Friedlander: Why the ACC needs Miami, FSU, Virginia Tech to be great now
The SEC got things started last summer by poaching Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12.
The Big Ten followed suit this year by raiding the Pac-12 to add UCLA and Southern Cal.
With the ACC seemingly insulated from such external threats by a draconian grant of rights that runs through 2036, or at least until somebody’s lawyers figure out a way around it, the conference is now on the clock to make the next move.
But what to do?
Commissioner Jim Phillips said at the ACC’s preseason kickoff event recently that “all options are on the table” before immediately hedging his bets by adding that “making a move just to make a move doesn’t make any sense.”
It was one of the few moments of clarity provided by Phillips during an otherwise sugar coated session with the media in Charlotte that did little to instill confidence in the league’s long-term viability.
Further expansion only makes sense if the new additions significantly strengthen the ACC’s product and future bargaining position. With the most valuable assets already off the table, bringing in more teams could end up having the opposite effect.
The likes of West Virginia, Oklahoma State, UCF and what’s left of the Pac-12 simply don’t move the needle enough to help the ACC put a dent into the massive revenue gap that exists between it and the Power Two.
The only teams that have the potential to add anywhere close to that kind of value are already in the league.
While Phillips and his council of presidents continue to discuss everything short of investing in Bitcoin, the ACC’s strongest play is to have its marquee programs other than Clemson start playing their way back into the national conversation.
With all due respect to Pittsburgh and Wake Forest, their appearance in the conference championship game last December barely registered a blip on the college football radar on a day in which Alabama and Georgia played for the SEC title and Michigan and Iowa battled in the Big Ten. Even the American Athletic Conference Championship Game, in which Cincinnati was vying for a spot in the College Football Playoff, held more relevance and drew nearly a million more sets of eyeballs.
For the ACC to recapture any attention in the current college football landscape, add substantive value to its brand and stay relevant enough to survive long-term, it needs to have Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech – the names people outside John Swofford’s geographic footprint know and recognize – to play and win like Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech again.
It’s a reality new Hokies coach Brent Pry directly addressed in Charlotte last month.
So let's talk about Virginia Tech @CoachPryVT first ACC Kickoff, I think I summed it up pretty succinctly in this story, Tech's former coach hated making waves at the event, Pry wanted to create a tsunami https://t.co/y4XOg50U0K
— michaelniziolek (@michaelniziolek) July 22, 2022
“There’s no doubt a strong Virginia Tech helps the ACC (as well as) a strong Miami, a strong Florida State,” he said. “It’s important what we do in the landscape of college football, which is awesome. That’s an awesome responsibility, but that’s who Virginia Tech is.”
At least, that’s who it was.
The Hokies posted 25 consecutive winning seasons between 1993-2017, running off 8 straight years with 10-plus wins along the way. Since then, however, they’ve won double-digit games only once while averaging just over 7 victories per season.
Returning to roots that made the program one of the nation’s best has been one of Pry’s top priorities since arriving in Blacksburg last spring.
He’s not necessarily looking to recreate Beamer Ball or bring back the battered lunch pail made famous by long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster, under whom Pry learned his trade as a graduate assistant at Tech from 1995-97.
But rather than distancing himself from the program’s history and tradition as his predecessor did, a factor that led to Justin Fuente never being fully accepted by the Hokies’ faithful, Pry has fully embraced them by promising to instill a blue-collar attitude to a program built around hard work and special teams.
Down in Coral Gables, fellow newcomer Mario Cristobal is taking the opposite approach to re-establishing the culture of his program.
Forget bringing the swagger back.
The former Hurricanes offensive lineman, who played on two national championship teams, has seen enough coaches try and fail to recreate the aura of the program’s glory days to know that it’s time to wipe the slate clean and create a new standard.
He even made a break from the less successful recent past by tossing college football’s most recognized celebratory prop, the Turnover Chain, onto the scrap heap in favor of more substantive pursuits.
— Christopher Stock (@InsideTheU) July 21, 2022
“It is not a shot or form of disrespect to anybody or anyone,” Cristobal said. “Certainly history is history and whether it’s positive, whether it’s inconsequential, whatever it may be, it’s still history and part of your program. We’re just moving in a direction that right now doesn’t involve it.
“Let’s put it this way. We’ve been working so hard and paying attention to so many other things that, in my opinion, are much more critical to winning football games.”
As much as Cristobal is trying to create a fresh narrative for his team, some things never change. The Hurricanes were picked by the media to win the Coastal Division. It’s the 5th time that’s happened and the 13th time in the 18 seasons Miami has been in the ACC that it’s been projected to finish either first or second.
The outlook for Virginia Tech and Florida State isn’t quite as optimistic. Both were picked to finish 5th in their respective divisions.
Given the disproportionate strength of the Atlantic, where arguably the top three teams in the league reside, the Hokies stand a better chance of exceeding expectations in the Coastal.
But after 4 straight losing seasons, the Seminoles did start showing signs late in 2021 that they might finally be emerging from the funk created when Jimbo Fisher stopped recruiting and Willie Taggart was sent packing after just a year and a half.
They rallied from an 0-4 start that included an embarrassing loss to FCS Jacksonville State by winning 5 of their final 8 games, raising hope that they might be ready for a breakthrough in Year 3 under Mike Norvell.
If Florida State can continue that momentum while fellow brand names Miami and Virginia Tech start some of their own, it might just provide the ACC with something positive upon which to build.
And perhaps buy it some time until Phillips and the conference’s leadership find something substantive out of all those options sitting on their table.