As the clock approached midnight last Friday, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher's folksy observation about the Seminoles' listless 14–0 win at Boston College perfectly summed up the anemic state of the ACC. “Things are never as bad as they seem," Fisher said. “And things are never as good as they seem."
As the college football season raced past the quarter pole last weekend, no conference in the country is in worse need of a pep talk than the beleaguered ACC and no Power 5 league is in worse shape. Teams from the ACC are 3–8 in 2015 against teams from the four other Power 5 conferences, with all of the ACC's victories having come against teams from the worst division in major conference football: the Big Ten West.
ACC sympathizers will say that six of those losses were to teams in the Top 10. That's fitting, because no team in the conference is anywhere close to being a a top-5 program—10th-ranked Florida State (3–0) and No. 11 Clemson (3–0) are still largely unproven.
It's too early to say that the ACC is out of contention for the College Football Playoff, but at this point a team in the conference would likely have to go 13–0 to be one of the four teams to get in. And considering the league' lack of out-of-conference success and mediocre play so far, that seems unlikely.
Even the ACC's signature victory this fall felt like a loss, as Miami squandered a 23-point fourth-quarter lead to Nebraska before winning 36–33 in overtime. The league has a few more chances for nonconference statements—Notre Dame at Clemson (Oct. 3), Georgia at Georgia Tech (Nov. 28) and Florida State at Florida (Nov. 28)—but going 3–0 in those games won't change the perception that the ACC is not that good.
The conference's best hope for one of its teams to reach the playoff is if either the Seminoles or the Tigers go undefeated. But both teams looked lethargic last weekend. (On Sept. 17, one day before Florida State shut out the Eagles, Clemson survived a 20–17 squeaker on the road against winless Louisville.)
The Seminoles have a 25-game ACC winning streak and haven't lost a regular season game since falling to Florida on Nov. 24, 2012. But it's difficult to give them the benefit of the doubt. Their best player against Boston College was their normally erratic punter.
Credit Cason Beatty, who entered the game with a reputation for inconsistency but never gave BC field position better than its own 30-yard line. He averaged 52.3 yards on seven moonshots. The roots of any glowing passages about a punter have roots in an inept offense, and the Seminoles are frighteningly one-dimensional.
With star tailback Dalvin Cook banged up with a reported upper body injury (he's expected to be fine), FSU gained just 58 yards in the second half. The only person who will see more guys in a box on a weekly basis than Cook this season is the local funeral home director.
FSU quarterback Everett Golson is just how we remembered him at Notre Dame, perpetually on the brink of both brilliance and catastrophe. His biggest play of last Friday's game may have been avoiding two BC defensive linemen who appeared to have him corralled for a safety in the first half. Golson's feet still oscillate between jittery and electric, and his arm is still erratic at best. Golson doesn't appear to have improved much since his freshman season at Notre Dame when he led the Irish to the national title game. His duties at FSU this season look like they'll be distilled to becoming a caretaker, as he'll hand the ball to Cook, not turn it over and scramble for first downs.
FSU does have the trappings of an elite defense. (And incidentally, so does BC. Except the Eagles lost starting quarterback Darius Wade for the season with a broken ankle, and they wouldn't have been great with him.) The test for FSU will come when the defense faces a competent offense. "It's there, but we know we're a progress in work," Fisher said.
Never has there been such an apt misspeak, because FSU—and the ACC—still has work to do to become a work in progress.
OTHER ACC CONTENDERS
CLEMSON: The Tigers remain a bit of an enigma after a flat performance at Louisville last Thursday. They can legitimize themselves as a potential Top 5 team with home victories against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech in their next two games. (Clemson has a well-timed bye this week). Clemson is No. 11 in scoring defense (12.3 ppg), but that's against Wofford, Appalachian State and a Louisville team that has started three different quarterbacks. There are still a ton of questions that won't be answered until the Tigers face high-end competition. For all the hype, quarterback Deshaun Watson is still an unproven commodity.
