We’re back at it, and this time it’s a good hard look at our home conference the Atlantic Coast Conference (aka – Tobacco Road, plus some guys). The first reality of the Conference that we see hit people is a sort of geographic “nonsense” that places Pittsburg, Syracuse and Louisville remotely close to the Atlantic Coast. Maybe with Eastern New York being the northern most mid-Atlantic state… but Western New York has almost nothing to do with the city, and is actually closer to the Rust Belt Great Lakes region. Pittsburgh has always been “eastern” but it’s past most of the mountains and really is an industrial Ohio River city (origin of that river, for the geography challenged) city and that goes for Louisville as well. AND THEN there is the very industrial city on the southern shores of lake Michigan (South Bend, Indiana) that provides teams to the conference in every sport BUT football, Notre Dame.
The Irishman in the Sitting Room
As they say, therein lays the rub. Notre Dame football operates as its own conference. It’s a national football phenom with its own big-name contract with NBC Sports and a national following that often has absolutely nothing to do with any sort of alumni status with the university. To many folks in college football fandom, Notre Dame is “the core” of college football. That gives the program a monster level of negotiating power, and a serious individual revenue flow that it neither share nor part with. No rational fiduciary would, either. We’ll talk about that later, but for now let’s leave Notre Dame on the edge of the basic football analysis – it’ll come in as a hypothetical and a poll question. (Yes, we are going to make up for the lack of a Big XII poll by hitting you up twice in this article.)
The Current Situation is Unbalanced and Chaotic
On the surface the ACC seems to be fairly stable. The conference has been through three expansion/departure periods over the last generation, most notably the 2004/5 (Miami, Tech, BC) and 2013/4 (Pitt, Cuse, Louisville) pulses. The conference lost Maryland (an original member) to the B1G back in 2013/14 and the Cardinals were the replacement balance. Of course, Notre Dame joined in 2013 for everything but football.
The following is the current grid for the football conference:
The ACC for 2022 - 2025
|Boston College Eagles||C+||Once a real threat and big winner in the Big East, now a middling player|
|Clemson Tigers||A||As of now - until the Nictator leaves Alabama and Dabo hangs in SC - this is the only playoff viable team in the ACC|
|North Carolina State Wolfpack||B+||We saw a slight resurgence last season. They can routinely challenge for the Atlantic if Clemson is down|
|Florida State Seminoles||C+||Once great - now struggling - lots of money - lots of NIL potential - will improve or be a mess permanently|
|Louisville Cardinals||C+||Another Basketball program with an occasional good football season|
|Syracuse Orange||C||Most people do not even know where it is - old - worn - outdated - like most of New York State|
|Wake Forest Demon Deacons||B+||This season was a surprise - ceiling is still a B in general but there is no telling how long it will last|
|Duke Blue Devils||C||Great coach fired, new coach unknown, rarely above their B ceiling|
|Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets||C-||Georgia Tech's floor is where it is - the ceiling isn't better than a B - though|
|Miami (FL) Hurricanes||B-||New coach - lots of hype - little return on that investment - with the money and NIL potential still a high ceiling|
|North Carolina Tar Heels||B||A basketball school with a football team that can win the Costal but not beat a healthy Clemson|
|Pittsburgh Panthers||B+||Nardo is a drama queen on the sideline but challenges for the Coastal often and win in a down Clemson season.|
|Virginia Cavaliers||C||A basketball school that doesn't really give a rip about football - at all|
|Virginia Tech Hokies||C+||New coach - lots of history - failed next guy - hoping this is the floor - the ceiling is at least an A-|
The main issue with this grid is that it is missing three critical items; conference program strength balance, football relevance, and two teams making it a competitive conference with the SEC. Let’s take these issues in order.
Before we jump into the three issues, it’s pretty obvious that the ACC is NOT, and I mean this sincerely, a football conference. Notre Dame’s non-participation in the football side of the conference is a stark testament to that fundamental truth. The ACC is seemingly organized and envisioned as a Basketball Conference where football drives some revenues but action on the court is the prestige sport. The ACC is also dominant in many non-revenue sports like baseball, softball, women’s basketball, Track and Field… etc.
First the biggest problem with the ACC’s current configuration is football program strength, consistency, and playoff viability. The problem is that most of the ACC’s football programs are essentially mid-major programs with dreams. The stark reality is that only one football program is on any CFB Committee radar screen and that is Clemson. Currently, no Coastal program would ever be considered unless there were some seriously extraordinary circumstances. Right now, the Atlantic Division is dominated by Clemson – with the exception of last season where they had a major early season QB issue. By the end of the season the Tigers were back to firing on all cylinders and there is serious doubt that they will end up 2022 where they ended 2021. This past season might be an exception for a good long while.
