Never before have ACC teams been so relieved to get the focus back to on-field issues, such as the league's consistent inability to win BCS games or produce a national title contender.
The ACC arguably has underachieved as much as any conference in college football over the past decade, but it apparently wasn't from a lack of trying. Consider that half the teams in the ACC Coastal Division have faced NCAA allegations in the past year.
Georgia Tech was placed on four years of probation and had to vacate its 2009 ACC title for playing former wide receiver Demaryius Thomas after he accepted $312 worth of clothes from former Yellow Jackets quarterback Calvin Booker.
North Carolina is awaiting word from the NCAA on penalties it will face in regard to agent-related and academic violations that resulted in the July firing of coach Butch Davis.
Miami will play its season opener Monday night at Maryland without eight players who received benefits from former booster Nevin Shapiro. The list of suspended players includes potential starting quarterback Jacory Harris, All-ACC linebacker Sean Spence and All-ACC safety Ray Ray Armstrong.
"We have a no-excuse mentality," Miami coach Al Golden said. "We're not going to start feeling sorry for ourselves. Nobody else is."
This marks the second consecutive season a Coastal Division team has faced this type of adversity just as it prepares to play a nationally televised season opener in prime time. Last season, North Carolina lost 30-24 to LSU at the Georgia Dome while missing 13 players who sat out the game as part of the NCAA investigation. UNC went on to finish 8-5 and played much of the season without many of its biggest stars on defense.
Miami's penalties aren't quite as severe. Even though the Hurricanes will be without their most experienced quarterback, sophomore Stephen Morris has starting experience and led Miami to a 26-20 victory over Maryland last season. Most of the suspended players will have to sit out only one game. Notable exceptions include Armstrong (four games) and defensive end Olivier Vernon (six games).
Miami should be at close to full strength for its October road games against Virginia Tech and UNC, a two-game stretch that could determine whether the Hurricanes seriously contend for the division title.
But the suspensions clearly put a damper on one of the ACC's showcase games of the season. A look at Miami's depth chart underscores how the suspensions have wreaked havoc with the Hurricanes' depth. Miami still has seven senior starters on defense, but its second-team defensive line is comprised of three true freshmen and one redshirt freshman.
The NCAA's investigation also overshadows the ACC coaching debuts of Golden and Maryland's Randy Edsall, who led Connecticut to a Fiesta Bowl berth last season.
Although Miami's suspensions clearly improve Maryland's chances of winning, Edsall isn't taking anything for granted. Why should he? His predecessor, Ralph Friedgen, was fired just weeks after being named the ACC coach of the year.
"If you start to go into games thinking that you can basically show up and win, you're not going to win probably 90 percent of the time," Edsall said.
The other ACC coach making his debut this week is North Carolina's Everett Withers, who was promoted from defensive coordinator and given the interim tag after Davis' departure. If his job status is causing him to feel any jitters, Withers isn't letting it show. He said he's thinking more about his players and all they've endured throughout the NCAA investigation.
"For the last 13 months, these kids have gone through an awful lot," Withers said. "When they get on the field, it's almost like a relief to them."
Now that the games are starting, the whole conference can breathe a sigh of relief.
BEST MATCHUP: Clemson OTs Phillip Price and Landon Walker vs. Troy DE Jonathan Massaquoi. The most star-studded potential matchup of the week is Boston College LB Luke Kuechly's attempt to contain Northwestern QB Dan Persa, but Persa might not play Saturday as he attempts to bounce back from a ruptured Achilles' tendon that ended his 2010 season early. So we instead will spotlight this matchup that could feature a former walk-on against one of the nation's premier pass rushers. The only new starter on Clemson's offensive line is Price, a fifth-year senior whose lone previous start came as an extra tight end at Wake Forest last season. Massaquoi typically lines up opposite the opposing team's right tackle, which would put him against Clemson senior Landon Walker. But Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he wouldn't be surprised if the Trojans move Massaquoi around to match their star pass rusher against Price, a former walk-on. Massaquoi had 13.5 sacks last season. Only former Clemson star Da'Quan Bowers and West Virginia's Bruce Irvin recorded more sacks than Massaquoi in 2010. "He's probably as good a guy as we'll see all year," Swinney said. If Massaquoi gets into the backfield to harass QB Tajh Boyd, it could spoil the unveiling of new Clemson coordinator Chad Morris' hurry-up, no-huddle attack.
PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Boston College RB Andre Williams. Montel Harris' quest to become the leading career rusher in ACC history will be put on hold at least temporarily while he misses the Eagles' first game or two to recover from surgery on his left knee. Harris' absence puts the pressure on Williams to lead the Eagles' rushing attack. There are a couple of reasons for BC fans to remain optimistic. Williams rushed for a combined 363 yards in place of an injured Harris in the Eagles' final three games last season, and Northwestern allowed more than five yards per carry a year ago. That said, Northwestern returns seven starters on defense and should be tougher against the run this season.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Will an FCS program trip up an ACC team again? Half the teams in the ACC are facing FCS programs this week, but that won't necessarily result in any cakewalks. In fact, the Duke-Richmond and Virginia-William & Mary games offer the ACC teams shots at revenge. Duke lost to Richmond and Virginia fell to William & Mary in the opening week of the 2009 season. And we can't forget how eventual ACC champion Virginia Tech fell to James Madison last season. James Madison gets a shot at North Carolina this week. Virginia Tech faces FCS powerhouse Appalachian State, the school that made national headlines four years ago with its season-opening upset of Michigan. Have the ACC teams learned their lesson? If they haven't, the conference once again could spend the opening weeks of the season as a national punchline.
NUMBERS GAME: Recent history suggests the Labor Day night game between Miami and Maryland should go down to the wire. In recent years, The six scheduled night games on Labor Day that featured ACC teams in recent years (Florida State-Miami in 2004-06 and 2009, Clemson-Florida State in 2007 and Boise State-Virginia Tech in 2010) were decided by a total of 25 points. The largest margin of victory in any of those games was Miami's 16-10 overtime victory over Florida State in 2004 and Clemson's 24-18 triumph over Florida State in 2007. And that doesn't even include Maryland's 17-14 squeaker over Navy last season, which took place on a Labor Day afternoon. The catch is that the 2004 Miami-Florida State game didn't actually take place on Labor Day night. Although it was scheduled for a Labor Day prime-time start, Hurricane Frances pushed the kickoff back four nights.
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
"We weren't a bad team last year. We had a bad record. At the end of this season, we want to have the kind of record that reflects what kind of team we are." - Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, whose team went 6-7 last season for its first losing record since 1998
"I don't think we're going to underestimate anybody. It was a terrible feeling, and we don't want to have that feeling ever, ever again. We're taking everything like we're playing for the national championship." - Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas, to the (Newport News) Daily Press about the lessons learned from the Hokies' loss last season to FCS program James Madison
"A lot of the specialists call me Michael Jackson." - Virginia Tech P Scott Demler, to The Roanoke (Va.) Times. Demler punts while wearing a glove on his left hand. Demler said he started using the glove after cutting his hand last season.
"I think every college quarterback has pressure on him. In my case, yeah, there might be a little more. But that's something I'm going to embrace. It's something that excites me." - North Carolina State QB Mike Glennon, to the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer on the pressure of replacing Russell Wilson, now at Wisconsin
"I've been 10 since seventh grade. I was 10 all through high school, so I just wanted to go back to what I've always been. It's also kind of a fresh start - put last year in the past and start over." - Wake Forest QB Tanner Price, on his decision to change his uniform number from No. 11 to No. 10
ETC.: How loaded is Florida State? Sophomore CB Xavier Rhodes was the ACC's defensive rookie of the year last season and was a second-team pick this summer on Rivals.com's preseason All-ACC team, yet he probably won't start Saturday. Rhodes is behind Mike Harris on the depth chart. Rhodes still is expected to play quite a bit this week. ... Georgia Tech's game with Western Carolina will match Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson against his alma mater for the sixth time. Johnson was 5-0 against Western Carolina during his Georgia Southern tenure. Western Carolina is 0-25 all-time against current ACC members and never has beaten an FBS program. ... Miami won't be the only team that enters its Labor Day game shorthanded. Maryland RB D.J. Adams and OY Cody Blue will miss the game because of a violation of team rules. Although both players were projected as backups, Adams rushed for 11 touchdowns last season. ... Miami S A.J. Highsmith began his college career at quarterback and is headed back there, at least for one week. Highsmith will work as Miami's emergency third-string quarterback while Harris serves his suspension, though he also is available to play in the secondary. ... There's a twist to North Carolina State sophomore Rashard Smith's return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament that has sidelined him since October 2009. Smith, a starting cornerback before his injury, has moved to wide receiver. Switching positions isn't unusual for Smith, a former high school quarterback. ... Virginia apparently has become the cradle of future ACC quarterbacks. Six of the league's 12 starting quarterbacks are from Virginia: Clemson's Boyd (Hampton), North Carolina State's Glennon (Centreville), Florida State's E.J. Manuel (Virginia Beach), North Carolina's Bryn Renner (West Springfield), Virginia's Michael Rocco (Lynchburg) and Virginia Tech's Thomas (Lynchburg). ... Virginia coach Mike London owes plenty to William & Mary, the team he faces this week. London worked as a defensive line coach for William & Mary from 1991-94. He was depositing a paycheck from William & Mary when he met his wife, Regina, at a bank in Williamsburg, Va.