ACC taking aim at respect, SEC reign

How fitting that our first top-five matchup of the college football season involves a pair of ACC teams.

For the record, it's the first top-five matchup in the ACC since 2005.

Save the hoops jokes -- and in the spirit of full transparency, I've been as guilty as anyone when it comes to dismissing the ACC as a football league only until basketball practice starts in October.

Even now, I'm leery about branding the ACC as a football juggernaut across the board.

But I'm 100 percent sold on Clemson and Florida State being the real deal, and their showdown Saturday in Death Valley will be the first of several to come in the next few weeks that will shape this season's national championship race.

"Games like this, we relish it. We love it," Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said. "We live in these moments, because that's what we wanted."

The ACC would also like, once and for all, a little respect. Here's a chance to go get it, especially after dragging around that "Little Brother" to the SEC label for as long as it has.

You don't think the SEC looks down its collective noses at the ACC?

I think back to some of the responses we got from SEC players this summer, albeit anonymously, when we asked them what immediately came to mind when they thought about other conferences.

When the ACC was broached, we got everything from "SEC Lite" to a "step down from the SEC" to "soft."

Historically, it might be hard to squabble with such perceptions, but I can't make that leap in the here and now, particularly with regard to the top of the ACC.

Just like the SEC, the ACC has three teams in the top 10 of this week's Associated Press poll -- No. 3 Clemson, No. 5 Florida State and No. 10 Miami. The ACC is the only league with two teams in the top five.

Rankings are just window dressing this time of year. We all know that.

But on the field, Miami has already beaten Florida, and Clemson has beaten Georgia.

And don't get Clemson coach Dabo Swinney started on the whole meaning of "Clemsonning." I can't say I really blame him. The Tigers have caught more grief for who they've lost to over the last few years than they've received credit for who've they beaten.

They ended the season a year ago by taking down LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and opened this season by defeating Georgia. That's a pair of top-10 conquests.

The one thing that has dogged Swinney since taking over at Clemson full-time in 2009 is his struggles against Steve Spurrier and South Carolina. The Gamecocks have won four in a row in that series for the first time since the early 1950s.

In that rivalry, a four-game losing streak might as well be a 40-game losing streak. At least, it seems that way in a state that is divided right down the middle.

But Swinney's ability to elevate Clemson's program to national prominence has helped ease the pain of losing so many in a row to the Gamecocks.

That's what makes Saturday's contest one of the biggest the Tigers have played in Death Valley in a long time.

Win or lose this weekend, Swinney is confident Clemson's program has been built to "sustain success." The Tigers have won 17 of their last 19 games since their humiliating 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl to end the 2011 season. Their only two losses during that stretch were to Florida State and South Carolina.

The Seminoles haven't won in Clemson since 2001. The two teams played a top-10 matchup a year ago in Tallahassee that Florida State won 49-37 in a shootout.

But two weeks later, Florida State inexplicably lost at North Carolina State after rising to No. 3 in the polls.

Can the Seminoles avoid a similar head-scratching hiccup this season if they can win at Death Valley for the first time in 12 years?

Really, that's going to be in the back of everybody's minds, regardless of who wins Saturday night. With Clemson and Florida State being in the same division, they wouldn't meet in the ACC championship game.

But Miami is sitting there on the other side unbeaten. The Hurricanes went on the road Thursday night to North Carolina, didn't play well and still found a way to win to go to 6-0 for the first time since 2004. Virginia Tech is starting to look like Virginia Tech again after winning six in a row and climbing to No. 19 in the polls.

Florida State last won a national championship in 1999. Clemson's only national title came in 1981.

It's been about that long since the ACC had multiple national championship contenders -- legitimate contenders, anyway -- this late in the season.

Make no mistake, Clemson and Florida State are legit, and seeing Miami lurking in the top 10 is further evidence that the ACC may end up being more than just a spectator in the national championship festivities this season.

It's also not lost on anybody that Clemson and Florida State are right there in the middle of the SEC's footprint geographically, and along with Virginia Tech, probably identify as closely with the culture and fabric of the SEC as any other schools in the country.

This being the final year of the BCS, I have this sneaking suspicion that we're in for a chaotic finish to the season.

Total chaos would be everybody at the top of the polls winning, or better yet, everybody losing.

Or maybe this is the year that Little Brother takes Big Brother's most cherished possession and helps put an end to the SEC's national championship streak.

Talk about chaos.

• • •

Malzahn sees Cam Newton similarities in Manziel

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who was Cam Newton's offensive coordinator during Newton's only season in the SEC, sees a lot of Newton when he watches Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel play.

"We only got to see Cam Newton for one year, but this guy [Manziel], he's in the same element," Malzahn said. "They're different, but they're still some of the best to ever play."

