ACC out to shed its reputation as a weak conference
AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. -- SEC football stinks.
See how easy that is to say? It's wrong, of course. The facts don't back up that statement at all. I could write it 1,000 times, but no rational person would believe it. Now let's try another one.
ACC football stinks.
I'm willing to wager that many of you believe me. According to Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher and Clemson's Dabo Swinney, some of you are inclined to believe that statement in part because we in the media frequently write or say that the ACC's football teams aren't very good. We, the coaches believe, have helped manufacture that perception. And the coaches say the facts don't back up such libel/slander. "It's how y'all write everything," Swinney said this week when asked how ACC teams could overcome the negative perception of the league. "It's what y'all perceive." Swinney concedes that the league could get better, but he insists its portrayal is inaccurate.
"You've got to win. It's not rocket science," said Swinney, whose Tigers went 11-2 last season. "But there's a perception that the ACC is the bottom dweller, and that's so far from reality."
The coaches are incorrect and correct. Yes, we probably do pile on the ACC at times, but not without reason. After all, since the BCS began in 1998, the league is 3-14 in BCS bowls. The entire league has one more BCS bowl win than Boise State and three fewer than USC. The writers didn't make up that stat. The talking heads didn't lose those games. Here's another fact. Since the BCS began in 1998, only one ACC team (Virginia Tech in 2011) has been selected as an at-large BCS bowl participant. (There were other years when two teams now in the ACC played in the BCS, but that was when Miami, Syracuse and Virginia Tech were in the Big East.) In that same 15-season span, the SEC has had a team selected as an at-large 10 times, including every season since the BCS launched the double-hosting model in 2006. The Big Ten has produced an at-large 10 times. The Pac-10/12? Five. The Big 12? Four. That might be partially our fault. Bowls choose at-large teams based largely on perception -- as well as TV appeal and the travel history of the fan base -- and the prevailing perception is that the ACC has not been very good on the football field.
Even if Florida State had beaten Florida in Tallahassee last fall and finished the season 12-1, the Seminoles probably wouldn't have even been in the discussion alongside 12-1 Alabama, 11-1 Oregon or 11-1 Kansas State for a berth in the BCS title game. Why? Because the nation perceives the ACC as weak.
So how do the ACC's coaches, many of whom have rapidly improving programs, change that perception so that the next ACC champ that finishes 12-1 is taken as seriously as a team from the Big 12 or Pac-12? "We haven't done as well as we need to do -- don't misunderstand me," ACC commissioner John Swofford said. "But we also haven't done as poorly as the perception is. We need to do more of what we did at the end of last season."
What the league did at the end of last season was win a BCS bowl and notch a highly respectable win against an SEC power. Florida State beat Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl. Clemson beat LSU in a thriller in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Swinney, who will face his third consecutive SEC opponent when the Tigers kick off the 2013 season against Georgia on Aug. 31, joked that in the run-up to the bowl, the questions he got from reporters made it seem as if Clemson had to play all 14 SEC teams at once. Swinney made a point to tell his players that the three letters they should worry about were LSU and not SEC. In all, the ACC went 4-2 in bowls, and that was with two of its up-and-coming teams (Miami and North Carolina) sitting out bowl season because of NCAA issues.
With a playoff on the way and with Notre Dame playing five games a season against ACC opponents beginning in 2014, the ACC teams should have ample opportunity to break into the national title picture. Still, they must break the perception that the league is weak.
Talent isn't the issue. In the past five years, the ACC has had more players drafted into the NFL (160) than any conference except the SEC (229), which has produced the past seven national champions. Florida State alone produced 11 draftees this year. Only the SEC (181) and Pac-12 (97) have signed more Rivals.com top-100 recruits than the ACC (71) in the past five classes. (For the recruit numbers, I used the lineup the leagues will move forward with beginning in 2014. I gave Louisville players to the ACC and Maryland players to the Big Ten.)
Results are the issue. In the past 10 years, the ACC is 35-40 in bowl games. In the past five seasons, Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech have gone 4-11 against respective intrastate rivals Florida, South Carolina and Georgia. Virginia Tech played high-profile, neutral-site season openers in 2009 and 2010 and lost to Boise State and Alabama. Florida State played a home-and-home series against Oklahoma in 2010 and 2011 and lost both meetings. Even winning ACC teams have had terrible luck with otherwise respectable opponents. Miami beat Ohio State in 2011, but the interim-led Buckeyes finished 6-7. Clemson beat Auburn in Atlanta to open last season, but Auburn's slide into oblivion erased any shine from that victory.
The trick, according to those who want to end the current perception in the worst way, is to have a better sense of the moment. "Just win more key games," Swofford said. Fisher, who was the offensive coordinator on LSU's 2003 BCS title team, points to the league that shares three states with the ACC as an example of a group that plays best when the lights are brightest. "What the SEC did when they got in those games is win them," Fisher said. "That's what we need to do."
Swinney correctly pointed out that the entire SEC hasn't dominated, but since 2006, it has produced at least one team that finished Championship Saturday at 12-1 or 13-0. The ACC hasn't had a team finish the regular season with one or zero losses since Maryland in 2001. (Miami finished the regular season undefeated in 2001 and 2002, but as a member of the Big East.) Since those are the only teams likely to be considered for the BCS title game or a playoff, ACC coaches know they'll get shut out until one of them can produce a zero- or one-loss team as the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 have done in recent years. "It's like the 4-x-100. Somebody is carrying the baton," Swinney said. "We haven't had anybody carry the baton, but hopefully we can get that going. You're never going to have all your teams being dominant. But we need to produce those two, three, four teams on a year-to-year basis so you have a better chance to compete nationally."
Swinney and Florida State's Fisher know they will be expected to carry that baton, but improvement at Miami and North Carolina thanks to coaches Al Golden and Larry Fedora means those programs might also have a chance. Virginia Tech had a down season in 2012, but Frank Beamer's team has been the ACC's most consistent since it came over from the Big East prior to the 2004 season. At some point, the ACC will produce another team with credentials similar to the top contenders for the national title. But will voters/selection committee members respect the league enough to treat that team as an equal to one from another league with a similar record?
I could try to write some nicer things about the ACC, but I don't think that would help much. The only real solution is to win the games that matter most. "We're giving ourselves opportunities," Swofford said. "We've just got to take advantage of those opportunities."