Exceeding Expectations

Lamar Jackson (Photo by Tim Haag.)

By Mike Rutherford  |  Card Chronicle

When Louisville was preparing to make the move to the ACC a half decade ago, the sell was an easy one for Cardinal fans.

The basketball side was a no-brainer. With the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Syracuse all in the fold, the ACC was set to be the best hoops conference in America for the foreseeable future. You also had Rick Pitino joining up with Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim to make the league the first in college basketball history to feature four active members of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Good times.

As far as football was concerned, the allure was a little different. You had two powerhouse programs to face and get excited about every season, but outside of that, you had what seemed at the time to be the most easily traversable set of adversaries from any of the power five conferences. Essentially, this was the old Big East with Clemson and Florida State; even in down years, Louisville would have the opportunity to be a force in the conference and go to a decent bowl game.

The first of those two selling points has played out as expected. Since UofL joined the ACC in 2014, no conference has produced more NCAA Tournament teams or NCAA Tournament wins than the ACC. In three years, the conference has sent four teams to the Final Four, had a representative in all three national championship games, and won the national title twice.

The surprise — a pleasant one if you’re looking at it from most angles — has come on the gridiron.

At last week’s ACC Kickoff (the name the league uses for its annual media days event), Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher made national headlines by declaring that the ACC has “established ourselves as the premier conference in college football.” While it may have made Paul Finebaum-infused heads across the Deep South explode, Fisher’s statement was far more rooted in fact than hope.

“Two of the last four national championships have come from here; we’ve played for three of them,” Fisher said. “We’re 8-3 in (College Football) Playoff games… Our non-conference records against the SEC, the Big Ten and everybody else, we have the winning-record Power Five wins. You have two Heisman Trophy winners and also the runner up last year. You have six coaches in the top 20 all-time winning percentage in college football. You go down the list of everything, and I think the importance of it.

“I coached in the SEC for 13 (years) — I think it’s a tremendous conference. I think the Big Ten is a tremendous conference. I think they all are. But I think right now what we’ve accomplished in the last five years and you’re talking about major wins, big wins, national championships, Heisman Trophy winners, coaches, everything that goes involved, I think the ACC is as good a league as there is in football, I really do.”

Expanding on Fisher’s rationale, the ACC also produced the best bowl record (9-3) of any conference in 2016, and was the only league to own a winning record against each of the other power conferences. The ACC went a combined 10-4 in games against the mighty SEC, with Clemson’s national title victory over Alabama serving as the obvious headliner. Against the other three power conferences, the SEC was 31-9.

Heading into year four, Louisville suddenly finds itself playing not only in America’s premier college football conference, but in college football’s most glamorous division. The ACC Atlantic has produced a national finalist in three of the last four seasons and two national champions over that same span. It’s also produced two of the last four Heisman Trophy winners, including the reigning honoree, UofL’s Lamar Jackson.

There’s a positive side and a negative side to this unexpected strength. The positive is that Louisville’s weekly stage is suddenly much bigger than it’s ever been before, and its national profile much stronger. The negative is that the Cardinals can go 7-1 in conference play like they did in 2016, and if that one loss is to the wrong team, they can still find themselves not playing for a conference title.

ACC football isn’t what any of us thought it was going to be four years ago. It’s much, much better. Now Louisville needs to be much, much better too. VT