NORTHWESTERN COMMAND -The rift between the haves and the have-nots is growing in the ACC, for better and for worse.
The good news for the ACC is that it has two programs recruiting and performing at high levels in Florida State and Clemson. The bad news for the ACC is it has only two football programs performing at high, SEC-like levels: Florida State and Clemson.
The talent divide is growing in the Atlantic Division and the ACC and it is beginning to show on the field. This is a mix of good and bad implications for the conference.
Consider these numbers from today’s story in the Post and Courier: from 2010-12, Florida State signed 35 ESPNU top 150 recruits, Clemson signed 19 and the rest of the Atlantic Division just only five.
The talent divide is greater than from 2006-09 when Clemson signed 18 top 150 prospects, FSU signed 14 and the rest of the division signed eight.
The gap between elite talent doubled in the last three years alone in the division. We’ve written about this before. But now it is impacting on-field results dramatically.
Florida State and Clemson are a combined 16-2 this season, the rest of the division is 16-20.
There’s a reason Maryland is a 31-point underdog Saturday.
The good news is the conference might be on the verge of having two consistent top 10 programs in Florida State and Clemson. Boston College coach Frank Spaziani is right when he said earlier this year that conferences need star teams. These are two more star programs than the ACC has had in many years. These are the types of teams that can carry a conference flag. For Florida State and Clemson, it is easier to run the table in a weak conference.
The bad news is there are simply not enough quality ACC teams to produce the kind of consistent must-see television games that drive television revenue and interest. Clemson is 8-1 yet relegated to ESPNU this week. The bad news is Florida State and Clemson could be hurt by conference strength of schedule. The bad news is down the road this could create instability and fuel further realignment rumors.
Furthermore, Florida State and Clemson are myth busting the idea that it was parity that had restricted the conference. We are seeing what happens when you introduce two strong teams into a weak conference: a lot of blowouts. (Yes, I know Florida State tripped up at N.C. State but this is still college football).
It’s not just the ACC Atlantic that is littered with have notes. The entire Coastal Division is in decline.
*Miami is young and talented and in the long term it should return to elite status thanks to its recruiting base. But it is facing NCAA sanctions and its home stadium is becoming an issue as the Hurricanes are struggling to put even 40,000 fans in the stands for home games.
*Daily Press columnist David Teel wondered how long Virginia Tech will in decline in his blog yesterday. Even elite programs like Notre Dame and Nebraska eventually go through periods of drought. Va. Tech is in its own recession. Will it be short or extended?
*North Carolina has potential but also has NCAA problems and is in a state with four other FBS programs.
*Are we seeing the limits – i.e. recruiting – of what the Paul Johnson can do at Georgia Tech?
In short, the Coastal is a mess. At the root of it is a talent problem. Consider the entire Coastal Division signed 36 top 150 prospects from 2010-12, the Seminoles nearly matched that alone (35).
Of course this is just continuing a wider historical trend.
As Larry Williams pointed out during the Tigers’ impressive 1987-1990 run they faced and defeated just one ranked ACC team. The ACC has never been a football-first conference though it has tried, correctly, to go all-in after football over the last decade by adding Miami, Va. Tech and the agreement with Notre Dame. But the ACC has also added Boston College, Syracuse and Pittsburgh three programs that will help restore the basketball product but also threaten water down the conference in the more important sport, football, and threaten to erode long-time rivalries like Clemson-North Carolina.
Clemson and Florida State can be elite, top-10 teams in a weak conference. They’ve been here before. Clemson in the 80s, Florida State in the 90s. But they are going to have to prove their bonafides, prove doubters wrong, by winning outside the conference. Clemson and Florida State will be defined by what they do against their in-state SEC rival neighbor (S. Carolina and Florida) by what they do in bowl play. They don’t have margin for error in these opportunities. It was important the ACC revert back to an eight-game conference schedule so Clemson can continue to play programs like Georgia and Auburn.
In the end it’s better for the ACC to have two elite teams than none at all. But imbalance can be dangerous. Revealing a true lack of parity can create more meaningful divides.