By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2010; 11:38 PM
Fans of the 12 ACC schools knew what awaited almost every time they watched a conference game the past few years: an unpredictable contest between two nearly indistinguishable teams in the most topsy-turvy, balanced league in the country.
For those with a vested interest in the conference, it meant compelling drama. For the rest of the college football world, weekly ACC zaniness drew little more than a collective yawn.
While ACC teams have made 41 bowl game appearances the past five seasons - including an NCAA-record 10 in 2008 - the conference has not had a BCS title game representative in a decade. Parity makes for regional theater but does little to enhance national relevancy.
"We have got a lot of teams getting better," Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer said. "I don't know that we have had a great, great team the last couple years. But I think we are moving our way there. I think we'll be in the [national] conversation. Hopefully soon."
There is hope for the ACC, which has a clear upper echelon this season. For the first time, five ACC teams - Virginia Tech (10th), Miami (13), Georgia Tech (16), North Carolina (18) and Florida State (20) - are ranked in the Associated Press preseason top 20.
Georgia Tech Coach Paul Johnson said as many as five ACC teams have a chance to emerge as a contender for the national championship, something an ACC team has not won since Florida State did it in 1999. Since that time, the Southeastern Conference has claimed five national titles.
Said ACC Commissioner John Swofford: "I am not sure that as a conference you get the full measure of respect and attention unless you have a team or two that are serious possibilities through a good part of the season for a national championship. With the BCS becoming what it's become, and it is huge in terms of a sporting event, it almost overloads the perception of teams that may not be in conferences involved in that particular game."
Respect would begin to trickle the ACC's way if its teams could win high-profile nonconference games. There are four this September that will draw considerable national attention, most notably No. 3 Boise State against Virginia Tech at FedEx Field on Sept. 6.
In addition, North Carolina takes its ballyhooed defense to the Georgia Dome to face No. 21 Louisiana State on Saturday night. Miami, which has athletic Jacory Harris at quarterback and eight starters back on defense, visits the Horseshoe to play No. 2 Ohio State on Sept. 11. That same day, first-year Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher leads the Seminoles against No. 7 Oklahoma.
"We've got to represent the ACC," North Carolina senior quarterback T.J. Yates said. "We have got to show the country that the conference can compete with any conference."
The problem: If the ACC team loses, its national title hopes are likely dashed. Just ask Virginia Tech, one of just two teams in the country to win at least 10 games the past six seasons, which suffered deflating losses to LSU, East Carolina and Alabama in early-season games the past three seasons.
Despite their consistent success in league play, when it comes to the perception of the league, the Hokies do not have a nationwide brand like Florida State and Miami possess. When those teams are inconsistent, as has been the case, the league's reputation suffers as a result.
"When you are talking about two programs that have tradition and history of success on a national level as Miami and Florida State, and the brands they enjoy in college football, there is no question that when they are strong, our league is perceived as stronger as whole," Swofford said. "The stronger those two programs become, the better perceived the ACC will be from a football standpoint."
The past three seasons, Florida State is 13-11 in ACC play; Miami is 11-13. This season, they were two of the top three media picks to win the league. Both have national title aspirations.
"It's very realistic," Miami defensive end Allen Bailey said. "But first we have to win the ACC - that's the first step."
And before that, the Hurricanes have to win their own division. That's easier said than done because four ranked teams hail from the Coastal Division.
"There is probably not another division in any conference in college football that can say that," Johnson said. "A lot of good teams. Nobody has really taken the step to get to that next level. I think there certainly are some good teams capable of that, but it just has not happened."
For the ACC to garner national limelight, separation among the conference's ranked teams must exist, as well. If they beat up on one another in conference play, it will make for competitive divisional races but deny the league a national title contender.
The SEC has Alabama and Florida as headliners. The Big 12 has Texas and Oklahoma. The Big Ten has Ohio State. The Pac-10 has had Southern California. The ACC, on the other hand, has at least five teams with realistic hopes of entering the national conversation. It is still searching for the one.
"We have a spot reserved for a national championship in our trophy room," Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor said. "We would love to put something in that glass."