Football Landscape Changing in New-Look ACC

VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM
Mike London

VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM
Mike London
VIRGINIASPORTSDOTCOM

Sept. 27, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- The league the University of Virginia joined in the early 1950s has undergone multiple changes since then. The Atlantic Coast Conference lost South Carolina in 1971 and later added Georgia Tech, Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College.

Syracuse and Pittsburgh came on board this year, raising the number of football teams in the conference to 14, and more changes are coming in 2014.

Maryland will leave for the Big Ten, to be replaced by Louisville, and Notre Dame will join the ACC as a partial member. The Fighting Irish will play five football games against ACC opponents annually, but won't be eligible for the conference title in that sport.

Much has been made of how the addition of Syracuse, Pitt, Notre Dame and Louisville -- all of which regularly play in the NCAA men's basketball tournament -- will strengthen the ACC in hoops.

In football, it's harder to say how expansion will affect the ACC, though adding those schools and those media markets "bodes well for the entire conference," UVa football coach Mike London said Monday at Scott Stadium.

Without question, Louisville should enhance the ACC's reputation in football. In the latest Associated Press poll, the Cardinals (4-0) are ranked No. 7, and in Charlie Strong they have a rising star in the coaching profession. Louisville won the Big East title last season and finished 11-2 after defeating Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

 

 

Pitt and Syracuse don't generate the same buzz, as neither has been a national power in recent years. Still, each school has a storied tradition in football and seems to be trending upward in the sport.

Virginia has faced Pitt five times in football, most recently in 2007 at Scott Stadium. The schools' first meeting as ACC foes comes Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field, also home of the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Cavaliers, who have yet to play a conference game, are 2-1. The Panthers are 1-1 in ACC play and 2-1 overall.

This is Pitt's second season under head coach Paul Chryst, who has brought stability to the program.

In December 2010, after a regular season in which his team went 7-5, Dave Wannstedt resigned under pressure as Pitt's coach. His successor, Mike Haywood, lasted about two-and-a-half weeks at Pitt. The school fired Haywood after he was arrested on a domestic violence charge.

In January 2011, Pitt hired Todd Graham. He lasted only one season before bolting for Arizona State.

For a program with Pitt's proud history, such upheaval was troubling. The Panthers have won nine national championships in football -- in 1915, '16, '18, '20, '31, '34, '36, '37 and '76 -- and their former head coaches include Pop Warner, Jock Sutherland, Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill.

Pitt's former players include such legends as Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, Mike Ditka, Larry Fitzgerald, Bill Fralic, Russ Grimm, Rickey Jackson, Hugh Green and Craig "Ironhead" Heyward.

A "destination job," Chryst called it in December 2011 after Pitt hired him from Wisconsin, where he was offensive coordinator.

In their only season under Graham, the Panthers finished 6-7. That was their record again in 2012, and they're not likely to contend for the Coastal title this fall. Still, they finished 9-4 in 2008 and 10-3 in 2009, and given the program's history, resources and recruiting base, there's no reason the Panthers can't become perennial winners again.

As Coastal Division rivals, UVa and Pitt will meet every season in football. Virginia's encounters with Syracuse, which was placed in the Atlantic Division, will be much less frequent. The teams' first meeting as conference foes will come in 2015, in Charlottesville, after which the Wahoos won't face the Orange again until 2022.

Like Pitt, Syracuse has experienced the thrill of being crowned national champion in football. For the Orange -- then known as the Orangemen -- that happened in 1959, after an 11-0 season.

Syracuse's list of prominent football alumni rivals that of Pitt and includes such greats as Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Donovan McNabb, Floyd Little, John Mackey, Larry Csonka, Art Monk, Jim Ringo, Dwight Freeney and Marvin Graves.

During a stretch of six seasons in the Big East -- 1987 to 1992 -- Syracuse won at least 10 games four times. The Orange finished 8-4 and 7-4 in the other two years during that span.

The `Cuse posted nine-win seasons in 1995, '96 and '97 and went 10-3 in 2001. But the Orange didn't finish above .500 again until 2010, Doug Marrone's second season as head coach.

Syracuse dipped back to 5-7 in 2011 and then improved to 8-5 in 2012 - tying for first in the Big East with a 5-2 conference record -- after which Marrone left to become head coach of the NFL's Buffalo Bills.

In its first season under Marrone's replacement, Scott Shafer, Syracuse is 2-2, with losses to Penn State and Northwestern and wins over Wagner and Tulane.

The ACC hopes Notre Dame, which plays UVa at Scott Stadium in 2015, will one day join the league as a full member in football. Louisville, notwithstanding such alumni as Johnny Unitas, Frank Minnifield and Joe Jacoby, can't come close to matching the Fighting Irish's tradition in the sport. Still, over the past 25 years the Cardinals have significantly raised their profile in the sport. To wit:

* Under Howard Schnellenberger, Lousville won eight games in 1988, 10 in '90 and nine in '93.

* Under John L. Smith, the Cardinals finished 9-3 and 11-2 in 2001.

* Under Bobby Petrino, Louisville won 11 games in 2004, nine in `05 and 12 in '06.

The `Hoos will be seeing plenty of the Cardinals. As a member of the Atlantic Division, Louisville will replace Maryland as UVa's permanent partner in football.

Virginia and Maryland have played each other 77 times. UVa and Louisville have met only twice, each winning once. The series will resume in 2014, at Scott Stadium, and continue each year thereafter.