The past year has been a huge one for ACC football, thanks mostly to its commissioner, John Swofford, who engineered expansion, negotiated the conference’s proper place in the future playoff system and a grant of media rights package to secure the membership.
During July’s gathering of media covering the conference, Swofford boasted that within the ACC footprint lies the largest TV audience and most population of any of the five power conferences in the country. The commish also pointed out that the ACC will play the toughest nonconference football schedule of any conference in America. For years we have watched how the ACC measures up, even outmatches the powerful SEC in NFL Draft choices.
So, why does the rest of the nation look at the ACC as an inferior football conference?
Swofford provided that answer too, during his media chat about the state of ACC football. This year his answer echoed his remarks from the past two summers.
“It’s time we win some of the games,” Swofford said.
It’s nothing complicated. Simple as cornbread. The late Al Davis summed it up just as easily when he said “Just win baby.”
As usual, the ACC will have the opportunity to back up its talk with action.
“Our conference is playing the toughest nonconference schedule of any conference in college football,” Swofford said. “Our teams will play 11 games against nonconference teams that finished last season ranked in the nation’s top 25, nine games against nonconference teams ranked in the final top 10, including contests against all of the top four teams in the final USA Today poll.
“In total, our teams will play 56 games against 48 nonconference opponents with a combined winning percentage of 56 percent, by far the highest of any of the power five conferences,” Swofford said.
With all those facts on the table, there’s no question that the ACC is attempting to improve its national football image. Swofford and all 14 of the league’s current head coaches would all agree that there’s plenty of potential within the conference, but the only way the league will truly enhance its reputation is to win its share of those nonconference contests, particularly the big ones.
The opening weekend will provide some of those opportunities, although the ACC will be underdogs in most, if not all of the matchups with high-profile, nonconference foes.
North Carolina, no longer shackled by the long arm of the NCAA (or as some might say, a shorter arm than it should have been), will take on Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina team in Columbia. The Tar Heels are not on the Gamecocks’ level, particularly as long as Jadeveon Clowney is healthy enough to play, and all indications are that the nation’s best player will be given the green light.
There are other intriguing matchups the opening weekend with Virginia Tech meeting reigning national champion Alabama in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome (the Hokies are three touchdown underdogs). Clemson, picked to win the ACC in the media preseason poll, perhaps has the best chance at scoring a big one for the league, as the Tigers host Georgia in the opener.
That’s three ACC vs. SEC matchups right out of the gate. Still, there’s more. Virginia hosts BYU in a game that could hold the key to the Cavaliers’ resurgence. While Pittsburgh is now a member of the ACC, the Panthers host Florida State on Monday, Sept. 2, to end the opening weekend of games, in what could be a better contest than some believe.
Along the way, Boston College will face Southern Cal, Clemson will get its shot at South Carolina later in the year, Florida State will face Florida, Georgia Tech will meet BYU and Georgia, Miami will get Florida in the second week of the season, Pittsburgh will face Notre Dame, and Virginia will take on third-ranked Oregon.
If the ACC can step up and knock off some of the powerhouses along the way, that would be a giant step toward establishing itself as a meaningful football conference.
With conference expansion under former commissioner Gene Corrigan and during Swofford’s era (he’s in his 17th year at the job), certainly the two men and league athletic directors believed the addition of Florida State and Miami would secure the ACC’s football image for years to come.
FSU lived up to its reputation during its years as a dynasty, winning national championships and contending for others before legendary Bobby Bowden’s career faded. By the time Miami jumped onboard, its program had declined into mediocrity, something that coach Al Golden is attempting to slowly revive.
Who would have ever thought the Hurricanes would win an ACC basketball title before its football program would?
Miami, which hopes to learn its fate from the NCAA prior to this season, has self-imposed penalties upon itself the past two years, declining opportunities to play in bowl games and last season’s ACC Championship game. If the Hurricanes can dodge further postseason bans, they could take a step in the upward direction with 19 returning starters and having been projected as the Coastal Division winner.
Florida State appears to have solidified its program after a downturn that cost Bowden his job and skeptics to wonder if Jimbo Fisher was the answer. The Seminoles won the Atlantic last year and won the Orange Bowl against a lesser opponent. The question mark now is whether Fisher’s program can sustain the success and return to greatness.
Clemson, the preseason pick to win its division and the ACC Championship Game, boasts one of the most exciting players in college football in dual threat quarterback Tajh Boyd, a legit Heisman candidate. Can the Tigers, who knocked off SEC power LSU, in last year’s Chick-fil-A Bowl, outlast FSU for the Atlantic division title and play its way into the national hunt?
Virginia Tech, coming off its most disappointing season in 20 years, hopes to climb back into the picture with what should be one of the nation’s most dominating defenses. There are questions about how effective the Hokies’ offense will be. Still, with a soft nonconference schedule after the opener with ‘Bama, there are some who believe Tech could still win the division. Back-to-back-to-back games against Georgia Tech, UNC, and Pitt, should settle that dispute midway through the season.
During Swofford’s July remarks, he called 2012 a “remarkable, monumental year,” and that ACC football has unlimited potential.
How the league does in those nonconference games will decide just how monumental 2013 will be.
As Swofford said, “It’s time we win some of the games.”