The good news for ACC fans is that the conference survived the most recent round of realignment shenanigans and has found its way into the big five conference alignment for the upcoming college football playoff. The bad news is that there can be little argument the league is fifth among the quintet and still susceptible to the expansion yearnings of its more prosperous brethren.
So, what is the ACC to do? Glad you asked. Here is a modest, 12-step program to security.
1. Conference-Wide: Be Happy With What You Have
Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe laughs when asked about Louisville’s inclusion in the ACC.
“The hits just keep on coming,” he says.
Grobe isn’t thrilled at the prospect of playing the Cardinals, who will join the ACC in 2014. Not exactly delighted that Notre Dame will show up on the schedule every two or three years, either. But like the rest of the coaches in the conference, he understands that strength connotes security. There may be other leagues out there shopping, but a sturdy lineup ought to make members think a little bit before leaving town.
“If you’re a good league, you’ve got teams that are attractive to other leagues,” Grobe says. “(The ACC) may be attractive to other teams, too.”
The best thing that could have happened to football in the conference was Louisville’s resounding win over Florida in the Sugar Bowl. The Cardinals looked fast, nasty and athletic. In many ways, they resembled an SEC team. Although ND won’t be playing a full slate of games — the Irish are in for five a year starting in 2014 — its arrival adds gridiron cachet, especially now that Notre Dame is winning again.
Add those two teams to Florida State, Virginia Tech, Clemson and Miami, name brands all, and you have a solid top tier. If Pittsburgh and Syracuse play at levels with which we are accustomed, the ACC has all it needs — on paper at least.
2. Florida State: Develop Jameis Winston Into A Star
The last time the Seminoles had an All-ACC quarterback was in 2000, when Chris Weinke earned the honor. That’s unacceptable at a place where primo passers abounded during the ’80s and ’90s.
Winston might just change that. The 6'4", 206-pound redshirt freshman has a huge arm — YouTube him throwing the ball over a frat house — and all of the requisite athletic ability to be a star. He split time during the spring as part of the FSU baseball team, but his true home is the gridiron. Sure, Winston
will have to beat out Jacob Coker, but Noles’ fans should be rooting hard for him to prevail.
As a prep senior, Winston completed 69 percent of his passes for 2,424 yards and 28 TDs while also running for 1,065 yards and 15 scores. Sounds exactly like what FSU needs. At last.
3. Miami: Build An On-Campus Stadium
Tune in to watch the Hurricanes play anybody but FSU or a big-name non-conference opponent, and you will see tens of thousands of empty seats in Sun Life Stadium, home of the NFL’s Dolphins. The place is 21 miles from campus and offers a stale gameday experience. It was one thing when the Canes played in the old Orange Bowl. At least that place had character. Broadway Joe kicked butt there.
Miami needs an on-campus stadium. It doesn’t have to be a palace, but it should hold about 45,000 people and create a real home-field advantage for the Hurricanes. Hit up some of those wealthy former players for seed money and then start a real fundraising campaign.
Who knows — maybe Uncle Luke might start showing up again. On second thought, better not let him know.
4. Louisville: Keep Tom Jurich
Fewer than 10 years ago, Louisville was in Conference USA, possessed a limited football profile and was known more for playing in a stadium named for a pizza parlor than winning meaningful games. Thanks in big part to AD Jurich, the Cardinals are now fully made members of the ACC and are coming off that big win over Florida in the Sugar Bowl, their second BCS appearance in seven years. That isn’t all due to Jurich, but he has played a huge leadership role in the transformation.
Because of that, it is imperative that the Cards hang on to Jurich as if he were the last canister of oxygen on the moon. Few NCAA ADs have the ability to get things done like Jurich. His charisma was the main ingredient in U of L’s ability to hire Rick Pitino as its basketball coach, and his vision helped lift Louisville from the margins of I-A football to a seat at the main table. He also has some swing on the national level.
The U of L doesn’t have the same gridiron pedigree of other ACC members, so it can’t rely on tradition and historical success when things get tough. Jurich is the key to future prosperity for Louisville football, so any combination of cash and prizes necessary to keep him on board is appropriate.
5. Clemson: Find The Next Chad Morris
One wouldn’t imagine it would be too hard to find a quality offensive mind willing to direct the Tiger attack, since current offensive coordinator Chad Morris makes $1.3 million a year. But big money doesn’t always guarantee the best hires, so Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney better have a good short list of candidates to replace Morris, because unless the gifted coordinator screws up completely this year, he’ll be a head coach in 2014.
Morris interviewed for the vacant NC State and Texas Tech spots last year, and teams all over the country want gifted offensive minds to direct their teams, if only to create excitement that spurs ticket sales. Kliff Kingsbury may be a Red Raider alum, but his work with the Houston and Texas A&M attacks is what made him an attractive candidate in Lubbock.
