Changing of guard in ACC football

Terps, Virginia meet in wide-open race

October 05, 2001|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

The initial indication came in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Sept. 22. The confirmation came a week later in Atlanta, shaking up the order of things in Atlantic Coast Conference football.

Now, Maryland and Virginia head into their game tomorrow with a chance to pick up the pieces in a league race that is more wide-open than it has been in years.

ACC powerhouse Florida State fell to North Carolina in a 41-9 rout on the road. That was followed by the home loss of Georgia Tech - a preseason top 10 team - to Clemson in a 47-44 shootout.

The two upsets left Maryland (4-0, 2-0) and Virginia (3-1, 2-0) to fight it out for sole possession of first place in the ACC. At this point, only Wake Forest and Duke find themselves out of contention.

"Everyone has a shot right now," said Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, who has spent more than half of his 33 coaching years in the league. "Once Florida State loses, you have a shot - their degree of error is cut down. They can't have another setback."

Florida State has gone 72-3 in the ACC since joining the league in 1992, though it has twice had to share the league title - tying with Virginia in 1995 and with Georgia Tech in 1998.

The loss of 14 starters - including Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke and Lombardi Trophy winner Jamal Reynolds - made Florida State's vulnerability a choice topic before the season.

But instead of a jumbled ACC, the projection was for Georgia Tech to follow its strong finish in 2000 (seven-game win streak to close the regular season) with a league title in 2001.

That crumbled when Clemson quarterback Woody Dantzler rolled up 418 yards of total offense to beat the Yellow Jackets.

"Up until [Saturday], Tech was the team you'd think, if Florida State got knocked out, Tech is the team," said Bobby Bowden, whose team might have caught a break when its Sept. 15 game against Tech was postponed because of the terrorist attacks. "At least the team that beat us has lost, so if we can win the rest of our games in the conference, the worst we can do is tie ... Maryland. If they win all of theirs, they've got it."

There is more balance in the ACC this year, not only at the top, but also toward the bottom. Only Duke seems to be a weak sister.

Georgia Tech coach George O'Leary said some of the balance comes from the newer coaches in the league. Including Friedgen, the ACC has four first-year coaches.

"You see a lot of good coaching going on," O'Leary said. "A lot of the adjustments are right. ... You have to come ready to play."

Lurking in the shadows is North Carolina, which opened the season with three straight poundings suffered against Maryland and Top 5 teams Oklahoma and Texas, making new coach Jim Bunting look a little foolish for his scheduling.

But after putting it together against Florida State in their home opener, the Tar Heels followed with a tough win at N.C. State. Their schedule the rest of the way is relatively manageable, though road games at Clemson and Georgia Tech will be difficult.

Meanwhile at the top, you have the Terps and Cavaliers, both picked toward the bottom before the season began. When Friedgen saw the media poll at a function in South Carolina, he shook his head and said that his team didn't need to see the projection of his team in seventh place.

In Charlottesville, first-year head coach Al Groh plays down the importance of this game for his team, which has won its last three, including a 26-24 squeaker at Clemson.

"For me, it's all about one game," said Groh, who coached the NFL's New York Jets last season. "I don't see it as setting a tone for the month, or even in the conference. All that other stuff just makes it fun for the fans to speculate."

Friedgen, who would like to see the first sellout at Byrd Stadium since 1995, is not bashful about playing up this game's importance.

It's the last of a stretch of four home games in five appearances. The Terps haven't beaten Virginia since 1991. There's the ACC lead to consider and the beginning of the meat of the schedule, with trips to Georgia Tech and Florida State later this month.

"I'm aware of that," Friedgen said. "This is a big game for all of those reasons."

NOTES: Steve Suter, a receiver who is sitting out this game, injured his finger in a practice, not in a game as previously reported. ... The ACC has another bowl tie-in this season with the Tangerine Bowl, which will be played in Orlando on Dec. 20.

Next for Terps

Opponent: Virginia (3-1)

Site: Byrd Stadium, College Park

When: Tomorrow, noon

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line: Maryland by 7 1/2

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