Less than two years in, the ACC football hiring class of 2016 is grading out extremely well. Does the conference need a signature rivalry? When could the Heisman make its way back to the league? Each week in this space we’ll take a look around the Atlantic Coast Conference football fields and examine the most important happenings.
HOW ABOUT THEM HIRES: The look of the ACC changed significantly following the 2015 season with Miami, Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Virginia all making coaching changes. It’s often hard to make a judgment on those hires before they’ve had a few years to make an impression.
But, boy, does it look like a high success rate so far. The Hurricanes, Hokies and Cavaliers have all made tremendous strides, returning to the traditional level of expectations for those programs after down periods under the previous regimes. Syracuse, with four wins again this season, still has some work to do, but Dino Babers has time to turn it around.
Justin Fuente did one of the nation’s best coaching jobs last season at Virginia Tech, leading the Hokies to double-digit wins in his first year after taking over for Frank Beamer. Even with some November struggles, Virginia Tech is going for its ninth victory of the season Friday against Virginia.
It took a little longer there for Bronco Mendenhall at UVa, but he has the Cavaliers bowl eligible in Year 2, after losing 10 games in 2016. He’s done well enough this season rumors he’s a candidate to return to his alma mater Oregon State, something he said Monday was not a possibility.
“I’m not interested,” Mendenhall said. “That job came open a number of years ago, and there will be rumors that are accurate that I was a finalist…I’ve moved on since then. This is exactly where I want to be.”
And while the Hokies and Cavs are more than satisfied with their hires, Miami looks like a clear winner of the 2015-16 hiring season. The Hurricanes head into the final week of the regular season undefeated and in position to go to the College Football Playoff. Mark Richt was clearly a successful coach at Georgia, but a return to his alma mater has seemed to reenergize but the coach and the program.
It’s not necessarily a surprise Miami is winning, but the fact he so quickly turned it into a college football town might be his biggest accomplishment so far.
REAL RIVALRY WANTED: Thanksgiving week is supposed to be a treat for college football fans who love to see bitter, long-time rivals slug it out. But the ACC has lacked significant intra-league rivalries to enjoy during the Holiday break.
Louisville, Florida State and Clemson all play against in-state rivals this week, but those games against SEC foes have no bearing on the ACC standings and in today’s climate really only stands to harm the league if a team such as South Carolina can knock off Clemson.
There are some decent in-state, in-conference rivalries, but not that attract significant national attention. North Carolina and N.C. State have a more meaningful relationship on the basketball court and have rarely enjoyed football success at the same time.
Virginia and Virginia Tech is a rivalry that really only moves the needle within the Commonwealth, particularly with the Hokies winning 13 straight.
The ACC has made big strides as a football conference in recent years, but it has nothing like the tradition of the Iron Bowl or the Ohio State-Michigan game and this week always seems like a bit of a letdown with the conference race rarely affected by the outcomes.
HEISMAN HOPEFULS: The ACC will have to turn in the Heisman Trophy this season as it looks like Louisville’s Lamar Jackson will not repeat as the winner of college football’s most prestigious individual award.
But, is it ever too early to begin speculating about next year’s Heisman hopefuls? Does the ACC have a player returning who could join Jackson and Florida State’s Jameis Winston among the conference’s recent Heisman winners?
One would have to think Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant would enter next season with all kinds of hype as a dual threat on a team that could potentially enter as the national championship favorites.
Miami junior Malik Rosier should be in a similar situation if he returns to The U. Rosier has a shot to go over 3,000 yards passing, and like Bryant could come in with remarkable hype and expectations.
Shane Mettlen is a veteran journalist who lives in Virginia and also writes for The ACC Sports Journal. Follow him on Twitter @ShaneMettlen