Expanded ACC showing improvement

For years, the Atlantic Coast Conference longed to shed its image of being Florida State and the rest. Improvement comes in increments, and Year One of the expanded ACC is no exception.

Though better from top-to-bottom than ever before and currently flashing three teams in the top 10, the ACC's bold post-expansion claims of zooming past the SEC, the Big 12 and the Big 10 to become the best conference in the land appears to have been a bit premature.

The surprising struggles at Clemson and a bit of a down year for both Virginia Tech and Maryland means the ACC, as a group, is in roughly the same position now as it was before adding the Hokies and Miami Hurricanes. Only the top-10 trio of Miami, Virginia and Florida State appear anywhere in the Top 25 for the ACC. A season ago, three ACC teams (FSU, Maryland and Clemson) made the final rankings.

The difference is that at the midway point of the 2004 season, the Hurricanes, Cavaliers and Seminoles all remain in position to challenge for a BCS bowl bid. In past ACC years, Florida State was alone in that quest.

Since the advent of the BCS system in '98, the ACC is the only BCS league not to have placed two teams in a BCS bowl in the same season. The thinking was that Miami and Florida State would change all that, especially by having them play in the season-opening game.

The hope didn't take into account this weekend's Virginia-Florida State game or a Nov. 13 showdown between Miami and Virginia at Charlottesville. Those games will reshape the ACC's upper echelon and leave the league leaders vulnerable to late-season matchups including Florida State's trip to North Carolina State (Nov. 11) and a pair of games involving Virginia Tech (the Hokies play Virginia and Miami on consecutive weekends to close the season).

Is the ACC better than it was before expansion? No question. Is the league now the best in the country? That's a hard sell, considering such non-conference disappointments as NC State's home-field loss to Ohio State, Clemson's lopsided loss at Texas A&M and Florida State's narrow escape at Syracuse, to an Orange team that had been defeated 51-0 by Purdue a month earlier.

Biggest Surprise

Barely a month ago, Virginia was ranked 20th in the nation and the Cavaliers weren't considered a possible BCS championship contender, primarily because new quarterback Marques Hagans couldn't possibly be that good in his first season as the full-time starter.

By now, it's a little more believable.

Hagans is no Matt Schaub, but he doesn't have to be. His job is to limit the mistakes, distribute the ball and pose just enough of a passing and scrambling threat to distract defenses that want to focus on the powerful Virginia running tandem of Wali Lundy and Alvin Pearman.

Hagans has his toughest assignments ahead of him -- namely, Saturday's game at Florida State and the Nov. 13 showdown with Miami. So far, at least, he and his team have provided something the ACC wasn't expecting -- a member school in the top 10 at the halfway mark in addition to FSU and Miami.

Biggest Disappointment

For years now, Tommy Bowden has given us reason to believe he's ready to take Clemson into permanent residence among the top-15 teams in the country. This was supposed to be the year the Tigers moved in.

How could it not be? Clemson won its final four games of '03 by an average margin of 27 points, including victories over a pair of top-10 teams in Florida State and Tennessee.

With seven starters back on both sides of the ball, including ACC Player of the Year candidate Charlie Whitehurst, the Tigers were supposed to join Virginia in giving Miami and Florida State something to think about besides each other.

Instead, Clemson has lost four consecutive games. The Tigers' best performance of the year was against Virginia last week in a game the Cavaliers won by 20 points. BCS bowl? This team is going to have to make dramatic improvements to avoid a losing season.

Midseason MVP

Hagans might not be the only reason Virginia sits at No. 6 in the nation entering Saturday night's tell-all game at Florida State. But he's the best reason they aren't out of the Top 25. The one thing the Cavaliers seemed to be missing entering the season, a reliable quarterback, is instead the primary distribution point in an offense that is scoring 42.4 points a game -- best in the ACC and third-best in the country. And Hagans leads the ACC in total offense, averaging 232 yards a game.

Midseason Coach of the Year

About every third week, Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey or Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe look like they deserve this priceless honor. But fast-talking Al Groh, who left the New York Jets for a team that now has a better defense, gets the nod. He's pushed Virginia from happy-to-win-seven under former coach George Welsh to national championship contender with a mixture of solid recruiting, an NFL-style coaching approach and discipline.

Bowl Bound

Miami, Virginia, Florida State, Virginia Tech, NC State.

Doug Carlson covers the ACC for the Tampa Tribune.