Labor Day marks the traditional end of the summer. This year, it also appears to have marked the end of the ACC’s relevance in the College Football Playoff picture.
The Jim Phillips era got off to a resounding thud with ACC teams going 6-6 against nonconference foes in his first weekend of games as new league commissioner. There have probably been worse coming-out parties, but Phillips’ ranked right up there with Carrie on prom night, and just like then, everything has been burned to the ground.
Granted, things could have been worse. The SEC didn’t take any teams from the ACC, just their lunch money. ACC teams went 0-3 in head-to-head matchups with SEC teams, and the combined total of points the ACC managed in those games — 40 — wouldn’t have been enough to win two of them.
Clemson, for years the ACC’s flagship football school, was handled by Georgia in the weekend’s marquee game, managing just three points for its lowest output since 2007. It was the first regular season nonconference loss for the Tigers in more than seven years.
A loss on opening weekend isn’t an insurmountable hurdle, but Clemson would need some help from the rest of the league to work its way back into playoff contention. Dabo & Co. didn’t get it from the two favorites in the Coastal Division.
North Carolina took its No. 10 ranking to Blacksburg for the only ACC conference tilt of opening weekend and promptly laid a Hokie-sized egg as former Heisman candidate Sam Howell threw three interceptions.
Miami, No. 14 last week, took on Alabama in the second ACC-SEC marquee matchup and got pummeled, losing a 44-13 game that wasn’t even as close as the score might indicate.
Louisville closed the 0-fer against the SEC with a 43-24 loss to Ole Miss on Labor Day. While it’s considered a fashion faux pas to wear white after that date, the rule probably doesn’t apply to the league’s flag, which it was ready to wave as calls likely went out to the fellow power conference alliance members the Big Ten and Pac-12 about getting that scheduling agreement up and running ASAP.
While the ACC didn’t lose any teams over the weekend, Florida State did get served a loss by a former member, dropping a shootout in overtime to last year’s conference champion, Notre Dame.
The cherries on top of the futility sundae were Duke’s loss to Charlotte — the first time in program history the 49ers have beaten a power conference team — and Georgia Tech’s loss to Northern Illinois.
How bad is a 6-6 nonconference mark to start the year? It’s double the number of nonconference regular season losses the league had all of last season. With COVID cutting nonconference schedules to a single game, the ACC went 12-3 against outsiders. In the four years prior, it took the league an average of two and a half weeks of games — and 14 nonconference wins — to hit the six-loss mark.
Not all news out of the ACC was bad. In addition to Virginia Tech’s big win, the league saw three teams pitch shutouts, with Boston College, Virginia and NC State winning by a combined 139-0 over Colgate, William & Mary and South Florida, respectively. Wake Forest also hammered Old Dominion, Pitt blew out UMass and Syracuse handled Ohio.
Is it possible to get back into playoff position? Certainly. The SEC won’t fill all four spots — probably — and the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 have shown repeatedly that they can miss the playoff with the best of them. A one-loss Clemson team topping a one-loss Carolina or Miami (or an undefeated Virginia Tech) in the ACC Championship game should get a bid. The problem is there was very little evidence last weekend that such a turnaround is possible by any of the teams involved.
The league will probably want to start this week, with two more SEC matchups on the docket as well as a pair against the Big Ten.