The ACC: Can We Call It a Comeback?

Michael McGuffeeCorrespondent ISeptember 22, 2009

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - SEPTEMBER 17:  Quarterback Jacory Harris #12 of the Miami Hurricanes celebrates after defeating the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Land Shark Stadium on September 17, 2009 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Miami defeated Georgia Tech 33-17.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

While SEC icons Urban Meyer and Lane Kiffin play sticks and stones, the Atlantic Coast Conference is quietly making a comeback.

A league that has endured more than its share of criticism in recent years, the ACC looks to be turning over a new leaf in 2009: defying expectations, climbing its way up the polls, and delivering some of the most exciting games of the young season.

Of course, the biggest knock against the ACC was that it lacked elite teams, but if the conference’s start to the 2009 season is any indication, that may not be the case going forward.

Opening with two victories over ranked opponents, the University of Miami has clawed its way into the AP top 10, while the one-loss Hokies stand at No. 11, and Florida State and North Carolina sit waiting in the wings at No. 18 and No. 22, respectively.

For the ACC this season, it all started with the Florida State-Miami rivalry. A game that has looked ugly in recent years turned out to be the saving grace for the conference after ACC teams lost five of nine contests against out-of-conference opponents in the first week of the season.

Despite the many questions that remained for both teams after the game, the thrilling 38-34 FSU-Miami shootout impressed viewers across the country and served as a formal introduction to two of the league’s surprise players this season in dueling quarterbacks Jacory Harris and Christian Ponder. If nothing else, the game put the conference—or at least two of its teams—on the map.

Then, after a quiet effort in week two, the ACC reintroduced itself this past weekend with a couple headlining wins over quality opponents. In perhaps the league’s strongest showing in years, Florida State trounced No. 7 BYU on the road, Virginia Tech rallied to beat No. 19 Nebraska in the final seconds, and Miami proved its season debut was no fluke with a convincing win over No. 14 Georgia Tech.

As a result, and almost overnight it seems, the Atlantic Coast Conference has itself some quality teams—teams that are playing like they want something more than a shot at the conference title.

While the conference is not nearly as strong top to bottom as it has been the last few seasons, the teams at the top appear to be on their way to becoming the kind of marquee presence the league has lacked for years.

Looking at records alone, the ACC does not look that impressive. In fact, three weeks into the season, only two teams in the conference—Miami and North Carolina—remain undefeated. The SEC, by comparison, boasts six teams without a loss.

What can’t be argued, however, is the ACC’s body of work so far this season. According to Phil Steele’s rankings of the toughest schedules in 2009, the ACC’s three highest ranked teams all fall in the top 15—FSU (2), Virginia Tech (8), and Miami (12).

All three teams have already played two opponents currently ranked in the top 25 in the first three weeks of the season and, with a bye week, Miami has played in just two games.

That said, while the top five teams in the country all stand undefeated, not as much can be said for the strength of their schedules. Florida’s schedule ranks as the 34th toughest in the nation, followed by Texas (40), Alabama (68), Mississippi (77), and Penn State (72).

Admittedly, head-to-head matchups don’t lie, and Alabama beat the Hokies by 10 in their season opener, but comparative limits have yet to be established for Miami and Florida State. And, if the Hokies were going to lose, there are much worse losses than the Crimson Tide. (Ask Duke or Virginia. Richmond? William and Mary? Really?)

What we do know, however, is that with some of the toughest schedules in the country, these teams won’t have much to hide by the end of the season. Miami and Virginia Tech will clash on Saturday, and Miami will have No. 10 Oklahoma at home the following week.

Meanwhile, all three teams will have their chance against North Carolina, and, of course, Florida State will have to make a trip to the Swamp at the end of November.

If the ACC’s triple threat can survive three of the nation’s toughest schedules, the conference could shed its reputation as a perennial work in progress and once again stake its claim among the big boys of college football.

If not, however, the conference will continue to be an afterthought—the little engine that couldn’t.

Whether these programs are contenders or pretenders, we’ll find out soon enough. Either way, it should be fun to watch. If nothing else, it’s nice to have some offense in the ACC again, and the matchups to come should provide plenty of excitement to the benefit of college football in general.

The return of sleeping giants like Miami and Florida State—even if this season is just the first step—would add an exciting new variable to a national championship picture that has grown stale thanks to the SEC’s dominance.

In the mean time, at least ACC coaches can conduct themselves like adults.