Opportunity knocks for the ACC

A thin layer of dust-covered office desks and chairs this summer at the ACC headquarters in Greensboro, N.C., as staff members and high-ranking officials went about their workdays in makeshift offices amid the noise of hammers and drills. Even commissioner John Swofford has had to move to a temporary office, as a $1.1 million renovation project takes place.

The ACC, in so many ways, has literally been under construction.

ACC headquarters, much like the conference itself, is expanding. The building will grow another 4,200 square feet, including new offices and more space for video production and game-day operations. With the additions of Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Louisville and Notre Dame, the ACC staff had to grow, too. Over the past two years, there have been so many changes to the league and its membership that the conference has literally undergone a makeover.

The question is whether or not the ACC will actually look any different next week when three of its teams open the season against SEC powers Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

"In sports, winning matters," Swofford said, "and the more you win, the stronger you are perceived to be."

Off the field, Swofford has made the ACC a winner. League officials and member schools have done everything right to put the conference in a position to remain one of the "power five" conferences, and survive and thrive in the ever-changing era of expansion and with the playoff looming. Swofford, who said in July that the league is "the strongest it has ever been," has negotiated an enhanced bowl lineup and extended the ACC's partnership with the Discover Orange Bowl. The decision to replace outgoing Maryland with Louisville was a home run, but there was no single tactical move more important to the future of the conference than the grant of rights, which ensured no defections to other conferences and locked in stability.

The ACC, as Duke coach David Cutcliffe said, "is sitting on ready."

Problem is, the SEC is ready.

Not many outside of the program are giving Virginia Tech much of a fighting chance in its opener against defending national champ and top-ranked Alabama. No. 5 Georgia travels to No. 8 Clemson in what will be the biggest game in the country next Saturday, and North Carolina travels to No. 6 South Carolina to kick off the season on Thursday night. Despite all of the positive changes the ACC has undergone in recent years, an 0-3 record on the big stage in Week 1 would elicit the "same old ACC" yawns from conference critics, regardless of how much bigger and better the league has become from a business standpoint.

The perception would remain the same: a conference oozing potential from top-ranked recruiting classes that continues to fail to reach it.

"From a league standpoint, we're in great shape in every respect that's controllable," Swofford said. "But the games are important, particularly in terms of perception. One weekend doesn't make a season, but it can certainly help. A lot of it is who you're playing and when you're playing them. With the kinds of scheduling our schools are doing, they're stepping up to the plate and creating opportunities. Hopefully our teams will take advantage of those opportunities and win our fair share."

That has yet to be the case.

Since 1953, in the history of the conference, the ACC has had only two seasons in which it finished with a winning record against nonconference opponents ranked in The Associated Press Top 25. In each of the past three seasons, the ACC has won only two games against ranked nonconference opponents (2-11 in 2012, 2-8 in 2011 and 2-12 in 2010). The conference deserves credit for its aggressive scheduling, though, as nobody lines up against the SEC more than the ACC.

Last year, there were some encouraging signs, as the ACC ended 2012 with Florida State as the Discover Orange Bowl champs, Clemson beat LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and the league finished with a 4-2 bowl record.

Those are results, according to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, that the league can point to as proof against the perception it falls flat on the big stage. "It's not rocket science," Swinney said. "There's a perception that you would think the ACC is the bottom-dwellers, and that's so far from reality. The SEC's been top shelf, and they've earned that through getting it done on the field. We're right behind the SEC in recruiting, we're right behind the SEC in developing our players for the NFL, we're right behind the SEC in Pro Bowlers, yet we're tops among all conferences academically. It's an outstanding conference."

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said that in spite of the ACC's struggles against marquee opponents, he believes the perception across the country is that the ACC is "stronger than it's ever been in the history of the conference."

"Everything John Swofford has done for this league in the last year has made tremendous strides," Fedora said. "You bring in Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame for five games, we have really strengthened our entire league. But at the same time, we still have a ways to go. To do that, you have to win. Opening weekend will be a big weekend for us. We've got some marquee games. We can make a lot of strides in that opening weekend."

Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe says that the ACC doesn't need to beat every ranked opponent it plays -- it just needs one team to separate from the rest and be a true national title contender.

"When you start looking at, can Clemson beat South Carolina, can Georgia Tech beat Georgia, that kind of stuff, I don't think that's as much of it as we need a team to be dynamite," Grobe said. "When we added Florida State and then Miami, those two teams had been on great runs, and you assumed that was going to continue. And it might start again, you don't know when it might start again.

"To me, the perception of the ACC is really tainted because we haven't had a team play for a national championship in a while, and that's what's gotta happen," Grobe said. "I don't care who it is, but somebody -- it would be fun if it was the Deacs -- we need somebody to carry the banner. It's gotta be one team. I don't think it matters about three or four teams, can they beat the big boys, but somebody has got to make a run at the whole thing. That's where image changes."

It could change in Death Valley if Clemson beats Georgia. The Tigers are the ACC's top-ranked team heading into the season and have the best shot at contending for a national title. ACC fans have heard similar stories of optimism before, though, and since 1996, the ACC has gone 50-77 against the SEC, and hasn't had a winning record against it since 2003 (5-4).

"It's one league winning," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said.

Everyone else is playing catch-up.

"I think we're as close as anybody else is," Swofford said. "The SEC deserves a lot of credit for what their best teams have accomplished in recent years. It's a phenomenal string, and their best teams have performed extraordinarily well from a national perspective and at a level no other league in the country has matched. There are a lot of good football teams out there. A lot of us have a great deal of depth in our leagues, and we're one of those, but the measurement a lot of people look at is how does your best team do, or your best couple of teams. The SEC's teams have done extraordinarily well in winning national championships. We play them more than any other league. In addition to that, our nonconference schedules are stronger than any other conference's. From a national championship perspective, everybody is chasing the SEC right now."

By the end of September, Swofford and the rest of the ACC staff will be in their new and improved offices. In just one week, though, they'll find out if they truly got an upgrade.