Scoring is up and defense is down in the ACC this season.
That much is clear through 15 conference games. The average combined total in ACC play is 64 points, a record pace which is almost two touchdowns more per game than the 2011 season and almost 24 points per game more than when the league expanded in 2004.
Last Saturday, in four ACC games three defenses gave up at least 40 points, a fourth — Miami — gave up 41 points to Notre Dame, which will be a partial ACC member by 2014.
And it’s not just one bad defense to blame: nine ACC teams have allowed at least 40 points in a conference game this season. Even Virginia Tech, which has ranked among the country’s top 10 scoring defenses seven times in the past eight years, is bleeding points.
It will probably get worse before it gets better, N.C. State defensive coordinator Mike Archer said.
"That’s college football now, it has become a fastbreak, spread ’em out, wild west shoot ’em out show," said Archer, who has been coaching defenses on the college or pro level for 37 years. "People are scoring 40 points like it’s nothing. We, as defensive coaches, have to come up with a way to slow it down."
Last Saturday, N.C. State’s defense held then-No. 3 Florida State, which had averaged 50.5 points in ACC play, to 16 points. But the game before, Miami gouged the Wolfpack for 44 points.
"The Miami game was not a lot of fun," Archer said. "Last week, was a lot more fun, but it is what it is."
Just six years ago, the ACC had six teams in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense and eight teams that allowed fewer than 20 points per game (in all games).
Only two ACC teams, Florida State and North Carolina, are yielding fewer than 20 points per game this season, and the Seminoles are the only ACC team in the top 25.
Just six years ago, the average total score in an ACC game was 39.9 points. In six seasons, the average has jumped to 64, almost a touchdown more per game than the previous record of 59.2 set in 2001. What happened to the defenses in the ACC?
Tackling is the biggest culprit, Archer said. Teams don’t hit as much in practice, which is good for the overall health of the players, but not for fundamentals.
Here are three more reasons the ACC has turned into an eastern version of the Big 12:
• The spread of the spread offense: Ten years ago, the ACC was a haven for former NFL coaches, who eschewed the spread offense for more conventional offenses. The complexion of the league’s coaches, and offenses, has changed with the times.
Now, just about every ACC team employs elements of a spread offense, with Clemson and North Carolina in the most modern versions, with an emphasis on high tempo.
On average, offenses are getting about 15 more snaps per game than they did 10 years ago.
The more plays, the more points is a philosophy first-year UNC coach Larry Fedora brought with him from Southern Miss, via Oklahoma State.
The Tar Heels put 48 points on Virginia Tech last Saturday, the most the Hokies have given up in an ACC game. To put that defensive performance in perspective, Virginia Tech gave up 86 points in eight ACC games in 2005.
• Better quarterbacks: This was supposed to be the Year of the Quarterback in the ACC, with the return of 10 of the league’s 12 starters from 2011, and for the most part, the veteran quarterbacks have not disappointed.
Florida State’s E.J. Manuel, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and UNC’s Bryn Renner ranked among the top 25 passers in the country. Georgia Tech’s Tevin Washington leads the country in rushing touchdowns.
N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien said quarterback play is the biggest reason for the league’s scoring improvement. He pointed to when he was the coach at Boston College, when the Eagles joined the ACC in 2005, and there was a lull in quarterbacks from the last season of Philip Rivers and Matt Schaub in 2003 to Matt Ryan’s senior season at BC in ’07.
"Everybody complained about the lack of quarterbacks in the conference and now you look and everybody has a quarterback," O’Brien said.
Even the unheralded quarterbacks have made a name for themselves. Miami’s Stephen Morris set an ACC record with 566 passing yards in the Canes’ 44-37 win over N.C. State.
Duke backup Anthony Boone threw for four touchdowns in his first college start, a 42-17 win over Virginia last Saturday.
• Inexperience on defense: Virginia and Miami have been the two biggest culprits on defense thus far this season.
Virginia ranks 100th in the country, giving up 34.0 points a game, and Miami is 101st with 34.6 points per game. The difference being, Virginia’s 0-2 in ACC play, with lopsided losses to Duke and Georgia Tech, while Miami is 3-0 heading into Saturday’s game against UNC.
But Virginia and Miami have one thing in common: inexperience. The Cavaliers have a seven new starters on defense and five sophomores.
The Hurricanes have seven new starters, and eight of their 11 starters are freshmen or sophomores.
"The guys that we’re playing with right now are fighting every day, they’re learning but they’re learning under fire," Miami coach Al Golden said earlier this week. "I think you go to Parris Island before you go to war. They’re learning on the battlefield."