JUST WHAT in thename of the SEC is going on here? Boosted by an influx of good coaches and bythe emergence of several game-breaking talents, suddenly the ACC is completelyup for grabs. The conference's preseason Top 25 teams, Clemson, Virginia Techand Wake Forest, have all stumbled, but its bottom-feeders are mounting aresurgence. "I don't know if there's a stronger league in the country topto bottom," says Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, whose Terps (4--1 overall,1--0 in the ACC) won their league opener last Saturday in Death Valley,upsetting 20th-ranked Clemson 20--17. Renowned computer stat-hound Jeff Sagarinwon't go as far as Friedgen, but he does rank the ACC as the third-toughestconference in the land.
One reason forthat is the league's 26--10 record in nonconference play. Florida Stateillustrates the ACC's strength this season. The Seminoles (3--1, 0--1) losttheir league opener at home to Wake Forest but then rolled over undefeatedColorado 39--21 in Jacksonville last weekend. Even lowly North Carolina State(2--3, 0--1) has beaten a ranked team (then No. 15 East Carolina, 30--24 inovertime on Sept. 20). "[The ACC] is gaining ground on everybody," saysDavid Cutcliffe, the first-year coach at Duke.
The formerpersonal tutor to Peyton Manning as Tennessee's offensive coordinator and toEli Manning as Ole Miss coach, Cutcliffe has turned junior quarterback ThaddeusLewis into the ACC's second-leading passer and given his team a huge boost inthe process. With Saturday's 31--3 evisceration of Virginia, the Blue Devils(3--1, 1--0) have already won as many times this fall as they had in theirprevious 37 games.
North Carolina,under second-year coach Butch Davis, is also surprising people. The Tar Heels(3--1, 1--1) put the wood to favored Rutgers 44--12 on national TV on Sept. 11,then nearly beat Virginia Tech the following weekend, losing 20--17. They cameback strong on Saturday by rallying to upset Miami 28--24. The Heels' breakoutstar is 6'1", 195-pound senior wideout Brandon Tate. An electrifying kickreturner, Tate is second in the country in all-purpose yards and has scoredfive touchdowns (three receiving, one rushing, one returning).
But theconference's most kinetic performer is Maryland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. A6'3", 203-pound junior with 4.2 speed, he sparked the upset of Clemsonwhen, with his team trailing 17--6 in the third quarter, he scooted 76 yards ona reverse to set up a touchdown.
Of course thedownside to this newfound balance is that teams can't afford a letdown. WakeForest found that out on Saturday when the then highest-ranked ACC team (at No.16) suffered a 24--17 home-field loss to Navy. About the only bright spot forthe Demon Deacons (3--1, 1--0) was punter-placekicker Sam Swank, who leadsDivision I-A with 13 field goal attempts and is tied for first with 10 makes;he pinned the Midshipmen inside their own five-yard line on three of his fourpunts. (When the punter is your team's best player, that doesn't bode well foryour championship aspirations.)
Standing outsidethe locker room following the game, Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe was less thanthrilled with the notion of a resurgent ACC. "I just told our kids that wedon't have any holes in our schedule anymore," he said. "These days,everybody's good enough."
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JOEL AUERBACH/US PRESSWIRE (TATE)
BREAK OUT The Tar Heels' Tate (87) and the Blue Devils' Lewis (bottom) have fueled a string of upsets.
GERRY BROOME/AP (LEWIS)