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Paul Johnson: 'Not as big a divide' in ACC as people think

Georgia Tech coach says ACC teams as good as any other conference

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen (left) and Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson pose with the Orange Bowl trophy Tuesday.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen (left) and Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson pose with the Orange Bowl trophy Tuesday.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Paul Johnson has heard enough talk about how the Atlantic Coast Conference pales in comparison to the Southeastern Conference.

The ACC coach of the year knows his Georgia Tech team is as good as any team in the SEC, which is why a victory against No. 8 Mississippi State in Wednesday night's Orange Bowl is so important.

Johnson's well aware of the bad rap the ACC gets, especially after the league got off to a 0-4 start in bowl games against the other "power five" conference teams. That's why he was quick to defend the league -- of which he's been apart since coming to Georgia Tech in 2008 -- to reporters at Tuesday's Orange Bowl news conference.

"Clemson did pretty good against Oklahoma last night," Johnson said.

Of course, he was referring to Clemson's 40-6 victory against Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl a few hours north in Orlando.

The decisive win helped -- at least temporarily -- restore some credibility to a conference that is more revered for its basketball than its football.

But perhaps the biggest measuring stick of the ACC's success is how its teams fare against the perceived best conference in the nation.

"ACC versus SEC? Last week of the season we were 4-0," Johnson said. "We beat Georgia, Clemson beat South Carolina, Florida State beat Florida and Louisville beat Kentucky, so that was pretty good. About as good as we could do."

The 10th-ranked Yellow Jackets (10-3) will get a chance to improve on the ACC's record versus SEC opponents against the Bulldogs (10-2) on New Year's Eve.

Johnson, whose team was once a member of the SEC, said he knows why the SEC has the perception of being better than the ACC.

"Because everybody in the media says there is," Johnson said. "I mean, I can tell you this: When we lined up and played Clemson, they're no different than the University of Georgia, who we play, who finished second in the SEC East. Mississippi State is a good football team. So is Clemson. So is Florida State. So (are) a lot of teams in the ACC. So is Louisville."

Johnson said he thinks "there's probably not as big a divide as people think."

"I think what's happened, if you take the last four or five years, their teams at the very top of their league were probably better than the top of the other leagues," Johnson said. "Now, of course, last year Florida State in our league won the national championship. We'll see what happens this year. But I think that's kind of how the perception started."

The Seminoles defeated Auburn in the final national title game of the Bowl Championship Series era. Prior to that, the crystal ball trophy resided in SEC territory as Florida (2006 and 2008), LSU (2007), Alabama (2009, 2011 and 2012) and Auburn (2010) laid claim to the national championship.

Alabama and Florida State have a chance to win again in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Georgia Tech and Mississippi State can only control what happens on the field at Sun Life Stadium.

But Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen isn't making light of the Yellow Jackets.

"Obviously they're one of the top teams in the country," Mullen said.

He said playing in the SEC West should help his team be prepared to face Georgia Tech's triple-option threat.

"I think we played four top-10 teams already this year," Mullen said. "We've played five top-25 teams on the schedule. I think just the experience of playing in big games and big stages against the top teams in the country week in and week out on that side of the league certainly helps you when you get into bowl season."

The Yellow Jackets are trying to win their first Orange Bowl game since a 17-14 victory against Baylor in 1952. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, are playing in their first Orange Bowl since 1941.

"Everybody that is playing here at this level of a bowl game is one of the premier teams in the country, and so the fact that we've been able to play those games before certainly helps getting on this stage," Mullen said.

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