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Dominating defenses instill respect for ACC football

Opponents across the country are no longer able to disregard Atlantic Coast Conference football as the second sport in a basketball league.

ACC teams have enjoyed a great deal of success in non-conference games this year, including victories over national powers Miami and Texas. During their weekly teleconference on Wednesday, ACC coaches pointed to a league-wide improvement on defense as the main reason behind the recent emergence.

"When you wonder where the improvement in this league is, it's pretty obvious where it is, and it's on defense," Clemson coach Tommy West said.

Statistics back up West's claim. Four of the top 25 teams in the nation in total defense are from the ACC. North Carolina is the country's No. 1 defensive team, yielding under 200 yards a game, and Florida State is a close second. Better recruiting is one component of the imposing defenses.

Tar Heel coach Mack Brown noted the increased number of top-quality defensive players from the South that ACC schools are now signing to scholarships. Nine years ago, when Brown took the UNC job, he noticed that same talent was either leaving the South or going to other southern schools.

Mark Duffner, head coach at Maryland, also suggested that teams are using their top athletes on defense, regardless of their original positions.

"There's kind of an old law in football that, boy, you've got to win with defense, " Duffner said. "And I think, that when given the choice, that coaches will generally put their better performers on the defensive side."

Better athletes allow coaches to play more aggressive defensive schemes. Other coaches talked about changes in defensive philosophy around the conference.

"We've put more emphasis on defense and tried to get better athletes there, so you don't get into those shoot-outs that you need 40 points to win, " Virginia coach George Welsh said. "Now the X's and O's are changing. Teams are playing more man-to-man; they're playing bump-and-run; they're much more aggressive up front.

"Defensive coaches had to come up with a way to defend all the different passing attacks. Getting more pressure on the passer and playing more man-to-man is one way to do it."

The Cavaliers' coach also cited the influence of successful NFL teams on the defenses in the conference. In particular, he pointed out the success that the Carolina Panthers have had with their zone-blitzing scheme. ACC schools have been quick to copy and refine what has worked on defense at the professional level.

Georgia Tech coach George O'Leary is in his second college coaching stint after spending time with the NFL's San Diego Chargers as their defensive line coach. He said that the differences in the defenses around the ACC are apparent by looking at how each team defends the pass.

"[When I first coached at Tech in the late '80's] every team was pretty much a coverage team, [utilizing] zone coverage, and pretty much playing trying to get an eighth guy [close to the line of scrimmage]," O'Leary said. "Now everybody's saying, 'We've got corners to play [man-o-man coverage].'

"They're pretty much playing seven in the box, and they're saying, 'You've got to block us, and if you don't block us we're going to [force you to throw the ball before you want to throw it].' "

Of course, no discussion of ACC defense is complete without mentioning the unit at Florida State. The Seminoles have given up only 203.8 yards of total offense per game, and have allowed only 43 points in five games-an astonishingly low mark of 8.3 points per game.

North Carolina has been even better, though, yielding only 36 points all season, an average of six per game. The Tar Heels and the Seminoles are first and third in the country in scoring defense.

In past years, critics might have labeled the ACC as 'Florida State and the Eight Dwarves.' But not so this year, and Seminole coach Bobby Bowden was quick to offer high praise for his conference foes.

"There's no doubt they've improved," Bowden said. "As much as we've been around the country and played the Nebraska's and the Miami's and the Florida's, we think North Carolina is about that good. Now here we come with Virginia. I think Virginia and Georgia Tech are playing about that same level."

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