Ranking The ACC Football Programs: The Decade Ahead

As a follow-up to my previous post arguing for the need to realign the ACC divisions, we will now look at which of those programs appear poised for the most success over the next five to 10 years. From one to 14, here’s how I see the ACC programs stacking up. I attempted to remove my orange tinted glasses, and write fairly objectively.

1. Florida State University – The Seminoles and their “Bacon Man” mascot began dominating the Atlantic Coast Conference immediately upon joining, winning the conference in 11 of their first 12 seasons. They then faded back to the pack with Virginia Tech winning three conference championships in between FSU’s two most recent ACC titles (eight years apart). Despite the disappearing dominance, The Seminoles have brought in the top ranked recruiting class in the ACC each year since 2009 (Rivals). That’s a pretty outstanding job and will keep them extremely competitive.

Although Defensive Coordinator, Mark Stoops, heads to Kentucky where he will become a head coach, FSU will remain the most talented team in the ACC more years than not. Stoops was only at FSU for three years and I expect the Noles to take the loss in stride. Players were reportedly very happy and proud of their coach, and not at all bitter or hurt.

I do not expect the Seminoles to be very special in 2013 after losing so many key parts (25 seniors including the starting QB, plus multiple coaches), but over the next decade there is no reason they shouldn’t be a very strong program and towards the top of the ACC almost every year.

FSU Bacon

The proud bacon men of Florida State should compete with Clemson each year for the Atlantic Division title.

2. Clemson University – A strong case could be made for the Clemson Tigers belonging atop the ACC “Decade Ahead” rankings, however Clemson is still in the process of establishing a consistent winning program. Just two years ago they finished 6-7 with a Meineke Car Care Bowl loss to South Florida. Since then, Tajh Boyd has taken over at QB and Chad Morris at offensive coordinator. Nobody misses the classic “Parker scrambles right, throws across his body, intercepted by the linebacker” play that was the trademark of the 2010 season.

Clemson is without a doubt a program on the rise. Dabo Swinney, unlike his predecessor, has not been afraid to let poorly performing coaches go (see Rob Spence, Billy Napier, Vic Koenning, and Kevin Steele) and created an environment of accountability. In addition, he has given up part of his own salary to better compensate assistant coaches. As a result, Clemson has one of the best (and best compensated) coaching staffs in the country.

Dabo has traveled an unpaved road to reach his current level of success (insert moving, emotional article here), and I suspect his level of loyalty and success will keep him in Clemson for the next decade (assuming he can occasionally beat Columbia). Issues for long-term consistency crop up when looking at the assistant coaches. Although Dabo has done everything possible to make sure they are well compensated, one (Charlie Harbinson) has already bolted to join Gus Malzahn’s staff at Auburn. Chad Morris interviewed for the head coaching openings at NC State and Auburn, was rumored to have a shot at the USF job, and now is a prime candidate for the open position at Texas Tech–where DC Brent Venables has also been discussed as a target.

As long as the staff at Clemson can stick together, I believe the ACC’s two best teams are Clemson and Florida State. They could trade ACC Championships for years to come (Clemson winning in odd-numbered years and FSU taking the even-numbered years). In fact, if both coordinators, Tajh, and Hopkins stay on board, I believe the 2013 season will end with an ACC Championship for the Tigers. Beating UGA and South Carolina will be tough, but FSU should be down and the Noles will have to travel to Death Valley, a place they never win. Now that Clemson has learned to avoid losses to bad teams, I expect them to have an undefeated 2013 ACC season…given they keep the staff intact and juniors don’t leave early.

Clemson’s program is as strong as it’s been in years as they transition in their new Athletic Director, Dan Radakovich. Dabo has poured his heart and soul into the program, and as a result, we’ve seen great progress. The strategy of having a CEO at head coach and using well paid, superstar assistants is thoughtful, but problems with continuity could stunt growth if major waves of change hit every time an assistant takes a head coaching position. That said, it won’t be another 20 years before Clemson wins another ACC title.

3. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University – The Turkey was cooked before Thanksgiving this year, wasn’t it? It’s been a long time since the Hokies have looked so bad, but it’s hard to believe it will last. At the moment (12/10/2012) their 2013 recruiting class is ranked second in the ACC.

