The Power Five strikes back
Posted September 5
The Atlantic Coast Conference posted the best record against all Power Five conferences last season.
Clemson even knocked off perennial SEC heavyweight Alabama to win the coveted national championship. The league and its coaches were not exactly quiet about this achievement. Who can blame them? But the chest thumping of July has now given way to real on the field thumping here in September.
What, you didn’t see the large bullseye on every ACC jersey this weekend? It looked to me like “the other four” in college football’s Power Five played with extra zip against the conference suddenly getting so much media hype. And no league came into Labor Day weekend with more to play for than the proud SEC. Teams in the Southeastern’s two divisions went just 4-9 against the upstart ACC in 2016. But in this year of the solar eclipse, clearly the SEC has designs on rearranging the heavens in 2017, bringing college football’s stars and planets back into their more customary alignment. Which is to say revolving around the SEC.
So what happened? Both NC State and North Carolina lost winnable games against highly charged opponents. And Florida State lost not only a game, but also lost its starting quarterback against an angry bunch from Alabama. And then Georgia Tech failed to close out a game it dominated against Tennessee.
State still looking for breakthrough Power Five win
NC State was a solid favorite over South Carolina in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium. But the emotion-fueled Gamecocks, spurred on by a spirited crowd in the Queen City, shocked the Wolfpack with big plays on offense and in the kicking game. SC overpowered State’s offensive line at times to force four sacks and two critical turnovers. The Pack’s offense set a couple of records in the passing game, but it didn’t get enough punch from its run game. Ryan Finley and company outgained South Carolina 504 to 246. The Pack completely dominated the fourth quarter. But State, after falling behind 35-21, scored only one second-half touchdown. Three (count ‘em three) Wolfpack drives died in South Carolina territory, leaving State a touchdown short in a big game. Again. SEC 1, ACC 0
Noles lose a big game and something more
Powerful Alabama weathered an early passing flurry by Deondre Francois and the big receivers of Florida State. But in the second half, the Crimson Tide pitched a tent on the FSU side of the field and stayed there. In fact, Bama turned Seminole territory into something of an encampment. The Tide blocked a field goal, blocked a punt, forced a fumble on a kickoff and forced Francois into two critical interceptions. Alabama then knocked Francois out of the game, as a defender landed awkwardly on the back of the quarterback’s left leg on the Tide’s third and final sack of the night. Francois had to be helped off the field. He needed crutches to get to the cart which wheeled him away. We now know Francois will need knee surgery and will miss the rest of the season. Credit goes to the Florida State defense, which held Bama to just 14 points on 5 drives that started in FSU territory. That defensive effort prevented a rout. Still, it was Alabama 24 FSU 7. SEC 2, ACC 0
Tar Heels: It’s the defense again
Perspective here. Three years ago North Carolina’s defense was so bad the Tar Heels seemed to get gashed on every play. Saturday wasn’t like that. Still, unheralded Cal, after a lengthy trip across the country, playing what amounted to a 9:20 a.m. start for the West Coast team, outscored and outgained Larry Fedora’s offensive-minded Tar Heels. The Bears piled up 469 yards vs. the supposedly improved UNC defense, many of those yards coming on chunk plays and third down plays. The Tar Heels committed six penalties, almost all of which either stopped drives or extended Cal drives.
The most egregious sin, of course, was the targeting/roughing the passer call on UNC defensive tackle Jalen Dalton deep in Cal territory late in the first half that gave life to a Bears offense down 10 points. Cal should have had to punt. Instead, Ross Bowers threw a 67-yard touchdown pass on the next play. The Tar Heels never really seemed to find solid footing again. Score one for the Pac 12.
Cardinals barely survive
The Big Ten nearly took the measure of the ACC as well. Lightly regarded Purdue gave 16th ranked Louisville fits. Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson ran for 107 yards and passed for 378 more. He put the Cardinals in the end zone when they trailed 28-25 in the fourth quarter. But three Louisville turnovers and 16 penalties gave Purdue chances. The Boilermakers converted four of those chances, getting timely touchdown passes from two different quarterbacks, to take that aforementioned fourth-quarter lead. Louisville lost star defensive back Jaire Alexander to injury when he tried to return a blocked field goal. Yet the Cardinals picked up a critical interception by Chuckie Williams late in the game – the kind of pickoff the U of L secondary has become known for these past few years. That, and Lamar Jackson, secured the victory 35-28.
