ACC Preview: 14 Years of Oranges guaranteed, but still needs big stage wins

by | College Football Blogger
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Frank Beamer and Virginia Tech have won four ACC titles, but only one BCS bowl. (US Presswire)  
Frank Beamer and Virginia Tech have won four ACC titles, but only one BCS bowl. (US Presswire)    
The last 12 months of ACC football have been anything but normal. There was the expansion that happened and the rumored departures that didn't. Preseason favorite Florida State dropped three straight games early, but then the conference put two teams in BCS bowls for the first time. Conference realignment and a shifting postseason have kept everyone's head on a swivel, but the always-quotable Dabo Swinney suggests you keep your eyes on the road ahead.

"You get in your car to drive, and there's a big windshield," Swinney said, framing the imaginary window and dash with his hands. "Because it's much more important what's in front of you than that little mirror that shows what is behind you."

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Swinney used that bit of wisdom to describe Clemson's mentality, particularly after suffering the embarrassing 70-33 loss at the hands of West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. But the maxim could apply to the entire ACC as the league prepares to begin its 60th season of football. Focusing on what is ahead is not only ideal for the conference, it's also a much better view.

In the rearview mirror is the ACC's 2-13 record in BCS bowl games, 31-51 record (.378) against non-conference BCS opponents, and lack of a national title contender since Florida State's appearance in the first three BCS National Championship Games from 1999-2001. The Seminoles' victory over Virginia Tech in the 2000 Sugar Bowl and the Hokies' (as ACC members) defeat of Cincinnati in the 2009 Orange Bowl are the only trophies the league can point to for modern day success on college football's biggest stage.

What's behind the ACC isn't so pretty, but contrary to what some naysayers expected -- especially in this turbulent time of conference realignment -- what lies ahead is extremely promising for the league.

The addition of Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the conference membership, a renegotiated multi-platform media rights deal with ESPN through 2026-27, and -- most importantly -- a guaranteed spot in college football's new postseason format have created a sense of stability across the conference. The ACC's 12-year agreement with the Orange Bowl -- beginning in coordination with the new four-team playoff format after the 2014 season -- guarantees a spot for the ACC Champion on New Year’s Eve or New Years Day. If the ACC Championship Game winner is not picked by the selection committee for the four-team playoff, that team will still have a guaranteed spot in the Orange Bowl -- or another one of the host bowls if the Orange is hosting a national semifinal. If the Orange Bowl is not hosting a semifinal AND the ACC Champion is selected for the four-team playoff, then the league gets to send a second team to play on New Year’s Day.

The ACC's reputation has taken a hit because they have failed to win big games on the biggest stage. Part of that 31-51 mark against non-conference BCS opponents over the last three seasons is a league-wide 9-15 record in bowl games. Conference play in the league is incredibly competitive, and ACC fans have had no complaints. But, as Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe points out, that won't be enough for national respect.

"Anybody back here knows how talented the league is," Grobe said. "You look at the number of kids going to the NFL and all those type things. Do we have talent? Yeah. Are we well coached? We have good coaches. But I think nationally, reputation-wise, until we get somebody to win it we're not going to get the respect we need."

Nationally, ACC teams are often categorized as "underachievers." The conference is frequently competitive with the number of players selected in each NFL Draft. The top rated high school prospects in the land are still choosing to sign with ACC schools. Some of the nation's top talent has entered and exited the conference without getting a taste of that big stage college football success.

EJ Manuel returns to FSU for his senior season after throwing 18 TDs last year. (US Presswire)  
EJ Manuel returns to FSU for his senior season after throwing 18 TDs last year. (US Presswire)    
"We're getting the same recruits that LSU would get, or Oregon, or USC," Manuel explained. "We're getting the same caliber guys so it's only right that we start going out there and making those things come to life. A lot of people talk about SEC, and rightfully so. Those guys have been in the national championship the last six years -- that's crazy. I think an ACC team needs to step up, and we can be the team to do that."

As Grobe and Manuel pointed out, a national title contender would go a long way to change the national perception of the conference. But improving the reputation of the league is a weight that all of the ACC's members need to carry. It starts with winning all of the big games, not just THE big game.

It starts opening weekend in Atlanta, when N.C. State and Clemson will face Tennessee and Auburn in the first double-feature Chick-fil-A Kickoff. It starts with Virginia's trip to TCU on Sept. 22. It starts with North Carolina's Sept. 15 visit to take on Big East favorite Louisville. The opportunity to change the conference's reputation is present every single time a team can improve that 31-51 mark against non-conference BCS opponents.

Conference expansion and the Orange Bowl agreement will mark a new era in ACC football. If schools take Swinney's advice and look at what is ahead, they will see more access to college football's biggest stage than the league has ever had. Despite what is in the conference's rearview mirror, they have a seat at the table as a power conference for the future. If the ACC wants to silence the national critics, they will need to start winning the games that the entire nation watches.

Chip Patterson's predicted order of finish:

Atlantic

1. Florida State: Entering his third season as head coach, Jimbo Fisher has all the pieces in place to bring the ACC crown back to Tallahassee. The Seminoles return 69 lettermen, including 18 starters and several key rotation players, from a disappointed 9-4 squad in 2011. The schedule certainly has its traps, like facing NC State on the road in Oct. 6 and facing Virginia Tech in Lane Stadium on a Thursday night. I expect Florida State to take care of business in their division -- picking up the head-to-head tie breaker against Clemson -- and earning a spot in the ACC Championship Game for a rematch with the Hokies.

