Parity Rules in ACC Football

By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 25, 2008

Other conferences possess better quarterbacks, faster defenses and more relevant national contenders, but no league from top to bottom has been more compelling, more predictably unpredictable this season than the topsy-turvy ACC, whose many middling teams are nearly indistinguishable on the field.

After encountering varying degrees of adversity, Maryland, Virginia and Virginia Tech all remain in the conference title hunt and will play pivotal games today. Yet any attempt to predict outcomes of those contests will undoubtedly prove futile because the separation between most of the conference's 12 teams is infinitesimal.

"This conference is getting ridiculous," Maryland center Edwin Williams said.

Consider the abnormality Kenneth Massey, a mathematics professor in Tennessee, noticed when he checked his college football ratings this week. Among 716 teams from different levels of competition, half of the ACC settled between No. 22 and 30, meaning six teams from one league had nearly identical ratings.

"That is very unusual," said Massey, whose rankings are used in the BCS ratings formula. "You are splitting hairs when trying to distinguish between those teams. Historically speaking, I can't remember too many leagues as balanced as the ACC is this year."

While evenly matched, no ACC team is considered elite. None will play for the national championship. None has been ranked in the top 15 of the Associated Press poll since the preseason. And none has an offense that ranks among the nation's top 50.

But mediocrity does not preclude drama. A conference as volatile as Wall Street saw its preseason favorites -- Clemson and Virginia Tech -- lose during the season's opening week and watched its three ranked teams -- North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest -- all fall last week.

Never before has every ACC team suffered at least one conference loss this early in the season. Four teams are tied for first in the Atlantic Division; three in the Coastal Division have only one loss. No school's fans should begin making plans yet for the ACC title game in Tampa on Dec. 6.

"The NFL would love our parity," Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said. "From top to bottom, anyone can beat anyone. I don't think you can say that about any other league."

What's more, Massey calculates a parity rating that measures the accuracy of predicting outcomes in each conference based on past results. Among some 100 conferences and divisions in division I-A, division I-AA, Division II, Division III and NAIA, no conference has a higher parity rating than the ACC.

"In hindsight, 91 percent of games can be explained based on the winner," Massey said. "That means nine percent of games could be considered legit upsets. If I had that calculation for the ACC, it would probably be more like 60 percent of ACC games can be explained. The rest are mild upsets."

In the ACC, the line that separates favorite from underdog has faded. Georgia Tech Coach Paul Johnson this week called Virginia one of the conference's hottest teams less than a month after the Cavaliers stood 0-3 against division I-A opponents. And Virginia Coach Al Groh called Georgia Tech one of the conference's hottest teams two weeks after the Yellow Jackets eked out a 10-7 victory over Gardner-Webb.

Wake Forest's eighth-year coach Jim Grobe called the parity the most he has seen since arriving in Winston-Salem, N.C., adding: "It looked to me before the season that anyone would have a chance on any Saturday, but I really didn't expect it to be the way it has turned out. It has been crazy week to week. It's a great situation for fans; I don't think coaches are real comfortable right now."

Indeed. No other conference had a preseason top 10 team (Clemson) part ways with its coach (Tommy Bowden) after playing just three conference games.

Victory margins have been as surprising as winners and losers. Virginia lost at Duke, 31-3, one week, only to dominate Maryland, 31-0, the next week. And Maryland followed that lopsided loss by dominating Wake Forest, 26-0, in its next game.

Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden does not think teams' blemished records are indicative of their strength, adding: "The opinion I had of the league after the first two or three games has changed. I have a much stronger opinion after six games, and it looks like it is beefing up some."

Looking forward, Wake Forest has the most manageable schedule, but the Demon Deacons have struggled generating offense. Georgia Tech, the highest ranked ACC team in the BCS standings at 18th, will play three of its final four conference games at home. And Virginia Tech still plays Duke, a former afterthought that this season stands at 3-3.

"Some teams may win out; some teams may lose out," Maryland's Williams said. "And some teams may be up and down each week."

Which erratic team could that be?

"Nobody," Williams said, laughing. "I don't know which team that is."

No team more embodies the stupefying ACC than Maryland. The nation's only team to beat three ranked opponents has also suffered two of the worst losses of Friedgen's head coaching career. Massey has a way to calculate the season's least likely results, and Maryland's 24-14 loss at Middle Tennessee on Sept. 6 ranks fifth out of 2,438 games.

And yet the Terrapins, much like at least seven other ACC teams, remain in the conference title conversation.

"It depends which week you see them," Massey said. "You get cycles of teams beating each other, and no one is really better than the other. Going into any game, you might as well flip a coin."

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