Then and Now: The Conference |

Then and Now: The Conference


Bored Historian
Aug 26, 2011
I decided that now that we have completed the football season, I’d look back at what I said in my season preview and talk about how things worked out. I’ll focus on the players and my discussion of various departments of the team.



Hopefully the roulette wheel of college football has stopped turning for a while and we can settle down to our new situation and begin establishing, (or continuing or renewing) the rivalries that are the life-blood of the sport. The question now becomes: How do we stack up to our new conference bretheren, and not just this year but for the foreseeable future? I’ve done a study of how these 14 teams have done over the last 33 seasons, (since the Carrier Dome opened). That period includes multiple ups and downs for all the schools and should give us a general picture of how they will fare in the future. I needed a ranking of all the major college teams for each season from 1980 onward. There are several sources available on the internet for that but I’ll use this one since I’m used to using it for other projects:

You can argue with some of the rankings but you can do the same with all similar sources. I just needed someone who had done such a ranking and didn’t feel that the overall results would be substantially different with a different source. I averaged up Howell’s ranking for each of the 33 years for each school. I also looked at the range of rankings, how many top ten teams they had, (per Howell), how many “conference titles”, (meaning that Howell ranked them the highest of the 14 teams that year), and how many times Syracuse had been ranked higher than that schools team in a particular year. Here are the results:

The average ranking, (by Howell):

Florida State 14.03 range: 1-44 top 10s: 16 conference “titles”: 9 SU was better: 1 time
Miami 19.67 range: 1-73 top 10s: 16 conference “titles”: 10 SU was better: 5 times
Virginia Tech 26.33 range: 3-78 top 10s: 6 conference “titles”: 1 SU was better: 10 times
Clemson 29.09 range: 1-81 top 10s: 3 conference “titles”: 1 SU was better: 10 times
Boston College 44.55 range: 6-108 top 10s: 1 conference “titles”: 1 SU was better: 15 times
Georgia Tech 47.33 range: 1-118 top 10s: 1 conference “titles”: 1 SU was better: 17 times
North Carolina 47.79 range: 5-99 top 10s: 4 conference “titles”: 0 SU was better: 18 times
Pittsburgh 48.33 range: 1-99 top 10: 3 conference “titles”: 2 SU was better: 16 times
Syracuse 48.48 range: 4-109 top 10s: 2 conference “titles”: 0
Virginia 50.21 range: 13-120 top 10s: 0 conference “titles”: 0 SU was better: 18 times
North Carolina State 50.76 range: 12-90 top 10s: 0 conference “titles”: 0 SU was better: 18 times
Louisville 57.88 range: 21-105 top 10s: 2 conference “titles”: 2 SU was better: 18 times
Wake Forest 69.61 range: 21-108 top 10s: 0 conference “titles”: 0 SU was better: 22 times
Duke 81.21 range: 27-116 top 10s: 0 conference “titles”: 0 SU was better: 25 times

I see four strata here:

Florida State and Miami are the true powerhouses, capable of being regular contenders for the national championship when not held back by probation. Miami is down now but we’ve seen several examples of dormant powerhouses rising again in recent history: Oklahoma, USC, Alabama, even Miami itself after their troubles in the late 90’s. Florida State has slowly been building back up and the Noles are perhaps just a notch below what they once were. South Florida will get knocked down a peg being in the sinking ship that is the former Big East football conference. That will help both these schools. When they are on their game, they will be the class of the conference.

Virginia Tech and Clemson are on the next level. The Hokies have been better at their best but the Tigers have been consistently good the entire 33 years. Louisville is currently in the next group but I think that is deceiving. They are a powerhouse athletic department, making tons of money right now. The school is in SEC country but also close to prime recruiting areas in Ohio and Pennsylvania. I don’t see them rising to the Florida State/Miami level for the next 33 years but I think they will be on a par with Virginia Tech and Clemson.

Then comes what I will call the “elevator bank” teams. They represent the middle of the conference and will be up and down. In good years they might be on the second tier. In a dream year they might be on the first tier. But they will be up and down. Their games against each other should be very competitive and they will occasionally pull off an upset over a higher tiered school. Some years it won’t be an upset. But they are not going to be dominant programs or regular contenders. They are Boston College, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Virginia and North Carolina State. (Maybe we can finally beat the Wolfpack: we are 0-6 against them all time.)

The bottom feeders will be Wake Forest and Duke. The Deacons have had their moments in recent years and Grobe is a good coach but I don’t think they can sustain it.

Here are our all-time records against the 16 schools:

Boston College 28-18
Clemson 1-0
Duke 0-2 (the last in 1939)
Florida State 1-5
Georgia Tech 0-2
Louisville 6-6
Miami 7-15
North Carolina 2-2
North Carolina State 0-6
Pittsburgh 31-34-3
Virginia 2-2
Virginia Tech 9-8
Wake Forest 1-1
TOTAL 88-101-3

Can we compete in the ACC? I think so. That doesn’t tell me how much we will win there or how often we will compete for a title. It may help that the conference is split into divisions. We could have a year when we are strong but the division is weak. If we can get to the conference title game, that’s one game and if we got there, we are good enough to win it. I think it’s a conference that will be very tough on struggling teams, much like the basketball Big East, (or the basketball ACC), where even a pretty good team could get pounded down playing someone each week who can beat them if they don’t play well. It will be quite a challenge but we need to keep the legs pumping to keep our heads above water.

