18-point deficit to win its first ACC game of the season, and it did it on a night when UNC was celebrating its first Thursday night game with former players watching. The win put the Noles in a much better position to reach the postseason. The catch, though, is that the Seminoles still face a road trip to Death Valley in two weeks, where they’ll face a much improved and confident Clemson team playing for the division title.

4. North Carolina is in serious trouble. The nation’s No. 1 pass defense didn’t look like it on Thursday night against Florida State. Quarterback T.J. Yates has not shown much improvement, if any, under this staff, and for all the talk about how good a job Butch Davis has done in recruiting, he didn’t have any playmakers to throw it to on the final possession when he needed one against FSU. Yates threw three straight incomplete passes and then was sacked to end the game. Not a good time for Davis to be asking for millions of dollars in renovations.

5. Duke is the best team on Tobacco Road. UNC and NC State have combined for a pathetic 0-6 record in conference play. Wake Forest has two conference losses and just lost on the road to Navy, which was playing without its starting quarterback. The Blue Devils, though, have just one conference loss -- an acceptable defeat to Virginia Tech -- and have strung together back-to-wins for the first time since 1994. They’ve already matched last year’s win total and still have five games left to play.

Looking ahead in the ACC

October, 21, 2009
Posted by’s Heather Dinich

Although an unusual amount of key conference games have already been played in the ACC, both the Atlantic and Coastal divisions remain wide open. All Virginia Tech needs is a Georgia Tech loss (and to keep winning), and the Hokies are back in it. Even if Miami, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech all win out and finish with 7-1 conference records, the human element can factor into the final BCS standings and cause changes in where the ACC’s top two teams are ranked based on their margin of victory.

The bottom line? Nothing is certain right now. But I’ve got a few predictions coming for you today as we spin forward and look at the second half of the season. The broad prediction is this: The conference race will not need a three-way tiebreaker, and the ACC will not repeat last year’s NCAA-record 10 bowl-eligible teams. In fact, it’s possible the conference could wind up with only six or seven teams in the postseason, leaving openings in a few of the nine guaranteed slots. The teams on the fringe are NC State, North Carolina, Duke and Virginia. The teams I think are definitely home for Christmas are Maryland and Florida State.

Stay tuned throughout the day for a team-by-team breakdown of what to expect in the second half of the season and bowl predictions for each team.


ACC midseason report

October, 20, 2009
Posted by’s Heather Dinich

For the second straight year, the ACC started with a thud but managed to pull itself back to respectability in the following weeks. Losses to FCS schools William & Mary and Richmond, coupled with Maryland's home loss to Middle Tennessee, raised eyebrows in September for all the wrong reasons. As we look at the conference now at the halfway point of the season, though, it has showed its fare share of redeemable qualities, most notably the push the Coastal Division has made on the national level. To have three teams ranked among the top 15 in the first BCS standings shows some separation is starting to occur in the conference. ACC fans and officials can take pride in the resurgence of Miami, the continued strength of Virginia Tech, and quick rise of Georgia Tech under coach Paul Johnson.
 Tim Steadman/Icon SMI
 North Carolina’s Robert Quinn has spent plenty of time in opposing teams’ backfields this season.

Of course, there is always room for improvement, and it starts with a 2-2 record against the Colonial Athletic Association. Overall, the ACC is 8-9 against opponents from the BCS conferences and the Mountain West. There was no shame in Virginia Tech’s loss to Alabama, but the Hokies didn’t show up when it counted most -- in the second half at Georgia Tech. Florida State and NC State are weighing the disappointing Atlantic Division down, and Duke is making a case for the best team in North Carolina right now. Teams that were expected to be better -- namely Florida State, NC State and North Carolina -- have instead looked like they’ve regressed. The biggest storylines were not the Hokies’ No. 4 ranking in the Associated Press poll, it was the behind-the-scenes coup in Tallahassee calling for the early retirement of coach Bobby Bowden, and the overwhelming support throughout the league for BC linebacker Mark Herzlich.

Now that every team in the conference has played at least six games, it’s time for a look back at the first half of the season. Here are the conference awards:

Offensive MVP: Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams. His five 100-yard rushing performances eclipsed Darren Evans’ mark for the most by a Hokie freshman tailback in a season. He’s been named rookie of the week five times by the ACC, and even when he was sick and receiving IV fluids and missed practice time, Williams still rushed for 100 yards at Georgia Tech. He’s eighth in the country with 119.14 rushing yards per game.

Defensive MVP: UNC defensive end Robert Quinn. The sophomore has quickly made a name for himself as one of the best defensive ends in the ACC. He leads the conference and is seventh in the country with 11 tackles for a loss of 69 yards, and is tied for first with three forced fumbles and also has four quarterback hurries. He’s second in the ACC and seventh in the nation with seven sacks for 58 yards. Quinn had a career-high 10 tackles, including 2.5 for loss, at Georgia Tech. He’s a big reason why UNC has one of the top two defenses in the conference.

Biggest surprise: Boston College. Anyone who thought the Eagles would have won five games and been undefeated at home right now is either lying or the most star-crossed season-ticket holder out there. The Eagles lost their top two linebackers, their top two defensive tackles, their quarterback, their head coach and their offensive coordinator -- just to name a few. And yet here they are again -- in position to make a third straight trip to the ACC title game. Wow.

Biggest disappointment: The entire Atlantic Division. NC State, Maryland and Florida State are a combined 1-8 in conference play. If you saw that coming, leave for Vegas. Now. The Pack should have been better in Tom O’Brien’s third season, but even he said the team “regressed” the past two weeks. Maryland looks hapless and FSU has as many problems off the field as it has on it. Clemson played against Wake Forest like it should have been playing the past two or three years, but is still a three-loss team. And Wake Forest’s new goal is getting to a bowl game. No wonder the Eagles are soaring again.

Best game: Miami 38, Florida State 34. This was when the Seminoles still had hope, when FSU was still expected to win the Atlantic Division, and when one play might have changed their season. Trailing 34-31 with an ailing arm, Miami quarterback Jacory Harris threw a 40-yard pass over double coverage to Travis Benjamin that set up the game-winning touchdown with 1:53 remaining. With five seconds ticking off the clock, Christian Ponder threw to Jarmon Fortson in the end zone, and it was a controversial incomplete call that ended the game with the Canes on top.

Best coach: Frank Spaziani. His first smart move as head coach was to bring in 25-year-old quarterback Dave Shinskie, who has been on more than he has been off for the Eagles. His top linebacker, Herzlich, was diagnosed with cancer in May, and the only quarterback he had with any starting experience, Dominique Davis, decided to transfer. Spaziani inherited more problems than he did answers and yet he has the Eagles in contention to win the Atlantic Division for a third straight season.