GREENSBORO, N.C. — The Atlantic Coast Conference got bigger. Now it’s time to find out if it got better.
Syracuse and Pittsburgh are finally in after nearly two years of Big East purgatory, bringing the ACC up to 14 teams and helping to solidify its status as a power conference.
The league has plenty of things going for it. It’s wedded to the Orange Bowl for at least 13 more years with an attractive lineup of other bowls behind it. The new grant-of-rights agreement makes it highly unlikely that anybody follows Maryland out the door.
But there’s still work to do as the ACC once again tries to make itself nationally relevant on the field – and the league’s preseason favorite, Clemson, has the best chance to raise the profile of the conference.
The Tigers have the league’s most likely Heisman Trophy contender in quarterback Tajh Boyd and a schedule bookended by Southeastern Conference heavyweights Georgia and South Carolina.
They made people take them seriously by beating LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last December, and how they deal with the increased attention that came along with that victory could determine whether they’re in contention for their second ACC title in three years – if not a bigger prize.
“I told them last year (that) we didn’t handle success very good” in 2011, coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’re going to have success again, and how we handle that is going to determine our season. And they did a much better job last year.
“We have to focus on Clemson and our formula for success, our preparation,” he added. “That’s what matters.”
Put up or shut up
The ACC has plenty of early season chances to raise its profile. In addition to that Clemson-Georgia game, Virginia Tech-Alabama and Miami-Florida are among the high-profile matchups that could either make people take notice of the basketball-first league – or simply shrug their shoulders at another missed opportunity. It went just 4-11 in 2012 against the four other heavyweight leagues, and was winless in four final-week matchups with the mighty Southeastern Conference.
The Tigers shape up as the ACC’s best shot at a serious national title contender, with Boyd, the league’s reigning player of the year throwing to 2011 breakout star Sammy Watkins. But the last time Clemson was picked to win the ACC (2008) the Tigers stumbled to a 3-4 start that led to a midseason coaching change. In the ACC’s neverending fight against its public perception, the league can ill afford a faceplant from its preseason favorite. They host Florida State on Oct. 19 in a game that likely will decide the Atlantic Division race.
The league’s parity – or is it mediocrity? – usually means a team or two can come out of nowhere to challenge for a division title. Duke was in the mix in the Coastal Division last year, Virginia did it the year before, and it’s hard forget Wake Forest’s surprise run to the title in 2006. This year it could be North Carolina, which lost 10 players but has enough talent back – led by QB Bryn Renner, TE Eric Ebron and DE Kareem Martin – to make coach Larry Fedora’s second season an interesting one. Or maybe there’s a surprise coming at Maryland, where all those injuries in 2012 mean plenty of players got at least some game experience and WR Stefon Diggs could be one of the league’s top playmakers. And don’t look past coach Paul Johnson’s triple-option at Georgia Tech, which returns virtually its entire offensive line. Former backup QB Vad Lee showed promise last season, rushing for nine TDs.
The new guys
Unlike the ACC’s 2003 expansion, nobody’s expecting much of a football upgrade from Syracuse and Pitt. Those schools have combined for two 10-win seasons since 1992 and one outright Big East title in the past 15 years (Syracuse, 1998). Other new faces to keep an eye on: Boston College coach Steve Addazio will try to turn around a program coming off its first consecutive losing seasons since 1997-98, N.C. State coach Dave Doeren arrives after leading Northern Illinois to back-to-back Mid-American Conference titles and takes over for the fired Tom O’Brien – who’s now on Virginia’s staff – and Duke safety Jeremy Cash, an Ohio State transfer who will look to improve a defense that allowed at least 41 points to six of its final seven opponents.
None of the ACC’s coaches appear to be in serious danger of being fired – at least, not yet. Twelve of the 14 schools have changed coaches since 2007, and the other two – Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer and Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe – are institutions on their campuses. But that’s not to say they aren’t feeling any pressure. A fifth straight losing season for Grobe would make that 2006 Orange Bowl run feel like a lifetime ago, and all eyes in Blacksburg are on Beamer’s overhauled offensive staff after last year’s out-of-character 7-6 finish.
Predicted order of finish:
2. Florida State
3. N.C. State
4. Wake Forest
7. Boston College
2. Virginia Tech
3. North Carolina
4. Georgia Tech
Title game winner: Clemson