Jacobs: The ACC’s Encouraging Early Returns

The meek are not quite ready to inherit the earth. We know this is true because ESPN has not announced coverage of the probate proceedings.

 But thanks to the influence of strong infusions of dollars, the grinding tide of circumstance, and the hard work of players, coaches, and administrators tired of watching others celebrate, at least college football’s underdogs have established a beachhead on the same planet as the game’s powers.

This is true from Vanderbilt to Northwestern to achingly aspiring Duke, which went to a bowl game last season for the first time in nearly two decades. And it’s most certainly true for the ACC, which, instead of getting bashed on a national stage in the early going, actually won a pair of high-profile games against ranked SEC opponents.

To gauge how much has changed, consider that the Blue Devils started the 2013 season by pitching a shutout, only their seventh in the past half-century.

Yes, yes, the opponent Duke held scoreless was N.C. Central. Still, while every other ACC program had shut out somebody since 2005 – including Pitt and Syracuse in the Big East — the Devils hadn’t managed the feat since 1989.

That 41-0 victory at Chapel Hill in ‘89 helped to establish Steve Spurrier, then the Duke coach, as both a football savant and an entertainingly brazen and occasionally boorish sportsman.

Not only did Spurrier keep calling trick plays until the last minute, he had his team pose twice in front of an end zone scoreboard at UNC’s Kenan Stadium, calling the group back onto the field from the locker room to get a second photo.

Forgotten in the recountings, the victory clinched a tie with Virginia at 6-1 in the ACC. That marked the last time the Blue Devils or any other team from North Carolina’s Triangle area shared even a piece of first place.

The 2013 Tar Heels harbor dreams of racing to a championship under Larry Fedora, a goal last achieved at Chapel Hill in 1980. They’re so hungry, Fedora issued rings last season to celebrate a three-way tie for first place in the ACC’s Coastal Division. The gesture was a bit of a reach — NCAA violations presumably gave UNC an unfair advantage on the field, reflected in a ban on postseason participation.

The furious tempo introduced by Fedora has heads spinning. Apparently that dizziness extends to his own players, four of whom opened a home game against Middle Tennessee State by botching the usually pro-forma coin toss.

The game captains surrounding the flipped coin apparently miscommunicated, electing to kick off in both halves.

“We felt like it would help them out and wanted to see if we could get more time with the defense on the field,” Fedora commented facetiously of the Blue Raiders from Conference USA.

Players made some effort to lay the blame for their faux pas on referee Ron Cherry. At least they didn’t say the sun was in their eyes.

The Tar Heels next play Georgia Tech, which also tied atop the division standings last season.

Coach Paul Johnson was derided upon entering the ACC in 2008 for relying heavily on a triple option offense, supposedly a vestige of a lower level and earlier era of play. Certainly the relentlessly ground-based approach isn’t as popular as the spread alignment used by Fedora and currently sweeping the game.

But the option has worked well for the Yellow Jackets, who’ve won nearly two-thirds of their games and never finished lower than third in the Coastal under Johnson. During his five-year tenure, only Florida State has consistently done as well in its division.

Yet the real news in the division, if not the entire conference, has been made by the third team to tie for the Coastal lead in 2012.

Miami defeated No. 12 Florida last weekend before the largest home crowd in Hurricanes history. More important, for one of the few times since the Coral Gables school was added a decade ago to bolster the ACC’s football prowess, Miami actually looked formidable and played with the confidence of old.

The affirming win, earning a first appearance in the polls since 2010, came a week after Clemson upended No. 5 Georgia.

“I think you’re seeing that this league is much better than what people give it credit for,” said FSU’s Jimbo Fisher. “That’s what you have to do, if you want credibility in the league you have to go out and win those games. I was very proud for both of them and very happy for both of them.”

Granted, the Tigers and Canes won by narrow margins at home. Their defenses struggled: Clemson gave up 545 yards, while the 413 yards yielded by Miami were nearly double what it gained (212). But the defenses came through when the result hung in the balance.

The rare twin victories over strong SEC teams caught national attention. Instead of tripping as it came out of the starting gate, the league earned favorable headlines and a modicum of the respect it’s vainly craved for years.

“How about that ACC?” Clemson’s Dabo Swinney commented following Miami’s win. “Spunky little old league.”