All eyes turn to the ACC
Clemson-Florida State put conference back in spotlight
The world is small when you’re a kid.
By nature, you assume that everything you care about, everything you call your own, is the best, the greatest on the planet. I’ve got the best parents, best house, best toy cars, best Pop Tarts, best backyard, best Christmas mornings, best rusty basketball hoop, best football team and they, of course, play in the best conference.
Then you grow up.
The world gets bigger and you start to appreciate and understand context. Suddenly all those things of yours – especially the Pop Tarts – start to seem just like everything else. They lose that magical sheen of childhood, which is replaced by a colder, often disheartening, reality. Those toy cars were just toy cars, after all. It turns out that the football team you watched win several games a year was just another football team winning several games a year. The conference they play in doesn’t captivate the nation every week the way you were so certain it did. The team – and that conference – aren’t as revered and respected nationally as you thought (unless you grew up an SEC fan, of course).
I remember when that happened with me and the ACC. I remember getting a little older, a little smarter (not too smart, as you’ve ascertained through these columns), and finally understanding how so many others viewed the ACC’s place in the college football world.
That’s why I’m so excited for this weekend.
No. 10 Clemson heads to Tallahassee to take on No. 4 Florida State. It’s undoubtedly the best football game you’ll find played anywhere in the contiguous U.S. on Saturday (unless the ’99 Rams are holding a scrimmage I don’t know about). Both teams matter. Both teams have a chance to thrust themselves into the national discussion. The stakes are huge – the loser likely won’t be able to make a case for a national title bid (like a one-loss SEC team could) and probably won’t surpass the winner in the race to the ACC title game. The winner will be fast-tracked into the national title discussion and will remain there should they get by their SEC rival – South Carolina for Clemson; Florida for Florida State – in November.
No, I’m not a kid anymore. I know that the SEC has six consecutive national championships and is the early favorite to win a seventh. I know that the Pac-12 is stockpiling weaponry like it’s the Cold War. I know many of the nation’s best offenses live in the prairies and coal mines of the Big 12. But, I also know that this weekend, at least, the conference I grew up revering will be at the center of the national discussion and that one of its teams will have a chance to shine again.
Watching Clemson’s myriad of weapons – Tajh Boyd, Andre Ellington, DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins – try to blow a hole in one of the nation’s stoutest defenses (led by a Berlin-born monster at defensive end, Bjoern Werner, who leads the nation with 6.5 sacks for 57 yards lost) should be captivating.
I’m hoping for a good game, a well-played game, a game that makes people say, “Wow, that’s the ACC?”
I’m hoping that for three hours Saturday night, I’ll feel like a kid again.
Don’t get me wrong, despite my inborn ACC prejudices there are some other tasty conference matchups this weekend too. Kansas State’s trip to Norman this to square off against the Sooners is certain to be electric. The ACC may more respected as a basketball conference, but the Big 12 has been playing football like they’re on the hardwood in recent years (more on that later). Collin Klein brings with him the nation’s 13th-ranked scoring offense. On the opposite sideline, he’ll be looking at the formerly-exquisitely-mustached Landry Jones and the nation’s 11th-ranked scoring offense, which has gotten a boost from backup running back Damian Williams’s 13.68 yards-per-carry and 130 yards-per-game (sixth-best nationally). The dynamic offenses alone would be enough to send a few tingles down your spine on Saturday night, but guess who’s calling this one. Gus! Of course he is. Expect a full nervous-system overload. So far, Mr. Johnson has presided over UCLA’s upset against Nebraska – where the teams combined for 1,092 yards of offense – and Stanford’s landscape-altering triumph against the Trojans last weekend.
Notre Dame has a chance to turn the rest of Michigan against it this week. The Irish already infuriated the green half of the state with last week’s conquest against the Spartans. This week, they’re targeting the maize-and-blue (can we just call it yellow?) half when they play host to Denard Robinson and those other guys in the cool navy and yellow (See? Much better.) helmets. Thus far, Robinson has impressed (even when he was getting tossed around by Alabama) though the Wolverines’ defense hasn’t; Michigan is 77th in the nation in points-against. Last year, these two teams may have played the game of the year – three touchdowns and three lead changes occurred in the final 1:12. This one may not live up to those lofty standards, but will likely be closer than what we saw last weekend in East Lansing, thanks to the electric Mr. Robinson.
