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Injury bug has hit, but this could still be milestone year for ACC

Back in December, and again earlier this summer, I argued that the ACC had a chance to be the toughest conference in the country this season. I figured after a wildly competitive season in which 10 of 12 schools finished within a game of first place, this would be the year at least two or three of those teams would rise above the pack and achieve national prominence.

It seemed so logical ... until the injury bug hit.

With the season-ending ACL tear to Virginia Tech running back Darren Evans, the ACC may have lost its best hope for a national-title contender. While Hokies fans are putting their faith in highly touted redshirt freshman Ryan Williams and true freshman David Wilson -- both purportedly the game-breaker types Frank Beamer's been missing for years -- it's hard to throw too much support behind a team whose offense was already questionable and will now depend on a pair of rookie running backs.

That said, I wouldn't rule out a different sort of milestone year for this wannabe-known-for-more-than-basketball conference.

How long until the ACC gets two teams into the BCS? With most QBs returning, the conference should be better offensively now.-- @wolfvols (via Twitter)

In the BCS' 11-year existence, the ACC has never managed to earn a second berth -- crazy, right? -- but I believe that drought will end this year or next.PREVIEW: SI breaks down the ACC race

For the first time since 2005 -- the first year of the 12-team ACC and the year before the bottom fell out for longtime powers Florida State and Miami -- the ACC features multiple BCS contenders. For me, it's a toss-up between Virginia Tech (minus Evans) and Georgia Tech for league favorite, but they're hardly alone. North Carolina coach Butch Davis has assembled a speedy defense in the mold of his old Miami teams, and this figures to be the year the Tar Heels turn the corner. Florida State finally has a dependable quarterback (Christian Ponder) and offensive line. N.C. State boasts a bona fide game-changer in quarterback Russell Wilson. And Miami's ever-growing band of five-star recruits could mature into stars at any moment.GALLERY: Top 10 players in the ACC

It's not inconceivable the league could produce a top 10 champion and a similarly ranked runner-up. To earn a BCS at-large berth, though, that runner-up would most likely have to come from the same division as the champ rather than losing in the title game, and several circumstances would have to work in the conference's favor.

For one thing, you've got to figure the SEC and Big 12 will once again claim two of the four at-large berths. And recent history suggests at least one non-BCS team will probably guarantee itself a berth as well. In that event, the ACC's entrant would likely be competing with the Big Ten, Pac-10 and possibly Notre Dame for that last spot.

As I wrote Tuesday, I believe a little parity will hit the Big Ten this year. That's good news for the ACC, because a 10-2 Ohio State or Penn State would attract the BCS more than nearly any ACC team with a similar record. The Pac-10 hasn't produced a second BCS team since 2002, so it's a less likely threat. A 10-win Notre Dame team, on the other hand, would almost certainly receive an invite.

Then there's the matter of which bowl is picking, and which ACC team is available. If the champion doesn't move up to the title game, then the Orange Bowl is out of the picture, and the Sugar Bowl becomes the most likely destination. Virginia Tech and Clemson are the only ACC teams with the type of traveling horde that would merit consideration out West. Florida State, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and N.C. State would draw interest in New Orleans. Miami would be hurt by its poor bowl travel history.

After a pretty ugly down cycle the past few years, the ACC seems poised to finally reach the level of prominence its proponents have been waiting for. Most of the aforementioned programs still have room to grow, and, for the first time since the days of Philip Rivers and Matt Schaub, there is finally more than one decent quarterback in the conference.

All in all, ACC football should finally be watchable!

Hey Stewart, If Matt Barkley wins the starting job at USC, would it be unprecedented for a true freshman to start at quarterback for a top five team?-- Derek, Santa Monica, Calif.

It wouldn't be unprecedented, but it could very well be the first time in 15 years.

Don't quote me on that, but my buddy and I actually spent some time a few days ago trying to remember someone else, and then I pored through preseason rankings from the past 15 years. As best I can tell, the last true freshman to start from the very first game for a top five team was Ron Powlus for No. 2 Notre Dame in 1994.

Mind you, this does not include guys who started for an eventual top five team, or took over mid-season. Chad Henne was a surprise opening-day starter his freshman year in 2004, but Michigan peaked at No. 7 that season. Peyton Manning started most of his freshman season, but the Vols never reached the top five that year, either. Ditto for Chris Simms at Texas in 1999 (he started in the Big 12 title game), Chris Leak at Florida or Brady Quinn at Notre Dame in 2003, Erik Ainge at Tennessee in '04 or Matthew Stafford at Georgia in '06.

