RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The ACC is off to a promising start this season with several notable non-conference victories and five teams ranked in the Top 25.
A common thread is easy to find: Check behind center.
The Atlantic Coast Conference, not always known for its strong cadre of quarterbacks, has 10 of the top 60 passers in yards per game this season. That’s tied with the Southeastern Conference for the most among the Power Five leagues, though the SEC and Pac-12 each have three ranked in the top 10 in that category.
“As far as the ACC, there’s definitely a lot of talented guys in this league,” said linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr., Clemson’s leading tackler this season.
And the talent is almost everywhere you look, from North Carolina’s Drake Maye to Florida State’s Jordan Travis, Miami’s Tyler Van Dyke to Duke’s Riley Leonard.
“They’re playing the position at a very high level,” Trotter said.
None more than Maye, the reigning ACC player of the year who’s picked up where he left off a season ago. Maye, considered a high NFL first-round pick next spring should go pro, has hit on 72% of his throws for 1,187 yards and five touchdowns for the 14th-ranked Tar Heels, who are 4-0 for the first time since 1997.
Not far behind is Travis, the sixth-year passer who’s fueled No. 5 Florida State to an undefeated start and two of the biggest victories in recent school memory: a 45-24 win over then-No. 4 LSU and a 31-24 overtime win two weeks ago at Clemson.
Travis accounted for five touchdowns in topping LSU. He lofted a perfect game-winning TD pass in extra time at Clemson to end a frustrating seven-game losing streak to the Tigers.
Travis entered the game with a sore, non-throwing shoulder after a hard hit in a win at Boston College on Sept. 16. But he hung in through Clemson’s fierce pass rush and will be ready to face Virginia Tech on Saturday.
“I thought he showed great toughness,” Florida State coach Mike Norvell said. “He’s definitely feeling good, the bye week hit at a good time for him.”
Van Dyke, at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, has started 21 games for the 17th-ranked Hurricanes the past three seasons. This year, he’s connected on nearly 75% of his throws with 11 touchdowns and just one pick to lead the program to its first 4-0 start since 2017.
He said the team spent its off week working to keep its edge when it starts league play this week against Georgia Tech.
“It’s not a cakewalk,” Van Dyke said of the ACC. “You play good teams every week. You’ve got to be ready to play your game, if you don’t you’re going to lose.”
ACC Network analyst EJ Manuel believes the ACC has an undeserved reputation for not being a league that features top-notch quarterbacks even with Heisman Trophy winners like Jameis Winson and Lamar Jackson and stars like Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence — all in the last decade.
“I think it’s wild that every year the ACC has to fight, scratch and claw to get any type of national respect” for quarterbacks, he said. Unless an ACC team makes it to the College Football Playoff, it’s unlikely to gain attention for its passers.
“It’s pretty annoying, if I’m being honest,” said Manuel, who won a league title at Florida State in 2012 and was a first-round NFL pick the following spring. “These guys know how to play football in the ACC and this year, I think it’s gotten way better.”
It doesn’t hurt when programs fighting to be relevant find a good fit through the transfer portal.
That happened this season at Georgia Tech with ex-Texas A&M passer Haynes King and at Louisville with former Purdue and Cal quarterback Jack Plummer.
King leads the ACC with 15 touchdown passes while Plummer, with 11 touchdowns and 1,406 yards, has helped the 25th-ranked Cardinals to their first 5-0 start since 2013, a year before the program joined the ACC.
North Carolina defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, who won a national title as Auburn head coach in 2010, said he has his hands full each week preparing to limit an opponent’s effective QB play.
“It’s the sixth sense of a quarterback to me, and all the great ones that I’ve been around, that sixth sense of, ‘Yes, I can throw it on this timing and get it in this window right now’ and it happens,” he explained. “Or, ‘You know what? That’s not open. Let me take the ball, take it down and run with it.'”
Expect that to continue, said Manuel, the ACC Network analyst.
“You look at the top five (ACC quarterbacks),” he said. “I’d put that up against any other conference in the country.”