A year ago, the Atlantic Coast Conference had made a major breakthrough from college football also-ran to one of the better leagues in the country. Virginia spent a few weeks ranked No. 1. Georgia Tech finished the season unbeaten, and shared the national championship with Colorado. Five teams went to bowls.
But nearly two months into the 1991 season, the ACC seemingly has taken a step or two back. It has lost as many non-conference regular-season games as it did last year (seven). Its two most significant national showdowns ended in one-sided defeats for Georgia Tech (a 34-22 loss to Penn State) and Clemson (a 27-12 loss to Georgia).
Perhaps the biggest indication of the ACC's fall is in the national rankings. A year after two teams finished in the top 10, its lone unbeaten team, North Carolina State, is No. 11 this week. Clemson, which was tied at home by Virginia last week, is the only other team in the top 25. Georgia Tech, a disappointing 3-3,
is nowhere to be found. Virginia is 3-2-1.
"What we're experiencing is the norm in college football -- ups and downs," ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan said yesterday. "Our people have to be ready to accept the downs as well as the ups. We're in the middle of the season. Maybe, at the end, people will say last season was a one-year flash, but I don't believe it."
Neither do the ACC coaches, who are acutely aware of the league's image problem nationally. Some say that their own teams might not be as strong as they were a year ago, but as a group, they say they don't think the quality of play in the conference has deteriorated greatly.
"I think the Virginia game showed the strength and parity of our conference," said Clemson coach Ken Hatfield.
Or did it merely show that the Tigers, who came into the season given a legitimate chance to win a national championship, are not as good as everyone thought? While the ACC has had its share of league games that went down to the final seconds, its lack ofimportant victories or even big games outside the conference has brought a burgeoning reputation to a dead stop.
Though the league's defenses are among the best in the country -- four are ranked in the top 22 -- its offenses are floundering. No ACC team is among the top 30 in offense nationally. Aside from Georgia Tech's Shawn Jones, who has been erratic, few of the league's quarterbacks have made much of an impact.
Part of the problem also might be some unambitious non-conference scheduling. With the exception of Maryland, which already has played two nationally ranked teams (Pittsburgh, Syracuse) and will play one more (Penn State), many ACC teams fill their schedules with weak Division I-A teams and some, such as N.C. State and Wake Forest, I-AAs. The dismal Demon Deacons, who are host to Maryland on Saturday, even have lost to Division I-AA Appalachian State.
Asked yesterday whether he thought the pollsters were skeptical of his team, and therefore of the league as a whole, N.C. State coach Dick Sheridan said: "We all know they are. All ratings are are a stacking up of won-lost records. But we've got a lot of proving to do."
N.C. State won't prove anything this week, when it plays Division I-AA Marshall. The biggest test for the Wolfpack will come Oct. 26, when it travels to Death Valley to play Clemson. A victory there could put N.C. State in line for an unbeaten season, but will an unbeaten season put the Wolfpack in line for a national championship?
Georgia Tech coach Bobby Ross said he sees similarities between N.C. State's slow rise up the polls this year and the Yellow Jackets' climb last season. Georgia Tech wasn't even in the top 10 when it beat then-top-ranked Virginia in early November. Ross also sees some other similarities.
"Obviously, some of the things that went our way last year are going their way this year," said Ross. "They had a couple of people banged up after our game two weeks ago, and then they had a week off -- perfect timing."
Perhaps the most common problem to waylay a few ACC teams thisyear has been injuries to key players. Maryland, which had made steady progress last year to finish 6-5-1, has lost several starters, most recently tailback Mark Mason with a broken leg. Duke, which has struggled since head coach Steve Spurrier left two years ago for Florida, lost tailback Randy Cuthbert in its second game.
Georgia Tech lost All-America defensive back Ken Swilling in the season opener against Penn State. North Carolina has played much of the season without linebacker Dwight Hollier, who led the ACC in tackles the past two years.
Others were hurt by graduation and suspension. The departure of quarterback Shawn Moore and wide receiver Herman Moore has decimated Virginia's offense. The loss of kicker Chris Gardocki and cornerback Dexter Davis has left Clemson vulnerable in two phases of the game. Georgia Tech suspended starting tailback William Bell before the season.