By Ed McGranahan.
By Ed McGranahan
After a night to reflect, allow me a few observations from the ACC Kickoff that are not necessarily comforting.
Most everybody still seems captivated by the league’s national stature, and virtually every coach answered questions about either the ACC vs. SEC debate (primarily Clemson and North Carolina, as one might imagine), if leaving the Big East for the ACC was a step forward or sideways (Pitt and Syracuse) or the wisdom of bolting the ACC for the Big Ten (Maryland).
While the curiosity may be laudable at an elementary level, there’s still an absence of context among reporters covering the conference. Either they have forgotten or never examined the history of ACC football.
Florida State, Miami, Pittsburgh and Syracuse, their national championships and Heisman Trophy winners aside, the ACC has a very creaky football history and rarely has been relevant as a conference. Remove the Clemson teams of the Ford era from the equation and the league’s impact has been inconsequential, rarely with any competitive clout.
From inception, the league was comfortable with setting the standard in basketball and for a time that was perfectly fine on Tobacco Road. Much to Coach K’s dismay football pays the bills and as the league expanded its footprint the vision consisted of adding virgin households and in dense markets intrigued by a deep, competitive football league.
Folks, it’s here, right now.
Virtually all of us in this neighborhood looked at Clemson’s 2013 schedule and surmised that there are only a couple of stumbling blocks on the road to a national championship. Even former Coach Tommy Bowden said he thinks the team can negotiate the obstacles if it can beat Georgia on the front end and South Carolina on the back end.
There’s a nagging suspicion now that it won’t be that simple.
Two things require pause and consideration – coaching and quarterbacks.
This is not an indictment of Dabo Swinney, but the quality of coaching in the ACC may be at its highest. Swinney himself pointed out that purely in tenure he was fifth this year after only four full seasons with Frank Beamer, Jim Grobe, David Cutcliffe and Paul Johnson ahead of him. Including Swinney, all but Cutcliffe have won conference championships. All but Cutcliffe and Grobe are reasonably capable of playing for the conference championship this season. So, too, we would agree are Larry Fedora, Jimbo Fisher and Al Golden.
Swinney himself would agree that he needs to show tangible progress again this season even if Clemson fails to win 11 games or the ACC Championship, so the jury remains out on how he stands in the group. One of the most curious buzzes in Greensboro was the suggestion that Beamer had lost touch with the game and needed to go or the Hokies were destined for mediocrity. And for a variety of reasons, we are not clear on Steve Adazzio, Paul Chryst, Dave Doeren, Randy Edsall, Mike London and Scott Shafer.
Known as a creative and effective recruiter, Adazzio elevated the talent level with one nationally ranked class assembled through liberal use of social media outlets. As he spreads the word, he intends to spread the field and blend the speed game with BC’s proclivity for smash-mouth. Mean time, even at its worst, BC seemed to create issues for Clemson. Last season’s game in Chestnut Hill was no picnic.
In his second season at Pitt, Chryst sits in the heart of the Rust Belt of Western Pennsylvania and Ohio, one of the riches skeins of talent in America which, once upon a time, Johnny Majors mined for a national championship. Historically, even in lean times Pitt has been a thorn in the paw of one or two behemoths. For instance, among Pitt’s six victims in 2012 was Virginia Tech.
Tom O’Brien did not leave a bare cupboard at N.C. State, and Dave Doeren turned things around quickly in two seasons at Northern Illinois, winning 23 games and two MAC Championships. Identifying a starting quarterback and rebuilding the offensive line are the priorities but there’s talent and experience on defense, not a bad way to start.
Maryland has no where to go but up and out after Edsall’s second season which saw him start a linebacker at quarterback against Clemson. In Stefon Diggs, the Terrapins may have the most electric player in the ACC. And if senior C.J. Brown remains healthy he can be one of those multi-threat quarterbacks that spread defenses thin. Remember how he nearly beat Clemson in his first start two years ago. Edsall won two Big East titles and took UConn to four straight bowl games before moving to Maryland, and his third recruiting class was his best.
London seems to have the chops to survive in a market dominated by Beamer for more than decade. He retooled the staff and ratcheted recruiting efforts to win a couple key head-to-head battles with the Hokies the past two years. Virginia shed the “white meat” reputation years ago under George Welsh and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Cavaliers are more gristle than fat this season.
And much like Doeren, Shafer takes over a team not void of talent. Syracuse went 8-5 in 2012 under Doug Marone, C.J. Spiller’s new coach at Buffalo, with Shafer as defensive coordinator.
Finally, though Tajh Boyd was the league’s most productive quarterback in 2012, the carryover of talent in the league is impressive. Bryn Renner at North Carolina, Logan Thomas at Virginia Tech, Stephen Morris at Miami, Chase Rettig at Boston College and Tanner Price at Wake Forest are all capable of generating big numbers. And forget not that coaches, Cutcliffe at Duke and Johnson at Georgia Tech are masters of molding quarterbacks to their systems.
Clemson may not see the best of them until the ACC Championship game, but the point seems quite obvious — nothing can be taken for granted.
N.C. State – in Raleigh – looms large. Nobody prepares a team better than Grobe the next week and the first trip to Syracuse will be fraught with unknowns.
BC precedes FSU, and though both are at home the Eagles have broken Clemson hearts in Death Valley and the Seminoles this week seeded growing acrimony between the teams. Maryland probably wants to leave a bruise in its lame duck season. Clemson’s last trip to Virginia was pure ugly. And Georgia Tech … well, what else can be said?
Nothing changes the overriding feeling that Clemson is capable of beating every team on its schedule from Dogs to Chickens, but the ACC won’t be a picnic. Don’t be surprised by season’s end if five conference teams are nationally ranked with three among the top 12 and one in the mix at the end.
By any definition that would relevant.