Let’s take a stab at the second and third issues of football relevance and SEC competition viability, by looking at the teams in each division. Then we’ll build a “better league”.
Knocking Down the Coastal Division
The likelihood of any 2022 breakout for the middle of the pack is pretty small for most of the conference. The Coastal Division is unsettled and going to be difficult to see clearly. The coaching changes at Virginia Tech, Duke, Miami, and UVA over the past seasons have pulled those programs into unknown and unpredictable territory. We’ll take the program notes in alphabetical order since there is no really rational way to rank them at this point:
Duke Blue Devils
Duke parted company with 14-year coach David Cutcliffe. It was supposed to be a mutual parting of the ways, but the reality is that his contract was “maturing” and there wasn’t going to be a renewal. The last few seasons Cutcliffe managed to hang on to a decent quarterback and get something of a defense working. The problem remains, however, that Duke is a basketball program with little real interest or investment in football. That focus has always hurt the football program and starved it for cash and attention. Look for Duke to sink back to the bottom of the Coastal trough for a while.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
It’s been a few years since the Paul Johnson Era ended and threat of the triple option came to town to confound many a defensive coordinator including the great Bud Foster (who never really figured out how to defend it). The Jackets just have never recovered much ground, and their recruiting and player quality has never risen above mid-major levels. Which is probably a big reason why Johnson just kept pegging away with the triple option. It was a system that allowed two-star players to hang with three- and four-star squads. The Jackets finished 2nd from last in the division last season with little prospect of doing better this season.
Miami (FL) Hurricanes
Miami has been all media hype and little delivery for over a decade and a half, now. There is always the bloom of expectations and then a bust of injuries, performance, and behavior issues that have plagued the program since before the Al Golden Era. The parade of alumni superstar head coaches who strutted in with high hopes and then were ushered out the door with golden parachutes and flaming seats hasn’t helped much. Both Mark Richt and Manny Diaz sat on hot seats before their first games, and never managed to tamp down the fire. New head coach Mario Cristobal is in all probability in no better shape. He’ll have little time to perform to expectations, and probably little more influence in the eventual outcome.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Mack Brown, the Coach with the Golden Tongue, took over a collapsing program and pumped some new life (or happy gas, dunno which) into the rapidly foundering ship of goats. North Carolina is a basketball school with a football program that rates a bit better on the recognition and success scale than Duke’s but not a ton better. Brown at least brought some energy and Sam Howell to the table, and for a little while the program was a decent contender for the Coastal title and pogy bait for the Clemson Tigers in Charlotte the first weekend in December. With Howell leaving and more of his top players aging out, Brown’s challenge will be figuring out how to keep the burner lit. The bottom of the division was not where Mack wanted to be, but it’s where he ended up. His seat is warming but it’s likely to be a candle instead of a blow torch that heats it.
Pat Narduzzi has lost everyone. Well nearly everyone. Kenny Pickett will get drafted in a reasonably good position. There were lots of really good seniors on both sides of the line. The Panthers had a really good team over the past few seasons, regardless of how we feel about Nardo’s sideline antics. Can he recover from the ultimate killer of all above average programs; eligibility? Time will tell but for now Pitt could be good, or really bad. Anyone predicting either would be fooling themselves.
Brennan Armstrong is still there, at quarterback. That’s about it. The Wahoos are a brand-new coaching staff in search of a team to staff it. All of that goes with this. Like Carolina and Duke, UVA is a Basketball program. Actually, it’s nearly an everything BUT football school. They excel at non-revenue sports like Lacrosse (both men’s and women’s), men’s basketball, men’s and women’s soccer, and baseball. It’s just football they don’t seem to have much use for. Bronco Mendenhall’s non-fit, and Tony Elliot taking the helm might do something, or it might just go where Bronco and his predecessor Mike London went… out the door.
Virginia Tech Hokies
The good thing to say about our Hokies is that the team is largely intact. The coaching staff is not, however. The hiring of long-time assistant coach Brent Pry and his staff of similarly experienced assistants (with the exception of one short term HC in FCS) is a real risk. There are benefits and also negatives to taking this big a flyer. There are quite a few football knowledgeable Hokie fans who are skeptical bordering on downright negative in their assessments of Whit’s offseason moves to nearly completely restaff Hokie football. There is certainly a lot of enthusiasm for the new folks at the helm, but the proof is still elusory. This was a major program reset at the end of a failed rebuild after the transition from a declining program. No one should expect much in the way of miracles.
