ACFC alignment might be short-lived

By Pat Coleman

It's probably not surprising that the Atlantic Central Football Conference, which will crown its first champion this season, didn't receive an automatic qualifier (AQ) to the playoffs. What might surprise you is that if the NCAA doesn't reverse its policy, the ACFC will never get one.

It's not that the conference doesn't deserve consideration – current members such as Frostburg State, Wesley, Methodist and Ferrum have certainly posted solid seasons in recent years. It's the fact that the NCAA will not award AQs to single-sport conferences that were not in place before 1998. That means leagues such as the Freedom Football Conference and New England Football Conference are in, while the ACFC is out.

But salvation might come from another conference – the Dixie Conference, which sponsors 12 sports, but not football. Only three of the seven schools in the Dixie currently sponsor football (Ferrum, Greensboro, Methodist), but Averett and Shenandoah are adding the sport next year, with Christopher Newport joining them in 2001.

All this, plus the possible addition of Chowan would give the Dixie the seven teams it needs to qualify for an AQ. There's a lot for Michael Welch, commissioner of both the Dixie and ACFC, to consider.

"It's a position that we'll have to discuss when the ADs get together in November. The situation in the Dixie Conference is that if more than four teams sponsor a sport it becomes a conference sport. That would mean football would be an official Dixie Conference sport."

Will there be room for the non-Dixie teams in Dixie Conference football? Welch says so. "We also have the ability to bring in schools for individual sports only, so there's a lot of questions we'll have to answer."

Meanwhile, football's boom continues, mostly for enrollment reasons. "If you're a private school it makes sense," says Welch, "because you're talking about bringing in 60-100 students who might not otherwise go to your school."

Here's a look at the ACFC for 1999, in our predicted order of finish:

Wesley (7-3, 3-0 in 1998): On offense, Wesley welcomes back an 800-yard rusher (junior Jabarr Truitt) and Joe Able, who had 372 receiving yards. Sophomore Jason Visconti and junior Dave Baszkowski will battle at quarterback, fronted by three All-Conference linemen. But the defense, which has been ranked in the Top 15 each of the last seven seasons, loses All-American Duane Manson, who graduated as the school's all-time leader in interceptions (17) and pass breakups (29). However, two starters return in the secondary, along with second team All-ACFC linebacker Andre Summers (105 tackles, eight sacks) and lineman Walt Wright (71 tackles) to anchor the Wolverines.

Methodist (7-3, 3-1): The Monarchs will have to fill the graduation vacancies left by four first team All-ACFC'ers, including quarterback Brian Turner. Sophomore Matt O’Kier and redshirt freshman Bryan Hunsinger top the list of potential replacements. Tailback Patrick Mebane (388 yards) returns, but the top returning wideout is sophomore Kenod Powe (nine catches, 106 yards, one touchdown). Methodist's defensive line returns starters Shaun Bowman (50 tackles, five sacks) and Tavares Hunter (74 tackles), while one starter (Kenneth Hiscock) returns at linebacker and one (Antoine Johnson) in the secondary. "We currently have 51 quality players returning that can contribute to our program," said Sypult. "The work ethic and attitude is the best of any group that I’ve ever been around."

Ferrum (6-4, 2-3): Three junior running backs return among 10 starters on the offense, including junior back Randy Anderson, who rushed for 428 yards in six games before a season-ending injury. Ferrum was 6-0 at the time of the injury but lost the final four games. Quarterback Jackson Self returns from knee surgery and looks to be the starter. He went 16-for-35 for 254 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions in four games last year. Wide receiver Joey Gause returns after earning All-Conference honors as a junior with 23 receptions for 427 yards. Ferrum’s defensive unit features a number of experienced players including three seniors and three juniors. The loss of four graduated defensive backs from the 1998 squad, including four-year starter and 1st-team All-ACFC cornerback Nate Daniels, will put pressure on the Panther secondary this year.

Frostburg State (7-3, 2-2): The Bobcat defense will be the focal point in coach Ed Sweeney's camp. "We know that we better be good defensively, because ... it always takes a little bit longer for your offense to jell." Front-running candidates at defensive end appear to be junior Justin Tagg, who has been a spot player the past two seasons and Alan Jordan, a redshirt freshman. Meanwhile, at safety, senior Ryan Patterson has had some experience and could gain the starting nod. Other positions are strong. On offense, the senior receiving duo of First Team All-ACFC Greg Cooper and Rodney Miller combined for 67 catches for 935 yards and seven touchdowns. The offensive line, however, will be an area of concern, with the lone returning starter senior left guard Matt Cornelius. The backfield is also in a state of flux. At tailback, the Bobcats face the start of the season with senior Craig Hopkins (16 carries, 17 yards) the lone returnee with varsity experience. Jason Henry returns at quarterback for his senior season after being slowed by injury. Henry appeared in eight games, completing 51% of his passes (56 of 109) for 656 yards and four touchdowns, with 10 interceptions.

Salisbury State (3-7, 1-4): A new coach (Sherman Wood) brings new offensive and defensive schemes to a returning group of 58 players, 16 starters. Ray D'Ambrosio, who started three games in '98, returns at quarterback, but the loss of leading rusher and ACFC rookie of the year Tony Ellis, who will sit out the season, hurts the Sea Gull offense. Senior Myron Dent, who battled injuries last season, rushed for 581 yards. Sophomore Ryan Lambert is projected to be SSU's top outside receiving threat after a freshman season with 16 catches for 169 yards, while tight end Ryan Brooks (27-315) returns as well. Three starters return to the defensive line and two in the secondary, including safety Du'Juan Wilson, a second-team All-ACFC performer with 50 tackles.

Chowan (5-5, 2-3): The Braves' offensive line weighs 280-350-300-320-270, providing plenty of room for a running game that returns three of its four top leading rushers. Receiver Jeremy Forbes (40 catches, 698 yards, four TDs) returns along with Danny Inscoe (27-247-3). Who will give them the ball, however, is still up in the air. Sophomore Tim Mitchell and junior Doug Leary each saw time at quarterback in a backup role and will compete for the starting job. Defensively, the Braves are looking to fill the shoes of five starters lost to graduation. The remaining returners combined for 17 sacks, including Abdul-Aziz Shabazz Wiggins, who was named honorable mention all-conference. The strength of the defense will be the secondary, led by All-South Region Antwain Haskins, who was tied for fourth in the nation last season with eight interceptions.

Greensboro (3-7, first season): After six consecutive losses to open the season, Greensboro won three of its last four games against Newport News, Guilford and Bethany. The Pride is a bit stronger, a bit faster and, most importantly, a bit more experienced. RB Jason Layman leads a potent rushing attack. Jason Godlewski – a transfer from Appalachian State a year ago – has certainly helped bolster the running attack with his blocking up front. Defensively, The Pride hopes to continue where it left of last season when it held Guilford to seven points and Bethany to 13. Free safety Ashley O'Neal and linebacker Ricky Brigman give Greensboro attitude and consistency.