By John Feinstein
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Here we go again.
As in here we go with another fall of hearing the spinners from the Atlantic Coast Conference tell us how balanced the league is. Sure, the ACC is balanced -- apparently no one (again) is really any good.
Oh, sure, Virginia Tech played respectably in losing to Alabama. The Hokies may very well be the class of the league again and can play in the Orange Bowl against someone like Cincinnati or Rutgers in a game watched by dozens.
For all the preseason hype about all the returning quarterbacks and how this was going to be the year the ACC became important again -- although when exactly was the ACC important nationally outside of Tallahassee? -- it took exactly one week for the league to once again be exposed for what it truly is: a basketball league. Except for the fact that, outside of Chapel Hill, it hasn't been much of a basketball league since the now infamous football expansion of 2005.
Let's review Week One in a league that deserves a BCS bowl bid most years even less than the Big 10 deserved the two it got last year.
The overall record was 4-6. The four wins were as follows: North Carolina over division I-AA Citadel (sorry, not using the silly new NCAA terminology); Boston College over Northeastern (also a division I-AA school); Georgia Tech over yet another I-AA, Jacksonville State; and Clemson, in the league's highlight game of the week, beating Middle Tennessee State. In short, the conference had one win over a division I-A team.
It did not, however, go undefeated against I-AA teams. The Duke apologists -- and they are legion these days -- will point out that Duke lost to the defending I-AA champions, Richmond. All well and good except that when your program is allegedly on the rise and people are screaming that this is the year you are going to "rise," to 6-6 and go to a bowl (yeah, sure), you aren't supposed to lose to any I-AA team. The good news for the Blue Devils is they get another crack at a I-AA opponent when they play North Carolina Central in a couple weeks. Maybe next year they can find a way to schedule 12 teams from I-AA and climb that 6-6 mountain once and for all.
Duke's loss was not as embarrassing as Virginia's. The Cavaliers turned the ball over seven times and lost to William and Mary, a team that was supposed to provide a decent warm-up before a home game against TCU on Saturday. Turns out Virginia provided William and Mary with a decent warm-up for the upcoming CAA season. After all, the CAA is now 2-0 against the ACC. Maybe its champion should get a BCS bid.
Four ACC teams (gasp!) actually opened against 1-A opponents. None of them actually won a game, but at least, by gosh, they gave it a shot. Wake Forest opened at home against Baylor, a team that might have a big year and win three games in the Big 12. Final score: Baylor 24, Wake 21. At least it was close. North Carolina State also kept it close although scoring a touchdown was an issue. The Wolfpack lost 7-3 to what looks like a mediocre South Carolina team.
Maryland went west and got crushed 52-13 at California, leaving Ralph Friedgen muttering about how young his team is. Whenever coaches bring that up -- as they always do after getting hammered -- the next question should be this: Why are they so young? You're in your ninth year, coach -- where are your juniors and seniors? The good news is the Terrapins have I-AA James Madison coming to town this week. Oh wait, JMU is in the CAA, maybe that isn't such good news.
At least Virginia Tech stayed in the game against Alabama. At least it didn't get embarrassed against the Crimson Tide the way Clemson did last year. That's what the ACC has come to: celebrating a respectable loss by its highest-ranked team. All that talk about Tech perhaps making the BCS title game? You can forget it. Even if they run the table the rest of the season, who will the Hokies beat who matters? Another ACC team? Don't think so.
Of course there's always Miami and Florida State, who open on Labor Day night against one another. These are the schools the ACC brought in (Florida State in 1991, Miami in the ill-fated 2005 expansion) to really make itself into a football power. Two years ago Miami made the NCAA basketball tournament. Last year Florida State made it. So, at the very least, their basketball programs have improved under the ACC banner.
The experts are now claiming that FSU and Miami are both "close," to being good again. We'll see. One wonders how any ACC school would do right now in the SEC, the Big 12 or the Pac-10 -- which is supposed to be a little bit down this year. Don't tell Maryland that right now.
The BCS is now clearly divided into two divisions: The Big 12, the SEC and, occasionally, the Pac-10 will produce the true national title contenders. The ACC, the Big Ten and the Big East will produce a bunch of mediocre teams except when an Ohio State or a Penn State or -- someday -- a Michigan may bubble up near the top. The last two times Ohio State played in the championship game, things didn't go so well. They weren't much better for Penn State in the Rose Bowl last year. The ACC and the Big East simply shouldn't have automatic BCS bids based on their recent play. Their champions should play each other in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. The Mountain West is better than they are right now -- see Brigham Young, TCU, Utah for starters. Heck, the CAA may be better than they are right now.
Of course nothing like that will happen. The apologists will continue to talk about the balance in the ACC and in the Big East. The schools will continue to collect their millions from the BCS and go giddily along acting as if everything is just fine and dandy because any day now it will all turn around. Just wait, one of these years Duke will rise up and whip those Richmond Spiders.
In truth, the league presidents and commissioner John Swofford should be embarrassed by what they created with their shameless raid on the Big East (Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College) four years ago. They abandoned the league's tradition as a superb basketball conference to sell their soul in the name of football.
The result -- proving that karma does exist -- has been continued mediocrity in football and a serious drop in the league's basketball fortunes with the exception of one school. From 2000 to 2004 -- pre-football expansion -- the ACC had six Final Four appearances involving four different schools and won two national championships. Since 2005 no school other than North Carolina has reached the final eight.
Right now though, it's football season. There are a lot of games left to be played. Of course in the ACC, none of them will matter to anyone outside the ACC. But there's always a chance that the league can't get its record against the CAA up to .500 before all is said and done.
Now that's balance.
For more from the author, visit his Web site, www.feinsteinonthebrink.com