Luke DeCock

DeCock: NC State, Miss. State, make case for conference supremacy

N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren walks the sidelines during the second half of Louisville's 20-13 victory over N.C. State at Carter-Finley Stadium on Oct. 3.
N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren walks the sidelines during the second half of Louisville's 20-13 victory over N.C. State at Carter-Finley Stadium on Oct. 3. ehyman@newsobserver.com

This isn’t a titanic tussle of conference champions, the best of the ACC against the best of the SEC. That will have to wait for a potential national championship game between Clemson and Alabama. The game played in Charlotte on Wednesday is the middle of the ACC pack against the middle of the SEC pack, but in the eternal battle for bragging rights between the two southeastern power conferences, what happens between N.C. State and Mississippi State in the Belk Bowl still matters.

The SEC has held a mighty lead in terms of football supremacy for at least a generation, just as the ACC has in basketball, but there are signs the gap is closing. The ACC has won a national title more recently than the SEC, and in games between the conferences, the SEC holds a narrow 12-14 lead over the past three seasons, one the ACC can even Wednesday.

The head-to-head record stands at 3-4 this season – a year after the ACC went 5-3 against the SEC, its best winning percentage since 2002 – so barring a Clemson-Alabama matchup for the title, the ACC needs two bowl wins Wednesday to post consecutive winning records against the SEC for the first time since 2002-03.

Louisville plays Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl while the Wolfpack and the Bulldogs meet in Charlotte. The four teams have a combined record of 30-18, so it isn’t exactly elite vs. elite, but it still matters.

In terms of football prowess, the Belk Bowl isn’t a proxy battle for ACC-SEC supremacy any more than it is a referendum on the intellectual-property rights to “Our State,” the promotional campaign Mississippi State created and N.C. State later appropriated. But it is part of a wider data set that could, with an N.C. State victory, indicate a leveling of the playing field between the two over the past few years.

The head-to-head record stands at 3-4 this season – a year after the ACC went 5-3 against the SEC, its best winning percentage since 2002 – so barring a Clemson-Alabama matchup for the title, the ACC needs two bowl wins Wednesday to post consecutive winning records against the SEC for the first time since 2002-03.

That is heresy in SEC country and the preponderance of evidence remains strongly on the SEC’s side. With wins by N.C. State and Louisville, and potentially a Clemson national title, the debate just gets more interesting.

In the end, comparisons between the two conferences are almost entirely for entertainment purposes. The SEC always will have more fan support, more financial resources, more strength in depth – just like the ACC always will in basketball. But it is important for the ACC to measure itself against other Power 5 conferences, the SEC the most influential among them. With a committee of humans prone to observation bias picking the national-title contenders, perceived conference strength matters greatly – and in a college sports universe dominated by football, that can only be good for the conference’s long-term health.

It is also important for N.C. State to perform well against the first Power 5 nonconference opponent it has faced since the Music City Bowl in 2012, when Dana Bible was serving as interim coach against Vanderbilt between Tom O’Brien’s firing and Dave Doeren officially taking over the team. In Doeren’s three seasons, the Wolfpack has played 13 nonconference games against the Sun Belt (4), American (3), Conference USA (2), MAC (1) and FCS (3).

Against bowl-eligible opponents, the Wolfpack is 3-18 over that span, 0-5 this season. While Mississippi State was sixth of seven teams in the SEC West, the Bulldogs are 8-4 and ranked 24th in the Sagarin computer ratings compared to N.C. State at 49, the fourth-best team the Wolfpack has faced this season behind Clemson, Florida State and North Carolina. And N.C. State hasn’t beaten an SEC team since 1999, going 0-4 since a win over South Carolina in Columbia.

If the ACC has something to prove Wednesday, N.C. State has as much, if not more.

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

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