The college football world is tilting in unexpected ways. How did the ACC become a football powerhouse, and the Big Ten become average?
The Big Ten’s best, Ohio State, is ranked No. 4 and has the longest winning streak in the nation. Yet even if the Buckeyes run the table, they still might not be involved in the national championship discussion.
Meantime, after eight weeks, the ACC has four teams in the Associated Press top 25 — five if you count Louisville, which will join the league next year. Three are in the top 10, including No. 3 Clemson and No. 5 Florida State, who play each other Saturday night. While Alabama and Oregon currently have a stranglehold on the top two spots, if one of those teams falters, the Clemson-FSU winner could be the first ACC team since 2001 to play in a BCS championship game.
“I’ll tell you, this is fantastic,” said Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer, whose No. 19 Hokies have won six straight after losing their opener to No. 1 Alabama. “. . . I’ve said all along, just give us time and this is going to come around because the coaching is good, the recruiting is good, facilities are improving, and so I don’t think there’s any question that the ACC is going to hold its own against the competition.”
After Ohio State, the Big Ten has just one other top 25 team: Wisconsin at 25. If you count next year’s additions — Maryland and Rutgers — the Big Ten still has two top 25 teams. And the two teams dropped from the poll this week were Michigan and Northwestern.
Michigan’s fall from the poll both delights and exasperates Ohio State fans. Strength of schedule is important in BCS discussions, and a poor non-conference schedule, which included San Diego State and Florida A&M, coupled with the poorly performing Big Ten will hurt the Buckeyes. How much will become obvious Sunday, when the first BCS standings are revealed.
This isn’t a new trend. A year ago, the Big Ten also had two teams in the top 25 (Ohio State, which wasn’t eligible for the postseason, and Michigan). For some conferences this would be a righteous plenty, but the Big Ten purports — or is that pretends? — to be a super conference. Instead, its stalwarts have mostly faltered, and its expansion additions have only diluted its brand.
I lived in Michigan for 10 years and watched Big Ten football every weekend. The conference was more balanced and more talented then. (Saturday’s Michigan-Penn State four-overtime game was entertaining, but not for its stellar play.) When I moved to Washington 20 years ago, I was disheartened that, because of regional coverage, I had to watch a lot of ACC football. In fact, the ACC has been widely regarded as a pretty weak football conference for years.
(Oddly, this turnaround comes as Maryland prepares to leave the ACC for the Big Ten next season. The Terrapins were going to have trouble competing in the Big Ten, but the playing field is starting to look slightly more level. The only consequence for the Terps is if the Big Ten somehow starts to lose money, and regardless of the quality of play, proceeds from the Big Ten Network make that impossible.)
Of course, the best teams in the ACC this season are the usual suspects. That hasn’t changed much. Dominant programs usually remain dominant, or so I’ve heard. What’s changed, according to Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, is that the good teams have gotten better.
“Listen, our league has been good, and there’s been a lot of good football played. It’s just been very – there’s been a lot of parity. We haven’t produced a dominant team, the 12-0, 13-1, whatever, 11-1 type team like some other conferences have always had one or two teams that have at the end of the year been there,” Swinney said.
“So, it’s good, because we need to have a couple of teams vying for the BCS bids. . . . That’s the type of recognition that you want for your conference.”
The next step for the ACC: winning those BCS games. The conference is 3-13 in 16 appearances, unimpressive by any yardstick. If the ACC can get a couple of teams into BCS bowls this season, and compete for next season’s playoffs, it will have pulled itself up into respectability. In the current college football landscape, that’s not easy to do.