CORAL GABLES, Fla. — The leading rusher in the nation, one of the most talked-about quarterback debuts in recent memory, and even a first-place vote in the Top 25.
If nothing else, Week 1 of the season might have given the Atlantic Coast Conference plenty of cause for optimism.
The statistical samples after just one game are obviously small and skewed, so it’s clearly not time to pronounce Miami’s Duke Johnson as the season’s rushing champion, anoint Florida State’s Jameis Winston as a Heisman Trophy hopeful or pencil Clemson into the national championship picture.
Still, their performances – and others – suggest the ACC might at the very least be closer to reaching the highest echelon of college football in 2013.
“I think we have an outstanding conference in general,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said Wednesday. “We have as much talent as anybody. ... We have a tremendous league and our league is growing. The more attention we can get on the conference, I definitely think it helps.”
Attention wouldn’t figure to be in short supply right now.
Clemson jumped to No. 4 in the Top 25, even getting a first-place vote in the poll – the first by any ACC team since Virginia Tech got one in the rankings released on Dec. 2, 2007. Since then, 21 different schools had gotten at least one first-place nod by a voter in the nationwide balloting, with Alabama doing so more than 50 times alone. Joe Paterno was on that list as well, along with Florida, Boise State and Louisiana State University, programs that all did so more than two dozen times in that span.
The ACC? Nothing.
Until Tuesday, that is.
“If we are No. 4 going into the ACC Championship Game then that’s great,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, whose team jumped to that rank by beating then-No. 5 Georgia 38-35 in maybe the most scintillating game of the opening weekend. “Maybe that game gives us a chance to get in to the final game, then it matters. Right now, we have just played one game. We are 1-0. I appreciate people recognizing potential because we do have good potential.”
Swinney might not be the only coach in the conference feeling that way.
Winston’s much-hyped debut as quarterback at Florida State was a four-touchdown maestro performance that led to a rout of new ACC member Pittsburgh. Georgia Tech beat Elon by 70, Maryland scored 40 first-half points while toying with FIU, Duke topped North Carolina Central by 45, Miami eased past Florida Atlantic by four touchdowns and Wake Forest predictably had no trouble with Presbyterian.
And there were plenty of individual shining efforts as well.
At Miami, Johnson’s 186 rushing yards topped the nation in Week 1. Winston and Maryland’s C.J. Brown were among the country’s top three in completion percentage on opening weekend. Florida State tight end Nick O’Leary was one of three players with three receiving touchdowns in Week 1, Virginia Tech’s Trey Edmunds had the second-longest run allowed by Alabama in nearly a decade, and Virginia’s Ian Frye had the nation’s longest field goal, a 53-yarder.
“It brings attention to our league,” Fisher said.
North Carolina and Virginia Tech lost their openers by a combined six touchdowns, though those outcomes may not have been all that surprising since the Tar Heels were facing South Carolina and the Hokies started their season against two-time defending national champion Alabama.
And the obvious consolation for those teams is that the road figures to get easier from here.
“I don’t think we’re that far away,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “We have to play much better than we did. That was a disappointing thing was in our execution in all three phases. But there were some really bright spots on film. There were some good things that happened, some young kids got to play. ... I think our guys can see from the film we’re not that far away. We’ve just got to keep working.”
There’s three big chances for the ACC to pick up more steam this weekend, with Miami playing host to No. 12 Florida in a rivalry game; Virginia hosts No. 2 Oregon and Syracuse goes to No. 19 Northwestern.
“I think they’ll be ready,” Miami coach Al Golden said of the Hurricanes. “I hope we don’t have to convince them that it’s going to be a big game or going to be fun. They know what it’s all about.”
Clemson, with its best ranking in 25 years, plays South Carolina State. And Swinney, like just about any football coach in his position would be, has sounded leery all week about a letdown after such a big win to open the year.
“Still got a ways to go, but I think we’ve made good progress,” Swinney said.
He was talking about his team, but the sentiment might ring true for the ACC as well.