When asked about the strength and reputation of the Atlantic Coast Conference, coaches throughout the league typically use "parity" and "competitive" as commonly as others say "please" and "thank you."
There are facts, though, that at least one ACC coach found inexplicable:
Since 2001, the ACC is 2-27 against nonconference opponents ranked in the top 10 in the Associated Press poll.
The past seven ACC champions have lost their bowl games.
"That," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said, "I can't explain."
The ACC is coming off a subpar season in which Wake Forest, the smallest school in the league, won 11 games, including the conference championship. Three coaches - Miami's Larry Coker, North Carolina State's Chuck Amato and North Carolina's John Bunting - were fired. And it was the first time since 1991 that the ACC wasn't represented among the top 15 in the final AP poll.
With Virginia Tech poised for success this season, and Miami and Florida State expected to rebound from poor performances in 2006, the ACC is likely to see an upswing. But what does that mean in comparison with the other five Bowl Championship Series conferences? The ACC's historical success - or lack thereof - against top nonconference opponents, and its lack of a true national championship contender since Florida State in 2000, suggests it will take more than a few hot teams in 2007 for the league to earn the respect its insiders and fans are convinced it deserves.
Competing with SEC
First-year Miami coach Randy Shannon said, "Everybody keeps talking about the Southeast Conference.
"People need to start talking about this ACC conference," he said. "Put it to you this way: You got [Virginia coach] Al Groh. You got Ralph. Chan's [Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey] been in the NFL, [North Carolina coach] Butch [Davis] has been in the NFL. I've been in the NFL. It's a lot of minds that now are gonna start working against you. There's a lot of thinking and a lot of proven guys just in this conference.
"I don't think any other conferences have coaching aspects comparable to this league. If you want to tell me just because the Southeast Conference is the best conference - blah, blah, blah - well, why? Nothing against the Southeast Conference, but why are they always looked upon as the cream of the crop and not the ACC if they want to go on coaches?"
If "they" want to go on paper instead, the ACC was 1-7 against SEC team's last season, including Virginia Tech's 31-24 loss to Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
"Those things go in cycles," said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, whose Hokies were picked by the media to win this year's ACC title. "The one thing I know about the ACC and the people in it - and I don't know right now that we have one great team - I think we've got a lot of good teams. I think what happens is if we just play long enough, it will all take care of itself. ... I think certainly the more wins you get outside the conference, and the more teams like LSU you could beat, it's great credibility, but to me, it's just keep playing. It will all come out in the wash."
National title picture
The question is: Will it come out in the form of a national championship?
The SEC has won three national titles (Florida 2006, LSU 2003, Tennessee 1998) since 1998, when the BCS was initiated to determine the national champion.
The Big 12 has produced two - a distinction the ACC hasn't earned since Florida State won in 1999. Miami won the title in 2001, but was still a member of the Big East.
Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said it's a monumental task to escape the ACC schedule undefeated - unless "you could schedule four cupcakes" for nonconference games.
"We're going to be fighting for our lives in all of our nonconference games, but that's another thing that happens in some other leagues," he said. "They schedule four teams their scout teams can beat. If you've got four cupcakes and you're 7-1 in the league, you're definitely top-five in the country."
The ACC hasn't produced a top-five team in the final AP poll since Florida State in 2000, and during that span, the other five BCS conferences have produced at least four each.
"I think it's unfair for some leagues to get more recognition because of one or two teams that are by far and away better than everybody else in the league," Grobe said. " ... I think Florida State got it started when they came in. Everybody set the bar high, but when Virginia Tech and Miami and Boston College came in, it got raised even higher.
"I don't think that's true in a lot of leagues out there. In most leagues, there are a couple of big dogs at the top of the league who are going to waltz through the league and play in a BCS bowl game at the end of the year."
ACC commissioner John Swofford said the league is hoping for a national championship contender, but he lauded the competitiveness within the league.
"It's a real plus when you have it," he said of a national championship-caliber team. "But I think ... it's probably a little tougher coming out of our league now than it used to be to be in the national championship picture. But the same is true in the SEC, the Big 12 and the Big Ten. That's what you want internally, is a lot of competitiveness. That's what has made our league what it is today in basketball. That's what we're looking for in football.
"I think over the last couple of years, while we haven't had a team involved in the national championship picture at the end, we've been arguably as deep as any conference in the country in terms of the competitiveness within the league," Swofford said. "I think that's going to be fairly commonplace for us in the future, which is what we hope for."
Make or break
Tough nonconference tests for the ACC:
Sept. 1: Georgia Tech at Notre Dame, 3:30 p.m., NBC
Sept. 8: Virginia Tech at LSU, 9:15 p.m., ESPN
Sept. 8: Miami at Oklahoma, noon, ABC
Sept. 8: Nebraska at Wake Forest, noon, ESPN
Sept. 13: West Virginia at Maryland, 7:45 p.m., ESPN
Sept. 15: Florida State at Colorado, 10 p.m., ESPN
Sept. 29: Louisville at North Carolina State
Sept. 29: Alabama at Florida State
Sept. 29: Maryland at Rutgers
Nov. 24: Florida State at Florida
Nov. 24: Georgia at Georgia Tech