Bowls offer six league teams a chance to salvage some respect for the league, but nothing can erase a regular season in which the ACC lost every meaningful non-conference encounter and saw a charter member bolt for the Big Ten.
As long as smart people don't do stupid things out of fear, panic and/or greed, the ACC will not fracture.
Indeed, the ACC reacted swiftly and wisely to Maryland's exit last month, snatching Louisville's renowned basketball, emerging football and world-class facilities from the Big East. In welcoming the Cardinals, commissioner John Swofford said he's never felt better about the league's future.
But neither the impending arrivals of Louisville, Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, nor Swofford's public optimism mask the conference's substandard football product, a product that affects image, television ratings and media rights fees.
Swofford and other ACC officials were understandably ecstatic in mid-September when Notre Dame agreed to a football scheduling collaboration and full membership for other sports. None could have envisioned the subsequent weeks and months.
The league's best team, Florida State, squandered its No. 3 ranking and a 16-point halftime lead in a loss at North Carolina State. Non-conference defeats exposed Coastal Division stalwarts Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.
Then came Black Monday, Nov. 19, when cash-strapped Maryland announced it was chasing the Big Ten's projected television riches, and likely Coastal champion Miami self-imposed a postseason ban.
Five days later, desperately needing credibility, the ACC endured a shredding from its long-time foil, the SEC. Four games, four beatdowns.
Georgia 42, Georgia Tech 10.
Florida 37, Florida State 26.
Granted, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech were decided underdogs. But Florida State and Clemson were favored and playing at home, with the Tigers facing South Carolina's backup quarterback and tailback.
Losing to Georgia, Florida and South Carolina dropped the ACC to 0-10 this season against non-conference opponents ranked among the Associated Press' top 25 at kickoff. Nine of the defeats were by double-digit margins, the exception North Carolina's 39-34 setback at then-No. 19 Louisville.
Since last Sept. 17, when Miami defeated No. 17 Ohio State, ACC teams have lost 16 consecutive games to ranked non-league foes.
And that's not all.
The ACC's 14-21 record versus fellow Bowl Subdivision conferences marks its worst since 1996. ACC teams are 4-4 against the Big East, 2-10 combined against the SEC, Big Ten, Pacific 12 and Big 12 — the victories were Virginia over Penn State, and Clemson over Auburn.
Was the Cavaliers' 17-16 escape of a Nittany Lions squad that finished 8-4 the ACC's non-conference highlight? Or was it Virginia Tech's 37-0 rout of Bowling Green (8-4), or Clemson's 52-27 dusting of Ball State (9-3)?
The pickins' are slim.
Thanks to Miami and North Carolina's postseason ineligibility, Georgia Tech reached the ACC championship game despite a 6-6 record. The Yellow Jackets' season included a 49-28 home bludgeoning from Middle Tennessee State, which lost to Championship Subdivision McNeese State and by 42 points to the SEC's Mississippi State.
Not surprisingly, Florida State and Georgia Tech played to tens of thousands of empty seats in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday — actual attendance was far less than the announced 64,778. The Seminoles failed to score after halftime but held on, 21-15.
Florida State (11-2) heads now to the Orange Bowl to face Mid-American Conference champion Northern Illinois (12-1). Snobbish fans blinded by pedigree lament the 16th-ranked Huskies' BCS inclusion, but if the Seminoles cop a similar attitude, quarterback Jordan Lynch, third nationally in total offense, and his mates will make them pay.
Lose this game — ACC teams are 2-13 on the BCS stage — and there's no measuring the ridicule that will be dumped upon Florida State and the conference.
The league's other statement bowl is the Chick-fil-A, where Clemson (10-2) faces ninth-ranked LSU (10-2). The ACC's most recent top-10, non-conference victories were in 2009 — Miami over No. 8 Oklahoma, and Florida State over No. 7 Brigham Young — and the last conquest of a top-10 SEC foe was Clemson's 2003 Peach Bowl upset of No. 7 Tennessee.
None of the ACC's other bowl opponents is ranked. Virginia Tech (6-6) plays Rutgers (9-3) in the Russell Athletic; North Carolina State (7-5) faces Vanderbilt (8-4) in the Music City; Duke (6-6) encounters Cincinnati (9-3) in the Belk, and Georgia Tech (6-7) meets Southern California (7-5) in the Sun.
Regardless of results, this will be the 12th consecutive season that the ACC is not represented among the AP's final top five — Florida State is No. 13, Clemson No. 14. Meanwhile, SEC teams have won the last six national championships, with Alabama attempting to make it seven against Notre Dame in next month's BCS title game.
Neither the ACC nor any conference is likely to approach the SEC's unprecedented dominance. But the ACC can be, and should be, better.
Please spare me the current rage that the ACC's media contract with ESPN precludes that progress. Yes, the conference's per-school distribution in fiscal 2010-11 of approximately $12.5 million trailed the SEC's $19.5 million and Big Ten's $22.8 million, according to the most recent federal tax forms on file.
But disparities past, present and future represent a small fraction of athletic department budgets — Virginia's in 2011-12 was $74.5 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education database. Moreover, the richest television deals do not correlate to the scoreboard, witness the Big Ten, which has claimed one BCS title in 14 years, same as the ACC.
The Big Ten's 17-30 bowl record the last six seasons is slightly worse than the ACC's 19-31. Big Ten teams are 1-4 against ranked non-conference opponents this season, and the league title game between Wisconsin and Nebraska drew an announced 41,260 to Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium.
Conference hopping and contract envy aren't the answers for ACC football programs. Winning is.
They have before. They can again.