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Nov. 23, 2012
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - By the nature of their jobs, most college football coaches are afflicted with tunnel vision.
Their No. 1 priority is their team, and they rarely look around to see how the other teams in their league are doing when nonconference games crop up. It's different in basketball, where there are many more nonconference games. It's a perfect sport for things like challenge series that pit teams from different leagues against each other. There's time to be more aware of conference prestige.
But there are only a dozen games to play in football and usually only four of those are nonconference games. So coaches concentrate on taking care of their own business, and whatever other teams do is noted with interest but little concern.
It's no different in the ACC. On this last weekend of the regular season, the league has four matchups against the Southeastern Conference, considered the gold standard in college football. Florida State plays Florida, Clemson goes against South Carolina, Georgia Tech takes on Georgia and Wake Forest meets Vanderbilt.
It's an opportunity for the ACC to gain some feathers for its conference-football cap, yet coaches don't let themselves think that way. There are more pressing issues.
"I think any time you go out of conference, whether it's the SEC or any conference, you'd like to represent the ACC well," said Wake's Jim Grobe. "So I think that's a factor, but I don't think that's the number one factor for us right now."
In the Deacons' case, it's a game they need to win to become bowl eligible, and they will have their hands full against a Vanderbilt team that comes in 7-4.
"Bottom line is we've got to find a way to get a win," Grobe said, "and that involves taking care of our own football team more than who we're playing."
The other three games are traditional, season-ending, in-state rivalries. Those are games the fans and players typically want to win more than any others on the schedule.
Georgia Tech faces a formidable task against Georgia, and the Jackets would raise national eyebrows if they could knock off the third-ranked Bulldogs.
"I guess you think about it, but that's not the big deal," said Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson. "Clearly, we'd love to have success up in Athens (site of the game) for a lot of reasons, and I think the ACC would benefit as well."
And in Tech's case, there's another reason not to become completely consumed with this game. Win or lose, they've got one more to play - Dec. 1 in the ACC Championship Game against Florida State.
The Seminoles have at stake against the Gators. FSU is ranked 10th and Florida sixth, so a victory by the `Noles would be considered an upset even though both teams 10-1.
"I don't mean any disrespect to our league," said coach Jimbo Fisher, "and it is great for our league if we're successful. But we're playing a rivalry game. It's a big game against Florida and we know them very well and they know us. It's just about that game.
"If it helps our league, I'm all for it. I'm not against that. But that's not a focus as far as I'm concerned. The big thing we have to focus on is just playing well against Florida, and if that part of it works out, that's part of it."
There's one other factor that impacts the Seminoles in a remote way. They're not completely out of the mix for the BCS championship game. After a weekend in which the top two teams in the country, Oregon and Kansas State, lost on the same Saturday, nothing should be considered a sure thing.
Florida State would have to beat Florida to leapfrog some teams in the BCS standings and several other teams would have to lose. Fisher is aware of the long-shot possibility but doesn't spend much time thinking about it.
"I think one thing we found out in college football," he said, "is anything is possible. That's the one thing that's predictable. The month of November is always crazy.
"But we don't sit and dwell on that. Our goal is to do what we do and control what we can control and that's play well against Florida who's a great opponent, and if everything else falls in place, then it does."
The Clemson-South Carolina game pits the nation's No. 12 and 13 teams (the Tigers have the higher ranking). Yet national recognition and kudos for the ACC are not on the pre-game radar for Tigers coach Dabo Swinney. He wants his team to stay true to what has led it to a 10-1 record so far.
"We're just really just thinking about Clemson," Swinney said. "That's really been our focus all year, and it shouldn't be any different. It's not about South Carolina, it's not about anything outside of Clemson.
"It's about how we prepare, how we play, our execution, our effort, our mentality. And that's just the way it's been for us all year. The only thing different with this one is this is the last game of the season, and it's your in-state rival. So there's a little bit more attention than maybe any of the other games.
"But our mentality is exactly the same. We've just got to focus on ourselves and have great preparation and just put a great effort on display Saturday night."
Swinney said he couldn't remember what the other three ACC-SEC matchups are.
"I really don't pay a lot of attention to that stuff," he said. "(I would) love to see those teams win and represent the conference great. But that's irrelevant, really, to what I'm trying to do here."
Tunnel vision. It's a necessary tool of the trade for coaches to be successful.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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