By AARON BARBA
DURHAM, NC – Duke coach Mike Elko has been around college football long enough to know how the first month of the season can influence the perception of a league’s strength.
That is important in the coming weeks for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The league won, or survived, in some cases, its highest-profile non-conference matchups in Week 1, including Florida State’s wild win against LSU. That gives the ACC a chance in September to build its reputation, hoping to return to this year’s college football playoff while facing uncertainty about its long-term future in a football-driven landscape.
“We have to win football games,” said Elko, who left the Texas A&M staff to take over Duke this fall. “I mean, no one is shying away from that. It’s a competitive market, it’s a competitive landscape in college football.
“But we’re also very quick to hit the panic button on things like this and overreact. We weren’t gone at the start of the season. We certainly haven’t come back after Week 1.”
This week’s schedule includes No. 17 Pittsburgh hosting No. 24 Tennessee and No. 23 Wake Forest visiting Vanderbilt, now with star quarterback Sam Hartman back in the fold, in games against the Southeastern Conference. , while Virginia visits Illinois and Duke visits Northwestern in Big Ten matchups.
Next week, Miami first-year coach Mario Cristobal takes his 15th-ranked Hurricanes to No. 6-ranked Texas A&M in another ACC-SEC pairing.
The ACC got off to a solid start last week. Reigning league champion Pitt beat West Virginia in a “Backyard Fight” revamp. No. 18 North Carolina State and North Carolina recorded road wins against in-state teams that were bowl-eligible last season from Group of Five leagues.
And then there was FSU, which blocked LSU’s tying extra point on the final play.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said he usually focuses on his own team, but he texted Seminoles coach Mike Norvell after watching the FSU-LSU finale.
“Any time the trainers have good wins, it’s good to see,” Narduzzi said. “It’s great for the conference, and I’m sure the commissioner is happy.”
Well, those victories, and the opportunities that lie ahead, certainly come at a critical time for ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips.
Locked in a television deal with ESPN through 2036, Phillips is working to find ways to generate more revenue as the ACC falls further behind the Big Ten and the SEC. The league’s most recent tax return listed a record $578.3 million in total revenue while distributing an average of $36.1 million per school for the 2020-21 season, which included Notre Dame as a full football member. for one year for programming purposes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the ACC’s totals are far outpaced by figures from the SEC ($833.4 million revenue, $54.6 million average pay) and the Big Ten ($679.8 million, $47.9 million). The gaps also increase annually.
There is one way coaches can help: Win.
“You have an opportunity to fly the flag out of the conference, and you have to do it,” said Eric MacLain, an analyst with the ACC Network and former Clemson offensive lineman, adding, “That’s how you change the narrative. That’s how you get a product worth paying for.
However, the games are also just a starting point for North Carolina coach Mack Brown, who worked as an analyst for ESPN after leaving Texas.
“I always felt that, even when it was on television, we made judgments about a conference too soon,” 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 went a step further, pointing to postseason matchups as part of the same equation.
“I think we have a lot of teams in our league that just need to have good years,” Clawson said. “It’s important to start off with some big wins. And I think it’s probably even more important that you end up with some big wins. So these early non-conference games are opportunities, and then the bowl games seem to be what people remember.”
After September, the league must wait until November for its next yardstick matchups against other power conferences, with the annual ACC-SEC Clemson-South Carolina, Louisville-Kentucky and Georgia Tech-Georgia state rivalries. Winning now could put the league in a stronger position to eventually make a case for one of four college football playoff bids after missing the postseason for the first time in its history.
“This has always been a good league,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “This league has been in the playoffs as long as anybody, or longer. And we’ve competed and won — Florida State won (the national title) and we’ve won it. It’s good to see guys have big wins like that in our league.”