Florida State really is damn good, Virginia Tech will probably rebound, and ... are we sure we have to name a Coastal Division champion? We can't just have a Florida State-Clemson rematch in the ACC title game instead?
The ACC hasn't been a prevalent topic in this year's Morning Tailgates, but with one conference title game participant likely clinching a bid this weekend, let's check in.
How good is Florida State?
When Florida State lost to N.C. State, 17-16, on October 6, the universal reaction was, basically, "Of course." Florida State always falls apart on the road at some point, right? And this proves the Seminoles are once again clownfrauds, right? I guess, but not really.
We have, over the last decade or so, affixed a permanent "UNDERACHIEVERS" tag onto the Florida State Seminoles, and we are not necessarily wrong for doing so. But we have to skip over a few years for it to be accurate. In eight of Bobby Bowden's final 10 seasons, the Seminoles indeed finished ranked lower (if at all) than they had been placed in the preseason. But in only four of those years were they placed in the Top 10 in the preseason, never after 2004.
But with Jimbo Fisher in charge, the Seminoles were picked 20th and finished 17th in 2010, and they were chosen to once again play at an elite level in 2011. According to their finish (23rd), they indeed underachieved last fall, though if you are feeling nice, you could certainly ascribe their tumble to injuries that handicapped the receiving corps and crippled the offensive line. But the 'Noles won seven of their final eight games last season and were picked seventh by the AP heading into this season. Their current AP ranking? Tenth. Pretty close, right?
What do the numbers say? In the Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, Florida State was projected to rank seventh overall. Their current rank: eighth. The 'Noles are still right around where everybody expected them to be. But the what-if factor is still tremendously high. Not only did Florida State's one loss come to an N.C. State team that lost to Tennessee by 14 points, lost to Virginia by an inexplicable 27, and might or might not be getting ready to fire its coach. But it also came despite the fact that FSU dominated a good portion of the game. The 'Noles led the Wolfpack, 16-0, at halftime, and led by 13 heading into the fourth quarter. They outgained N.C. State, 343-325, and they made six trips inside State's 40, which would, on average, suggest they would score somewhere between 21 and 27 points. Instead, they threw an interception, punted once, and had to settle for three field goals (including one that came on fourth-and-goal from the 2).
If FSU closes the deal versus N.C. State, then not only is the "UNDERACHIEVERS" meme kept tightly under wraps at the moment, but the 'Noles are smack in the middle of a national title race. Their F/+ ranking would be just about the same, but the meme itself would be dying on the vine. Alas. For the season as a whole, FSU has achieved almost precisely what it was supposed to achieve given its preseason poll rankings and projections, and unlike any other recent year, the 'Noles have legitimately played at a Top 10 level. But one bad quarter has kept the meme alive, fair or unfair.
That said, a strong finish could still absolutely be in the works. Florida State's finishing schedule looks easier now than it did even a couple of weeks ago. After facing off with Maryland and its devastated offense (and decent defense) this Saturday in College Park, and probably clinching the ACC Atlantic title in the process, the 'Noles will host a reeling Florida squad over Thanksgiving break. That game looked somewhere between "tossup" and "Florida has the slight edge" a couple of weeks ago, but since the Gators tried to lose to both Missouri and UL-Lafayette at home in the last two weeks, sentiment has probably changed a bit.
If they win these two games, FSU finishes 11-1, passes Florida in the polls, and heads to the ACC title game in Charlotte as an enormous favorite over, probably, Miami or Georgia Tech. Win that, and win an Orange Bowl against what will likely be a pretty overwhelmed Big East opponent, and you're 13-1 and staring a Top 4 in the face. Yes, there would still be regret over the trip to Raleigh, but only so much.
Of course, this easy(ish) slate is a double-edged sword. Because they will potentially be favored in every game down the stretch, the bar is moved, and anything less than 13-1 will be seen as underachieving again. Funny how that works.
Geoff Burke, Getty
How bad is Virginia Tech?
It was damn near impossible to figure out what to do with Virginia Tech heading into the 2012 season. I've said many times that the best predictor of future success is past success, and Frank Beamer's Hokies had that in droves: eight straight 10- or 11-win seasons, four BCS bowl bids in five years, et cetera. They have been remarkably predictable (average preseason ranking since 2005: 10.1; average postseason ranking: 13.9) and consistently strong (average F/+ ranking since 2005: 11.3).
That said, Frank Beamer had to replace so much from last year's squad, and last year's squad wasn't even that great; yes, the Hokies went 11-3 in 2011, but they ranked just 22nd in the F/+ rankings (and they really shouldn't have snagged that Sugar Bowl bid, but we won't open that can of worms again). Quarterback Logan Thomas returned, but the top two running backs, top two receivers, top tight end and four top offensive linemen were all gone. The defense looked like it would be perfectly strong, returning almost its entire front seven (while facing some rebuilding in the secondary), but how much does defense matter if the offense falls apart?
