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September 10, 2007

ACC far from elite so far this season

Cast Your Vote: Which is the best conference in the nation?

BATON ROUGE, La. Atlantic Coast Conference supporters like to point to the results of the past two NFL Drafts as evidence that it's one of the nation's toughest football conferences.

The results on the field suggest otherwise.

Sure, the ACC has produced 18 first-round draft picks the past two years to lead all conferences. But even though the ACC annually features some of the nation's top players, it certainly doesn't have any of the nation's elite programs.

The ACC hasn't produced a legitimate national-title contender since its latest round of expansion in 2004. The ACC went a combined 6-16 in non-conference games against BCS schools last year and didn't have a team ranked higher than No. 18 (Wake Forest) in the final Associated Press poll.

This weekend gave the ACC a fresh start to prove that a dreadful 2006 was nothing more than an aberration. The league instead provided more evidence to support the growing national perception that it's the weakest of the six BCS conferences.

Three of the ACC's best teams played non-conference games against ranked opponents. The ACC lost all three games - by a combined score of 119-37.

Miami's highly regarded defense allowed Oklahoma redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Bradford to throw five touchdown passes in a 51-13 loss to the fifth-ranked Sooners.

At least that game was competitive at halftime. No. 2 LSU reeled off 24 consecutive points in the first 19 minutes on its way to a 48-7 triumph over a ninth-ranked Virginia Tech team that had led the nation in total defense each of the last two years.

"I guess we came out really flat," Virginia Tech defensive end Orion Martin said afterward. "They got on top of us, and we could not recover."

Only Wake Forest managed to stay close to a ranked opponent. The reigning ACC champions did the conference proud once again by nearly upsetting Nebraska 20-17 in a game the Demon Deacons likely could have won if starting quarterback Riley Skinner hadn't been hurt.

Then again, it's a testament to how far the ACC has fallen that a home loss by Wake Forest is seen in some circles as something of a moral victory for the conference.

Those three games only scratch the surface of the ACC's troubles. Instead of standing toe-to-toe with other BCS programs, ACC teams struggled to tread water against Conference USA also-rans this weekend.

East Carolina quarterback Patrick Pinkney threw for 406 yards and three touchdowns in his first career start as the Pirates beat North Carolina 34-31 despite missing three field goals. Florida State had to rally from a two-touchdown deficit to pull out a 34-24 victory over UAB, which has lost eight consecutive games.

"There's a lot of year left," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said of the conference's lost weekend. "You can't base everything on one week."

The bad news for the ACC actually started a week earlier.

The Atlantic Coast Conference lags far behind its BCS brethren in non-conference records against BCS opponents since the start of the 2006 season (games against Notre Dame, which went 7-5 against BCS opponents, are included):
Conference W-L Pct.
Big East 16-9 .640
Pac-10 14-9 .609
SEC 17-12 .586
Big Ten 12-14 .462
Big 12 11-15 .423
ACC 7-20 .259
That's when Virginia began its season by losing 23-3 to Wyoming, a Mountain West Conference team coming off a 6-6 season. A few hours later, North Carolina State opened with a 25-23 loss to UCF, a Conference USA school that went 4-8 last year.

The ACC's signature non-conference victory thus far is Georgia Tech's 33-3 whipping of a Notre Dame team that could struggle to finish .500 this season. The Yellow Jackets are the highest-ranked ACC team in the latest Associated Press poll, at No. 15. Each of the other five BCS conferences have two teams in the top 10.

Georgia Tech is the only ACC school ranked among the nation's top 45 teams in total offense, which continues a troubling trend for the league. Clemson was the only ACC team to place in the top 49 in total offense last year. No ACC schools finished among the top 50 teams in that category in 2005.

ACC boosters like to point out that the league's outstanding defenses make things difficult for any offense. That argument carried plenty of weight last season, when five ACC schools ranked among the nation's top 18 teams in total defense. Those words lost much of their merit Saturday when two of the league's best defenses Virginia Tech and Miami gave up a combined 99 points in non-conference losses.

This sure wasn't how the ACC envisioned starting its season.

Florida State tailback Antone Smith called the ACC and the Southeastern Conference the nation's two best leagues during the ACC's preseason Media Days gathering. Georgia Tech tailback Tashard Choice boasted that the ACC had as much talent as any league in the nation.

Choice has done his part to back up that statement. He gained 196 yards in that season-opening victory over Notre Dame and currently ranks ninth in the nation in rushing.

He isn't the only ACC standout playing on an unbeaten team.

Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan leads one of the most talented teams in Chestnut Hill since the Doug Flutie era. James Davis and C.J. Spiller give Clemson one of the nation's top tailback duos. Those star performers could lead their teams to breakthrough seasons that could help the ACC regain respectability by the end of the season.

Maybe one of those teams can deliver the attention-getting nonconference victory over a top 25 program that eluded Virginia Tech, Miami and Wake Forest this weekend.

Until that happens, ACC players and coaches may want to stop bragging about the strength of their league. After all, the ACC's dismal non-conference performance speaks for itself.

Cast Your Vote: Which is the best conference in the nation?

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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