RALEIGH — On the list of Tom O’Brien’s priorities, defending the honor of the ACC ranks behind university, student body, faculty, and fans.
“And then the ACC falls into line after that,” the N.C. State coach said Monday.
O’Brien may be concerned about his team, and his team alone, but the rest of the ACC will be watching closely as the conference measures itself against the SEC this weekend.
After N.C. State faces Tennessee on Friday night, Clemson faces Auburn on Saturday in the second half of this two-day, Georgia Dome doubleheader. The ACC hasn’t beaten the SEC in a season-opening shindig since Georgia Tech beat Auburn in Atlanta in 2005.
As the SEC has pulled away from the rest of college football, the ACC’s inability to keep up has been a major talking point among fans and pundits — even coaches.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the SEC has had bragging rights for the last couple years, as many national championships as they’ve won, and deservedly so,” O’Brien said.
Yet by some standards, the gap may not be as big as people think. Since 2008, no conference has a better record against the SEC than the ACC. It’s really the failure to generate national-title contenders at the same pace where the ACC lags behind.
As a conference, after going 8-17 against the SEC in the first four years since expansion, the ACC is a respectable 16-20 over the past four years — a better winning percentage against the SEC in that time period than the Big Ten (5-9), Big East (6-10), Big 12 (3-10), and Pac-12 (3-5).
On the plus side, the ACC is 4-4 in bowl games against SEC teams over the past four years, after going 1-6 in the previous four. On the minus, the ACC has lost five straight nationally televised openers against SEC teams like the one N.C. State will partake in Friday night, including Wolfpack losses to South Carolina in 2008 and 2009.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe, SEC born and bred, thinks that has less to do with talent and everything to do with environment.
“That big-game atmosphere takes some getting used to,” Cutcliffe said. “When you play these games in Atlanta, or a big bowl-game circumstance … I coached 26 years in the SEC, and every week in every venue, it’s like that. It’s not just the SEC championship game. It’s always like that.”
Meanwhile, the ACC is 0-5 against Louisiana State and Alabama, the top two teams in both the SEC and the nation over the past four years, although those two teams have combined to lose only two nonconference games in that time period.
Over that span, the ACC is 2-2 against Auburn, the third team in that discussion. Against the three teams that annually play rivalry games against the ACC — Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina — the ACC is 6-10 over the past four years, 11-18 since expansion.
The good news for N.C. State, besides not facing Alabama or LSU, is that the gap may be closing. Last season, Clemson beat Auburn in Week 3, not a season-opener but an early season litmus test nonetheless.
So there’s hope for the ACC, although that’s a frequent theme at this time of year — one that has all too often been squashed by a less-than-forgiving SEC opponent. If the gap is going to close further, both N.C. State and Clemson can make a statement this weekend.
DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947