Five reasons ACC is intriguing

League may be on rise in football, just not as high yet as SEC

Staff WritersJuly 25, 2010 

If you think football is only a big deal in SEC country, think again.

As ACC coaches and players gather for the conference's annual media kickoff today and Monday in Greensboro, the state of North Carolina has plenty of reasons to claim football prominence:

Charlotte is set to play host to the ACC championship game after it flopped in two Florida cities.

Duke has a coach in David Cutcliffe who recently turned down the Tennessee job.

N.C. State's Russell Wilson is one of the leading preseason candidates for national quarterback awards.

UNC has as many potential first-round draft choices as any school in the nation - and has attracted the attention of NCAA investigators as well.

Make no mistake about it, basketball is still king in this conference, with Duke (2010) and North Carolina (2009) capturing back-to-back NCAA championships.

It's true that with four straight football national titles and an unrivaled TV contract, the Southeastern Conference is ahead of the ACC in this sport. But football in the ACC still has strong points, with plenty of reasons to watch this season.

Here are five:

1) New faces

The ACC won't be the same without Bobby Bowden.

The legendary former Florida State coach is quick with a quip and won 377 games with two national titles, but he has been replaced with former coach-in-waiting Jimbo Fisher.

There's been speculation that Florida State is set to rebound now that the tumultuous, divisive final days of Bowden's tenure are past. But it remains to be seen whether the school made the right decision with the coach-in-waiting process rather than a national search for Bowden's successor.

Virginia, meanwhile found its new coach just a short distance from Charlottesville. Former Richmond coach Mike London, who knows the state's recruiting areas well, takes over for the prickly Al Groh.

Shed no tears for Groh, though; he landed on his feet as Georgia Tech's defensive coordinator.

2) High stakes games

The ACC expanded in 2004 to become a major player in college football. Six years later, the ACC has a real chance to make that goal a reality.

Starting with the opening weekend, with Virginia Tech-Boise State and UNC-LSU, the ACC has a handful of national spotlight games that could alter the league's reputation as "good but not great."

Miami's trip to Ohio State on Sept. 11 might be the only obstacle on the Buckeyes' path to the BCS title game. Florida State goes to Oklahoma the same day. An ACC sweep in those two contests would set off a wave of "Miami and FSU are back" stories.

3) NFL prospects

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks seven ACC players on his list of top 25 prospects for the NFL draft, the most of any conference.

In addition to UNC defensive end Robert Quinn (No. 3 on Kiper's list), UNC defensive tackle Marvin Austin (No. 13) and UNC linebacker Bruce Carter (No. 18), Kiper also ranks Boston College offensive tackle Anthony Costanzo (No. 8), Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams (No. 15), Miami defensive end Allen Bailey (No. 16) and Virginia cornerback Ras-I Dowling (No. 21).

Producing NFL talent hasn't been the ACC's problem, with 34 first-round picks since 2006 (second to the SEC), but turning that talent into significant wins has been.

4) A new home

After spending three forgettable years in Jacksonville, Fla., and two more in Tampa, the ACC championship game is coming to Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium on Dec. 4.

ACC and Charlotte tourism officials hope bringing the game to the geographic center of the conference will generate ticket sales. Will Webb, the executive director for Charlotte Collegiate Football, said 38,000 seats already have been sold.

About 4,000 seats remain available on the stadium's lower level.

"Everything seems to be falling into place," Webb said. "We're excited about it. We really want to make Charlotte the long-term home for the ACC football championship."

5) Investigation fallout

These are anxious times in Chapel Hill.

NCAA investigators have been to North Carolina to inquire about possible improprieties with sports agents.

This is supposed to be a breakthrough season for the Tar Heels because of the outstanding talent they have returning on defense. But if any NCAA penalties are imposed, the team's performance on the field and the school's clean image could be damaged.

That's a troubling scenario, and all the team can do is wait to hear what the NCAA finds.

ktysiac@charlotteobserver.com or jp.giglio@newsobserver.com

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