ACC making great strides in football — but questions remain

ACC Commissioner John Swofford has been quick to tout two significant occurrences with his league: Louisville's addition to the conference (essentially replacing Maryland) and Florida State's status as reigning national champions.

Every conference will do anything to promote itself, and the ACC is no different.

With the College Football Playoff launching at the end of this season, that kind of promotion becomes even more important.

Ultimately, though, for a seven-year stretch, only the SEC had the hardware to back it up. The conference’s streak of seven straight national titles will likely not be replicated in this modern era.

But it was the ACC — likely the most looked down-upon of the power conferences, behind the now-defunct Big East — that ended the SEC’s reign at the top, as Florida State knocked off Auburn last season.

In the previous seven-year stretch, predating FSU’s BCS national title, four different SEC teams won the championship.

As a comparison, the ACC doesn’t even have four schools that won a national championship as a league member; and that includes the bygone era when as many as five teams were named national champs.

Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, a longtime SEC coach with Alabama (getting his coaching start under ‘Bear’ Bryant), Tennessee (offensive coordinator), Ole Miss (head coach) — has now seen both sides of the progress.

"Being a 26-year coach in the Southeastern Conference, I had my eyes open, paying attention to what was going on in the ACC. I’ve seen steady, if not significant, progress," Cutcliffe said.

He then proceeded to rattle off a list of reasons the ACC is on the upswing — the geographical footprint, league-wide improvement in coaching, the addition of Louisville, and yes, even the academic side league officials like to tout.

Only the Big Ten is even remotely close in that aspect.

"We’re unique. We’re academic. We’re different venues, different populations at our institutions as far as student enrollment. But yet, it’s the Atlantic Coast Conference. That’s a pretty cool thing," Cutcliffe said. "Last year, there were 11 of us that played in bowl games. That’s a pretty cool thing.

"All this stuff that seems like marketing isn’t marketing. There’s a difference in facts and marketing. Right now, the ACC can throw out facts. We used to market." Cutcliffe paused to jokingly shhhh the assembled media at last week’s ACC Kickoff, as if he were sharing inside information.

"And there’s a big difference."

The 2013 season was significant in many ways: Eleven programs qualified for bowl games. Clemson knocked off Ohio State in a BCS game (the Orange Bowl). Florida State QB Jameis Winston became the second freshman in college history to win the Heisman Trophy. And of course, the Seminoles earned the final national championship of the BCS era.

Florida State, though, remains a step above its competition in the ACC.

In the modern era, when the ACC has been good, it’s been largely because of Florida State.

The Seminoles ran roughshod over the league from the time it joined (1993, the first year it was eligible to win the ACC title) until 2003, with only one other program winning the conference title in that span (Maryland in 2001).

It took Florida State three seasons before it lost a game in the ACC; and in its first nine seasons in the league (1992-2000), the Seminoles were a ridiculous 70-2 in ACC play.

Florida State would appear to be "back." Winning its 2013 ACC games by an average of 39.1 points is proof positive of that.

Therein lies the real question: Is it good for the ACC to have one dominant team — great enough to knock off all comers, even from the SEC — or does it need more balance?

In the eyes of the public, it’s probably a little bit of both. Florida State winning the national title is obviously a good thing; but someone else needs to step up as a power.

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, whose Tigers are probably the best option to be that secondary power, thinks the gap between FSU and everyone else isn’t as wide as most imagine.

"Listen, the gap’s not that wide. It’s really not. It’s not far from the outhouse to the penthouse. You’ve done this as long as I have, everybody can win. We had 11 teams with a winning record, and when you have a winning culture, there’s a work ethic and expectation," Swinney said.

"You’re Clemson or Florida State in our division, nobody’s going to underestimate you because you’ve won a lot of games over the past few years. And so everybody wants to beat you. I think our division is very strong. I think everybody has the ability to win. There’s not anybody that can’t beat us. There’s not anybody we can’t beat."

Florida State went to Death Valley last year, though, and absolutely throttled the Tigers in a primetime game — 51-14.

Is the gap between  Florida State and Clemson 37 points? Probably not. But it indicated that FSU was a legit powerhouse and that maybe Clemson still had some work to do.

Swinney, though, still insists his Tigers aren’t that far away. And seeing Fisher and the Seminoles hoist the trophy a year ago made him ache for it.

"I was very happy for Jimbo, and for Florida State and for our league, when they won the national championship. … I know how hard that is to achieve. Things have kind of got to line up right and all that stuff, but it was good to see them have that moment, that’s for sure," Swinney said.

"But also as a competitor, you go, man, you want to be there. We know we’re not that far away. But it’s just, it’s a little things that can make the difference. So everybody’s got to care a little bit more. Everybody’s got to get a little bit better.

"If we’re going to taste that ultimate prize, we’ve got to improve in some areas. First of all, winning those games and giving yourself a chance by taking care of the ball in those games (like the FSU game)."

The league has tried parity on for size before. That resulted in teams like Wake Forest winning the league, or Georgia Tech. But back when Matt Ryan was at Boston College, the Eagles were a national power along with Virginia Tech — only slumping Florida State and Clemson weren’t quite on that level, and everyone else was knocking off the big boys as they limped to mediocre finishes.