There are just no real dominant teams in the analytical pile. If you count last season then maybe Pitt and Miami, but nobody knows about Miami and Pitt is starting over.
The Atlantic Goes by Rank for this One
The Atlantic division is arguably the cream of the ACC for this year coming up. If you take the entire ACC as a whole, of the top five teams in the conference three are Atlantic division teams, and of those three they occupy the first 4 slots. Only Pitt in 2021 seemed to be able to rise to the #1 position. Miami even with a 5-3 conference record fired their coach. But that’s the mess of the Coastal. The Atlantic looks pretty stable for now.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
For now, Wake finds itself in a strange and unfamiliar position. It has the same coach who has been steadily building the program for the last several seasons. The Deacs were ranked 15th last season, and don’t show a major loss of talent or coaching to suggest that they won’t be good again this season. Success builds on success, so as Clemson reignites the fight for the top of the conference will be the top three 2021 teams in the Atlantic.
North Carolina State Wolfpack
Another season with above average results for the Wolfpack. They ended the season ranked 20th and haven’t really been hit with any major changes. They seem to be running a fairly smooth conveyor of decent level recruits. Their finish in front of Clemson for the #2 Atlantic spot in 2021 was a pleasant surprise for them. As the Tigers regain their offensive footing, however, things will change.
2021 was a real mess for the Tigers in the beginning of the season. Their offense, usually brutally efficient with whatever “quarterback” that is available is still generally a winner. When their QB is a superstar, the team vaults up to untouchable status. Dabo Swinney has established himself as the #1 coach in the league. The problem is that he’s lost Brent Venables and the Tiger defense is going to be an issue this season, no matter how they’ve recovered some of their offensive chops. I look for a three-way fight between NC State, Wake, and Clemson for this season’s Atlantic title, and at the moment Clemson is not favored.
All that I have to say here, is Basketball. Louisville football might be good or it might be terrible or it might just dither around mediocre. Without a star QB it’s just average and will probably stay that way for a while.
Florida State Seminoles
They did better this season with new coaching and some revamped player personnel, but the program still has a long way to go to get out of the bottom of the middle of the league. Will the fan base have the patience? That’s doubtful. Miami’s fans don’t, either.
They give us fits on occasion and are an old Big East Rival. Old is the operative word, here. Western New York is old, worn out, and drained of capital. The university has prestige and some notoriety, but most of it is all distant history. The coaching “hot seat” here is more like a warm chair, and any changes are going to be slow in coming.
Boston College Eagles
Boston College started off like they were going to go somewhere. Then they hit the ACC like a toy balloon in a cactus farm. They finished 6-6 but only a sad 2-6 in the ACC. Will they get better? The only operative word on that question is “maybe”. I am sure that they really don’t want to be the basement of the division, but it is a tad better than being in the basement of the conference. Duke gets that dubious note.
That’s the stage for this season in the ACC, how about the future?
There are undoubtedly things brewing in the ACC tea kettle, and one of the biggest teabags is Irish. There was much speculation as to the motivation of the new leadership of the conference to rejecting the proposed playoff expansion and 12 or 16-Team tournament. Jim Phillips’s statement regarding player safety and schedules seems pretty lame considering the amount of money the conference stands to make by cancelling existing media contracts (the ACC’s is horrid and lame – which is another topic for another Summer article) as all of NCAA football reorganizes and revamps its post season schedules and bowl presences.
Is There More Tea and Milk? The Irish Guy isn’t Leaving Yet.
The reality is that Notre Dame as the only Independent with enough pull to count as an entire conference, is screaming at the top of its leprechaun lungs for an expanded playoff. Frankly, no team capable of winning its conference should be balking or ignoring the plan. The holdout continues to be the ACC, and the reality is that the Fighting Irish are at the heart of the argument. The ACC wants the program to fully invest in the conference, and quit playing games with their football program. That shared revenue potential is huge, and the media rights to the sporting events worth a serious amount of coin to all involved. It seems that Phillips is trying to use the playoffs as some sort of bait to get Notre Dame to commit to ACC football. Eventually, the demand for full conference participation for all playoff teams will provide enough pressure for Notre Dame to have to agree to some sort of football conference membership. At least that’s what Jim Phillips seems to be thinking at the moment.
The ACC Drags Its Feet for... Reasons...
Let’s indulge Mr. Phillips and rebuild an ACC with Notre Dame in the mix. The first reality is the existing East/West structure isn’t going to work. It would be better to divide the league North and South using the state line between Virginia and North Carolina as a boundary between the divisions.
