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ACC's bad week not certain doom

by Tribune News Service | September 8, 2021 at 2:44 a.m.

If Jim Phillips didn't have a full grasp of the state of ACC football when he took the job, he saw it with his own eyes last weekend. To put it bluntly: It ain't great.

The new ACC commissioner went from Raleigh, N.C., to Blacksburg, Va., to Atlanta to Charlotte, N.C., to Tallahassee, Fla., to Atlanta in the space of five days to watch the ACC go 1-4 in nonconference games and witness all three of its top-25 teams lose, including No. 3 Clemson and No. 10 North Carolina -- the first conference to have multiple top-10 teams fall at the first hurdle since 1989.

It's probably a tie for the ACC's best nonconference win on opening weekend, between N.C. State looking impressive against a South Florida team that's going to be lucky to win two games or Syracuse beating Ohio (U., not State). The list of contenders is not long. The best win, overall, was unquestionably Virginia Tech.

"Most people had a scrimmage this weekend, and we had a very tough opponent in a difficult environment," North Carolina Coach Mack Brown said. "We have some things we have to go back and fix."

That's certainly one way to admit your top-10 team didn't handle expectations well, but not everyone in the ACC won their scrimmages, either.

Georgia Tech lost at home to Northern Illinois, and Duke became the first Power 5 team to ever lose to UNC-Charlotte. Things aren't going any better against a higher degree of difficulty: The ACC has lost 13 straight against Power 5 nonconference opponents.

It was arguably the ACC's worst opening weekend since 2009 -- Dabo Swinney's first full season at Clemson -- when it went 0-2 against the SEC, saw two of its three top-25 teams lose and lost twice to FCS teams.

This isn't to say there weren't bright spots, and overreacting to opening-week results is a college football pastime as old and cherished as tailgating.

Most importantly, long-dormant powers Florida State and Virginia Tech are showing much-needed signs of life. But despite the terrific TV ratings Sunday night, the Seminoles still lost to Notre Dame, and the Hokies' resurgence came at the expense of North Carolina's (slim) CFP hopes.

The Power 5 losing streak has a good shot of coming to an end this week when N.C. State goes to Mississippi State, Pittsburgh visits Tennessee and Virginia hosts Illinois. The three ACC teams are all favored in those games.

And the ACC certainly wasn't alone -- with the exception of UCLA's win over LSU, it wasn't a great week for The Alliance, which went 1-3 against the SEC, collectively dropped two games to FCS opposition and went 9-5 against the Group of Five, not exactly a way to distinguish itself.

Which says three things:

  1. The ACC indeed has a lot of work to do, and the gap on the field with the SEC remains as large as the gap on paper.

  2. It's just one week, and there's still plenty of football left for Clemson and North Carolina, or even an outsider like N.C. State and Virginia Tech, to make a run at the CFP.

  3. Notre Dame's games against ACC opponents sure feel like conference games.

Phillips will have known all this already. Seeing it in person won't make any difference, even if it might have been a painful few days. This opening weekend was a snapshot of where the ACC stands in 2021, and why Phillips has made upgrading football such a priority for the league as it enters a new era of instability in college athletics.

The key to that is always going to be depth: It can't just be Clemson fighting for national relevance, and the league's bottom programs can't be anchors dragging everyone else down with them. Florida State, N.C. State and Virginia Tech all served notice that they intend to be factors in the ACC race this season.

There's something to be said for that on a weekend not much else went right.

Print Headline: ACC's bad week not certain doom

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