Monday, October 27, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Parity rules in wacky ACC

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- There wasn't a ton for Virginia Tech players to smile about after a 30-20 loss to Florida State on Saturday, but linebacker Purnell Sturdivant did manage a grin when given an update on the out-of-town scoreboard.

"They won?" Sturdivant said, his eyebrows leaping. "They beat Georgia Tech?"

Yep. The Virginia Cavaliers won again. Their fourth in a row. A wacky season in the ACC's Coastal Division got just a little wackier, and a looming showdown between the commonwealth rivals keeps getting more interesting.

"It's probably going to come down to us and UVa in the last game of the season," Sturdivant predicted.

Still too early to say that for sure. After all, nobody in the division has more than two losses, and Virginia is the only team with one.

But the Nov. 29 game in Blacksburg looks a lot more meaningful than it did a few weeks ago. Back then, UVa was reeling. Coach Al Groh was a punchline. And the Hokies had defeated two of the top contenders in the Coastal, seemingly taking command of the division.

Now Tech has lost two straight, Miami has improved and the Cavaliers have emerged as the hottest team in the league.

Make any sense at all?

The Atlantic side is just as volatile. Wake Forest has stumbled while the Seminoles and Maryland -- Virginia Tech's next opponent -- have ascended to the top of the standings with 3-1 records.

"We want a ring," Maryland defensive lineman Jeremy Navarre said in Sunday's Baltimore Sun.

Get in line, Jeremy.

Nobody with two conference losses -- not even Duke -- should be willing to concede the ACC at this point. The league has been much too balanced, too unpredictable for that.

Could anyone have predicted the Hokies would lose their starting quarterback on the first offensive play of the game Saturday? Or how about losing their backup signal-caller, too?

"It's all crazy," Sturdivant said.

But not a lost cause by any means. Tech has an off weekend to get healthier before meeting the Terrapins at home a week from Thursday. And even if Tyrod Taylor and Sean Glennon need more time than that, third-string quarterback Cory Holt looked like he could be an adequate stopgap.

"We all have confidence in Cory," Tech linebacker Cody Grimm said. "A couple of summers ago, he was fighting for the starting job. He's experienced, and everyone knows he can get the job done"

The good news for a team that struggled on offense and special teams Saturday was the defense. Grimm had two sacks as the Hokies held the Seminoles to their second-lowest offensive output of the season. That unit's contributions will be even more critical now that the offense has additional questions.

"Early in the game we definitely felt like everything was working," Grimm said. "They had negative yards, our offense started moving the ball, we felt in control. ... But it can change quickly."

Especially in this conference. One thing hasn't changed for the Hokies, however -- they still control their fate in the Coastal with four games remaining.

"It's definitely encouraging," Grimm said. "This week off comes at a good time. Hopefully we can get some guys healthy and work on some of the little things.

"We've been close. These games we've lost we've definitely had a chance of winning, and some of the ones that we've won we've had a chance to lose.

"But just knowing that if we win out we'll be in the ACC championship, that's definitely a good feeling."

Still, it's not as good as it was two weeks ago. And when Sturdivant was asked how much margin for error the Hokies had left if they're to reach their goals, his smile faded.

"None," he said. "None at all."

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