ACC in search of an identity

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By TED GIOIA
College Contributor Network

The ACC has had quite a roller coaster beginning to this college football season. There have been some flashes of greatness but minimal stability, and a conference lacking an identity is ultimately what has come out of the first five weeks.

Week 3 is a perfect example, when Boston College knocked off No. 9 USC. It could have been a prosperous week for the conference, but No. 21 Louisville was upset in Virginia and No. 17 Virginia Tech was stunned at home by East Carolina. There's no doubt that Florida State and Clemson are elite teams, but they can't carry the conference alone. Inconsistency and missed opportunities have made for a tumultuous start to the 2014 campaign for many ACC programs.

Don't get me wrong, almost every game involving an ACC team this year has been entertaining. From top to bottom, this conference is filled with competitors. That might be the reason for some of the inconsistency, since there have been a lot of conference games coming early in the schedule.

It's exciting to watch for ACC fans, knowing that anything can happen in any given game. Who doesn't love seeing David take Goliath to the final minute? It reminds me of Big East basketball a few years ago, where rankings were thrown out of the window and whoever came to play when the ball was tipped would end up victorious.

Unlike Big East basketball in its heyday though, the ACC lacks enough star power at the top to uphold a strong national reputation. Florida State is the conference's only legitimate playoff contender. Clemson is respected across the country, but they carry just a 2-2 record after fumbling away the Florida State game.

Outside of ACC fans, nobody is all that interested in seeing inconsistent, unranked teams play against each other. The conference has plenty of proud programs and talented teams, but few of them have lived up to expectations. If the ACC wants to overcome its current reputation of mediocrity, this will have to change.

First is the group of ACC teams who have flirted with the upper tier, but haven't been able to finish the job. Virginia Tech is a perfect example of a team that couldn't quite get over the hump. After shocking Ohio State in Week 2, the Hokies lost back-to-back games against East Carolina and Georgia Tech, which dropped them out of the top-25 and into irrelevance.

In spite of starting a true freshman at quarterback, Miami came into the season with high hopes. After taking a beating in Week 1 against Louisville, the Hurricanes managed to win their next two games by a combined score of 82-27. With a big opportunity against No. 24 Nebraska next on the schedule, Miami came up short, sending them right back to where they started.

Pittsburgh went into Week 4 with a 3-0 record and a Heisman candidate in James Conner. It came out of it empty-handed, losing at home to a very beatable Iowa team. The struggles continued for the Panthers this week, as they were upset, again at home, by Akron of the MAC.

Another team possibly fitting in this category is Louisville. After two weeks, quarterback Will Gardner looked like he had the Cardinals ready to make a playoff run. Then disaster struck in Week 3, as Louisville lost to Virginia on a last-second field goal. Fittingly, Virginia failed to beat No. 21 BYU in the following week, continuing the trend of inconsistency.

Next, there's the group of teams who really haven't been able to gain any sort of momentum at all.
North Carolina went into the season ranked 23, but they have been one of the worst teams in the conference. After almost losing to San Diego State, they surrendered 120 points over two losses to Clemson and East Carolina.

Likewise, Syracuse has struggled early on. After nearly dropping their opening game to an FCS team in Villanova, the Orange laid an egg at home to Maryland in Week 4. For a program that is supposed to be on the rise, they still have a lot to prove heading into ACC play.

As mentioned earlier, Boston College was able to pull off one of the conference's most impressive wins against No. 9 USC. However, losses to Pittsburgh and, most recently, at home to Colorado State, have kept the Eagles from being taken too seriously.

With the teams that have underachieved, there are teams that have put themselves in position to succeed heading into ACC play. Georgia Tech is one of those teams. The Yellow Jackets are undefeated at 4-0, and are coming off of a huge win against Virginia Tech. Quarterback Justin Thomas has been effective running and passing in the triple option offense. Next week's game against Miami, who handed Duke its first loss on Saturday, will tell a lot in the race for the ACC Coastal Division title.

NC State has been a pleasant surprise as well, riding the tremendous play of quarterback Jacoby Brissett. In a matchup of unbeaten teams this past Saturday, the Wolfpack gave Florida State a run for its money before falling in the final minutes. If Miami vs. Georgia Tech isn't the biggest ACC game in Week 6, then the NC State-Clemson meeting in Death Valley certainly is.

Heading into conference play, the ACC as a conference has a lot to prove. Florida State alone will not provide an identity. Most teams find themselves in the less-than-impressive "middle of the pack" category, and some will have to rise above the rest to create an upper tier of competition in the ACC.

It's not too late for that to happen, and teams like Miami, Georgia Tech, Virginia, NC State, and Louisville will have every opportunity to prove that they belong in the conversation with Florida State and Clemson. However, if none of the aforementioned teams are able to string together a consistent stretch of games, 2014 could be a step backwards for a conference that once seemed to be moving forward.


Ted Gioia is a junior at Syracuse University with majors in Finance as well Television, Radio, and FIlm. Born in North Buffalo, he is an avid Bills and Sabres fan. You can follow him on Twitter @Ted_Gioia
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