Sports

As football practice begins across ACC, league has never been stronger, top to bottom

NC State’s Doeren on the progress the Wolfpack have made

NC State coach Dave Doeren talks about the progress the Wolfpack has had in past five years and what he hopes for this season during a media availability at the 2018 ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, July 19, 2018.
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NC State coach Dave Doeren talks about the progress the Wolfpack has had in past five years and what he hopes for this season during a media availability at the 2018 ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, July 19, 2018.

College football has arrived, and while N.C. State and Duke could hide from the rain Friday, even if the Blue Devils chose to practice outside, North Carolina had no choice but to weather the weather in Kenan Stadium while the Tar Heels’ new inclement-weather quarters are completed. Soon, all three schools will have added indoor practice facilities in the space of seven years.

That’s what it takes to keep pace in the ACC these days. That’s what it takes to keep pace in college football.

As another August of practices begins, the game of college football has never been under more scrutiny, from concussions and head trauma to the cynical enabling of evil by coaches and administrators – while Baylor continues to wallow in its mess, Urban Meyer has made one of his own at Ohio State – and yet the ACC may never have been stronger.

Clemson is a perennial national-title contender, Miami and Virginia Tech are resurgent, Florida State has a new direction and the rest of the ACC continues to apply upward pressure on the front-runners. N.C. State in particular is at the forefront of that next chasing group, one of several schools prepared to exact immediate punishment for the smallest slip by the leading contenders.

Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney discusses the team's place as an elite program and how the coaches will work to keep the Tigers at the top.

There are no easy games anymore, not against Wake Forest or Syracuse if you’re paying attention to the vectors of those programs. Not against Boston College. Not against North Carolina, unless last season turns out to be a sign of downward decline instead of an anomaly created by roster turnover and an unprecedented injury crisis.

“Progress, in this league, is not easy,” said Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson, whose indoor facility was finished in 2016.

Good luck trying to figure out who finishes third in either division – and that assumes Clemson and Florida State hold serve in the Atlantic and Miami and Virginia Tech hold serve in the Coastal, a grand assumption to be sure. Every team in the ACC realistically believes it can finish at least third in its division if things go right, an amazing thing to say in these first days of the season.

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora talks about the quarterback competition between Nathan Elliott and Chazz Surratt during a media availability in the 2018 ACC Kickoff in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, July 18, 2018.

That hasn’t happened by accident.

This state of competitiveness, the result of a long push throughout the ACC to upgrade the conference in football from a global perspective that includes, in one small aspect, the new indoor facilities in the Triangle, has long-term implications for the conference.

With the benefit of hindsight and the passage of time, only now can ACC commissioner John Swofford really acknowledge just how far the ACC has come.

“The biggest thing is the institutions responding to the challenge to improve football, to bring our football nationally up to a level similar to basketball,” Swofford said. “I think we’re in the best shape we’ve ever been as a league at this point in time, in a real balance there with football and basketball, because basketball is so important to the history of our league and what we became, how we were perceived.

“Our football, while we had some great players and great teams along the way that won some National Championships and some Heisman trophies and those kinds of things, we weren’t doing it with nearly the frequency or with multiple teams the way we had been able to do things in basketball.”

This matters as the ACC begins to negotiate not only its bowl deals beyond 2019 but carriage agreements for the ACC Network with cable and satellite providers ahead of its August 2019 launch. When ESPN2 launched, a Duke-North Carolina basketball game was moved to that network to ensure full and complete availability. That still feels like a trump card, but maybe, 25 years later, the right football game might be a stronger card to play.

Some of that has to do with the growth of football as the dominant sport in college athletics, the money-maker that drives the bus. The ACC had to adapt to that, through expansion and investment, and it’s just now starting to see the rewards – although the next few months will have more to say about that than the first few days of practice.

The NC State Wolfpack's 2018 football season is getting underway. The first game is Sept. 1 at Carter-Finley Stadium against James Madison.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock
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