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ACC vs. SEC: A Post-Expansion Breakdown (Part 2)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009 3:10pm
By: Jon Solomon

Ever since the ACC expanded in 2003, comparisons with the SEC have inevitably followed. It's become a popular topic of conversation/bone of contention for fans of each league.

So this summer the ACC Sports Journal attempted an audacious undertaking: to try to answer the question - ACC vs. SEC ... who's better?

We began on Tuesday with part one of Jon Solomon's piece, which laid down the framework for the debate.

Today we compare the two leagues’ prowess on the gridiron.

FOOTBALL

Any examination of the ACC versus the SEC post-expansion must begin with football. The end result of ACC expansion was a conference that, on paper, was discussed in the same breath with the SEC by some football analysts.

There are financial reasons, too, to begin on the gridiron. Consider the whopping differences in economic scale between the two highest-profile college sports. The bottom line? Much more money is spent on football, much more money can be made on football, and the ratio (as compared to men’s basketball) often exceeds three-to-one.

Consider that Texas, the top revenue generator in college football during 2007-08, took in about $73 million from the gridiron for an athletic department that earned about $120 million overall for that academic year. Nine other schools made at least $52 million from football in 2007-08, including five from the SEC.

The top revenue producer for men’s basketball during the same academic year was Louisville, at $23.5 million. To make the top 10 nationally in hoops, a program had to bring in about $15 million.

During its most recent round of ACC expansion, few thought the league would surpass the SEC in football immediately, or even any time soon, for that matter. You didn’t hear ACC officials or football coaches often attempt to argue that, either. But there was a general feeling that the conference had substantially improved its football brand and the caliber of play.

Miami had won five national titles in football, including a recent one in 2001. Virginia Tech had won at least 10 games five times from 1995-2002 and played for the national championship during the 1999 season. Boston College wasn’t exactly a gaudy addition, but it tended to win seven to nine games per year and won bowl games with amazing regularity.

In hindsight, from 1999-2003, the ACC enjoyed more success in football in relation to the SEC than once expansion unfolded in 2004.

The ACC and SEC each won one national championship from 1999-2003 — Florida State for the ACC and LSU for the SEC. Over the past five years, the SEC has a 3-0 edge, with two national titles from Florida and one by LSU.

The Bowl Championship Series has remained the single biggest blemish for ACC football. Among the six conferences with automatic spots in the BCS, only the ACC has failed to place an at-large team into the BCS. That has cost the conference millions of dollars and, perhaps just as importantly, national credibility as a major player on the football scene. The SEC had three at-large bids in the past five years alone.

The ACC went 1-4 in BCS games from 1999-2003 and posted the same record from 2004-08. The only wins were Florida State’s victory over Virginia Tech (then in the Big East) for the national championship, and Virginia Tech (as the ACC champion) defeating Cincinnati at the Orange Bowl last season. By contrast, the SEC improved from 4-3 in BCS games in 1999-2003 to 6-2 over the past five seasons.

Five years ago, the ACC actually was holding its own on the field against the SEC. Again, few argued that the ACC, minus several national championship contenders, was in the same league as the SEC. But the on-field results didn’t lie. The ACC and SEC split the 36 football games they played from 1999-2003. Take away four losses by cellar-dweller Duke to SEC teams — all by two touchdowns or more — and the ACC would have enjoyed an 18-14 advantage.

ACC teams won their 18 games by an average of 15.2 points. SEC teams claimed their 18 by an average of 18.2. Five ACC schools — more than half the conference at the time — had winning records against the SEC during that period: Clemson (5-4), Florida State (4-2), Georgia Tech (5-4), North Carolina (1-0) and N.C. State (1-0). Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech went 10-5 in their annual series against South Carolina, Florida and Georgia, respectively.

The ACC also enjoyed success against the SEC in the Peach Bowl, which matched higher-ranked ACC teams against lower-ranked SEC teams. Clemson and Maryland each handled Tennessee in Atlanta — the Tigers’ win caused some of their players to erroneously claim, “We’re back!” — and North Carolina defeated Auburn at the Georgia Dome.

That success for the ACC against the SEC disappeared post-expansion. The ACC had a record of 14-26 against the SEC over the past five seasons, winning its games on average by 11.7 points per game and losing to the SEC by 15.9 points per game.

During that five-year period, only one ACC school enjoyed a winning record against the SEC: Wake Forest, which went 4-1. And the Demon Deacons didn’t exactly rack up their SEC wins against powerhouses, defeating Ole Miss and Vanderbilt twice each. Meanwhile, Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech went a combined 5-10 against South Carolina, Florida and Georgia, respectively.

The differences between the conferences became apparent in bowl games, too, as the NCAA continued to add postseason contests. The ACC went 12-10 (.545) in bowls from 1999-2003 but dropped to 18-22 (.450) from 2004-08. The SEC went in the other direction, jumping from 18-14 (.563) from 1999-2003 to 25-13 (.605) over the past five seasons.

Keep in mind, the ACC entered this five-year period well behind the SEC in the football race over many decades. No ACC football team cracked the top 10 in the final polls from 1961-75. ACC teams received only four bowl bids during the 1960s. No one from the conference won a national title in football between Maryland in 1953 and Clemson in 1981, and the Tigers were found to have cheated in winning their championship.

The struggles reached the point where ACC football teams once lost 23 consecutive games against SEC schools. So when the ACC expanded in 1979, it targeted Georgia Tech — with a rich football tradition and a lucrative ACC market. And Florida State naturally was atop the ACC’s wish list in 1990.

The Seminoles were a top-10 team every year from 1987-2000. Before Florida State arrived, the ACC had only five top-10 teams in the final Associated Press poll from 1982-91. The SEC had 20 top-10 teams during that period.

Over the past five years, the SEC placed 12 teams in the final top 10 of the AP poll, compared to only four for the ACC. Virginia Tech (three appearances) and Boston College (one), two of the three expansion members, were the only ACC schools to crack the final top 10. During that period, the SEC had 24 teams in the final top 25 of the AP poll, and the ACC had 18.

It’s not as if the ACC didn’t possess football talent, though. The ACC produced 35 first-round NFL draft picks from 2004-08, only four fewer than the SEC. But the on-field results clearly have gone to the SEC.

Coming on Thursday - comparing the ACC vs. the SEC on the basketball court and the baseball field.

Jon Solomon covers the SEC for The Birmingham News in Alabama. He previously covered Clemson and the ACC for The (Columbia) State and The Anderson Independent-Mail in South Carolina.