When the season opened, the national narrative surrounding the ACC was bleak. It was the fifth-best conference, according to virtually every observer, and was by far the most likely to be left out of the playoff. Now, four weeks into the season, all of that pessimism seems prescient.
Here are the facts:
The ACC ranks fifth among the Power 5 in ESPN’s conference power rankings.
No ACC team sniffed the top 4 in the latest AP poll.
The ACC is 3-10 in games against nonconference Power 5 foes. It has fewer wins against the Power 5 outside of conference than the American Athletic Conference.
One of the projected elites of the league (Georgia Tech) is now 2-2 and in search of answers.
So that’s it, right? The ACC might as well pack up the playoff posters and forget about a national title, because the narrative is set.
Of course, there’s a counter argument to be made, and as SB Nation points out, the advanced metrics actually show the ACC might be the nation’s second-best conference. S&P+, FEI and F/+ metrics all have the ACC behind only the SEC, and those F/+ rankings compiled by Football Outsiders actually have Clemson ranked fourth and Florida State sixth.
Certainly there are critiques of those metrics. They tend to still rely heavily on preseason information this early in the season — but the ACC wasn’t exactly the belle of the ball in the preseason. And the rankings are close — the Big Ten, for example, is right on the ACC’s heels in the average S&P numbers. And let’s be honest: It’s tough to ignore those 10 losses to Power 5 programs on a gut level.
But let’s also look at those losses a little closer, too:
North Carolina dramatically outplayed South Carolina but lost because of some awful play-calling and execution in the red zone.
Just two of those losses were by more than 10 points, one of which was Virginia Tech’s defeat at the hands of Ohio State — a game the Hokies actually led at halftime, before their starting QB went down with an injury.
Only two losses (Duke to Northwestern and Georgia Tech to Notre Dame) came when the ACC was favored. The matchups simply weren’t good for the league.
And while the elites of the ACC — Clemson and FSU — won’t have faced a big nonconference test until the Tigers host Notre Dame on Saturday, the bottom of the league has done OK. Syracuse easily covered the spread against LSU on Saturday. Wake Forest had a chance to beat Indiana in the fourth quarter, despite playing with its backup QB and without star safety Ryan Janvion. The Irish needed a touchdown throw with 12 seconds left to beat Virginia. Only a 57-yard field goal as time expired lifted Iowa over Pitt, despite the fact the Panthers don’t have James Conner.
OK, so we could easily go in the other direction, too. Boise State blew the doors off Virginia. Army nearly beat Wake. Virginia Tech lost to East Carolina yet again.
But the point is, we could do this with any league (hello Auburn and Arkansas), but it’s the ACC that tends to get the brunt of the criticism.
The Big 12 is defined by the three teams at the top, but what about the fact one-fifth of its population is Iowa State and Kansas? If Vandy can take Ole Miss to the brink, and Syracuse can put a scare into LSU, is the SEC West really head and shoulders above everyone else? The Pac-12 has losses to Portland State and Hawaii.
The point is that nitpicking is easy, so the bigger picture should matter much more. And the problem the ACC faces is that that bigger picture is defined by 3-10. There’s plenty of nuance to that record, but how many pundits, voters or committee members are going to dig into that nuance and decide it matters more than the results? After all, is the playoff about rewarding the input or the output?
That probably refocuses the discussion on Saturday. It’s hard to say how much of a boost Clemson or the ACC would get with a win over Notre Dame. It would be easy for the narrative to shift to “Oh, well, all the injuries finally caught up to the Irish,” particularly if Brian Kelly’s crew falls apart down the stretch as it did a year ago. And if the Tigers lose, well, it’ll be one more nail in the ACC’s coffin.
But remember, too, that Ohio State won it all last year — after losing to an ACC team in September no less. And when the regular season ended, the Big Ten was just 6-11 vs. other Power 5 leagues, its marquee win coming from cellar-dweller Indiana, which upset SEC East champ Missouri.
So the hope for the ACC probably isn’t that the committee will do its homework, parse through all the losses and trust the complicated metrics that rarely reach the common fan. The hope should be that the committee learned a lesson from last year, that an elite team can come from any conference, and matchups and injuries and timing can make a big impact on any individual game.
For a league that has fought against the easy narrative for years, however, that’s certainly no sure thing. Because what really stands out to most observers after four weeks of games is that 3-10 record. For most fans, adding context sounds too much like making excuses.