This was supposed to be Florida State’s year.
The Seminoles were picked by the media to win this year’s ACC title and many were giving the Noles a legitimate chance as a darkhorse contender for the national title.
As it turns out, the only title Florida State has earned in the first half of the season is the ACC’s most disappointing team.
Florida State is out, and Clemson and Georgia Tech are in. It happened faster than Maryland changed uniforms in the season opener against Miami. The ACC enters the second half of the season with two undefeated teams, a surprise winner in Wake Forest, and marquee wins over Auburn and Ohio State. Rarely, if ever, does the ACC follow the script, and the first half of the 2011 season has been no exception. Florida State and Miami are on the brink of irrelevance in the ACC race, Wake Forest is 3-0 in ACC play for the first time in school history, and Clemson and Georgia Tech – two programs that had losing seasons a year ago -- are now the teams to beat.
And that’s just the ACC stirring things up on the field.
On Sept. 18, following the biggest nonconference weekend the ACC has ever seen, the league announced the addition of Syracuse and Pittsburgh as the ACC became the first BCS conference to expand to 14 teams. It happened quickly, quietly, and stabilized the ACC in one of the most uncertain times ever in college football. The news came on the heels of a weekend in which the ACC hosted four ranked teams for the first time in conference history and came out with a respectable 2-2 record. The weekend was no doubt a highlight for the conference in the first half of the season, as it took a step back the following week with four unexpected losses, none worse than Maryland’s 38-7 home loss to Temple.
Maryland coach Randy Edsall and Miami coach Al Golden have both struggled in their first seasons, but they’re hardly alone. Wake Forest and Clemson are the only two teams in the Atlantic Division with winning records. The Coastal Division has proven more competitive, with Virginia Tech and North Carolina both hovering over Georgia Tech, waiting for the Jackets to trip up. UNC first-year coach Everett Withers is on pace to win more games than his predecessor ever did, and is building his résumé to be the Tar Heels’ next coach.
The divisions, though, are Georgia Tech’s and Clemson’s to lose.
Clemson’s success, which included wins over three straight ranked opponents, has given the ACC’s image a boost. The Tigers -- so long as quarterback Tajh Boyd recovers from a hip injury he suffered against Boston College -- are a legitimate top 10 team with a win over the defending national champs. The hire of offensive coordinator Chad Morris has proven to be one of the best in the conference. Georgia Tech has far exceeded expectations, as it was only months ago that there was some uncertainty surrounding quarterback Tevin Washington’s grasp on the starting job.
Florida State, meanwhile, has been troubled by a rash of injuries to key players, including starting quarterback EJ Manuel, poor play on the offensive line, a lack of discipline and three straight losses.
It was supposed to be FSU’s year, but the conference has heard that story before. Once again, ACC fans can expect a different ending.
Offensive MVP: Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. He started his career with six consecutive wins, tied with Mike Eppley for the most consecutive wins to start a career as a Clemson quarterback. Before he was injured against Boston College, Boyd had 320 yards of total offense. He has had three 300-yard total offense games this year and six straight games of at least 200 yards passing.
Defensive MVP: Clemson defensive end Andre Branch. He is tied for 15th in the country in tackles for loss (1.58 per game and 9.5 overall), and he is tied for seventh in the country in sacks with six. He is second on the team with 39 tackles, which is unusual for a defensive lineman. He also has one pass breakup, three quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble.
Biggest surprise: Wake Forest. The Deacs are 3-0 in the ACC for the first time in school history. It’s the program’s best start since 2006, and the team is 4-1 for the first time since 2008. Not a bad start for a team that was 3-9 last year.
Biggest disappointment: Florida State. No national title. Likely no Atlantic Division title. No wins over BCS-caliber opponents. A roster decimated by injuries, including a shoulder injury to starting quarterback EJ Manuel. Not much has gone right for the Noles in the first half of the season.
Best game: Virginia Tech 38, Miami 35: In a game that featured two teams trying desperately to avoid an 0-2 start to conference play, both teams played like their season was on the line. Quarterback Jacory Harris and Logan Thomas, both who have been criticized for their uneven performances, were spectacular. The game featured two of the ACC’s best running backs in David Wilson and Lamar Miller. It was a wild, entertaining finish that came down to Thomas’ 19-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-one with 56 seconds remaining.
Best coach: Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. You could easily make a case here for Paul Johnson or Jim Grobe, but what the Tigers have done in the past four weeks is both remarkable and out of character. Not only did they become the first ACC team to defeat three straight opponents ranked in both polls, but they have also shown a consistency that has been lacking. Clemson is 6-0 for just the ninth time in school history, and 3-0 in the ACC for the first time since 2000. It’s also the earliest the Tigers have been bowl eligible since 2000. And they’ve done it with a new offense, a new quarterback, and a new offensive coordinator.