National perception hasn’t smiled on the ACC recently.
For years, the conference has been viewed as an afterthought among the nation’s elite conferences – a step ahead of the American Athletic Conference (formerly known as the Big East) but behind the SEC, Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12.
Part of the problem has been the ACC falling down in big games. Last year, it was the league’s two biggest teams – Clemson and Florida State – losing to in-state rivals South Carolina and Florida during the final week of the season. (It should be noted, however, that Clemson beat both Auburn and LSU from the SEC in 2012.)
By the time the ACC Championship Game rolled around, tickets to watch Georgia Tech play Florida State were going for less than a tank of gas.
It’s so bad that, when oddsmakers released lines for 15 key non-conference games against teams from the other four conferences (as well as Notre Dame and BYU), they picked ACC teams to go 0-15.
The cream of the ACC, again Clemson and Florida State, should be able to contend with anyone in the nation. The Florida State-Clemson game appears to be the best game the conference has to offer by leaps and bounds. The Tigers also play Georgia and South Carolina in the non-conference slate, giving them two more chances to take down SEC giants.
For the league to be able to mend its reputation, the middle class needs to pull its weight. There are plenty of candidates to provide the much-needed boost.
Three teams with senior quarterbacks – all of which play SEC teams in the non-conference schedule – seem to be the most likely to make noise.
Virginia Tech slid back into the middle of the conference last season because of a surprisingly inadequate defense and an inconsistent offense. This is QB Logan Thomas’ last chance to live up to his first-round potential. Coach Frank Beamer’s teams are almost always more fundamentally sound than the 2012 edition. The Hokies get the first shot for a “wow” win, opening against Alabama in Atlanta.
Another of the teams seemingly poised to push for a spot among the ACC elite is North Carolina. Coach Larry Fedora turned the Tar Heels in the right direction a year ago and, like Virginia Tech, features a senior QB in Bryn Renner. North Carolina struggled defensively in losses, but returns plenty of talent – especially in the secondary. An opener at South Carolina gives the Tar Heels a chance to strike a blow for the ACC on the opening Thursday night.
Finally, Miami, behind QB Stephen Morris, showed signs of turning the corner. Coach Al Golden has a tremendous opportunity to score a huge non-conference victory when Florida comes calling in Week 2. The Hurricanes must play better defense – another common thread between these three teams. They return 10 defensive starters. Based on last season, that could be a blessing because they have more experience or a curse because Miami’s problem is that of personnel.
Those three teams, along with Georgia Tech, seem most likely to represent the ACC Coastal division against either Florida State or Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.
Georgia Tech shouldn’t be overlooked either. The Yellow Jackets might boast their most dynamic passing game since coach Paul Johnson brought the triple option to Atlanta. Eight defensive starters return to play for first-year coordinator Ted Roof, who returned to his alma mater after helping Penn State win eight of its last 10 games.
Several other teams – led by Maryland and North Carolina State – seem capable of bouncing back toward the upper-middle class of the conference.
As the saying goes, to be the best you’ve got to beat the best. The ACC has numerous opportunities to take down teams from the SEC during the non-conference schedule. If ACC teams can at least hold its own against the nation’s most widely-respected conference and a few teams can crack the top 25, this could be the year the ACC starts regaining some national attention.