College football roundtable: How large is the gap between the ACC and Big Ten?

The college football roundtable is back just in time for the ACC/Big Ten … football challenge? An informal one, at least. Questions and answers with The News & Observer columnist Luke DeCock and college beat reporters Andrew Carter, Joe Giglio and Laura Keeley:

Q: Lots of ACC/Big Ten games this weekend, including two in the Triangle with North Carolina and Duke hosting Illinois and Northwestern. The Big Ten is home to the defending national champion, sure, but regardless it seems like the league doesn’t have to fight for its football credibility, unlike the ACC. How large is the gap?

Luke DeCock: It's probably smaller now than it has been in a long time. The strength of the Big Ten for a long time was not at the top, but teams like Purdue (under Joe Tiller) and Iowa and Northwestern (after a Duke-like rise) that weren't contenders every year ... it always seemed like one of them was pushing Ohio State and Michigan and Wisconsin and Penn State. (Michigan State was one of those teams, but now has replaced Michigan and Penn State in the elite.) The bottom of the Big Ten is as weak as it has ever been (Illinois, Purdue, Indiana) while the bottom of the ACC has never been stronger. It's almost like the leagues switched places.

Andrew Carter (UNC beat reporter): It's not all that large. And you could argue the ACC is better positioned for long-term success. But first let's talk about the present.

The ACC and Big Ten are home to the past two national champions. Ohio State is yet again the favorite this season, but beyond the Buckeyes the conferences are pretty evenly matched.

Clemson and Florida State are probably better No. 2 and No. 3 teams than Michigan State and Wisconsin and the middle of the ACC might just be better than the middle of the Big Ten. The ACC has an advantage going forward, too, because of population shifts that favor the southeast.

Joe Giglio (N.C. State beat reporter): The gap is in student population. Florida State has the largest undergraduate enrollment (32,948 according to U.S. News and World Report) in the ACC. There are six Big Ten schools with more students, including an incredible 44,741 at The Ohio State.

FSU is the only ACC school that would rank in the top 10 in the Big Ten’s student population (like the ACC, conference has 14 football-playing members). The ACC has four private schools (Miami, Boston College, Duke and Wake Forest) with less than 12,000 students. The Big Ten has one (Northwestern).

Follow the chains: More students = bigger stadiums = more money. More students = more alums = better TV deal = more money. More money, at least since 1776 in this country, has almost always meant better. On the actual field, there’s a negligible difference between the Big Ten and ACC. The ACC has more talent, the Big Ten has better high-end coaches.

But the bottom line might really be the Big Ten has had three very good national programs (Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin) — at least for the last five to 10 years — and the ACC has had two (FSU and Clemson) and a half (Virginia Tech).

Laura Keeley (Duke beat reporter): Well you look at the results of the NFL draft — 47 former ACC picks in 2015 to 35 for the Big Ten, and the ACC has finished second to the SEC four out of the past five years in terms of former players drafted — talent-wise, the ACC doesn't take a backseat to the Big Ten at all. And I think the ACC's middle stacks up the the Big Ten's middle just fine (though we will get a referendum on that this weekend). I think the difference in perception is cultural — the Midwest is football country, with a corresponding level of fan support, and traditionally that's just not the case in the ACC outside of a few places.

Q: Jumping off that, UNC and Illinois and Duke and Northwestern mirror each other in some ways -- especially in terms of their long-term mediocrity (or worse). Is it fair to suggest those programs, or any others, have a glass ceiling?

DeCock: North Carolina and Illinois have access to considerable in-state talent but have never been able to make the most of it, in part because they're surrounded by regional predators. Basketball always has been, and always will be, more important at both schools. (Sometimes, it's as simple as a visionary coach: Barry Alvarez turned Wisconsin from a laughingstock into a powerhouse. Maybe Mack Brown would have done the same if he had stayed at UNC.) But Illinois has at least made the Rose Bowl in the past decade. That's more than UNC has accomplished in generations. Duke and Northwestern are both enjoying their greatest periods of success in modern history. It's too soon to say what the ceiling is for either.

