Notre Dame football: ACC jungle will test Irish
Domination may be the missing piece from the puzzle that is Atlantic Coast Conference football.
It’s been a dozen years since an ACC representative played for a national championship.
That doesn’t mean the quality has suffered.
When Notre Dame begins its annual rotation of five ACC teams on its schedule in 2014, the Irish will find themselves immersed in a competitive jungle of high-caliber programs and hostile environments.
While maintaining its independence, Notre Dame’s agreement with the ACC is a trade-off for being part of the ACC’s postseason (non-BCS) bowl package which still continues to take shape.
Parity no problem
Florida State was the last ACC team to play for a national title. In fact, the Seminoles were there three years in a row — losing in 1998 and 2000, while beating future ACC member Virginia Tech (then of the Big East) to win the 1999 crown.
“There’s a lot of parity in the ACC,” Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney said of the current state of the conference. “It’s a very, very competitive league.
“One of the problems, from a perception standpoint, is that we haven’t produced the 13-0 or 12-1 team. We haven’t had that one dominant team like the SEC. But, of the 12 teams we have, 10 of them just went to bowls (over the last two years).”
No backing down
Swinney, whose Tigers beat LSU in a thrilling Chick-fil-A Bowl last season, won’t back down from a comparison with the vaunted Southeastern Conference.
“Notre Dame has the same core values as everyone in our conference,” Swinney said. “The SEC is the conference that always measures who’s the best. As far as top 100 recruits: SEC is No. 1, we’re 2. NFL draft picks: SEC is 1, we’re 2. NFL Pro Bowl players: SEC had 26, we had 20.
“There are some tangible measurements. We’ve had 30 or more players in our league drafted (in the NFL) for the last nine years. We’re far and away ahead (of the SEC) in every academic measure.
“Notre Dame’s commitment on and off the field is a great fit.”
“I’ve been in the ACC off and on for a lot of years,” said Virginia head coach Mike London. “Over the years, there have been some very competitive teams. Now, you’ve got Florida State and Clemson. In our (Coastal) division, it’s Virginia Tech.
“Any conference game, it’s easy to say you’ve gotta bring your ‘A’ game. There are some good teams in this league. Then, with Notre Dame, it provides an extra edge of excitement for fans to watch (on television) and come to the game.”
From top to bottom, the competitive nature of the league is its biggest selling point.
“We have so many games each year that are decided on the last play,” London said. “That’s how this league is.
“In 2011, we beat Florida State and Miami on the road. It’s not unusual to win or lose in the last second.
“We all end up recruiting against each other. The southeast is a fertile recruiting ground and we’re all going after the same sort of student-athlete — someone who’s serious about academics, and is a great athlete.”
Clemson’s Death Valley, Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee and Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium are probably the toughest places to play. Notre Dame will only get a first-hand look at Florida State in the first rotation.
“We’ve got a lot of great environments,” Swinney said. “Florida State is always a tough place to play. Virginia Tech, it’s never easy. Ours is one of the best environments. There are some great venues in this league. Notre Dame will be a great place to play.”
“I’ve coached in a lot of great venues: Death Valley, Doak Campbell Stadium, Blacksburg,” said London, who was an assistant at Boston College in the late ‘90s. “You’ve got 80,000 screaming fans right on top of you. What a great atmosphere.
“I love the stadiums that have the history. That’s why Notre Dame is so special. I still remember the leprechaun; ‘Rudy.’ Notre Dame Stadium is a special place.”
Of course, winning there can make South Bend a fun place to visit.
“My coaching background is with Tom O’Brien at Boston College,” London said. “Notre Dame was always one of our rival games. I’ve been in South Bend before, and we’ve won there.”
Swinney has had his own brush with Notre Dame. Turns out it could have been a bad career move.
“I applied at Notre Dame in 2001 (Bob Davie’s last year), after Urban Meyer left for Bowling Green,” Swinney said. “I guess sometimes you’re thankful for the doors that open; and sometimes you’re thankful for the doors that don’t.”
There’s no such thing as a stereotypical style of play for ACC teams. Offenses are all over the map, keeping defensive coordinators up late trying to prepare.
“One of the unique things about the ACC is the different styles of play that you’re going to see,” Swinney said. “You have to be ready for anything.
“At Georgia Tech, you’ve got the triple option. Florida State is more of a pro-style attack. You’ve got a lot of variations of the spread; a little bit of everything. One thing for sure, you’ve gotta bring it every week.”
“When you look at the brand of the ACC; the academic integrity; Notre Dame fits that — and some,” London said. “This league stretches from Miami, to Syracuse, to South Bend. There are a lot of like-minded members, and Notre Dame is in the mix of that.”
“The ACC might be the best brand in college football. That’s what it’s all about. Every school has its fan base; its alumni. Seeing how the ACC expanded its brand with Syracuse, Pitt and Louisville, along with Notre Dame, the ACC just hit a home run. They added teams and they got it right.”
