Duke coach David Cutcliffe, an Alabama grad who has earned both ACC and SEC Coach of the Year honors during his career, said recently that he would like to see an ACC-SEC challenge in football.
"And I wouldn’t care who we got,” he said. “I think that’s the kind of intensity our fan base and our players need to be exposed to."
He’s not alone in that theory.
As the ACC continues to struggle to earn respect on a national level, Cutcliffe and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, two men with coaching backgrounds in the SEC, agree that one major advantage the SEC has is playing on a national stage every single Saturday. While teams like Florida State and Clemson are recruiting on par with the SEC and dominating within their own league, neither of them are routinely playing the kind of daunting schedules in unforgiving environments like the ones that have been created throughout stadium giants in the SEC. That has resulted in letdowns when the spotlight finally is on the ACC in the league’s marquee nonconference games.
“One of the biggest advantages they have in the SEC that people do not talk about -- and I’ve always said it was true -- you’ve got 10 stadiums with about 85,000 and they’re packed every time you play,” Fisher said. “Those kids get used to playing in those atmospheres and environments. We used to say it all the time -- I was there. We’d play a kickoff game, a conference championship game, or a national championship game. Those environments were no different than it was every week. That influences being able to handle big games. That atmosphere is different.
“It has a huge impact on the outcome of games, and people do not realize that. It makes you grow as a player, as a coach, and as an administration when you fill that stadium up, no matter who you play. It’s one of the advantages no one talks about that I think is significant of all those things. Who are the two guys who talk about it? Cutcliffe and me. We were in the league for years. We saw it work.”
As the ACC enters the 2013 season, it does so on an upswing off the field. The conference has given itself a face-lift with the grant of rights, a solidified partnership with the Orange Bowl, the additions of Louisville, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse, and an enhanced bowl lineup. The ACC has positioned itself for stability among the other power five conferences, but it will continue to play in the shadow of the neighboring SEC -- like every other conference -- until it finds a way to beat those opponents on a more consistent basis.
Since 1953, in the entire history of the conference, the ACC has had only two seasons in which it had a winning record against opponents ranked in the Associated Press Top 25: 1998 (8-4) and 1999 (6-5). Since 1996, the ACC has gone 50-77 against the SEC, and hasn’t had a winning record against it since 2003 (5-4).
Therein lies the problems with the perception of the ACC.
Or is the perception skewed?
“In the last couple of years, we’ve lost to Georgia, South Carolina has beaten Clemson, and it’s become a big deal,” said Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson. “I can remember in ’08 when we beat Georgia and Clemson beat South Carolina, it wasn’t such a big deal. Florida State has beaten Florida every year but one of the last three or four years. We played Mississippi State twice since I’ve been at Tech, won both of those games. We played Vanderbilt, won that game. Now, if you’re talking about Alabama and LSU, nobody beats them. They’ve been pretty good. The biggest difference is at the top, but if you look as a whole, there’s not as big of an advantage as you’d think.”
Cutcliffe and Fisher maintain there is an advantage to playing in the SEC atmospheres on a weekly basis.
“I tell people all the time, and it didn’t take me long to figure this out: All of those years in the SEC, why does the SEC dominate the big games, the national championship scene, the big, intense bowl games, the big intense preseason kickoff games?” Cutcliffe said. “It’s because every week in the regular season is just like that. Game week, not just the game atmosphere, not just the games people know about. Ole Miss-LSU is an incredible experience for every player at Ole Miss, every player at LSU. Obviously Florida-Georgia, Tennessee-Alabama, Tennessee-Florida in the day. It’s just amazing. And it prepares those staffs and those kids for those moments. We are sitting there ready. We’ve got something to say and something to prove, if you will, but it’s got to become a 'we' thing. The intensity surrounding ACC football has to elevate.
“I’ll use ACC basketball as a great example. In its purest, best form, those regular-season games in our league in basketball were often better than Final Fours. Those atmospheres prepared those Duke teams and Maryland teams and North Carolina teams for the national platform. I think we need to continue to try and create that type of intensity in the ACC.”
Week 1 matchups with Clemson against Georgia and Virginia Tech facing Alabama will do just that.