Glass ceiling? Four teams, one common struggle

Duke coach David Cutcliffe is doused with Gatorade  after a 33-30 win over UNC in 2012. The Blue Devils will play Northwestern Saturday.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe is doused with Gatorade after a 33-30 win over UNC in 2012. The Blue Devils will play Northwestern Saturday. cliddy@newsobserver.com

There is no formal ACC/Big Ten football challenge – no fancy logo for the field and no advertisements and promos going on and on about it on ESPN. This weekend, though, might as well be the football version of the long-running basketball competition between the conferences.

Half of the 10 games involving ACC teams on Saturday feature matchups against the Big Ten. Two are in the Triangle, where UNC will play Illinois at Kenan Stadium and Duke faces Northwestern at Wallace Wade Stadium.

“It’s the Big Ten versus the ACC,” said Frank Beamer, the Virginia Tech coach whose team on Saturday plays at Purdue. “We want to represent our conference well.”

He was talking specifically about the challenge ahead of his team. He could have been talking about the ACC as a whole, too.

Despite the ascent of Clemson in recent years, and despite Florida State’s 2013 national championship, and despite the success of ACC teams last season against those from the SEC, it still – still? – seems as though the ACC is the forgotten child among its Power 5 brethren.

And so ACC teams going against those from the Big Ten this weekend are playing for a higher purpose. It is an assignment that they likely wouldn’t accept or even acknowledge. Nevertheless – fair or unfair, right or wrong – the implications are clear enough.

At stake are more than mere victories. Victories in these ACC/Big Ten games would bolster the ACC’s football credibility and status and enhance its reputation in ways that wins against, say, N.C. A&T and N.C. Central don’t.

Those are the teams that UNC and Duke defeated last week. The games were not competitive. The ones this week are expected to be, what with Northwestern ranked No. 23 and Illinois having yet to allow its first touchdown.

In basketball, the ACC/Big Ten Challenge is organized in such a way that the matchups almost always make sense. There is, at times, some historical relevance to those games and, absent that, the games often reflect the hierarchy of the conferences.

In other words: The ACC’s best usually plays against the Big Ten’s best. The mediocre teams play against each other. And then the same with the worst, usually stuck with a 7 p.m. kickoff time on ESPNU.

By pure coincidence the informal ACC/Big Ten football challenge this weekend worked out the same way. Nebraska and Miami play at 3:30 in South Florida in a matchup of proud programs, ones that dominated the 1980s and 90s, trying to work their way back to what they were.

Pittsburgh and Iowa, who play in prime-time in Iowa City, seem ruggedly similar enough, don’t they? Virginia Tech-Purdue might be a comparative stretch but, hey, even the basketball ACC/Big Ten Challenge produces some misses every now and then.

But UNC-Illinois and Duke-Northwestern? They are perhaps the perfect pairings of ACC and Big Ten schools, at least in football. In Chapel Hill on Saturday, you’ll have two large state schools with no shortage of resources and no shortage of football futility.

Down the road in Durham you’ll have two private schools that share high academic achievement and perhaps an equally high degree of long-term sustained football misery. Not that the Blue Devils and Wildcats haven’t had their moments, a decent number coming in recent years.

Football success at all four schools, in fact, is fresh enough to wonder why it doesn’t come around more often. UNC seemed on the verge of becoming a national contender before the Butch Davis regime unraveled after the 2007 season. Illinois played in the Rose Bowl as recently as the 2007 season.

Northwestern won 10 games in 2012 and Duke did the same in 2013. Yet the four football programs that will converge on Saturday afternoon in the Triangle have mostly been defined by defeat, missed opportunities and mediocrity – or worse.

Among the four programs it’s fair to say that UNC is viewed, historically, as the most disappointing. The Tar Heels have for years – decades, perhaps – worn the “sleeping giant” label, one that suggests, it seems, they’re constantly on the brink of becoming a national power.

History tells another story: that UNC, which hasn’t won more than eight games since 1997, is more often than not mediocre, and that its stretches of sustained success – like in the 1990s under Mack Brown – are more the aberration than the norm. And yet compared to Illinois, Duke and Northwestern the Tar Heels are something of a juggernaut.

Since the formation of the ACC in 1953, UNC has appeared in 28 bowl games compared to Illinois’ 16, Northwestern’s 10 and Duke’s eight. UNC during that span has won at least 10 games six times – one more than Illinois (three 10-win seasons since 1953), Duke (one) and Northwestern (two) combined.

“You could say that,” Larry Fedora, the UNC coach, said when asked if he saw similarities between UNC and Illinois. “I think that also Illinois has a great academic reputation, and I think you could compare the two that way. And again, we’re trying to get over that hump and create everything that we want to create as far as culture-wise and everything and I’m sure they’re doing the same thing.”

Fedora said success mostly “boils down to players” – and that the quality of players determines “99 percent” of a program’s ability to compete. Coaching can’t be overrated, either, though, as UNC and Illinois have proven.

Illinois has gone through four head coaches – none leaving with winning records – since John Mackovic left for Texas at the end of the 1991 season. At UNC, meanwhile, Fedora is still coaching amid a never-ending NCAA saga that began under former coach Butch Davis, who was hired to rebuild the program after it crumbled under Carl Torbush and John Bunting.

Duke has gained traction under coach David Cutcliffe, who followed four coaches who tried – and failed – to make the Blue Devils competitive. And at Northwestern four of the Wildcats’ 15 winning seasons during the past 60 years have come in the past eight seasons under coach Pat Fitzgerald.

So under the right circumstances, and with the right coaches, success has been attainable at UNC and Illinois, Duke and Northwestern. It has been fleeting success, though, with none of the programs able to sustain it for too long, and with none of them, yet, able to remain at or near the top of their conferences.

The games on Saturday, Cutcliffe said, represented a “great opportunity” for the ACC. For his team, though, and the ones at UNC, Illinois and Northwestern, the games on Saturday aren’t as much about conference pride as they are a chance to grow against an evenly-matched opponent.

Middle men

Football success has been difficult to sustain for UNC, Illinois, Duke and Northwestern. Illinois won the 2001 Big Ten title, the most recent conference crown for any of the four teams. A closer look:







Overall record





League titles*





Recent league title



1989 (tie)

2000 (tie)

10 wins





Most recent





High final AP rank*

6 (1997)

10 (1989)

23 (2013)

8 (1995)

Most recent final AP poll


2007 (20)


2012 (17)


Sources: collegefootballreference.com, ACC, Big Ten media guides