Ron Morris

Morris: ACC making gains in football, but SEC still on top

ACC FOOTBALL IS not likely to catch the SEC anytime soon. Neither, for that matter, will the Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12 conferences. When your league wins seven consecutive national championships – as the SEC did from 2006 to 2012 – you earn the right to crow about your supremacy for a long, long time.

For the rest of the Power Five conferences, it becomes a matter of continuing to chase the rabbit or close the gap. The ACC believes it is among the leaders of that pack and is inching closer to the top.

“I think it’s a bad rap we’re getting in football,” says Jimbo Fisher, whose 2013 Florida State team broke the SEC’s string of national championships and who also guided his team to the first College Football Playoff this past season.

The rap against the ACC might be bad at present, but the league earned every bit of its reputation for being a mediocre to poor football conference for decades. Even with recent success, the ACC is thought of mostly as a two-team league with Florida State and Clemson annually carrying its flag.

The ACC never will match the SEC when it comes to financial resources, TV money, fan bases and stadium sizes and atmospheres. But there are a couple of areas where the ACC is beginning to stack up with the SEC.

The recent additions of Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville eventually will strengthen the league further. At least one of the perennial bottom-feeders – Duke – has produced back-to-back 10-win and nine-win seasons, a sure sign that the league is developing some depth.

The ACC also is beginning to fare better against Power Five opponents, while losing fewer games against non-Power Five conference teams. Not that long ago – 2009 – the ACC’s opening weekend featured league teams losing games to Alabama, Baylor, California, Richmond, South Carolina and William & Mary.

Contrast that to the league’s record of 4-1 since 2012 in the six New Year’s Day bowls, the BCS national championship game and the 2014 College Football Playoff. That compares favorably to the Big Ten record of 4-2 in the same games, Pac-12 at 3-3, Big 12 at 2-3 and SEC at 1-6.

“Four years ago, or five years ago, it just seemed like whenever our league was getting some of those big out-of-conference opportunities, we weren’t really holding our own,” Clemson’s Dabo Swinney says. “But that has changed over the last several years, even last year, Virginia Tech beat the national champion (Ohio State).”

Then there is the league’s talent level.

“Recruiting,” Swinney says of the No. 1 factor in the ACC improving. “We have an excellent group of coaches in this conference, guys who recruit and compete at a high level.”

There is no way to quantify a league’s talent level. Perhaps as good a gauge as any to judge that overall talent is to analyze the NFL draft.

“Look at the number of players drafted,” Fisher says. “I think we’re one of the top two leagues in the country. I’ve said that the whole time. The number one thing when you’re talking about leagues is players.”

Since 2010, the SEC has produced 240 players who were drafted by NFL teams. The ACC is next with 170, followed by the Big Ten with 155, Pac-12 with 149 and Big 12 with 121. Those numbers are significant in showing the wide talent gap between the SEC and the other Power Five leagues, but also in recognizing that the ACC is equal to or better in talent to the other conferences.

Just about every projection for the upcoming NFL draft has the ACC again faring well. Sports Illustrated recently ranked the top 300 draft-eligible prospects from the college ranks. As expected, the SEC led those rankings with 64 players or 21.3 percent. Next in line was the ACC with 49 players or 16.3 percent.

“I think our league consistently puts out numbers of players,” Fisher says. “Look at the draft. You’ll see it here in a month, the number of players that are out there in the draft in the league. We’ll probably be one or two in players drafted.”

In so doing, the ACC might continue to gain recognition as being among the better Power Five conferences in football. But it still will not come close to catching the SEC.