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ACC Football Takes Center Stage

Football in the ACC has taken off.

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NCAA Football: ACC Kickoff
Jul 14, 2017; Charlotte, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach David Cutcliffe speaks to the media during the ACC Kickoff at the Westin Charlotte. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE – The ACC has always been a basketball conference.

League officials have been trying to change that to prosper in an era where football revenues dwarf basketball income. To some extent, they have succeeded.

Maybe it’s just symbolic, but last week’s 2017 ACC Football Kickoff drove that point home. The event, held annually since the early ‘70s, was held a week earlier than normal this summer. That brought it into direct conflict with the Nike Peach Jam – the premier summer basketball event of the summer.

Dozens of ACC writers were forced to choose between an early look at the coming football season or taking to the players who will make up the top level of the 2018 basketball recruiting class. A handful of energetic and enterprising writers made the three-hour commute between Charlotte and Augusta, Ga., to see parts of both events.

Those who were in Charlotte for Thursday’s session got to hear Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher declare the ACC as the premier football conference in the country. At least he was the one who got the national headlines – almost every coach who spoke that day argued that the ACC had surpassed the SEC as the nation’s best FOOTBALL conference.

Is that true?

I think it depends on terms. I can assert with certainty that:

(1) The ACC was the nation’s best football conference in 2016.

It’s not even a matter for debate. The ACC not only won the national championship and the Heisman Trophy (plus the Heisman runnerup), but is also had the nation’s best bowl record – by a wide margin. The ACC won 17 games against the other Power 5 conferences … no other league won more than 11 such games. And head-to-head, the ACC smashed the SEC 8-4. Most of the wins came against that league’s powers – Alabama (in the title game), at Auburn, at Georgia, Florida, Ole Miss, plus bowl wins over Arkansas, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

The ACC also beat up on Big Ten powers Michigan and Penn State (as well as patsies Illinois and Indiana) and defeated Notre Dame (in football, not a part of the ACC) three times.

Clearly, the ACC was the nation’s best conference in 2016.

(2) Over the last four years, the ACC can claim parity with the SEC.

Not as clearcut, but it is fair to argue that with its massive success in 2016, the ACC has very closely matched the SEC in the 2013-16 span – and maybe been a shade superior

In those four years the ACC has won two national championships and two Heisman Trophies (to one of each for the SEC). The ACC has a 21-18 edge in head-to-head matchups with the SEC. It’s overall bowl record in 22-22.

To be fair, without 2016, the SEC would have a small, but clear edge … but the four-year period has a whole is slightly in the ACC’s favor.

(3) Before 2013, the ACC is not even in the conversation with the SEC – not in this century.

In 1999, Florida State won the national championship. The Seminoles crushed future ACC member Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl to claim the title. The next year, FSU fell just short of a second straight title – losing 30-7 to No. 1 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

The record of that two-year run is significant because after the FSU near miss in 2000, the ACC would not produce another national championship contender until a revitalized FSU won the crown in 2013.

Between 2001 and 2012, the ACC did not produce a top 5 team. The best ACC candidate during that span was No. 7 Virginia Tech in 2005 and that was a Hokie team that had to beat Louisville in the Gator Bowl to climb back into the top 10.

During the ACC’s long title draught, four different SEC teams (Alabama, LSU, Florida and Auburn) were combining to win eight national titles.

The ACC wasn’t even in second place during this period. The Big Eight, Big Ten and Pac 12 were all more successful leagues. The ACC was battling the Big East (at the time, a major conference) for fifth place on the college football pecking order.

So, if we can accept these three points, then the question becomes: Does one season of clear superiority and four years of relative parity with the SEC make the ACC the nation’s best football conference?

Allow me to bring a basketball prospective to the answer.

For years, I’ve argued that the ACC was the nation’s strongest basketball conference. I think it’s irrefutable that between 1980 and 2005 – a 26-year span – the ACC was the most successful basketball conference in the country.

When I make that argument, I point out that the ACC is not necessarily the best every single year. But it was always near the top and even if another league has a great year and can claim a temporary superiority, it never lasted long and that over any reasonable time period – especially the full 26-year run – the ACC’s superiority was unchallenged.

It WAS challenged for a brief period after 2005, when a wave of expansion weakened the ACC, while bolstering the Big East. That lasted until a second wave of expansion reinforced the ACC and essentially destroyed the Big East as a superconference.

The ACC is once again the best basketball conference in America.

But using that criterion, I would argue that it’s too early to proclaim the ACC as the nation’s best football conference.

Yes, the ACC was best in 2016 and the league is on a nice four-year-run, but that’s not enough in my opinion to declare superiority, especially over a league such as the SEC, which has won eight national titles in the last 11 seasons.

Give it a bit more time.

The ACC has laid a nice foundation to put itself in position to challenge the SEC for college football supremacy. And a second – or third or fourth – season of superiority would make a much stronger case.


The best conference in 2017 won’t be decided until postseason. The ACC and SEC also have several traditional matchups to close the regular season – Clemson at South Carolina, Georgia at Georgia Tech, Louisville at Kentucky and Florida State at Florida.

But this season also opens with some conference-measuring events.

The premier matchup is September 2 in Atlanta, when Alabama faces Florida State.

Some are calling it the greatest opener of all time. Indeed, it will match the probable No. 1 preseason team (Alabama) against the probably No. 2 or No. 3 (FSU).

Certainly the matchup between the preseason favorites in the SEC and ACC will have at least some debate over which is the stronger conference.

