GREENSBORO – As of Sunday’s ACC Football Kickoff, every team in the league believes it has a decent chance to win the conference.
With no clear favorite, half of those 12 teams are accurate to think its chances to win the title are decent. And that’s not necessarily a good thing for the ACC.
It has been more than 11 years since an ACC team played in the National Championship Game, the longest absent stretch for a power conference since the BCS was instituted before the 1998 season.
By the time the 2013 National Championship Game is played, 12 years will have passed since January 2001, when Florida State last represented the conference in college football’s biggest game.
To the players in the league, the drought is a reflection of parity and not talent.
“Personally, I think we have some of the best teams in the nation,” Wake Forest defensive tackle Nikita Whitlock said. “We do have teams that could compete for the national championship, but we haven’t. You can only go by what you can see.”
Regardless of the competitiveness of the conference, equality has caused the conference’s reputation to suffer. Clemson, last season’s ACC champion, finished ranked No. 22 in the final AP poll, the lowest for an ACC title winner since Florida State finished No. 23 in 2005 after upsetting No. 5 Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game while unranked.
Two seasons ago, no ACC team was higher than 10th at any point of the season.
The conference’s lack of respect came through last season when Clemson, despite an 8-0 record and a convincing defeat of reining national champion Auburn, never climbed higher than sixth.
Eventually, the Tigers, like many of the challengers before them, stalled. They finished the final four games of the regular season 1-3.
“I think the media and the fans and people who watch football see the ACC as a weaker conference,” Whitlock said. “In reality, I think we’re not weaker, just more equal. We definitely beat on each other.”
The vehicles ACC teams use vary from archaic (Georgia Tech’s wishbone) to professional (Wake Forest and N.C. State) to experimental (Clemson and North Carolina’s hurry-up offenses).
To the players in the ACC, that’s not an indictment of talent but rather a reflection of how difficult it is to finish the conference schedule with an undefeated record.
“(The ACC is) up there,” Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller said. “It’s definitely a challenge to win it. It goes to show how talented the ACC is that we have that many different types of offenses and shows we stack up to the other conferences.”
Only one team has gone 8-0 in the conference during the ACC’s title game drought, but that has proven another point: Nonconference games are must-wins for ACC schools.
The only team in that time period to complete the schedule without an ACC loss was Virginia Tech in 2010, but the Hokies lost their first two games – one to FCS member James Madison – and immediately were removed from contention for the BCS title game.
The nonconference schedule is fairly weak for most teams this season, but the few schools with marquee opponents – like N.C. State, which opens against Tennessee – are treating the games with high regard.
“It’s very important, just knowing it’s an ACC team versus an SEC team,” N.C. State safety Earl Wolff said. “The SEC is really the premier league in college football. I feel when we win that game, hopefully, it can get us rolling.”
Repairing the ACC’s reputation, whether the change comes swiftly or not at all, will be based on consistently winning important out-of-conference games.
In the recent past, ACC teams that have had high hopes of perhaps playing in a national championship were tarnished by the low of an unexpected loss.
Until one team can avoid the latter half, as many players and coaches love to say, the conference’s reputation is what it is.
“That boils down to the ACC being more consistent week-in and week-out,” Clemson center Dalton Freeman said. “From top to bottom, I feel like we’re as competitive as anybody in the country. Although the SEC has had three or four dominant teams, I feel like we’re just as competitive as a conference.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com