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July 21, 2008

ACC hopes to end non-conference struggles

MORE ACC MEDIA DAYS: Who will challenge the Hokies? | Day Two Photo Gallery

GREENSBORO, Ga. If only the ACC delivered wins as frequently as it churns out NFL players, nobody would question the league's place in the BCS pecking order.

Over the past three years, the ACC has sent more overall draft picks (115) and first-round selections (25) to the NFL than any other conference.

"You take the best players from this conference and play them against (the best players from) any other conference, and I'll put my money on this conference," Virginia linebacker Clint Sintim said during ACC Media Days at the Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation.

This league boasts some of the nation's top players year in and year out, but it certainly hasn't produced many top teams. Seven seasons have passed since an ACC team finished in the top five of The Associated Press poll and no ACC team has won a BCS bowl since Florida State's 1999 national championship. Miami has three BCS victories this decade, but the Hurricanes were Big East members in those contests.

Over the past two seasons, the ACC is 19-32 in non-conference games against opponents from the "Big Six" conferences and Notre Dame, the worst mark of any of the "Big Six" leagues. And the ACC went 2-6 in bowls last season.

No matter how much the statistics suggest otherwise, ACC players and coaches continue to insist their league ranks among the nation's elite conferences.

"The ACC, in my opinion, is the best conference in the nation," Maryland center Edwin Williams said. "That's probably being a little biased because I'm in it."

The Atlantic Coast Conference has produced more first-round draft picks and overall selections over the past three years than any other league in the nation.
Conference1st-rd. picksTotal picks
ACC 25 115
SEC 21 113
Big Ten 18 101
Pac-10 11 94
Big 12 8 86
Big East 4 46
Most ACC players and coaches this week didn't go quite as far as Williams, but they certainly took issue with the national perception that the conference is going through a down period.

League players and coaches struggle to come up with reasons the conference's success in the draft hasn't translated to more success on the field. Half of the league's 12 teams have changed coaches in the past two years as they attempted to make the most of their talent.

"Sometimes I think there are stats that just don't quite compute," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "You can kind of make an argument this way or you can make an argument that way by stats. That's one of those things that doesn't quite compute.

"I think the foundation in our league is very, very solid. I think the coaches in our league are very, very solid. The programs in our league are very, very solid. So I would bet you will see more and more people taken in the NFL and more and more BCS wins. The foundation's there. The other part will come."

Perhaps the league hasn't produced any legitimate national title contenders lately because the league's two elite programs Florida State and Miami have fallen upon hard times. Florida State is 14-12 and Miami 12-13 in the past two seasons.

If either of those traditional powers enjoys a renaissance, the perception of the ACC could change in a hurry.

The Atlantic Coast Conference has posted the worst non-conference record against BCS opponents and the second-worst bowl record of any of the so-called "Big Six" conferences over the last two years.
ConferenceNon.-conf. recordNon.-conf. %Bowl recordBowl %
Pac-10 19-13.5947-5.583
SEC 26-18 .591 13-5 .722
Big East 22-17.564 8-2 .800
Big Ten 20-21 .488 5-10 .333
Big 12 16-21.432 8-8 .500
ACC 19-32 .373 6-10 .375
"I think that would make all the difference in the world, if Miami and us get back," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "We'll get back."

The downfall of the Florida programs has brought parity to a league that FSU dominated throughout the 1990s. ACC players and coaches believe their league's balance makes it particularly difficult for an elite team to emerge from their league.

Over the past three years, 63.9 percent of ACC teams have finished the season with winning records, a figure that is tied with the SEC and Big 12 for the best among the "Big Six" leagues. Yet the conference hasn't produced a legitimate national title contender since Florida State fell to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl that ended the 2000 season. Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said the conference's lack of an elite team has affected the national perception of the ACC.

"There's no question, and I think that's wrong," Grobe said. "When you look across the country, there are some conferences that get patted on the back because they have one really good team. I don't think that makes a conference. I think a conference is made up of good players and good coaches that every time you go out on Saturday, you'd better play (well) if you're going to win."

But that's not the only complaint skeptics have about the ACC. The league's poor record in non-conference games against opponents from the "Big Six" conferences and Notre Dame makes it hard for ACC backers to blame everything on parity.

Florida State finished in the top five of the Associated Press poll every year from 1987 to 2000, but the ACC hasn't produced a single top-five team since the end of that streak. Here's a look at the highest-ranked ACC team in the final AP poll each of the last seven years:
2001 Maryland 11
2002 N.C. State 12
2003 Florida State 11
2004 Virginia Tech 10
2005 Virginia Tech 7
2006 Wake Forest 18
2007 Virginia Tech 9
"As far as why we're not winning these out-of-conference games, I don't know what the deal is there," Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper said. "We have to start to get that thing going because as far as talent, we're more talented than any other conference if you go by NFL draft picks. I think we're as good as any conference in the country. Just for whatever reason, we haven't been playing well in out-of-conference games."

Harper cited the first week of the season as a chance for the ACC to gain respect. North Carolina State plays at South Carolina on Aug. 28, while Clemson meets Alabama in the Georgia Dome two nights later. Then again, regular-season victories won't mean much if the ACC fails to deliver in the postseason. Virginia Tech's 24-21 setback against three-point underdog Kansas in the Orange Bowl gave the ACC eight consecutive losses in BCS games.

The ACC's futility in major bowls explains why the conference hasn't had a team ranked higher than seventh in the final AP poll in the past seven seasons. By contrast, regional neighbor the SEC has produced nine top-five teams and three BCS national champions during that stretch. The criticism of the ACC probably won't stop until that BCS skid ends.

"We need to win a BCS game so people won't be saying it," Virginia Tech defensive end Orion Martin said. "They have a right to say it, really, because we haven't won any big games."

The ACC creates plenty of noise when the NFL Draft rolls around each April. The league needs to start making equally strong statements each January.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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