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Atlantic Coast Closing On SEC

by Steve Barnes
Jun 03, 2013 11:53 AM EDT



A few years back I interviewed then-Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt at the Southeastern Conference spring meetings in Destin, Fla. The subject of the superiority of the SEC arose and I asked him to elaborate and instead of rating the conferences, I requested he rank the divisions of the BCS leagues. He thought for a moment and asked my opinion.  

I put the SEC West on top, followed by the Big 12 South, then each Atlantic Coast Conference division in either order, the SEC East and finally the Big 12 North. The interview occurred prior to the Big Ten going to divisions.  

Nutt agreed with my assessment, but offered the ACC would overtake the Big 12 South in a few years. He was right.  

Last season, the league sent six teams to bowl games and could have had two more, but Miami and North Carolina did not go bowling due to off-the-field transgressions. Four of those squads won in the postseason — Clemson beat LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, Florida State won the Orange Bowl over Northern Illinois, Georgia Tech topped Southern California in the Sun Bowl and Virginia Tech edged Rutgers in the Russell Athletic, the Hokies' 20th consecutive bowl appearance. ACC newcomers Pitt and Syracuse also received bowl bids with the Orange whipping West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl and Pittsburgh falling in the BBVC Compass Bowl to Ole Miss.  

The four conference wins were second only to, guess who, the SEC, which won six. Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt all won a postseason game and only Florida, LSU and Mississippi State lost. Two other conferences won four bowl games: Conference USA went 4-1 and the Big 12 was 4-5.  

That success is nothing new. Since 2005, the ACC has sent 64 teams to bowl games after developing into a 12-team conference. That mark is equaled by the Big Ten and only surpassed by the SEC's 70 bowl invitations.   

It seems an old football adage is the reason for the conference's fortune in the bowl season: what wins football games is football players. The ACC has league-wide talent. A glance at the quarterback position is indicative of the league's talent.  

Five league quarterbacks with more than 6,000 career passing yards will return for the 2013 campaign. Clemson's Tajh Boyd (8,053 yards), Wake Forest's Tanner Price (6,666), North Carolina's Bryn Renner (6,456), Boston College's Chase Rettig (6,257) and Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas (6,096) give the ACC a strong argument for the best returning group of quarterbacks in the nation. The group also threw for 236 touchdowns.  

That talent pool will continue according to one coach.  

"When you look at the number of recruits in the top 150 players in the country, SEC and ACC are by far the top two," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher told the Tallahassee Democrat. "When you look at NFL players, SEC and ACC are by far the top two. So it's the two most athletic, competitive conferences. Now we (the ACC) have to win more games."  

Fisher is correct about the next level. Since the 2006 NFL Draft, the ACC has had 245 players selected. Only the 278 from the SEC ranks higher. The league has also had 40 players taken in the first round, including a record 12 first-rounders in 2006. Once the players get to the NFL, they flourish.  

The ACC and SEC have six starting quarterbacks in the NFL, more than any other conference. Four of the former ACC quarterbacks — Seattle's Russell Wilson (N.C. State), Atlanta's Matt Ryan (Boston College), Minnesota's Christian Ponder (Florida State) and Houston's Matt Schaub (Virginia) — started a playoff game last season. The SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 had two postseason starting quarterbacks and the Big Ten just one.  

The ACC-NFL talent pipeline extends to the other side of the ball as well. The Atlantic Coast produces more NFL linebackers than any other conference. The ACC has 47 linebackers in the NFL, while the SEC has 45. The Pac-12 and Big Ten are the only other two leagues to have more than 30.  

There is a noticeable trend in all the numbers: The SEC and ACC are ahead of all other conferences.  

The consensus among most is the Southeastern Conference is the top league in college football and with seven straight national titles, that is a fact that is not in dispute.   

Another fact that has become clear is the Atlantic Coast is right on the SEC's heels.