GEORGIA TECH: The Yellow Jackets were favored against Notre Dame on Saturday, but weren't very competitive in a 30-22 loss. The final score was deceiving, as Tech trailed 30-7 going into the final minute. Tech's option attack sputtered, including 3-of-15 on third down against the stout Irish defense. Such an authoritative loss to a Notre Dame team that's down six starters, including at quarterback, tailback and defensive tackle, doesn't help the league's outside perception. Tech is still the heavy favorite in the Coastal, but a win over them in the conference title game doesn't appear like it will provide a lot of juice.
OTHERS: The early feel from the ACC is that the top-tier teams aren't elite, which leaves them susceptible to upsets in the league. The middle of the pack is decent. BC's salty defense can help the Eagles steal a marquee win. N.C. State, which could be 7-0 heading into its game against Clemson on Oct. 31, has enough juice on offense to make things interesting. Miami, which has never played in the ACC title game, appears to be just good enough to muddle things up for a contender like FSU (Oct. 10) or Clemson (Oct. 24).
Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury explains his stinging comments
Kliff Kingsbury had already left the Texas High School Coaches Association convention in July when the text messages started to pour into his Blackberry. They came from dozens of high school coaches in Houston, where they were attending Arkansas coach Bret Bielema's morning speaking sessions at the annual event. And they all said the same thing: Bielema boasted that his physical coaching style would kick the ass of pass-heavy teams and those that don't use a fullback.
Bielema's comments were insulting to Kingsbury, who played Texas high school football and whose father, Tim, is a former longtime high school coach in the Lone Star State. "To do that at that convention with Texas high school coaches who are a proud group—rightfully so—and that have basically developed the spread offense that's the rave in Texas, I didn't think that was appropriate," Kingsbury told The Inside Read on Sunday morning.
That's why the usually GQ-cool third-year Texas Tech coach was so outspoken after the Red Raiders beat Arkansas 35-24 on Saturday night and told reporters that Bielema got "his ass kicked." Well in advance of his stinging remarks, Kingsbury had double-checked with several Texas high school coaches who were in Bielema's sessions to make sure he knew exactly what had been said.
"I wanted to make sure I had it right," Kingsbury says.
Kingsbury's sharp comments were a stark difference from the ones he made last season after Bielema and Arkansas whipped his team 49-28 in an embarrassing home loss, one in which the Red Raiders surrendered an astonishing 438 rushing yards. In Saturday night's victory, Texas Tech's spread offense gashed Bielema's defense for 486 yards and held his patented ground-heavy offense to 228 rushing yards.
"Confidence-wise, it's kind of a measuring stick for how far we've come from last year when we got really embarrassed by that team and physically dominated," Kingsbury says of Saturday night's win. "It definitely shows our team that we've made progress."
Last year's loss to Arkansas had weighed on Kingsbury and his team ever since. He can't recall ever being dominated so badly as a coach or player. He doesn't even remember if the Razorbacks threw a pass in the second half (they attempted two).
"It was complete domination," Kingsbury says. "They did whatever they wanted. We did not respond. It was disappointing."
Last year's blowout loss had a hangover effect on the rest of Texas Tech's lackluster 4-8 season. Five days after the defeat, defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt resigned amidst allegations of being under the influence of a substance while at the team facility. The Red Raiders ended up winning just two of their remaining nine games and the defense never recovered, giving up at least 31 points in all but one contest.
So with a Big 12-best 18 returning starters, Kingsbury didn't have to say much to his team in the week leading up to Saturday night's victory. "You don't forget a feeling like that," Kingsbury says.
Kingsbury attributes his team's 3-0 start this season to fewer penalty yards per game and fewer lost turnovers entering Saturday's home game against No. 3 TCU. The Red Raiders are ranked 35th and 30th in the FBS in those respective categories after being last nationally and fifth from the bottom in those areas last season.
Reducing penalties and turnovers were major points of emphasis during the offseason, according to Kingsbury. "We talked about giving ourselves a chance," Kingsbury says. "We didn't think we gave ourselves much of a chance last season."
The addition of first-year defensive coordinator David Gibbs from Houston has also been significant for Texas Tech. The grizzled veteran has been a steadying influence for the Red Raiders' young coaching staff. "It's been awesome," Kingsbury says of Gibbs.
Several Texas high school coaches thought Kingsbury's comments were awesome on Saturday night. They flooded his Blackberry once again, this time with congratulatory and supportive texts.
"I got a few," Kingsbury says with a laugh.
