You only need to listen to Duke coach David Cutcliffe speak to recognize his southern roots are in the deep south and Southeastern Conference rather than his current ACC and Durham, N.C., residences.
His accent tells you as much as his bio.
The eighth-year Duke coach has been all SEC before Duke hired him in 2008 to rebuild the Blue Devils into an ACC contender. He was born and bred in Alabama, including serving as a Crimson Tide student assistant on Bear Bryant’s staff. He followed two years as high school coach in Alabama with 18 years as a Tennessee assistant over two stints and then seven years at Mississippi’s head coach.
He’s all SEC except for a year at Notre Dame in 2005.
But Cutcliffe is adamant the ACC is an underestimated conference. He recognizes the SEC is the nation’s top conference, but he says the ACC is stronger than the national perception of fifth among the Power Five and is capable of taking on the SEC.
“Our football coaches would like to have – as we have in basketball – an SEC/ACC challenge,” said Cutcliffe on WRAL’s 99.9 Adam and Joe Show. “We would welcome that anytime.”
They say a rising tide lifts all boats, but Florida State’s national title in 2013 didn’t raise the ACC as much as Ohio State’s 2014 crown did its Big Ten brethren.
In the 2015 Top 25, Florida State tops the ACC schools at No. 8 in the USA Today poll, even though Clemson is the pick among ACC media to win the conference. Clemson is No. 12 and Georgia Tech No. 17.
That’s not much different than 2014 when Florida State should have elevated the conference as the national title. But after Florida State as No. 1 in the 2014 preseason USA Today poll, Clemson was the next ACC school at No. 16 and North Carolina at No. 23.
“Marketing has its value,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t know we’re in a period of time that ACC football has been marketed as a serious brand. If you look at the draft over the last five years, you would quickly can argue with anybody that said that about the Power Five (ACC is fifth).
“We play tougher schedules. That may have something to do with it. We continue to put ourselves out there. We haven’t done well in the matchups; there’ve been key early matchups that haven’t gone our way. When that happens, that’s all the national media will bother to look at. They don’t get past, ‘they got beat in Atlanta in the opener.’ We talked about hat as a group of head coaches. What happens is we don’t have as many teams early in the Top 25.”
Last year the ACC produced 11 bowl eligible teams for the second straight year. That’s 79 percent, which is second in percentage only to SEC with 12 of 14, 86 percent. The Big Ten was 10 of 14, 71 percent; Big 12, seven of 10, 70 percent; the Pac-12 eight of 12, 67 percent.
Cutcliffe, a quarterback guru with Peyton and Eli Manning his most notable students, also points to a strong class of veteran ACC quarterbacks.
“I looked at (quarterbacks) in our league this summer, even some were not playing, and those are quarterbacks,” he said with emphasis. “We’ve got some legitimate pro prospects. We’ve got some good football players across the board. I think this well be the best ACC, top to bottom, certainly in the eight years since I’ve been in the league. I think what you’ll see — and this will be fan friendly – are a lot fourth quarters that decide who goes to Charlotte (for the ACC championship game).
“It’s going to be very interesting. Sometimes fourth quarters are how you play that day. Sometime it is, do you stay healthy week to week? Can you be consistent? You don’t’ have a lull in the season.”
Other numbers that support Cutcliffe if the rankings and marquee matchups don’t are found in the NFL Draft. Last year, two ACC schools had the most players drafted. Florida State had 11, Louisville 10 and the SEC’s Florida was third with eight.
Overall, the SEC led the nation with 54 picks, but the ACC – not the Pac-12 (39), Big Ten (35) or Big 12 (25) – was second with 47.
The returning quarterbacks that Cutcliffe admires – in addition to his first-year starter, Thomas Sirk — are North Carolina’s Marquise Williams, Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, N.C. State’s Jacoby Brissett, Florida State’s Everett Golson (a Notre Dame transfer) and Miami’s Brad Kaaya.
But draft picks and the total number of bowl teams won’t change the ACC’s national perception as No. 5 among five. The ACC needs to win more marquee and even notable matchups, especially early in the year.
With that in mind, some games the ACC needs to win (USA Today preseason poll rankings noted):
— Sept. 3, North Carolina vs. South Carolina at Charlotte.
— Sept. 5, Louisville vs. No. 7 Auburn at Atlanta.
— Sept. 5, Virginia at No. 14 UCLA.
— Sept. 7, No. 1 Ohio State at Virginia Tech.
— Sept. 12, Northwestern at Duke.
And, with No. 11-ranked Notre Dame a partial member of the ACC, six ACC schools get a chance to knock off the Irish in games that are officially non-conference dates.
— Sept. 12, Notre Dame at Virginia.
— Sept. 19, Georgia Tech at Notre Dame.
— Oct. 3, Notre Dame at Clemson.
— Nov. 7, Notre Dame at Pitt.
— Nov. 14, Wake Forest at Notre Dame.
— Nov. 21, Boston College at Notre Dame.