It's common knowledge that the SEC is annually the premier conference in all of college football, though the Big XII may be clinging to a current “king of the hill” claim this fall. It's also pretty evident that the ACC is a league attempting to reconstruct its image. While the two leagues have shared formats, two six-team divisions and a conference championship game, the similarities end there.
When the ACC added Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech via expansion, many expected the new look to be comparable in ways to the SEC. With 12 teams, two divisions and a championship game, the ACC was joining the Big XII and the SEC as the only BCS conferences with that format. Three years into the 12-team setup, results have been disappointing. One could make the argument that national criticism of the ACC peaked over the weekend. After a rough early start, this season has been a statement of sorts for once-maligned conference. League teams have gone 34-10 against non-conference foes in 2008, including a respectable 12-7 versus BCS teams plus Notre Dame.
On the field, we have seen both this season and in years past that there is not yet a comparison between the ACC and SEC. Off the field, it might be worth examining some of the reasons why:
1. School Demographics – The SEC boasts eight flagship state namesake universities. The ACC has three. This is significant through a variety of different resource realms. Affects are extended to funding, enrollment, attention and other key facets. With many of the schools in the SEC being larger than the schools in the ACC, they are better suited, in principle, to support a major college football program. This plays into the SEC schools being more able to be financially competitive when pursuing head coaches and assistants. It also is significant in terms of facility upgrades. Again, many of the SEC schools are principally better suited to provide the foundation for a successful college football program. One third of the ACC, Boston College, Duke, Miami, Wake Forest, are private schools.
2. Location – The ACC is located in major media markets (Atlanta, Boston, D.C., Miami). That is great for ad agencies and television contracts, but, with so many other teams to root for, college football only shares a portion of the coverage. Think about the Boston College Eagles, who peaked as high as second nationally last season; in their own immediate area, you have the New England Patriots, Boston Red Sox, Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins. The same situation applies to Miami, Georgia Tech, NC State, Virginia and Maryland as well. The immediacy of professional sports and even the close proximity of many of the schools within the league, leads to the dividing of fan bases. Considering many ACC schools already have smaller enrollments than SEC schools, this furthers an already established disadvantage. Because conference teams have to fight professional teams in the market, it may take longer for a large, devoted fan base to develop.
3. History – While the SEC has undergone a transformation this generation, recent change in the ACC means the league has yet to develop an identity. Just a few years ago, the ACC was a nine team league. Florida State joined the conference in 1993. A fourth of the conference has only shared affiliation for a handful of years. A third of the league has only been established for 15 years. That instability, compared to the SEC, hinders growth some. This was an unavoidable problem for the ACC, as expansion needed to occur. With a full 12-team alignment in place, progression can begin. That said, the turmoil of the process should not be ignored. New fan bases have been thrown into the mold, new rivalries have to grow and the conference championship game needs time to develop into a national entity. Beyond that, many of the SEC schools have been playing football well for decades upon decades and have a more illustrious history than many of the ACC schools.
The above reasoning does not excuse a 1-9 BCS bowl game record or the two projected division champions (Clemson, Virginia Tech) losing in week one and currently sitting outside of the top 25. The aforementioned characteristics do not have to be limiting. One of the small, private schools mentioned, Wake Forest, has been remarkably successful the last few seasons and very well may represent the ACC Atlantic Division in Tampa this December. The four private schools mentioned are a combined eight games over .500. The ACC is developing top-to-bottom depth in comparison to the SEC. Just like two league teams, Duke and NC State, have losing records. Only the Big East has fewer, and they have three less programs. Entering the weekend of November 22nd, no ACC team has been eliminated from the postseason. It remains mathematically possible that all 12 conference teams could finish the season at .500 or better.
What the ACC currently lacks is a national championship contender. The current parity in the league is tremendous, but there is no team ranked in the national top 21. Every other BCS Conference team has at least two. Some of that can be attributed to youth. Georgia Tech, Miami and North Carolina are three of the youngest teams in college football. There is also a widespread staff reconfiguration still settling in to place. Over half of the league, seven teams, have first or second year head coaches. Another, Florida State, has a head coach in waiting named.
Many, myself included, believe the foundation is in place for the ACC to be very competitive on a national level. Potential can be gauged from the competitiveness of this fall. The talent is improving, as NFL Draft results indicate. New coaches are in place. Facilities are improving. Growth, especially in the ultra competitive, parity-laced landscape of college football today, takes time.
Back to the comparison between the two southern leagues, the ACC was modeled after the SEC and why not? The SEC is what every conference hopes to be, the league is the measuring stick for success in the game today. Despite similar frameworks, the two conferences are not yet on the same level. That sentiment can applied in more ways than one.