The ACC’s Must-Win Monday
By BJ Bennett
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A winning bowl record would help the ACC's image heading into 2013. But wins over Big East teams and mid-majors simply don't come with much cache.
Through two games this postseason featuring a pair of their barely-bowl-eligible teams, the ACC is a respectable 1-1; their lone loss coming by traditionally-downtrodden Duke and their victory coming from rebuilding Virginia Tech over Big East co-champion Rutgers. That said, neither game impressed viewers or has inspired much confidence moving forward.
In their first postseason showing since 1995, Duke appeared destined for a feel-good finish in Charlotte's Belk Bowl. The Blue Devils had the football at the Cincinnati 5-yard line, with under two minutes to play, with the score tied 34-34. A touchdown, even a field goal time considering, likely would have resulted in Duke's first bowl win in over four decades. The Blue Devils, instead, fumbled, then allowed a go-ahead 83-yard touchdown pass four plays later. Adding insult to injury, Bearcat defender Nick Temple intercepted Sean Renfree and returned the pass 55 yards for another score just 18 seconds after Travis Kelce's scoring grab. From history to heartbreak, Duke lost what once looked like a sure-victory by double digits.
"This feeling in our guts is not very good right now," Duke head football coach David Cutcliffe explained. "But we're going to move forward with this. The biggest insult we can give our seniors is to not move forward from this and we will do this."
Virginia Tech helped the conference save face for a league encore, though barely. Shutout through the first three quarters in the Russell Athletic Bowl versus Rutgers, the Hokies rallied for ten points in the final period to force extra time. A Cody Journall field goal in overtime proved to be the difference, with Virginia Tech's defense and special teams making up for a terrible offensive performance. The Hokies compiled more penalties (14) than first downs (12), had three turnovers and rushed 32 times for four yards. With the victory, Virginia Tech did avoid their first losing season since 1992.
"Not everything in life is real smooth," acknowledged Virginia Tech head football coach Frank Beamer. "These players worked hard and how they reacted to adversity and to disappointment and when all of them wanted to do better. They kept together."
This Monday, the lowly-regarded ACC has three bowl games on the schedule: NC State vs Vanderbilt in the Music City Bowl, Georgia Tech vs Southern Cal in the Sun Bowl, Clemson vs LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The ACC team is the underdog in all three pairings. While the collective challenges are considerable, the potential rewards are as well. Two games against SEC competition, and another against one of the nation's most recognizable programs, mean that the ACC would undoubtedly receive a boost in national perception with a strong showing. In the last week of the regular season, the SEC went 4-0 in matchups with the ACC. The Trojans are 4-0 in their last quartet of games with schools currently in the ACC.
"It's been very physical, but if you watch LSU play, that's how they play the game. Their style of play is a little bit different," Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney stated of his team's bowl preparation. "People get caught up that you have to be in the I-formation to be physical, but that's the furthest thing from the truth. We have elements of everything in our offense, and we pride ourselves on being a very physical team. We do it a little bit differently than maybe LSU, but you have to prepare your team for what they are going to see."
A winning bowl record would definitely help the ACC's fragile image heading into the 2013 off-season. But wins over teams from the Big East and mid-majors simply don't come with much cache. The league most certainly needs Florida State to avoid a letdown against Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl, as the ACC's well-documented struggles in the BCS have long been its opponents most common point of reference. Even a victory there, however, is one that is expected and, fair or unfair, won't be widely celebrated. Though FSU faces a must-win and any BCS triumph helps, this is a conference that needs quantity and quality. Beating an SEC team in its home city, upending a top-ten ranked recent national champion, taking down the nation's pre-season number one team; those are opportunities the ACC simply must take advantage of.
Jimmy Buffett once said that come Monday, it will be alright. It's not quite that simple for the ACC, but a good start to the week would be a very real step in the right direction.