When the ACC earlier this decade added Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College, it was supposed to turn a conference long known for basketball into one as powerful in football as any in the nation. Hasn’t happened that way, of course, but Swofford is quick to point to the positives. Those, he said here on Sunday, include the record 10 ACC teams that played in bowl games a season ago. And the league’s competitive balance.
"We may well have been the deepest conference in the country a year ago," Swofford said during Day 1 of the ACC’s annual kickoff. "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 our conference is perceived competitively."
Until Virginia Tech beat Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl in January, no ACC team had won a BCS bowl game this decade. And in the coming months, the ACC might once again find it difficult to call one of its own a national title contender. Even so, there is evidence that the 2009 season might be the league’s strongest since it began to expand in 2003.
Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Florida State are all likely to enter the season ranked among the top 20 teams in the nation. Programs at Miami, North Carolina and N.C. State appear on the rise. Eight of the conference’s 12 teams return their starting quarterbacks from a season ago.
Also back is Georgia Tech’s Jonathan Dwyer, who led the league in rushing in 2008. And Clemson has begun a Heisman Trophy campaign for C.J. Spiller. The senior running back said the public’s criticism of the ACC — the notion that it’s a weaker conference — bothers him.
"I just tell them to go look at the results for themselves," he said. "I think (I) looked at something where we had, like, 10 ACC teams in bowl games. So when people kind of consider our league as a weak conference, it’s no way that you can say that . . . I really think our conference is the best in the country."
Judging from bowl appearances and number of NFL draft picks, Spiller’s contention has merit. During the past four years, 158 ACC players have been selected in the NFL draft. Only the Southeastern Conference, with 159 drafted players, has fared better.
Yet because of the strength of the SEC’s dominant teams, the gap between the conferences seems wider. It’s not difficult to prescribe a solution for the ACC’s woes.
"Having a team or teams involved in the national championship race as we move through the season and, you know, win certain games outside of the conference," Swofford said. "And when those things happen, I think that our league will receive the kind of respect that I think it deserves."
The ACC in general — and Virginia Tech in particular — will have a chance to earn that kind of respect on the first weekend of the season. The Hokies play Alabama on Sept. 5 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
A Virginia Tech victory there could signify that the ACC is indeed becoming a football conference, as had been the vision behind its expansion.
"It’s real important," Hokies safety Kam Chancellor said, "because, like I say, the SEC beat up on the ACC for a while. And we just need to put our foot down and say it ain’t going to happen no more.
"And that’s how it is."
Until ACC teams earn those kinds of victories, though, the perception will continue to exist that it’s a second-tier league with teams that don’t appear on the national championship radar. Swofford said the national-title picture affects perception "maybe more than it should" but he admitted the conference needs national contenders.
He said it’s not a matter of if that will happen but when.
"I agree with that," Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder said. "I think for the ACC to really be a top-tier conference, there needs to be some people fighting for that national championship and being (ranked in the) top-5."
There’s hope, both in Tallahassee and beyond, that the conference’s rise will begin this fall.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.