Thus far, it is safe to say that the offense has indeed fallen apart under the weight of inexperience, and the defense has only been good, not great. The Hokies have fallen from 25th to 77th in Off. F/+ (72nd in Passing S&P+, 94th in Rushing S&P+ and an egregious 111th in Adj. Line Yards) and improved from 21st in Def. F/+ to just 20th. At 4-6, this is the first time Virginia Tech stands with six losses since 1992 (2-8-1), and in a key, season-defining, three-week stretch, the Hokies lost badly at Clemson (38-17) and North Carolina (30-12) and were denied a tide-turning upset of Florida State last Thursday night. The Hokies can still salvage a bowl bid, of course; their last two games are at 2-8 Boston College and at home against 4-6 Virginia. But this has been the most precipitous tumble of Frank Beamer's storied career.
So can Tech recover? Probably. Of the 47 players listed on this week's two-deep (PDF), only 14 are seniors. Logan Thomas is still just a junior, and despite a frustrating season (replete with frustrating, ill-timed picks), he still has lovely run-pass potential. True freshman running back J.C. Coleman has taken over the first-string role and is averaging 5.2 yards per carry. And the still-solid defense could return as many as nine starters. And everybody from a mediocre special teams unit returns, for better or worse. The receiving corps will need some rebuilding, but one iffy unit is better than the three or four that Tech faced this season.
It is probably fair to question Virginia Tech's ceiling as a program right now, in the midst of such a (temporary) downfall. Logan Thomas has not lived up to unfairly high expectations. The running back position is no longer stocked with surefire 1,000-yard rushers. The offensive line has been awful this year. And the defense, while strong, has not been elite (in this case, Top 10 in Def. F/+) since 2007. It is certainly conceivable (though not definite) that Beamer's best days are behind him.
But let's face it: The Hokies still reside in the ACC Coastal division. You need to be elite to make the impending college football playoffs, but Tech should still figure to make the ACC title game and therefore get to within one win of the Orange Bowl on a rather regular basis. It won't happen this year.
Grant Halverson, Getty
Can we have a six-way, 4-4 tie in the ACC Coastal?
That would be fantastic (and fitting), but no. Right now, here are the current standings in the competitive, if rather dreadful, Coastal (remember, North Carolina is ineligible for the postseason):
- 4-3: Miami, Georgia Tech
- 3-3: Duke, (North Carolina)
- 2-4: Virginia, Virginia Tech
Each of these six teams could finish 4-4, but not all six could. Among other things, Virginia and Virginia Tech would both need to win out, but they play each other on November 24. So that dream dies before it even begins.
Okay, but who's actually going to win this damned division?
Well, the Hurricanes have the most direct path to the title, anyway, which is amazing considering they have lost three of their last four conference games (and four of five overall). Right now, they face just one remaining conference game (i.e. one remaining chance to lose) -- at Duke on November 24 -- and F/+ projections say they should win it by 5.0 points. That isn't a huge margin, obviously, especially considering Miami just lost at Virginia (a team that Duke thrashed). But if they do win that game, they would clinch the title game bid because, even if Georgia Tech also finishes 5-3, Miami owns the tie-breaker thanks to an overtime win in Atlanta on September 22.
If Miami's slide continues, and the Hurricanes lose to Duke, the next most likely title winner is Georgia Tech. Yes, the same Georgia Tech that has played poorly enough to land head coach Paul Johnson on the hot seat just three years after a conference title run. The Yellow Jackets are, like Miami, just 5-5 overall, but they have won two straight road games, first over Maryland (33-13 on November 3), then over North Carolina (68-50 on November 10). They host Duke this weekend and are projected to win by 15.9 points. That would move them to 5-3 and put even more pressure on sliding Miami the next weekend.
Meanwhile, Duke does indeed control its own destiny as well. Since moving to 6-2 and clinching a bowl bid, the Blue Devils have been throttled twice by Florida State (48-7) and Clemson (56-20), but at 3-3 in conference, with a chance to take out both of the teams above them in the standings, they could still rebound and surprise. It would take a pretty hefty upset this weekend in Atlanta to keep the Blue Devils on the title path, but that's only if you believe that anybody beating Georgia Tech would be a "hefty upset." Tech is playing better ball, but it probably goes without saying that they are still quite beatable.
And no, despite whatever zombie nightmares you may be having about them, there is not a way for Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech Hokies to sneak in the back door and win the division. They are favored to beat both Boston College on Saturday and Virginia next week, which would move them to 4-4 in conference, but since either Duke, Miami or Georgia Tech (or both Miami and Georgia Tech) is guaranteed to get to five wins by virtue of playing each other, Virginia Tech is out of the race...
...UNLESS ... we end up with a scenario wherein Miami wins the division, then declines a postseason bid in anticipation of future NCAA sanctions (the Hurricanes have been under investigation for well over a year now). If Virginia Tech is in a tie with others at 4-4, it bears mentioning that the Hokies beat both Duke and Georgia Tech, the two teams with which they would be tied. So don't cross that zombie nightmare off just yet, I guess.
Remember how UCLA made the Pac-12 title game at 6-6 last year and ended up "bowl eligible" at 6-7 after getting romped by Oregon? That scenario is most certainly still in play, by the way. Miami hosts South Florida on Saturday, and Georgia Tech visits Georgia next Saturday. If Miami loses to USF then takes out Duke, the Hurricanes will be 6-6 heading to Charlotte. If Georgia Tech beats Duke and loses to Georgia (with Miami falling to Duke), the Yellow Jackets will be the same. Good times!
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