YOU HAVE TO give the Atlantic Coast Conference credit for at least trying to make a name for itself in college football. All but two of its 14 members will play high-profile non-conference opponents in scheduling that can only help the league’s national reputation.
Even though the ACC might lose many of those games — it dropped two of three during the first week of play against Top 10-ranked SEC opponents — league coaches believe the benefits of “playing up” far outweigh the drawbacks.
“There’s no doubt that we have to play games like that to give ourselves a chance to compete nationally,” Clemson’s Dabo Swinney said of the ACC. “The SEC plays games like that. That’s something they do. Alabama last year played Michigan. They played Virginia Tech this year. That’s just something most of the top schools do.
“You’ve got to play somebody outside of your conference that is a very worthy opponent, not only play them, but you’ve got to win those games. You might not win them all, but you’ve got to win your fair share of them.”
The ACC long has been unable to win even a small share of those quality games. A season ago, Clemson defeated Auburn and Virginia turned back Penn State. Otherwise, the league lost 12 games against what would be considered top-level, non-conference opponents.
The league is off to a much better start this season, thanks partly to Virginia’s 19-16 victory against Brigham Young and mostly to Clemson’s 38-35 win against Georgia, which was ranked No. 5 nationally in the preseason. Following on the heels of Clemson’s win against No. 9 LSU in the January Chick-fil-A Bowl, one might believe at least the Tigers are making some sort of declaration for the conference.
Swinney is not so sure.
“I don’t know about a statement for the ACC, I just think it’s a statement for Clemson,” Swinney said. “I always tell people, it’s not about the league, it’s about the program. That’s just what I believe.”
Perhaps it is equally as important for the league’s reputation that teams no longer lose to the lesser non-conference opponents on their schedules. A season ago, Boston College lost to Army, Virginia fell to Louisiana Tech and Georgia Tech was thumped by Middle Tennessee. Close wins by Maryland against William & Mary and Wake Forest against Liberty did not enhance the league’s status, either.
Instead of struggling against the lightweights in the first week this season, the ACC flexed its muscles with mostly lopsided wins against Presbyterian, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Villanova, Louisiana Tech, N.C. Central and Elon. Georgia Tech took care of Elon 70-0 in a game that featured a running clock in the fourth quarter.
That is not the kind of opponent veteran Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer prefers to face in the season-opener. His club opened Saturday with a 35-10 loss to No. 1-ranked Alabama in Atlanta.
Beamer said ESPN approached him last spring about pulling out of the game against Alabama, and offered to find another opponent for the Hokies.
Beamer would have none of it.
“We said, ’No, we wanted to stay with Alabama,’ “” Beamer said. “I think the fans like that kind of game, and the kids like the challenge of playing the number-one team in the country. From an overall standpoint, we know more about our football team right now than we would if we had beaten someone 50 to zero.”
Mike London is in his second season as Virginia’s coach. A season ago, his Cavaliers defeated Penn State and lost to TCU in non-conference games. This season, Virginia opened with the win against BYU and will play host Saturday to second-ranked Oregon.
London has said that for a program to dream big, it must play a dream non-conference schedule. He said scheduling is part of the process of building a program, right there with solidifying a coaching staff and committing to construction of an indoor practice facility.
“The scheduling has had an opportunity to catch the eye of a lot of 2014 and 2015 recruits,” London says of the past two seasons.
He believes strong non-conference scheduling will be part of his long-term plans, as well. The Cavaliers are scheduled to play UCLA and BYU in 2014; UCLA, Boise State and Notre Dame in 2015; Oregon in 2016; and Stanford and Boise State in 2017.
Now, if Virginia can win its fair share of those games — and several of its fellow league members can do the same — the ACC’s image as a football conference is bound to improve.