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ACC can rebuild football reputation with big Sept. 17

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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PINEHURST, N.C. -- To say that Sept. 17 might be the most critical day for the Atlantic Coast Conference since the league expanded six seasons ago might seem like a slight exaggeration.

But, then again, maybe not.

On Sept. 17, Big 12 favorite and possible No. 1-ranked Oklahoma will play Florida State; Ohio State plays Miami; likely Big East favorite West Virginia visits Maryland and defending BCS champion Auburn plays Clemson.

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"It would be good to win a few of those," ACC commissioner John Swofford said. "It's a great opportunity. If it doesn't turn out our way, you have a lot of the season left.

"You can't throw in the towel based on three or four games based on one Saturday. Certainly it would perceptually help us from a national standpoint if we have some wins that day."

Each contest will be played on the ACC's home turf. It's time for the ACC to make a stand, because if it doesn't, the league's perception will only be reinforced. You know: great academics, not-so-great football.

"Everyone thinks the ACC is a weak conference," Miami senior linebacker Sean Spence said.

That perception is becoming a reality for the league because of its 1-5 record in BCS bowl games since the league grew to 12 schools in 2005. Go back even further and the league has won only two of its past 13 BCS bowl games.

That's right: since 1998, the ACC has won as many BCS bowl games as the Mountain West has in the past three seasons.

When the ACC grabbed Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College from the Big East, a lot of college football observers thought the ACC might possibly challenge the SEC. However, a funny thing happened on the way to world domination. Namely, its projected bell cows -- Florida State and Miami -- hit some serious dry spells.

"Miami has not contributed -- football-wise," said Swofford, before taking a slight pause. "Miami has been a tremendous addition. As they came into our conference, they slid some competitively as a football program. But I'm confident that it will turn around. Miami has too much potential for it not to."

In the six seasons since joining the ACC, the Hurricanes are 44-32 overall and 1-4 in bowl games and have never won the ACC's Coastal Division. In the previous six seasons before coming to the ACC, Miami was 63-10 with a 5-1 bowl record and won the 2001 BCS title.

Florida State has managed to capture two Atlantic Division titles in the past six years, but hasn't been to a BCS bowl since 2005. Swofford said it's usually not easy to make the transition from replacing a legend such as Bobby Bowden, but the Seminoles have done a good job with new coach Jimbo Fisher.

ACC boss John Swofford (left) is counting on Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, among others, to help elevate ACC football Sept. 17. (AP)  
ACC boss John Swofford (left) is counting on Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, among others, to help elevate ACC football Sept. 17. (AP)  
The Seminoles were picked to win the ACC title by the league's media Sunday and should be ranked among the top 10 in the Associated Press preseason Top 10 poll next month -- and might even crack the preseason top five.

Whether the Seminoles retain that lofty ranking will depend on how they fare against Oklahoma on Sept. 17.

"It would help [the ACC's perception]," Fisher said. "I don't think there's any doubt it would help. It does help the league, because that's what they judge it off of the nonconference games. I think it's a big game for both of us."

Despite the league's inability to win a national title since Florida State in 1999 (Miami was a Big East member in 2001), North Carolina coach Butch Davis said don't underestimate the ACC.

"I think we're closer than a lot of people think [to winning a national title]," Davis said. "There are many teams in the league that could get to the BCS title game."

Florida State and Virginia Tech are the most likely candidates.

The defending ACC champion Hokies, who have been eliminated from national-title contention with season-opening losses the past two years to Alabama and Boise State, have a much more, uh, manageable nonconference schedule this season.

Virginia Tech's non-ACC schedule consists of FCS member Appalachian State, East Carolina, Arkansas State and Marshall, yet Hokies coach Frank Beamer managed to say -- without cracking a smile -- "I've got some tough [nonconference] games."

Despite Beamer's concerns, the Hokies will be favored to win all 12 regular-season games. And if that happens and Virginia Tech repeats as ACC champions, it could get a national-title shot.

"It all has to come together, and then you have to be a little lucky," Beamer said. "We're the only team in the country that has won 10 games for seven straight years. We're in the mix, but what's happened is we just haven't fit together."

Beamer said some years, the Hokies were good on offense but too young on defense, or the defense was strong but the offense was a little immature.

"It's hard [to win a national title]," Beamer said. "Things have to fall right. You've got to be good and a little bit lucky."

Virginia Tech senior flanker Danny Coale said last year's 40-12 loss to Stanford in the Orange Bowl was embarrassing.

BCS Bowl Records Since 2005
Conference Record (Pct)
SEC 8-3 (72.7 pct)
Pac-12 4-3 (57.1 pct)
Big 12 4-4 (50 pct)
Big East 3-3 (50 pct)
Big Ten 5-7 (41.6 pct)
ACC 1-5 (16.7 pct)

"We want to get that monkey off our back," Coale said. "It's no secret to any ACC team. We need to win a BCS [bowl] game. There's no doubt about it. We just need to win one. We haven't played particularly well in the opportunities we've had. That's kind of unfortunate for us."

Fisher said it's only a matter of time.

"It's a trend," Fisher said. "Why did Nebraska struggle for a bunch of years [in bowl games] with Tom Osborne? You know what I mean? Then all of a sudden, he won them all. When good teams play good teams, you don't win all the time. But we will. We will."

Fisher, Beamer and Swofford are all quick to point out the ACC's superlatives: ranked as the top conference academically by U.S. News & World Report; ACC football schools have the best APR ranking among coaches the past five years; and the league ranks No. 1 in the NCAA's Graduate Success Rate the past six years.

Also, the ACC has had more NFL Pro Bowl selections the past two seasons than any other league. In the 2010 NFL Draft, the ACC had 15 of the first 60 picks -- easily more than any other league -- including the SEC, which has a stranglehold on the past five BCS national titles.

"Things go in cycles," Beamer said. "Right now, the SEC is in a pretty good cycle."

Despite all the ACC's brains and NFL brawn, they have been a big bust in the BCS bowls. The league's outlook and morale could get a huge boost Sept. 17.

"There's no question," Beamer said. "We have to win our share of those ballgames if the perception is going to change.

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