DURHAM, N.C. – Duke coach Mike Elko has been around college football long enough to know how the season's opening month can shape the perception of a league's strength.
That's important in the weeks ahead for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The league won — or survived, in some cases — its highest-profile nonconference matchups in Week 1, including Florida State’s wild win against LSU. That gives the ACC a shot in the month of September to strengthen its reputation, in hopes of returning to this year's College Football Playoff while facing uncertainty about its long-term future in a football-driven landscape.
“We have to win football games,” said Elko, who left Texas A&M's staff to take over at Duke this fall. "I mean, nobody’s shying away from that. It’s a competitive market, it’s a competitive landscape in college football.
“But we also are very quick to pull the panic button on things like this and overreact. We weren’t gone coming into the season. We certainly haven't re-arrived after Week 1."
This week's schedule includes No. 17 Pittsburgh hosting No. 24 Tennessee and No. 23 Wake Forest visiting Vanderbilt — now with star quarterback Sam Hartman back in the fold — in games against the Southeastern Conference, while Virginia visits Illinois and Duke visits Northwestern in Big Ten matchups.
Next week, first-year Miami coach Mario Cristobal takes his 15th-ranked Hurricanes to No. 6 Texas A&M in another ACC-SEC pairing.
The ACC had a solid start last week. Reigning league champion Pitt beat West Virginia in a renewal of the “Backyard Brawl.” No. 18 North Carolina State and North Carolina posted road wins against instate teams that were bowl eligible last season from Group of Five leagues.
And then there was FSU, which blocked LSU's tying extra point on the final play.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said he generally focuses on his own team but texted Seminoles coach Mike Norvell after watching the FSU-LSU finish.
“Any time coaches have good wins, it’s good to see,” Narduzzi said. “It's great for the conference, and I'm sure the commissioner is happy.”
Well, those wins — and opportunities ahead — certainly come at a critical time for ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips.
Locked in a TV contract with ESPN through 2036, Phillips is working to find ways to generate more revenue as the ACC falls further behind the Big Ten and SEC. The league's most recent tax filing listed a record $578.3 million in total revenue while distributing an average of $36.1 million per school for the 2020-21 season, which included Notre Dame as a one-year full football member for scheduling purposes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet the ACC's totals are heavily outpaced by numbers coming out of the SEC ($833.4 million revenue, $54.6 million average payout) and the Big Ten ($679.8 million, $47.9 million). The gaps are increasing annually, too.
There's one way that coaches can help: Win.
“You have that opportunity to fly the flag out of the conference, and you've got to do it,” ACC Network analyst and former Clemson offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain said, adding: “That's how you flip the narrative. That's how you get a product worth paying for.”
Yet the games are also just a starting point for North Carolina coach Mack Brown, who worked as an ESPN analyst after leaving Texas.
“I've always felt like even when I was in TV, that we make judgments on a conference too early,” he said. “There’s people that (say) because the Pac-12 lost a couple of games this weekend, they’re already out of the playoffs. And that’s not fair.”
Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson went a step further, pointing to postseason matchups as part of the same equation.
“I think we’ve got a lot of teams in our league that just need to have good years," Clawson said. "It’s important to start out with some great wins. And I think it’s probably even more important that you finish with great wins. So these early nonconference games are opportunities, and then the bowl games seem to be what people remember.”
After September, the league must wait until November for its next measuring-stick matchups against other power conferences, with annual ACC-SEC instate rivalries Clemson-South Carolina, Louisville-Kentucky and Georgia Tech-Georgia. Winning now could put the league on stronger footing in eventually making a case for one of four College Football Playoff bids after missing the playoff for the first time in its history.
“This has always been a good league,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "This league has been in the playoffs as much as anybody, or more. And we’ve competed and won — Florida State’s won (the national title) and we’ve won it. It’s good to see guys have big wins like that in our league.”
AP Sports Writers Will Graves in Pittsburgh; and Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, South Carolina; contributed to this report.
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