In ACC's Atlantic Division, It's Anyone's Guess

Fans join members of the first-place -- yes, first place -- Terrapins in celebrating after the win against Clemson.
Fans join members of the first-place -- yes, first place -- Terrapins in celebrating after the win against Clemson. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Sitting alone atop the ACC's Atlantic Division standings this week is a Maryland team that limped into October without a division I-A victory. And alone at the bottom of the standings is the preseason favorite, a Florida State team that finds itself 0-2 in the conference for the first time ever.

The peculiar order makes sense only in the topsy-turvy world of the wackiest division in major college football. Neither a favorite nor a dark horse can be found among the Atlantic Division's six teams that have rendered nonconference performance and preseason rankings irrelevant.

"All the media picked Clemson and Florida State as the two teams to beat, and both have two losses" in the ACC, Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen said. "If we can get a road win against Wake Forest [Saturday], it would be very big and hopefully build some momentum for us."

Parity rather than excellence defined the ACC last season. Ten of 12 teams played in bowl games, but the league finished the season without a top 10 team. This season's Coastal Division, however, has two highly ranked teams -- No. 5 Virginia Tech and No. 11 Miami -- and at least somewhat of a pecking order.

It is a different story in the Atlantic Division. Three of the schools -- Florida State, Clemson and North Carolina State -- lost Saturday to division opponents that were not expected to challenge for the division title -- Boston College, Maryland and Wake Forest, respectively.

The season remains young, but it's anyone's guess which team will emerge from a division strewn with mediocrity. The only Atlantic Division team that received any votes in the Associated Press top 25 this week was Boston College, which earned all of 12 votes.

What's more, the six teams have combined for a record of 16-14, compared with the 17-11 record amassed by the six Coastal Division teams. And the only Atlantic Division team without an ACC loss, Maryland, has been on such shaky ground that its coach said after Saturday's 24-21 victory against Clemson that if critics "don't want me here, I will go somewhere else."

That Maryland (2-3) can even think about building momentum speaks to how wide open the division has become. Throughout the worst September of Friedgen's nine-year tenure, the Terrapins struggled stringing together consecutive successful quarters but now are eying opening conference play with consecutive division victories.

"It was a huge game for us," quarterback Chris Turner said. "We really tried to approach the game as the first game of the season. We are 1-0 in the ACC and that feels pretty good. We need to capitalize on it."

The Terrapins will have ample opportunity to build on it because every team in the Atlantic Division is either flawed or limited, or both. Much has been made of Maryland's offensive line woes and penchant for turnovers. The Terrapins rank 115th nationally in turnover margin and sacks allowed. Friedgen knows the team must reduce turnovers for his team even to have a chance to win.

But every team in the division has its own issue. Little was expected from Boston College, which has overcome the offseason drama of Jeff Jagodzinski's unusual departure as coach and the loss of standout linebacker Mark Herzlich, who is battling cancer. The Eagles (4-1) have relied on a gritty defense and 25-year-old freshman quarterback Dave Shinskie to eke out two conference victories.

North Carolina State (3-2) could be the division's most capable team overall. The Wolfpack lost a 30-24 shootout Saturday at Wake Forest, and it still will play road games against Boston College and Florida State this month. But the Wolfpack has the nation's sixth-ranked defense and one of the league's best quarterbacks in Russell Wilson.

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