Besides having visited — and conquered — Notre Dame as an assistant, London has a much more familiar perspective with the current Irish team — at least on defense. He and Notre Dame’s co-defensive coordinator Bob Diaco were assistants together on coach Jim Groh’s staff at Virginia.
“What a great guy,” London said. “Bobby’s an Italian guy who could be a great cake maker. He loved cooking. I could see him on a reality (TV) show: ‘Let’s see, let’s add a little of this and a little of that.’ It’s great to see him doing so well.”
That’s how coaches are, ships in the night. Somewhere, somehow just about everyone in the fraternity crosses paths with everyone else down the road.
In 2013, the ACC will have three new coaches: Former Notre Dame assistant Steve Addazio (Boston College), Dave Doeren (North Carolina State) and Scott Shafer (Syracuse). Larry Fedora (North Carolina) and Paul Chryst (Pitt) are in their second season.
“I just finished my fourth full year,” Swinney said. “I went from the bottom of the totem pole to where I’m fifth (in terms of ACC seniority) now. That’s just a sign of the volatility of our profession, and how competitive it is in our league.”
“The coaches in the ACC all have a healthy respect for each other,” London said. “They truly appreciate what they’ve done and what they represent.”
Until Aug. 31, when the meat grinder starts all over again.
HEADQUARTERS: Greensboro, N.C.
COMMISSIONER: John Swofford (since 1997).
MEMBERS: 15 (as of July 2013)
FUTURE MEMBERS: 1 (Louisville replaces Maryland, which leaves for the Big Ten, in July 2014)
SPORTS: 25 (men 12; women 13).
IRISH ACC GAMES
2014: Home - Louisville, North Carolina, Wake Forest; Away - Florida State, Syracuse.
2015: Home - Boston College, Georgia Tech; Away - Clemson, Pittsburgh, Virginia.
2016: Home - Duke, Miami, Virginia Tech; Away - North Carolina State, Syracuse.
IRISH VS. THE ACC
Notre Dame’s all-time record against future ACC opponents:
Louisville (first meeting), Florida State 2-5, North Carolina 16-2, Syracuse 3-3, Wake Forest 2-0, Boston College 13-9, Clemson 1-1, Georgia Tech 27-6-1, Pittsburgh 47-20-1, Virginia 1-0, Duke 3-1, Miami 17-7-1, North Carolina State 0-1, Virginia Tech (first meeting).
ACC HEAD COACHES
Atlantic Division: Boston College (Steve Addazio, 1st year at that school), Clemson (Dabo Swinney, 5th), Florida State (Jimbo Fisher, 4th), North Carolina State (Dave Doeren, 1st), Syracuse (Scott Shafer, 1st), Wake Forest (Jim Grobe 13th).
Coastal: Duke (David Cutcliffe, 6th), Georgia Tech (Paul Johnson, 6th), Miami (Al Golden, 3rd), North Carolina (Larry Fedora, 2nd), Pittsburgh (Paul Chryst, 2nd), Virginia Tech (Frank Beamer, 27th), Virginia (Mike London, 4th).
TBD: Louisville (Charlie Strong, 4th).
2012 ACC STANDINGS
2012 CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Florida State 21, Georgia Tech 15
ACC IN 2012 BOWL GAMES
Belk: Cincinnati 48, Duke 34
Russell Athletic: Virginia Tech 13, Rutgers 10
Music City: Vanderbilt 38, North Carolina State 24
Sun: Georgia Tech 21, Southern Cal 7
Chick-fil-A: Clemson 25, LSU 24
Orange: Florida State 31, Northern Illinois 10
New Era Pinstripe: Syracuse 38, West Virginia 14
Sugar: Louisville 33, Florida 23
2014 ND commitments
The following players have made verbal commitments to begin playing at Notre Dame in 2014. Signing day is Feb. 5.
Greer Martini, LB, 6-3, 230, Woodberry Forest, Va. (Woodberry Forest School)
Justin Brent, WR, 6-3, 195, Speedway, Ind.
Jay Hayes, DL, 6-5, 260, Brooklyn, N.Y. (Poly Prep)
Jimmy Byrne, OL, 6-4, 275, Cleveland (St. Ignatius)
Andrew Trumbetti, DE, 6-5, 250, Demarest, N.J. (Northern Valley Regional)
Sam Mustipher, OL, 6-4, 286, Olney, Md. (Good Counsel)
Nic Weishar, TE, 6-5, 230, Chicago (Marist)
Elijah Hood, RB, 5-11, 221, Charlotte, N.C. (Charlotte Catholic)
Quenton Nelson, OL, 6-5, 295, Red Bank, N.J. (Red Bank Catholic)
Alex Bars, OL, 6-6, 295, Nashville, Tenn. (Montgomery Bell Academy)
DeShone Kizer, QB, 6-4, 215, Toledo, Ohio (Central Catholic)
Grant Blankenship, DE, 6-5, 235, Dallas (The Colony)