As the conference expansion (or more euphemistically, realignment) rumor mill churned up this summer, national pundits declared ACC football dead when reports came out that Clemson and Florida State were leaving. That didn’t happen, and the players who make up the ACC rosters weren’t buying that the league was dead, or even dying.
Their interest in the expansion gossip was varied: “If I see it on a headline, I might look at a headline,” NC State quarterback Mike Glennon said, “but I feel like there’s so much going on that it’s hard to keep track of.”
But the players at the ACC Football Kickoff this past weekend in Greensboro still had opinions on everything from the misconceptions surrounding the ACC to the possible addition of Notre Dame.
Boston College defensive tackle Kaleb Ramsey brightened up immediately at the Notre Dame idea. “Playing your rival in the ACC, that would be pretty fun,” Ramsey said. “But I kind of like that Notre Dame isn’t in a conference. It’s interesting because they’re independent and they have that mystique when your’e playing them.”
Duke wide receiver Conner Vernon said he thought the Fighting Irish would be a great addition. “Notre Dame is a university that speaks for itself. I definitely that it would add more notoriety to the conference. But at the end of the day, I’m here to catch the football,” Vernon said, laughing, “so I don’t really get involved in all that.”
But Vernon was well aware of how the ACC is perceived nationally. And he, like the rest of his ACC comrades, rushed to defend the league. “People definitely undermine the ACC. People think the ACC isn’t as competitive. They’re always focused on the SEC, Big 12 and stuff like that. But the ACC is a good conference,” Vernon said.
“You can ask any team in here – week in and week out, they’ve got to come ready to play because anything can happen. There have been a bunch of upsets that happened last year. The ACC is by far a good football conference. It doesn’t get looked at like that sometimes but it is a good football conference.”
The ACC isn’t known as a rah-rah football league (“A-C-C!” chants are often tongue-in-cheek). So the veracity of some of the players’ defenses of the ACC were a bit surprising.
“Besides taking pride in your team, you take pride in your conference. This is who you play for, this is who you represent and vice versa – it represents you,” Maryland senior wide receiver Kevin Dorsey said.
“I was asked a question and they said the SEC had won the last six national championships. I said, ‘It’s about time for that to change.’ They saw the expression on my face and I was really serious about it, and it was like, ‘Okay…’ But it really is – it’s about time for that to change and really show the world what the ACC can do.”
Just because the ACC has struggled on the national stage doesn’t mean that it’s not still attractive to recruits, as Florida State and Clemson have shown with their recent hauls. And both schools are in states with higher-end SEC schools, contradicting the notion that an elite player would choose an SEC school over an ACC school if it came down to it.
But every player pointed out that a number of factors went into their decisions, perhaps the least of which was the conference affiliation. “For some people, conference may matter more than anything else. For other guys, family may matter or maybe even location or maybe teammates. They may have a few teammates who already went to a particular school and they may want to go there, too,” Dorsey said.
Glennon, whose older brother Sean played at Virginia Tech, was the only player to say he wanted to pick an ACC school specifically. “It was what I grew up watching, ACC games,” Glennon said. “It was close to home and prestigious academics, so definitely when I was being recruited, the ACC was the conference that I wanted to play in.“
Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe said an ACC team needs only to get to the end of the year still in the hunt for a national championship. The Big East is probably the only conference more maligned than the ACC by the national media, and even it has had more national title contenders in November than the ACC in recent years.
“I think that’s the one thing that’s hurt our conference is not having a real contender for the national championship. We need to get somebody up there at the top and keep them there,” Grobe said. “Getting through an entire year without getting upset is hard, but somebody needs to do it. That’s the one thing that’s hurt is we haven’t had one of the teams make a serious run for a national title.”
Considering Wake Forest has beaten a top-25 Florida State team three of the last five seasons and pushed other top-25 ACC teams to the brink, there’s a lot of irony in Grobe’s assessment. So a reporter asked the logical follow-up: “Haven’t you been the team to knock those teams off?”
Grobe laughed, and nodded. “And I hope that continues.” He smiled, seemingly remembering all those upset wins. “We have knocked off a couple.”
Grobe doesn’t mind being known as the ACC’s spoiler, nor should he. But one of his players, senior noseguard Nikita Whitlock, does. It’s a double-edged sword: the league takes a hit if the team he loves and has dedicated his college career to does well.
“If we spoil-” he said, pausing to sigh heavily. “That’s hard, being the spoiler. But we’re a good team and if we have to spoil the conference to show the world that we’re good, that’s what we’re going to have to do.”