Parity didn’t get the league anywhere in terms of national perception, really. Having a power is key, and so is winning a title. Although Cutcliffe insists it all starts there in terms of perception, even if both FSU as a program and the league itself were good before last year’s title. But the rest of the league, he adds, has work to do, too.

"Florida State was a great program, Jimbo Fisher was doing a good job before they won a national championship. They’ve had good football. They will post-national championship. But again, the world we live in, we’ve got to have some flash. You’ve got to win it all. We (the ACC) need to win still some of those preseason big matchups," Cutcliffe said.

"But the reality is that when a conference wins a national championship, the more those things begin to happen."

Florida State (vs. Oklahoma State) and Clemson (@ Georgia) are the best bets to win the league’s highest-profile non-conference games in September. The rest of the ACC? Well, Virginia is likely not beating UCLA, even at home. Virginia Tech probably won’t win at Ohio State. Boston College isn’t toplling USC at home. Pittsburgh won’t be favored when hosting Iowa.

Still, all it took was a national title for the league to be far ahead, perception-wise, of what it once was.

"I think that what I’ve said needed to happen for several years happened. We needed to produce a couple of dominant teams out of the ACC, and we ended up having (three) teams that won 10 or more games. We had 11 teams with winning records. Just about every college football award out there came through the ACC. We had the national champion, the Orange Bowl champion. Put 42 guys or so in the NFL. I don’t know what else you can do," Swinney said.

"Now, when (Clemson) won the league in ’11 and we won 10 games for the first time in forever, I was like, ‘Well that’s great, but we’re not going to get any respect. We’ve got to consistently go and do this.’ Now, we’ve done it three years in a row. Can we do it a fourth year? Then all of a sudden, you change that.

"Same thing from a conference standpoint. If we can continue to produce teams that are in that mix nationally at the end of the year, then the ACC has got some great days ahead. I personally think we’re strong now and we’re just going to get better. I love the fact that Louisville’s coming in. They’ve been to two BCS bowls in a row, done a lot of great things under Coach Strong and Petrino before that. It’s a league on the rise that I don’t think takes a backseat to anyone."

The addition of Louisville, a program that went 23-2 over the last two seasons, certainly bolsters the league’s reputation — but the Cardinals will have to perform.

The ACC thought it was getting a national power when it added Miami, but the Hurricanes haven’t even won the Coastal Division yet, much less the ACC or even a national title (its last was in 2001).

Virginia Tech has been steadily very good, but not elite in a given year. Not a national title-winner, anyway.

And so Louisville is a reason for hope, and the existing ACC coaches were enthusiastic about the addition.

They won the Sugar Bowl, beat Florida. They won the bowl game last year, beat Miami. Had one loss each of the last two years. You’ve got to remember they had three first round draft picks last year. That’s as many as any team in this country," Fisher said.

"They’ve got a quality program, quality coaches, quality history, and I think it’s only going to enhance the ACC, and I think they’re going to be a tremendous new member of our conference, and it’s only going to add to our conference and our conference strength and our strength of schedule."

And strength of schedule could end up being key. Before Florida State reached the national title game, there was talk it might not because of the supposed weakness of the ACC. But things fell the right way for them, and ultimately they proved they were the best team in the country.

Still, if an ACC team drops a game along the way, will it be excused as easily as an SEC power doing the same might be, when the playoff committee decides on its four teams?

Swinney thinks that won’t be an issue when it comes to the committee, and that it will respect the ACC.

"Absolutely. Yeah. Because they’re people that know football. You’re going to tell me we go beat Georgia and win eight conference games and go to Tallahassee and win down here, and all of a sudden we haven’t played anybody? That isn’t going to happen," Swinney said.

"I said for years, if we will just produce that 12-1 team or 13-0 team, then the ACC would be there. And that’s exactly what happened last year.

"All these people said all these things, an Florida State, they went through that schedule and they were right where they needed to be. That’s really all that needs to be said. Now that it’s expanded to four, I don’t think there’s any question that it’s even further enhanced, the opportunity that our league has."

Cutcliffe sees the full picture, just like ACC commissioner John Swofford has laid out plenty of times — it’s steady improvements across the board, in coaching, recruiting, eyeballs, high-profile wins — all of it.

Strength of schedule is just one component, but it’s an important one.

To Cutcliffe, the future is bright. Maybe he’s marketing the league instead of speaking in facts. But to him, the facts all seem to suggest that the league is only going to improve.

"I think we’re going to grow as autonomy comes along. We have a great eight-game interleague schedule. All of us have played very good football teams … so, if you’re looking at ACC strength of schedule, across the board, it’s pretty damn strong. Stronger than some other people that are viewed so high," Cutcliffe said. "I don’t think anybody is running and hiding in the ACC, and I think that’s a good thing.

"I’ve seen a change in the number of NFL players that are showing up, ACC football players. The quality of the coaching is going to continue to grow. The quality of the players is going to continue to grow. I think we have the television sets.

"I think we have the technology capabilities and the market, the number of people that we’re involved with as an Atlantic Coast Conference, it’s an era that all of that’s going to matter and matter a lot. I think we’re setting ourselves up to take advantage of it."