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Posted: Wednesday August 19, 2009 12:39PM; Updated: Wednesday August 19, 2009 4:37PM
Stewart Mandel Stewart Mandel >

Injury bug has hit, but this could still be milestone year for ACC

Story Highlights

The ACC has never sent two teams to the BCS, but that could change this year

Puzzling suspensions may have made Bret Bielema's seat hotter at Wisconsin

Matt Barkley's place in history, "ninth-year seniors," 40 time debate and more

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North Carolina's defense, built on speed and led by athletic DT Marvin Austin, could help it put together a BCS-caliber season.
North Carolina's defense, built on speed and led by athletic DT Marvin Austin, could help it put together a BCS-caliber season.
Chris Keane/Icon SMI
Stewart Mandel's Mailbag
Submit a question or an opinion to Stewart.

Back in December, and again earlier this summer, I argued that the ACC had a chance to be the toughest conference in the country this season. I figured after a wildly competitive season in which 10 of 12 schools finished within a game of first place, this would be the year at least two or three of those teams would rise above the pack and achieve national prominence.

It seemed so logical ... until the injury bug hit.

With the season-ending ACL tear to Virginia Tech running back Darren Evans, the ACC may have lost its best hope for a national-title contender. While Hokies fans are putting their faith in highly touted redshirt freshman Ryan Williams and true freshman David Wilson -- both purportedly the game-breaker types Frank Beamer's been missing for years -- it's hard to throw too much support behind a team whose offense was already questionable and will now depend on a pair of rookie running backs.

That said, I wouldn't rule out a different sort of milestone year for this wannabe-known-for-more-than-basketball conference.

How long until the ACC gets two teams into the BCS? With most QBs returning, the conference should be better offensively now.
-- @wolfvols (via Twitter)

In the BCS' 11-year existence, the ACC has never managed to earn a second berth -- crazy, right? -- but I believe that drought will end this year or next.
PREVIEW: SI breaks down the ACC race

For the first time since 2005 -- the first year of the 12-team ACC and the year before the bottom fell out for longtime powers Florida State and Miami -- the ACC features multiple BCS contenders. For me, it's a toss-up between Virginia Tech (minus Evans) and Georgia Tech for league favorite, but they're hardly alone. North Carolina coach Butch Davis has assembled a speedy defense in the mold of his old Miami teams, and this figures to be the year the Tar Heels turn the corner. Florida State finally has a dependable quarterback (Christian Ponder) and offensive line. N.C. State boasts a bona fide game-changer in quarterback Russell Wilson. And Miami's ever-growing band of five-star recruits could mature into stars at any moment.
GALLERY: Top 10 players in the ACC

It's not inconceivable the league could produce a top 10 champion and a similarly ranked runner-up. To earn a BCS at-large berth, though, that runner-up would most likely have to come from the same division as the champ rather than losing in the title game, and several circumstances would have to work in the conference's favor.

For one thing, you've got to figure the SEC and Big 12 will once again claim two of the four at-large berths. And recent history suggests at least one non-BCS team will probably guarantee itself a berth as well. In that event, the ACC's entrant would likely be competing with the Big Ten, Pac-10 and possibly Notre Dame for that last spot.

As I wrote Tuesday, I believe a little parity will hit the Big Ten this year. That's good news for the ACC, because a 10-2 Ohio State or Penn State would attract the BCS more than nearly any ACC team with a similar record. The Pac-10 hasn't produced a second BCS team since 2002, so it's a less likely threat. A 10-win Notre Dame team, on the other hand, would almost certainly receive an invite.

Then there's the matter of which bowl is picking, and which ACC team is available. If the champion doesn't move up to the title game, then the Orange Bowl is out of the picture, and the Sugar Bowl becomes the most likely destination. Virginia Tech and Clemson are the only ACC teams with the type of traveling horde that would merit consideration out West. Florida State, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and N.C. State would draw interest in New Orleans. Miami would be hurt by its poor bowl travel history.

After a pretty ugly down cycle the past few years, the ACC seems poised to finally reach the level of prominence its proponents have been waiting for. Most of the aforementioned programs still have room to grow, and, for the first time since the days of Philip Rivers and Matt Schaub, there is finally more than one decent quarterback in the conference.

All in all, ACC football should finally be watchable!

Hey Stewart, If Matt Barkley wins the starting job at USC, would it be unprecedented for a true freshman to start at quarterback for a top five team?
-- Derek, Santa Monica, Calif.

It wouldn't be unprecedented, but it could very well be the first time in 15 years.

Don't quote me on that, but my buddy and I actually spent some time a few days ago trying to remember someone else, and then I pored through preseason rankings from the past 15 years. As best I can tell, the last true freshman to start from the very first game for a top five team was Ron Powlus for No. 2 Notre Dame in 1994.

Mind you, this does not include guys who started for an eventual top five team, or took over mid-season. Chad Henne was a surprise opening-day starter his freshman year in 2004, but Michigan peaked at No. 7 that season. Peyton Manning started most of his freshman season, but the Vols never reached the top five that year, either. Ditto for Chris Simms at Texas in 1999 (he started in the Big 12 title game), Chris Leak at Florida or Brady Quinn at Notre Dame in 2003, Erik Ainge at Tennessee in '04 or Matthew Stafford at Georgia in '06.

As is often the case, I'm sure a Mailbag reader will correct me in time for next week's edition if someone's done it more recently than Powlus.

Update: Apparently my memory is shoddy, because several readers have pointed out Powlus redshirted a year due to injury. So now I really can't answer this.

Is the real Bret Bielema the guy who went 12-1 in '06 or the guy who went 7-6 in '08? Inquiring Badgers want to know.
-- @TheSplenda

You know, as much as I try to stay plugged in to the pulse of as many fan bases as possible, I must confess, I had no idea the level of angst surrounding Bielema until I did a radio interview in Milwaukee last week. Based on the hosts' questions, it seems many people have already lost faith in Barry Alvarez's hand-picked successor.

Personally, I think it's dangerous to read too much into one bad season. Yes, the Badgers' win total has declined in each of Bielema's three seasons, but after starting 12-1 out of the gate, that seemed somewhat inevitable. His 9-4 campaign the following season -- which ended in a hard-fought Outback Bowl loss to Tennessee -- was a far more reasonable standard for what to expect from a Wisconsin coach. But there's no question the Badgers tumbled well below that last season, going 3-5 in the Big Ten, losing to a Michigan team and getting thumped by Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.

So the question is, was last year an aberration, or a harbinger of things to come? A lack of consistency at quarterback was a big part of Wisconsin's problems last year. While most of us will always associate Alvarez with powerful runners, he also quietly produced one underrated quarterback after another -- guys like Brooks Bollinger, Jim Sorgi and John Stocco. Obviously, Dustin Sherer has a ways to go to carry on that legacy.

But that's not the most troubling thing going on right now. Over the weekend, it came out the parents of two recently suspended Wisconsin safeties, Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant, are threatening to take legal action against the school. Neither parent -- incidentally, Carter's father happens to be former NBA star Butch Carter -- sounds too pleased with Bielema. I don't know what happened. All I know is it's extremely unusual for two seniors like Carter and Pleasant to be indefinitely suspended on the eve of a season, and that the team's chemistry is hanging in the balance. I have a feeling we're about to find out one way or another whether or not Bielema knows what he's doing.

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