Perhaps the biggest complaint about ACC expansion was that member schools no longer play a round-robin schedule. With the ACC growing from nine teams to 11 (and next year to 12, when Boston College joins), its teams will no longer play the same schedules, as the conference splits into two divisions next season.
But over the next month, the Virginia, Virginia Tech and Miami football teams will play a round-robin tournament of their own, with the winner probably staking claim to the ACC title and the Bowl Championship Series berth that comes with it. The three teams will play each other before the regular season ends, along with two other ACC games each.
The winner-takes-all scenario is a result of two stunning upsets this past weekend -- North Carolina's 31-28 win over then-No. 4 Miami and Maryland's 20-17 victory over then-No. 5 Florida State. As a result, No. 12 Virginia will go into Saturday's game against the Terrapins in Scott Stadium tied for the ACC lead with the No. 11 Hurricanes and No. 18 Hokies. The No. 13 Seminoles are one game back with two conference losses.
"We're here. We've gotten ourselves to this point," Cavaliers running back Alvin Pearman said. "It's really coming down to who wants it the most."
All season long, Virginia Coach Al Groh has talked to his team about one goal -- to remain in the ACC race until Nov. 1. Thanks to the Tar Heels and Terrapins, the Cavaliers (6-1, 3-1) were among three ACC teams in the driver's seat as the calendar changed from October to November.
Whether Virginia stays there will largely be determined in its next two games -- after hosting Maryland, the Cavaliers will play the Hurricanes in Charlottesville on Nov. 13. The Cavs will close the regular season with road games at Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.
"I've said our goal was to get to November the first and still be in the hunt," Groh said yesterday. "It's November the first and we're in the hunt, and now our goal is to get to November the seventh and still be in the hunt. We'll be deeper into it or we'll be further out of it."
In Groh's three seasons as coach of his alma mater, his teams have a 6-6 record in regular season games played in November or later. Last year, the Cavaliers lost at N.C. State and Maryland, 27-17, but won their last two games to finish 7-5 in the regular season and qualify for a bowl game. Two years ago, they won three of their last four games, and two of their final three in 2001.
The past two seasons, Groh said, have prepared his players for this year's pressure cooker.
"It's got some similarities to where we felt we've been each of the last three years," he said. "What we did down the home stretch was going to write the story of the season. . . . We've had good exposure to the seriousness of the games, where coming to the stadium every time, it was win or else."
Maryland, which has lost 10 of its last 12 games against Virginia, is facing a win-or-else situation for the rest of its season. Before beating the Seminoles for the first time in 15 games, the Terrapins (4-4, 2-3) seemed all but out of the postseason. Maryland had lost three games in a row, scoring seven points or fewer in all of them. But their upset of Florida State gives the Terps hopes of salvaging their season and a fourth consecutive bowl berth.
Maryland must win two of its last three games to become bowl eligible -- after playing at Virginia, the Terps play at Virginia Tech on Nov. 18 and host Wake Forest on Nov. 27. If the Terps lose two out of three games, they'll suffer their first losing season under Coach Ralph Friedgen.
"This," Maryland wide receiver Rich Parson said, "is the turning point for our organization."
Notes: Groh said quarterback Marques Hagans, who injured his hip against Florida State on Oct. 16, practiced well last Thursday and Friday before the team's open date. . . .
Freshman cornerback Phillip Brown, from Phoebus High in Hampton, has moved ahead of sophomore Marcus Hamilton on the Cavaliers' depth chart. Groh said that doesn't necessarily mean Brown will start against the Terps. "It depends on who has the best week of practice," Groh said. . . .
Junior Wali Lundy remains ahead of Pearman, who ran for 223 yards in the Cavs' 37-16 win at Duke on Oct. 23. Groh said he hasn't decided which tailback will start against Maryland. . . .
Maryland middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson was named the ACC defensive lineman of the week for the second week in a row and for the third time this season. The league's leading tackler had 11 tackles against Florida State.
Maryland left tackle Stephon Heyer was named co-offensive lineman of the week. . . .
The Virginia-Miami game will kick off at 3:30 p.m. and will be televised by ABC. . . .
The Cavaliers have committed only four turnovers, tied for the fewest in Division I-A with Bowling Green and Texas A&M. . . .
Rivals.com, a Web-based football recruiting service, ranked Virginia's class of 24 committed players as the best in the nation in its latest rankings released yesterday.
Maryland, which has oral commitments from 18 players, had a No. 6 ranking. National signing day is Feb. 2.