Malzahn will get an up-close view of Manziel this week when Auburn faces Texas A&M at Kyle Field. But Malzahn is sincere when he says Manziel and Newton are in a similar class.

In fact, I've had a couple of SEC coaches tell me this season that Manziel is the most difficult quarterback they've ever had to prepare for because he's become such a good passer, yet is totally unpredictable when he starts to scramble.

"He's such a unique guy in terms of his style of play," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "You think, 'OK, we're going to make him throw the ball from the pocket,' and then he makes the kind of throws he did against us. It's hard to have an appreciation for how athletic he is unless you're down there on the field. I mean, he is fast and quick.

"The thing that really gets you is how instinctive he is. It's like he has eyes in the back of his head. He'll move just the right way to avoid a guy, and you watch it on tape and say, 'How did he even know that guy was coming?' "

It might be a stretch for Manziel to top his numbers from a year ago when he set the SEC record for total offense with 5,116 yards. But there's no question that he's a better player and a more difficult player to defend than he was last season when he won the Heisman Trophy.

• • •

Mariota's Heisman push growing

As much respect as Manziel carries in the SEC, Oregon's Marcus Mariota is the toast of the Pac-12 right now.

If the Ducks keep winning, he's your odds-on favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.

How good has he been?

He leads the country in opponent-adjusted QBR (96.9) and yards per rush at 10.4. He's thrown 17 touchdown passes, run for eight more and hasn't turned the ball over.

In the last 10 seasons, the highest opponent-adjusted QBR for a completed season for a qualified quarterback, according to ESPN's Stats & Info, was 94.5 by Stanford's Andrew Luck in 2010.

Not bad company to be in.

• • •

Proof the SEC is top-heavy?

My old pal Cecil Hurt of The Tuscaloosa News dug up a telling statistic last week that should provide plenty of fodder for Bob Stoops, Charlie Weis and all those other coaches who claim the SEC is top-heavy.

Since Missouri and Texas A&M joined the league to start the 2012 season, the top six teams in the SEC -- Alabama, Florida, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M -- are 43-1 against the bottom eight teams in the league.

It was 40-0 until Missouri won at Georgia last week.

The translation: There aren't a lot of shocking upsets in the SEC that would rival Iowa State beating Oklahoma State in 2011 or Oregon State knocking off USC in 2008.

• • •

SEC losing streaks piling up

Speaking of the SEC's struggles toward the bottom of the league, the futility of some of the teams against nationally ranked opponents is starting to reach staggering proportions.

Tennessee has lost 19 straight and 25 of its last 26 games against ranked foes. The Vols' last win over a ranked team came during Lane Kiffin's only season in 2009 when they beat No. 21 South Carolina at home.

Kentucky has also lost 25 of its last 26 games against ranked teams, including 14 in a row.

Vanderbilt's losing streak against ranked opponents has climbed to 14 straight. Mississippi State has lost 12 in a row and 14 of its last 15 games against ranked teams, while Ole Miss has lost 15 of its last 16. The Rebels' only win over a ranked team during that stretch came at the end of last season against No. 24 Mississippi State.

• • •

Virginia Tech's fab freshman Facyson

When you start rattling off the top freshmen in college football this season, don't forget about Virginia Tech cornerback Brandon Facyson, who's tied for third nationally with four interceptions.

Facyson, who's started in every game, has been a big reason the Virginia Tech defense is allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 47 percent of their passes. Facyson obviously doesn't mind filling big shoes. He stepped in for star cornerback Antone Exum, who's yet to play this season after tearing up his knee playing basketball in the offseason.

• • •

Clowney vs. Richardson, Round 2

It's Round 2 on Saturday between South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney and Tennessee's Antonio Richardson. Clowney credited Richardson with doing as good a job blocking him as anybody last season. Clowney was a non-factor for much of that game, but swept past Richardson in the final minutes to get a sack and cause a game-saving tackle for the Gamecocks.

Richardson has had this game circled for some time. He said that sack stuck with him all offseason, but also drove him. "It was everything I did, a technique flaw by me, and he took advantage," Richardson said. "ESPN and all the media are going to magnify it. That's all they see. They don't see everything else that was done in that game. I'm just working on being 100 percent so I can show everybody that I am the elite left tackle in this conference."

Here's his chance.

• • •

Spurrier keeps Tennessee barbs flying

The names have changed and so have several of the coaches, but South Carolina's Steve Spurrier still revels in throwing a few zingers Tennessee's way.

During his radio call-in show Thursday night, Spurrier noted that Saturday's game will be the 14th time he's coached in Neyland Stadium.

"I've coached there more than some of their head coaches," Spurrier said in vintage fashion.