- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2003

The ACC's days of being a Nice Little Football Conference may be nearing an end. Did you check out the final AP poll the other day? For only the second time in history, the ACC had four teams ranked: N.C.State at No.12, Maryland at No.13, Florida State at No.21 and Virginia at No.22. That's as many as any conference in the country.

What made it even more impressive, though, was that it happened in a year when Georgia Tech, Clemson and North Carolina three of the ACC's more successful football programs all were down. The ACC ain't the Big Ten yet, but it's about 20,000 leagues deeper than it used to be.

The reason for this breakthrough is fairly clear: After getting ear-holed by Florida State for the past decade, the conference finally wised up and went pro. Coaching-wise, I mean. The mastermind behind Maryland's revival is Ralph Friedgen, erstwhile offensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers. Calling the plays at Virginia now is Al Groh, former coach of the New York Jets. At Georgia Tech which figures to be back with a vengeance soon enough they've brought in Chan Gailey, ex-coach of the Dallas Cowboys. And at UNC, they've handed the reins to John Bunting , a longtime NFL player and assistant coach.

Throw in the Florida State clones Chuck Amato (a Bobby Bowden assistant for 18 years) at N.C. State and Tommy Bowden (a Bobby Bowden son for 48 years) at Clemson and, well, you get the picture. The whole climate in the conference has changed. It's become such a mad scramble, you'd think we were talking about ACC basketball.

Why, even Wake Forest got into the act over the holidays. The Demon Deacons went just 3-5 in conference play, but in the Seattle Bowl they feasted on Oregon as if it were Ducks a l'orange. And Oregon, if memory serves, was the sixth-ranked team in the country midway through the season.

This is heady stuff for a conference with the ACC's history. Let's not forget, from 1962 to '71, not a single ACC team was ranked in the AP's final poll. Not one. Heck, during a three-year stretch in the late '80s, the only ACC program that showed up in the Top 20 (it didn't become the Top 25 until '89) was Clemson.

But then Florida State joined the flock, and the stakes were raised. If you wanted to compete against the Seminoles a pro team in college clothing you had to become a veritable pro team yourself. And for many schools, that meant hiring former NFL coaches (or raiding the FSU staff for talent). The effect has been dramatic, if not cataclysmic. The 'Noles didn't even win the conference title last season (the Terrapins did), and this year they lost for the second straight time to old friend Amato (another first).

Aside from their X's and O's expertise, ex-NFL coaches bring something else to the table, I'm convinced: They know how to deal with 13- and 14-game seasons. College schedules, you may have noticed, are getting longer, and some teams seem to be having trouble handling them. You look at the nosedives Oregon and Iowa State took this season and even Virginia Tech and Notre Dame at the end and you wonder if the kids (or their coaches) didn't just run out of gas.

Compare that to what took place in the ACC. Maryland wasn't a very good team in the beginning, as it showed in its 22-0 loss to the Irish, but the Terps kept at it and kept at it and, remarkably, wound up 13th in the land. Think Friedgen, who rode the NFL waves for five years, didn't have something to do with that?

Virginia started out even worse 0-2 and the season easily could have gotten away from the Cavaliers. Their depth chart was, after all, filled with freshmen (22 of whom played). Groh didn't panic, though, and in their last four games the Cavs knocked off three Top 25 teams (N.C. State, Maryland and West Virginia).

Those might have been the two best turnarounds in major college football this season. (And Bunting had a similar one last year at North Carolina. The Tar Heels dropped their first three games, then went 8-2, including a bowl victory.)

Some will say it's an aberration, that ACC football will go back to being ACC football in due course. Maryland mauling Tennessee in the Peach Bowl? N.C. State stomping Notre Dame in the Gator? In the same year? That's a Halley's Comet-type thing, they'll scoff.

And it was, indeed, a strange year in college football. Florida State lost five games. Nebraska, Florida and Tennessee finished out of the rankings. Miami's winning streak died in the desert. But the Terps and Wolfpack are no flukes, and neither are the Cavs. Friedgen still has Scott McBrien and Bruce Perry. Groh still has Matt Schaub and all those freshmen. Amato still has his sunglasses (not to mention T.A. McClendon).

If you need further convincing, turn to page 61 of this week's Sports Illustrated. Among the 18 teams mentioned in the magazine's "pre-preseason" rankings for next year are, lo and behold, Florida State, Virginia, Maryland and N.C. State.

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