Carter: The recent success of Baylor and Duke, to a lesser extent, should teach us that anything is possible and that regardless of how bad program has been historically it can become competitive. Duke played in the ACC championship game less than two years ago, while Miami still hasn't made it.

Baylor, which not all that long ago broke a streak of 14 consecutive losing seasons, is all of a sudden some national force. So it's possible for programs to rise above. That said, there's probably a reason UNC, Illinois, Duke and Northwestern have never really sustained success in college football.

And that reason has a lot to do with coaching. Make the right hire, and just about anything is possible. Make the wrong one, and see what Illinois is going through right now.

Giglio: Consistent excellence in college football is tied to recruiting access, and success, in Florida, California and Texas. If those four schools find a way to get in those areas, they will be fine. If not, there needs to be special circumstances (and Duke with coach David Cutcliffe qualifies) and a series of breaks and good fortune (Duke’s schedule also qualifies).

Put it another rhetorical way: Will Duke ever consistently have better talent than Florida State? Will Northwestern ever consistently have better talent than Ohio State? There’s your “ceiling.”

Keeley: I would define success as winning a conference championship. And if Wake Forest can win the ACC, then any Power Five school is capable of success. Do some teams need to benefit from a fortunate coming together of circumstances more than others? No question. But would you have ever imagined a world where Baylor and TCU, not Texas and Oklahoma, were the dominant powers in the Big 12? Or a college football poll led by Mississippi State? Hire the right coach, and anything is possible.

Q: We should have a decent idea, at least, of how good UNC and Duke are after this weekend. N.C. State is another story -- though at least the Wolfpack's game against Old Dominion is on the road. How much criticism do the Wolfpack really deserve for its soft non-conference schedule?

DeCock: It's unquestionably good for the long-term health of the program to pile up some easy wins in Year 3 under Dave Doeren. It's certainly better than the alternative, which is going to get Mike London fired at Virginia eventually. N.C. State fans were willing to buy tickets to see Troy and Eastern Kentucky. As long as they're willing to continue paying full price for games like that, caveat emptor.

Carter: The Wolfpack deserves the scorn it's getting from fans of rival schools and some media members for its dreadful non-conference schedule. Sure, N.C. State has to play Florida State and Clemson every year. We get it.

There's still a way to schedule winnable – but also somewhat attractive – games without loading up the schedule with the likes of Eastern Kentucky and South Alabama. There's probably also something to the thought that playing tougher competition helps you prepare for tougher competition.

If the goal is to squeak into a second-rate bowl game just to say you did it, then sure – the schedule makes sense. But programs with greater aspirations aren't afraid to challenge themselves.

And in the process, those challenges often lead to better exposure, which could help the Wolfpack.

Giglio: N.C. State’s nonconference schedule is not good, but N.C. State’s conference schedule is a mile tougher than Duke or UNC’s. Playing Florida State and Clemson in the ACC the past four years has basically been two automatic losses for every other ACC team. N.C. State plays both every year (and is the only Atlantic Division team with wins over both schools since 2011).

Under the current schedule model, neither UNC nor Duke will ever have to play both during the same regular season and only has to face each just once every seven years.

This matters and let’s look at Duke to explain why. In 2012, the Blue Devils lost to Clemson by 36 points and Florida State by 41 and finished the regular season with a 6-6 record. A year later, Duke didn’t play either team and went 10-2 in the regular season and won the Coastal Division (then summarily lost to FSU by 38 in the ACC title game).

We’ll know plenty about N.C. State once the ACC schedule kicks in.

Keeley: I like the ACC's upcoming rule that forces each school to schedule at least one nonconference game against a Power Five opponent (this starts in 2017). I understand that the Wolfpack have a tough go in the Atlantic Division, and the goal at N.C. State — like it is at probably 95 percent of programs — is to be bowl-eligible (instead of worrying about strength of schedule for a potential national championship run). Football scheduling is tough because teams schedule about 5-8 years out. Doesn't leave much flexibility to adjust.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer