Last week around the ACC, the buzz was all about respect and a new sense of cooperation between the league and its members (specifically the football schools). Jumping off from these ideas, Hokie Mark and I chatted about what it all means, and what these ideas may develop into over the coming years. Check out the conversation below:
Mark: Earlier this off-season, Bob Stoops of Oklahoma made sports news with his statement to the effect that SEC football superiority is largely “propaganda.” Now Florida State‘s Jimbo Fisher has come out and said that the ACC is not far behind the SEC and that “perception is a huge part of it.” Is this just coach speak, or are OU, FSU and others in the ACC really close enough to dethrone the SEC?
John: College football coaches are, to a point, politicians, in that they’ll say whatever needs to be said to stay in the good graces of their fans/constituents. Stoops also said in the last month that the BCS was terrible after what happened to his team last year — ignoring all the times his team benefited from that same flawed system. Point is, he’ll say whatever’s necessary to make it appear like it’s not his fault that his team has fallen short of expectations. Fisher is in a similar boat, but has also just come off a season in which the ‘Noles largely met preseason expectations (ACC title, Orange Bowl). Both do have a point, however.
The college football season is largely shaped by the preseason polls, and whether or not a team appears in them regularly determines whether they’re in the title conversation at the end of it. So the bias toward the SEC has actually created a situation where the league gets off to a running start against the competition. That’s not to say the top teams in the SEC aren’t better than the top teams in other conferences (they are, for the most part), but they do get a slight leg-up on the perception front, which is half the battle in college football.
What about you, though? Obviously your team’s been in the national title conversation more often than mine has over the past decade, so how does it feel being discounted when you’re near the top of the polls?
Mark: Not at all, John. I’m one of those guys who thrives on not getting respect — it makes me want to prove it. And I think for the most part the Virginia Tech football team is the same; when they are disrespected, that’s when they are most dangerous. I know the Key Play has “Beat Bama” t-Shirts for sale, and Hokies everywhere seem to be running with the #BeatBama hash tag. So even though we are prohibitive underdogs, I’m quietly optimistic that Beamer & Co. will have “a little something” for Alabama.
John: And if the Hokies beat the Tide: How high does Tech climb in the polls (considering they’ll likely start unranked)? And how far does ‘Bama fall? If Alabama doesn’t drop more than seven spots for losing to an unranked team, is there more than just a little bias toward SEC teams inherent in the polls (coach’s and media)?
The thing that worries me is the Hokies pretty much always start slow. I can’t tell you the last time VT won an opener against an opponent from a “Power Five” conference. I think Syracuse has had the same problem in recent years — start slow but finish strong. The thing is, much like VaTech, Syracuse must start in the fast lane this fall as well. Any thoughts on the Penn State opener?
John: Penn State’s an enigma, and I’m not sure which team we see in that opening game — the group that played extremely well to end the year, or the one that got off to a very slow start. Of course, Syracuse has their own questions to answer as well; namely who will play quarterback (Terrel Hunt or Drew Allen). The sooner that’s addressed, the better, especially if it’s Allen, who will have to learn the system from scratch and won’t line up with the team at all until July.
So I know we spoke briefly over email about the Clemson comment regarding increased “cooperation” from the ACC, but obviously wanted to open it up here for further discussion. First, what do you think that sort of comment to begin with? Was the ACC uncooperative before the last few months? And if so, in what ways, and how are they rectifying things? Divisional realignment doesn’t appear to be on the table anymore, but maybe that’s just an ask from Georgia Tech and Florida State.
Mark: I think if you go back to the 2011-12 season, there was a strong feeling among many programs — not just the fans, but the coaches, too — that the ACC played favorites. Specifically, it was felt that the ACC was in North Carolina, by North Carolina, and for North Carolina… and it was certainly not without evidence…
But of course, we’re talking football, and there was evidence of favoritism there as well. First, it didn’t help matters that the commissioner was an ex-Tar Heel football player. Then, if you look at bye weeks, it always seemed that Clemson, FSU, G-Tech and VaTech would play teams coming off a bye, but UNC never did. Fans seldom pulled for other ACC teams, even out of conference. There was little cooperation anywhere.
It was against that backdrop that FSU and Clemson began looking for another conference home last summer. Of course, the Seminoles became very vocal and open about it. That seemed to be a wake-up call to the league. Schedules last season were noticeably more equitable. But something else happened: John Swofford took the lead in publicly rooting for ACC teams not named UNC. Others followed, but it was still a fragmented league going into last season.
Then something happened which unified the conference like nothing else ever could. Maryland announced it was defecting to the Big Ten. I use that word because to long-timers that’s how it felt. So the ACC circled the wagons, so to speak, and when it selected Louisville instead of UConn, the football schools were all-in once again. You could sense it during bowl season — every fan of every ACC school was pulling for every other school in a bowl. You had Clemson fans pulling for Duke in the Belk Bowl. You had VaTech fans rooting for G-Tech in the Sun Bowl. Everybody was behind Clemson in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Then, when FSU took care of business and Louisville shocked the world in the Sugar Bowl, camaraderie was at an all-time high.
Who knows, you may even hear chants of “ACC, ACC” this Fall!
John: Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville fans have already taken up the “ACC” chants whenever applicable, but it would be fun to get the rest of the league involved in some outward displays of pride like that. Of course, that requires the ACC has a product to be proud of on the football field (which I think it will this year).
If there was one more act of “cooperation” by the ACC, what do you think it is? Is there anything left on FSU and Clemson’s respective wishlists that must be addressed by John Swofford and the rest of the conference, or was this more about a more equitable setup rather than a list of demands?
Mark: None of us will probably ever know this, but I’d like to see coaches help each other with non-conference games; e.g. Miami plays Florida week two – maybe UL could share what they have on how to beat them? Also, if an ACC team has a glaring weakness, let ’em know before they play a high-profile non-conference game.
Recruiting is another area teams can cooperate more. Share scouting info on players you don’t intend to offer. Don’t belittle other ACC teams to recruits.
Something we are seeing more this year — instead of all teams fighting over recruits in the footprint only, we see Boston College and Duke mining Ohio and FSU going into Alabama. Clemson is even reaching into Texas! But how about you? Any ideas?
John: Really just the divisional setup, in my opinion. I think Florida State would love unequal revenue sharing, but we know how that plays out (hello, Big 12!).
To me, the great part about this fall will be the lack of uncertainty around the conference. Everyone knows who’s in and who’s out, and there’s no fear of departures or conference realignment buzz to derail what’s happening on the field. For that alone, I’d say I’m excited.