The banners hanging from streetlights in downtown Atlanta proclaim “ACC vs. SEC” in giant letters, just above the phrase “Celebrate the Rivalry.” It’s New Year’s Eve in Atlanta, and for more than four decades, the ACC has frequently been in town for the Peach Bowl.
Even before it was an official part of the conference’s bowl rotation, it was often a preferred destination, and for 20 years has served as a one-game proxy for the ongoing, if frequently one-sided, football debate between the ACC and the SEC.
That ends this year. What is now known as the Chick-fil-A Bowl moves up into the “Big Six” bowl rotation that will decide a national champion, with Charlotte’s Belk Bowl taking over as the ACC-SEC battlefield of note. And what an odd combination this final meeting offered late Wednesday night as 2013 slid into 2014, with Duke making its first visit representing the ACC and Texas A&M on behalf of the SEC.
As it turns out, the ACC has fared well against the SEC in this bowl, going 11-10 head-to-head over the years. When it comes to bragging rights, the SEC typically has other claims to stake, but this one matters, too.
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“This bowl game, people have kept score as to what has occurred through the years,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said this week in Atlanta. “So I think everybody has a lot of awareness in that area.”
Duke, making its second consecutive bowl appearance after an 18-season gap and looking for its first postseason win since 1960, is hardly a traditional ACC football powerhouse. Texas A&M, more closely linked to the Big 8 and Big 12, isn’t even a traditional SEC school. Neither team has played in the Peach Bowl before. Odds are against either playing in it again anytime soon, given the change in bowl circumstances.
Each team is more closely linked with something else – in Duke’s case, it’s a long history of football struggles, while Texas A&M is very much a part of the Texas football culture in both spirit and geography – which makes this a strange way to put a bow on 40-some years of ACC bowl tradition.
Cutcliffe, who has a foot squarely in both the ACC and SEC camps given his roots in Alabama and time at Tennessee and Ole Miss, probably has a better grasp of this strange dynamic than anyone.
“As we all know, SEC, ACC,” Cutcliffe said, “but it’s a little bit unique in regards that Duke has moved to the scene of representing the ACC in bowl games and certainly A&M has moved to representing the Southeastern Conference in bowl games.”
Pairing up the also-rans of the ACC and SEC has been a recipe for competitiveness – more than half the time, the winning margin has been within a touchdown – and good for business. Wednesday’s game was the bowl’s 17th straight sellout.
And yet that success elevated the Chick-fil-A Bowl beyond mere conference affiliations. It joins the four existing BCS bowls and the Cotton Bowl in the new six-game rotation that will host the four-team championship playoffs starting next season.
The only place the change is even really acknowledged is on the freely distributed coupons for free milkshakes. Below “Celebrate the Rivalry,” there are three other words: “One Last Time.”