PITTSBURGH (AP) — There are stars in the Atlantic Coast Conference who don’t wear garnet and gold if you know where to look.
The thing is, nobody’s looking. Not hard anyway.
The ACC’s top running back toils in relative obscurity, his muscular brilliance overshadowed by his team’s inability to get out of its own way: Pittsburgh’s James Conner.
The league’s most dynamic quarterback not named Jameis Winston spends his Saturdays trying to overcome the sins of a defense that can’t stop anybody: North Carolina’s Marquise Williams.
The nation’s leading interceptor is a sophomore who was virtually unknown two months ago and plays for a school obsessed with the head coach’s offensive genius: Louisville’s Gerod Holliman.
And the conference’s leading tackler is an anonymous everyman who has helped engineer one of college football’s most unlikely success stories: Duke’s David Helton.
It’s not hard to figure out why they remain unknown. The ACC technically consists of two divisions on paper but is really two separate leagues at the moment: No. 1 Florida State and everybody else.
The parity that has taken over the new-look 14-team conference has cultivated some interesting storylines but hardly any sizzle for the impact players who are part of the muddled middle.
Pitt’s Conner is tracking down the likes of Tony Dorsett in the school record books. The sophomore running back needs one touchdown over the final two weeks to equal the Heisman Trophy winner and Hall of Famer’s school mark of 22 scores set in 1976.
That’s the year the Panthers won the national title and Dorsett clutched the Heisman Trophy.
Yet Conner won’t find himself anywhere near New York City when the award for the nation’s top player is announced in December, even though the 250-pound converted defensive end is third in the country with 1,562 yards rushing and perhaps first in bruises caused.
“It would be nice, but it is what it is,” Conner said.
Conner instead will likely see Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon be among the Heisman finalists after Gordon put up an FBS-record 408 yards last week against Nebraska. Conner joked Gordon’s remarkable day looked “like a typo,” though the same could be said about Conner, who already has three 200-yard games this season.
“Our numbers are kind of similar,” Conner said.
Everywhere except the win/loss column.
While Gordon and the 14th-ranked Badgers are 8-2 and steaming toward a major bowl, Conner and the Panthers (4-6) need to beat Syracuse and Miami to become bowl eligible.
“I’ll just continue to try and leave it out on the field,” Conner said with a shrug.
It’s a refrain echoed by Conner’s ACC brethren, guys whose highlight-reel plays are often left on the cutting room floor due in part to the inability for any program outside of Tallahassee to gain national traction.
Williams is putting up Winston-esque numbers for the Tar Heels (5-5), ranking second in passing yards and total offense and seventh in yards rushing. He’s the main reason the embattled program is within a win of bowl eligibility and yet the junior understands as long as Winston is around he’s simply another face in a largely faceless crowd.
“It’s just the name of the game,” Williams said. “Maybe I need to do more than what I’m doing to get my name on the map. Hey, I’m up for the challenge.”
One the rest of the conference has struggled with as teams try to emerge from the vast shadow cast by Winston and the Seminoles.
Miami and Louisville both had chances to take out Florida State and raise the national profiles of dynamic talents like Hurricanes running back Duke Johnson and the Cardinals’ Holliman. Both times the Winston engineered a thrilling comeback even with Johnson piling up 130 yards and a score and Holliman picking off Winston twice.
The inability to knock the Seminoles from their perch is one of the main reasons the ACC has just three teams in the Top 25 of the college football playoff rankings, the fewest among the five power conferences.
“Certainly some programs to their credit have held on to (top spots) longer and created separation,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said.
And a logjam underneath.
Duke’s Helton leads the ACC with 103 tackles, including 11.5 (five solo and 13 assists) in a 51-48 overtime victory over Pitt. A dozen times the senior linebacker found himself hanging on while Conner bulled his way down field as two of the league’s best consistently found themselves on a collision course with each other.
It made for an entertaining afternoon, even if it was played in front of a half-empty stadium and barely made a ripple even as Duke coach David Cutcliffe called Conner “a special football player.”
Conner insists he’s hardly alone in that category.
“Teams in the SEC and the Big Ten, they get a lot of hype and they deserve it,” Conner said. “The ACC has great players too.”
Now comes the hard part: winning enough games for people to take notice.
AP Sports Writers Charles Odum in Atlanta, Hank Kurz in Richmond, Virginia, Joedy McCreary and Aaron Beard in Raleigh, North Carolina and Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, South Carolina, contributed to this report.
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.