ATLANTA - What's up with the Atlantic Coast Conference?
Maybe the players and coaches were caught up in the presidential election. Perhaps they're all trying to lose enough games to get in on the federal bailout, figuring that would be more profitable than the BCS. Or this might be a ploy to keep everyone interested now that it's basketball season.
Whatever the case, it must be asked: Does anyone want to win this conference?
With just two weekends left in the regular season, nine teams - count em, nine! - are still in contention for two spots in the ACC championship game in Tampa, Fla.
Over nearly three months of football, Clemson, North Carolina State and Duke were the only teams that managed to eliminate themselves from the divisional races, and one must presume they all had other plans on Dec. 6.
'It's really kind of unique,' Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. 'There isn't one team that is leaps and bounds better than anybody else in the conference.'
Every team in the ACC has lost at least three games, but no one has more than six defeats. Heck, not even the NFL has this much parity. There's still a chance that as many as three teams could wind up tied for first in the Atlantic Division, while the Coastal side faces the very real possibility of a four-team deadlock.
'There's no way to predict how this thing will turn out because all the teams are so competitive,' Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. 'If I was just a fan, I think it'd be a lot of fun. As a coach, I think it's miserable.'
Boston College, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest are still in the mix, all of them close enough in the conference standings to be covered by a single blanket.
In the Atlantic Division, Maryland (7-3 overall) leads with a 4-2 ACC mark, a half-game ahead of Florida State (7-3, 4-3) and Wake Forest (6-4, 4-3) and one game ahead of Boston College (7-3, 3-3).
Miami (7-3, 4-2) is setting the pace in the Coastal Division, a half-game clear of Georgia Tech (7-3, 4-3) and one up on North Carolina (7-3, 3-3), Virginia Tech (6-4, 3-3) and Virginia (5-5, 3-3).
'You don't want to have a conference that one guy is going to go above and beyond and win the conference every year,' Miami coach Randy Shannon said. 'It's good for the conference that you never know who's going to win it because it keeps everybody going until the last minute of the season.'
Indeed, only someone with money to burn would be foolish enough to put down a bet on who'll wind up with those two spots in Tampa, though some teams are clearly better positioned than others. Maryland, Miami and Boston College control their own fates; they'll win their respective divisions if they win out. Everyone else needs some help.
The first of the potential elimination games is Thursday night, when Georgia Tech hosts Miami. Less than two weeks ago, the Yellow Jackets had the inside track to the championship game, but a 28-7 loss at North Carolina left them to do plenty of scoreboard watching - assuming, of course, they can beat the Hurricanes, who have a five-game winning streak.
Asked about all the potential scenarios, Johnson replied, 'Who knows? The big thing for us is we've just got to focus on trying to beat Miami, and all of that other stuff will sort itself out. There have been so many scenarios, and they change every week.'
While most everyone in the ACC goes with the party line - this is a highly competitive conference with no weak teams - others look at the standings and see nothing but mediocrity. Maryland is the highest-ranked team in The Associated Press poll at No. 22. North Carolina is the top entry in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, also 22nd.
Or look at Virginia, which started the season losing three of its first four games by an average of 36 points. In less than three weeks, the Cavaliers could be hoisting the ACC's championship trophy.
Maybe the BCS should quit trying to figure out if either Utah or Boise State deserves a spot at its 10-team, multimillion-dollar postseason buffet and give one the ACC's spot.
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer dismissed that sort of talk. He pointed to a 33-10 record in out-of-conference games as a sign of the ACC's strength.
'We've held our own against outside competition,' he said. 'It's just a league that's got a lot of teams that are very close and very competitive.'
Only Johnson, who's in his first year at Georgia Tech and not as bound by conference loyalties, came the closest to conceding this is a down year for the ACC. He pointed to the offenses especially, including his own.
'Most teams have young quarterbacks,' he said. 'A lot of people are starting over on the offensive line. Just go down the list. Clemson struggled on the offensive line with injuries. We've struggled with injuries and replacing a lot of guys. Wake Forest has struggled on the offensive line. Florida State is playing three freshmen and two sophomores on the offensive line. That's a lot of young guys.'
But those at ACC headquarters counter with some different arguments. This is the nation's only conference in which every team - yes, even Duke - is still in the running to become bowl eligible. This is the only league which has 10 teams at .500 or better. This is a league on pace for its lowest margin of victory ever in conference games (10.05), where more than half the contests (21 of 38) have been decided by seven points or less.
'It's ridiculous how many teams have a chance to win this thing,' said quarterback Christian Ponder of Florida State, which once dominated the league but now is just another contender. 'There's a ton of talent on each team. There's always close games. We've had so many close games this year and the past couple years.'
Amazingly, most pundits predicted a clear-cut race before the season.
Armed with some of the league's best offensive players, Clemson appeared to be heads and shoulders above everyone else and started out ranked in the Top 10 nationally. But the Tigers opened with a 34-10 loss to Alabama, and coach Tommy Bowden didn't even make it through the season.
After that, the race was wide open.
It still is.
'In some respects, it's almost like the NFL,' said North Carolina coach Butch Davis, a former pro coach as well. 'On any given Saturday, just about anybody can beat anybody. You better make sure your team is prepared and ready to play.'
AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds in Miami, Joedy McCreary in Winston-Salem, N.C., Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, N.C., Hank Kurz in Richmond, Va., and Associated Press Writer Brent Kallestad in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.
SideBar: MIAMI AT GEORGIA TECH
When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.