When Gene Corrigan became commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1987, he arrived in Greensboro, N.C., on Labor Day weekend in order to be ready for his first day on the job the Tuesday after the holiday. He woke up Sunday morning and opened up the newspaper to see what the local sportswriters had to say about the impending football season in the ACC.
“First thing I saw was a preview of the ACC basketball season,” Corrigan, now 85 and retired, said years later. “Two full pages on how recruiting would affect Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest. I walked into my first staff meeting on Tuesday morning and said, ‘Fellas, we’ve got a problem and it’s called football.’ ”
From that day forward until he retired in 1997, Corrigan worked to try to get the ACC a seat at the table with the football big boys. The most important thing he did was successfully out-recruit the Southeastern Conference for Florida State — giving the conference a true football power and an almost guaranteed spot in a major bowl game and the national spotlight every year.
There was just one problem: No one in Corrigan’s ACC could compete with Bobby Bowden’s team. During the Seminoles’ first nine years in the conference, they went 70-2 (that’s not a typo) in ACC play. In those days it was said that the ACC consisted of Florida State, the seven dwarfs and Duke — which aspired to be a dwarf. Corrigan’s theory — or hope — was that a rising tide lifts all boats. Instead, Florida State got caught in the ACC’s down-draft and slid to the mediocre level of everyone else.
Even after John Swofford, Corrigan’s successor, began raiding the Big East for teams the way most people raid their refrigerators, no one in the ACC could come within light years of the heights Florida State reached in the 1990s. That’s why the ACC has a 3-16 record in Bowl Championship Series games since the BCS was founded in 1998.
A week ago, it appeared there was genuine hope for the ACC. Clemson was ranked No. 3 in the country and had a win over Georgia. Florida State, in Jimbo Fisher’s fourth season as Bowden’s successor, was ranked No. 5 even though Fisher’s team hadn’t really been tested yet. Miami, after an embarrassing stretch of mediocrity that coincided with its move to the ACC, was also unbeaten with a win over Florida and ranked No. 10. And Virginia Tech, with only a loss to top-ranked Alabama, clearly had one of the nation’s better defenses.
Now? Welcome back to Florida State and, well, the 13 dwarfs — Duke having finally reached dwarfdom under Coach David Cutcliffe.
Florida State is a legitimate national championship contender. The Seminoles proved that on Saturday night when they went into Clemson and absolutely buried the Tigers, 51-14. It’s worth noting that Clemson scored the game’s last touchdown to make the final score that close.
There is no doubt now that FSU redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston is the real deal. He dealt with the noise in Clemson’s Death Valley as if he was throwing the ball around the back yard with a bunch of friends. That said, Florida State is where it is right now because Fisher has proven himself a master recruiter. Coaching — and winning — close games has eluded him until now but he has brought in monster recruiting classes and the quality is very clearly starting to pay off.
That’s great for Florida State. Not so great for the ACC.
Clemson was exposed on Saturday, not only as unable to compete with a top-level team but as having a résumé that wasn’t as impressive as it looked. Georgia’s loss to Vanderbilt took care of that.
Miami remains unbeaten but was very fortunate to beat a 1-5 North Carolina team on Thursday night. It is likely to receive the same treatment from FSU as Clemson received when it plays in Tallahassee in two weeks. Virginia Tech didn’t play and is ranked 16th but has zero wins against anyone that matters — a pattern that will continue until the Hokies play Miami on Nov. 9th. Even a win in that game won’t prove very much at this point other than the fact that Virginia Tech is the lead dwarf.
The rest of the league is its usual mediocre self. Losing to Florida State, 63-0, proved that Maryland can’t compete with a very good team; getting blown out Saturday by Wake Forest proved the Terrapins will likely be up-and-down even with the not-so-good teams left on their schedule. They’ll make a bowl — one that will be attended by dozens.
Virginia won’t even accomplish that. The Cavaliers are 2-5 after a humiliating 35-22 loss to Duke at home Saturday. (Speaking of dozens, anybody glance around Scott Stadium in the fourth quarter after U-Va. had blown a 22-0 lead?). Athletic Director Craig Littlepage confirmed earlier this week that Coach Mike London will return next season, even if the Cavaliers don’t win again this fall — which appears entirely possible.
That said, it doesn’t get much worse than losing to Duke for a fifth time in six years. Cutcliffe is now 5-1 against Virginia. He’s 5-32 against the rest of the ACC. Ouch.
While the ACC clearly consists of one excellent team, three decent teams and everyone else, the depth of the SEC is breathtaking. Sure, Alabama continues to roll, but consider Saturday’s results in the conference: Mississippi, with half its defense out, upset No. 6 LSU; Auburn went into No. 7 Texas A&M and won a wild shootout even with Johnny Manziel again producing more than 500 yards in offense; Tennessee upset No. 11 South Carolina at the buzzer; Missouri, ranked No. 14, traveled to No. 22 Florida and won with a backup quarterback running the team and Vanderbilt (yes, Vanderbilt, coached by the man who could have been Maryland’s coach) stunned No. 15 Georgia.
The case can be made that the top four teams in this year’s ACC might compete with the top four in the SEC. But five through 12? Gene Corrigan would turn away from his TV set and wish it was already basketball season.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.