I surrender. I've been defending the ACC for years now, mainly by pointing out respectable regular season records against the other BCS conferences despite persistent BCS bowl failures, but now I don't even have that. This conference stinks. Period. The only thing I can't figure out is why. The ACC annually produces among the most NFL talent, and the coaches are largely respected in some form. Maybe the answer has something to do with only two quarterbacks being drafted out of the ACC over the last six years (Matt Ryan and Charlie Whitehurst)?
-- J.D. Bolick, Denver, N.C.
You know I believe strongly in the cyclical nature of conference strength, but admittedly the ACC has yet to hit its "up" cycle. And the interesting thing is, you can actually divide the league's seven seasons since expansion into two cycles.
The quarterback void was definitely a prominent factor for several years, starting after Phillip Rivers (NC State) and Matt Schaub (Virginia) played their final seasons in 2003. Around 2005-06, the ACC had arguably as much defensive talent as any league this side of the SEC. Florida State and Miami were still churning out elite defenses but bumbling around on offense with QBs like Kyle Wright and Drew Weatherford. NC State had three first-round picks (Mario Williams, Manny Lawson and John McCargo) on its 2005 defense, but couldn't break seven wins. (Our old pal Chesty Chuck might have had something to do with that.) Georgia Tech endured the four-year Reggie Ball era. It was ugly.
Now, the league finally has a whole bunch of good quarterbacks -- Russell Wilson, Christian Ponder, Jacory Harris, Josh Nesbitt, Tyrod Taylor, Kyle Parker and the much-improved T.J. Yates -- but the defenses have gone in the toilet, most notably Florida State's. Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech are struggling on that side of the ball, too. North Carolina was expected to be an exception before suspension city kicked in. Bottom line: I think most schools in the league have the right coaches in place and a good number of NFL-caliber players, but just can't seem to put it all together. Things are better than they were in the latter half of the 'aughts, but not there yet.
It’s good that Mandel acknowledges that his belief that conference strength is cyclical is refuted by the example of the ACC. (The official Braves & Birds position is that conference strength is best thought of visually as a series of sine waves. The SEC’s wave is set higher than the waves of the other conferences. On occasion, the SEC will be at a low-point on its wave and one or more of the other conferences will be at a high-point [such as 2005, the last year in which Mark Richt won an SEC title], but on the whole, the SEC will be higher most of the time.) His explanation lacks punch, although there’s nothing wrong with a cursory opinion in the mailbag format. It’s not as if Mandel threw up his hands after writing a long feature piece.
I’m usually not a fan of obvious explanation, but there’s a basic one for the ACC’s lack of football prowess: the schools of the ACC don’t care that much about football. Yes, the schools have generally shown a commitment to football through stadium and facilities improvements, but are they on the level of the SEC and Big Ten in terms of spending? No. Are they on that level in terms of attendance? No. Are they on the level of the SEC in terms of paying for top coaching talent? Absolutely not. The ACC programs sit in talent-rich states, but they aren’t turning that talent into winning teams.
This is a free market economy and more often than not, you get what you pay for. The SEC (and to a slightly lesser extent, the Big Ten) cares more about football because the conference is full of historical powers supported by fans who were weaned on college football fanaticism. That fanaticism pays for Bobby Petrino and Steve Spurrier. (There is no SEC equivalent to Miami, a potential superpower program that doesn’t spend money on football and thus has to skimp on coaching hires.) That fanaticism cannot be created overnight. That’s why the ACC is languishing in football.
(Note: an ACC fan might point out that the conference generally has higher academic standards than the SEC and there is some merit to that argument, but the academic standards of certain ACC programs ought to make it easier for the conference to produce elite teams, not harder. If Virginia, North Carolina, Duke, Wake, and Georgia Tech are all limited in football by their entry requirements, then it should be easier for Florida State, Miami, Clemson, and Virginia Tech – schools with SEC-level entry requirements and therefore bigger recruiting pools – to whip up on their conference brethren and produce gaudy records. [See: 1992-2000.] That’s not happening.)