It's that feeling of transitional confusion that's shared by many a fan and follower of ACC football these days. Used to be a few years ago, you knew the best three teams of the league were, you knew the worst three teams of the league were and the other three--well, they would just sort themselves out.
There was a familiar convenience that came with knowing that Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech would tussle for the top three spots. You could pencil in Ws against Duke, Wake Forest and Maryland, and the middle three of N.C. State, Virginia and Carolina would hover in limbo between mediocrity and a six-or-seven-win season.
In years past the league standings were a metaphorical totem pole representing the entire breadth of college football. At the top, of course, stood mighty FSU. A perennial BCS title contender, the Seminoles were the team hated because of their success and yet revered for the national exposure and respect they helped bring the league. They beat you every year, but you yearned for the opportunity to play them because they showed you what top-notch college football programs looked like up close. Just the opportunity to play them every year won teams a few recruits along the way.
At the bottom sat Duke--poor, poor Duke. The ritzy private school everyone longed to play because conference wins were conference wins, and the fact that they came against a glorified prep team didn't diminish them on the conference standings. Teams looked like an FSU against them--faster, stronger, more talented--and reminded them of the success they were striving for.
But these days that totem pole is lying in pieces at the feet of the confused ACC football pundit, scattered in various directions. Some pieces seem taller and more prominent than others, but it's anybody's guess as to how they should be put together. It's probably safer to clump them in groups than to stack them.
FSU is still the biggest piece of the totem puzzle. They're still getting the top recruits and have yet to lose a conference game this year, but they're a team that's anything but bulletproof. They've already lost two games out of conference, including a stunning loss to Louisville and a heartbreaker to Miami. Their coaching staff--once the Big Three of Bobby Bowden, Chuck Amato and Mark Richt--have been reduced to just Bowden. The loss of the two coordinators that helped him build a dynasty shows in the lack of championship swagger that FSU, and Bowden, once carried.
Duke, on the other hand, sports one of the best run defenses in the league. No longer the ACC's whipping boy, they've taken several teams to the wire this season, including a State team that leads the conference in the BCS standings. They stifled one of the league's best rushers in T.A. McLendon and dictated the pace and style of their game against the Pack. They've posted wins against ECU and Navy to push their record to 2-6, though they could easily be 4-4.
And then there's the rest. The Pack continues to win, despite its scare with Duke, and is starting to create some ripples across the country with its 11th position in the BCS rankings. Maryland, after losing Bruce Perry, fell off the national radar in losing two of their first three, only to reappear with four straight wins behind the strong running of their other tailback, Chris Downs. Same thing with Virginia. They looked like a team on its way to nowhere after dropping their first two, but six straight wins later they're a team no one wants to face. You won't find three hotter--or more feared--teams in the conference.
The pieces in the biggest pile are the truly puzzling ones. The other private school in the bunch, Wake Forest, is enjoying a bit more success than Duke at 4-4 overall but still battling the woes of games that got away. That would include last week's game against Clemson, another puzzler, in which the Deacons out gained the Tigers nearly two-to-one offensively yet still lost.
The Tigers haven't looked impressive as of late following losses to FSU and Virginia and their close win against Wake. Georgia Tech looked solid under first-year coach Chan Gailey, sporting the nation's top tailback, Tony Hollings, in the opening weeks of the season, but the losses of Hollings and Greg Gathers have proven too much for the Jackets to overcome. And Carolina, at 2-5 overall and 0-3 in-conference, may be the most puzzling piece of all. Up 21-0 against Virginia last week, the Heels disintegrated in the second half, falling 37-27 in Charlottesville. The defense, traditionally the trademark of the Heels, has been missing in action nearly the entire season.
The ACC is, for the first time in many years, a wide-open race from start to finish. No longer can any one team be expected to finish on top, nor any one team be expected to fill the cellar. It may not be parity, per se, but the distance that used to separate the top of the league from the bottom is not nearly as great as it once was.
Nor are the individual games predictable. The pushovers are fighting back, and some of the top dogs are giving way. "Any Given Saturday" might soon become a rallying call for teams in the locker rooms of the ACC, for teams both traditionally considered the hunter and the hunted.
It's the sign that former notions of teams in the ACC, from top to bottom, are due for a change.