CHARLOTTE — Next month when preseason college football rankings are released, Florida State and Clemson will each be in the top five, if not just outside it.
Under a tasty hypothetical in which the Seminoles and Tigers both navigate the 2016 season with just one loss between them — a loss coming in their Oct. 29 meeting in Tallahassee — the ACC could be strongly positioned to capture half the College Football Playoff’s coveted berths, which would be a first for any conference in the playoff’s short lifespan. Such dreams were not so subtle throughout the ballrooms on the second floor of the Westin Charlotte hotel during ACC Football Kickoff.
The notion is a puzzling, perhaps even optimistic, turnaround from Clemson’s situation just eight months ago, when the No. 1 ranked team in the country had seemingly no room for error; the Tigers’ schedule wasn’t deemed strong enough to have afforded a one-loss resume. The previous year, the playoff’s only undefeated squad was Florida State; FSU was awarded the No. 3 seed based on, again, lack of strength of schedule.
No other conference faces such harsh criticisms, and for FSU and Clemson, the teams routinely competing for championships all by themselves, it’s not their fault.
Parity has not been an ally of the Atlantic Coast Conference, at least at the top. During the league’s annual media days Thursday and Friday, there were far more programs aiming to make a bowl game or hoping to represent the Coastal Division in the league title game, than there were teams honestly lending a thought to toppling the league’s elite that has been established for the past half-decade.
Coaches of all success levels did not want to hear any talk of a gap between the Top Pair and the Bottom Dozen. Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney swore how difficult it has been to compile league records of 29-3 (FSU) and 28-4 (Clemson) the past four years, even though more than half their combined seven losses came against each other.
“This league is incredibly competitive. Lot of winning programs,” Swinney said. “Not everybody can win 10, 11, 12 games. That’s just not going to happen. It doesn’t happen in any other league. I think the past four to five years, this league has really changed the rhetoric in a big way.”
Meanwhile, leaders of middling programs like North Carolina’s Larry Fedora and woebegone projects like Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson spoke earnestly of closing the gap, whereas Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson was outright salty on suggested distance between the FSU-Clemson duo and everybody else.
“Really? We’re 5-4 against Clemson and 3-2 against Florida State. What distance is that?” Johnson said, referring to Georgia Tech’s record since 2008, leaving out the Yellow Jackets’ 1-3 mark vs. Clemson and 1-2 mark vs. FSU since 2012.
“They’ve been in the national championship game, and they’ll be preseason ranked. But perception is reality, I guess.”
The reality is this: the last five ACC Championship trophies belong to FSU or Clemson. The league as a whole has struggled to gain traction in national top 25 polls due to the lack of consistency from other programs, which is further illustrated in recent track records against other leagues.
Since the start of 2010, Florida State is 10-4 against other Power 5 teams or Notre Dame. Clemson is 10-7. Everybody else is 24-75, winning just a quarter of their games against outside major-conference opponents.
“I’m not trying to say Clemson and Florida State aren’t good teams and good programs — because they are, and we’re proud of what they’ve done on a national scale,” Johnson said Thursday. “But to make it (sound) like there’s nobody in our league that can compete with them is just not true.”
It has been six years since someone beat Clemson and Florida State in the same year: North Carolina, in 2010. ACC Atlantic teams get a chance every season to do that, yet nobody in the division has pulled that double feat since Wake Forest in 2008.
Swapping Louisville for Maryland two years ago has boosted the conference’s reputation, though the Cardinals are 0-4 so far vs. the Tigers and Noles in league play. Both losses to Clemson came down to the final two minutes.
“I feel like we’re right there, but it’s our job to get over the hill and find a way to win,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. “Both of them do amazing jobs with their programs in recruiting and developing players. So we’ve got to try to match that.”
The other four ACC Atlantic Division programs have won zero or one league game sometime in the past three seasons: N.C. State in 2013 (3-9, 0-8), Wake Forest and Syracuse in 2014 (3-9, 1-7) and Boston College last year (3-9, 0-8.)
Bright spots have been rare for that quartet, which has produced just two 8-win seasons in the past five years — both by N.C. State and both 8-5 finishes (2011, 2014.)
“It’s getting better. It’s getting better,” N.C. State fourth-year coach Dave Doeren said of the gap to FSU and Clemson. “They’re getting more ready-made guys, and we’re developing guys. Right now, both of them are in the top-five in the country, and they’re going to attract a different type of kid sometimes. But we’re getting guys that end up looking like their guys after we develop them.”
Recruiting has been the Wolfpack’s bugaboo. At Wake Forest, facilities were severely lacking, so the university visited Clemson’s four-year-old indoor practice facility for research on the complex just opened in Winston-Salem.
“We now have a facility at Wake Forest that’s comparable to anybody in the country,” Wake Forest third-year coach Dave Clawson said. “Now we’re building practice fields and a sports performance center. These are all different pieces of it. They’ll come to Wake Forest and say, wow, football must be important here.
“Certainly in this league, the mountain to climb is really high. But I do believe we’re making progress.”
Over in the Coastal Division, it’s been a rotating cast of ACC Championship Game contenders, though none have won the crown since Virginia Tech in 2010. No Coastal member has more than one 10-win season since 2011.
“You can’t do it every once in a while,” said Fedora, whose 11-3 Tar Heels reached double-digit wins last year for the first time since 1997. “That’s the goal, to be back in Charlotte at the end of the season, to keep progressing the way we want.”
Because so much of the college football regular season is focused on conference games, bowls serve as the most pragmatic way to compare leagues versus one another.
Again, Florida State and Clemson have fared fine on this front. Over the past decade, FSU is 7-3 in bowl games, while Clemson is 5-6 with a four-game winning streak (including two Orange Bowls) before dropping last year’s national title game to Alabama.
That duo, then, is 12-9 together since 2006. The rest of the ACC: 24 wins, 43 losses, a 35.8 winning percentage. The league collectively has had one plus-.500 bowl season in a decade (4-2, 2012) and nine sub-.500 seasons, including a couple of 2-6 results in 2007 and 2011.
Comparing to the ACC’s closest neighbor: the SEC is 65-32 in bowl games over the past decade, winning a whopping two-thirds of their postseason affairs. The SEC has put together nine winning records in 10 years (7-2 in 2007, 6-2 in 2008 and a record-breaking 9-2 last year) with one .500 season, 5-5 in 2010.
Believe it or not, Alabama’s 7-4 mark stunts the league average. Ole Miss (5-1), Auburn (6-2) and Georgia (7-3) have had their individual ups and downs, but they have skyrocketed the SEC’s bowl marks. (South Carolina is 5-4 during this stretch.)
Over the past 10 bowl seasons, the Pac-12 is 40-31 and the Big XII is 37-39. The Big Ten, largely an Ohio State monopoly over the last decade, is 32-50, just a hair worse than the ACC’s 36-52 record.
Still, Swinney and Fisher touted the conference’s NFL Draft picks, individual award winners and four new coaches to the league.
“You name me a league that has bigger stars than Dalvin Cook, Deshaun Watson and Brad Kaaya,” Fisher said. “Miami has other great players. Clemson has other great players, so does Georgia Tech, NC State, Pittsburgh. All across the board, everybody has them. We have star-studded players. This is a great league of football.”