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.
"It is just that we continue to self-destruct," N.C. State Coach Tom O'Brien said after the Wake Forest loss. "Some guys have to grow up, too. Some of it is youth. That is no excuse, but they better grow up fast or we'll have a long season."
Clemson has two of the fastest players in college football -- running back C.J. Spiller and wide receiver Jacoby Ford -- but also has a freshman quarterback, Kyle Parker, who has had his share of uneven performances. The Tigers (2-3) rank 102nd nationally in total offense and are plagued by the same inexplicable mistakes and late-game swoons that defined some of the Tommy Bowden era.
"It is not on Coach [Dabo] Swinney," Spiller said. "Coach Swinney is not even out there playing, it is on us, plain and simple."
Wake Forest (3-2) entered the season with lukewarm expectations because of a young defense. But veteran quarterback Riley Skinner, who ranks 24th nationally in total offense, threw for 361 yards in Saturday's victory over N.C. State.
Almost every game is a struggle for the Demon Deacons. Four of Wake Forest's five games have been decided by seven points or less. Saturday's home game against Maryland is critical because the Demon Deacons' two remaining home games are against Miami and Florida State.
Then again, the Seminoles (2-3) have been consistently inconsistent all season. Their 54-28 victory at then-No. 7 Brigham Young on Sept. 19 was impressive, but it came one week after they needed to rally in the final minutes to beat Jacksonville State at home.
And in recent days the chair of Florida State's Board of Trustees, Jim Smith, told the Tallahassee Democrat that this should be the last season for Coach Bobby Bowden, who has not posted a 10-win season since 2003. Bowden said Sunday he has no plans to step down.
Florida State hosts Georgia Tech on Saturday, when the Seminoles will have the chance to jump back into the wide open division race or fall further behind. The most important thing this season, according to players, is to stay among the pack in the division because at some point a team is bound to distinguish itself.
"We just need to stay focused," Wake Forest wide receiver Chris Givens told reporters after Saturday's victory. "Like you said, we are all close, so we just need to continue to stay close in the division."