Of course, if we can get back to the level we were in the McNabb Era, we will be more than just competitive. We’ll be regular contenders for the division and even the conference title. But Pittsburgh could say the same thing about the Dorsett-Marino Era and BC could say it about the Doug Flutie Era. Louisville could say it about the Bobby Petrino Era, Virginia about the George Welch Era, North Carolina about the Lawrence Taylor and Mack Brown Eras, NC State about when Lou Holtz was their coach, Duke about Wallace Wade and Georgia Tech about Bobby Dodd. But these schools have not shown the ability to sustain excellence, (at least not in the Two Platoon Era) and they probably won’t in the future.

I do think it’s important to have at least a decent first year. We are trying to establish ourselves in new recruiting areas, (or, at least establish ourselves in a bigger way). These are teenagers, (to whom Donovan McNabb is some old guy and our other heroes are ancient history), we will be recruiting and you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. If we tank this year, they will tend to see us as bottom feeders and we will be their last choice or close to it. If we can at least break even in the conference, we will be seen as a viable option- and we will be one.


Florida State is all the way back and then some. I think this year’s team is probably better than even the best of the Bobby Bowden teams. It seemed like we were playing an NFL team. We will only have a shot a them when they don’t have a Heisman Trophy caliber quarterback, we do and we have them in the Dome.

I have the same view of Clemson, Virginia tech and Louisville I had in August. I thought Clemson might be something special this year but they were just very good. Tech seems to be slipping a bit but they are still good. I think Louisville will continue to be good even though Teddy Bridgewater will be in the NFL. Their success is not just based on one guy. We could join this group if we get it fully rebuilt to the what it was in the 90’s. Until then, we are in the next group.

Once you got past Florida State and Clemson, our division was not very impressive. Maryland got off to a good start, then faded badly. They are gone anyway. NC State wasn’t very good. Wake Forest was toothless without their one wide-out who got hurt. Boston College was pretty good but limited. We proved to be the best of those teams.

In the other division, Miami looked good early and then faded. I still think they, like Florida State will make it all the way back and we’ll have a perennial national title contender in each division. It will be an upset when the conference title game is not a Noles-Canes rematch. But not yet. The Coastal division was actually stronger from top to bottom than the Atlantic division: it just didn’t have a national title contender. The Canes were good. The Hokies were good. Georgia Tech ate us alive. Pitt beat us in the Dome and they and North Carolina won their bowl games. Only Virginia was bad.

And, of course, the big story was Duke, traditionally the conference’s worst team, who won the division. They were proof that success is still obtainable by any division 1 team if you have the right coach. But sustaining success takes more than that and I think this Blue Devil team was basically the equivalent of Jim Grobe’s Wake Forest team that made the Orange Bowl a few years ago. That was nice but they’ve gone from 11-3 to 9-4 to 8-5 to 5-7 to 3-9 and I think something like that will happen to Duke.

In the Big East years I realized that the football program was not on the level of our basketball program, either at its height or in sustaining success. I also realized that in modern, two platoon football, it’s hard for a school like Syracuse, (a mid-size private school in a cold unglamorous location in a state that doesn’t produce much football talent), to produce a national championship caliber team.

But I felt we had some advantages, too. We were in a BCS automatic qualifying conference with no title game and, after Miami and Virginia Tech left, no other national championship caliber programs. Football worships the undefeated record and if we could have another 1987 like team and season and do it in a year when no more than one other school ran the table, we could get into a national championship game. And, unlike the basketball team, we’d have to win just one game to win a title. West Virginia would have played Ohio State for the title in 2007 if they’d beaten Pittsburgh in that last game. Cincinnati would have played Alabama for the title in 2009 if Texas hadn’t gotten a second shot at a game winning field goal against Nebraska. Virginia Tech had played competitively against Florida State for the 1999 title. In pre-Big East era, Pittsburgh won the title in 1976 and West Virginia played for in in 1988. We just chose to go 11-0 in a year when Miami and Oklahoma did the same thing and the Canes and Sooners played for the title.

Could we have won such a game? I thought that 2010 Auburn team looked an awful lot like a Syracuse team that had a McNabb, (Newton) at quarterback and a Freeney, (Fairly) both in their primes at the same time. A national championship in football seemed at least possible.

I realize we have more money now and will build more facilities and have a chance to recruit better players, especially in the ACC footprint. But I no longer think a national title is possible. With both Florida State and Miami in this conference, as well as several other strong programs and a conference title game, I don’t see us running the table in this conference. There are just took many road blocks. Even the conference title seems less likely than the national title did in the Big East. We need to look to just having a good team each year, being a regular bowl team and a respected program. We are well on our way to that goal.

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