LITTLE ROCK — Jameis Winston’s landslide victory in the Heisman Trophy voting is the first of many dominoes that could change the perception of football in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
When the power conferences are rated top to bottom, the SEC and the ACC are the bookends. In between are the Pac-12, the Big Ten, and the Big 12.
If the best player in college football is in the ACC and Florida State is No. 1 in every poll that matters and the Seminoles are favored in the BCS title game, even naysayers would grudgingly admit that FSU must be pretty good. The case for other members of the ACC would be easier to make if the Seminoles had had a scare somewhere along the way. Instead, after beating Boston College by 14 in late September, FSU defeated conference opponents by 27 to 63 points.
Still, unless you are Miley Cyrus, reshaping an image a decade in the making takes time and Winston’s Heisman is only the initial step.
A player from an ACC team last won the Heisman in 2000 when FSU’s Chris Weineke was rewarded for leading the Seminoles to three straight national championship games and the ACC has not been represented in the title game since Jan. 3, 2001. Now a member of the ACC, Miami was in the Big East when competing for the championship after the ‘01 and 02 seasons.
So, step two in the makeover process is Jan. 6 in Pasadena.
What would a BCS title do for the perception that schools in the ACC field football teams to entertain students until basketball practice begins in mid-October? Even more, what if the ACC team was the first to beat an SEC team for the trophy since the league became a permanent fixture in the title game after the 2006 season. FSU 28, Auburn 27 could be dismissed as a fluke, but what if the Seminoles win by double digits and do a number on the Auburn running game?
Remember, Auburn ran for 296 in four quarters vs. Alabama and 292 in the first two quarters vs. Missouri, the best two run defenses in the SEC. Guaranteed, Auburn will not make 309 yards outside the tackles as the Tigers did vs. Missouri.
If FSU comes through, new blood also will help the ACC’s image. Syracuse and Pittsburgh joined up this year, but basketball coaches Jim Boeheim and Jamie Dixon are better known than their football counterparts. Next year, the ACC newcomer is Louisville and, yes, Rick Pitino is more high profile than Charlie Strong, but I did not have to look up the fact that the Arkansas native is in charge of the football program. Strong’s name is mentioned regularly when a big-time school is searching for a coach, but his allegiance to Louisville was appropriately celebrated last year.
In 2014, his Cardinals play Florida State, Clemson, Miami, and five other ACC opponents. Less than a year removed from a 10-point victory over previously once-beaten Florida in the BCS Sugar Bowl, the Cardinals have put together back-to-back 11-1 records in the regular season — glamorous numbers that attract attention.
For spice, note that Louisville will be in the division with Florida State and Clemson.
Now for the coup de grace. In 2014, Notre Dame will begin its affiliation with the ACC, competing for championships in all sports except football. However, the Fighting Irish will play each of the ACC members in football once during the next three seasons. Deserved or not, the mere presence of Notre Dame widens the spotlight.
Next year, Notre Dame is scheduled to play a neutral site game against Syracuse, home games vs. Louisville, North Carolina, and Wake Forest and travel to Florida State. The school is trying to move one ACC game to 2015 because it has 13 contracts for 12 dates.
For the ACC, the next step is on FSU.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.