The question as to whether or not the Atlantic Coast Conference can ever be a truly major player in college football is one with a very simple answer.
The league, led by John Swofford absolutely "can" regain their spot alongside the other power leagues. Swofford's conference is not lumped in with the "others" as far as the playoff is concerned. His conference is set to make plenty of money to afford teams the ability to match salaries, keep staffs together and update facilities.
So, the answer is, "Yes, the ACC can be a player on the big stage of college football."
However, the real question is will. As in, will the ACC be a player on the collegiate landscape?
That answer to that, far more critical question, is as much a crap shoot as to who is going to win the Coastal Division in the 2013 season. In other words, a lot of maybe, might, could and should, but not a lot of definitive answers.
The ACC, depending upon how you slice it, breaks down into several distinct groups. For our sake we'll call them the newcomers, the get-over-the-hump teams and then everyone else.
This season the new kids on the block are Pitt and Syracuse. In the very near future we'll see Louisville added to the mix as the Maryland Terrapins take off for the Big Ten. Odds are all three of these teams slide into the mix of "everyone else" once they hit their stride in the conference.
And that's not a bad thing. They will be quality clubs that have an opportunity to win a lot of ball games. Just not likely to be the consistent, bell cow on the national stage that the ACC needs.
No, that bell cow has to come from Tallahassee or Pickens County. The Seminoles or the Clemson Tigers are the teams that are still just waiting to take that next step. They are the teams everyone is watching to see if they can get over the hump.
The hump is both a literal and a figurative impediment to their success. That SEC opponent at the end of the regular season is a very real obstacle for both teams to overcome. The other very real obstacle they must get by is each other.
As for the figurative hurdles, beating the teams they are supposed to beat. For Florida State, that means not losing to North Carolina State in 2012. For Clemson it is not losing to Georgia Tech in 2011. In other words it is about being mentally prepared, regardless of the opponent, and going out to take care of business.
For these two teams who have to get over the hump to put the ACC on the national map, they have to do what the nation's best teams do. Not just win on the big stage, that's a given, but they have to beat the teams in their league that are hoping to knock them off.
More than anything, that is what the league needs to be able to become a bigger player on the main stage. A true title contender, and you can only get a title contender by winning your ballgames and finishing highly ranked.
Now, with respect to the "everyone else" in the league, the goal has to be getting better. That means winning in the nonconference and pushing towards their own title shots. At the top of this heap, Virginia Tech, Miami, NC State, Georgia Tech and North Carolina are hoping to put more wins together.
The Hokies were a perennial 10-win team that took a massive step back in 2012 and we'll be waiting to see what they are in the next few seasons. For the Hurricanes, Tar Heels and Yellow Jackets it's about taking the next step from the 7-8 win seasons they have been having. While all three finished at the top of the Coastal this year, none of them were ranked or a player on the big stage.
North Carolina State, along with Boston College, is in new coach phase. Hopefully the latest hires can be the guy to get them closer to the top of the league. Unfortunately, unlike the wide open Coastal Division, they have to contend with Florida State and Clemson annually and that makes climbing the ladder even more difficult.
Each of these teams clustered together is going to have a hard time being "the player" on the national stage. Virginia Tech showed that even while piling up ACC wins, getting key victories out of the conference requires more improvement as a team. For most middle-of-the-pack ball clubs, going from the 7-9 win mark, to double-digit victories and possible Top-10 finishes are the hardest thing for a football team to do.
Even though it is seems to be just a "little bit extra" it is so much more. The little bit better game plan. The little bit stronger players. The little bit of extra luck. The little bit of extra depth. All of those little bits add up to be a lot, and that's why most teams don't make the transition to being the national players they want to be.
And for that reason, it's on the schools with the most resources to help galvanize and improve the ACC's standing on the big stage: Clemson and Florida State. They both have the ability to take the next step, for them it is about walking through that door and announcing their arrival.
Hopefully, for both the league and Clemson's sake, beating a damn good LSU team should shatter that mental glass ceiling that has hung over their program for quite some time. In the case of Florida State, the BCS experience hopefully put the hunger for more success in Jimbo Fisher's squad.
It will be interesting to watch. Yes, the ACC can become a major player in college football. The real things to watch are will the league step up, and if so when.