Senior Writer

ACC's draft board prowess not helping BCS record


Anne Groh is not your average football wife. Sure, she has followed her husband Al, currently the Georgia Tech defensive coordinator, to his jobs around the country for decades. Sure, she watches games on television. But after all those years, all that travel and all those jobs, she prefers watching the tight end, a particular tight end.

"My wife is the unofficial president of the Heath Miller Fan Club," Al Groh said of the Pittsburgh Steelers tight end. "She watches him on every play. She'll say, 'Did you see that block that Heath made?' He's a complete player. He's one of the best guys you would ever want to be around."

Before he won titles as a Steeler, Heath Miller starred in the ACC at Virginia. (Getty Images)  
Before he won titles as a Steeler, Heath Miller starred in the ACC at Virginia. (Getty Images)  
Miller has been more than that since playing for Groh at Virginia. At the age of 28, he has already been the nation's best tight end (2004 Mackey Award), drafted in the first round, played in three Super Bowls and earned the undying football love of a coach's wife. Maybe it falls to Anne Groh, then, to explain why Miller is a small part of the one of the biggest mysteries in college football.

If only there was an explanation for the ACC's dominance on the draft board and reticence on the field.

Dig down, try to find a concrete reason why ACC football has been the No. 2 producer of pro talent for more than a decade. You can't. It doesn't make sense. In the war room -- great. Between the lines -- not so much. We all get the No. 1 in that category: The SEC has won five straight national championships and consecutive Heismans. It has NFL talent on the hoof. But the ACC's list of recent draft-day accomplishments would crash a computer as well as boggle the mind.

Since 2000, the SEC has sent 449 players to the NFL. The ACC is a surprising second with 393. The Big Ten is third with 385. The SEC has the added advantage of having 12 teams. The Big Ten has 11 members. Until 2004, the ACC was a nine-team league.

From 2006-2009, the SEC beat the ACC by exactly one draft pick, 149-148. In that same span, the ACC led the country with 30 first-round choices. Among them: Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan (Atlanta, third overall, 2008); Virginia defensive lineman Chris Long (St. Louis, second overall, 2008); Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson (Detroit, second overall, 2007) and North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams (Houston, first overall, 2006).

There is that disconnect, though, that should make the ACC also stand for Anomaly and Conundrum Conference. It has been the least successful power conference in BCS bowls (2-11). The ACC won the second BCS title (Florida State over Virginia Tech, 1999), none since. At roughly the same time the league expanded in 2004-05, Miami began slumping. Florida State was already sliding compared to its lofty accomplishments of the past. Those two programs remain the ACC flagships in name only. Virginia Tech has been the most consistent performer of the expansion era, winning three of the last four conference titles.

Welcome to the dichotomy ...

"It was about midway through the time I was at Virginia -- around 2004, 2005 -- where the [NFL talent] tap really started to open up," said Al Groh, the Cavaliers' head coach from 2001-2009. "At that time frame, there were a lot of coaches in the league who were very aggressive in their recruiting. Consequently, that was behind the influx of high level talent that came in."

Groh spent 14 years in the NFL coaching top college talent, 13 as an assistant. Last season was his 24th year in the ACC, 15 of it as a head coach at Wake Forest (1981-86) and Virginia. He has seen the good ... In the mid-2000s, North Carolina State's Chuck Amato had already produced quarterback Philip Rivers (fourth overall pick, 2004) and was in the process of putting the finishing touches on Williams. Wake Forest's Jim Grobe was building an ACC champion (2006) and the draft's fourth overall pick, Aaron Curry, in 2009. Bobby Bowden was still on an NFL run, producing a combined six first-rounders in 2005-2006. In consecutive seasons, the ACC set conference records for players drafted -- 36 in 2005, 51 in 2006.

And the bad ... A lot of this has occurred during a time of ACC upheaval. Since 2008, eight of the league's 12 programs have changed coaches. ACC non-conference losses have ranged from embarrassing to expected in recent years. Maryland had those back-to-back losses to Middle Tennessee State (2008-09). Virginia Tech lost to James Madison last season. In the last three years Clemson has lost to national powers Alabama, TCU and Auburn. The league went into 2010 11-87-1 against non-conference opponents ranked in the top five. It had a 28-game losing streak in that category that quickly grew with Virginia Tech losing to Boise State.

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The Good: Adding three teams -- Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College. That increased membership to 12, adding prestige, money and a championship game. The Bad: Combined, those three expansion teams are producing fewer pros since 2005 than they did in the previous six years (1999-2004). Virginia Tech and Miami joined in 2004. BC joined in 2005. For purposes of this discussion, we are using 2005 as the expansion cutoff point.

"When you bring in new people it brings in a resurgence of energy and focus in the program," Groh said. "I do remember there were a lot of players going in the draft, a big percentage of them were defensive players."

That's where a germ of an explanation begins to emerge. Nationally, we're coming off the second-highest scoring season ever. For the first time there wasn't at least one team in the BCS title game with a top 10 defense. It can be argued that the best ACC offensive players in this current draft run haven't had enough to go around them for their teams to make a national impact. Following a five-year run of at least one team in the top 10 in total offense, the ACC hasn't had a team in the top 25 in total offense since 2008.

Citing Ryan, Rivers, Michael Vick and Virginia's Matt Schaub -- a good sampling of accomplished NFL quarterbacks from the ACC in the last decade, Groh said, "For the most part those players, while they were in college, did not have just a whole corps of elite receivers around them."

In the case of one of those elite receivers -- Georgia Tech's Johnson -- he did not have the elite quarterback to go with him. In his final season for the Jackets, Johnson caught passes from the erratic Reggie Ball (44.4 percent completion rate). As good as Miller was at Virginia, he was not the game-breaker needed so desperately for teams that win championships.

"That might be one of the reasons it's hard to get through a season without getting nicked," Grobe said. "That might be one of the things that's held the league back."

Since 2005, the ACC has finished no lower than third among conferences in players drafted. In that same time span, the ACC has had one team finish in the top seven of the BCS (Virginia Tech, third in 2007). There were 17 players from current ACC teams in the Super Bowl -- 16 percent of the combined rosters. BC's B.J. Raji became a Green Bay hero with his pick-six against the Bears. Teammate Sam Shields, an undrafted free agent from Miami, ended the Chicago threat with a game-clinching interception in the NFC Championship Game.

In the post-Super Bowl haze there was also Miller. The Steelers' first-round choice in 2005 (30th overall) had transformed himself from a high school quarterback to a Super Bowl starter. Another highly-paid example of the Anomaly and Conundrum Conference.

"I would venture to say there are a lot of players who have no idea where Heath Miller went to college," Al Groh said.

Anne Groh, among others, knows what he has done since then.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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