ACC football 2010: League should be much improved

The Final Frontier means many things to many folk. For Mr. Spock groupies, it's the fifth Star Trek flick. For metal heads, it's Iron Maiden's upcoming album. For distance runners, it's breaking two hours in the marathon.

The Final Frontier for the ACC is football.

And for a conference that hasn't produced a top-five team, let alone a national champion, since 2000, this could well be a landmark season.

No fewer than six squads — Virginia Tech, Miami, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Florida State and Clemson — have realistic top-10 aspirations.

All return their starting quarterback and, Clemson excepted, starting running back. All play at least one marquee non-conference game that could prove their merit.

Sure, this is more optimistic than a Joel Osteen sermon. The ACC's last national football champion was Florida State in 1999, its last top-five team the Seminoles in 2000, when they lost the title game to Oklahoma.

No ACC team has reached the championship contest since, and the last time two teams from the league cracked the final top 10s of both major polls was 1997, with Florida State and North Carolina.

"You want to be in that (national title) conversation," ACC commissioner John Swofford said at the conference's preseason media function. "While Virginia Tech was not in the (championship) game, it's only been two years ago that they were third (in the final Bowl Championship Series standings) and a possibility for that game. ...

"With the BCS national championship game becoming what it has become, and it's huge, whether you like the BCS or don't like the BCS, the BCS championship game has become huge in terms of a sporting event in this country, and it almost overloads the perception of the teams and conferences that may not be involved in that game."

The perception of ACC football when the league expanded in 2004 was that Florida State would own the Atlantic Division, Miami the Coastal. They had, after all, won seven national championships between them.

But since expansion, the Hurricanes are 25-23 in league play and have yet to appear in an ACC title game. The Seminoles are 27-21 with one appearance — this after going 90-6 in their first 12 ACC seasons.

So, the flawed thinking goes, if Miami and Florida State are down, the ACC must be down.

"I think our strength in recent years has been with our depth," Swofford said. "I think we've had competitively more depth than we've ever had before. We've had some terrific out-of-conference wins. ...

"But I'm not sure that, as a conference, you get the full measure of respect and attention unless you have a team or two that are serious possibilities, through a good part of the season, for a national championship — be that right or wrong."

Swofford is spot-on. Depth and parity, indeed, defined recent ACC seasons.

Picked by media to finish last in the Atlantic Division in 2006, Wake Forest defeated Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game. Sheer pandemonium ruled in 2008 when all 12 teams lost at least three league games, and 10 finished 5-3 or 4-4.

No Bowl Subdivision conference in any season can match that parity.

Meanwhile, other ACC sports continue to collect national championships like pack rats do clutter. As Swofford understandably boasted at last week's preseason football media days, ACC teams won a conference-record eight national titles during the 2009-10 academic year.

Swofford didn't recite the list, but here it is: Virginia men's soccer and women's crew, Boston College ice hockey, Maryland women's lacrosse, North Carolina field hockey and women's soccer, and Duke men's lacrosse and men's basketball.

There's more. For the third consecutive season and fourth time in five, at least two ACC baseball teams advanced to the College World Series. Virginia has reached the national men's tennis semifinals four times in the last five years. Thanks to Queen Harrison's historic double in the 100- and 400-meter hurdles, Virginia Tech's women's outdoor track team placed fifth at the NCAA meet.

Such widespread excellence fueled the ACC's best-ever showing in the Directors' Cup all-sports standings as Virginia, Florida State, North Carolina and Duke finished among the top 10. Swofford toasted that feat during his news conference, along with the ACC's five-year run of leading Bowl Subdivision conferences in combined football graduation rate.

Here's guessing most ACC fans would swap a graduate or three for more All-Americans.

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/teeltime. Sign up for text alerts by texting "BIGSPORTS" to 71593.

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