Stacked Deck

Adding Miami and Virginia Tech ups the ante. Is any conference better?

The Acc

September 03, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Trev Alberts was leaving FedEx Field last week after watching Virginia Tech give top-ranked Southern California a scare in the season-opening Black Coaches Association Classic. The Hokies wound up losing by 11 points, but not before proving a point that Alberts had been making all summer.

"People said going into this year that Virginia Tech was probably the sixth-best team in the ACC, and they might not help the conference," said Alberts, a top ESPN college football analyst. "If that's the sixth-best team in the ACC, and they played the No. 1 team in the country like that?"

The Atlantic Coast Conference did more than expand its budgets and boundaries last year when the 50-year-old league announced that it was adding Miami and Virginia Tech and, eventually Boston College. The ACC changed its focus and bet its future on football.

In welcoming the Hurricanes and Hokies to an already-solid nine-team league, the ACC is counting on a rather swift return on its investment: hoping to become, in the course of this season, the best football league in the country.

It has even got Miami coach Larry Coker excited.

"The atmosphere is a little more electric, I think, because it's a new challenge," said Coker, whose Hurricanes will open their first ACC season next Friday night against longtime-rival Florida State at home in the Orange Bowl. "You like the newness. You like the freshness."

Compared with the Big East, the league Miami left behind, Coker said, "It's really a step up ... another level."

Coming off a year in which ACC teams won five of six bowl games - the only loss being Florida State's 16-14 defeat to Miami in the Orange Bowl - the league's coaches say that things were on the upswing before expansion was approved last fall.

"I think our league was very underrated," North Carolina State coach Chuck Amato said. "We had some awfully good coaches in this league. We had some awfully good teams in this league."

But in judging how the ACC is rated among the country's top football conferences this season - specifically the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12 - the question is whether the ACC's strength at the top is offset by its weakness at the bottom.

Throwing out some cards

"I always say to look at a conference, take the top team out and the bottom team out," said Alberts, a former Nebraska All-American. "If you do that in the ACC, you're still left with either Miami or Florida State, Clemson, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia Tech, N.C. State, and we haven't even talked about Boston College yet. It's not a basketball conference anymore."

While some have jumped on the ACC's bandwagon, others want to see how the season plays out before proclaiming it the No. 1 football league in the country.

ESPN analyst Craig James is one of them.

"I think they need to prove it first," James said. "On paper, they look like they have a chance. Definitely they're going to be better. In preseason, I look at the five conferences and say, `OK, who has the most really good teams that I think of right now?

"I look at the SEC as being the best - LSU and Georgia, Florida and Tennessee. The ACC has Miami and Florida State, and they have a couple of more that could get there, but those are two they have right now. The Pac-10 has one, USC, though Cal could get there. Until we start seeing them perform, I would say that the SEC is the best and the ACC has a chance."

The Miami-Florida State game is certainly the league's marquee matchup, and it will be for the foreseeable future, but other big games will follow: Clemson at Florida State on Sept. 25, Florida State at Maryland on Oct. 30, Clemson at Miami on Nov. 6 and Miami at Virginia on Nov. 13.

All could factor into this year's national championship race.

"You have to look at it like this: If you beat Miami and Florida State, then you're in the national championship game," said Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, who will have to do that - on the road - to get the Tigers into a BCS game.

With a postseason league championship game still a year away - the ACC has to await the arrival of Boston College before becoming eligible under NCAA rules - this year will be about spreading the message of the league's new-found status.

A new television package, a reported seven-year, $260 million deal, will also help spread the wealth among schools that weren't exactly pleading poverty because of the league's lucrative basketball deal.

"It was already a great league," said Duke coach Ted Roof, who took over the downtrodden Blue Devils during the middle of last season. "Now it's the premier football league in the country."

It now has the biggest fan base, something Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen sees as a byproduct of expansion.

"We're going to be the most powerful media league in the country," Friedgen said. "You are truly an Atlantic Coast conference now, going from Miami to Boston. You want exposure to recruits.

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