Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: ACC boss challenges teams to step up

PINEHURST, N.C. -- We should know early this year. Maybe as soon as mid-September. The ACC will be applauded or scorned, respected or ridiculed, based on a few results within the first three weeks of the season.

And this time, the expectations have been crystallized.

The 2011 ACC Football Kickoff wrapped up Monday with the league's 12 coaches talking about personnel, turnover, scandal and goals. It was the usual notebook-filling stuff that signals the approach of college football season.

But this two-day event was significant less for how it closed than for how it began: with the ACC commissioner challenging his constituency to get off its underachieving tail and beat somebody.

"Obviously, we need to win more of our high-profile games against nonconference opponents," John Swofford said Sunday. "That's the one thing we haven't done enough of in recent years. We've had some of it, but not enough of it."

The most refreshing part of that quote is Swofford's use of the word "obviously." It is obvious. He knows this is not a new issue. It's been written about, talked about and fretted about for many years.

Still, nobody's stepped up and changed it. So it's being written about, talked about and fretted about again.

"Not as good as it should be," said Virginia Tech receiver Danny Coale, when asked about the national perception of the league. "I think we have a lot of great teams across the board, but it certainly doesn't help when you lose an Orange Bowl game -- and lose by a pretty large margin."

Coale's Hokies have been on the front lines of the conference-respect battle in each of the past two years, and they've fallen short in the biggest matchups. That 40-12 Orange Bowl loss to Stanford was preceded by high-profile -- albeit competitive -- stumbles in opening-day games against Boise State (2010) and Alabama ('09).

So maybe it's best that they step aside and watch this tug of war from afar, at least for a little while. The Hokies will be spectators on the national scene while navigating a feathery September schedule of Appalachian State, East Carolina, Arkansas State and Marshall.

The eyes, as they often do in matters like this, turn instead to the Sunshine State. On Sept. 17, Ohio State visits Miami and Florida State hosts Oklahoma. The Buckeyes' NCAA woes aside, those games have true hat-hanging potential for the ACC.

That same day, Clemson battles Auburn and Maryland plays West Virginia.

"For us to gain the kind of respect we want," Swofford said, "those are the kind of games we need to win going forward."

It's nice to see this acknowledged as a legitimate problem by the man who sets the conference agenda. But the men who have direct control over the outcomes -- the coaches and players -- might not have the firepower to make it happen.

North Carolina lost a ton of good players and is under an NCAA cloud of uncertainty until late October. Georgia Tech's got its own compliance issues. Miami and Maryland are breaking in new coaches and systems. Boston College's annual strength -- offensive line play -- is suddenly one of its biggest question marks. Clemson's coach might be walking the plank. N.C. State let its former All-ACC quarterback walk to Wisconsin. Virginia, Wake Forest and Duke won't begin the season close to the top 25.

That leaves the Hokies, who won't have a prominent nonconference game until bowl season, and the Seminoles, who were the overwhelming choice to win the league.

If you're going to assign one team to meet Swofford's goals, a Florida State squad that beat Florida and South Carolina last year would be a good one.

"I don't think it's a burden," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. "I think it's something you have to embrace and be willing to play those people. [Oklahoma] will be a great challenge, but it's a great opportunity also.

"You can't have great victories unless there's adversity, if people don't doubt you."

Fisher should be happy, then. The ACC, as usual, will open 2011 with plenty of that.

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