Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer 88d

Early ACC-SEC matchups should continue debate over top conference

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi had his talking points all ready to go before he made his annual trip to ACC media days.

But the day before he was set to arrive in Charlotte, North Carolina, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher took the stage and had something fairly significant to say about his conference.

“We’ve established ourselves as the premiere conference in college football,” Fisher told reporters.

Alarm bells went off around the country, and particularly in the SEC, where the partisans have laid claim to the top spot in the best-conference debate for much of the past decade. How could a league many coaches admit was seen as a “basketball conference” only a few years ago suddenly be at the top of the pile, surpassing Alabama & Co.?

“I was asked a few times, every time I talked to someone,” Narduzzi said during his trip to Bristol, Connecticut, to visit ESPN earlier this week.

“I think the ACC is the best conference in the country. I really do. But I think it’s year by year. I think the last couple of years we’ve proved it. We’re strong. ... When you win the national championship, you get that banner. But who’s going to do it in 2017?”

That’s where the fun part of the debate comes in.

Sure, the SEC dominated the ACC from 2010-15, going 32-21. And, yes, the ACC turned the tables last season, winning 10 of 14 matchups. But now comes a fresh start, and we’ll know right away where the conference rivalry stands.

Week 1 will give us Florida State-Alabama, Georgia Tech-Tennessee and NC State-South Carolina. In Week 2, it’s Clemson-Auburn and ACC part-timer Notre Dame versus Georgia.

In Mark Schlabach’s most recent Way-Too-Early Top 25, he has five teams from the SEC and five from the ACC, with Florida State No. 2 and Alabama No. 3.

Although it’s tempting to say that the matchup of Fisher and Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban will go a long way toward determining conference bragging rights, Fisher doesn’t see it that way. Instead, he’s taking the long view.

“I don’t think you settle it in one game because you’re not talking about one team -- you’re talking about a conference,” Fisher said. “And I think you’re not talking about one year -- you’re talking about five years. Look at what we’ve done in the last five years: two national championships, played in the last four, two Heismans, runner-up.

"The quarterbacks in the league change it. Think about this: You had Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson, and [Watson] wasn’t even the first quarterback in the league drafted. Go look at the head-to-head meetings through the conferences -- us, the Big Ten, all of them -- and we’ve got a dominant winning record. In the playoff and New Year's Six games, we’re 8-3.”

Saban, for his part, steered clear of the conversation.

“We have a lot of good teams in the SEC,” he said. “The SEC’s record stands for itself. But I’m not here to evaluate that.”

Pushed on the subject, Saban called it a “made-up” debate by “you all in the media.”

Although that might be partially true, it isn't the whole story. For the record, no one asked Fisher whether the ACC is the best conference in college football; he declared it in his opening remarks.

Wake Forest coach Dave Lawson called it a “good, healthy debate.”

But Miami coach Mark Richt, who spent roughly a decade in the SEC at Georgia before rejoining his alma mater, homed in on the real reason for recent conference flag-waving.

“I think most everything is about recruiting,” Richt said. “So if a league wants to say, ‘We’re the best,’ and convince everybody of that, it makes it that much harder to win the [recruiting] battles. It’s probably why coaches would be more vocal about it.

“[In] 2016, if you can somehow measure who had the best season as a conference, I think you would have to say it’s the ACC. But does that mean you’re the best every year? You have to go year by year, in my opinion. But we have enough talent as players and coaches.”

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