Senior College Football Columnist

On-field results don't come close to matching potential for ACC


AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. -- The argument can be made: The ACC has never been healthier.

Don't snicker, smile or dismiss. The ACC's power brokers certainly aren't at the conference's spring meetings.

"[The ACC's] success going to be realized in the coming years," Miami AD Blake James said. Not exactly propaganda, as Bob Stoops would put it, but there is a quiet confidence here that football will get better.

BCS Bowl Game Winning Pct
Conference Rec. Pct
Mountain West 3-1 .750
SEC 17-8 .680
WAC 2-1 .667
Pac-12 13-7 .650
Big East 8-7 .533
Big Ten 12-14 .461
Big 12 9-11 .450
ACC 3-13 .187

As it is, the league's mediocrity is one of the great, massive and ongoing mysteries of the college football universe.

As recently as November, the ACC's existence looked in doubt when the Big Ten picked off Maryland. But the league has been remade with the additions of Louisville, Syracuse and Pittsburgh. Each of those programs has played in at least one BCS bowl. The population metrics are off the charts (see below). Commissioner John Swofford won the Notre Dame sweepstakes.

The grant of media rights has assured solidarity. There is talk of a conference network that would have been laughable a year ago. Those are still only modest jumping off points into the playoff era for a league that has slowly devolved into something close to irrelevancy in the national conversation.

Now it must solve that mystery: Why isn't the ACC better in football?

The Big 12 had its day, having a team in the championship game six of the first eight years of the BCS, winning two national championships. USC had a mini-dynasty going in the first decade of the century. The Big Ten has played in more BCS bowls than anyone (26). Ohio State alone has played in more BCS games (nine) than the ACC has won (three).

"When you start throwing away BCS wins and conference championship wins you better remember how hard they are to find," said Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, whose program appeared in its first BCS bowl in seven years in January. "When you start taking things like that for granted, you forget winning is hard."

Winning has been nearly impossible for the ACC on a national scale since Florida State dominated the early years of the BCS. Since 1991, the league has won two national championships, both by FSU. The ACC is 3-13 in BCS bowls, easily the worst record of any conference. Miami and Florida State slumped together as national programs about the time the Hurricanes were admitted into the league in 2004.

"Nobody on this team had won a championship before," said Fisher, whose Seminoles hadn't taken the ACC since 2006. "When you a win a championship it's different. You think different. You act different. You understand what it's about."

No one, it seems, understands the "why" of that ACC mystery. Its "footprint" -- states of member schools -- includes the Southeast where the best defensive recruits thrive. Per school revenue has inched up past the $20-million mark with that grant of rights announcement.

The addition of Notre Dame kept the Irish out of the hands of -- well -- everyone. If there is ever a day when the school joins a conference in football it almost certainly seems like it will be the ACC. Until then, Notre Dame will play ACC schools, enhancing the league's strength of schedule at a time when it needs it most in the coming playoff age.

Remember when the ACC was a basketball league? Football has driven the league up toward this mountaintop. During the meetings Tuesday afternoon, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim walked one after the other down a hall past a group reporters. Those reporters stayed glued to Fisher, who was holding court.

Conference realignment has been kind, even on the basketball side with the addition of powerhouses Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville. The grant of media rights will make it one big happy extended family July 1 when the conference grows to 14 schools. (Fifteen in basketball with the addition of Notre Dame).

Yes, the ACC has never been healthier, but the league hasn't been able to play dead at times in the last decade or so when the BCS defined coaches, players and leagues. The last seven years there hasn't been much of a chance for anyone with SEC dominating landscape.

"It's cyclical," James said, echoing a common take around here. "Take the last 30 years. Compare Miami to any school in the SEC. I'd be happy to do it. Right now, credit to the SEC. But you go back to the 1990s and early 2000s where there were ACC teams every year right at the top -- Miami, Florida State, Virginia Tech. We were the ones at the top."

But the disconnect between potential and performance has never been wider for the ACC, perhaps in any single college football conference.

In the last three recruiting classes, only the SEC has signed more prospects than the ACC in ESPN's top 150. In the last nine NFL drafts the SEC and ACC are the only two leagues to have at least 30 players drafted. Florida State just had 11 players taken last month, a school record matching its total of the previous four drafts combined.

In the 2012 Pro Bowl it wasn't even close. The SEC (26) and ACC (20) had more players on the rosters than the other three BCS conferences (Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12) combined (44).

Conclusion: The ACC is recruiting good players and producing more than its share of pros. But the mystery grows when they actually play football at ACC schools.

"The talent level, as you have seen, is second-best in the country," Fisher said. "I think our teams are becoming much more consistent. I think you're going to see us at the top competing for those national championships."

The ACC presidents and ADs who agreed to that grant of rights had to be heartened by these U.S Census Bureau numbers:

  The realigned ACC will have more people (107 million) in its 10-state footprint, more than any other conference. Bigger than the SEC (92 million), even the Big Ten (84 million). While that doesn't necessary translate to success on the field, the product is exposed now to more people than ever with the addition of Pittsburgh, Louisville, Syracuse and Notre Dame.

  The Southeast is expected to grow by 43 percent by the year 2030. In that area are ACC states North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Georgia.

  The ACC has five of the top 15 "growth" states by population projected by 2030. That's more than the SEC (four). The Big Ten, it should be noted, has none.

  The ACC area has more TV households (38 million) than any conference, according to Nielsen.

But until the league starts producing top-10 teams, those are mere bullet points.

There is hope.

Clemson's Dabo Swinney has won at least nine games in three of his first four full seasons, including an ACC title. Virginia Tech just saw an eight-year streak of double-digit wins end in 2012. While defending champ FSU seems to be trending upward, Miami is in a state of flux until the NCAA penalties are announced later this year. If the NCAA accepts the self-imposed two-year bowl ban (plus perhaps some minimal scholarships), Al Golden can recover. Don't forget the Hurricanes won the Coastal Division but took themselves out of the ACC title game.

That was in the middle of a climate of negative recruiting created by rival schools (because of the NCAA investigation) that coach Al Golden termed "toxic."

"I prefer," Golden said, "to look ahead."

They all do in the ACC. The future, the metrics, the realignment all suggest there is hope. There is also a great, massive and ongoing unsolved mystey.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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