Atlantic Coast Conference football heads into a new year with a familiar challenge: Improving its national reputation.
The league that bought football potential through expansion still waits for the plan to bear fruit. The projected power has not materialized, and the ACC's championship game has been greeted with yawns by audiences in Jacksonville, Fla.
Perception is powerful, and perception makes the ACC "a basketball league."
Well, that is not perception; that is reality.
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To change the picture and earn a seat at college football's head table, ACC teams must make some positive statements, and those did not happen in 2007.
Indeed, the league took a step backward in respect, thanks to Virginia Tech's humiliation at LSU and Boston College's pratfall against mediocre teams after climbing to second in the national polls. Perhaps the academic scandal at Florida State hurt more.
Even if bowl games are not the best barometer, a 2-6 post-season record by ACC teams did not polish the image.
If there is a silver lining, the 2008 season must be better.
Seeking nonleague success
Projecting a season that does not start for 7 1/2 months means swimming in a sea of uncertainty.
The usual questions that must wait for answers -- players leaving early for the pros, the affect of new coaches and the maturity of players -- cloud the picture.
Nevertheless, showing muscle against nonconference heavyweights will be necessary for the ACC to take a step toward its hoped-for status.
Can ACC teams respond?
There will be opportunities. In addition to the state-rival games in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, Virginia Tech plays at Nebraska, Virginia gets Southern Cal at home, Miami faces Florida and Texas A&M, and Clemson goes against Alabama.
But opportunity is of no great value without the ability to capitalize, and success is the key to respectability.
Consider last season's regular-season struggles against quality outside opposition. In games against nonconference opponents ranked at kickoff, ACC teams went 3-8. The three wins came from also-rans: Maryland over Rutgers, Miami over Texas A&M, and Florida State over Alabama.
Clemson and Virginia Tech begin their offseason workouts with realistic visions of national recognition, but other teams will have to prove their cases.
Provide reason to care.
Perhaps the league's best selling point is parity. At the moment logic figures to prevail, underdogs arise.
The thought of playing for second place in the years after Florida State joined the league are long gone.
Virginia lost to Wyoming and still won nine games in 2007 -- with five of the victories by two or fewer points. North Carolina played nine games decided by a touchdown or less, and seven of those games came against league foes.
The league again had no team go through its conference schedule undefeated, and Wake Forest followed its 2006 championship season with a second consecutive bowl trip.
Perhaps ACC football's biggest need is an attitude adjustment by fans, a display of their basketball passion on autumn Saturdays.
The question: Can teams give their followers reason to care?
Clemson and Virginia Tech require no assistance in inciting fans, and winning worked wonders at Wake Forest. Indeed, coach Jim Grobe's decision to remain with the Deacons after receiving overtures from Arkansas might be the ACC's best football endorsement recently.
If Butch Davis at North Carolina and Tom O'Brien at N.C. State can build programs to match theirs at other schools, the geographic heart of the conference will prosper. Success at Georgia Tech by new coach Paul Johnson would be a giant-sized media boost.
Those are a lot of "ifs," but the ACC should fall back on the coaches' credo and look ahead. Questions wait for answers, but the goal is clear. Perhaps the "basketball league" label will never change, but the football image needs to improve.