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Thursday, August 18, 2011
ACC keeps swinging, keeps missing

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

PINEHURST, N.C. -- Ever since the Atlantic Coast Conference expanded to 12 teams in 2005, it has aspired to be like the boss of the college football block, the Southeastern Conference.

Now it is.

With Georgia Tech placed on probation in July, North Carolina preparing for an October hearing with the Committee on Infractions and Miami suddenly engulfed in potential scandal, the ACC is on a scofflaw streak the SEC can respect. There is some serious outlaw street cred in the league right now.

The ACC is hoping for a better finish on the national stage in 2011.

Unfortunately, there is not much gridiron cred. On the actual field of play, the ACC remains well behind the SEC and every other big-six league not named the Big East.

And even the Big East has come closer to hitting some legitimate high notes in recent years. Louisville in 2006 and West Virginia in 2007 finished in the top six in at least one of the major polls. The ACC hasn't had a team finish that high in the rankings since 2000, when Florida State was fifth.

Heck, non-AQ conferences like the Mountain West (Utah in 2004 and '08, TCU in '09 and '10) and the Western Athletic (Boise State in 06' and '09) have had fairly routine top-six finishers while the ACC has whiffed.

The average final AP ranking of the top ACC team in the last decade has been an underwhelming 13th. That's not getting it done in terms of competing for national titles, or winning BCS bowl games. The ACC is just 2-11 in those games and has never put two teams into BCS bowls in one season.

The most obvious underachievers have been Florida State and Miami. The Seminoles were often the best team in the league in the latter years of former coach Bobby Bowden's tenure, but they were rarely good enough to win the big games the way they did in the 1980s and '90s. By the time the Hurricanes arrived from the Big East in 2004, they were losing prowess and have not played in a BCS bowl as an ACC member.

They were supposed to carry the league, but they haven't.

That duty has fallen to Virginia Tech, an admirably consistent program under Frank Beamer that can never quite find the good-to-great switch. The Hokies win a bunch, but they also usually step into at least one significant upset per year and are persistently futile against elite competition.

Still, Beamer is quick with the optimistic ACC company line -- these things run in cycles, and the league will have its day.

"You take it over a period of time and we will fare well," he said. "This league is getting better all the time. There's some good personnel. Quite honestly, I don't know that we've had the great team. But if you're close, if you're knocking on the door, I think you can get there."

There's been plenty of knocking on the door, but nobody's answering. It certainly didn't help last year when Tech lost to Boise State and FCS James Madison, then stormed through ACC play 9-0 with an average winning margin of 19.6 points, then was crushed by Stanford in the Orange Bowl.

"I think you understand when you get to that type of game," Beamer said of the Orange Bowl, "you've got to make the plays."

The Hokies didn't make enough plays and were simply outplayed. After that, it was hard not to conclude that their 11-3 record was the product of inferior competition.

The old stereotype is that the ACC simply cares more about basketball than football, even after bringing in Florida State in the early '90s and then Miami and Virginia Tech in '04. And that general league apathy toward football greatness yields mediocre results.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe, formerly an assistant at Tennessee and head coach at Mississippi, happens to agree with that assessment.

"I've been in the other one [the SEC] and been part of conference championships and a national championship, and it means a whole lot to them," Cutcliffe said. "Go to Atlanta to the SEC championship game and feel the intensity.

"We as a conference have got to regain our swag. I'm not a commercial for the ACC. I was in the SEC forever. Football has got to be important to you and the people around you. There's a difference in the mentality."

Despite that, Cutcliffe at least gave a 30-second testimonial to the upside of the ACC, if not a full-length infomercial.

"It's closer than people think," he said. "Could the ACC win a national championship [this] year? Absolutely. All it takes is for the ball to bounce the right way and avoid injuries."

Danny O'Brien
Maryland's sophomore QB Danny O'Brien is the ACC's most proven returning passer.

It will take a few other ingredients. Namely, some unexpected star turns at quarterback.

Only one starting QB returns who threw more touchdowns than interceptions last year: Maryland's Danny O'Brien (22 TDs, eight picks). The lock preseason all-ACC quarterback would have been Russell Wilson of North Carolina State, but he transferred to Wisconsin. After that it's all guesswork.

Florida State is high on junior E.J. Manuel, but with six TDs and 10 interceptions for his career he has some proving to do. Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas is huge (6-foot-6, 245 pounds) and highly touted, but in backup duty last season he was a 46 percent passer.

Proven star power at that position is not vital -- after all, nobody was talking about Cam Newton or Darron Thomas at this point last year, and they were the starting quarterbacks in the BCS Championship Game. But it helps, and the ACC can use all the help it can get.

"This is a very, very talented league," said the guy who probably was the ACC's top coach, at the league's media days. "Ton of speed, talented coaches."

Forty-eight hours after that optimistic assessment, Butch Davis was fired at North Carolina. The scandal that has engulfed his program is SEC-like, but nothing else about the ACC is.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.