July 20, 2009
Introducing the Doc's ACC Week.
To the extent the ACC is considered a second-tier conference -- which is debatable, given its extreme parity and depth -- that's probably best explained in terms of a perceived power vacuum at the top: Since the end of Florida State's decade-long death grip on the conference championship, the league hasn't put a team in the national championship game; hasn't had a team finish in the final top-five; and has seen five of the last seven conference champions finish 15th or worse in the year-end AP poll. That group is 1-8 in big-money games this decade -- with the lone victory coming last year over Cincinnati in the lowest-rated game in the 10-year history of the BCS -- and even three years after the addition of the fifth BCS game is still waiting on its first at-large bid. Parity has its virtues, but it's not doing much these days for the Orange Bowl.
This is the exact opposite of the potential problem -- top-heavy dominance with little depth -- when the ACC made its bid for "superconference" status by poaching Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College from the Big East, and wouldn't be a problem if Miami and Florida State had held up their end of the deal. Between 2000 and 2003, Miami won four straight Big East championships, while even a much-weakened version of FSU won three out of four in the ACC, extending its run to 11 titles in 12 years since making the conference its personal hunting ground in 1992, and the current two-division format was specifically configured for Nole-Cane championship games. Instead, they've combined to go 33-32 in ACC games with one division championship in four years, sticking the league with contenders from Virginia, North Carolina and Massachusetts to travel to championship games in Jacksonville and Tampa, with predictably ugly results.
Of course, there's not really a void at the top if you consider Virginia Tech, the unlikely conqueror with three conference titles since coming aboard in 2004 and the highest final poll ranking in the conference all five years. But as hegemons go, the Hokies are pretty modest: Besides being a classically boring team that regularly finished in the bottom third nationally in total offense, Tech has quickly submarined its national rep the last two years with ugly September losses to LSU (a brutal 48-7 massacre in Baton Rouge) and East Carolina, both on national television, before rebounding for quiet runs to the conference championship. The Hokies' marquee victory since joining the conference is still probably the year-end upset at Miami that secured its first championship in '04, while arguably the best team of the post-expansion era, the 2005 Hokies led by Marcus Vick, managed to blow the championship game against a mediocre edition of Florida State coming off three straight losses to end the regular season. In the meantime, Wake Forest put a conference title on its resumé and Boston College, a program even more nondescript than Virginia Tech, established itself as the most consistent team in the Atlantic Division.
It seems slightly ludicrous now, but at this time last year, the team in the best position to bring the rest of the conference to its knees was Clemson: The Tigers had dramatically improved their recruiting, brought back most of one of the league's best defenses and unquestionably its best set of offensive skill players and justifiably carried their highest preseason expectations in decades. That lasted about a quarter and a half into the opening debacle against Alabama, at which point -- along with Virginia Tech's flop against East Carolina -- the ACC lost whatever national profile it had and descended into weekly flirtations with utter chaos. Ten teams finished 5-3 or 4-4 in conference games, making for a record-setting bowl lineup but no sense that any one team was better than a half-dozen others.
This year, there are certainly more interesting teams -- even within the Coastal Division, Georgia Tech, Miami and North Carolina all carry the "up-and-coming" label and would make for intriguing headlines en route to the championship game -- but clearly, if any team is carrying the ACC banner to the rest of the country, it's Virginia Tech, which with a win over Alabama in the primetime, marquee national game of the opening weekend can carry that flag higher and prouder than it's flown in years as the league's first legitimate national contender since FSU in 2000.
But with a lackluster effort against the Tide, especially if it smells anything like the egg Clemson laid on the same stage last year, it's back to the weekly roulette table, where even if the Hokies win again (and certainly everyone with a published opinion thinks they will), the driving forces in the conference at this time next year is still more likely to be parity and depth than one or two bellwethers that could compete for championships anywhere.