As is often the case, I'm sure a Mailbag reader will correct me in time for next week's edition if someone's done it more recently than Powlus.

Update: Apparently my memory is shoddy, because several readers have pointed out Powlus redshirted a year due to injury. So now I really can't answer this.

Is the real Bret Bielema the guy who went 12-1 in '06 or the guy who went 7-6 in '08? Inquiring Badgers want to know.-- @TheSplenda

You know, as much as I try to stay plugged in to the pulse of as many fan bases as possible, I must confess, I had no idea the level of angst surrounding Bielema until I did a radio interview in Milwaukee last week. Based on the hosts' questions, it seems many people have already lost faith in Barry Alvarez's hand-picked successor.

Personally, I think it's dangerous to read too much into one bad season. Yes, the Badgers' win total has declined in each of Bielema's three seasons, but after starting 12-1 out of the gate, that seemed somewhat inevitable. His 9-4 campaign the following season -- which ended in a hard-fought Outback Bowl loss to Tennessee -- was a far more reasonable standard for what to expect from a Wisconsin coach. But there's no question the Badgers tumbled well below that last season, going 3-5 in the Big Ten, losing to a Michigan team and getting thumped by Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.

So the question is, was last year an aberration, or a harbinger of things to come? A lack of consistency at quarterback was a big part of Wisconsin's problems last year. While most of us will always associate Alvarez with powerful runners, he also quietly produced one underrated quarterback after another -- guys like Brooks Bollinger, Jim Sorgi and John Stocco. Obviously, Dustin Sherer has a ways to go to carry on that legacy.

But that's not the most troubling thing going on right now. Over the weekend, it came out the parents of two recently suspended Wisconsin safeties, Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant, are threatening to take legal action against the school. Neither parent -- incidentally, Carter's father happens to be former NBA star Butch Carter -- sounds too pleased with Bielema. I don't know what happened. All I know is it's extremely unusual for two seniors like Carter and Pleasant to be indefinitely suspended on the eve of a season, and that the team's chemistry is hanging in the balance. I have a feeling we're about to find out one way or another whether or not Bielema knows what he's doing.

George Selvie and Matt Grothe are both back at South Florida for what seems like their ninth year. Are you going to do another edition of your "ninth-year seniors" segment? Along with the worst coaches, it's the item I miss the most.-- Mark, Indianapolis

Man, how could I forget? Your first batch of 2009 ninth-year seniors include (but are not necessarily limited to): Wake Forest quarterback Riley Skinner, Clemson tailback C.J. Spiller, Illinois quarterback Juice Williams, Kansas receiver/former QB Kerry Meier, Southern Miss running back Damion Fletcher, LSU receiver Brandon LaFell and kick returner Trindon Holliday, South Carolina linebacker Eric Norwood, Notre Dame tackle Sam Young and our team captain -- a guy who I truly cannot believe has only been in school four years -- Alabama kicker Leigh Tiffin. If you told me Tiffin kicked a game-winner against Arkansas in 2003, I would believe you.

As for the worst-coaches list, sorry, almost all of my bad coaches got fired last year. I guess Al Groh has the list all to himself now.

Stewart, in the current BCS environment, what is the motivation for teams to schedule tough out-of-conference games when going undefeated is king and would almost guarantee entry into the championship game? Taking this season for example, a two-loss Virginia Tech (which plays Alabama, Nebraska and East Carolina) or Georgia (which faces Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech and Arizona State) would arguably be just as deserving (if not more so) than an undefeated or one-loss Notre Dame, Penn State or any number of other teams. Yet both would be locked out of any discussion of the title game.-- Jay, Atlanta

If schools focused solely on the national-title race when determining their schedules, you'd never see a single marquee out-of-conference game for the very reason you mentioned: Historically, going undefeated has always been the single most important criteria in voters' minds. You saw that last year, when Texas Tech rose to No. 2 in the polls despite playing Eastern Washington, Nevada, SMU and UMass prior to Big 12 play.

