Luke DeCock

ACC football weaker at top, stronger in middle

When the ACC gathers in Pinehurst this week for its annual football media shindig, something will be missing. For the first time in a few years, the conference lacks a sure-fire national-title contender.

The ACC appears to be deeper across the board, just not at the top. The usual suspects aren't quite at their usual level, with Florida State needing to replace Jameis Winston and possibly Dalvin Cook, and Clemson with serious holes to fill on defense despite what should be a high-powered offense.

From the perspective of each individual team, it's probably better for everyone to be better (especially for teams in the Atlantic Division chafing annually under the reign of Florida State and Clemson). From a conference perspective, there's an argument to be made that one standout team is essential.

With four teams from five major conferences qualifying for the semifinals in the new College Football Playoff, someone is invariably left out. (Two conferences, if the SEC is ever as good as the SEC says it is and gets two teams into the playoff.) Last season, it was the Big 12, which had Baylor and Texas Christian passed over for eventual national champion Ohio State.

That prompted considerable hand-wringing among Big 12 executives, since it's the only major conference without a championship game, a venue that might have provided one more quality win for the victor. There probably wouldn't be much of that should the ACC find itself in a similar position, since the league can, with considerable justification, claim that the quality of its football has been steadily increasing, any potential one-year absence from the CFP aside.

Georgia Tech continues to be Georgia Tech, triple-optioning its way into the Coastal Division race without fail – and this has the potential to be one of Paul Johnson's best GT teams yet despite a difficult schedule. Duke is now Duke in football, which is to say the Blue Devils on an annual basis will be bowl-eligible at the worst and a Coastal contender at the best.

Louisville has questions but unquestioned raw talent. N.C. State is probably a year away from being a serious threat, but has a comfortable schedule and Jacoby Brissett. Pittsburgh and Boston College will each beat someone, somewhere. And North Carolina is, yet again, capable of winning 10 games – or losing eight.

Those are seven teams that, at this early date, can reasonably expect to show reasonable, if not considerable, improvement from a season ago.

All of that gives the ACC a strong foundation no matter what happens with Florida State or Clemson, whether Miami and Virginia Tech can return to relevance or not, even dragging along Virginia and Wake Forest and Syracuse.

For the second straight season, the ACC has a pretty good shot of getting 11 of its 14 teams into bowls. That's not bad at all.

But it's impossible to avoid the reality that there isn't a single ACC team that starts the season in the national-title discussion when each of the other four power conferences has two teams that appear to have a better shot at a title (Auburn and Alabama; Ohio State and Michigan State; Baylor and TCU; Oregon and USC). Even Notre Dame, an ACC school in every other respect, looks to be ahead of its sort-of conference rivals.

It's July. The ACC hasn't been left out of the CFP yet. There's a lot of football yet to be played, as there always is, and the ACC's best title contender may not even be Florida State or Clemson (could it be Georgia Tech?) But as far as starting points go, this season is different.

The past few years, the ACC has had strength at the top. This season, its real strength may be its depth.

DeCock:, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947