The narrative about ACC football in July was the league’s fortunes were about to change. Progress was just ahead with a few unbecoming seasons in its rearview mirror.
Eleven starting quarterbacks were returning, legitimate Heisman hopefuls were at several locales and optimism was high because ACC football couldn’t struggle any more than it had been in recent seasons. Or so it seemed. None of that became a reality.
Instead, the league suffered one embarrassing defeat after another, culminating with this past weekend’s 0-4 performance versus the SEC that saw the ACC outscored by a combined 87 points in those contests, three of which were on ACC campuses.
It was a continuation of a trend that has seen the league drop each year since 2008.
So what’s next? Can the ACC get worse, or was last week, which began with Miami self-imposing another bowl ban and Maryland bolting for the Big Ten, the league bottoming out?
On the surface, some of this depends on which undergraduates head for the NFL. If quarterback Tajh Boyd returns to Clemson, tailback Giovani Bernard is back at North Carolina and defensive end Bjoern Werner returns to Florida State, those teams’ chances at doing something special are significantly increased.
But what if they leave? The SEC deals with early defections each season and some teams simply reload, and the league as a whole keeps humming at the same sensational level. The ACC isn’t the SEC, but why can’t it try to follow that model?
That’s what this really comes down to. The ACC has to decide what kind of conference it wants to be. Football is important along Tobacco Road and its extended territories, and at a lot of stops it’s very important. But apathy has set in at too many schools, and that’s dangerous.
Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia Tech used to draw much better crowds than in recent years. Even Clemson had a few thousand empty seats for its Nov. 17 home game with N.C. State despite a 9-1 record and prolific offense. The visiting Wolfpack didn’t excite every Tigers’ fan; an all-too-common theme in recent seasons.
Duke, Boston College and Miami have even more trouble filling seats. You see, the nation won’t take the league seriously if its own fans don’t. And the fans won’t until an ugly trend reverses its course. The following figures simply don’t lie:
— From 2005-08, the ACC went 141-73 in nonconference games with a high mark of 41-17 in 2008. From 2009 through this season, the league is 127-89, and that’s with significantly softened schedules compared to earlier this century. This season, the league is 27-21.
— In 2003 and 2004, the ACC was the No. 1-rated conference by the Jeff Sagarin’s computer rankings. It was No. 2 in 2005 and No. 3 in 2008. The last two seasons the ACC has been ranked seventh.
— ACC teams are 6-14 against teams from other BCS conferences this season, yet were 15-13 in 2008.
— And as for the SEC, the two conferences were 24-24 against each other in the seven seasons prior to 2005. The ACC has gone just 23-43 since.
Lastly, even when dealing with national respect issues earlier in the 2000s, the ACC could point to the NFL Draft with pride. From 2006-09, the SEC had 159 players drafted while the ACC had 158. But in the last three drafts the totals are: SEC 129, ACC 97.
ACC schools need to make better head coaching hires and salaries for assistants must significantly improve. Clemson now gets this, as offensive coordinator Chad Morris makes $1.3 million annually, the most of any assistant in the nation. Simply put: Higher salaries and staff continuity can only help recruiting. And better recruits can only help the on-field product.
But it requires more.
You don’t have to play in an 80,000-seat stadium to compete nationally. Oregon, Kansas State, Stanford, TCU, Boise State and Oklahoma State, among others, all play in stadiums that seat 60,000 or less yet have been on the national scene in recent years. They have growing cultures, and the ACC could use a few more of its own.
Putting band aids on a leaking dam hasn’t served the ACC. It must join the rat race once and for all.
Otherwise, it will be more of the same, if not worse.