By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 29, 2007
The Atlantic Coast Conference's season ended in an odd, nearly inconceivable manner last year. Wake Forest players hurled oranges all over Jacksonville's Alltell Stadium, celebrating their conference title and subsequent berth in the Orange Bowl. The ACC, a league that trumpets itself as a 12-team superconference, had been won by a school that couldn't even muster a winning record the previous year, that plays in a stadium routinely overrun by opposing fans.
Meantime, Florida State and Miami, the alleged heavyweights of the conference, prepared for nationally inconsequential bowl games three time zones to the west. The double-take results raised a question: Did they represent parity, that ever-present buzzword of sporting culture, or was the ACC just plain crummy?
An offseason and four weeks later, the evidence favors the latter. Of the six conferences whose champions earn automatic qualification into the Bowl Championship Series, the ACC ranks last by almost any measure, usually closer to the unheralded Mountain West than the Pacific-10 or Southeastern Conference .
At No. 12 in the Associated Press poll, Boston College is the highest-ranked ACC team; the other five BCS conferences have two teams apiece in the top 10. The ACC is 13-10 against division I-A opponents from other leagues; the next-worst records in such games belongs to the Big 12, which is 29-10. Against teams in the top 100 of the Sagarin ratings, one of the rankings used in the BCS rankings formula, the ACC is 5-10; every other BCS conference is better than .500.
Today, as Virginia Tech begins its ACC schedule against North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia have opportunities to burnish the ACC's lagging profile with games against Big East teams No. 10 Rutgers and Pittsburgh, respectively. Because of the conference's performance so far, the Terrapins and Cavaliers -- and also Florida State, which plays Alabama -- have something to prove.
"A lot of times, when the marquee name teams are not doing well, people say it's a down year even if it's not, really," said college football expert Jerry Palm, who owns and operates the Web site CollegeBCS.com. "But in this case, it legitimately is a down year for the ACC. There are certainly no national championship contenders."
When the ACC added Miami and Virginia Tech from the Big East four years ago and then Boston College a year later, it secured the ACC's elite place in a volatile climate of conference realignment. But as the ACC's status increased, with a lucrative conference title game and a contract with the Orange Bowl, the quality of play on the field decreased.
This season, based on results from nonconference games, it has reached a new low. Still, ACC coaches say the ACC's recent trend stems from parity, not a sagging level of play.
"There's no doubt that the conference has gotten stronger," Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden said. "There's probably more parity in our conference right now than there's ever been. All you got to do is look at Miami and look at Florida State right now. Now we're down in the middle of the pack, still trying to get back to the top."
In reality, though, it seems the opposite is true: The ACC's headliners have joined the pack, leaving a group of teams that struggles to compete with the nation's elite. Since the advent of the BCS, the ACC is 1-8 in BCS bowl games. The lone win was Florida State's victory in the 1999 Sugar Bowl over Virginia Tech -- a team now in the ACC. Clemson and Boston College are the only two remaining undefeated ACC teams, and Boston College has played only one nonconference game, against Army. Every other conference possesses at least three unbeaten teams.
Using the same conference RPI formula as college basketball does to help determine seeding for the NCAA tournament, the ACC ranks sixth at .4616, according to Palm. The Mountain West's rating is currently .4610. "They're basically tied," Palm said.
The .4616 mark, according to Palm, would be the second-worst of any BCS conference since 2004, when the Big East, then a seven-team league in transition between realignments, had a mark of .4574, finishing behind the Mountain West.
The on-field struggles may be embarrassing for the ACC's reputation, but not necessarily damaging to its status as a power conference. Since 2004, conferences have been using a results-based system designed to re-select which conferences would automatically qualify for the BCS. Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson said it would be "an extreme long shot" for his conference or any other non-BCS conference to overtake any of the current conferences whose champion automatically qualifies for the BCS.
"The people have achieved something that have gained those berths," Thompson said. "I don't think anybody gets a free pass. There's no doubt in my mind that those who have gained automatic qualification deserve it."
So the ACC can rest easy, comfortable in its status as a college football powerhouse. The trick, starting today with Maryland and Virginia, is to begin playing like one.