Kingsbury also got some texts about the artificial white lapel flower he was wearing when he made his comments. "It's in right now," Kingsbury says.
So is Kingsbury, especially with Texas high school coaches.
Indiana RB coach Deland McCullough on the rise
Five years ago, Deland McCullough had plans to be an educator for the rest of his life. The Indiana running backs coach had been the principal at Harmony Community School, a now-defunct charter school in Cincinnati, where he had helped more than 100 athletes go to college on scholarships. But when the troubled school closed amidst alleged financial improprieties that involved McCullough, he ended up as an administrator at an elementary school in Cincinnati.
Still craving to be involved with athletics, he tried to start a sports program at the school in 2010, but was told the focus would only be academics. "I had to have some outlet," says McCullough.
So McCullough finally decided to try coaching college football, which so many coaches recommended over the years he do. He texted Mike Haywood, then the coach at Miami (Ohio), McCullough's alma mater, about a potential opening and began as an intern shortly thereafter.
Now the 42-year-old McCullough is one of college football's best running backs coaches. He's made his name behind Atlanta Falcons rookie running back Tevin Coleman, who topped the 2,000-yard barrier last season for the Hoosiers. McCullough's latest protégé is junior tailback Jordan Howard, who leads the FBS in rushing this season after transferring from Alabama-Birmingham.
"I've always been an underdog," McCullough says. "But when I get a shot, I take advantage of it."
After McCullough's season as an intern at Miami (Ohio), Haywood became Pittsburgh's coach. He offered McCullough a quality control position, which he turned down because of family considerations. Haywood was later fired two weeks later because of a domestic violence arrest. New Miami (Ohio) coach Don Treadwell promoted McCullough to running backs coach, but McCullough left a month later when Kevin Wilson got his current job as Indiana's coach.
When Wilson was offensive coordinator at Miami (Ohio), McCullough set the school and MAC career rushing records with 4,368 yards by the time he left in 1995. A Youngstown, Ohio native, McCullough had been recruited heavily as a defensive back coming out of high school, but ended up choosing the Redhawks because they were the only school that wanted him as running back.
He later played in the NFL, CFL and XFL, but his career was cut short by multiple major knee injuries. During his last three off-seasons though, he started working with at-risk youths to prepare himself for life after football. "I always felt like I could be a positive influence," McCullough says.
Once McCullough's playing days were over in 2001, he started working as a teacher and assistant football coach at Harmony even though he didn't have a background in education. He eventually became the school's principal, which required him to give up coaching. But he stayed involved in Harmony's athletics by teaching a strength and conditioning class twice a week. He also helped with the recruitment of the school's athletes, which included current Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Vinny Curry and Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Brandon Williams.
When coaches like Wilson visited, they encouraged McCullough to think about coaching college football. But McCullough was more interested then in being an educator. "I was doing just fine," McCullough says with a laugh.
That was until McCullough's epiphany at the elementary school. He hasn't once regretted his decision since to coach football. McCullough's recruitment of Howard is indicative of his disciplined approach to coaching. McCullough was at a Washington D.C. airport about to fly to Cleveland in December when he decided to change his mind and wait there until Howard's release was official from Alabama-Birmingham after the football program was shut down.
McCullough then called Howard and told him he was on his way to see him in Birmingham. Howard was highly coveted after his single-season school record of 1,587 rushing yards at UAB last season. McCullough quickly hit it off with Howard and his mother, leading them to choose the Hoosiers. Upon Howard's arrival, McCullough told the 6' 1", 230-pound Howard he would have to get stronger, be in better shape and improve running with a lower pad level.
"How hard our running backs work is undeniable," McCullough says. "It's our staple."
The adjustment has worked with Howard as he's rushed for 507 yards and three touchdowns on 78 carries. He told McCullough he's running more aggressively and has helped Indiana get off to an important 3-0 start for the first time since 2010. "No knock on last year," McCullough says, "but he's better right now,"
McCullough is sure to be highly coveted in the months ahead. He's been a candidate for other major FBS and NFL running backs jobs in the past. He has NFL experience from his minority coaching internships with New Orleans, Seattle and Atlanta.
But even now, McCullough prides himself on his educator roots. "I'm still teaching," McCullough says. "It's just in a different way."
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