Every school has its own reasons behind its scheduling philosophy, but until the day the voters/computers bypass an undefeated major-conference team in favor of two one-loss teams, you'll probably see fewer and fewer teams take on schedules like Virginia Tech's and Georgia's. That said, we also seem to be in the midst of an era where undefeated seasons are becoming increasingly rare. In seasons like the past few, where at least one of the title spots comes down to a jumble of one- or two-loss teams, teams may actually be rewarded for scheduling tougher foes.

LSU benefited tremendously from its early-season rout of eventual ACC champ Virginia Tech in 2007. That game contributed to voters' season-long respect for the Tigers, which paid off the last weekend when 11-2 LSU vaulted from seventh to second. Meanwhile, Oklahoma's nonconference games last year against TCU and Cincinnati likely made the difference when the BCS computers vaulted the Sooners over the Longhorns (whose toughest nonconference foe was Rice) and into the Big 12 title game.

But remember, there are only a handful of schools that realistically feel they have a shot at the national title on a regular basis. Many factors play into a school's schedule -- budgetary concerns, filling seats, television, which dates are available. Impressing BCS voters is generally not one of them.

While reading your article on the new Big Ten/Gator Bowl deal it was all I could do to keep from sliding into a boredom-induced coma. My friend's Facebook update that he "is bored and sitting on the couch" was more important. When are you going to abandon the idea that seeing a game between two mediocre teams from two different conferences is some kind of nostalgic postseason reward? It's so obvious that they DON'T MATTER to anyone outside of a university's accounting department.-- Jeremiah L., Nashville, Tenn.

Hey, no one put a gun to your head and told you to click on the link (or did they?). It's worth noting, however, that last year's Gator Bowl drew 67,000-plus spectators for a game between two unquestionably mediocre teams, 8-4 Nebraska and 7-5 Clemson. So clearly someone still cares. Heck, this attendee even found the experience "super awesome!"

I suggest your friend start watching Mad Men. He won't have to leave his couch and, quite frankly, it's "super awesome."

Stewart: In regard to the recent furor over Terrelle Pryor's 40 time: You would think with all the high-tech analysis available, someone could definitively lock down what Usain Bolt's 40 time was on the way to his 100-meter record. Ditto for any Olympic class sprinters. What do you say to once and for all blowing the 40 myth out of the water?-- Paul Schlichting, Green, Ohio

Gladly. The following link contains the work of someone far more versed on track and field matters than myself. Mind you, this was posted before Bolt's most recent record-shattering performance, but based on the splits from his 100-meter performance in Beijing, the author calculated Bolt ran a 40 time of 4.35. Pryor, you may recall, clocked in at 4.33 (as his coaches and teammates recently reaffirmed.)

However, the comparison is more complicated than that. The author, a track coach in Canada, notes a 100-meter runner does not accelerate out of the block as quickly as someone running a 40 because that runner has to sustain his speed longer. Therefore, he likely reaches his top speed after the 40-yard mark (around 36 meters). To account for that, the author subtracts the "reaction time" from Bolt's score and estimates he reached 4.22 in Beijing.

If true, obviously that puts him in another category than Ohio State's quarterback. However, there are still a handful of college football players out there who, if we believe their 40 times, are capable of hanging with Usain Bolt. As of last year, Florida's Chris Rainey had been clocked at 4.24, and USC safety Taylor Mays has been credited with a 4.25. If these times were remotely accurate, then we would have to assume there's only a hair of difference between the fastest sprinter in the world and the nation's fastest college football players.

Instead, let's debunk this 40 myth once and for all by pointing out that Gators running back Jeff Demps, who the New York Times last year dubbed the "fastest man in pads," set the national high school record in the 100-meters when he clocked a 10.01 at the U.S. Olympic trials. That's still nearly a half-second slower than the 9.58 Bolt posted in Berlin last weekend. However, according to that same Times article, Demps was timed at a 4.21 in the 40 in high school -- four-hundredths of a second faster than Bolt's top speed in Beijing.

My advice: Whenever you read or hear about a college player's otherworldly 40 time, automatically add at least one-tenth of a second for a more accurate reading. That, or assume Bolt actually runs a 3.9.

While reporting about future bowl tie-ins is a legitimate part of college football discussions, don't you think SI (and others) are scraping the bottom of the news barrel by publishing mid-August predictions of 2009-10 bowl matchups?-- Steve, Greenville, N.C.

Oh, I don't know. It seems like pretty harmless fun. When we start staking out Jon and Kate's front lawns to get their bowl projections, that's when you'll know we've officially thrown in the towel.

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