No elite teams reigning in ACC

Three ranked teams in The Associated Press Top 25 wasn't exactly what the ACC had in mind when it bulked up the conference three years ago by adding Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech.

But that's what the ACC has to show after its 12 member teams spent the first half of the season beating up on each other. Clemson, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech have survived the free-for-all long enough to notch spots in this week's AP poll. But of those three teams, only the Yellow Jackets are undefeated in conference play.

The only other ACC team that has not lost a league game is North Carolina State, which was written off early in the season before responding with back-to-back wins against a pair of ranked teams, BC and FSU.

"I think it's been a very competitive conference since we've all gotten together," said Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey, whose team is ranked 13th heading into the Oct. 21 game with 12th-ranked Clemson. "I don't believe we have an elite three or four that sit there at the top year in and year out, and I don't believe we will for many years to come because I think we're such a strong conference. As this continues, I think you'll see different people at the top from time to time."

That's certainly true this season. NC State, picked to finish fifth in the Atlantic Division, and Georgia Tech, a third-place choice in the Coastal Division, head into this weekend's games perched at the top of their respective divisions.

Miami and FSU, the preseason choices to win their divisions, have combined to lose three of five conference games and look more like also-rans than potential ACC champs.

"The conference has gotten better, there's no doubt about it," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "It's not that Florida State and Miami have gone down that much. It's the conference has gotten tougher and tougher to win nowadays."

Of the ACC's two divisions, the Atlantic is shaping up as the more interesting race. Each of the six teams has an overall winning record, and none of them, with the possible exception of the defending conference champion Seminoles, is out of contention.

The Coastal Division isn't nearly as wide open. After opening the season by losing to Notre Dame, Georgia Tech has ripped off five consecutive wins, including a dominating win against Virginia Tech two weeks ago that makes the Yellow Jackets the clear favorite to earn the division's ACC title game berth.

Among individual players, the two biggest standouts through the first half have been Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson and Clemson tailback James Davis.

But the ACC has few other offensive stars this season, with only Clemson and Virginia Tech ranking among the nation's top 35 teams in scoring.

The lack of scoring punch is partly attributable to a crop of young, inexperienced quarterbacks starting for ACC teams. Only Reggie Ball (Georgia Tech), Drew Weatherford (FSU), Kyle Wright (Miami) and Sam Hollenbach (Maryland) are returning starters.

The flip side is that the league has taken on a defensive look. Nine ACC schools rank among the top 45 teams nationally in total defense.

Biggest Surprise
A preseason pick to finish last in the Atlantic Division, Wake Forest came within one bad quarter Saturday against Clemson from improving to 6-0 and earning a spot in the Top 25. That the Demon Deacons are 5-1 and in the hunt for an ACC championship berth is surprising enough. More impressive is that they've done it without starting quarterback Ben Mauk and tailback Micah Andrews, who were lost for the season with injuries.

Biggest Disappointment
When the ACC expanded three years ago, who would have thought the choice for this category would come down to Miami or Florida State. The Hurricanes get the nod here because they were the preseason pick to win the ACC championship. That could still happen, but it doesn't seem likely. Miami is 3-2, although it could just as easily be 1-4. FSU, which owns a 1-4 record in its last five ACC games dating back to last season, is a close runner-up to Miami.

Midseason MVP
This could go to Tigers tailback Davis or Jackets receiver Johnson. We'll go with Johnson, who has been a one-man wrecking crew for the surprising Yellow Jackets despite having less help around him than Davis. Johnson has registered three consecutive games of 100 yards receiving and ranks first in the ACC in receptions (35), receiving yards (559) and touchdown catches (8). Enjoy this junior while you can because he'll be lighting up the NFL next season.

Midseason Coach of the Year
It's hard not to give this to Wake Forest's Jim Grobe. But Clemson's Tommy Bowden gets the nod because the Tigers are within a missed extra point of being unbeaten despite suffering several key injuries on both sides of the ball. The Tigers still must get by consecutive games against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, but could be in line for the school's first ACC title since 1991.

Bowl Bound
Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.

Jorge Milian covers the ACC for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.