The ACC takes three swings at the mighty SEC

Given that his Yellow Jackets play Georgia and Clemson on an annual basis, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson has some standing in the matter. Asked Tuesday if he sees a difference in talent between the top-10 teams, Johnson said:

“No. I think they’re both talented teams. Both have really good quarterbacks. Both have what I would call marquee receivers in Malcolm Mitchell and Sammy Watkins. It’s probably going to come down to who plays the best defense.”

That’s interesting, seeing as how raging perception holds that there are two types of talent — SEC talent and everything else. As fate would have it, three ACC teams will meet SEC opponents this week: North Carolina plays at South Carolina on Thursday; Virginia Tech faces Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game here Saturday, and later that night Georgia collides with Clemson.

The SEC rep is favored in all three, which isn’t surprising. Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina comprise three of the top six teams in the preseason Associated Press poll. The SEC has half of the top dozen; the ACC has Clemson (No. 8) and Florida State (No. 11) and nobody else in the Top 25.

Given that the ACC exists in the closest geographic proximity to the almighty SEC, it suffers the most by way of contrast. The SEC has taken seven consecutive BCS titles; the ACC has a 3-13 record in BCS bowls, with two of the victories coming against Cincinnati and Northern Illinois.

On the final weekend of the 2012 regular season, four SEC teams met ACC opponents. The basketball league took an 0-fer. Georgia beat Tech. South Carolina, playing without quarterback Connor Shaw and tailback Marcus Lattimore, beat Clemson. Florida beat Florida State, the eventual ACC champ, in Tallahassee. Even Vanderbilt joined the fun, beating Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C. Aggregate score of the four games: SEC 161, ACC 74. Holy mackerel.

ACC coaches have sought to de-emphasize the SEC component of this week’s games. North Carolina coach Larry Fedora told reporters in Chapel Hill: “That’s all that’s out there in the media — it’s the SEC. But we’re not playing the SEC. We’re playing South Carolina … We haven’t talked about league versus league.”

Said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, speaking Wednesday on the ACC teleconference: “We’ve had a lot of battles with that league. Our guys have a good understanding as to what it takes to beat a very good team, regardless of what conference they come from. This is more about Clemson-Georgia than where they come from.”

Said Johnson, whose Jackets open against Elon of the Southern Conference on Saturday: “It’s a big mistake to think that teams play for their league. Teams play for themselves. If you win (and make your conference look good) that’s a bonus. But your pregame talk isn’t, ‘Let’s win for our conference.’”

Contrast that with the sentiment offered by Alabama coach Nick Saban on Monday in Tuscaloosa: “Representing our conference is always important. We have a lot of pride in our conference.”

To be fair, Clemson did beat Auburn in the 2012 Kickoff game and LSU in an epic Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve. But Swinney’s response to each told us much about how an ACC team — even a very good ACC team — feels about beating Big Brother. “A big-time gutsy win,” he called the former. He was even more effusive about the latter, deeming it “a landmark.”

Like it or not, the SEC is the standard-bearer. The ACC is considered the fifth-best of the five BCS conferences. (We can’t really count the former Big East.) The ACC hasn’t dispatched a team to the BCS championship game since Florida State in 2000, which was so long ago that Mark Richt, now the dean of SEC coaches, was the Seminoles’ offensive coordinator.

For an ACC coach to say, “It’s not us against the SEC but us against Georgia/Alabama/South Carolina” is disingenuous. Because of the SEC’s domination, we can’t separate school from league. The best way for the ACC to burnish its brand is to win a game or two this week. (Though Clemson would seem the only one of the three underdogs with a fighting chance.)

Toward that end, a reporter asked Johnson who’ll win in Death Valley on Saturday. “I don’t have any idea,” he said.

Maybe he was being politically correct, something for which this coach isn’t widely known. But earlier a bit of the Johnson sarcasm slipped out. “If you watch ESPN,” he said, “it’s like a 24-hour non-stop commercial for the SEC.”

When you’re Little Brother, you seize every slight.

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