Morris sure has a lot to work with at Clemson this year. Quarterback Tajh Boyd and wideout Sammy Watkins are both All-America candidates, and it will be shocking if the Tigers don’t pile up the points and yards. Clemson won the ACC in 2011 and had a big comeback triumph over LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last year. Momentum is building, but if Morris bolts from the fold, Swinney must be ready to reload with a similarly proficient offensive mind.
6. Virginia, North Carolina, NC State: Protect The Home Turf
Lately, it doesn’t matter where a school might be located; it can go shopping for talent in North Carolina and Virginia. Oh, the Tar Heels and Wahoos may get a couple of prospects to remain at home, but they haven’t been able to prevent interlopers from grabbing the top talent. A trend that has been growing hit particularly hard this past Signing Day.
Virginia running back Derrick Green is going to Michigan. Defensive end Jonathan Allen will play for Alabama. Linebacker E.J. Levenberry is headed for Florida State, and quarterback Ryan Burns signed with Stanford. Yes, running back Taquan Mizzell and linebacker Donta Wilkins are headed for Charlottesville, but the Wahoos didn’t do a very good job with the locals. Of the top 15 players on Rivals’ Virginia list, only four chose the Cavs.
The story isn’t any better next door. Only four of the 15 best prospects (according to the Charlotte Observer) will be Tar Heels — and none signed with NC State (or Wake Forest or Duke, the other two in-state ACC schools). Some of the big names that got away include wideout Marquez North (Tennessee), linebacker Peter Kalambayi (Stanford), running back Larenz Bryant (South Carolina) and defensive tackle Greg Gilmore (LSU). Sure, back T.J. Logan and corner Brian Walker are going to Chapel Hill, but they aren’t enough.
North Carolina, NC State and Virginia have plenty to sell. It’s time to start closing some deals.
7. Virginia Tech: Pay Attention To The Offense
There are three new offensive coaches at Virginia Tech this season and one old idea about how to win football games.
“I still think there is something good to be said about playing good defense and being good in the kicking game,” Hokies coach Frank Beamer says. “That affects field position. You have to take care of the ball and be efficient on offense. That starts with running the football. Think about it: Alabama has been the best team in the country the last four years, and that’s how they do it. That’s how Stanford has been successful.”
So, don’t expect air-raid sirens to be sounding around Blacksburg once new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler starts calling plays. What Virginia Tech fans do want is a return to 2011 form by quarterback Logan Thomas, who completed a mere 51.3 percent of his throws last season, threw 16 picks against only 18 TDs and was dreadful in the Hokies’ bowl win over Rutgers, completing only 38.5 percent of his passes. In 2011, Thomas completed 59.8 percent and tossed only 10 interceptions.
Although some criticized the hiring of Loeffler, who presided over Auburn’s wretched attack last year, the coach was extremely effective directing quarterbacks within a pro-style offense at Michigan for several years and could be just what the Hokies need. Being one-dimensional is no way to get back into the top five.
“Logan will be fine,” Beamer says. “We’ve got to get people around him who are fine, too. We need good running backs, and we have to be more consistent at the wide receiver position. If people around Logan are more consistent, he’ll be fine. That’s what he had two years ago.”
8. Pittsburgh: Get Your Act Together
Since Paul Chryst is entering his second year at the Panthers’ helm, he qualifies as an elder statesman among recent Pitt coaches. Before Chryst took over in 2012, the school had employed three coaches — Dave Wannstedt, Mike Haywood, Todd Graham — in a span of two seasons. (Haywood was only there a month.)
“Stability is a good thing,” Chryst says.
If the Panthers are going to establish themselves as contenders in the ACC, they must be more than just talented. Pitt has to deliver, and we’re not just talking about a fourth straight postseason trip to Birmingham, Ala. Chryst hopes to develop a team that will win at a high level consistently. He was part of that as an assistant at Wisconsin, and though he admits he hasn’t directed a breakthrough as a boss man, Chryst understands what it will take.
“You have to have enough talent, but you have to have guys who want to be a part of something bigger than themselves,” he says. “The teams that I have been a part of that have won big maybe weren’t the most talented in the league, but they had enough talent and plenty of hard work and commitment.”
It’s going to take a while for the Panthers to deliver big results every season, since Chryst is trying to re-cast the team after Graham’s one-and-done “tenure.” But if he stays around — “You understand why your name comes up, and it’s not a big deal, but it’s interesting when you know what you’re doing and hear things,” he says — Chryst has a chance.