There is a problem, though. Imbalance between the leagues. The addition of Notre Dame to a division leaves 15 teams in the league. That means either shedding a team or getting one from somewhere else. The Big XII contains the most logical team to fill in the void for the North Division and that’s West Virginia. It’s ready-made excitement for the region, plus a renewed Big East competition that would be very healthy for the ACC. Maybe as it slides further into mid-major status the Big XII could pick up independent Army which would really fit the “no defense here” attitude of the league’s teams. Some folks had thought of poaching Vanderbilt out of the SEC, but I don’t see that program giving up the revenues that are promised.
There was the thought of the Hokies taking a hike, paying the $30 bills to the ACC and heading for the B1G like they should have back in 2004. The revenues from that media contract would pay the money back in a few seasons at worst. For now, though, let’s take the route of expansion to 16 teams with West Virginia being added to the North Division.
Taking a Shot at “IT” and a Couple of Polls
Without too much more analysis, let’s take a look at the hypothetical league with ND and West Virginia added to the mix:
Hypothetical ACC after 2025
|Boston College Eagles||C+||No real improvement and unlikely to ever rise above their B/B+ ceiling|
|Notre Dame||A||Yes, it sets up a more or less Clemson/ND face-off for a while (dreams of Miami v FSU return)|
|Louisville Cardinals||C+||Still a middling football program with a B/B+ ceiling|
|Pittsburgh Panthers||B||In this configuration Pitt drops to a B and will probably not challenge many times|
|Syracuse Orange||C||The Orange will always be average from old -obsolete -unknown western New York|
|Virginia Cavaliers||C-||The Cavs in this group will need more than a miracle QB to go anywhere.|
|Virginia Tech Hokies||B||This grouping takes away an easier Costal but Costals do not count in the grander scheme. Beat ND go to Playoffs.|
|New Program West Virgina||B||As the Big XII continues to ablate ino Mid-Major status WVU is prime for a pickup of a revamped ACC (Army goes to Big XII)|
|Clemson Tigers||A||As long as Dabo is there so there will be the Tigers|
|Duke Blue Devils||C||We'll see if they get up off the floor after firing Cutcliffe - no Coach K means unknown basketball quotient too|
|Florida State Seminoles||C+||Maybe we'll see how they do this season because their ceiling is still in the A range|
|Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets||C||The Jackets are likely to stay in the middle of the pack and out of the playoffs for a long time|
|Miami (FL) Hurricanes||B-||They have a good QB and a new coach. No telling their ceiling is hyped but higher than their B-|
|North Carolina Tar Heels||B||Basketball Jones - they got a basketball Jones|
|North Carolina State Wolfpack||B||Sort of the Pitt or Tech of the other division - doldrums|
|Wake Forest Demon Deacons||C+||Whatever they had in 2021 they won't after 2022 - Ceiling B+ Floor C-|
So, now for your challenges. There are two questions, regardless of your answer to the first, try really hard to think of the second possibility. Change is absolutely going to happen, so speculating on what it will be is something fun for the off season.
1. Will Notre Dame finally join the ACC, fully?
This poll is closed
A. No – they’ve always been a traditional B1G oriented team, and they just have too much revenue on their own to share with other teams, regardless of the playoff situation.
B. Yes – especially if the expanded playoff organization comes up with enough monetary weight to force all teams into conferences with very limited at large exposure to a 12 or 16-team playoff scheme.
C. It’s still just speculation at this point. Really, who wants Notre Dame coming in and dominating the recruiting and championship opportunities? It’d be Clemson and Notre Dame in Charlotte forever.
Now for question two and it’s not as straight forward as you would think.
2. Would this league configuration be enough media draw and on-field competition to challenge the SEC and B1G for talent and viewers?
This poll is closed
A. You have to be kidding. There are probably only six really viable playoff teams in that conference, and it will always be a mediocre football league even with the addition of ND
B. The SEC as configured for 2025 will just swamp college football draw off most of the big-name talent for huge NIL contracts, and everyone else will struggle. The ACC has no real chance.
C. Who knows? With more attractive teams, schedules and competition the ACC might just rescue itself from being mediocre and boring like it has been for most of eternity.
The changes are coming, and the ACC will either be a part of it or be left behind as the top teams drain off into more lucrative settings. Either the ACC joins the parade to real playoffs or it slides slowly into mid-major status. Perhaps that’s what many of the programs really want. We’ll see as the post-COVID reorganization era smoke clears after the next few seasons.
Spring Game is April 16th and it costs, this time.
The next few articles will cover some of the moves in the Mid-Major leagues but not in this detail. There will eventually be some form of separation, but we’ll save that speculation for the wrap up articles.