By MIKE HERNDON
There’s nothing worse, the old saying goes, than new money.
The recently rich usually don’t know how to handle it. They buy gaudy crap. They flaunt it when they don’t have to. They exaggerate their wealth when they should let it speak for itself.
And so we welcome the Atlantic Coast Conference to the “best college football conference in the nation” debate.
The football coaches in that basketball league actually have a point. It was just kind of funny hearing them try to beat us over the head with it at ACC Media Days.
- Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher: “We’ve established ourselves as, I think, the premier conference in college football.”
- Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson: “We are in the best division in the best conference in all of college football.”
- Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall: “Honored to be a part of what I consider the best league in college football to this point.”
- Boston College coach Steve Addazio: “We are in the ACC, the best conference in college football. That’s not even debatable anymore. That’s backed up by every stat you can look at.”
In 2016, we can make a case that it’s true.
While there was little debate that the SEC was the nation’s top football conference as it won eight of the previous 10 national titles, it had started losing ground over the last few years and was undeniably down last season aside from Alabama (I offered some explanations for this in an earlier column). No SEC team aside from Alabama finished with more than nine wins and only four teams in the league, including the Crimson Tide, had conference records better than .500.
The ACC meanwhile, had three teams with 10 or more wins and six – nearly half the league – with nine or more. Exactly half the league had conference marks of 5-3 or better. It also outpaced the SEC in bowl season, with a 9-3 bowl record (including the national championship game) compared to 6-7 for the SEC. Head-to-head in bowls, the ACC beat the SEC in three out of four pairings.
The bottom of the SEC may have been slightly stronger – no SEC team was worse than 4-8 — but that’s like arguing that you’re going to win the Super Bowl because you have the best backup tight end in the league.
To say you’ve “established ourselves as the premier conference in college football,” however, begs for more than one year of dominance.
Fisher notes that the ACC has won two of the last four national championships and has been the home of two of the last four Heisman Trophy winners. Four ACC coaches (Fisher, Dabo Swinney, Mark Richt and Bobby Petrino) are among the top 15 active college coaches in terms of winning percentage.
Of course, if we widen the scope slightly to the top 25, then the ACC and SEC have the same number of coaches represented – four. You can make statistics say what you want by where you draw your arbitrary lines.
Let’s take a closer look at the other season that’s propping up the ACC argument – 2013. The conference had two great teams that year – 14-0 national champ Florida State and 11-2 Clemson – one 10-4 team with a great offense, Duke, and one 9-4 team, Miami. The rest of the conference was mediocre. You’ll remember that Duke, which essentially had no defense, won the Coastal that year and fell 45-7 to FSU in the conference title game.
The ACC that year was essentially Florida State, Clemson and everybody else.
It is also debatable whether the conference can sustain last year’s success. The ACC returned a bevy of talented quarterbacks in 2016 — Deshaun Watson, Mitch Trubisky, Lamar Jackson, Nathan Peterman, Brad Kaaya – while over half the SEC had to find new starters and then watched five of them go down with injuries. This year, it’s the SEC that has experienced, talented quarterbacks returning while four of the five ACC stars mentioned above were selected in the NFL draft.
We can’t blame the ACC’s coaches for talking up their league. That’s what Media Days are for. They’ve earned the right to gloat a bit with last year’s success – Lord knows the SEC has done more than its share over the last decade.
But there is no “not even debatable” best conference in college football anymore. There’s room for plenty of debate – and that’s a good thing for the sport. The ACC now has a place in that argument.
Categories: College football