- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 4, 2004

If there was any doubt the ACC is a changed football conference, it was drop-kicked into oblivion on Upset Saturday. In College Park, you had Maryland surprising No.5 Florida State, the Terrapins’ first win over the Seminoles ever. And in Chapel Hill, you had North Carolina bringing down fourth-ranked Miami, the first victory over a top-four team in the history of Choo Choo (Justice) U.

Jolts like these are fairly common in conferences like the Big Ten and SEC. Witness Purdue, which has gone from BCS material to Total Afterthought after dropping three straight to Wisconsin, Michigan and Northwestern. And in ACC basketball, of course, such craziness abounds. (Just last season, Maryland came out of nowhere to win the conference tournament — and Georgia Tech, a third-place finisher, reached the NCAA title game.) But ACC football has never been long on shock and/or awe … except, perhaps, when Florida State beat somebody 77-17 or 72-13 or 70-26.

It’s a whole new deal now, though — and sooner than anyone expected. When the ACC emptied the Big East’s pockets of Miami and Virginia Tech, it was assumed the conference would become a national power, but it figured to be awhile before the ACC developed the depth and fan-pleasing unpredictability of the other elite conferences. Amazingly, that time is already here.

Nobody, after all, saw Saturday’s stunners coming, not even ESPN’s Twin Nostradamuses, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit. Down-on-its-luck Maryland had lost four of its last five and was having trouble making a first down. North Carolina had already been blown out three times by 30 or more points. But the Terps and Heels still had plenty of fight left — as FSU and Miami, to their chagrin, discovered.

This is how it’s supposed to be in a Real Football Conference. If a top team goes on the road and doesn’t bring its “A” game — or at least its “B-plus” game — it stands a good chance of getting knocked off. That didn’t happen much to Florida State in its first decade in the ACC. Most weeks, the Seminoles just had to show up. (Their record in conference play at one point was a ridiculous 71-2.)

But shrinking scholarship limits have leveled the playing field a bit, and ACC teams, let’s face it, have never been better coached. There’s a former NFL head coach at Virginia (Al Groh), ex-NFL assistants at Maryland (Ralph Friedgen) and North Carolina (John Bunting), and all three have been to the Super Bowl. The only toothless program left, really, is Duke. Everybody else, you better have your helmet buckled when you play them.

And if you’re a football fan, what could be better? What could be better than Maryland upsetting Florida State or North Carolina upsetting Miami — or, a couple of weeks ago, Wake Forest coming within a field goal of the Seminoles?

“What you really want is a very competitive league,” UNC athletic director Dick Baddour told the Raleigh News-Observer earlier this week. “You want as many schools as possible having the opportunity to compete in the league championship. That’s healthy for the program, for recruiting, for fans.”

The only drawback to Saturday’s shockers is that the ACC will probably have only one team in a BCS bowl this season. Florida State is likely looking at a lesser bowl now, possibly the Gator. This will deprive the conference of a second $4.5million BCS payout (which was one of the major reasons for expansion). But who needs a wrestling program, anyway — and besides, it’s a small price to pay for Genuine Drama in ACC football.

You look at the conference race the rest of the way and suddenly there are no givens. Virginia is in good stead at 3-1, but it could easily lose any of its four remaining games (Maryland, Miami, at Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech). Virginia Tech, also 3-1, is in the same situation (with the Terps and Cavaliers at home and the Heels and Hurricanes away). Miami, the third 3-1 team, has slightly easier going (home against Clemson, Wake and Virginia Tech and on the road against UVa), but the ‘Canes, remember, have allowed 30-plus points the last three weeks. One more shaky performance by their defense and …

Ain’t it great? It’s so great, in fact, that North Carolina’s Jesse Holley couldn’t find the words to express his joy after the Tar Heels blindsided Miami. “I was speechless,” he told the Chapel Hill News. “My yell wouldn’t even come out. I was yelling. Nothing would come out.”

So it ended on Upset Saturday, or should we call it Speechless Saturday? Nah, let’s save Speechless Saturday for another week — maybe this one.

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