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ACC football not defined by struggles at top

It isn’t fair to judge the ACC solely on the relative weakness of its top two teams, Scott Rich writes.
It isn’t fair to judge the ACC solely on the relative weakness of its top two teams, Scott Rich writes.

In the world of FBS football, two teams can make a conference.

Just about every year, you can make a safe bet that Texas or Oklahoma will win the Big 12 and that Michigan or Ohio State will win the Big 10. And in the past, these headline rivalries have served to overshadow years when conference depth faltered beyond those top-two programs, helping both conferences avoid the ridicule often faced by the ACC.

Miami and Florida State were supposed to provide that type of defining-rivalry for the ACC when the Hurricanes joined the conference in 2004. And because it hasn’t materialized, the Big 10 and Big 12 have thumbed their noses at ACC football for years.

It’s about time the ACC fought that attitude.

Many writers, this one included, thought that Florida State’s national championship potential could put the ACC back on the national stage this year. Instead, the Seminoles’ title hopes were dashed in Tallahassee by the visiting Sooners, and after falling to Clemson their contention for an ACC title is even in doubt.

And the Hurricanes, the program that was supposed to reinvigorate ACC football, has failed to win a conference title in seven years in the league. They’ve stumbled to a 2-2 record under the specter of serious NCAA sanctions, highlighted only by a victory over a then-No. 17 Ohio State team that has since fallen off the national radar.

The struggles of the ACC’s premier programs have been reflected in the national rankings, as the conference didn’t have a single representative in the AP top-10 for two weeks after Florida State’s first loss. Even now, only an undefeated Clemson team has cracked that top-tier at No. 8, and the conference’s other undefeated team, Georgia Tech, is the third-lowest ranked undefeated team in the poll at No. 13.

And the only reason these teams are faltering in the polls is the nation’s general disrespect for the ACC.

Clemson has already defeated the Seminoles and perennial ACC contender Virginia Tech, the latter on the road, and also took down an Auburn team that just last week beat then-undefeated South Carolina. Yet the Tigers are ranked behind Andrew Luck—excuse me, Stanford—despite the Cardinal’s best non-conference victory being a drubbing of Duke. Oklahoma State is also two slots higher than Clemson, though its marquee victory required a 17-point second-half comeback against Texas A&M, who now barely finds itself ranked.

Meanwhile, Georgia Tech walloped Big-12 foe Kansas 66-24 in its main non-conference test and has handed North Carolina its only loss this season. But one-loss Oregon and Arkansas still find themselves ranked above the Yellow Jackets, along with undefeated, but largely untested, blue-bloods Texas and Michigan.

Pollsters justify those rankings with jabs at the quality of ACC competition, ignoring the overall depth of the conference and quality of lesser-known teams while emphasizing Florida State and Miami’s struggles as definitive of the whole ACC. The same situation arose over the past three years in the Big 10, when Michigan’s struggles under Rich Rodriguez suspiciously coincided with renewed criticism of the conference’s strength, even though Big 10 teams won BCS bowl games in each of the past two seasons.

The ACC has still had its struggles against non-conference opponents, especially in bowl games, but not any more than the Big 12 and Big 10 had in periods where their defining rivalries allowed them to avoid the scathing criticism prevalent in the ACC. But teams like Clemson and Georgia Tech, and to a lesser extent Virginia Tech, should be recognized for their success in a conference that is not now, nor has ever been, defined solely by its Florida rivalry.

So take heart, ACC fans—your conference is healthier than the national media or pollsters would like to admit, even if its big name programs aren’t.


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