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The Red Herring of Conference 'Competition'

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I won't debate the need for the ACC to improve its status relative to ↵other conferences in football. Cite the cyclical nature of ↵conference strength, sure. It does vary wildly from year to year, and ↵can often look far worse than it actually is thanks to a bad bowl ↵season. (See the Big Ten's past two years as an example of how low a ↵conference's national reputation can plummet in a short time. Fair? ↵No. Present? Absolutely.) ↵

↵What I will debate is the proposition that the ACC has to compete on ↵any level with a conference like the SEC, a mega-conference approached ↵only by the Big 12 in terms of national profile and local ↵fervor. The ACC's expansion to 12 teams has, as Tony Barnhart points ↵out here, has been far more successful than you might imagine. The ↵revenue is up from $21 million annually to $37.6 million last year, ↵the conference sent 10 teams to bowl games last year, and there's a ↵new television contract on the way. ↵

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↵That new television contract is what Mr. College Football believes is ↵so crucial to the ACC, particularly because of the long shadow cast by ↵the SEC's massive TV deal with ESPN. How massive? ESPN has never ↵co-branded with a sports league before this deal, something which ↵means nothing to fans like me, but is a really big deal to suits who ↵think a lot about these things. Not with the NFL, not with MLB, not ↵with any of them: only the SEC gets their circular seal merged with ↵ESPN, making the Hillbilly Hollywood League something beyond an ↵official partner and something closer to a cornerstone product. ↵

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↵The ACC could try to compete on this level, sure. They could also try ↵to package lacrosse to Chinese state television for $18 billion a ↵year, but that's not happening. Realistically, the ACC's future as a ↵football conference lies in shoring up local support for its teams, ↵the very kind of insanely dedicated local support that turned the SEC ↵into the financial behemoth it is today. Start from the ground up, ↵rather than from the top down, by making games even more affordable, ↵advertising locally, and generating buzz for the second favorite sport ↵of the conference. It will be an uphill battle, and take decades, but ↵it would ultimately yield more long-term gains than doubling down on a ↵large television contract only to have ample screen time for viewers ↵to see half-full stadiums and mediocre football. ↵

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↵Fan-friendly marketing won't do the trick alone, though. One ↵particularly crucial step for the conference to improve its overall ↵status among college football's BCS mafia families: make better ↵coaching hires to improve and liven up the product on the field. The ↵ACC has suffered tremendously from a lack of interesting football like ↵the pass-happy, aggressive style one might see in the Big ↵12 on any given weekend. Instead, the style of ball in the ACC mirrors ↵the pro-style muddles of the Eastern Corridor's first football ↵love, the NFL, and is taught by a hoary crew of respected elder ↵coaches whose combined voltage reading on the excitement scale reads ↵somewhere around zero: Friedgen, Davis, O'Brien ... all fine coaches ↵with demonstrated records of success, but not exactly the crew of ↵jolly mercenaries the SEC has sailing the seas at the moment, and not ↵exactly a group working on football's cutting edge of strategy and ↵innovation. (See: Bowden, Bobby.) ↵

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↵When the time comes to replace one, ACC schools should shun some of ↵the conservatism hampering their searches and go with a younger or ↵slightly less conventional choice for the position. It worked for ↵Georgia Tech with Paul Johnson, an option coach whose attack ↵not only worked in the ACC but also restored the Jackets to conference ↵respectability. It would work just fine for another school when the ↵time comes, too. Or you could just hire a retread, of course. That's ↵always an option in the ACC, it seems. ↵

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