Given their placement in the much weaker Coastal Division, where they compete primarily against Miami and Georgia Tech, it’s hard envision a Frank Beamer program not playing for the ACC Crown in Charlotte more often than not. It appears that there won’t be major changes on the coaching staff, and continuity, will reign supreme in Blacksburg, as it has for a very long time. With the division alignment the way it is, VT may find more than their fair share of success.

4. The University of Louisville – The Cardinals will join the ACC in 2014 and assume the Terrapins’ spot in the ACC Atlantic. They will be immediately disadvantaged by being placed in the more competitive division, but they have become serious about football and have an ever strengthening program. That seriousness was tested when The University of Tennessee made a play for Charlie Strong, their top-notch football coach. Many felt that Louisville, still being a “second-rate” job, would lose their head coach. To the contrary, Charlie Strong, already making $2.3 million (yes, that’s more than Dabo Swinney, and about what he would make if he didn’t defer money to his assistants) will likely get rewarded with an even sweeter 8-year contract from Louisville AD Tom Jurich.

Louisville already has one of the biggest budgets in the ACC with the most valuable basketball program in the nation according to Forbes (their average attendance is more than double the capacity of beautiful Littlejohn Coliseum in Clemson). They completed renovations of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium before the 2010 season and it appears to be quite the venue. They certainly have the resources to compete. In Strong’s tenure, they have shown the ability to recruit, not at the level of FSU or Clemson, but as good as the next tier of ACC programs. Moving to a stronger conference should only help that cause.

5. North Carolina State University – The Wolfpack have an AD in Deborah Yow that believes they can be more than an 7-5 football team, and in refusing to accept mediocrity, she terminated Tom O’Brien. Not all seemingly strong hires work out (see Randy Edsall for evidence), but Dave Doeren, the former Northern Illinois Head Coach, does appear to be a solid hire. They’ll be tasked with facing FSU, Clemson, and Louisville every season. I don’t believe they can be a consistent 10-win team, but it’s not unfathomable for them to hit that mark “once in a blue moon.” It’s challenging to forecast how good they will be in the coming years under control of the new Doeren regime but, Coach O’Brien didn’t leave the cupboard bare.

6. University of Miami – The biggest question about this program is the pending investigation that has led them to voluntarily pass on two straight bowl games and their rightful place in the 2012 ACC Championship game. Recruiting is down this year, but it is due to the lack of room on the young roster. They’ll return most of their talent and should be very competitive next season and for years to come–assuming Al Golden stays aboard and they survive the NCAA investigation. I like Miami to win the Coastal in 2013.

7. Georgia Institute of Technology – 108 years after John Heisman left Clemson for an upgrade to coach at Georgia Tech, Athletic Director Dan Radakovich left Georgia Tech for an upgrade to manage the Clemson athletic department. Georgia Tech has a great football history (Four claimed national championships, 16 conference titles), but is in a bad spot. Paul Johnson’s inability to recruit has caught up with them, and his biggest mark of success, a 2009 ACC championship, was vacated due to impermissible benefits. The Yellow Jackets haven’t cracked the top seven in the ACC recruiting rankings (Rivals) since 2007. Now that Chan Gailey’s recruits are gone the glaring weakness of Paul Johnson and staff is revealed. The triple-option experiment, after a hopeful start, seems to be failing. If Paul Johnson is let go, they’ll have a long road to build a talented team that can compete with their rivals at their own game, modern football, but if they hang on to Paul Johnson they’ll be no more than an 8-win team.

8. Boston College – Paul Johnson’s weakness is Steve Addazio’s strength. Addazio, the former Temple Head Coach and 2010 recruiter of the year will take over at Boston College. He was an offensive coach on Urban Meyer’s Florida staff, which automatically qualifies him to be the leader in Chesnut Hill. He has a lot of ground to make up. They lost to Army this year. They are very, very bad, but they will get a lot better, and in the toughening Atlantic, they better hurry.

