Players Take the Stage at the 2009 ACC Football Kickoff
July 26, 2009
GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) - Greg Boone beamed Sunday when he showed off the bulky, glittering ring he earned last season for helping Virginia Tech win the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Then the tight end wondered how heavy a national championship ring might be.
For the first time in a while, it's not a stretch to think he and the Hokies could find out.
And there is more respect for the ACC these days, now that the league set an NCAA record last year by sending 10 teams to bowls, and its champion broke through to win a Bowl Championship Series game.
"That (Orange Bowl win) took a lot of pressure off the conference," Boone said.
The league built on its basketball powerhouses is looking to take another step toward finally becoming the football heavyweight many expected a few years back when it expanded to 12 teams.
"People (used to) say our league is a weak conference, but there's no way you can feel that way when you have the Virginia Techs, the Miamis, Florida State," Clemson running back C.J. Spiller said. "I really think our conference is the best in the country."
The league did not get the immediate national prestige some might have expected after the football-fueled additions of the Hokies, Hurricanes and Boston College.
That all changed last season, when 10 of the 12 teams made the postseason. In the league's marquee bowl matchup, Virginia Tech beat Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl for the ACC's first victory in a BCS game since Florida State topped the Hokies in the national title game that followed the 1999 season.
"If you really step back and take a look at the conferences, a year ago, top to bottom, we may well have been the deepest conference in the country," commissioner John Swofford said. "What we didn't have is a team or two involved in the national championship race down the stretch, and I think that has a lot to do with how a conference is perceived competitively - maybe more than it should.
"Have a team or teams involved in the national championship race, as we move through the season, and win certain games outside of the conference," he added. "And when those things happen, I think then our league will receive the kind of respect that I think it deserves."
The ACC won't have to wait long for its first such test. The Hokies - who return 16 starters from their fifth straight 10-win team - will find out quickly if they're championship caliber when they open against Alabama in Atlanta.
Of course, there's more to the ACC this year than just the Hokies.
Every school but Boston College returns a quarterback who has made at least one career start. And in Spiller and Georgia Tech running back Jonathan Dwyer - the league's reigning offensive player of the year who flourished in coach Paul Johnson's run-based option offense - the ACC has a pair of the nation's most explosive rushers.
"We've got a lot of weapons throughout the ACC, and we've got a lot of national contenders for different awards and everything, so I definitely think throughout, the talent in the ACC is getting better and better every year," North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates said.
And in a sign of progress, Duke is thinking big as the Blue Devils enter
Duke head coach David Cutcliffe has his Blue Devils thinking big in his second season.
"In the back of our hearts, we believe that this is a stepping stone," fourth-year starting quarterback Thaddeus Lewis said. "We don't want to be mediocre. We don't want to settle for mediocrity. So in order to have a successful season, we have to do better than we did last year."