Thursday, October 20, 2005

ACCidental death

Allow me a brief detour into college football. When the Atlantic Coast Conference announced it was adding Virginia Tech and Miami a couple years ago, Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen spoke for many in the ACC when he said:
"I think there is no question that the addition of Miami and Virginia Tech strengthens our league from a football perspective. These are two national powers when it comes to football, and with the advances our league has made in the last few years, I believe it makes us one of the strongest conferences in college football. The only drawback I see for myself, personally, is that I really don't like playing against my close friends." (emphasis added)

Friedgen's Maryland Terrapins won the ACC football championship in 2001 -- the only time since Florida State joined the conference in 1992 that the Seminoles didn't win or share the league title. For a decade, Florida State had essentially used the other ACC schools as sparring partners to help it warm up for the national championship game. Finally, finally, after years of frustration, Maryland broke through and took the crown in 2001 (although they did it without beating Florida State).

Hope they enjoyed it in College Park, because its never going to happen again.

In 2004, the first year of the expanded ACC, the final conference standings had Virginia Tech in first, Florida State in second and Miami in third. The ACC added Boston College this year and split into two divisions. We're now seven weeks into the college football season. The top two teams in the ACC's Atlantic Division? Boston College and Florida State. The top two teams in the ACC's Coastal Division? Virginia Tech and Miami.

Is the league stronger, as Friedgen said? Oh my, yes. So strong that charter members of the 52-year-old ACC -- Maryland, Wake Forest, N.C. State and the others -- have gone from having a slim hope of winning the conference title to giving up all hope. Is it one of the strongest conferences in college football, as Friedgen said? Yep. Every year, Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech are in the mix when you talk Top 10 rankings. And now they'll have league games against Duke and Maryland and North Carolina to pad their records. And the drawbacks for Friedgen? True, he'll have to get used to competing against his close friend Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech. But he'll also have to get used to -- and come up with a good answer to -- a new question from administrators, boosters and fans. They used to ask, year after year, "Why can't you beat Florida State?" Now they'll ask, year after year, "Why can't you beat Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College?"

I'm not saying expansion is bad in college football. I don't really care either way. Expanding the league from nine teams to 12 means the ACC can hold a lucrative championship game and sign rich television agreements, and isn't that the point of college athletics? But I am saying that the weaker sisters (like, say, Maryland) derive very little benefit on the field.

When the Big Ten expanded, it added just one team, Penn State, with which most of the teams in the conference could compete. The addition was organic and easily absorbed. When the old Big 8 Conference became the Big 12, it didn't add four dominating programs; it added a decent range of programs: Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor. Yeah, Iowa State and Kansas will probably lose to Texas, but there's no reason they can't beat Baylor or A&M. When the ACC went looking for schools to poach from the Big East, they wanted only the best -- or, rather, the BE$T -- football schools. Maintaining competitive balance wasn't of any concern. The ACC originally came courting Miami, B.C. and Syracuse, but when Virginia Tech shook her fanny, Syracuse got dropped like a bad habit. ("The whole process, quite frankly, stinks," said Syracuse A.D. Jake Crouthamel.)

The Syracuse debacle was especially telling, because the ACC had traditionally been a basketball conference, and Syracuse would have been a perfect addition for hoops purposes. The Orange had just won the NCAA men's tournament; they would have been tremendous competition not just for the other recent champs in the ACC -- North Carolina, Duke and Maryland -- but for the entire league. For the most part, the ACC had no weak basketball teams, save Florida State, which hadn't been brought into the league for basketball reasons.

But now the ACC is a football conference, first and foremost. And it's a football conference in which those teams that have been playing ACC football for 50 years have no shot. Whatever you say, Fridge!

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