There is no doubt the ACC has made great progress already this season. The first ESPN Stats & Information conference power rankings provide the proof.
The ACC ranks third behind the SEC and Pac-12 in the first installment, thanks to four ranked teams -- including three unbeatens (tied for the most nationally). When you consider the ACC finished No. 7 in these same rankings in 2010 and 2011, and No. 5 last season, the strides are more like giant dinosaur-like leaps.
But there is still one area where the ACC simply cannot compete. The on-field product might be substantially better, but it will not be enough to grant its elite teams the benefit of the doubt that seems to always go to the SEC.
We can throw out plenty of examples from years past. But let us deal with this season, and the position the ACC finds itself through six weeks. To do that, we have to look no further than this past weekend.
Georgia, a team that already lost to Clemson, remains in the national championship picture after a harrowing overtime win over Tennessee. Now, the Bulldogs deserve credit for beating top-ranked teams in South Carolina and LSU. Those were big wins.
But Tennessee? The Vols are not in the same stratosphere. Their only wins this year? Austin Peay, Western Kentucky and a struggle over South Alabama. Yet Georgia drew praise for outlasting the Vols, a team that got pasted 59-14 by another national championship contender, No. 2 Oregon.
The Ducks are ranked just five spots ahead of Georgia in the latest AP Top 25. While it is true Georgia had to deal with several key injuries in the win over Tennessee, the Bulldogs went into the game as double-digit favorites. And they barely won.
Now let us flip back to Raleigh, N.C., on Sept. 19. Clemson played a difficult road game against NC State and trailed early before winning 26-14. Yet the Tigers were not praised for a tough win away from home. They were ripped for being in a close game, for nearly following an old script that no longer applies.
Now let us flip back to Miami, on Jan. 1. Florida State beat Northern Illinois 31-10 in the Discover Orange Bowl. Yet the Seminoles were not praised for their first BCS win since 2000. They were ripped for not being impressive enough in the victory.
We can flip to last week in Chestnut Hill, Mass., too, when Florida State struggled to put away Boston College, a team with a slightly better resume than the Vols. Questions about the Seminoles flew until they dismantled No. 25 Maryland 63-0 Saturday.
The context points here. Had Florida State or Clemson gone to overtime against a team from the bottom half of the ACC this season, their national championship aspirations would have been questioned. For Georgia, a tough win on the road is not questioned, based solely on its league’s swollen reputation. Close wins are not ridiculed. They are allowed.
What remains disconcerting is the way SEC teams are almost always forgiven a loss, or even a close win. Given the way people have talked about Georgia lately, you have to wonder whether they remember this team lost to Clemson. But we should not limit this to just Georgia.
The Bulldogs are one of three one-loss SEC teams ranked in the top 10, ahead of unbeaten teams from the Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC. Georgia does have victories over teams ranked in the top 10 at the time they played. No. 9 Texas A&M does not. The only top-25 team No. 10 LSU beat was TCU. Unbeaten Oklahoma just beat the Horned Frogs, too, and has a victory over Notre Dame. Yet the Sooners sit at No. 12.
If Florida State and Clemson go into next weekend’s showdown unbeaten, the loser will most certainly be out of the national championship hunt. Say that loser is Clemson. It is conceivable a one-loss Clemson, with a win over Georgia, could watch the Bulldogs go on to play for a title.
The key difference, of course, is the SEC has won seven consecutive national titles. The ACC has not even come close to the national title game. Plenty of work left to do.