Florida State, once a national power, is 0-4, including a loss to Jacksonville State. Miami, with a similar pedigree when it was a member of the Big East, is 2-2, with wins over Appalachian State and Central Connecticut State. The Hurricanes opened the season with a 44-13 loss to Alabama and also were beaten soundly by Michigan State.
The list goes on: North Carolina, the preseason favorite to face Clemson in the ACC championship game, opened the season by losing at Virginia Tech and then was hammered Saturday by Georgia Tech. That’s the same Georgia Tech team that opened the season by losing to Northern Illinois. Carolina’s very good at beating up on bad teams — it dominated Georgia State and Virginia — which may mean Duke is in for a long day Saturday.
The Blue Devils are 3-1, including a surprising home win over Northwestern. The loss? To Charlotte. Louisville is 3-1 and does have a decent win — over Central Florida at home — but made the mistake of playing an SEC team — Mississippi — and lost, 43-24. The ACC vs. the SEC in football right now is a little bit like the G League taking on the NBA.
The ACC does have one win over the SEC: Boston College’s overtime win at home last weekend over Missouri. The Eagles are 4-0. Their other wins are over Colgate, Massachusetts and Temple. There’s one other unbeaten team: Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons may be the conference’s closest thing to a legitimate team, but with wins over Norfolk State and three Football Bowl Subdivision teams with a combined record of 1-9 against other FBS foes, the jury’s still out.
What happened to ACC football? Essentially nothing. Clemson has hidden the ACC’s mediocrity ever since Florida State began taking on water, but it couldn’t last forever. The conference has done absolutely everything possible to make itself into a respectable football conference and mostly has failed.
When the late Gene Corrigan became commissioner in 1987, he told his staff that the conference had to shed its reputation as being “just” a basketball conference. Skeeter Francis, the league’s public relations chief almost since it had been invented, said: “Gene, being a basketball conference is our strength. We’ll always have moments in football, but basketball is what makes us who we are.”
Corrigan made the ACC better by recruiting Florida State, which provided the national recognition Corrigan was seeking. But the rest of the league couldn’t compete with Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles. In their first 10 years in the conference (1992-2001), they went 76-4, with two of the losses coming in 2001.
During that stretch, I once wrote, “The ACC in football consists of Florida State, the seven dwarfs and Duke — which aspires to be a dwarf.”
I got a call from Corrigan after that column: “Did you really have to write that?” he asked.
“Is it wrong?” I said.
“No,” he said. “Sadly, it’s not.”
Corrigan didn’t mind that much. The Seminoles won two national championships during those years and never finished out of the top five in the final polls. By then, John Swofford had replaced Corrigan as commissioner and realignment and expansion shifted the college sports landscape. Trying to find teams that would raise the league’s football profile, Swofford raided the Big East to lure Virginia Tech, Miami, Boston College, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville.
Miami fell to stunning depths; Virginia Tech — which had played for a national championship while in the Big East — struggled, and the other four continued to be consistent second-tier bowl teams — at best.
Florida State faded during Bowden’s final five seasons (38-27), but Jimbo Fisher revived the program, winning a national title in 2013 with Jameis Winston at quarterback. Fisher fled to Texas A&M after going 5-6 in 2017. Since then, the Seminoles are 14-24 under Willie Taggart and Mike Norvell and last had a winning season in 2017.
The sad irony here is that Maryland, which finally appears to have landed on the right coach in Michael Locksley, very well might have won the ACC this season if it was still part of the conference.
Instead, after fleeing for the big football money of the Big Ten, the Terrapins are part of the second-best conference in college football, which is a long way from where the ACC sits right now.
The fruitless pursuit of football greatness — the conference went 0-5 in bowl games last season — also has weakened the ACC in basketball. The only Big East defector to make any kind of serious postseason dent is Syracuse. And the presence of the Orange in the ACC tournament led to this moment: Every year, the league honors an “ACC legend” from each member school. Several years ago, Syracuse’s was Derrick Coleman, who never played a second in the ACC. During a timeout, Coleman was interviewed about the thrill of being selected as an “ACC legend.”
“Oh, yes, it’s great,” Coleman said. “I remember as a kid watching the ACC tournament every year from Greenville.”
Greenville, S.C., is 189 miles from Greensboro, N.C. Coleman tried. Turns out, Skeeter Francis had it right all those years ago.