ACC Football: League hopes to produce title contender
By Joedy McCreary
GREENSBORO ó Greg Boone beamed Sunday when he showed off the bulky, glittering ring he earned last season for helping Virginia Tech win the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Then the tight end wondered how heavy a national championship ring might be.
For the first time in a while, it’s not a stretch to think he and the Hokies could find out.
No, there’s not quite as much laughing at the ACC these days. Not after the super-sized league set an NCAA record last year by sending 10 teams to bowls, and not after its champion finally broke through to win a Bowl Championship Series game for the first time in nearly a decade.
“That (Orange Bowl win) took a lot of pressure off the conference,” Boone said.
The league built on its basketball powerhouses is looking to take another step toward finally becoming the football heavyweight many expected a few years back when it expanded to 12 teams.
“People (used to) say our league is a weak conference, but there’s no way you can feel that way when you have the Virginia Techs, the Miamis, Florida State,” Clemson running back C.J. Spiller said. “I really think our conference is the best in the country.”
It’s been a while since someone from the ACC could make that claim with a straight face.
The league took blow after blow in recent years after the football-fueled additions of the Hokies, Hurricanes and Boston College failed to produce much national prestige. Eight consecutive losses in the BCS games that followed the 2000-07 seasons mirrored downturns by its traditional powers and led to a wait-’til-basketball-season buzz.
That all changed last season, when every team but Virginia and Duke wound up making the postseason. In the league’s marquee bowl matchup, Virginia Tech beat Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl for the ACC’s first victory in a BCS game since Florida State topped the Hokies in the national title game that followed the 1999 season.
That was the last time an ACC team won a national championship. The Seminoles reached the title game the following year before losing to Oklahoma, but the league hasn’t played for a title since.
“If you really step back and take a look at the conferences, a year ago, top to bottom, we may well have been the deepest conference in the country,” commissioner John Swofford said. “What we didn’t have is a team or two involved in the national championship race down the stretch, and I think that has a lot to do with how a conference is perceived competitively ó maybe more than it should.
“Have a team or teams involved in the national championship race, as we move through the season, and win certain games outside of the conference,” he added. “And when those things happen, I think then our league will receive the kind of respect that I think it deserves.”
The ACC won’t have to wait long for its first such test. The Hokies ó who return 16 starters from their fifth straight 10-win team ó will find out quickly if they’re championship caliber when they open against Alabama in Atlanta.
Last year’s preseason favorite, Clemson, faced a similar neutral-site challenge but were routed by the Crimson Tide 34-10 and ultimately slipped into disarray that led to Tommy Bowden’s midseason ouster.
“I’d just tell those (Hokies to) go out there and do the best they can and, hopefully, get the ACC a win,” Spiller said.
Of course, there’s more to the ACC this year than just the Hokies.
Every school but Boston College returns a quarterback who has made at least one career start. And in Spiller and Georgia Tech running back Jonathan Dwyer ó the league’s reigning offensive player of the year who flourished in coach Paul Johnson’s run-based option offense ó the ACC has a pair of the nation’s most explosive rushers.
“We’ve got a lot of weapons throughout the ACC, and we’ve got a lot of national contenders for different awards and everything, so I definitely think throughout, the talent in the ACC is getting better and better every year,” North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates said.
And in a glaring sign of progress, even the league’s worst team during the past several years ó Duke ó is thinking big as the Blue Devils enter coach David Cutcliffe’s second season after a better-by-Duke-standards 4-8 finish in 2008.
“In the back of our hearts, we believe that this is a stepping stone,” fourth-year starting quarterback Thaddeus Lewis said. “We don’t want to be mediocre. We don’t want to settle for mediocrity. So in order to have a successful season, we have to do better than we did last year.”