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Is the ACC doomed in football? Not if it follows these five steps

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Notre Dame already schedules ACC teams, so why not make a convincing pitch to the Irish to join? (US Presswire)  
Notre Dame already schedules ACC teams, so why not make a convincing pitch to the Irish to join? (US Presswire)  

With apologies to Mark Twain, the reports of the Atlantic Coast Conference's impending death as a relevant football conference have been greatly exaggerated.

Ever since the SEC and Big 12 announced last week they had formed an alliance to play on New Year's Day 2015, many have said and written it was nothing less than football Armageddon for the ACC. To many it was the final confirmation that in the New World Order of college football, the ACC will be relegated to sitting at the kids' table eating hot dogs while the adults -- SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 -- are at the big table enjoying the vast majority of the sport's riches and prestige.

The social media has exploded with speculation that several ACC schools like Florida State, Clemson and Miami might be looking to leave and, rather than risk being left behind, will jump at an offer from the Big 12 if it ever comes.

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Things are rarely that simple. All parties involved deny there has been any official contact. But we've been down this road before with other conferences. In the world of Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle that must be fed, the ACC has become like a bank. Everything is OK with the bank -- until it isn't. The bank might be in perfectly good shape financially until one rumor too many tips the scales and sets off a panic. Then there is a run on what was a perfectly solvent bank. Perception shapes reality.

That's where the ACC is right now. The conference is very healthy. It is making a lot of money -- more than $17 million per team per year with its new media rights contract. It has a deal that shows all of its games on one of the ESPN platforms. It had eight teams in bowls last season. It placed two teams (Clemson and Virginia Tech) in BCS games for the first time ever. Now, is it competing for national championships and winning enough games? No, it is not. It doesn't help to have your conference champion (Clemson) boat-raced by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl 70-33. It is 2-13 in BCS bowl appearances. The ACC hasn't been in the national championship discussion since 2000. That's bad. No way to sugarcoat it.

But it's a far cry from where the ACC is right now -- which is in an extended postseason slump and building a narrative that after almost 60 years of existence the league, whose institutions dominate the entire Atlantic Coast of the United States, is going to suddenly be a non-factor in the sport of college football.

I spent all day Thursday talking to ACC officials at every level. They acknowledged that ACC football needs to be better.

"We're not at the height of our game right now," an ACC athletics director told me. "That is hurting us. And it doesn't help that our neighbors in the SEC are having an unprecedented run of success" with six straight BCS championships.

When I talked to ACC commissioner John Swofford, he acknowledged the speculation, but said he felt confident about the future of his league.

"I know it's a topic that everybody has an opinion about and I know there are numerous unfounded rumors out there," Swofford said. "But the voices I hear and the voices that I trust are our presidents and our athletics directors. I feel good about where we are as a league."

But I am reminded that other commissioners (See Dan Beebe, Big 12) were confident right up until the press conference to announce that teams were leaving. If the last few years have taught us anything, is that these "collegial" relationships can be anything but when money and institutional ego are on the line.

This doesn't mean, however, that the ACC should stick with its hand, sit back and just see how this all plays out. There are things the ACC can do in the short term to improve its situation in football. Here are five:

1. Win more games: It's simple but winning cures a whole lot of ills. The fact is that if this were 10 years ago, when Florida State played for the national championship in 1999 (won) and 2000 and Miami played for it in 2001 (won) and 2002, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Florida State is very close to being back and Miami seems to be on the right track with Al Golden. It is crucial that these two programs get their mojo back. Virginia Tech, which became a member in 2004, has been carrying most of the water for this conference for too long. Clemson needs to bounce back from the Orange Bowl embarrassment. Beating Auburn on Sept. 1 would help. North Carolina should never be bad in football but it has been.

The brutal truth is that the SEC is making more money than the ACC because it plays better football and has won six straight national championships. So there is really no point to fans or Board of Trustee members complaining about where the ACC happens to be in the marketplace at this point in time. You want more money and more respect? Recruit better players and win more games.

2. Talk Florida State off the ledge: If Florida State doesn't jump, nobody jumps. President Eric Barron and AD Randy Spetman may be saying all the right things to Swofford in these meetings, but the Seminole fan base can smell blood in the water and they want to go.

A member of the Board of Trustees was complaining that the Seminoles were making $3 million a year less than the SEC. That's chump change in this marketplace and, when you compare apples to apples in the accounting procedures, the gap is actually less than $2 million between the ACC and SEC. Still, the ACC needs to help Florida State figure out ways to squeeze more income out of its athletic program. It can be done.

It might also calm Florida State down if the ACC quit putting the Seminoles in those Thursday night road games.

One other thing: The ultimate trump card you can play with Florida State is your knowledge that they really don't want to be in the Big 12. They want to be in the SEC. The SEC is in the process of putting together its own network and somewhere down the road may want to expand to 16 teams. Florida State missed on a chance to join the SEC in 1990. They don't want to miss out again. Use that chip to buy yourself some time.

3. Make Notre Dame say no: Everybody dances around the topic of Notre Dame, which continues to cling to its football independence while housing its other sports in the shaky Big East. The ACC should take it head on. Put together a contingent of presidents and athletics directors, get on a plane to South Bend and make a dead-serious proposal for the school to move all sports to the ACC. Convince Notre Dame that its best access to the national championship game is by winning the ACC. Ask AD Jack Swarbrick what it would take and figure out a way to make it happen. There is nothing to lose here and, if the ACC pulled it off, it would be a game-changer.

And if you get Notre Dame, then go grab Louisville or Connecticut too, and call it a day.

4. Embrace the SEC in scheduling: Four members of the ACC already play annual nonconference games against the SEC: Georgia Tech-Georgia, Clemson-South Carolina, Florida State-Florida, Wake Forest-Vanderbilt. Trust me when I tell you that despite its recently announced alliance with the Big 12, the SEC would like for more of its members to play nonconference games against the ACC. It makes scheduling easier and gives both leagues nonconference games that make sense geographically. Given the success of the SEC, playing those teams (and beating them) would give the ACC more street cred than playing USC and Stanford.

Don't get hung up whether or not you're helping the SEC. The fans would love these games.

5. Hit a home run with your bowl game: This is extremely important now given the SEC/Big 12 and Big Ten/Pac-12 axis. The ACC's contract to send its champion to the Orange Bowl has two more years to run and after that the ACC has a decision to make. Does it stick with the Orange Bowl and its tradition? Does it think outside the box, like the SEC, and try to create a new tradition?

The Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta, which currently gets the No. 2 ACC team after the BCS, is going to make a serious push to get the ACC champion. The Orange Bowl, despite its great tradition, has lost some of its luster because going to South Florida after Christmas just isn't as big a deal to college football fans as it used to be. It is way too expensive.

"We've had some really good discussions about it and I feel comfortable that we'll have a quality bowl game," Swofford told me.

It would help if the ACC could nail something down before the BCS meetings on June 20. Because after that announcement the entire focus of college football is going to be about the four-team playoff if it happens. This decision will be the next big story about ACC football. It will either continue or halt the narrative that the ACC is in trouble. The conference needs to knock it out of the park.


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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