The past decade was reason for the ACC to celebrate.
The conference had a Heisman Trophy winner. It had college football’s winningest coach. It had attendance numbers that continued to soar to record heights straight through the inaugural ACC championship game. Over the past 10 seasons, the ACC had some of the nation’s top defenses and most prolific passers. It had some of the swiftest kickers and most acclaimed coaches.
It also had expansion -- a dramatic, sweeping change that made the conference a 12-team league, added a struggling championship game, and has fallen short in producing the powerhouse image it intended. What the ACC added in swagger, it has yet to gain in substance. The past 10 years in ACC history can be divided into two periods -- pre and post-expansion -- a.k.a Florida State’s reign and Virginia Tech’s coup. Combined, the two programs have won seven of the past 10 ACC titles, moving over only for Maryland, Wake Forest and now Georgia Tech.
The purpose of ACC expansion was to bolster the conference’s image to the likes of the SEC and Big 12. But in the six seasons since adding Virginia Tech, Boston College and prize recruit Miami to the league, the ACC has won just one BCS bowl game, has yet to receive an at-large bid to a BCS bowl, and traditional powers FSU and Miami have yet to meet in the title game. Miami has yet to finish better than third in its division or win a bowl game under coach Randy Shannon, who is 28-23 after three seasons. What the ACC wanted -- national recognition and clout amongst its fellow BCS conferences -- it had earlier in the decade.
It began in 2000 with the last great Florida State team. The Seminoles won their ninth straight ACC title (8-0, 11-2) before losing 13-2 to No. 1 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. FSU extended its NCAA-record of finishing in the AP top five to 14 straight years, and Chris Weinke became only the second ACC player to win the Heisman trophy. It was also a season in which the ACC had 13 All-Americans, 21 players were selected in the NFL draft, and former Virginia coach George Welsh retired as the ACC’s winningest coach with 134 wins.
The following season, the ACC sent a conference-record six teams to bowl games -- a number that now pales in comparison to the NCAA-record 10 the ACC sent in 2008, and falls short of the nine guaranteed bowl tie-ins the ACC now has. The 2001 season belonged to Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, who was a consensus pick for national Coach of the Year, and players like E.J. Henderson, Woodrow Dantzler, and Julius Peppers.
In 2002, the conference celebrated its 50th anniversary with a league-record seven bowl eligible teams and another ACC title for Florida State. NC State became the first school in conference history with a 3,000-yard passer, thanks to Philip Rivers.
In 2003, Bowden surpassed Joe Paterno as college football’s winningest coach with 342 wins. That season, the ACC was the only conference to have a winning bowl record for three straight seasons. Now, the ACC has gone four straight seasons without a winning bowl record. And Bowden has since retired amidst a swirl of controversy, and Florida State hasn’t had a 10-win season since 2003.
Virginia Tech, however, has had six straight 10-win seasons since joining the ACC. The Hokies have compiled a 99-32 record from 2000-09 (62-18 from 2004-09), and finished no worse than second place in the Coastal Division. Boston College has been the best team in the Atlantic Division (two wins ahead of Clemson) and has earned the third-best overall record (26-14) in the conference (behind Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech) since joining in 2005. BC’s 47 overall wins since 2005 is five behind Virginia Tech for the most in the ACC since 2005.
Expansion has treated the ACC well, if you’re a Virginia Tech or Boston College fan. The past decade has given ACC fans plenty to celebrate, but it’s also a reminder of what they’ve been missing.