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by | CBS Sports

Already out of title race, ACC still has ways to go

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In 2004 the ACC looked at the college football landscape and decided that it needed to do something if it was going to continue to sit at the big boys table with the SEC, Big Ten, and Big 12. There simply was no long-term future in being a nine-team football conference dominated by Florida State.

So it invited Boston College, Miami, and Virginia Tech to leave the Big East and turn the ACC into a 12-team conference. The move infuriated the Big East and made the ACC's powerful basketball coaches less than happy.

But if you were sitting in an ACC athletics director's chair at the time, it had to be done.

"It wasn't hard to look to the future of football and see where it was headed," said Dave Hart, the Florida State athletics director then and now the No. 2 man at Alabama. "The train was leaving the station. Our decision was whether or not we were going to be on it."

The goals of ACC expansion were pretty clear in football:

1: The ACC had never placed two teams in BCS bowls and wanted to change that because it is one of the measuring sticks of a serious conference. And the money wasn't bad either.

2: The ACC wanted to field a champion that would regularly be in the discussion for the BCS national championship.

3: The ACC, which had one of the best basketball television packages on the planet, wanted to maximize its revenues in football.

Everybody got on board. Over a three-year stretch the 12 ACC schools collectively invested about $400 million in facility improvements for the sport of football.

And it made sense. After all, in a 16-year period from 1987-2002, either Florida State or Miami played for the national championship 13 times.

The two teams were put into separate divisions with the anticipation that, more often than not, they would meet in a conference championship game where the winner was all but assured of going to the BCS title game.

"We felt at the time, given the quality of coaches and our commitment to football that all those goals were realistic and achievable," said ACC Commissioner John Swofford, himself a former quarterback at North Carolina. "We still do."

But now it is 2010 and it's fair to say that only goal No. 3 has been realized. Earlier this year the ACC landed a 12-year, $1.86 billion television contract with ESPN. It didn't match the 15-year, $3 billion deal the SEC got from CBS and ESPN in 2008, but it doubled the income that the ACC received in its previous contract. Given the marketplace and the economy, it was a very good deal for the ACC. Financially, expansion has paid off for the ACC.

But the pursuit of goals 1 and 2 have been less than successful. In fact, it has been painful to watch.

The BCS is now in its 13th season and the ACC still has not placed two teams in the five big games. Florida State lost the first BCS championship in the 1998 season to Tennessee, won the 1999 title against Virginia Tech and played for it again in 2000, losing to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

But the ACC has not been back to the national championship game since. And in 12 BCS appearances, the ACC is 2-10, including a string of nine straight losses.

To its credit, the ACC has scheduled aggressively taking on quality non-conference opponents from BCS conferences.

"It was pretty clear to us that upgrading the schedule was the right thing to do," said Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe. "You can't be afraid to play people."

But while it was a noble gesture, the results of this aggressive scheduling have not been good.

In the first three weeks of the 2010 season the ACC has played 10 non-conference games against schools from BCS conferences.

After Stanford's 68-24 domination of Wake Forest last Saturday night, the ACC stands at 1-9 in those games and 0-9 against teams ranked in the Top 25.

The only win was N.C. State's 30-19 victory over unranked Cincinnati of the Big East last Thursday night in Raleigh.

Now to be fair, seven of those nine losses were on the road. North Carolina's loss to LSU was in Atlanta. Only Duke played at home against No. 1 Alabama.

"I don't think you're going to see many conferences doing what we're doing," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "We deserve credit for that. But yes, we have not looked good in the first few weeks."

So we'll give credit where credit is due. But still ...

Some of those losses really hurt the ACC from a perception standpoint. Florida State really didn't compete in losing 47-17 at Oklahoma on Sept. 11. A lot of the pundits picked Miami to win at Ohio State, but the Hurricanes were a turnover machine in losing 36-24. Georgia Tech, the defending ACC champion, inexplicably lost at Kansas (28-25), which had been beaten by North Dakota State the week before. Then Kansas made the Georgia Tech loss ever stranger by going on the road and losing to Southern Mississippi of Conference USA.

Virginia Tech, the ACC favorite ranked in just about everybody's preseason Top 10, lost to Boise State at the buzzer (no shame in that) on Sept. 6 and followed it up with a flat performance in a 21-16 loss to Division I-AA James Madison. JMU has won a national championship and Mickey Matthews is a really good coach. But that's a game the ACC standard bearer should not lose at home.

The ACC prides itself on balance. Two years ago the league put 10 teams into bowls.

"The margin for error is this league is so small it's ridiculous," said Paul Johnson, the head coach at Georgia Tech.

Now the conference race is still going to be something to see. North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Miami are all capable of winning the Coastal Division. Clemson showed in its gut-wrenching 27-24 overtime loss at Auburn that it is a good team that will challenge Florida State in the Atlantic Division.

But when it comes to assessing the ACC on the national stage here are the facts: The ACC had five teams (Florida State, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Miami) in the Top 25 when the season started on Sept. 4. Just 15 days later only Miami (at No. 19) was still ranked. N.C. State (3-0) and Boston College (2-0) are the only undefeated teams left in the league. Given the realities of the BCS, the naked truth is that the ACC is out of the race for the national championship with a Saturday still left in September.

Pains me to say it because I've covered a lot of ACC football. But there it is.

But take heart, ACC fans. Coach K and Duke, the defending national champions, begin basketball practice on Oct. 15.

Watch The Tony Barnhart Show every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on the CBS College Sports Network.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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