What Needs to Happen For the ACC to Become Relevant Again

2016 was a great year for the SEC-haters, and especially for those constantly trying to laud the ACC’s talent in football. Not only did Clemson win the national championship, dethroning Alabama, but the Tide were the only top-10 team in the SEC. The two years prior, the SEC had slipped to just two teams in the top 10, after seeing four of their squads attain such a ranking in each of the previous three seasons. Meanwhile, the ACC had five Top-25 teams, with a pair of top-10 squads. It was the third time in four years they had accomplished that feat, after only doing it once between 1998 and 2013. 

The end of the SEC? The rise of the ACC? Not so much. 

Flash forward three seasons, and the SEC is as dominant as ever, and once again, outside a singularly impressive team, the ACC was more or less a complete joke. The conference championship saw Clemson defeat Virginia by a stunning score of 62-17. While Clemson may be able to challenge the best teams in the country, the SEC offers four or five teams team could give Clemson a very good game and definitely capable of beating them. Against those same four or five teams, I don’t think there’s a single ACC team I trust outside of Clemson to snare a victory on the gridiron. One such example of this? In the Orange Bowl this past season, the Florida Gators, second in their division and the third or fourth best team in the SEC, took on Virginia and won 36-28. The score didn’t reflect the nature of the game, as Florida never trailed and spent most of the contest nursing a two-score lead. A UVA touchdown with 38 seconds left cut the deficit to its final margin. The ACC’s second-best against a fringe top-5 SEC team? No contest. 

So what’s the issue with the ACC? And what needs to happen to get back to 2016, where they were arguably the better conference, or at least closer to the SEC’s equal? Here’s a few things that need to happen. 

Stability in the Coastal Division

In the SEC, the West largely dominates, but when you look at the East, they still have a decent amount of stability. Georgia and Florida have won 9 of the past 12 division titles and consistently are among the top teams in the conference. Between promising stretches from Missouri and South Carolina – and the occasional good year from Tennessee and Kentucky – there have been teams to fill the void when the Gators and Bulldogs falter. The stability in the East has allowed for consistent recruiting that establish top-tier teams in both divisions. In the ACC? No such stability has been created – the last seven years have seen all seven teams win the division once. Nobody has repeated since Virginia Tech in 2010-2011. When there’s no clear dominant team, or even a couple of consistently successful squads, no one gains any kind of significant recruiting edge. Furthermore, the lack of clarity in the division just sends more recruits scrambling for the safety blanket that is Clemson and their pure dominance of the ACC Atlantic, and the conference as a whole. Entering the ACC Coastal right now as a player essentially gives you an even 1-in-7 chance at getting to the title game. Players want to play at the highest level, and no ACC Coastal team is consistently offering that opportunity. 

Not only has no team repeated since Virginia Tech at the turn of the decade, but every single season since then, the ACC Coastal representative in the championship game has come from a team that finished third or worse in the division the year before that. Over the last seven years – the stretch with seven different champions – the Coastal division has had five teams finish in the Top 25 a combined seven times. Virginia Tech and Miami have slotted into the rankings twice, and Georgia Tech, UNC, and Duke have all accomplished the feat once. The last two division champs – Pitt and Virginia – did not finish in the Top 25. The lack of consistency among these programs is frankly astounding, and as long as the ACC Coastal is a complete mess, this conference won’t truly improve. 

A consistent challenger in the Atlantic Division

No recruit who has their eyes on making a CFP goes to a non-Clemson team in the ACC Atlantic if they have the choice. The Tigers are 38-2 over the past five seasons of ACC games. Rather than look forward to a big clash that decides the division, fans and Clemson-haters scour the schedule for a game that looks ‘tricky’ or could qualify as a ‘trap game’. In the SEC, even though Alabama looks like a favorite out of the West nearly every year, every single Bama-LSU game or Iron Bowl clash presents a significant obstacle for the Tide. For Clemson, even if they lose a shocker, no team has been good enough to steal the division crime. Clemson’s dynasty started as FSU faded from relevancy. During the Tigers’ five-year reign, the Seminoles have finished as a ranked team twice, and Louisville, NC State, and Syracuse have done it once apiece. Louisville’s 2nd-place finish in the Atlantic last year made them the first team to have 2 second-place finishes in the division in the past five years. Outside of Clemson, the division is a total toss-up, with nobody becoming consistently relevant. If the ACC wants to ever match the SEC – with 4-5 teams consistently cracking the top 20, and usually 2-3 in the top 10, a consistent challenger must emerge. 

Teams That Need To Improve

In the SEC, for each season of this past decade, at least five teams finished the year ranked in the top 25 of the AP Poll. Outside of 2016, the ACC did not do that once. So which teams need to step it up for the ACC to gain further legitimacy? 

Atlantic: Florida State, Louisville

Florida State was the clear second-best team to Clemson this past decade, winning four division titles to Clemson’s 6. However, the crossing of these two dynasties was thin. Florida State finished 14th and 8th in the country as Clemson took over in 2015-16, but they haven’t sniffed the end-of-season Top 25 since then, going just 17-20 over their last three seasons. Look at the SEC, where, although Alabama has won 7 of the past 12 titles in the SEC West, their three-peat from ‘14-16 was the only time they repeated. We need to see somebody rise and clash with Clemson at the top and Florida State has the pedigree to do it. But their program is in disarray right now, so it’s unclear whether they’re ready to get to a Top-25 level any time soon. One team that is trending back in the right direction is Louisville, who has been very good since joining the ACC, but they haven’t broken the glass ceiling just yet. The Cardinals had a blip in 2018 – finishing in last place in their first year post-Lamar Jackson, but they’ve been very consistently otherwise. Consistency is key – FSU was ranked for two straight years before settling into their three-year reign of the conference, and Clemson had been ranked the prior three seasons before their current stretch of dominance. Louisville bounced back last year with an 8-win season, so if the Cardinals can continue to trend upwards, they may be the best bet at giving Clemson a challenger atop the division. 

Coastal: Miami, Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech’s three division titles of the past decade make them one of two programs with multiple (Georgia Tech, 2). They’ve had their off years, but with three #1 finishes, and another three at #2 or #3, the Hokies are close to as consistent as it gets in the Coastal division. That combined with their homefield – Lane Stadium – is one of the more intimidating environments in the conference. If they turn that into a deadly homefield advantage, Virginia Tech could establish some much needed stability atop the division. 

Miami was the second clear and logical choice here. Amidst all the turmoil, the Hurricanes have not finished below fourth in the Coastal Division in the past decade. That being said, they’ve turned those consistent results into just one appearance in the ACC Championship, which ended very poorly. Miami has the most pedigree of any team in this division, and it makes sense that if the ACC is to rise to glory, the Hurricanes need to lead the revolution, or at least be one of the leaders. Their fans say it every year but until The U is Back, the ACC Coastal may struggle to gain any semblance of relevance. 

Georgia Tech, with their two division titles, was an honorable mention here, but their recent switch from the triple option and last-place finish last season cast some doubts on to whether they are entering a rebuilding phase, or whether they’re able to compete. 

SEC apologetics make a lot of claims, but they definitely hit the nail on the head when claiming superiority on the football field. The ACC looked like they might be ready to match that, but the past three seasons have shown they are clearly not ready. It’s years away, but look forward to a time where the ACC may finally be able to rival the SEC – at least in top-tier talent if not in total depth.

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