The perception nationally is that Clemson and Florida State have distanced themselves from the rest of the ACC.
While the results are hard to argue, Coastal division schools believe they are playing the regular season for more than an opportunity to lose in the conference title game in December.
The Tigers and FSU have combined to win the past five ACC championship games, but Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson insisted Thursday at ACC Media Days that the gap between the two programs and the next tier of teams in the conference is small, if it exists at all.
“We’re 5-4 against Clemson and 3-2 against Florida State. What distance is that?” Johnson said. “If you watched the ACC championship game it’s not like they ran away and hid from North Carolina.
“There are good teams in both divisions is all I’m saying. I’m not trying to say Clemson and Florida State aren’t good teams and good programs because they are… But to make it like there’s nobody in our league that can compete with them is not true.”
Clemson’s run to the ACC title in 2015 was far from a cakewalk.
The Tigers held off Louisville for a 20-17 road win early on in the season, rallied for a 23-13 victory against Florida State in November and were in danger of blowing big leads against Syracuse on the road and North Carolina in the ACC title game before eventually making a run to the national championship game.
“I think the gap is closing,” Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora said. “I don’t know if they agree with me, but I think the gap is closing. I think you can say that the middle of the pack of the league and the lower is moving up.”
A team with aspirations of mixing up the top of the ACC is Georgia Tech, despite Johnson’s club finishing 3-9 a year ago.
The Yellow Jackets lost six games by a touchdown or less but were able to upset Florida State at home and enter this year’s game against Clemson having not lost to the Tigers in Atlanta since 2003.
“It’s not like they’re winning by 50 points every game,” Yellow Jackets defensive lineman Patrick Gamble said of Clemson and FSU. “Those are the two perennial powers. OK. I like being on the outside looking in and not getting all of that attention because sometimes it’s better for it.”
Miami is another team from the Coastal division that believes it has a realistic chance to win the ACC title. Hurricanes quarterback Brad Kaaya said the team isn’t concerned with what is being said about the Tigers and Florida State.
“That’s cool. They can have their press and hype and coverage and things like that, but we’ll focus on what we have to do now,” he said. “You can say all the things you want about Miami and all the championships we’ve won going back to years past. One thing we’ve never done is won an ACC championship and a Coastal championship. That’s our goal for the season.”
In order to do so, Miami, UNC, Georgia Tech, or another team from the division, will likely have to knock off Clemson or Florida State at the end of the year.
“I want to play one of them on that first weekend in December,” Fedora said. “That’s what I want. If we get there then we’re going to be OK.”
Ranking the ACC football teams according to projected records from Athlon Magazine:
FLORIDA STATE (12-1)
North Carolina (9-4)
Virginia Tech (8-4)
N.C. State (6-6)
Wake Forest (6-6)
Boston College (6-6)
Georgia Tech (6-6)