Something in the air: ACC passing numbers on the rise in 2012

It's the year of the quarterback in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Or, perhaps more accurately, the year of quarterback stats.

Since the league went to the current 12-team format in 2004, the ACC has not seen pass-happy numbers like what's been posted so far this season. There's already been five instances of a player throwing for at least 435 yards in a game — for comparison's sake, there had been a total of three of those by ACC quarterbacks since 2004 — and the league is on pace for more touchdowns and yards through the air than it's seen since the expansion.

Spread packages have helped offensive numbers rise across college football, and there's plenty of upperclassmen currently under center in the ACC. Whatever the reason, this trend might last a while.

"It's an excellent question," Boston College coach Frank Spaziani said. "I think we have some quarterbacks who are stepping up in the league this year. Certainly, the skill level of our quarterbacks and the coaches are obviously very good coaches and understand how to use them. That's what I would attribute it to, the efficiency of the quarterbacks and put them in a good system — there you go."

So far this year, according to STATS LLC, teams in the ACC are averaging 258 passing yards per game. That's up 26 yards per game over last year's pace, 46 yards per game over the average from 2010 and a whopping 74 yards over the league clip from four years ago.

Teams are also throwing for an average of 1.7 touchdowns per game. If that clip holds up, the ACC would finish with somewhere around 260 touchdowns this season, slightly better than the 249 the league's quarterbacks passed for a year ago.

"Look at the NFL. It's the way it's spread out," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "I think the kids are getting developed better at quarterback across the country right now because now football has taken on all the 7-on-7 things, kind of like AAU basketball has. The kids are more developed. When they get to college, they can adapt better."

Entering this weekend's games, the ACC has three of the nation's top 15 quarterbacks in terms of yardage, with Miami's Stephen Morris (No. 10, 2,214 yards), Florida State's EJ Manuel (No. 14, 2,033) and North Carolina's Bryn Renner (No. 15, 2,028). Morris already has a 566-yard game — a school and Atlantic Coast Conference-record total — to his credit this season, along with a 436-yard effort.

The best by anyone in the ACC a year ago was 386 yards by Clemson's Tajh Boyd.

"We've got a lot of great quarterbacks in this league," Morris said earlier this season. "There's a lot of talent, a lot of guys who work hard and know how to lead their teams."

Boston College's Chase Rettig threw for 441 yards in a game this year, North Carolina State's Mike Glennon passed for 440 and Manuel's season-best so far is 439. Across the nation, there's been 37 instances of 400-yard passing games through the first half or so of this season, which is ahead of the pace of the 62 that were piled up last year.

And it's not just about yards and touchdowns, it's also about accuracy.

ACC quarterbacks completed 60.3 percent of their passes last year; this year, they're at 59.9, which is the second-best rate since the league went to the 12-team model.

"I think most of it is not just the quality of the quarterbacks and their ability to spin it and put it where they want it," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "When we're playing a receiver this week that's 6-5, 240 pounds and can run as fast as a guy that used to be a 6-1, 180-pounder, that's a good target."

There may be another element to these big passing numbers — that being, teams are doing it on some level out of desperation.

Take Virginia Tech, for example.

The Hokies are 4-4, which is a huge surprise given their status as a near-perennial winner of the Coastal Division (and they're still in that title mix this season, their slow start notwithstanding). From 2008 through 2011, the Hokies had almost perfect balance in their running-to-passing ratio offensively, with 10,545 yards on the ground, 10,214 yards through the air.

This season, it's not even close. More than 60 percent of Virginia Tech's offense has come through passing, with 1,936 yards there as opposed to 1,256 yards on the ground.

"Well, I think the game dictates what's going on," said Virginia Tech assistant Billy Hite, a longtime mastermind of the Hokies' running game. "We'd like to be running the football more than we have so far this season. But we've gotten behind a couple times, and obviously couldn't get into the running game playing catch-up football."

Still, there's no denying that throwing more is trendy.

"I think everybody is working on their passing game a lot right now," Hite said. "It's the quickest way to score."