Friedlander: Resetting expectations for every ACC football team
Dabo Swinney did his best to put a positive spin on Clemson’s opening week loss at Duke by saying that the only goal his Tigers can’t accomplish this season is going undefeated.
It’s a factual statement.
All of their other goals, including an ACC championship and a return to the College Football Playoff after a 2-year absence, are in fact still on the table.
The only thing that’s changed for Swinney and his Tigers is their expectations.
And Clemson isn’t the only ACC facing that reality.
We are only 2 weeks into the new season, but enough football has been played for some to lower the bar on what they hope to accomplish and others to begin reaching for even greater heights.
With that mind, let’s start recalibrating those expectations:
With 78% of last year’s production returning, All-ACC guard Christian Mahogany healthy again and a schedule that avoids defending league champion Clemson, the Eagles had every reason to believe that they were capable of making at least the 3-win improvement over 2022 to earn bowl eligibility.
The key was getting off to a fast start against an easy nonconference slate. So much for easy. After an overtime loss to Northern Illinois and a close call against Holy Cross, the focus has gone from getting into the postseason to making as much improvement as possible in hopes of saving coach Jeff Hafley’s job.
“People are probably going to give up on us and throw us away,” Swinney said after the Duke game. “But I ain’t throwing this team away.”
Swinney might not. But his team has shown a propensity for throwing away its own chances through its 2 games. Turnovers, especially in the red zone, have plagued the Tigers. Even if they clean up those mistakes, they’ll have their hands full when Florida State comes to Death Valley in 2 weeks.
A loss would essentially put them 3 games behind the Seminoles in the ACC standings and all but end any Playoff hopes with 8 games still left to play.
At that point, the expectations become similar to those of 2021. Get to the 10-win plateau. Go to the best bowl possible. And start building momentum for next season.
Remember the narrative about how the Blue Devils could be better than they were last year, but have a worse record because of their schedule’s degree of difficulty?
You can go scrap that line of thinking thanks to their impressive 28-7 win against Clemson
Big boy schedule and all, coach Mike Elko’s team is now a legitimate threat to be 1 of the 2 teams playing for the ACC championship in Charlotte on the first Saturday in December.
No need to adjust expectations. The Seminoles already had their sights set high. As did others for them, as evidenced by their top-10 rankings in both major preseason polls.
Those projections have only been enhanced by their impressive Labor Day Sunday beatdown of LSU in Orlando.
With playmakers all over the field on both sides of the ball, including numerous additions from the transfer portal, FSU has transformed itself from a trendy Playoff pick to a legitimate threat to win the national championship.
The road to 6 wins and bowl eligibility was already narrow to begin with. It got even narrower after allowing a halftime lead to slip away in an opening night loss to Louisville.
While nothing is impossible, especially the way Texas A&M transfer Haynes King has performed, the focus for 1st-year coach Brent Key should be more on big-picture improvement rather than the number of wins.
Expectations, realistic or not, were sent through the roof the minute Jeff Brohm was hired to coach his alma mater. Louisville fans have been clamoring for the return of the former Cardinals quarterback for years.
Now they have him. And he hasn’t let anyone down yet.
At 2-0 with a conference schedule that doesn’t include Florida State, Clemson or North Carolina – the top 3 teams in the preseason poll – it might be time to start thinking of Louisville in terms of more than just a pleasant surprise.
Is the swagger finally back?
It’s still too early to know for sure. But it’s safe to say that nobody in the ACC has had their expectations raised more since the start of the season than Mario Cristobal’s Hurricanes.
Saturday’s win against Texas A&M was significant because of the result. But it was even more important because of the way it was achieved.
Rallying from an early 10-point deficit, getting 5 touchdown passes from Tyler Van Dyke, forcing 3 turnovers and scoring on special teams didn’t just validate Cristobal’s offseason roster overhaul. It also upped the ante considerably moving forward.
The Tar Heels’ stock soared after an encouraging defensive performance in an opening win against South Carolina.
While optimism has been tempered at least somewhat after a double-overtime survival Appalachian State and an unfavorable ruling from the NCAA on top receiver Tez Walker, their 2-0 start keeps them on track to reach their difficult 3-game closing stretch with a shot at returning to the ACC Championship Game for the 2nd straight season.
At 1-1 with a win at UConn and a loss to Notre Dame, the Wolfpack are right where they were expected to be.
But 2 disappointing performances from an offense that was supposed to be energized by the arrival of new coordinator Robert Anae and transfer quarterback Brennan Armstrong have lowered the bar considerably.
The Panthers find themselves in a similar situation to NC State. Like Armstrong with the Wolfpack, Pitt’s transfer quarterback Phil Jurkovec has yet to find a rhythm in his reunion with his former offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr.
There’s still time for it to develop. And they’ve yet to play their first conference game. But after Saturday’s loss to Cincinnati, with another challenging rivalry game against West Virginia coming up this week, Pat Narduzzi’s team is starting to look like a middle-of-the-pack team rather than an ACC contender.
It’s tough to tell much about the Orange because of the caliber of the competition they’ve faced. But after outscoring Colgate and Western Michigan by a combined 113-7 margin, Dino Babers’ team is looking a lot more dangerous than most thought.
Not much was expected of the Cavaliers this season considering the rebuilding job Tony Elliott has ahead of him and the tragic circumstances under which 2022 ended. After getting their hearts ripped out in a last-minute loss to James Madison in their home-opener Saturday, those expectations have been lowered even further.
Circle their Oct. 7 date against William & Mary. It might be their last best chance to win a game this year.
Projections for the Hokies in Year 2 under Brent Pry are only slightly better than their in-state rival. That hasn’t changed after a 1-1 start.
Whatever optimism was gained after an opening week win against Old Dominion was negated on Saturday by a loss to Purdue in which they were held to only 11 net yards on the ground.
It’s a mystery as to why expectations are always lower than they should be.
Size isn’t everything. Rather than concentrating on Wake having the smallest enrollment among Power 5 schools, more attention should be paid to what Dave Clawson has done with his program over the past decade.
It usually takes until the Deacons get off to a 2-0 start, something they’ve now done in 7 of the past 8 years, for their expectations to be raised as high as they should have been in the first place.