Atlantic Coast Conference football has an image issue, often considered weaker than other major conferences. The ACC made a strong showing in last year’s bowls, but a track record of poor performance in out-of-conference games continues to hover over the conference. Fortunately, the ACC will have some opportunities to change that narrative, starting with week one of 2013.
While there is plenty of focus on the negatives in ACC football, there has been less discussion of the positives. The conference’s 49-55 bowl record in the BCS era doesn’t sound impressive, but it is comparable to the marks set by the Pac-10/12 (41-45) and the Big XII (57-63) and three percentage points higher than that of the Big Ten (47-59).
Three ACC schools currently sit in the top five for most consecutive years with a bowl appearance, including the longest active streak. Florida State has been to a bowl game every year since 1980, winning its last five (also the longest active streak of its kind in the nation). Virginia Tech has been to a bowl game each of the last 20 seasons, while Georgia Tech has ended 16 consecutive campaigns with bowl appearances.
However, ACC teams have generally faltered against non-conference opponents. In 2012, ACC teams were 14-21 against FBS non-conference opponents, the worst mark for a major conference. Virginia Tech lost neutral-site games to Boise State and Alabama in 2009 and 2010, Florida State lost both games in a home-and-home with Oklahoma,
Another positive is how the ACC finished 2012. Conference teams were 4-2 in bowl games, highlighted by Florida State winning the Orange Bowl, defeating Northern Illinois. Clemson also knocked off LSU in a thrilling Chick-fil-A Bowl, while Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech added wins against USC and Rutgers. Even future ACC teams were 2-1, as Syracuse smoked West Virginia in New York City and Louisville defeated Florida in the Sugar Bowl.
To eliminate the notion of the ACC as an inferior conference, however, those wins will have to continue into future seasons. When ACC teams play marquee non-conference games, they need to win them to improve the conference’s image.
The first opportunity will come Thursday, August 29, when North Carolina travels to Columbia to face South Carolina. The Tar Heels were 8-4 in their first season under Larry Fedora and would have won the Coastal Division if not for NCAA sanctions. However, North Carolina hasn’t defeated a ranked team since knocking off Florida State in 2010, and their last win against a ranked non-conference opponent came in 2008 against Connecticut. The Tar Heels will also be facing one of the best defensive lines in the country in South Carolina, led by All-American Jadeveon Clowney. They will also be dealing with the loss of three NFL draft picks on their offensive line, as Jonathan Williams, Brennan Williams, and Travis Bond. It will be a tough test for what will likely be a raw offensive line.
There are two other ACC-SEC matchups two days later, as Virginia Tech will face Alabama and Clemson will go against Georgia. Virginia Tech is a heavy underdog against the defending national champions. Alabama’s offense is led by senior quarterback AJ McCarron, sophomore running back TJ Yeldon, and sophomore wide receiver Amari Cooper. However, many experts believe Virginia Tech’s 2013 defense could be one of its best in years, behind defensive end James Gayle, linebacker Jack Tyler, and defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins.
The Georgia-Clemson game figures to be a closer affair. Clemson opened last season with a 26-19 victory over Auburn, but a down year for those Tigers prevented the ones from Clemson benefitting from it. Clemson has won its last nine home openers, but the last loss came against none other than Georgia in 2003, when the Bulldogs won 30-0. It will be a battle of prolific quarterbacks, as Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Georgia’ Aaron Murray combined for 7,789 yards and 72 passing touchdowns last year.
Those teams deserve plenty of credit for scheduling tough opening games, rather than opening against FCS teams to boost their record. However, until ACC teams start winning these games with regularity, they will continue to be viewed as the weak link in the power conferences, fairly or unfairly.