Historic Saturday is a chance for ACC to improve image

FootballAtlantic Coast ConferenceCollege BasketballCollege SportsFlorida State SeminolesVirginia CavaliersAuburn Tigers

As Valentine's Day gifts go, it wasn't bling, dark chocolate or racy lingerie. But when the ACC unveiled this season's football schedule Feb. 14, no date matched the appeal of Sept. 17.

Sure enough, the day has emerged as advertised: an historic opportunity for a conference founded on basketball to show a football pulse against the heavyweights.

Florida State-Oklahoma, Clemson-Auburn, Miami-Ohio State, Maryland-West Virginia.

Four games, four ranked opponents, all at home. I doubt any league has hosted as many top-25, non-conference teams on the same day. I'm sure none needs a reputation boost more than the ACC.

Not to suggest its football players wear toe tags instead of cleats. The league is competitive, entertaining and produces NFL draft choices by the bushel. The ACC's 50 bowl bids since 2005 trail only the Southeastern Conference's 51.

But even commissioner John Swofford concedes that's not enough to forge and sustain national relevance. Acclaim comes only with marquee victories, and there the ACC is lacking.

Conference teams have lost 31 consecutive games to non-league opponents ranked among the top five at kickoff. The last such win was Florida State's thumping of No. 4 Florida in 2000.

The ACC boasts only five top-10 conquests in the last decade, most recently in 2009, when Miami defeated No. 8 Oklahoma, and Florida State upended No. 7 BYU. The last conference team to finish a season among the national top five was the Seminoles in 2000.

Florida State carries the ACC banner again Saturday, and the No. 5 Seminoles can stamp themselves national contenders by beating No. 1 Oklahoma. Meanwhile, Clemson can ease the pressure on coach Dabo Swinney — the Tigers were 6-7 last year and haven't endured consecutive losing seasons since 1975 and '76 — by besting No. 21 Auburn.

New coaches Al Golden at Miami and Randy Edsall at Maryland can bank beaucoup goodwill with victories over No. 17 Ohio State and No. 18 West Virginia, respectively.

The four games are returns from last September, when the ACC contingent was winless on the road — Clemson's overtime loss at then-No. 16 Auburn was the most competitive.

Those defeats were part of another season that frustrated conference officials. ACC teams were 2-12 versus outside top-25 opponents, the lone wins Florida State over South Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and North Carolina State over West Virginia in the Champs Bowl.

Virginia Tech's Orange Bowl crash against Stanford dropped the ACC's Bowl Championship Series record to a national-worst 2-11. Each of the other five major conferences has won at least six BCS games.

Saturday can't repair the ACC's football image, but this unrivaled convergence certainly could start the process.

Never has the ACC hosted four ranked non-conference teams on the same day. The previous high was three, in the ACC's 1953 inaugural.

On Nov. 21, Maryland blanked No. 11 Alabama 21-0, Clemson fell to No. 14 Auburn 45-19, and N.C. State lost to No. 19 West Virginia 61-0.

The ACC needs better Saturday.

With the possible exception of Oklahoma, the opponents aren't daunting. Auburn was lucky to survive Utah State, Ohio State couldn't shake Toledo, and West Virginia trailed Norfolk State at halftime before awakening at intermission.

Indeed, Clemson, Maryland and Miami are favored, albeit by slim margins. And three wins Saturday would be unprecedented.

Eight times the ACC has enjoyed two victories over ranked teams on the same day, most recently Sept. 29, 2007, when Maryland defeated No. 10 Rutgers, and Florida State bested No. 22 Alabama.

When Swofford offered his annual state-of-the-union at the conference's August football kickoff, he extolled, as always, the league's depth, bowl bids and draft picks.

But unprompted by media, he acknowledged the ACC's shortcomings.

"Obviously we need to win more of our high-profile games against non-conference opponents," he said. "That's the one thing we haven't done enough of in recent years … and for us to gain the kind of respect we want for Atlantic Coast Conference football, those are the kind of games we will need to win."

If not Saturday, if not on its home fields, then when and where does the conference make a stand?

David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

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