By Bob Thomas
August 30, 2007
Not even an embarrassment of financial riches, from record television revenues and attendance in the post-expansion era, can buy the ACC what it covets more than anything else.
Acclaim as a football conference on par with the nation's elite is not for sale. It must be earned. And on the eve of the 2007 season, the 12-team ACC's three-year-old expansion investment is delivering Dow Jones-like results.
The ACC's football image is in recession. Rebounding will require renaissance efforts by traditional powers Florida State and Miami, or perhaps a breakthrough from a Virginia Tech program that to this point has failed to bridge the threshold to greatness.
"This conference has to win a national championship," said first-year Miami coach Randy Shannon, who was part of three title teams as a player and assistant with the Hurricanes. "When that happens, is this conference going to get the recognition?"
It will. But when?
Florida State won the league's last national championship, in 1999, with a wire-to-wire run at No. 1 capped by a Sugar Bowl victory over pre-ACC Virginia Tech. A year later, the Seminoles were undressed 13-2 by Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl national championship game, in the first of seven consecutive BCS bowl losses by ACC champions.
Not only has the ACC failed to put a team in the title game since the Seminoles' last appearance, it has failed to place a team in the top five of the final national polls since 2000. Equally confounding has been its inability to land an at-large berth in the BCS, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.
Of the six major conferences, the Big East which the ACC raided to bring Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech into the fold is the only other league with that dubious distinction. And that could end this season, with West Virginia and Louisville universally viewed as top-10 teams.
While the competitive balance of the ACC has never been better, this isn't the direction commissioner John Swofford envisioned when university presidents signed off on the deal to take it from nine to 11, then 12, teams.
Of course, no one foresaw the ACC's flagship programs, FSU and Miami, flagging at half-mast. Over the past two seasons the Seminoles and Hurricanes have suffered a combined 20 defeats, with each needing a bowl victory a year ago to avoid a losing season.
"For all the writers and people across the world, that's what they expect to see," UM defensive end Calais Campbell said. "When the powerhouses aren't on top, they think the ACC must not be any good."
That perception was fortified when Wake Forest won just its second ACC title in 53 seasons last year. What was one of the nation's most compelling, feel-good stories in years has been spun as yet another sign of ACC mediocrity.
"A lot of people think that if Wake Forest wins it, the talent of the schools must be down," Wake center Steve Justice said. "But I think the talent's getting better. We had a great year. Maybe (the other schools) had a bad year. You never know."
Empowered by the league's underwhelming performance in 2006 the latest in what amounts to a six-year absence from the national landscape the national media has felt free to take its swings. The ACC proved to be anything but elusive, given last season's results:
6-16 against opponents from the other five major conferences and Notre Dame;
0-4 against top-10 teams; 0-3 in its three marquee bowls, and;
1-7 vs. the SEC, the league's chief geographic rival.
Not surprisingly, when the tallies were counted in the final Associated Press poll, only league champion Wake Forest (No. 18) and Virginia Tech (No. 19) were in the Top 25.
Those are not signs of a league close to gaining national acclaim on the gridiron.
More to the point, the 2007 campaign doesn't offer much promise that the disturbing trend will end. The season begins with just two ACC teams No. 9 Virginia Tech and No. 19 Florida State in the Top 25. Sadly, that puts the league on par with the WAC, which has No. 23 Hawaii and No. 24 Boise State.
The difference between the leagues? Hawaii and Boise State are led by Heisman Trophy contenders Colt Brennan and Ian Johnson. The ACC has been stiff-armed by the little bronze statue, which goes to the nation's top player, sometimes lacking even a single candidate worthy of preseason touting.
Therein lies a significant part of the ACC's problem. Though the league turned out 18 first-round NFL draft picks the past two seasons, including a record 12 in 2006, 14 of those played defense. Defense may win championships, but it typically takes offensive stars to capture the nation's imagination.
Specifically, the league's quarterback play a strength when Chris Weinke, Philip Rivers and Matt Schaub were directing ACC offenses at the turn of the century has come up woefully short.
"If your quarterbacks don't play very good on a consistent basis, then your offenses aren't going to be very consistent," said Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey, who should know. The Yellow Jackets reached the ACC title game despite fourth-year senior starter Reggie Ball's league-high 20 interceptions.
Four teams started at least two quarterbacks in 2006 among them FSU and Miami and three others finished the season with a freshman at the controls. One of those was Wake Forest's Riley Skinner, who had the ACC's highest pass efficiency rating yet ranked 33rd nationally.
Clemson, which received poor play from since-graduated Will Proctor, was the only school ranked among the top 49 nationally in total offense. The Tigers were 15th, on the strength of two great backs and a veteran line.
Beyond Boston College senior Matt Ryan, the favorite to win league MVP honors, the forecast for offensive improvement remains overcast at best.
Ryan offered up the company line when discussing the league's offensive woes.
"It's a great defensive conference," Ryan said. "I don't think offenses should be ashamed you're not scoring the same number of points that schools in the Pac-10 are. You're playing against top-notch defenses and top-caliber players. I think that's why offenses have struggled in the ACC."
True enough. Six of the nation's top 27 rated defenses had ACC addresses, and nine were ranked among the top 45. Given the number of defensive returnees and the lack of proven quarterbacks 2007 could produce similar results.
Still, it's difficult to defend a league's strength when there's a 33.3 percent turnover in head coaches.
Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Bob Lipper succinctly summarized the coaching turnover from the ACC Kickoff in late July, when he wrote:
"The talk hardly varies from one of these shindigs to another, although the talkers have this time around. That can happen when ambition and malfunction collide. After four years of status quo the only sideline alteration during that span being at Duke, which nearly doesn't count moving vans visited four ACC addresses and signaled (again) that the league really, really, really is taking this football business seriously."
Tom O'Brien, who left Boston College as its all-time leader in victories to replace Chuck Amato at N.C. State, offered his view on turnover.
"A year ago, we were sitting there saying we were the only league that doesn't turn over (coaches)," O'Brien said. "Coaching turnover is a fact of life nowadays. To be a national player, people feel this is what they have to do."
O'Brien went on to add that the ACC's geographic proximity to the SEC, widely considered the nation's best football conference, further raises the stakes.
"If you want to be a player on the national scene, you're going to have to be in competition with those people," O'Brien said. "And we want to be No. 1 in the country."
It's an uphill battle that FSU coach Bobby Bowden, whose program sits smack dab in the middle of SEC country, knows all too well.
Bowden, however, isn't about to concede anything to the SEC, the league he grew up following. The all-time major college wins leader points to ACC parity as the reason his Seminoles, and even the Hurricanes, have failed to maintain their dominant status.
"The thing they have to consider, though, is part of our struggle the fact that the conference has gotten tougher and we can't win like we used to?" Bowden said. "That might be a factor. The conference is so darn tough that Miami and Florida State can't even win in it. Somewhere in there is the truth. I don't know where it is."
Bowden takes the liberty to use a little revisionist history to bolster his point.
"Now let me ask you this the SEC and ACC which one of us has got more national championships the last 25 years? It's not even close. Miami's got five. We've got two. There's seven right there."
Georgia Tech's share of the 1990 championship would give the ACC eight by Bowden's math. The SEC has won five over the last quarter-century, including two of the last four, after Florida captured its second last season.
When reminded that Miami wasn't in the ACC when it won its national championships the Hurricanes captured four as an independent and in 2001 as a member of the Big East Bowden countered:
"Yeah, but they are now. It's according to what kind of rules you want to play by."
Until the ACC can produce another title contender, fuzzy math may continue to be its best rebuttal to critics.