BOSTON -- Clemson coach Dabo Swinney will know when it's time to panic about the Atlantic Coast Conference's poor start.
"Commissioner Swofford hasn't called to make a plea," Swinney joked this week as he prepared to defend the league's honor on Saturday against No. 16 Auburn.
ACC commissioner John Swofford might not need to pick up the phone yet, but there's no doubt that the league is off to an awful start -- and things could get worse with Duke preparing to take host top-ranked Alabama.
The ACC is 0-5 against the other BCS conferences so far, and that doesn't even count Virginia Tech's loss to James Madison of the Football Championship Subdivision that sent the Hokies plummeting from the Top 25.
But the coaches and players around the league say they worry less about their national status than the wide-open ACC schedule that looms as their last chance at respect.
"Conference play is a lot different," Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder said. "It kind of happens like this every year where guys are struggling in nonconference, but once we get into ACC play everyone's ready to play.
"It's a tough conference to win, and we know it's going to be tough going into it. Hopefully we'll be right in the mix."
With a 2-10 record in BCS bowl games since the system was created in 1998 -- the worst among conferences with automatic bids -- the ACC has earned the reputation that it's not as strong as the Southeastern Conference, the Big Ten or the Big 12. It came into this year with a record five teams in the top 20, but by Week 3 there was just one -- No. 17 Miami, which is behind six SEC teams, three from the Big Ten and three from the Big 12.
"Things go in cycles. The Pac-10 will win it, then the SEC wins," Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said. "It's just a cycle right now that the ACC is having a tough time."
Duke coach David Cutcliffe noted that the bad start could have gone the other way, with a little luck.
Two of the losses were to top 3 teams in the country: Miami came up short against Ohio State and Virginia Tech lost a thriller to Boise State. North Carolina was missing 13 key players because of an NCAA investigation and still came within 6 yards of beating Louisiana State. Virginia traveled to the West Coast and lost to Southern Cal by a field goal.
"So it's too early to make any kind of jump on the table either way," Cutcliffe said. "Let's let the season play itself out and see what happens. I do know this: We've got a lot of really good football players and really good coaches in this league, and there's a lot of great football left to be played."
The good news for teams like Virginia Tech is that the Hokies' 0-2 record, while devastating to their prestige and their national title hopes, doesn't hurt them in the ACC race. Virginia Tech was an overwhelming favorite to win the Coastal Division and play in the ACC championship for a berth in the Orange Bowl.
"These two losses are very detrimental to us," Virginia Tech center Beau Warren said. But "we can still win the ACC championship, potentially, if we go game-by-game and work our butts off. There's still something to win. Not everything is lost."
In fact, there has been only one conference game so far -- Wake Forest beat Duke -- with another this weekend when Georgia Tech plays at North Carolina.
"Everybody wants to write the history or deem everything after two weeks in the season. I'd let the thing play out before we decided somebody's year is over or somebody's season is done," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said.
"By the time the thing plays out we'll see. I would think the conference is open, but I thought it was open all along. I never thought there was one team was preordained and was going to march through and beat everybody. There still might be someone that does that. But I think it's still wide open."
Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe remembers similar concern at the start of last year. In the end, the conference finished with four teams in Top 25 and a 3-4 bowl record that was better than the Pac-10's.
"It's hard to tell early what's going to shake out down the road," Grobe said. "And I think by the end of the year last year, people had quite a bit of respect for the ACC and we didn't start real strong. I've got a feeling by the end of the year, we'll be seen again as a pretty strong football conference."