July 18, 2011
Kicking off ACC Week.
For a conference mocked for so long as a one-man show, the extended absence of a real national power hasn't done much for the ACC's reputation in the meantime. Since the collapse of Florida State's reign of terror over the rest of the league a decade ago, the ACC is 1-9 in BCS games, has yet to produce an at-large team in any of the big-money games and joins the MAC, Conference USA and Sun Belt as the only leagues that have failed to put a team in the top five of the final polls. Six of the last ten years, the ACC has failed to put a team in the top ten. The power void has yawned so wide for so long, it seems stuck.
In 2010, at least, it looked like the lack of a quality contender could be countered by sheer quantity: With five teams in the preseason top 20 — four of them from the Coastal Division alone, matching the most from any conference — the logjam promised depth and weekly drama. Instead, it was blown to smithereens on the second weekend of the season, when four of those five teams lost in embarrassing fashion and the fifth, North Carolina, took the week off to regroup with half of its starting defense suspended in NCAA limbo. Neither UNC nor fellow up-and-comers Miami and Georgia Tech finished anywhere near the final polls; seven months later, one of them has fired its head coach, another was forced to vacate its only championship of the last 20 years and the third is awaiting serious sanctions.
Out of the debacle, only one certainty emerged intact: Be it ever so humble, the ACC still belongs to Virginia Tech.
That may say as much about the rest of the conference as it does the ever-unspectacular Hokies, who were just vulnerable enough in 2010 to blow their national ambitions by losing to a I-AA/FCS outfit on their own field. In fact, though, the grip only tightened as the season went on. Tech's eventual ACC championship was its third in four years, and its 9-0 romp through the conference schedule was the first undefeated run in ACC play since 2000, when Florida State wound up playing for the BCS championship. In seven seasons since defecting from the Big East, Virginia Tech has won at least ten games and topped all ACC teams in the final polls all seven times. In the same span, no one else in the conference has hit double digits in the win column more than once.
The status quo has stood for so long, and often in such tenuous fashion, that it brings us to two inevitable, competing questions: a) How long can the run last before another challenger seizes control? or b) When does the reigning conference overlord finally assert itself on a national level? Depending on your perspective, the answer to both may be "very soon."
For those who see the Hokies as a makeshift sheriff in the absence of any other viable candidates, the looming silhouette of Florida State on the horizon is a very long time coming. Tech put down FSU's late season insurgency with authority last December, thumping the 'Noles 44-33 in the ACC title game, but that hasn't stopped the preseason pundits from circling the wagons: Florida State is unanimously tabbed to win the Atlantic Division again and will open the season in the top 10 for the first time since 2004 — the first year Virginia Tech's addition. All but one summer poll, Phil Steele's, ranks Florida State above Tech as the best team in the conference. That calls for a showdown, and this time the odds are on the Seminoles.
On the other hand, Florida State has dwelt on the fringes as a perennial disappointment for so long that its return to serious contention is beginning to sound like an urban legend. In the meantime, Virginia Tech is circling a few wagons of its own around new starting quarterback Logan Thomas, who has impressed coaches so much that they reshuffled the offensive staff this spring to better suit his talents as a pocket passer. At 63, Frank Beamer appears to be going all-in with Thomas as his last, best shot at a BCS championship before the rides into the sunset. If it pays off, Beamer will go out not just on top of the conference that was once expected to keep his program mired in mediocrity, but also having never been anywhere else.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.