9. The University of Pittsburgh – Paul Chryst, former Wisconsin Offensive Coordinator, took over this season and guided the Panthers to a bowl game. His philosophy seems to be a good fit for the type of blue-collar football you’d expect a team in Pittsburgh to play. Pitt actually has an extremely impressive football history. They claim nine National Championships, with their 1915, 1916, and 1918 championship teams coached my Pop Warner. They count the 3rd most NFL Hall of Famers as their alumni. Their most recent National Title though, came in 1976, and by the looks of the crowd at this 2011 game against Syracuse, the passion isn’t what it was. The Panthers average about 50,000 in attendance, which puts them in the middle of the pack in the ACC. Their potential, in many aspects, is limited by their off-campus stadium that they share with the Pittsburgh Steelers. They generate less than $60 million in athletic revenue, putting them above only Wake Forest. Do I believe that with some stability at head coach they can be a solid program that typically ends their season a bowl game? Yes. Do I believe they can reclaim national relevance? No.

10. The University of Virginia – I like Mike London a lot (see here), but I agree with Collin Cowherd is right about the program being soft (this is an absolute must listen, click here). If UVA is capable of rekindling the glimpses of success the saw in the ’88-’98 decade of relevance Mike London will be the one to get them there.

11. Syracuse University – The Orangemen (yes, I am going to call them that. I’m sorry if that offends you) are “New York’s College Team,” at least that’s what their ad in Yankee Stadium says. The only problem is that New York is a pro sports area. In fact, the whole the Northeast is more interested in professional sports which makes me wonder why the ACC continues to expand northward. Louisville is the lone basketball school I have ranked in the top 10, and Syracuse is a basketball school that struggles to fill the Carrier Dome to 40,000 fans. I don’t believe their indoor basketball/football stadium is an attractive place to play (poor recruiting agrees), and I don’t think they have the potential to bring back the glory days of their 1959 National Championship or berth in the 1998 Orange Bowl. My hope is that their inclusion in the ACC will bring the Pinstripe Bowl into the ACC Bowl line-up.

12. The University of North Carolina – The academic scandal at UNC is absolutely despicable and if the NCAA doesn’t come down extremely hard on the Tar Heels it’ll show that they’re not concerned about student athletes actually learning, but rather just insuring they don’t make money. That said, Larry Fedora is a very good coach and if they find their way out of trouble, they will be ok. You can bump them up about five spots if they avoid more probation, but it seems like it could get bad.

13. Duke University – The Blue Devils have a great coach in David Cutcliffe, and he figures to stay in Durham for quite a long time. Further, they have some major renovations to bring Wallace Wade Stadium up to respectability. They have earned a berth in the Belk Bowl, their first Bowl Game since 1994. Duke still can’t recruit, but with Cutcliffe at the helm they are an improving program.

14. Wake Forest University – I love the Deacons, and I love Winston-Salem, but there is no reason to not think Wake Forest is a program on the decline. They are currently 10th in the ACC (current members) in recruiting and they’ve stopped over-performing for their talent level.

They were always (at least in my view) that small Baptist school that was easy to root for, but now they’re not even doing things the right way. Murmurs are that players weren’t “all in” during their last game against Vanderbilt. They don’t make any money on football and are at the bottom of the ACC (current members) in revenue. The Orange Bowl season six years ago was more of an aberration than the norm. It was just their second conference championship in school history. They have a losing record overall at 426–615–33 (.412) and actually have a losing record in 12 years under Jim Grobe. I like Wake Forest a lot, but having a the smallest student population in the BCS, an off-campus stadium, and a culture that is more concerned with basketball are all major factors limiting their ability to put a consistent winner in BB&T Field. I wish them well. Their couple of fans deserve it.

Unfortunately, if conference realignment strikes again, God forbid, and college football gets completely shaken up, then this all goes out the window. Four of the top five programs in my rankings are in the Atlantic division, underscoring the need for conference realignment. Given that I didn’t spend hours upon hours pouring over revenue figures and contractual obligations before publishing these rankings (although I did to a small extent), I am open to adjusting these rankings based on your comments. Please leave your comments/complaints below.

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6 thoughts on “Ranking The ACC Football Programs: The Decade Ahead

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