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July 23, 2007

ACC: Dominating defense or awful offense?

PINEHURST, N.C. The most recent Atlantic Coast Conference championship game exposed the league's greatest strength and biggest weakness.

Wake Forest and Georgia Tech failed to score a single touchdown in the Demon Deacons' 9-6 victory. While the lack of scoring didn't provide an ideal showcase for the league, it underscored the way ACC football has defined itself since expansion.

The defenses have been awesome. And the offenses have been awful.

Five ACC schools finished the 2006 season ranked among the top 18 teams in total defense: No. 1 Virginia Tech, No. 7 Miami, No. 13 Clemson, No. 17 Virginia and No. 18 Florida State. Clemson was the only ACC representative to place among the top 49 teams in total offense.

One year earlier, seven ACC programs ranked among the top 22 teams in total defense while no schools from the conference finished in the top 50 in total offense.

"It's a great defensive conference," Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan said Sunday at the ACC Media Days at the Pinehurst Resort. "I don't think offenses should be ashamed you're not scoring the same number of points that schools in the Pac-10 are. You're playing against top-notch defenses and top-caliber players. I think that's why offenses have struggled in the ACC."

The NFL Draft lends credence to Ryan's comments.

Defensive players represented 14 of the 18 first-round draft picks to come out of the ACC over the last two years. Ten ACC defensive players went in the first round in 2006, including top overall selection Mario Williams of North Carolina State.

The conference has done an outstanding job of attracting exceptional athletes who share Georgia Tech linebacker Philip Wheeler's philosophy on the game.

"I don't like a lot of razzle dazzle and high-scoring games," said Wheeler, a Rivals.com second-team All-American last year. "I like to play old-school, tough defense."

That makes Wheeler a perfect fit for this conference.

Clemson averaged 32.7 points per game last year to rank 12th in the nation in scoring offense, but no other ACC school placed among the top 44 teams in that category. Five conference teams including traditional offensive juggernaut Miami couldn't even score 20 points per game.

Why does defense dominate this league so thoroughly? Miami defensive end Calais Campbell attributes it to the speed each team possesses on both sides of the ball.

Drafting for defense
Each of the last two years, the NFL Draft has reflected the Atlantic Coast Conference's strength on defense. This list of first-round draft picks from the ACC over the last two years shows a heavy tilt toward defense.
Team Player School Pick
N.Y. Jets OT D'Brickashaw Ferguson Virginia 4
San Francisco TE Vernon Davis Maryland 6
Team Player School Pick
Houston DE Mario Williams N.C. State 1
Detroit LB Ernie Sims Florida State 9
Cleveland DE Kamerion Wimbley Florida State 13
Philadelphia DT Brodrick Bunkley Florida State 14
St. Louis CB Tye Hill Clemson 15
San Diego CB Antonio Cromartie Florida State 19
San Francisco DT Manny Lawson N.C. State 22
Buffalo DT John McCargo N.C. State 26
Seattle CB Kelly Jennings Miami 31
N.Y. Giants DE Mathias Kiwanuka Boston College 32
Team Player School Pick
Detroit WR Calvin Johnson Georgia Tech 2
Chicago TE Greg Olsen Miami 31
Team Player School Pick
Tampa Bay DE Gaines Adams Clemson 4
Pittsburgh LB Lawrence Timmons Florida State 15
New England S Brandon Meriweather Miami 24
Carolina LB Jon Beason Miami 25
"It's a very fast conference," said Campbell, a possible first-round draft pick. "You take a team with a fast offense and a fast defense, and the fast defense makes it a lot harder for the fast offense to score points. The fast offense can score points (in non-conference games) because a guy can make a move and he's off to the races. But when you have a fast defense, someone can be right there next to him and tackle him, so they can't make big plays."

Then again, the talent on the sidelines might have as much of an impact as the talent on the field.

The ACC features three of the nation's top defensive coordinators in Virginia Tech's Bud Foster, Florida State's Mickey Andrews and Georgia Tech's Jon Tenuta. Miami's Randy Shannon was held in similar regard before getting promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach.

All those coordinators provide experience as well as expertise. Andrews is entering his 24th season as Florida State's defensive coordinator, Foster has spent two decades on Virginia Tech's staff, and Tenuta has spent 26 years as a defensive coach.

The ACC's list of offensive coordinators doesn't feature nearly as much star power. Boston College, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina and North Carolina State all made changes at that position during the offseason.

"Everybody has athletes, but if you don't have a good game plan, you're not going to execute," Virginia Tech defensive tackle Carlton Powell said. "Coach Foster's the No. 1 player we have (on defense)."

All those changes in the offensive coaching staffs offer some degree of hope that the ACC's offenses might start catching up to the defenses.

The ACC should get a boost from the return of standout running backs such as Georgia Tech's Tashard Choice, Virginia Tech's Branden Ore, Clemson's James Davis and C.J. Spiller, Florida State's Antone Smith and Miami's Javarris James.

"I think it will even itself out as time goes on," North Carolina State wide receiver Darrell Blackman said. "Each team has a stable of running backs not just one, but two running backs per team who can open up a game. Every team has good wide receivers. The main thing is just getting the quarterback position down."

That's easier said than done.

ACC critics can point to the lack of progress by the league's quarterbacks as a prime reason for the conference's sluggish performance on offense. Coaches up and down the league played musical chairs with their quarterbacks last year in a frustrating effort to find stability at the position.

Florida State, Miami, North Carolina and North Carolina State all had two quarterbacks start at least three games. Virginia started three different quarterbacks before finally settling on Jameel Sewell.

By the end of the season, the ACC didn't have a single quarterback who ranked among the nation's top 32 in passing efficiency. By contrast, the Big 12 had six and the Southeastern Conference had four who ranked in the top 30.

"You need a quarterback to kind of guide and work the whole offense for you," Blackman said. "You had players going down (last year), quarterback changes, coaches making changes and playing two quarterbacks at a time. That's one thing the coaches this year are going to settle and get straight the quarterback position."

Then again, even ACC teams with stable quarterback situations have struggled to score points against the league's star-studded defenses.

For example, Boston College averaged 30.5 points per game last year in non-conference victories over Central Michigan and Brigham Young, which both went on to win bowl games. The Eagles mustered only 23.7 points per game in ACC matchups.

"(If) you put up 20-25 points in a conference game, I think you've had a good day offensively," said Ryan, a first-team all-ACC quarterback last year.

In a league this focused on defense, 20 points often represents an embarrassment of riches. As last year's championship game proved, sometimes you don't even need to score a touchdown.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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