There is a natural geographic, albeit largely unspoken rivalry between the ACC and the SEC, and the two leagues will go head-to-head three times in the next 72 hours. The bad news for the ACC is that this is not basketball season.
So the conference–revamped with the addition of Pittsburgh and Syracuse this year, and Notre Dame (sort of) and Louisville to follow–will have three shots at bolstering their flagging football image this weekend with head to head showdowns against the sports unchallenged king conference: the SEC.
On the surface, having three early season bites at the shiniest of apples – before most teams really settle in and hit their strides – might seem like a great opportunity. Be careful what you ask for. To put the two conferences in perspective, consider this: the ACC has five total national championships, the last coming in 1999. The SEC has won that many since 2008, as part of their string of seven in a row.
The last four titles for the ACC have come from Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech, schools in SEC dominated states. To add insult, Florida State and Clemson routinely have rumors flying around their fan bases about bolting to the SEC. While this will likely not happen now due to some recent conference contract negotiations, the fact remains that the SEC is worlds apart from the ACC in football culture and atmosphere, as well as performance. As an example,Tennessee will draw almost as many fans to a single home game as either Duke – or once-great Miami, a tiny private school, will draw for an entire home season. And only Florida State, Clemson–and maybe Virginia Tech–have what would be considered an SEC quality home atmosphere.
Conversely, only Vanderbilt from the SEC has what might be considered an ACC football environment. This stark differential is owed to a lot of factors, not the least of which is the SEC’s population of big and culturally dominant state universities who can fill massive stadiums whether or not they are winning. Meanwhile, the ACC is full of private schools and not-so-dominant state universities, few of which have fan bases large enough to look good on ESPN whether they are winning or not. Demographics is what it is, and the SEC’s advantage there is huge, which leads to all kinds of self perpetuating by-products – like, say, superior teams. Big time atmospheres lead to big-time recruiting, which leads to big time winning, which leads to big-time revenues and more big time atmospheres, leading to more success and so on.
And the SEC’s big-time roll now is breathtaking.
Having said that, the chance for the ACC to salvage something this week is not out of the question. After all, if the league can win just one of the three games – and hold the total of blow-outs below two, it’s a victory of sorts for the ACC. Low expectations can be helpful.
And it all starts Thursday night with North Carolina visiting 7th-ranked South Carolina. Contrary to popular belief, the Gamecocks’s Jadeveon Clowney is not the only player suiting up. In fact, with a full off-season to game plan for Clowney, and his shocking hit against Michigan all over YouTube, chances are that Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora, an offensive guru, has a good game plan for number seven. When you couple that with Steve Spurrier’s propensity to start seasons slowly, look for a reasonably close game.
Game number three between the conferences could be one of the best games all weekend, as 5th ranked Georgia visits 8th ranked Clemson. This is an old southern football border rivalry, and has produced many great games. The old Danny Ford Tigers and Vince Dooley Dawgs used to play first team to 10 will win type contests, often decided with some 55-yard kick at the gun. This week, it may be first team to 50. The two haven’t met in a number of years, but the Tigers have helped the ACC’s cache by beating Auburn in early season showdowns for two of the last three years, narrowly losing to Cam Newton’s team that would win a National title. This game with Georgia will have the same feel as those, and may be Clemson’s toughest test until their closer against South Carolina.
The middle game is the one with the least amount of promise, as Alabama will take on Virginia Tech in the Chick Fil-A Classic in Atlanta late Saturday afternoon. Coach Nick Saban seems to be getting better and better, while Frank Beamer, who has had an amazing career, seems to be running out of blocked punt miracles to win big games, and his offense seems to be behind the times. The Hokies limped home last season 7-6, beating Rutgers 13-10 in the Citrus Bowl to top .500. Days later the Tide had more than 13 by the first TV timeout. The two teams are not close, and the game won’t be either.
All of which probably adds up for a 3-0 advantage for the week for the SEC, with two of the games being close. If either North Carolina, or more likely Clemson, can manage to sneak through, the ACC can claim a successful weekend. Still, the bad news for the ACC is: this still isn’t basketball season.