By Aaron Bart
DURHAM, NC — Duke coach Mike Elko has been in college football long enough to know how the opening month of the season can affect perceptions of a league’s strength.
That’s important for the Atlantic Coast Conference in the coming weeks.
The league won — or in some cases survived — its highest-profile non-conference matchups in Week 1, including Florida State’s wild win over LSU. That gives the ACC a chance in September to bolster its reputation in hopes of returning to this year’s College Football Playoffs while facing uncertainty about its long-term future in a football-driven landscape.
“We have to win football games,” said Elko, who left Texas A&M to join Duke this fall. “I mean, no one is afraid of that. It’s a competitive market, it’s a competitive landscape in college football.
“But we also pull the panic button very quickly with such things and overreact. We weren’t gone when we came into the season. We certainly didn’t come back after week 1.”
This week’s schedule features No. 17 Pittsburgh and No. 24 Tennessee and No. 23 Wake Forest, who visits Vanderbilt — now with star quarterback Sam Hartman back in the lap — in games against the Southeastern Conference, while Virginia visits Illinois and Duke Northwestern in Big attends Ten Encounters.
Next week, Miami first-year coach Mario Cristobal takes his Hurricanes to No. 15 Texas A&M in another ACC-SEC pairing at No. 6.
The ACC got off to a solid start last week. Reigning league champion Pitt defeated West Virginia in a repeat of the Backyard Brawl. No. 18 North Carolina State and North Carolina achieved road wins against homegrown teams that qualified for the Bowl from last season’s group of five leagues.
And then there was FSU, who blocked LSU’s equalizer point in the last game.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said he is generally focused on his own team but wrote to Seminoles coach Mike Norvell after watching the FSU-LSU finish.
“Every time coaches get good wins, it’s nice to see,” said Narduzzi. “It’s great for the conference and I’m sure the commissioner is happy.”
Well, those victories — and opportunities ahead — certainly come at a critical time for ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips.
Phillips, who has a TV deal with ESPN through 2036, is working to find ways to generate more revenue as the ACC continues to fall behind the Big Ten and the SEC. The league’s most recent tax return reported record revenue of $578.3 million with a distribution averaging $36.1 million per school for the 2020-21 season, including Notre Dame as a one-year full member of football for planning purposes during COVID -19 Pandemic.
However, the ACC totals are detracted from the SEC ($833.4 million in sales, $54.6 million average payout) and the Big Ten ($679.8 million, $47.9 million dollars) significantly exceeded. The gaps are also getting bigger every year.
Coaches can only help in one way: win.
“You have an opportunity to fly the flag out of the conference and you have to do it,” said ACC Network analyst and former Clemson offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain, adding, “That’s how you flip the narrative. So you get a product worth paying for.”
But the games are also just a starting point for North Carolina coach Mack Brown, who worked as an ESPN analyst after retiring from Texas.
“I always felt, even when I was on TV, that we were too early to judge a conference,” he said. “There are people who say because the Pac-12 lost a couple of games this weekend, they’re already out of the playoffs. And that’s not fair.”
Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson took it a step further, pointing to the post-season matchups as part of the same equation.
“I think we have a lot of teams in our league that just have to have good years,” Clawson said. “It’s important to start with some great wins. And I think it’s probably even more important that you finish with great wins. So those early non-conference games are opportunities, and then the bowl games seem to be what people remember.”
After September, the league will have to wait until November for its next bar matchups against other power conferences, with annual ACC-SEC instate rivalries Clemson-South Carolina, Louisville-Kentucky and Georgia Tech-Georgia. A win could now put the league on a stronger footing to eventually qualify for one of four College Football Playoff bids after missing the playoffs for the first time in their history.
“It’s always been a good league,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. “This league has been in the playoffs more times than any other. And we competed and we won — Florida State won (the national title) and we won our league.”