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ACC's Week 1 gains are overwhelmed by its losses

The ACC had a pair of near-misses against the SEC, with North Carolina falling to South Carolina and Louisville losing to Auburn. AP Photo/Chuck Burton

When the curtain finally rose on North Carolina’s 2015 campaign, much of the hope built throughout the offseason with the arrival of Gene Chizik to coach the defense and the carryover of 10 starters from last year’s offense was on display.

The ground game exploded, with Elijah Hood appearing to be a star in the making.

The defense was vastly improved, holding South Carolina to just 394 yards -- better than the Tar Heels fared against all but two FBS opponents last season.

And when it was over, Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier stepped in front of the assembled media and pronounced his team lucky.

“The football gods smiled on us,” Spurrier said after South Carolina hung on for a 17-13 win in Charlotte. “North Carolina is going to win a lot of games this year.”

And perhaps that’s true, but the only thing that mattered in the moment was that, thanks to some questionable coaching decisions and three Marquise Williams interceptions, UNC didn’t win that game.

The same silver linings exist in Louisville, where the Cardinals’ stout defense made one-time Heisman candidate Jeremy Johnson look awful, picking off three of his 21 passes. Freshman QB Lamar Jackson emerged as a weapon with his legs, and after a slow start, Brandon Radcliff and the ground game looked strong.

And yet, Louisville, too, was left wondering what might have been had two first-half turnovers hadn’t sparked Auburn’s lackluster offense or had a confounding timeout not been called in the game’s waning moments.

As Week 1 draws to a close, the ACC can argue that it stood toe to toe with the SEC and, in both games, looked like the better team. But what matters is that it came away with two losses.

And so, with Virginia Tech and Ohio State still waiting to put the finishing touches on the season’s opening week, here’s where things stand among the Power 5 conferences.

SEC: 12-1

Big 12: 8-2

ACC: 10-3

Pac-12: 7-5

Big Ten: 7-6

It’s not so bad for the ACC, really. And given that Virginia Tech still could pull off a signature win Monday night, and the league’s presumed elite -- Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech -- have yet to face a marquee nonconference foe, the season is hardly lost.

But imagine if UNC and Louisville had followed through on the promise their performances afforded. Imagine if Larry Fedora had insisted Hood get the ball deep in South Carolina territory in the fourth quarter. Imagine if Bobby Petrino hadn’t asked Jackson to throw the first pass of the season, which was picked off by Auburn. Imagine if things had gone just a little differently.

The ACC might be looking at a 12-1 opening weekend, with head-to-head wins over the SEC in their last six regular-season contests.

The SEC might be 10-3, explaining away another defeat by a one-time playoff darling in Auburn.

As hard as the ACC has fought to change the narrative, those numbers would have made an emphatic statement. For all the pundits who have predicted a dull December and January for the ACC, how could they make the case that this was the Power 5’s bottom-feeder?

Eleven points were the difference between the ACC dealing a devastating blow to SEC superiority or spending another season muttering about what might have been. Eleven points in two games in which the ACC teams turned the ball over four times in the red zone, in which both ACC teams outgained their SEC foe, in which the opposing quarterbacks were a combined 23-for-48 with just four completions of 20 yards or more. Eleven points.

During the games this opening weekend, the ACC endlessly advertised its impressive credentials in bowl berths, NFL draft picks and award winners, but the problem is that the conference narratives aren’t written with nuance. If that were the case, fans would be talking about how the ACC made the SEC look vulnerable.

No, what matters is wins and losses, and when the ACC had its chance in Week 1 to send a clear message to the rest of the college football world, it missed out by 11 points.