The question first arose in the press box at Wake Forest after the Demon Deacons’ stunning loss to Navy. Rob Daniels, my former co-worker at the Greensboro News & Record, repeated it to me Saturday night, after a bizarre day’s worth of ACC action.
“So who’s the best team in the ACC?”
Before Saturday I would have said Wake, which seems pretty silly now. Then again, the team I’d pick now as the league’s best, Virginia Tech, would have been a preposterous selection a few weeks ago. And the team that we all thought was the best in the preseason, Clemson, seems like a laughable suggestion now.
Such is life now in the topsy-turvy ACC. It’s a place where Virginia is playing like the Duke of old, while this current version of the Blue Devils is playing unlike anything we’ve seen in Durham in about 14 years or so. It’s a league where a trip to Murfreesboro causes Maryland more problems than bringing a team into Death Valley. And it’s a conference in which the division expected to produce all the ACC’s doormats – the Coastal – is instead the home of its top teams – Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and UNC.
My advice: don’t bother trying to predict what will happen in the ACC from week to week. Just take some dramamine and buckle your seat belts – it’s going to be a wild ride from here until Tampa.
On to my twelve thoughts about Week Five:
1) “If we hit them in the mouth, they’re going to fold, so that’s what we came out and did.” – Maryland linebacker Alex Wujciak.
There’s plenty to be upset about right now if you’re a Clemson fan. But this quote should be at the top of the list because a) It tells you that the Tigers’ opponents think Clemson is soft and b) after watching that second-half collapse, it’s hard to argue with them.
2) I thought UNC was in trouble when it had to go to Miami without T.J. Yates. I thought the Tar Heels were toast when Mike Paulus was ineffective early. I thought the game was going to get really ugly when former third-stringer Cam Sexton was called on in relief.
By the end I thought Sexton’s game-winning TD pass to Brooks Foster reminded of Montana to Clark.
3) All credit and then some to Sexton, who turned in a remarkable performance. But this game was Exhibit A for how a group of talented receivers can make a QB’s life so much easier. Hakeem Nix, Brandon Tate and Foster are the best trio of wideouts in the league, and maybe one of the best in the country.
4) The corellary of that is when you have talented wideouts – like, say, Aaron Kelly, Jacoby Ford and Tyler Grisham, and still struggle in the passing game, folks are going to question you, Cullen Harper. And when they know there’s someone waiting in the wings – like, say, WIlly Korn – they’re questioning is going to get loud. Really loud.
I don’t envy Tommy Bowden. I get the impression he really feels Harper is better than Korn. But you’ve got to think that all the Korn clamoring is having a mental effect on Harper. He’s in a situation now where it would probably be better to get out on the road.
5) I gotta admit I’m a little confused about the Boston College quarterback situation. I get giving backup Dominique Davis plenty of snaps against a pushover like Rhode Island – although even Davis admitted he was surprised by how much he actually played. And I get that the Rams are so weak that BC really only needed to hand the ball off and run over its overmatched opponent. But wouldn’t you want to at least toy around with what Davis can do in the passing game in this low-stress environment. Davis only threw the ball five times, completing three passes. I know the rain was a factor, but Rhode Island managed to chuck it around 43 times, so conditions clearly didn’t preclude passing.
I’m pretty sure we all knew Davis could hand the ball off. I’m not sure if anything else was learned … except that Chris Crane shouldn’t feel too comfy in his starting role.
6) Was that really Riley Skinner at quarterback for Wake? Really? You sure?
Actually, we probably should have seen this coming – just not against Navy. Wake’s 3-0 start hid the fact that its running game is a shadow of its old self. While Jim Grobe and his offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke are known for being able to draw up creative running schemes, there’s only so much you can do if the offensive line isn’t cutting it. That was never more obvious that against Navy, when the Deacs managed a pathetic 43 yards on 31 carries. Skinner’s been forced to carry the entire load for Wake this season and on Saturday, he appeared to be cracking from the strain.
7) A Duke friend came up to me late on Saturday with a look that was part joy, part shock.
“So was that it? Was it just coaching?”
Not entirely. Believe it or not, Ted Roof did leave behind some talent on the Duke roster, as evidenced by the play of of guys like Thaddeus Lewis, Eron Riley and Michael Tauiliili. And Duke is benefiting from a scheduled loaded with winnable games early. The Blue Devils should be underdogs in their next four games, beginning with a trip to Georgia Tech this weekend.
Still, coaching is a huge part of what’s happening in Durham. The impact on confidence is enormous in athletics and even moreso when the athletes are 18-22 year-olds. Somehow in the preseason David Cutcliffe and his staff managed to forge self-belief in the Blue Devils even though the team had no objective data to support such confidence. Now, that preseason belief has been backed up with three wins – and a narrow loss – in four games. Perhaps most impressively, none of it feels flukish.
8) As you might expect, UVA fans are a tad displeased with Al Groh these days. They’re even more displeased with the gigantic nature of Groh’s buyout. Don’t be surprised if angry supporters of the Cavs turn their anger toward Groh’s son, Mike, the offensive coordinator. The precedent’s already been set by Florida State with Jeff Bowden.
9) All’s well down in Tallahassee these days now that the Seminoles are trying this crazy newfangled thing called running the ball. Over 150 yards and 3 TDs for Antone Smith! Who knew? The tone was set in this one on FSU’s first possession. Smith carried the ball on each play of a short four-play 27-yard scoring drive. Nothing fancy about it, but it was awfully effective. In other words, the opposite of the “fancy but totally ineffective” offense the Seminoles have been using a lot in recent seasons.
10) You can still question why the Virginia Tech coaches ever thought about redshirting Tyrod Taylor, but you can’t argue with the results since said redshirt went up in flames. His passing numbers (9-of-15, 171 yards) won’t blow you away, but 9.5 times out of 10 that’s all the Hokies need from Taylor through the air. The rest can be done with Taylor’s legs, some power running – which looks like it finally clicked late against UNC – and big plays on special teams and defense. I realize hypothetical stuff is essentially worthless, but what if the Hokies had gotten off that last punt against ECU? What would we think about Virginia Tech now? As is, I think they’re the best team in the ACC right now. Still not sure what that means nationally, though.
11) I know N.C. State gives new meaning to the phrase “injury-depleted.” And I know it’s no fun when you have to play catch up by passing the ball during a steady rain. But even with all the excuses the Wolfpack has built in, that was a pretty awful performance against South Florida.
12) Like most of my sportswriting brethren, I get really annoyed when someone I interview tells me “you wouldn’t understand, because you never played the game.” I think that’s a cop-out nine times out of 10, but on Saturday I saw two instances where I just don’t think I could understand what happened unless I played the game.
Instance No. 1: Duke’s Jabari Marshall returns an interception for a touchdown and then does an unnecessary dive into the end zone, drawing a 15-yard celebration penalty. Marshall has to know that’s coming, right? Yet he did it any way. Instance No. 2: FSU’s Dekoda Watson plows into the Colorado QB about two seconds after the whistle had blown, for the most obvious roughing the passer call you’ll ever see.
The obvious question in both cases is: What were you thinking? I’m guessing the answer lies somewhere in getting caught up in the heat of the moment, but I don’t think I could possibly understand those actions unless I’d put on a helmet and played the game. Unless, of course, the answer is that those were just two really, really stupid play.