The gold standard for ACC football anarchy is 2008. For the only time in conference history, every team lost at least three league games, and unranked Virginia Tech defeated No. 18 Boston College in the ACC championship game.
Indeed, that season is a benchmark for all of college football. Since the ACC’s founding in 1953, no other Bowl Subdivision conference has experienced a year in which each of its teams lost more than two league contests.
Early ACC results in 2021 suggest a sequel is possible. Not probable mind you — Miami, Pittsburgh, Boston College, Duke and Syracuse have yet to start conference play — but certainly imaginable.
Consider: Atlantic Division favorite Clemson, Coastal Division favorite North Carolina and Miami were the ACC’s representatives in The Associated Press’ preseason top 25. Each is 2-2.
The Tigers can’t score, the Hurricanes can’t tackle and, again, the Tar Heels can’t stand prosperity.
Conversely, Wake Forest, picked by conference media to finish fifth in the Atlantic and without a winning conference record since 2011, is undefeated and No. 24 in the AP poll.
“People talk about Coastal chaos,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “It’s ACC chaos. It’s Atlantic [and] Coastal.”
The Coastal’s volatility is the stuff of legend. In the seven seasons from 2013 to 2019, each of the division’s seven programs won a title. Five of those Coastal champions, including Virginia Tech in 2016 and Virginia in 2019, lost two conference games.
Meanwhile, Florida State or Clemson has won each of the past eight Atlantic Division titles with a 7-1 or 8-0 league record.
With a stocked defense and anointed heir at quarterback, Clemson was the overwhelming favorite to win a seventh consecutive Atlantic championship this year, receiving 146 of 147 votes in the conference’s preseason media poll. The Tigers may prove us knuckleheads correct, but suffice to say there’s considerable doubt.
Clemson lost its opener to Georgia 10-3, struggled to beat Georgia Tech 14-8 in its ACC opener and lost 27-21 in double-overtime at North Carolina State last week.
The Tigers’ defense has been as advertised, but defensive tackle Bryan Bresee, the team’s best player, sustained a season-ending knee injury Saturday. Moreover, his running mate at tackle, Tyler Davis, is sidelined for two months with a torn triceps.
Trevor Lawrence’s successor at quarterback, DJ Uiagalelei, has been skittish throwing the ball and operates behind a below-average offensive line. Touted freshman running back Will Shipley is expected to miss three to four weeks after injuring a knee at N.C. State.
Clemson ranks last in the ACC and 105th nationally in scoring at 21.8 points per game. The Tigers’ 295.5 yards per game and 4.7 yards per play also are last in the conference.
But if not Clemson, who?
N.C. State has every reason to celebrate Saturday’s conquest — coach Dave Doeren fired up a cigar afterward on the field — but the Wolfpack showed only a faint pulse in a 24-10 loss at Mississippi State. Undefeated Boston College opened with routine victories over Colgate, Massachusetts and Temple before needing overtime to beat Missouri, the Power Five’s worst rushing defense, at home.
North Carolina coach Mack Brown said he was embarrassed by Saturday’s 23-point loss to Georgia Tech, but the outcome should have surprised no one. It was the fourth time in two years that a ranked Tar Heels squad had stumbled away from home against an unranked opponent.
Impressive as Georgia Tech was Saturday, the Yellow Jackets dropped their opener to Northern Illinois, which subsequently lost by 53 at Michigan. Pitt’s Kenny Pickett has 15 touchdown passes and only one interception, but the Panthers need to correct issues exposed in a 44-41 home loss to Western Michigan.
Virginia Tech is markedly better defensively, opened the season with an encouraging victory over UNC but has been offensively challenged. Miami padded its stats with a 69-0 domination of Central Connecticut State last week but entered the game leading the conference in missed tackles.
The league’s most complete team to date has been Wake Forest, and after witnessing the Deacons’ 37-17 victory at Virginia on Friday, I voted them No. 1 in our Lee Enterprises ACC Power Poll.
“If you look around college football, other than about two teams, every conference is wide open,” Miami coach Manny Diaz said. “… There’s no doubt that’s true in the ACC, but there’s an unpredictability about college football other than the first couple [teams], and we’re only in September still.”
Diaz is right. Beyond Alabama and Georgia, everyone appears vulnerable.
Through just four weeks, 13 ranked teams have lost to unranked opponents, and even unbeaten outfits such as Oklahoma and Notre Dame have been fortunate to survive the likes of Tulane and Toledo. Bowling Green, coached by former Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, beat Minnesota last week as a 30½-point underdog.
Narduzzi and Hokies coach Justin Fuente attribute the madness, in part, to the transfer portal. Duke coach David Cutcliffe says pared down preseason camps, mandated for safety, make teams erratic early in the year.
Whatever the reasons, good luck forecasting the ACC, starting with this week’s fare of UVA at Miami, Boston College at Clemson, Duke at North Carolina, Louisville at Wake Forest, Pitt at Georgia Tech, Syracuse at Florida State, and Louisiana Tech at N.C. State.
As Fuente said he told his team Sunday: “It’s a crazy world out there, guys. Turn the TV on and watch a college football game, and there’s no telling what you’re going to see. … It’s all over the map. … There’s a lot of twists and turns this thing can take as we go on down the road.”