On Saturday four ACC teams played an opponent from the SEC and those four teams had a chance to change the national perception of the ACC (some more than others), but each one of them only reinforced the negative reputation of ACC football. In those four games Georgia blew out Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt demolished Wake Forest, Florida beat Florida State and South Carolina showed us that Clemson is still, well, Clemson. These four ACC teams had a chance to change the conversation, but failed to do so and may have even done a bit more damage to an already tarnished reputation.
A little over a decade ago, the ACC was one of the better conferences in collegiate football. 12 years ago Florida State beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl to win the BCS National Championship, but it has been mostly downhill since then. The Atlantic Coast Conference is now considered to be one of, if not the, worst football conference of the “Big 6” and yes that includes the charred remains of the Big East.
The real problem that faces the conference is the lack of a truly elite team. Every other conference (excluding the Big East) has at least one team that can be considered elite, and some have two or three. From 2004-2011 Virginia Tech was the elite team of the ACC, they won at least 10 games in each year of that stretch, but they struggled to win the big out-of-conference games. Outside of an Orange Bowl win over Cincinnati, the Hokies failed in the BCS and the reputation of the conference as a whole continued to falter. Virginia Tech during that stretch never finished in the top 5 (after the bowl games), which would have been a big boost for the down conference.
This year the Hokie naysayers finally got their wish, as Virginia Tech fell off the map (finishing 6-6), which gave other teams a chance to carry the banner for the ACC. Early in the season, it appeared that Florida State would step up to fill the void, but after a one point loss to North Carolina State and the aforementioned loss to Florida, the Seminoles have been relegated to being simply a good ACC team and no longer considered elite.
Clemson was the other team that had the chance to step up and become the elite team of the conference, but also failed to live up to their preseason hype. An early season loss to Florida State knocked the Tigers out of the ACC Atlantic Division race and their loss to South Carolina showed that they still aren’t totally ready to step up onto the national stage. If Clemson had beaten the Gamecocks then they probably would have been heading to the Sugar Bowl in January, but now they will probably head to the Chic-Fil-A Bowl in December.
This story can still be changed, but it will be a difficult task. On Saturday Georgia Tech and Florida State will play in the ACC Championship Game and the winner will earn a berth into the Orange Bowl. If the ACC champ can have a good showing in Miami and win the Orange Bowl against a good opponent, then the reputation of the ACC will begin to turn in the right direction. However, it won’t reverse that negative perception entirely.
The Atlantic Coast Conference aspires to be the SEC. They aren’t alone in that as every other college football conference in the country wants to be the SEC, or be the ones to knock them off, but it will take an awful lot. The ACC needs more than one elite team to become nationally relevant again which means that Clemson, Florida State and Virginia Tech need to step up and take their place among the top teams in the country. However, last weekend proved that none of them are there yet.