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July 23, 2007
PINEHURST, N.C. ? Don't tell its players that the Atlantic Coast Conference had a rough year last season.
"We have as much talent as anybody in the nation," Georgia Tech running back Tashard Choice said Sunday at the Atlantic Coast Conference Media Days at the Pinehurst Resort. "They always hype up the SEC and hype up other conferences. That's fine. But I really think the ACC is a good conference up and down."
The statistics tell a different story.
ACC teams went a combined 6-14 last year in non-conference games against teams from BCS conferences. That record falls to 6-16 if you count Notre Dame's victories over Georgia Tech and North Carolina.
No. 18 Wake Forest and No. 19 Virginia Tech were the only ACC representatives in the final Associated Press poll.
That leads to the national perception that the ACC enters this season with something to prove, but league players insist those facts don't tell the whole story. They believe the absence of any ACC teams from the top 10 was a tribute to the conference's balance rather than a testament to the league's weakness.
"I thought the ACC had a good year last year," Maryland offensive guard Andrew Crummey said. "I'm not looking for one or two good teams out of a conference. I'm looking for the depth of a conference ? the depth of competition and the depth of ability. You can have a conference with one or two (top) teams. Does that mean it's a good conference? No. It means you have two good teams."
Crummey wasn't the only one using that reasoning to defend the ACC.
"I think it's just balance," Florida State defensive tackle Andre Fluellen said. "We didn't have that one (super) team because everybody's just good. Good teams beat good teams. That's how it happens. I don't think we had a down year."
The ACC redeemed itself somewhat in the postseason by going 4-4 in bowl games. Florida State won the Emerald Bowl over a UCLA team that was coming off a victory over Southern California, and Maryland dismantled Purdue in the Champs Sports Bowl.
But that couldn't make up for a regular season full of embarrassing non-conference losses.
Virginia fell to Western Michigan and East Carolina and needed overtime to squeak past Wyoming. North Carolina State dropped home games to Akron and East Carolina. Duke opened its winless season with a home loss to Division I-AA Richmond.
Miami offensive guard Derrick Morse believed the coaching changes merely underscored the strength of the league.
"It just shows how tough the conference is," Morse said. "If you're not getting the job done, you're getting out of there."
Morse acknowledged the conference may have struggled last season, but he also pointed out that the league's depth makes teams prone to unexpected pitfalls.
That's exactly what happened last year when Wake Forest won the ACC title after being picked in the preseason to finish last in the Atlantic Division, while traditional heavyweights Florida State and Miami went 7-6.
"You can't have a down week and win," Morse said. "No matter who you're playing, you've got to play full tilt or you're going to get upset. Anybody can beat anybody."
That depth actually may be hurting the public perception of the ACC.
Fair or not, part of the criticism surrounding the ACC last year was that the league couldn't be too strong if Wake Forest won the conference title.
"A lot of people think that if Wake Forest wins it, the talent of the schools (in the ACC) must be down," Wake Forest center Steve Justice said. "But I think the talent's getting better. We had a great year. Maybe they had a bad year. You never know."
The perception of the league probably would improve if Miami and Florida State regained their status as elite programs.
Choice believes the demise of the league's traditional powers last year made critics incorrectly assume the entire conference was struggling.
"I don't think it was a down year," Choice said. "It was just the fact that the teams you always pick to win the ACC weren't there. Having Wake Forest ? a team that was really good ? win the ACC (when) they didn't have the spotlight. People thought it was a down year because they were winning ballgames when they were really one of the better teams in the nation."
The ACC has reason to feel optimistic about the upcoming season.
There's no doubt that the conference's talent level dipped last year after 12 of its players were selected in the first round of the 2006 NFL Draft. This year most of the league's biggest stars are back.
The ACC returns its top four rushers from 2006 (Choice, Virginia Tech's Branden Ore and Clemson's James Davis and C.J. Spiller) and three of its top five quarterbacks in passing efficiency (Wake Forest's Riley Skinner, Boston College's Matt Ryan and Virginia Tech's Sean Glennon).
Also returning are the conference's top two tacklers from last season (Virginia Tech's Vince Hall and Maryland's Erin Henderson) and the league leaders in tackles for loss (Miami's Calais Campbell) and passes defended (Virginia Tech's Brandon Flowers).
All that returning talent could help the ACC perform well enough that the national perception of the conference catches up to the players' own opinions of their league.
"We know we're one of the best two conferences in the country ? us and the SEC,'' Florida State running back Antone Smith said.
Plenty of people within the ACC would agree with Smith's assessment.
Now the conference must try to regain the respect of the rest of the country.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.