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ACC likely to soon see standings separation

By Tim Reynolds
AP Sports Writer / October 6, 2011

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CORAL GABLES, Fla.—Just about every preseason prediction of how the Atlantic Coast Conference would shake out this fall suggested the same thing, that Virginia Tech and Florida State would win their respective six-team divisions with ease.

Both are currently in fourth place.

Translation: Maybe a slew of teams really are legitimate candidates to win the ACC.

The true picture of where things stand in the conference should start coming into much clearer focus this weekend, when the ACC slate is highlighted by Florida State visiting upstart Wake Forest in an Atlantic Division matchup and Miami heading to Virginia Tech for what seems much like an elimination game in the Coastal Division. More than half of the 12 ACC clubs still control their own destinies in the league race, though that won't remain the case much longer.

"Now we're in the tournament," Miami coach Al Golden said. "It's ACC tournament time."

Of course, technically that isn't the case, but Golden's point is tough to argue with.

And just about anyone in the ACC could have the same sentiment.

One loss won't truly oust anyone from the conference chase at this point on the calendar -- unlike the one-and-done aspect of the ACC basketball tournament, for example -- but even with more than half the season remaining, teams would be hard-pressed to fall too far behind any of the leaders in their respective divisions.

Remember, Virginia Tech and Florida State were picked as division winners on more than 90 percent of the ballots cast in the ACC's preseason poll. For the record, Clemson was the pick on only 6 percent of ballots in the Atlantic race, while Georgia Tech got 1 percent -- one vote out of 71, to be exact -- in the Coastal prognostication.

"We just go and play the ones that we've got and take them one at a time," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said last week. "At the end of the year, somebody's going to be in Charlotte (for the ACC title game). Right now we're in the driver's seat, and we've just got to continue to stay focused on our business. Hopefully, when it's all said and done, we'll be the ones representing this division. But it's way to early to be worried about that. We've got a lot of work to do the rest of the way."

Georgia Tech can move to 3-0 in the ACC if it wins at home over Maryland. So would Wake Forest, if it finds a way to beat Florida State for the fourth time in six years. And No. 8 Clemson would be 3-0 in the conference if it tops struggling Boston College.

The way the Eagles see it, they would be right back in the "tournament" if they spring an upset, though the odds are certainly stacked against Boston College. Montel Harris, the school's all-time rushing leader, will not play because of a knee injury that he aggravated against Wake Forest last weekend.

"It's always an opportunity to get a win," Boston College coach Frank Spaziani said. "You go down there, they're the eighth-ranked team and on a roll. It's about how you approach it. It's a tremendous challenge. The higher the reward, the more opportunity there is. Playing a ranked team in their own stadium is a tremendous opportunity to get."

There was a time when Miami-Virginia Tech decided championships.

This week, that rivalry game will only decide which team probably won't have a shot of winning one this season, both teams looking to avoid starting 0-2 in the ACC.

"We understand what's at stake," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "This is a critical ballgame."

With Georgia Tech off to its flying start, either the Hurricanes or Hokies would need a ton of help just to remain in the division race if they lose this weekend. Even in an age of relative parity in the conference, a 0-2 start to ACC play might be too daunting for either Virginia Tech or Miami -- or anyone else, really -- to overcome, a fact not lost on the players involved.

"Every game from this point on is important," said Virginia Tech cornerback Jayron Hosley, whose team lost 23-3 at home to Clemson last weekend. "We definitely want to get to Charlotte. ... We're probably out of the national (championship) picture, but we've still got our goals to go to Charlotte and winning the ACC, and that's what we're working towards now."

So is everyone else in the ACC.

Just about every team shrugged off those preseason polls when they were released back in late July at the league's annual kickoff event at a golf resort in North Carolina, and apparently they all had good reason. In turn, the surprise teams in the ACC right now, like Wake Forest, aren't getting too carried away by fast starts, either.

"There isn't a team left that doesn't have good talent," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. "Some of the teams that didn't play great last year are playing pretty good right now. And so it's just, it's going to be nine ... eight now, but eight straight shots at good football teams. You've got to play up every week. Really, you have one down week, you get embarrassed. If you play up, you hope to be in the game in the fourth quarter. It's not going to be easy. It's going to be a tough, tough road for all of us."

In other words, welcome to tournament time.

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AP Sports Writers Hank Kurz and Joedy McCreary contributed to this report.

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Follow Tim Reynolds on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ByTimReynolds