ACC's perception defined by non-conference games

The ACC's early-season matchups could define its perception, writes Lauren Brownlow.

As almost all of the conference's head coaches would tell you -- and many did at ACC Football Kickoff in Greensboro -- the ACC has the toughest non-conference schedule of any league in the country.

Nowadays in college football, there’s seemingly no respect given to any team’s schedule (no matter how difficult it actually is), unless said team happens to be a member of the meat-grinding SEC. 

Even if Clemson beats Georgia in Week 1, which the ACC desperately needs to happen, Virginia Tech will likely be pummeled by Alabama and North Carolina should lose at South Carolina. If either or both of the latter two games are embarrassing, then the league will not necessarily gain any goodwill from a hypothetical Clemson win. Lose all three? Same old ACC. Same old Clemson.

Any goodwill that commissioner John Swofford and the league might have gained in the offseason by adding Pittsburgh and Syracuse and nailing down a grant of rights agreement would basically be gone -- from a national point of view, anyway -- after just one week.

“The league is stronger now than it’s ever been and it’s only going to get stronger. Now, if you look at our non-conference schedule, it’s the toughest that any league has out there," North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora said. "So we’re doing the right things if we’re going to close the gap on what perceptually is out there with (the SEC)."

But Fedora was quick to add: “It’s about winning. That’s what it’s about now. You look at the opening weekend with the ACC and the games we’re playing that opening weekend -- that’s a big weekend for us. We can make a lot of hay that weekend right there across this country.”

ACC coaches have expressed reluctance at the idea of adding a ninth conference game. And really, right now, it’s not a great idea. One ACC coach said it would give half the league one more loss automatically, making the fight for bowl eligibility for most of the ACC that much tougher. Another said it might make out-of-conference scheduling easier, but that’s it. 

But at the moment, is it better for a Virginia Tech that went 7-6 a year ago to add a game against a middling Atlantic Division team or open up the season against No. 1 Alabama on national TV? There are pros and cons to both, but Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer sees a lot of pros. (As he will in Atlanta on August 31.)

“I think all of us are going to see as we go along here, if you expect to compete at the top level, you’ve got to have a competitive schedule,” Beamer said. “I think that’s the one thing about Alabama is when you schedule a team like that, I think you’re a better football program overall. Your preparation is better and as a result, you become a better football team.”

Arguably the top four programs in the ACC, at least from a national recognition standpoint -- Florida State, Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech (in no particular order) -- all have at least one game against an SEC opponent. Only two even made the USA Today Coaches’ Poll released on Thursday, and none were ranked higher than the SEC team(s) they will face this year. 

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s team is ranked No. 8 in the poll. They will open the season at home against No. 5 Georgia and close the year at No. 7 South Carolina. It’s the toughest out-of-conference schedule in the league this year, by a mile. But Swinney wants his team to prove it’s worthy of the preseason hype on the field.

“I think that if you want to be the best, you’ve got to go do it on the field. You’ve got to remove all doubt. I want to have a schedule that allows us to compete at the highest level. Certainly, I understand that when you’re playing those types of teams that you put yourself at risk,” Swinney said. “But I think that’s what college football is all about, and that’s what competing is all about. Every single week, you’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game. That’s the mentality we’ve tried to create within our program.”

The Tigers were able to go 2-1 against the SEC last year (beating Auburn and LSU, losing to South Carolina).

Swinney said that when the college football playoff begins next year, he wants his team in position to make that four-team field. 

“There are a lot of teams out there that can win all their games and still probably can’t get in that realm. But we don’t have that problem at Clemson, that’s for sure,” he said. 

The name schools aren’t the only ones aiming high, though. 

Virginia is coming off a down year, and while it won’t be much better this year, head coach Mike London has some pretty good recruiting classes coming in. He said a non-conference schedule with games against BYU (No. 36) and Oregon (No. 3) might seem too tough, but that it’s helped him in recruiting.

“You can schedule so-called easy wins. I think that I’ve always been up for the challenge of trying to improve the program the best way possible,” London said. “When you’re playing other good teams, you have established (assistant) coaches, there’s a commitment to your facilities ... that’s the route we’re going. We’re excited about the opportunities it’ll present for us.”

With as much power as head coaches have in college football, the natural assumption is that they more or less can set their own schedules. But they have varying degrees of input, from a collaborative process with the administration to basically the administration telling the head coach what the non-conference schedule is going to be. 

Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson knows that with eight conference games and a game against Georgia, there are nine games essentially already decided. But he doesn’t have as much input into scheduling as one might think. (“Clearly if I was involved, I wouldn’t be going to Provo (to play BYU),” Johnson joked.)

So when the Georgia Tech administration brings him a tentative non-conference schedule, Johnson won’t put up a huge fight -- unless it were like Alabama, LSU and Georgia, he said. As long more or less the way he wants it -- Georgia, plus one FCS team, one more BCS team and a mid-tier FBS team -- he’s OK with it. 

“As a general rule when they come to you and say ‘Well, we’re playing so-and-so home and away because that’s what we’ve got, I might could scream and yell, but it doesn’t do any good,” Johnson said. 

Georgia Tech, Clemson and Florida State all have one thing in common: all three close the season against SEC rivals (Wake Forest has been closing the year against Vanderbilt, but that’s a more recent development). Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher said the fact that game is always the final week of the year can be a disadvantage if one of the two teams involved is in the national title conversation. (Of course, the ACC might be thrilled to be in that conversation that late in the year anyway.)

“The tradition of it being late is good. But if you think about it, there is merit if you think about the ultimate thing which is to win a national championship. Say you played that game in the beginning of the year, and you won it. Now, that puts you immediately in the national title hunt,” Fisher said. “And if you were ranked high and you lost it, there’s still time to recover from an early loss as you battle back through the season in a game of that significance. But do you want to mess with tradition and all that?”

Johnson, though, sees it a little differently. 

And after fielding yet another question about the ACC’s relative inferiority to the SEC, he got a little prickly. “I think in the last couple years, we’ve lost to Georgia. South Carolina’s beaten Clemson. It’s become a big deal,” Johnson said. “I can remember in ’08 when we beat Georgia and Clemson beat South Carolina, it wasn’t such a big deal then.”

Fisher didn’t seem to like the comparison, either.

“Does the Big 10 match up? Does the Big 12 match up? Does the Pac 12 match up? I mean, it’s one league winning it,” Fisher said. 

And Johnson was right about one thing: the ACC has been a very strong conference in terms of the middle, which has always been more competitive and frisky than it has been in other leagues. The primary problem the ACC has faced is the absence of an elite team. The ACC hasn’t been in the national championship hunt after the first few weeks of the season in what feels like forever.

Part of that problem has been a tough non-conference schedule, particularly early. The elite teams in the ACC have taken losses that aren’t necessarily bad losses, but come back to haunt them later. And since the SEC has (with the exception of last year) acquitted itself well in all of its major bowl games and produced the last seven national champions, they’re going to be the king until someone steps up to dethrone them. 

“Right now, the SEC -- and rightfully so -- at the very top has been dominant. Until that changes a little bit and somebody knocks them off the perch, it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Johnson said. “One feeds the other. What came first, the chicken or the egg? But for whatever, it’s there and you have to give them credit. They’ve done a great job of marketing their league and they’ve produced. Things tend to change. They go in cycles.”

The ACC, at the very least, needs to start a new cycle this year where teams win some of those big non-conference games. Then the league won’t find itself on the outside looking in when the four playoff teams are selected next year. 

Otherwise, it could just become the new Big East.