We’ve reached the midpoint of the ACC football season, and we’ve discovered what we knew all along.
Clemson is leading a one-team league into another 10-team bowl season, and the only thing left to determine is who goes where.
But for the first time since Dabo Swinney turned the Tigers into a national-title program, the league itself is casting a shadow. Clemson’s College Football Playoff hopes aren’t just in its hands now. The lack of a second or third ACC power, or any semblance thereof, could ultimately hurt the Tigers when the playoff selection committee announces the four semifinal teams on Dec. 8.
The voters who rank the teams in polls that are basically fodder for sportswriters and little else these days have already decided that the SEC, the Big 10 and the Big 12 are all better than the ACC. Thus despite Clemson doing everything it’s supposed to do in a 45-14 dismantling of once-proud Florida State, the Tigers somehow dropped in the AP poll.
The attention now is on the eye candy in LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Penn State, and even Baylor, which moved up four spots as the second-best team in the Big 12.
That’s really the problem in the ACC. There’s no second-best team. A season that began with Syracuse being the only other team in the league ranked in the AP poll now shows no other ACC team ranked.
Wake Forest and Virginia both fell out this week, throwing the league into an odd stretch of the season in which any number of ACC teams could claim to be the second-best.
The Deacons still hold the inside edge, but the rest of the schedule is filled with schools with their own claim to the dubious distinction.
Virginia, Pitt, Carolina, State, Duke. Heck, Louisville, Miami?
The fall of Florida State has created a vacuum, and with Virginia Tech slipping into obscurity, the safety net for Clemson’s reputation is gone. Despite a deep conference of pretty good programs having pretty good seasons, the perception all of a sudden is that the ACC has fallen off.
This is the time of year when traditionally one of the other 13 schools, if not two or three, would separate itself from the middle of the league, a Miami or FSU or Louisville or somebody. While the annual calamity that is the Coastal Division is once again impossible to predict, the gravitational pull of Clemson has always dragged other schools into the national conversation.
Not this year. Not yet anyway.
Wake Forest can still be that team. As hard as it is for the rest of the nation to believe it, the Deacons have been strong. They’re averaging 540 yards a game in offense. That’s fourth in the nation.
Virginia can still be that team. Despite a numbing loss to Miami, the Cavs are second in the country in sacks and 11th in total defense.
Pitt can be that team. The top four teams in the Coastal have all lost one conference game. Carolina and Duke are right there with Pitt and Virginia. And somebody has to play Clemson in Charlotte the first week of December.
Maybe by then we’ll know which team is headed to the Orange Bowl, assuming it’s not Clemson, and which team is headed to the Quick Lane and which teams are headed to all the bowls in between.
Maybe by then the league will have distinguished itself enough that Clemson doesn’t get shut out of the playoff. Swinney joked last week that the Tigers and Alabama are the only schools on the bus, and the rest are all ROY: the rest of y’all.
Not now. LSU is on the bus now. Ohio State and Oklahoma are right there with a lot of second-best Power Five conference schools pulling the Tigers by the tail.
For now, and for the first time in years, Clemson is on its own as the rest of the ACC tries to work out a pecking order.
Midway though the season, that seems a little premature, an argument that means nothing.
But for the best team in a one-team league, it just might mean everything.