Virginia Tech keeps the trophy
Through the years, Virginia Tech and West Virginia have maintained a spirited rivalry. The series took a 12-year hiatus when VT left the Big East to join the ACC. Sunday night the battle for the Black Diamond Trophy resumed before a raucous crowd at sold out FedExField. The trophy has been housed in Blacksburg for the last 12 years (Tech won the final game played as Big East foes). Last time I looked late Sunday night, former VT coach Frank Beamer had has arms around the trophy and wasn’t letting go. The Hokies overcame 592 yards of West Virginia offense and two missed field goals by the usually reliable Joey Slye to defeat the Mountaineers 31-24. Young Virginia Tech quarterback Josh Jackson staked an early claim to ACC Rookie of the Year honors, rushing for more than 100 yards and passing for 235. Seven of his completed throws went to Cam Phillips, the flashy receiver who was voted “best dressed” by media at the ACC Kickoff in July. Phillips showed there is far more to his game than a snazzy hat and vest, making several acrobatic catches and runs. So, if you’re keeping the score, the ACC is now one up on the Big 12, as well as the Big Ten.
Georgia Tech vs Tennessee: Wash, rinse, repeat
Georgia Tech dominated Tennessee even more than NC State dominated South Carolina. The Yellowjackets built a 21-7 lead midway through the third quarter, gaining some 350 yards to just over 100 for the Vols. Unlike State, Tech actually led the entire game – at they least never trailed in regulation. But here we go again! Tennessee made a couple of big plays in the passing game. Georgia Tech missed a field goal. Georgia Tech committed a second costly turnover – the first gave Tennessee a short field for its first touchdown drive; the second killed Tech’s attempt to put the game out of reach on the 5-yard line with a 28-21 lead and 4 ½ minutes left. And then, after the Vols tied the game 28-28, GT botched another field goal that would have won the game in regulation. Ultimately UT prevailed in 2OTs 42-41. Georgia Tech put up staggering numbers – rushing for 535 yards and outgaining Tennessee 655 to 369. Brilliant rookie quarterback TaQuon Marshall – yes don’t give the Rookie of the Year award to Josh Jackson just yet – ran 44 times for 249 yards and 5 touchdowns, all records for a Georgia Tech quarterback. And yet, Georgia Tech somehow lost the stat the matters most, the final score. SEC 3, ACC 0.
UNC, State losses hurt ACC's record
In the final analysis, the ACC’s huge Labor Day weekend did not end quite as badly as it began. Certainly Florida State played No. 1 Alabama evenly for 2 ½ quarters before getting washed away by the Tide’s veritable storm surge in two of the three phases of the game. However, the loss of Deondre Francois, one of the two leading preseason candidates for ACC Player of the Year, has the potential to create something of a sea change in this Florida State campaign. Jimbo Fisher must now turn to an untested helmsman to navigate some difficult September waters, with games against arch-rival Miami and NC State looming.
NC State, if it can correct the mistakes of the South Carolina loss, will certainly have a better chance in Tallahassee without Francois. But win or lose on Sept. 23, the Wolfpack should remember Sept. 2 in Charlotte as a huge missed opportunity. Yes, North Carolina lost to an inferior Gamecock team two years ago then ran off 11 straight regular season wins. But because of that loss to South Carolina, the Tar Heels found it difficult to put themselves into the conversation for playoff consideration. So should NC State reach the ACC Championship game at 11-1, the Wolfpack will likely face the same playoff issues that confronted the Tar Heels. Also, NC State has now played two opening games against Power Five competition in the last six years and lost both times.
And here in 2017 for North Carolina, that great 2015 season seems like a very long time ago. Yes, this was going to be a rebuilding year on offense, but the defense was supposed to be good enough to point the way to six or seven wins. Unless the Tar Heels can find a way to stop giving up big plays, this could be a very long season, even though the offense showed some promise against the Cal Bears.
In sum, State and Carolina, both substantial favorites, suffered the ACC’s two most surprising losses against the Power Five. Had they won as expected, the tone of this column would be markedly different.
Week 2 looms large
This week, Duke, which played well in what has become an annual drubbing of NC Central, gets into Power Five play against Northwestern, which has frustrated the Blue Devils time and time again. Wake Forest, which crushed Presbyterian, visits Boston College, where the Eagles seem to have a little more zip on offense (and a field goal kicker finally). UNC also begins conference play against Lamar Jackson and Louisville. This will mark the first time a reigning Heisman Trophy winner has come to Kenan Stadium. Michael Jordan will also be in the house. That’s a lot of star power. Also coming up: Pitt visits Penn State, while Indiana comes to Charlottesville to take on Virginia.
Most of all, ACC Champion Clemson is pitted against SEC rival Auburn. And the psyche of the league desperately needs a win at Death Valley. The first week doesn’t ruin the season of any one conference or any of its teams. But if the Atlantic and Coastal schools can’t show improvement from Week 1 to Week 2, this could be a season of lowered expectations in ACC Country.