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December 26, 2008
You could say the ACC's early season performance wasn't anything to write home about, but that would be missing the point.
The ACC's players didn't even have to write home to inform friends and family members about their struggles. No college football fan on the East Coast could turn on a TV or radio this fall without hearing skeptics bemoan the conference's lack of an elite team.
"My mom said whenever we had away games, they were bashing our conference on TV," North Carolina free safety Deunta Williams said.
The bashing has continued, but it may not be justified.
Although the ACC doesn't have a team ranked higher than No. 14 Georgia Tech in the BCS standings, the league boasts the most balance of any conference in the country. The ACC sent an NCAA-record 10 teams to bowls this season after posting a 37-11 regular-season record against non-conference opponents, including a 15-8 mark against teams from the other "Big Six" conferences and Notre Dame.
The ACC finally started to garner some positive publicity when it went 3-1 in four head-to-head meetings with SEC teams on Thanksgiving weekend. Now the league must try to continue its momentum in the postseason.
If the ACC can go 6-4 or better in its bowls, it would lend credence to the notion that this league's extraordinary depth made up for its lack of national title contenders. But if the league goes 4-6 or worse, skeptics will point out that those 10 bowl bids simply rewarded the ACC's mediocrity.
Wake Forest got the ACC off to a good start by avenging a regular-season loss to Navy in the EagleBank Bowl, but the real test begins Saturday, when three ACC teams square off ? and all against "Big Six" opponents.
Florida State meets Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Fla., Miami faces California in the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco, and North Carolina plays West Virginia in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. The ACC particularly needs wins from Florida State and North Carolina, which are playing in their home states.
"It's important for every team to do well in the ACC in these bowl games," Florida State kicker Graham Gano said. "It would set us up well for next year. It's really important to get that momentum going for next season and show the rest of the country that the ACC's really a strong conference."
ACC critics have reason to feel skeptical. The league hasn't won a BCS game since Florida State's 1999 national championship season. FSU finished in the top five of The Associated Press poll every season from 1987-2000, but the ACC hasn't produced a single top-five team since the end of that streak.
The ACC also posted a combined record of 19-32 against "Big Six" teams and Notre Dame in 2006 and '07 and went 2-6 in bowl games last season.
Although that string of seasons without a top-five team in the final AP poll will continue this season, the league's non-conference record suggests the ACC has improved. But the league still carries a perception problem that stems from the opening week of the season.
N.C. State lost 34-0 to South Carolina and eventual ACC champion Virginia Tech fell to an East Carolina team that would go on to win the Conference USA title. But the real embarrassment came when overwhelming preseason ACC favorite Clemson lost a nationally televised game 34-10 to Alabama, which was expected to finish in the middle of the pack in the SEC West.
"Because of one weekend in August or September, everybody shot down the ACC," N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien said.
The Clemson-Alabama result doesn't look nearly as bad in retrospect. Alabama went 12-1 and won the SEC West. Clemson finished 7-5 and went .500 in ACC competition. But the memories of that lost weekend persist.
If the ACC struggles the next two weeks and Virginia Tech continues the league's BCS misery, the criticism will last until next fall. Skeptics will wonder why ACC teams inevitably lost as soon as they cracked the national rankings. They'll argue that this league needs Florida State and/or Miami to re-emerge as national title contenders before it can rank alongside the SEC or the Big 12.
But if the league's late-season momentum continues in the postseason, an entirely different picture of the ACC could emerge.
Florida State, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Miami and North Carolina State took steps forward this season. Virginia Tech and Boston College won their divisions for the second consecutive season. Clemson came on strong late in the season. A league that features so many up-and-coming teams can start considering itself a conference on the rise.
Of course, the league's backers will have a tough time making that claim if the ACC doesn't come through in the postseason.
"If we go out and win the majority of our bowl games, it would make a statement ? that ? the level of talent in the ACC was just that good that on any given Saturday, [any] team could win," Brown said. "It's crucial we go out and win a majority of our bowl games just to make that statement."
That really would be something to write home about.
Who has the edge?
Florida State run offense vs. Wisconsin run defense
Florida State pass offense vs. Wisconsin pass defense
Wisconsin run offense vs. Florida State run defense
Wisconsin pass offense vs. Florida State pass defense
Florida State special teams vs. Wisconsin special teams
Florida State coaches vs. Wisconsin coaches
X-factor: When he's healthy, FSU wide receiver Preston Parker is one of the most dangerous multipurpose threats in the nation. But he rarely has been at full strength this season. Parker has just 459 combined rushing and receiving yards and has said he is questionable for this game because of an ankle injury. If the ankle injury sidelines or limits him, Florida State again must try to win without one of its most talented players at full strength. If Parker is able to play, perhaps he can deliver a memorable finish to a disappointing season.
Florida State will win if: The Seminoles are good enough to win this game as long as Ponder avoids making critical mistakes. Florida State should be able to run the ball. If the game remains close in the fourth quarter, FSU's special teams could make the difference.
Wisconsin will win if: Wisconsin showed its ability to come back in each of its last two regular-season games, but what worked against Minnesota and Cal Poly probably won't work against a team of Florida State's caliber. The Badgers must run the ball effectively and take an early lead. Both teams run the ball much better than they throw it. If Wisconsin can force Florida State to throw, the Badgers have an excellent shot of winning.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.