The ACC rises
Week four of the college football season was an important one, as many teams began conference play. Gone for the most part were the tune-up games against depleted FCS squads. Instead, college viewers were left to evaluate the shifting powers in college conferences.
Some teams shone. Out west, No. 3 Oregon blanked conference opponent Arizona 49-0 behind a 495-yard offensive day and a defensive performance so outstanding that the Ducks jumped to No. 2 in the polls.
No. 15 Kansas State went on the road and overcame Oklahoma’s Landry Jones and his nearly 300-yard day as the Wildcats stopped the No. 6 Sooners 24-19 in Norman, Okla.
Down south No. 5 Georgia shredded Vanderbilt for more than 300 yards on the ground in a 48-3 win that left the SEC as the only conference except for the Big 12 with six undefeated teams.
Some performances were ugly. LSU committed nine penalties and needed an interception as time expired to hold on to a 12-10 win against an Auburn team whose only win was a three-point overtime victory against Louisiana-Monroe.
No. 24 Boise State, once an offensive juggernaut, failed to produce even 300 yards of total offense in a 7-6 win against BYU. The game’s only offensive touchdown was scored with 3:37 left in the fourth quarter.
No. 19 UCLA’s senior tailback Johnathan Franklin, once hyped as a dark horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy, was held to 45 yards on the ground as Oregon State won 27-20 on the road a week after knocking off Wisconsin at home.
Some performances weren’t worth even mentioning — such as Virginia’s 27-7 loss to No. 17 TCU.
But for ACC fans, two games mattered most.
First, No. 11 Notre Dame topped quarterback Denard Robinson and No. 18 Michigan 13-6 in a game that skewed much closer to ugly than impressive. The game’s lone touchdown came on a two-yard run by backup quarterback Tommy Rees, a junior who occupies the familiar “Phillip Sims” role for the Irish this year. Sophomore Everett Golson, the starter for Notre Dame, was pulled after going 3-for-8 for 30 yards and two interceptions in the first half. The Irish failed to reach 100 yards rushing for the second time this season.
Despite its offensive flaws, Notre Dame’s defense was dynamite. In their second straight week preventing a ranked opponent from reaching the end zone, the Irish forced six turnovers, including four interceptions of Robinson. Senior linebacker Manti Te’o came up with two of those picks and registered eight tackles in a performance that continues the Hawaiian’s candidacy for major defensive honors this year.
The game may have been fought between two Midwestern schools, but the results impact the ACC.
For those with their heads buried in the sand, Notre Dame will soon officially join the ACC in all sports other than football. The football team has preserved its independence for now but has also agreed to play five ACC games per year, essentially tying the program to the conference.
Notre Dame’s strong football program helps the ACC. Although teams in the SEC have racked up six-straight national titles, the ACC’s last championship came with Florida State’s victory in 1999. The conference’s once-promising programs in North Carolina and Miami have been battered by NCAA recruiting violations.
The conference’s influx of new teams – Syracuse and Pitt are also joining as full members – could give the ACC more credibility as a football conference. The increased strength of schedule should help teams draw top recruits. If the Fighting Irish can return to their traditionally winning ways, it will bolster a conference with a decade-long title drought.
Saturday’s primetime Florida State-Clemson tilt also gave the ACC much-needed attention. The No. 10 Tigers put up 426 yards of offense and threw four touchdowns — including one by standout sophomore wideout Sammy Watkins — but fell 49-37 to a No. 4 Seminoles team that rolled up 667 yards of offense in one of the more impressive performances of the year.
Senior quarterback EJ Manuel completed an outstanding 27 of his 35 throws for 380 yards and two touchdowns, while adding 102 yards on the ground in an effort that saw Florida State rack up 287 rushing yards. Senior running back Chris Thompson also topped 100 yards and tallied two ground touchdowns for the Seminoles.
Despite Florida State’s soft early schedule, that game was one of the most dynamic of the young season and has cemented this year’s Florida State squad as a contender for national titles. The Seminoles have not been better since 1999 and 2000, when Bobby Bowden led the squad to national championship appearances.
Florida State is still a long shot for a title. The season is just four weeks old. Other elite teams may snag the championship: Oregon is a contender; USC could still make some noise despite an early-season loss and Notre Dame could force its way into the championship picture too.
There are also still two undefeated SEC West teams — Alabama and LSU — set to duel in Baton Rouge Nov. 3. Either team could emerge from that contest as a championship favorite.
Even if the Seminoles fail to win a title this year, Florida State’s performance and the influx of new teams suggest the ACC’s football star is finally on the rise.