But wait, there’s more.

Two nights after Bama and FSU clash in the new GeorgiaDome, Georgia Tech and Tennessee will meet in the same building. And while Alabama and FSU are battling in Atlanta, N.C. State and South Carolina meet in an ACC-SEC tilt in Charlotte.

The ACC has six opening weekend games with teams from the Power 5 – those three neutral field tests against the SEC, plus Louisville-Purdue (Indianapolis), Cal at UNC and West Virginia-Virginia Tech (in Landover, Md.).

These three games – especially the three games with the SEC – will go a long way towards framing the debate over the course of the season.

Auburn is at Clemson for Week Two. Syracuse visits LSU in Week Four.

There are other early season P5 matchups for the ACC between Penn State-Pitt, Duke-Northwestern, Duke-Baylor, Pitt- Oklahoma State and Virginia-Indiana. Boston College, N.C State, Wake Forest, Miami and UNC will all take on Notre Dame this year.

Those games will offer the ACC coaches plenty of chances to prove their boasts about ACC superiority.


The ACC’s divisional lineup is massively unfair.

The three best teams in the conference are members of the Atlantic Division. Poor N.C. State would be a contender in the Coastal Division this season. As a member of the Atlantic, they have a snowball’s chance of overcoming FSU, Clemson and Louisville.

The league has been unbalanced for a while.

Commissioner John Swofford was asked about realignment at the Football Kickoff. He kind of shrugged off the question, saying there were no discussions about realignment going on. It’s not even on the ACC radar.

Swofford told reporters that it’s a cyclical thing – that over time, the power in the conference would swing the other way.

In the long term, he’s right.

When the ACC split into divisions in 2005, the two top-rated teams in the conference (Virginia Tech and Miami) were in the Coastal Division.

FSU did win that first ACC championship game and Wake Forest gave the Atlantic Division a second-straight title in 2006, but the next four ACC championships were won by Coastal Division teams.

That changed in 2011, when Clemson crushed Virginia Tech in the title game, starting a run of six straight Atlantic Division champs. It’s even worse than that – since 2011, the Atlantic has produced eight top 10 teams … the Coastal just one (Georgia Tech at No. 8 in 2014). Also, three of the seven Coastal teams (Georgia Tech, Miami and UNC) have been hammered by the NCAA in that span (and UNC may get a second pasting this fall).

There is no relief in sight. Both FSU and Clemson will start the 2017 season in the top 10, while Louisville is not likely to be far behind. There are some promising teams in the Coastal, but all of the expected contenders will be breaking in a new quarterback.


For almost 20 years, Duke was an insignificant part of ACC football.

Before the collapse of the program in 1995, the Blue Devils had three decades of mediocrity -- a so-so program brightened by a handful of decent seasons (1981-82, 1988-89, 1994). The 17 seasons from 1996-2011 were even worse, including four winless seasons and eight without an ACC win.

David Cutcliffe changed things, starting in 2012. He engineered four straight bowl trips and an ACC Coastal Division title in 2013. He made Duke relevant again.

But his bowl streak ended in 2016 as Duke finished 4-8 – just 1-7 in ACC play.

And that one bad season has been enough to turn back the clock six years.

It’s just a personal observation, but after talking to dozens of other writers and listening to their questions Friday at Operation Football, I believe the perception is that Duke’s 2012-15 bowl run was a lucky aberration and last year’s 4-8 season was a reversion to the Devils’ mediocre norm.

The biggest clue that I heard was a discussion of Coastal Division quarterbacks.

It’s a fact that five of the seven division members will be breaking in new quarterbacks this season. The two exceptions are Virginia, which returns Kurt Benkert, and Duke, which returns Daniel Jones.

I can’t tell you how many teams I heard an “expert’ talk about how ironic it is that the only two Coastal teams with a proven QB were the only two teams that didn’t have a chance to compete for the division title.

But is that true? Does Duke not have a chance to compete for the Coastal title?

I’m sure that when the preseason poll is released later Monday, Duke will be picked either last or next to last in the Coastal. Of course, four years ago, Duke was picked last in the 2013 preseason poll.n And that Duke team won the division title.

I see some strong similarities between the situation in 2013 and the situation in 2017.

In both cases, Duke was coming off a season of horrendous bad luck – seasons ruined by a multitude of key injuries … but also seasons that included some impressive wins. In 2012, Duke ended a long losing streak to North Carolina. In 2016, Duke upset North Carolina late in the season and knocked off Notre Dame in South Bend.

Both the 2012 team and the 2016 team suffered a number of tough losses against strong opponents.

Of course, Duke followed its 2012 season with its remarkable 2013 title run.

That’s not to say it will happen again, but I believe the Devils are poised to exceed expectations.

There is one difference between 2012/13 and 2016/17 – the schedule.

The 2012 Blue Devils lost to three teams that finished in the AP top 10 (Stanford, FSU and Clemson). A year later, all three were off the schedule, replaced by Navy, Pitt and N.C. State – a much easier trio.

The 2017 Devils will trade Louisville for the even tougher Florida State and Notre Dame (which had a terrible season in 2016) for Baylor. If anything, that’s a schedule upgrade.

Duke still has a lot of question marks – Can Jones stay healthy? Can Cut repair his kicking game? Can defensive line coach Ben Albert continue to improve the pass rush? But if Duke gets positive answers to those questions, the Blue Devils could be the ACC’s surprise team – and start a new bowl streak.

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