- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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PINEHURST, N.C. -- ACC commissioner John Swofford made it through nearly all of his introductory remarks at this year's ACC Kickoff before the inevitable playoff question came, but he was prepared with the company line: Four teams was the right number for college football. No need to change.
But Swofford understands what that means, and he knows where his league stands, so even his staunch support for maintaining the status quo came with some pessimism.
"Everybody says one conference is going to be left out," Swofford said, "but it may be two. It isn't necessarily going to be one."
And with that, the pressure to change public perception got ratcheted up just a bit more.
It's not that the ACC hasn't been fighting this battle for years, but in the playoff era, changing hearts and minds -- and more importantly, the opinion of the selection committee -- is at the forefront, and as this week's kickoff event proved, the league's coaches aren't ceding any ground to the rest of the college football world.
"It's unjustified," Boston College coach Steve Addazio said of the ACC's standing among the Power 5 conferences. "I really think the ACC is one of the top two conferences. It's the ACC and the SEC."
But as the preseason prognosticators begin talking the 2015 playoff, the ACC's standing certainly doesn't seem as secure as Addazio's sales pitch would indicate. With Florida State losing numerous key players, the league lacks a dominant team, and that's a concern.
A look at ESPN's early Football Power Index underscores the perception problem. Eight SEC teams appear in the rankings before the first ACC team -- Clemson at No. 19.
That's a perplexing situation given the results on the field, according to NC State coach Dave Doeren.
"For seven years in a row, the SEC was the league and they earned their credibility, but now the ACC is winning all the awards, we're beating the SEC on the field, our bowl records are better," he said. "It just hasn't become reality in society yet. The perception is the SEC is still stronger. They have more money, they have a network, but they haven't done the same things the ACC has done on the field the last two seasons."
The answer, Doeren said, is to simply keep winning. But in this new era of college football, narrative plays a big part, too.
"Here's Florida State, wins the national championship two years ago, and the next year, they're fighting to stay one of the elite teams when they hadn't lost a game," Addazio said. "What's that all about?"
Swofford's address to the media came equipped with a PowerPoint touting the league's accomplishments: 22 bowl teams in two years, a host of national awards, a national championship in 2013. And if the bottom-line numbers didn't sway opinion, coaches were happy to make their case the ACC passes the eye test, too.
"We always felt like in the SEC, we had the great D-linemen and pass-rushers, and that's what separated the league," said Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, who spent a hefty portion of his career with Auburn and Arkansas in the SEC. "But we've got great D-linemen here."
Indeed, three ACC teams -- Virginia Tech, Clemson and Petrino's Cardinals -- had more sacks per game last season than any SEC team.
Virginia Tech's struggles the past three years have been used as a knock against the league, but the Hokies beat eventual national champ Ohio State last season, and coach Frank Beamer said the ACC has never been better.
"You hope a dominant team comes out from the teams at the top, but I think the middle of our league is very solid, and the notion that anybody can beat anybody on a given Saturday is true," said Beamer, who also touted the league's recent investment in facilities, including the Hokies' new indoor practice facility. "I think from a league standpoint, we're getting better all the time. We've got a lot of things going for us."
The problem may be overcoming a decade of mediocrity in which Beamer's team was the only consistent winner in the league. That's not the case now, but perceptions linger.
"Six years ago, when I first came in the league, we were getting beat up a little bit," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "But all you've got to do is look at what's happened, the results on the field, and that has changed. This conference is as good as there is in the country."
In the minds of the voters, that hasn't proved to be true. On the field, however, Swinney already sees perceptions changing.
"I know how our opponents view the conference," Swinney said. "To me, this conference is the most complete conference when you look at winning on the field, draft picks, APR, graduation rates. Our conference doesn't take a back seat to anyone else."
The problem is, there's little benefit of the doubt given to the ACC at this point, so when Swofford talks about teams getting left out of the playoff, there's reason for the league to worry.
That means this season is about both winning for the ACC and convincing the committee that those wins mean something.
"It's all perception going in," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. "You're looking at a committee that has a tough job: to judge. And I think there's a standard to which they're going to continue to learn how they're doing, what the criteria is. I think we're all on new ground, and when you're dealing with opinions of people, they're all going to differ."
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