AMELIA ISLAND, Fla.—Dan Radakovich and Michael Kelly should have been among friends as they met with ACC football coaches during this week’s spring meetings. Radakovich is Clemson’s athletic director, and Kelly, the chief operating officer of the College Football Playoff, is a former ACC associate commissioner. Yet the duo got interrogated as to how a team from the league could go 13-0 last season, finish as the only undefeated squad in the FBS and still wind up being seeded No. 3 in the inaugural playoff field.
“Coaches sometimes look at other leagues and maybe some perceptions that could be out there,” said a diplomatic Radakovich. “They always want to move our product forward.”
“It was a bitch session,” said a less diplomatic coach who was in the room.
The ACC coaches can be forgiven for defending their turf. For years, the league was considered a second-class citizen in football. The SEC, which shares four states with the ACC, has been considered the top conference in the sport for most of the past decade. The ACC’s best teams have made great strides over the last couple of years, and the most recent results invalidate that old perception. So, when the ACC’s undefeated champion gets ranked behind the one-loss champs of two other leagues, it’s only natural that the coaches blame perception and not reality. In this case, those coaches are simultaneously correct and incorrect.
Yes, the ACC has improved in football. The top of the league is good as anyone, anywhere. But the selection committee did not err in ranking Florida State below Alabama and Oregon. Last season’s Rose Bowl result—a 59-20 Oregon victory that was close until the middle of the third quarter and turned into a laugher—proved the committee correct.
What the coaches must understand is the committee did not dock Florida State based on perception. It docked Florida State because the 2014 Seminoles did not appear to be as good as the Ducks or the Crimson Tide. This isn’t to say that the committee was 100% correct; after all, the best team was seeded No. 4. The worst rankings actually came from the sportswriters voting in the AP Poll*, who had Florida State ranked No. 2 and would've left Ohio State out of the playoff entirely.
*After voting in the AP Poll from 2009-13, I relinquished my vote before last season. I wouldn’t have made things much better. If you read my rankings during those years, you know I was terrible at ranking teams.
Still, the devaluing of Florida State’s 13-0 run through the regular season has left ACC coaches worried the old view of the conference remains the prevailing one. This week Clemson coach Dabo Swinney ran through a list of reasons why no one should feel that way anymore. ACC teams have notched some big nonconference wins in recent years. They have won some major bowl games. Florida State won the 2013 national title. Even that most brutal judge of talent, the NFL, has validated the league. In this spring’s draft, the ACC (47) finished second to the SEC (54) in players selected. The ACC Atlantic had more players taken than any other division with 30. “I don’t hear that being written about anywhere,” Swinney said. “We’re still going to talk about some other division in college football. This mighty division.”
That would be the division Swinney played in as a senior at Alabama in 1992. Had former LSU offensive tackle La’el Collins been drafted as expected, the SEC West would have tied the ACC Atlantic for the most players taken, but the numbers prove the talent gap isn’t that wide.
Two years ago at these meetings, I wrote a column about the perception of the ACC. Swinney and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher seemed to think that perception was created by writers and talking heads, when it fact it was firmly rooted in the win-loss column. Commissioner John Swofford understood the reality of the situation. “Just win more key games,” Swofford said.
If that perception still exists now, I’m more inclined to agree with Swinney and Fisher, because ACC teams have done precisely what Swofford suggested. That column was written after the 2012 season, when the ACC was 3-14 in BCS bowls since the creation of the system. Since, the league is 3-1 in BCS/College Football Playoff games. In that same two-year span, the SEC is 0-5. From ’08-12, Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech went a combined 4-11 against their respective SEC in-state rivals (South Carolina, Florida and Georgia). In the past two years, the ACC teams are a combined 4-2 in those matchups. Heck, a middle-of-the-pack ACC squad (Virginia Tech) went on the road and defeated the eventual national champ last season. All of that may still comprise a fairly small sample, but the ACC is certainly trending up. “Our conference is strong,” Swinney said this week. “We’ve just got to keep producing results, and hopefully y’all will eventually buy into the ACC being as good as any conference there is out there.”
The league has an opportunity to continue changing perception in the opening week of the 2015 campaign. North Carolina opens on Sept. 3 against South Carolina in Charlotte. Virginia plays at UCLA on Sept. 5, and Louisville faces Auburn in Atlanta on the same day. Ohio State visits Virginia Tech on Labor Day. All four ACC teams will likely enter as underdogs. None of the four are expected to compete for the ACC championship. Of the opponents, all but South Carolina are expected to compete for their conference titles, and one (Ohio State) will be the preseason No. 1. If the ACC teams lose, they were supposed to lose. But if they win, they can give the league more ammunition in its fight for respect.
That fight probably shouldn’t be carried to the members of the playoff selection committee, though. That group fared well in its first go-around. Oregon proved the decision to drop Florida State was correct, and Ohio State proved it deserved to leapfrog the two teams at the top of the Big 12 by winning the national title. So, while the coaches may have wanted answers from Radakovich and Kelly, they had to accept the reason was pretty simple. “Is it difficult to explain how it happened? No,” Radakovich said. “Twelve people voted. That’s how it happened.” Radakovich believes this system beats the alternative, and the fact that Alabama would have played Florida State for the title in the BCS era seems to support Radakovich’s assertion. “One thing people have to remember is you choose your poison,” he said. “You either have a living, breathing, human being evaluating what you’re doing and how it’s working, or you have gears and diodes putting things in there and spitting it out. Which do you like?”
ACC coaches would prefer living, breathing humans who place their undefeated champ at No. 1. But that didn’t happen because the ACC’s undefeated champ wasn’t the best team at the end of the 2014 season, and committee members recognized that. The slight sprang from observation, not an outdated perception.
The league’s teams have done exactly what they've needed to do to erase that perception. Now they just have to keep it up. “You’ve got to win. You’ve got to play people,” Swinney said. “You win, you play people, you’ve got a good chance of being there.”