July 12, 2010
Introducing the Doc's ACC Week.
Circa 2007 or so, the ACC acquired a reputation as the most conservative, teeth-gritting, unwatchable conference of the "Big Six" leagues, and it's not like the shoe didn't fit. It was, after all, the conference that had staged a sparsely-attended championship game that ended 9-6 with no touchdowns by either team That was followed by another remembered mainly for the staggering number of empty seats. The collapses at Miami and Florida State were laid at the feet of flagging offenses; both teams fired play-callers. Maryland failed to hit 300 total yards in five of its nine wins in 2006; the next year, Virginia won nine despite failing to top 24 points in six of them.
In 2007, three-fourths of the conference ranked 90th or worse nationally in total offense, without a single attack in the top thirty. After Wake Forest took the conference championship with the nation's 96th-ranked total offense in 2006, Virginia Tech proceeded to win it two years in a row with attacks that ranked 100th and 103rd, respectively.
Note that in 2009, it was the ACC Championship Game that featured two of the league's top three offenses piling up 73 points and 883 yards of total offense while the best defenses in the high-flying Big 12 beat each other to a pulp in a 13-12 clinch-fest.
But that was characteristic of a conference that opened with a 38-34 thriller in its marquee rivalry, setting the tone for the entire season. The No. 1 offense ran for 300-plus yards in wins over both the first and second-ranked defenses. Georgia Tech and Florida State traded blows a in a lightning-streaked, 93-point, 1071-yard shootout that ended with a single punt by either team. At one point, Wake Forest's Riley Skinner, who entered the year with zero 300-yard passing games in three full seasons as a starter, passed for at least 350 three weeks in a row. Duke's Thaddeus Lewis went over 300 (usually well over 300) in six of the Blue Devils' last eight games, joining Philip Rivers as the only ACC quarterbacks ever to pass for 10,000 yards in a career.
Obviously, that newfound explosiveness correlates with some regression on defense, especially at Florida State, which seemed to be dive-bombed on a weekly basis en route to a rock-bottom finish in coordinator Mickey Andrews' last season. But it also coincides with a wholesale turnover in the offensive brain trust since the dog days of 2006-07: Jimbo Fisher and Mark Whipple have reopened the formerly vaunted downfield passing attacks at Florida State and Miami, and have both teams averaging over 30 points again for the first time since 2005. David Cutcliffe has not only restored a pulse to Duke (which is Duke), but somehow had the Devils leading the league in passing last year at 305 yards per game. Dabo Swinney and coordinator Billy Napier found a way to keep C.J. Spiller more involved, and Clemson ripped a string of six straight conference games with at least 34 points. And Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson, pulling the strings of the funky triple-option scheme that wasn't supposed to work in a real conference, engineered the league's most productive attack for the second year in a row on the way to a conference championship.
Even stodgy Virginia Tech, still pounding away between the tackles about two-thirds of the time under maligned coordinator Brian Stinespring, wound up second in the nation in yards per pass (right behind Georgia Tech) thanks to the vastly improved efficiency of quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Still, between Florida State's Christian Ponder, Miami's Jacory Harris, N.C. State's Russell Wilson and Georgia Tech option master Josh Nesbitt, Taylor only barely rates as All-ACC material. That wouldn't have been the case two years ago, when outgoing Boston College hero Matt Ryan ceded his crown as the conference's top passer to, uh, Cullen Harper.
Not that anyone who considered the ACC a second-rate conference then should necessarily be impressed; for the determined hater, the offenses sucked then and the defenses suck now. The best attack in the league, Georgia Tech, was thoroughly shut down in the Orange Bowl. There's still no serious national championship contender, for roughly the tenth year in a row. But at least you can't call them boring anymore.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.