ACC has uncertain identity after stumbles in marquee games
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) The Atlantic Coast Conference has an uncertain identity, and it's going to be difficult to learn much about the league's strength early this season.
The ACC stumbled in its first round of reputation-building matchups, losing all four games against Power Five opponents in Week 1. Other league teams generally did what they were supposed to do: beat up on Championship Subdivision or lower-tier Bowl Subdivision opponents.
There are only so many nonconference matchups to bolster the league's standing, and many come at the end of the season. Throw in the fact there are already key injuries across the league - including a season-ending knee injury to reigning league player of the year James Conner at Pittsburgh - and it's not going to get any easier to figure out exactly what the league has and what it doesn't anytime soon.
''I think it's really, really hard to get much out of the first week,'' said Jim Grobe, the former longtime Wake Forest coach and a former TV analyst.
''I don't think because you lost the first game it's the end of the world, and I certainly don't think you can really gauge a conference by tough losses against good teams or easy wins against lesser opponents.''
The ACC entered the preseason coming off a two-year run in which it produced a Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall NFL draft pick as well as the 2013 national champion and an invite to the four-team inaugural College Football Playoff. The only problem was it all came from Florida State and quarterback Jameis Winston, leading to the perception that the ACC is a one-team show.
The league has had a second top-10 finisher in each of the past two seasons along with wins in key nonconference matchups. And it has No. 11 Florida State, No. 12 Clemson and No. 15 Georgia Tech in this week's AP Top 25.
But the first attempt to build off the past two years didn't go well. First, North Carolina lost a winnable game to Southeastern Conference opponent South Carolina. Then Louisville lost to another SEC team, Auburn, and Virginia lost at UCLA.
The ACC was the only league to go winless in games featuring two Power Five conference teams, with the SEC going 4-0, according to STATS. And while coaches often tune out nearly everything outside their own stadiums once the season starts, they know those games still matter for the league's reputation - especially when playoff selection day comes.
Virginia coach Mike London put it simply: ''The better that a member of an ACC school can do that against another Power Five school, then the better for the conference.''
''I think Coach (Dabo) Swinney takes it a level higher when he talks about it's not who we're playing, it's about how we play,'' said Jeff Scott, Clemson's co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach. ''We shouldn't concern ourself with who we're playing or whether it's going to be a letdown. We should play to that standard every game. It sounds like coach talk, and that's fine. But it really is important.''
The next round of Power Five opponents comes in Week 3, when Miami hosts Nebraska, Duke hosts a Northwestern team that upset Stanford, UNC hosts Illinois, Pitt travels to Iowa and Virginia Tech goes to Purdue. The following week, Indiana visits Wake Forest and Syracuse - which just lost quarterback Terrel Hunt to a season-ending injury - hosts LSU.
The measuring-stick matchups don't come again until the final week with regional rivalry games: Clemson at South Carolina, Florida State at Florida, Georgia at Georgia Tech and Louisville at Kentucky.
''I think we'll know more as games progress,'' Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. ''One night, one game is very difficult. . The reason you can't just take one game and say, `Hey, we're better,' it's always (that) a season is a work in progress. That's what Tuesday is about, that's what Wednesday is about.''
AP Sports Writers Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, South Carolina; Hank Kurz in Charlottesville, Virginia; and Joedy McCreary in Durham, North Carolina, contributed to this report.
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