Finally, we have a chance to see how this year’s version of the Blur fares against a tough opponent. I have no doubt that Oregon will emerge a winner against Arizona, but wonder if they’ll show any rust after playing three games against teams from non-automatic qualifying conferences. Conversely, RichRod’s Wildcats already have passed a big test against Oklahoma State. The team from Tucson is ranked and is playing better than it has in years. This might be a contest early, as I can see the Blur needing a quarter to work itself into game speed against a better defense than Oregon has seen thus far. And don’t forget that the Wildcats enter the contest ranked 19th on the ground and seventh through the air in the nation. … The final score might surpass what you’d expect from a Big Ten hoops game.
The offensive explosion we’re sure to see in Eugene isn’t the only appealing Pac-12 game on the docket this weekend. Oregon State heads to the Rose Bowl to square off against Jim Mora’s Bruins. (I think we can drop the “Jr.” Though, if UCLA loses this weekend, it’s coming back.) Oregon State already may have burned its annual upset card with a 10-7 win against Wisconsin in Week 2. That’s the only game the Beavers have played this season, so it’s tough to tell whether that game revealed more about Wisconsin’s struggles or Oregon State’s potential. We’ll find out this weekend. UCLA is among the hottest teams in the country on offense, averaging more than 40-per-game through three contests – and has been playing with the type of fervor that hasn’t been seen in Pasadena for quite some time. I’m eager to see whether UCLA is legitimate or if the Pac-12 is even deeper than we imagined. How this game plays out will provide an answer.
It’s going to be wild in Monroe, La., on Friday night. The Warhawks welcome Baylor on the heels of a massive upset of Arkansas and a near-upset against Auburn. I spoke with ULM quarterback Kolton Browning, who leads the Warhawks in passing, rushing and moxy, for a feature you’ll see on Friday. He said the campus is buzzing after the two SEC showdowns – he and teammates are getting a lot more recognition and praise from peers and professors than they’re used to – and he expects a raucous crowd Friday night. Dare I say the 30,400-seat Malone Stadium will be an intimidating environment for Baylor on Friday night? A Warhawk win would solidify one of the best runs by a relative unknown in recent memory.
I just mentioned that they like to run the five-man weave (that’s a basketball drill for those of you who probably shouldn’t be reading this) in the Big 12, but you demanded stats to back up that claim. Ask, and you shall receive: It’s a five-man weave of a different sort – of the six highest-rated quarterbacks this season, five hail from the Big 12. TCU’s Casey Pachall leads the way with a rating (242.4) that’s fast-approaching the credit score of a college girl who has signed up for one too many department store credit cards (you don’t need another pair of Ugg boots, darlin’; they’re not going to make up for the 45 you posted on last week’s statistics test). Geno Smith of West Virginia ranks second. Texas’s David Ash is fourth. J.W. Walsh of Oklahoma State and Seth Doege from Texas Tech rank fifth and sixth. The lone impostor? Alabama’s AJ McCarron is third in the nation with a 196.6 rating, which floored me. I assumed Bama hadn’t attempted a pass this season.
The best running back you’re not paying attention to? Cody Getz of Air Force is fourth in the nation with 174 yards-per-game on a healthy 8.1 yards-per-carry and has already notched six touchdowns (three of those came at Michigan, mind you). If you hadn’t heard of Getz before, don’t worry; he only had 25 carries last year. This week Getz gets to test a UNLV defense that yielded 82 points through its first three contests (all losses). Michigan was likely Air Force’s toughest opponent this year. Given the relatively easy schedule and Getz’s role spearheading Air Force’s triple-option attack, he could be an unlikely contender for the rushing title this season.
The Ol’ Ball Coach has long kept his quarterbacks on a short leash -- I’ve seen it; it’s only about 11 inches long. Spurrier named Connor Shaw the starter when South Carolina plays host to the-SEC-is-even-tougher-than-we-thought-it-was Missouri on Saturday. Shaw has missed time after getting knocked around by Vanderbilt and re-injuring his shoulder in the first half against UAB last week. If Shaw plays tentatively because of the injury, Spurrier may turn to sophomore backup Dylan Thompson, who has performed admirably (507 yards, 5 TD, 0 INT) in Shaw’s stead. But those numbers have come against UAB and East Carolina, and while Missouri certainly doesn’t terrify on defense, the Tigers will play several steps faster than anything Thompson has seen before. If the Ol’ Ball Coach tosses his visor and pulls his quarterback, this one could be closer than anticipated for the nation’s No. 7 team.