Columns & Blogs

Jacobs: Another down year for ACC football

As usual, the football clichés have come home to roost even as the turkeys come home to roast. Players are exhorted to leave it all on the field, where presumably the grounds crew will clean up. Team members declare their backs are against the wall, bravely performing without resort to blindfolds or last cigarettes. But it’s difficult to recall a platitude that quite fit the recent instance when a single spoken word, misheard at that, arguably helped turn fortunes in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

With only Florida State cracking the top 16 in the polls all year, this isn’t a vintage ACC football season, to put it kindly. Or maybe, unfortunately, it is, at least on the field. Certainly, what occurred within an 80-second span in mid-November helped propel Duke and Virginia Tech in more customary directions, good news for the Hokies and unwelcome déjà vu for the Blue Devils.

Buzzards sailed above Wallace Wade Stadium – no kidding – as Frank Beamer’s squad, clinging to a 17-16 lead, struggled to maintain possession in the final four minutes of a hard-fought game. While the birds aloft were real, their figurative counterparts among the Hokie faithful also circled Beamer, the dean of ACC coaches, with 28 years at Blacksburg and more victories than any active FBS coach (229).

Virginia Tech joined the ACC in 2004 and immediately muscled to a first-place finish, dazzling fans with “Beamer Ball” predicated on coordinator Bud Foster’s tough defense and aggressive special teams. From 2005, when the conference broke into divisions, through 2011, the Hokies were either in first or second place every year. They won three ACC titles between 2007 and 2010.

But coming into the Duke game, Virginia Tech was in a protracted, three-year slump. Beamer, the man who’d placed his program consistently on the national map, appeared to be losing his grip.

That impression was reinforced when, on fourth down and 16 near midfield against division-leading Duke, the Hokies inexplicably faked a punt and saw a weak pass attempt fail to secure the first down. After the game, Beamer was asked his reaction on the sidelines. “I said the same thing that you did – what the hell are they doing?” he admitted.

On a previous possession the Blue Devils nearly blocked a Virginia Tech punt. Adjustments were discussed before the punting unit retook the field but, reported Beamer, “somehow the code word for our fake got involved there.” So excellent field position was yielded to Duke, which owes its recent renaissance under David Cutcliffe in part to outplaying opponents in the fourth quarter.

With a second consecutive division title within reach, the Devils’ increasingly erratic and error-prone offense sputtered. The threat died when Ross Martin, one of the nation’s most accurate field goal kickers, missed a potential game-winner from 40 yards out with 2:26 left.

Transported in an instant to the program’s self-destructive past, longtime observers of Duke football suspected a time warp. That sense deepened days later when a similar spate of mistakes and an overmatched defense led to a blowout by North Carolina. UNC’s win gave the Coastal crown to Georgia Tech, picked fifth in preseason.

Florida State unchallenged

The Tar Heels were expected to contend immediately in the same division, but for the second straight year fell on their faces coming out of the gate. However, Duke proved an elixir for a defense that ranked last in the ACC in suppressing opponents’ scoring, passing, and rushing. Meanwhile, Carolina quarterback Marquis Williams continued his emergence as one of the ACC’s brightest offensive stars, along with running backs James Connor of Pitt and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, and Clemson’s twice injured quarterback, freshman Deshaun Watson.

The win at Durham allowed UNC to join at least eight other conference clubs, rebuilding N.C. State among them, in the queue for berths in one of the ridiculously profligate 39 FBS bowls. (Beamer’s detractors gained fresh fuel a week after the Duke visit when, poised to clinch a 22nd-straight bowl appearance, the Hokies instead fell in double-overtime at Wake Forest, previously winless in the league.)

Florida State, as usual, leads the ACC’s postseason parade. Barring a final-game loss to Florida, FSU is poised to command one of four spots in the inaugural national college playoff. The new arrangement may be fairer than the BCS it replaced, but has unfortunately reduced the entertaining level of hysteria that used to usher in the bowl season.

For better or worse, Florida State is virtually unchallenged as the ACC’s competitive standard bearer. This is the 14th time in 23 seasons as a league member FSU finished no worse than 7-1 in ACC competition, the ninth time it went without a loss. Florida State is undefeated overall for the second straight season behind quarterback Jameis Winston, the defending Heisman Trophy winner, and is on an ACC-record 27-game winning streak.

As good as this sounds, the defending national champs and Winston, a charismatic performer, don’t bring particular credit to the ACC.

Winston leads the league in passing yards and completion percentage, and must be credited for rallying his team from repeated deficits, several times on the road. Yet, thanks to besmirching his own reputation off the field, and transparent machinations to delay his possible punishment for an alleged sexual assault until after the season, Winston is barely an afterthought for Heisman consideration. In sample balloting conducted by USA Today, Winston regularly receives a single third-place vote.

Very well-paid coach

Compounding that lack of regard, the FSU squad isn’t as good as last year’s edition, which steamrolled opponents by an average margin of 42.3 points until edging Auburn in the national championship game. Florida State’s perceived prowess also is doubtless compromised by competing in the middling ACC. No wonder followers of the rankings shared weekly by the playoff selection committee can almost hear its members rooting for someone to knock off FSU.

Nor has fifth-year Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher been winning friends or positively influencing people as he tries for his second title, which would match the career total amassed in 34 seasons by Bobby Bowden, his celebrated predecessor. Fisher has often appeared tone deaf as he defends Winston’s comportment. There’s also a general sense, meticulously documented by the New York Times, that FSU players have unusually free rein in the sympathetic streets of Tallahassee.

Not that coaches with questionable reputations need worry about finding lucrative employment in the college ranks.

Consider Louisville, the newly added ACC school paying coach Bobby Petrino $3 million annually – 50 percent more than each of the Triangle trio of Cutcliffe, UNC’s Larry Fedora, and N.C. State’s Dave Doeren. The Cardinals also paid Western Kentucky $1.2 million to acquire Petrino’s services. That’s despite his walking out on contracts several times, including at Louisville, and getting fired at Arkansas in 2012 for hiring his mistress, then lying to his boss about that and her presence when he had a motorcycle accident.

Throw in the lingering odor of North Carolina’s recently detailed academic improprieties, and regardless of bowl invitations or results, or even a possible seventh national championship by one of its members, this has not been an ACC football season to be savored.