2. Clemson: The Tigers say they have moved on from the 70-33 Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia, but I think the memories are fresh enough to provide a spark when the 2012 season kicks off. If Clemson wants to return to the ACC Championship Game, they'll need to get it done on the road against Florida State. Picking up the tiebreaker early would give Dabo Swinney's squad at least one game of wiggle room in the standings, which could come in handy since the Tigers draw Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech from the Coastal Division. However, they do get both games in Death Valley.

3. N.C. State: With quarterback Mike Glennon's class entering their redshirt senior year, the entire NC State roster is now made up of Tom O'Brien's signees. There are question marks at linebacker and at the offensive skill positions, but with Glennon, a veteran offensive line, and one of the best secondaries in the ACC -- led by CBSSports.com Preseason All-American David Amerson -- the Wolfpack should have no trouble reaching 7+ wins for the third season in a row.

4. Maryland: Senior wide receiver Kevin Dorsey says a cloud has been lifted from the program. Randy Edsall said there is trust that was not there before. But no matter what the coaches and players say, the only way to reverse the negativity around the program is with wins. New coordinators Mike Locksley and Brian Stewart bring schemes that better fit the personnel, and the adjustment period should be over by the time the Terps hit their back-loaded conference schedule in October.

5. Boston College: After a 2011 season filled with ill-timed injuries and several close losses, Eagles fans were left with a lot of "What Ifs" and frustration following the program's first bowl-less season since 1998. The good news is that most of those inexperienced players who saw extra snaps last season are back, making Boston College one of the most experienced teams in the league with 17 returning starters. With Montel Harris dismissed, the door is wide open for junior running backs Roland "Duece" Finch and Andre Williams -- combined for 1,222 yards in 2011 -- to anchor the new offense under Doug Martin.

6. Wake Forest: Tanner Price is one of five quarterbacks to return after throwing for 3,000+ yards in 2011, but repeating that performance will be much tougher without most of his supporting cast. The Demon Deacons lose their leading rusher, leading receiver, and four starters on the offensive line. While Nikita Whitlock and Merrill "Bud" Noel headline a defense that should be solid, head coach Jim Grobe will need players like Josh Harris and Terence Davis to emerge as big-time contributors if Wake Forest is going to get back to the postseason.

Coastal

1. Virginia Tech: The setup for the Hokies in 2012 is simple. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster has nine returning starters from a unit that finished 7th nationally in scoring defense, 10th in total defense, and 14th against the run. The questions regarding Virginia Tech's possible sixth division title in eight years lie in the productivity of the offense. Logan Thomas improved his play under center significantly as the season progressed in 2011, but the Hokies must replace four four-year starters on the offensive line, running back David Wilson, and their top two wide receivers. A trip to Clemson and date with Florida State on Thursday night in Lane Stadium present the most daunting challenges in the schedule, and it would not be surprising to see the division champion come from the annual playing of the Commonwealth Cup against Virginia.

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2. Virginia: Mike London's facelift of the Cavaliers' football program began on the recruiting trail, convincing some of the state's best prospects to turn down other offers and join the Cavaliers. It reached new levels in 2011 after Virginia came within a game of the Coastal Division crown and earned an invitation to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. Entering year three of the Mike London era, Virginia is no longer under the radar. All eyes will be on the quarterback competition heading into fall camp to see if Alabama transfer Phillip Sims can oust Michael Rocco as the starter, but the offense is set to succeed regardless of which player wins the job. The questions will be on the defense, where seven starters and 13 lettermen must be replaced.

3. North Carolina: A favorable schedule and the return of eight offensive starters -- including 1,000-yard rusher Gio Bernard and All-ACC offensive linemen Jonathan Cooper and James Hurst -- are reasons to believe Larry Fedora's first year in Chapel Hill could be a memorable one. But an NCAA-imposed postseason ban and personnel/depth concerns at most defensive positions could make it an up-and-down year for the Tar Heels. The secondary has plenty of room to improve after finishing 10th in the conference in pass defense, and it might take a year or two to get the versatile playmakers necessary for the 4-2-5 defensive scheme.

4. Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets have one of the best offensive lines in the league, led on the interior by Omoregie Uzzie, Will Jackson, and Jay Finch. But Georgia Tech having a productive rushing attack -- they have led the ACC in rushing offense each of the last five years -- will not necessarily result in division titles. The Yellow Jackets will need more consistent play from their defense and a wide receiver to emerge as the new "go-to guy" if they plan on returning to the ACC Championship Game for the first time since 2009.

5. Miami (Fla.): When Al Golden was informed that his team had been selected to finish fifth in the division at the ACC Football Kickoff, the Hurricanes' coach was not surprised at all. "If I'm sitting in your chair, I'd probably pick us fifth, too," Golden remarked. "I wouldn't be able to name half the guys. Half the guys just finished their senior prom." The quick-witted response is not far from the truth. The Hurricanes return just 41 lettermen from 2011, and welcome 33 new faces from the 2012 recruiting class. Golden's first two classes have been ranked nationally -- the 2012 class is a consensus Top 10 group -- but this will likely be a rebuilding year for the Hurricanes.

6. Duke: The Blue Devils bring back eight starters on both sides of the ball, including Sean Renfree, All-ACC wide receiver Conner Vernon, and eight of their top nine tacklers from 2011. Unfortunately for Duke, the conference schedule does them no favors. They draw Florida State and Clemson from the Atlantic Division, and face both Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech on the road. Duke lost three games by a total of seven combined points in 2011, and a few lucky bounces could have resulted in their first bowl berth since 1995. It will require more than a few lucky bounces to get them there in 2012.

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