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Teel: ACC football needs more quality depth to approach SEC, Big Ten

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Peach Bowl Football

Pittsburgh quarterback Nick Patti (center) scrambles in the end zone against Michigan State during the first half of the 2021 Peach Bowl in Atlanta.

In unsettling times, there’s nothing like voices of bravado and wisdom to spark the mind. Enter Pat Narduzzi and Mack Brown.

Few college football coaches promote and defend their program and conference more resolutely than Pittsburgh’s Narduzzi. And this preseason he has a platform and a cause.

First, the Panthers are fresh off an ACC championship year in which they produced a Heisman Trophy finalist in quarterback Kenny Pickett and the nation’s top receiver in Jordan Addison.

Second, with the revelation of Southern California and UCLA bolting the Pac-12 for the Big Ten still fresh, never has chatter about the Big Ten and SEC lording over college football resonated louder.

This is unwelcome news for the depth-shy ACC, dominated recently by Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers.

“You hear all these things during the summer about the Power Two [conferences] and all this stuff,” Narduzzi said Thursday at the league’s preseason gathering in Charlotte, North Carolina. “... You know, we play some darn good football in the ACC, and I think people forget about it. I think Dabo made a comment yesterday about everybody talks about, oh, Clemson had a down year [at 10-3 in 2021], and he is exactly right. People need to wake up.”

Here Narduzzi cited his experience as a Big Ten defensive coordinator at Michigan State and Pitt’s 31-21 Peach Bowl loss to the Spartans in December, a game Pickett and Michigan State All-America running back Kenneth Walker skipped in favor of NFL draft preparation. Further hamstringing the Panthers: Pickett’s backup, Nick Patti, was shelved by a first-half shoulder injury.

“I feel very confident, and again, it’s not being arrogant,” Narduzzi said. “It’s just kind of knowing the landscape and knowing what we played against in the Peach Bowl. Just would have liked to have our backup quarterback play the whole game. That’s just confidence. That’s no disrespect to the Big Ten or Michigan State. It’s just about Pitt and about the ACC.”

Fair enough. The Panthers led the Spartans 21-10 entering the fourth quarter but subsequently yielded three touchdowns, the last on a 78-yard interception return in the final minute.

But big picture, what the ACC clearly lacks is SEC- and Big Ten-caliber depth, a gaggle of recently substantive programs that drive television ratings and revenue.

Consider the last decade.

Not including Notre Dame’s one-season cameo in COVID-ravaged 2020, ACC programs have combined for a dozen top-10 finishes in the Associated Press Top 25 poll since 2012. Clemson has seven, Florida State four and Georgia Tech one.

During the same stretch, nine SEC programs have combined for 30 top-10 seasons. Seven of those schools — Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M, Auburn, LSU and South Carolina — have multiple such finishes.

Similarly, eight Big Ten programs have combined for 23 top-10 finishes since 2013. Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin have done so multiple times.

One final metric: Never in its history has the ACC produced more than two top-10 teams in a football season. The SEC has done so six times in the last decade alone, the Big Ten five times during the span.

Brown is confident that UNC would land softly if college athletics fractures into Big Ten and SEC super-conferences, with everyone else left behind. The Carolina brand, athletically and academically, is that entrenched.

But this gives Brown, a 70-year-old College Football Hall of Famer, minimal comfort. Moreover, the prospect of the Big Ten and SEC bogarting the sport’s marquee names unnerves him.

“When I was president of the American Football Coaches Association, I always said, ‘Are we voting to do what’s best for your school? Or are we voting to do what’s best for college football?’” Brown said. “I’ve always gone in the area of what’s best for college football because that’s the masses and because that’s the game that we love.

“And I don’t think it’s best for college football to have two mega-conferences with 50 teams [total], because there’s so many great programs that will not be able to compete at the same level they are now, and when that happens, their fans are going to be really disappointed, and they’re going to lose revenue, and it will hurt football all the way down to FCS and Division II and Division III. ... We need what’s best for college football, not what’s just best for a few.”

Brown’s sentiments are noble. We can only hope they’re not also naive.

Twitter: @ByDavidTeel

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