The ACC and its Heisman problem

Here’s a story I wrote for the Lindy’s ACC Preview issue over the summer. With Clemson and FSU battling it out this weekend, I thought it’d be a worthwhile read:

Where have you gone Chris Weinke, the ACC turns its lonely eyes to you

It doesn’t take a butchering of Simon & Garfunkel’s most famous hit to realize that something is amiss in the ACC when it comes to its ability to compete in the annual race for the Heisman Trophy.

Since Weinke captured the award for Florida State back in 2000, 55 players have finished in the top 5 of the Heisman vote.

None of them have come from the ACC.

By comparison, the Big 12 has produced 14 top-five finishers during that span, while the SEC and Pac-12 have had 11 each. Even the WAC has gotten in on the fun, with four finalists making it to New York since 2000.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be for the ACC when the millenium dawned. After all, Weinke’s Seminoles of 2000 were not just the conference’s flagship, but the elite program in college football, having just finished in the top five of the final Associated Press poll for a record 14th-straight season. Things seemed to get even better in 2004 when Miami (Fla.) and Virginia Tech joined the league. The Hurricanes–winners of five national titles and two Heismans between 1983 and 2001–were a couple seasons removed from a 34-game win streak. Meanwhile, the Hokies played in the national title game in 1999 thanks to Michael Vick, who would go on to finish third in the Heisman vote in 2000 before being selected first overall in the 2001 NFL draft. Even Boston College brought some Heisman tradition with it when it joined the league in 2005.

Indeed, a ‘super conference’ seemed to be in the offing, one that was poised to challenge the SEC for BCS supremacy. Logically, Heisman Trophies would follow the league’s success.

But the conference was nowhere close to being supreme and the Heismans didn’t come.

It wasn’t because of a lack of talent. The ACC is one of only two conferences (along with the SEC) to have a least 30 players drafted in each of the last seven NFL drafts. The league has seen 250 players get drafted during that time, second only to the SEC’s 273.

Two other explanations hit closer to home, however.

First, the Heisman race tends to focus on players from national title-contending teams. But the ACC hasn’t had a real title contender since that 2000 Florida State squad lost to Oklahoma, 13-2, in the BCS championship game. The dramatic decline of Miami and FSU in the last decade is at the root of this problem. From 1983 to 2002, these were arguably the two best programs in college football, winning seven national titles and four Heismans between them. But neither school has finished in the top 10 of the final coaches poll since 2003.

Meanwhile, the rest of the league has been left to carry the load when it comes to garnering national attention. The results have been awful, with Virginia Tech the only ACC team to finish in the top 10 of either poll in the last eight seasons.

“Virginia Tech lived up to its end of the bargain,” said Bruce Feldman of CBSSports.com, whose book,Cane Mutiny, chronicled the rise of Miami’s program. “But if Miami and Florida State hadn’t fallen off, the ACC might be the No. 2 conference right now.

“Chances are, the SEC doesn’t win five titles in a row if Miami and Florida State are what they used to be.”

And maybe the ACC would’ve gotten a Heisman winner or two, since nothing helps a candidate’s cause more than playing for a traditional power contending for a national title.

Still, Robert Griffin III’s win for Baylor last year showed that this isn’t always necessary, which brings us to the other Heisman problem with the ACC: Offense.

Or, lack of it.

Like it or not, the Heisman is an award reserved for offensive players. This era of college football has seen the advent of wide open spread offenses with Heisman winners, or contenders, producing remarkable single-season statistics. In 2007, Tim Tebow ran and threw for a combined 55 touchdowns. In 2008, Sam Bradford also combined for 55 touchdowns. Cam Newton totaled 50 touchdowns in 2010. All three won the Heisman over players whose stats were also gaudy when compared to earlier eras.

But the ACC has been slow to come around to adopting the more popular and exotic offensive attacks of recent times. Miami and Florida State run traditional pro-style offenses that stress balance, ball control and efficiency rather than deception and explosion. Most of the rest of the league follows this model–with the notable exception of Georgia Tech and, more recently, Clemson. Others, like Virginia Tech, focus on defense and special teams as the key to their success.

This has led to anemic offensive production. The last ACC team to average at least 35 points per game was North Carolina State in 2003. Only four league quarterbacks have thrown at least 30 touchdown passes in a season since then, with two doing so in 2011. ACC teams are consistently outside the national top 25 when it comes to scoring, total offense and yards per play.

“The league hasn’t had a ton of good offensive coaches,” said Feldman. “There’s been instability on offensive staffs at places like Miami and FSU. There haven’t been a lot of elite quarterbacks either.”

With no national title contenders and no big offensive stars to speak of, is it any wonder that Heisman voters all but ignore the ACC?

But as tough as things have been for the league of late, there could be signs of life on the Heisman horizon. Clemson installed Gus Malzahn protege Chad Morris as offensive coordinator in 2011 and Tigers sophomore quarterback Tajh Boyd blossomed as a result, throwing for 3,828 yards and 33 touchdown passes in his first year as a starter. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech had its own sophomore star in Logan Thomas, who threw for 3,013 yards while rushing for 469. Maybe he’ll end up sparking the Hokies the way Vick did 13 seasons ago.

Or this could be the year that Florida State gets its act together and finally does something with all the talent Jimbo Fisher has lured to Tallahassee.

Feldman isn’t holding his breath.

“Usually coaches are what they are,” he said. “Jimbo Fisher won’t suddenly turn into Chad Morris or Gus Malzahn or Chip Kelly.”

Maybe not. But ACC athletic directors might be turning their lonely eyes to the likes of Morris, Malzahn or Kelly if things don’t change soon.

About Heismanpundit

Chris Huston, A.K.A. ‘The Heisman Pundit‘, is a Heisman voter and the creator and publisher of Heismanpundit.com, a site dedicated to analysis of the Heisman Trophy and college football. Dubbed “the foremost authority on the Heisman” by Sports Illustrated, HP is regularly quoted or cited during football season in newspapers across the country. He is also a regular contributor on sports talk radio and television.

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