Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Maybe league's getting better

Today, we unveil the 2009 college football preview section.

As usual, the tab includes features, profiles, predictions, capsules and opinions on area teams and players, plus a national glance as well.

But this year, you also might be surprised to learn what's not in it.

That's right. The seemingly annual article about why the ACC stinks is missing.

There's a reason for that. Because now, at long last, we can safely say it:

The ACC does not stink. ... At least not badly enough to write an article about said stinkiness.

Consider this deodorization a monumental accomplishment in the John Swofford regime. The perception of his league has been sour throughout the expansion era, never more so than after the first two weeks of 2008.

To that point, every morsel of criticism heaped on the conference was deserved. The ACC's preseason darling, Clemson, had gotten drilled by Alabama on national TV. Virginia Tech had already lost to East Carolina. South Carolina had shut out N.C. State 34-0.

Maryland had fallen to Middle Tennessee State. North Carolina had struggled at home to beat McNeese State. Miami had only put up three points in a blowout loss to Florida.

But then something happened.

Things started turning around, ever so slightly. Mild victories came in. UNC clubbed Rutgers on a Thursday night. Maryland beat ranked California. Duke topped Navy.

The league built some further momentum in Week 4, when Miami dumped Texas A&M on the road, the Wolfpack cooled off ECU and Georgia Tech shredded Mississippi State.

By that time, most analysts had already written off the conference, and that's understandable. But for once, the teams in the league seemed to be getting better as the season progressed.

Ten ACC teams played in bowl games. And while a 4-6 postseason record didn't stamp things the right way, two important things happened:

1. The ACC was competitive in all but one bowl game. Five of the league's six losses were by a touchdown or less; and

2. Virginia Tech won the Orange Bowl, giving the league its first BCS victory since Florida State in 2000.

Had the latter not occurred, you can bet the Hokies would not be sitting at No. 7 in The Associated Press preseason poll right now, even though they'd have the exact same players on the field. That's how these things work. Perceptions carry over, and perceptions are vital in an era when voters and computers decide the national champion.

The ACC has four teams in the AP preseason poll this year: the Hokies, Georgia Tech (No. 15), Florida State (18) and UNC (21). That's up from three at this time last year, two the year before that.

That's what shapes a conference's image: national-caliber strength in the upper half. Boston College, Maryland, Wake Forest and Virginia could all fade this year -- a real possibility, given their personnel losses -- but the country's perception of the league will continue to improve as long as the Georgia Techs, North Carolinas, Miamis, Florida States, and N.C. States do.

Of course, nothing helps a conference more than having one of its representatives make a run for a national title.

But that's a story in itself.

One that's addressed in today's college football preview section, in fact.

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