JUST WHAT in the
name of the SEC is going on here? Boosted by an influx of good coaches and by
the emergence of several game-breaking talents, suddenly the ACC is completely
up for grabs. The conference's preseason Top 25 teams, Clemson, Virginia Tech
and Wake Forest, have all stumbled, but its bottom-feeders are mounting a
resurgence. "I don't know if there's a stronger league in the country top
to bottom," says Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, whose Terps (4--1 overall,
1--0 in the ACC) won their league opener last Saturday in Death Valley,
upsetting 20th-ranked Clemson 20--17. Renowned computer stat-hound Jeff Sagarin
won't go as far as Friedgen, but he does rank the ACC as the third-toughest
conference in the land.
One reason for
that is the league's 26--10 record in nonconference play. Florida State
illustrates the ACC's strength this season. The Seminoles (3--1, 0--1) lost
their league opener at home to Wake Forest but then rolled over undefeated
Colorado 39--21 in Jacksonville last weekend. Even lowly North Carolina State
(2--3, 0--1) has beaten a ranked team (then No. 15 East Carolina, 30--24 in
overtime on Sept. 20). "[The ACC] is gaining ground on everybody," says
David Cutcliffe, the first-year coach at Duke.
personal tutor to Peyton Manning as Tennessee's offensive coordinator and to
Eli Manning as Ole Miss coach, Cutcliffe has turned junior quarterback Thaddeus
Lewis into the ACC's second-leading passer and given his team a huge boost in
the process. With Saturday's 31--3 evisceration of Virginia, the Blue Devils
(3--1, 1--0) have already won as many times this fall as they had in their
previous 37 games.
under second-year coach Butch Davis, is also surprising people. The Tar Heels
(3--1, 1--1) put the wood to favored Rutgers 44--12 on national TV on Sept. 11,
then nearly beat Virginia Tech the following weekend, losing 20--17. They came
back strong on Saturday by rallying to upset Miami 28--24. The Heels' breakout
star is 6'1", 195-pound senior wideout Brandon Tate. An electrifying kick
returner, Tate is second in the country in all-purpose yards and has scored
five touchdowns (three receiving, one rushing, one returning).
conference's most kinetic performer is Maryland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. A
6'3", 203-pound junior with 4.2 speed, he sparked the upset of Clemson
when, with his team trailing 17--6 in the third quarter, he scooted 76 yards on
a reverse to set up a touchdown.
Of course the
downside to this newfound balance is that teams can't afford a letdown. Wake
Forest found that out on Saturday when the then highest-ranked ACC team (at No.
16) suffered a 24--17 home-field loss to Navy. About the only bright spot for
the Demon Deacons (3--1, 1--0) was punter-placekicker Sam Swank, who leads
Division I-A with 13 field goal attempts and is tied for first with 10 makes;
he pinned the Midshipmen inside their own five-yard line on three of his four
punts. (When the punter is your team's best player, that doesn't bode well for
your championship aspirations.)
the locker room following the game, Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe was less than
thrilled with the notion of a resurgent ACC. "I just told our kids that we
don't have any holes in our schedule anymore," he said. "These days,
everybody's good enough."
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