9. Boston College and Syracuse: Be Eastern Powers Again
When the ACC added Boston College, there were big plans by other member schools to pillage New England for talent. Granted, there are more ice hockey standouts in that part of the country than football stars, but a new market opened up. The same sentiment was echoed when Syracuse and Pitt bolted the Big East. Imagine how Georgia Tech would be able to tell New York recruits about periodic trips north, or Miami could assuage the fears of shaky parents by promising to bring Junior home twice during his four years on campus.
That’s all nice, but even better than just supplying the rest of the league with talent is the idea that BC and Syracuse can become the kind of powerful Eastern programs they once were. Multiple bowl games, big non-conference triumphs and future NFL performers were once parts of the teams’ personalities. That must happen again.
Start with recruiting. There is no way either team should lose a player from the Northeast to any neighborhood school besides Pitt or Penn State. UConn and Temple are members of a mid-major conference, and even though Rutgers will soon be a Big Ten school, the Knights have been searching for an identity on the gridiron for decades. It won’t be easy, since there isn’t an abundance of talent in the region, but it happened before, and both teams would help the league greatly by returning to glory.
10. North Carolina: Behave!
When did the Tar Heels decide it was a good idea to act like an old Southwest Conference school? Instead of behaving like a proud institution with strong academic standards and a desire to do things the right way, UNC has become a bandit school that traffics in cash and prizes for players and no-show class grades. Come on, Carolina, you’re better than that.
Second-year head coach Larry Fedora had a solid debut, leading the Heels to an 8–4 record (North Carolina was ineligible for a bowl game), but he and the program could endure another round of punishments if the academic fraud scandal based in the school’s African and Afro-American Studies department is deemed sanction-worthy by the NCAA. It may be a while before UNC is clear of trouble, but Fedora and the rest of the school would benefit greatly from playing by the rules from here on out.
11. Duke and Wake Forest: Hold That Line
Okay, we get it. Wake has about 200 students. (Editor’s Note: He’s kidding; the school’s enrollment is 4,800.) And amidst those brick buildings and tree-lined quadrangles, real work gets done. The same thing happens at Duke, where Wallace Wade Stadium is still pretty much like the place that hosted the 1942 Rose Bowl.
But that doesn’t mean the programs have to be walkovers, especially in non-conference contests against like schools. To their credit, Wake and Duke have represented the league fairly well lately. The Blue Devils played in the Belk Bowl last year, their first postseason appearance since January 1995. And though the outcome was crushing (a late collapse led to a 14-point loss), there is no question that coach David Cutcliffe has the program going in the right direction.
Jim Grobe is doing a fine job in Winston-Salem, even though the Deacons have been to only one bowl in four seasons. Wake has a refurbished stadium and made three straight postseason appearances from 2006-08.
“It’s important for the (ACC’s) academic schools to have success,” Grobe says, referring to Wake and Duke. “But that’s tough, when you have to start with a guy who can get a degree from Wake Forest and still bump into the Noles and Canes and Hokies.”
12. League-Wide: Knock Off Some Quality Opponents
The ACC can crow all it wants about last year’s 4–2 bowl record, but other than the Clemson win over LSU, none was particularly impressive. Beating Rutgers, Northern Illinois and a disinterested USC team that was without quarterback Matt Barkley hardly gives the league reason to thump its chest.
If the ACC wants to be considered on a par with the other four major conferences, it has to knock off some Teams That Matter. Last year, Miami lost to Kansas State and Notre Dame by a combined score of 93–16. Clemson lost to South Carolina at home. Florida State fell to Florida in Tallahassee. Virginia Tech lost at Pitt. Louisville knocked off North Carolina, and Stanford throttled Duke. In other words, nobody hung an impressive non-con scalp on the wall.
That must change. The Hokies get a chance Aug. 31, when they play Alabama in Atlanta. That same weekend, Georgia visits Clemson, and UNC heads to Columbia to play the Gamecocks. A week later, Florida is at Miami, and Virginia hosts Oregon. There you have it; five chances to make a mark.
“Us starting out against Alabama is certainly a challenge,” Beamer says. “The odds are against us, because they’re a good team. But we’ve got a good team, too.”
Get it done, Coach.
BONUS: Get Notre Dame To Join As A Full Member
Come on, people. You hold all the cards in this one. Sure, it’s great to have ND around for five conference football games, but by giving the Irish a pass on full football membership, you’re allowing the school to protect its other sports at a discount. Imagine what would happen if Notre Dame had to go out and find another home. Maybe the American Athletic Conference would take it, but ND already ditched those schools back when the league was known as the Big East. And scheduling 12 football games every year when many BCS members won’t play them won’t be easy. Play some hardball with the Irish. Tell them the free lunch is over. That would sure help the conference.
Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2013 ACC Preview Edition. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2013 ACC season.
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