It seems like just yesterday Johnny Football was dashing Duke’s dreams, North Carolina was swaggering into the postseason after staggering through the first half of its schedule and N.C. State played perhaps the most forgettable season in living memory. Oh, and Florida State won a national title.
It’s football season again already?
This space is normally reserved on an annual basis for existential hand-wringing about whether the ACC will catch up with the SEC. (Short answer: Not anytime soon. And not this year.) For once, it doesn’t matter. The defending national champion and reigning Heisman Trophy winner both come from the ACC. Take that, SEC! Your millions of dollars, legions of maniac fans and bespoke television network will have to console you!
Florida State’s undefeated season was unsurprisingly welcome for the ACC, which would like nothing better than to burnish its brand as a football conference – a process in the works since Miami and Virginia Tech came aboard way back when in the first spasm of expansion – with recently competitive Louisville replacing recently irrelevant Maryland, and Notre Dame allowed to wander in and out of the schedule in its free time, like a visiting professor hired for prestige as much as pedagogy.
Given the league’s recent basketball slump, with the Final Four drought at four years, the longest since 1958-61, a little football success couldn’t have come at a better time. Basketball has driven the bus for the ACC for decades, and football has lagged behind despite being given every advantage for most of a decade, at least until the addition last season of Syracuse and Pittsburgh, two schools that fit the ACC football tradition, to put it nicely.
The SEC may have strength in depth, but given the ACC’s 13-year absence from the BCS Championship Game, a little strength at the top will suffice for now heading into the first year of a four-team playoff. And with Clemson retrenching, it looks to be the Seminoles’ league to lose again at the season’s unofficial starting line, the ACC Kickoff event in Greensboro on Sunday and Monday.
The Triangle is unlikely to provide a contender, but if anyone, it would be Duke. The Blue Devils return 15 starters from a team that went 10-2 before losses in the ACC Championship Game and what is now once again called the Peach Bowl. With four winnable ACC road games, Virginia Tech and North Carolina both coming to Durham and no Clemson, Louisville or Florida State to be found, another 10-win season seems possible.
North Carolina must choose between two quarterbacks, returning part-time starter Marquise Williams and redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky. But the bigger issues are how the Tar Heels will fare without the NFL-caliber offensive line bequeathed by Butch Davis and whether the defense’s improvement last season was a byproduct of a softer second-half schedule. There aren’t many breaks on the schedule this season.
The rebuilding process will continue in Year 2 of the Dave Doeren regime at N.C. State, and while Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett is expected to be a huge upgrade at quarterback, the real question is whether the rest of the roster is up to the task. The Wolfpack couldn’t ask for a softer nonconference schedule, but a .500 season would be an accomplishment.
Elsewhere, Wake Forest is starting over under first-year coach Dave Clawson and East Carolina keeps rolling under Ruffin McNeill, right into the American Athletic Conference this season. Both teams have holes to fill, just like their Triangle counterparts.
For the ACC as a whole, though, the only question is how far Florida State can continue to carry the conference’s banner forward, because it’s the Seminoles and then everybody else.