The ACC’s long road to the top of college football

You were greeted at the top of the escalator at the Westin at last week’s ACC Kickoff with some serious hardware: the Heisman Trophy, the national championship.

accA security guard was there to make sure that you didn’t get too close.

The conference has come a long way from the relatively recent days when it was the fifth wheel in the Power 5.

“Coming into this conference five years ago, it was something that we talked about in all of our meetings, about what we needed to do to gain national respect. Now we’ve reached that spot. You could say that we were the premier football-playing league in the country last year. We’ve gotten to the top. Now it’s about how long we can sustain that, how long can we stay at the top, and that’s a difficult task,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora told reporters.

Fedora hasn’t claimed any of the hardware, yet, but he did develop the #2 pick in this year’s NFL draft, Chicago Bears rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

Who wasn’t even the best quarterback in the league last year. That would have been Louisville signal-caller Lamar Jackson, the ACC’s second Heisman winner in the past four years. (Florida State’s Jameis Winston won the trophy in 2013.)

The conference also recorded its second national champ in the past four years when Clemson defeated Alabama in January. (Florida State won the title in 2013.)

The ACC has had a team in each of the first three College Football Playoffs (FSU in 2014, Clemson in 2015 and 2016).

It hasn’t been that long, 2011, to be precise about it, that the best the ACC could do was place three teams at the back end of the Top 25 in the final national rankings

The push from ACC Commissioner John Swofford back in the ‘aughts to boost the conference’s football profile was the source of so much hand-wringing at these annual preseason kickoff soirees back then.

Now: “This event provides the opportunity to celebrate the collective efforts of our teams, and one thing I’ve learned in college athletics over the years is that when you have the opportunity to celebrate those kinds of successes, you should do it,” Swofford told reporters at last week’s ACC Kickoff.

The league’s coaches certainly got the memo. Up and down the roster, they each seemed eager to do their part to lay claim to the mantle of best conference in college football.

“I don’t care what metric you would want to measure it by, whether it’s head to head against other Power 5, two of the last four national championships, the bowl record, the record against the SEC, whatever you want to measure it by, I think you could make a pretty good case that right now the ACC is probably the premier league in the country, or has been in the last couple of years anyway,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said.

“I coached in the SEC for 13 years. I think it’s a tremendous conference,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “I think the Big Ten is a tremendous conference. I think they all are. But I think right now what we’ve accomplished in the last five years and you’re talking about major wins, big wins, national championships, Heisman Trophy winners, coaches, everything that goes involved, I think the ACC is as good a league as there is in football, I really do.”

A key has been the willingness of coaches like Fisher and Dabo Swinney at Clemson to schedule tough non-conference games, like Florida State opening the 2017 season against Alabama, Virginia Tech kicking off with West Virginia, Clemson playing Auburn and Pitt traveling to Penn State in Week 2

“We were talking about scheduling and things like that, and my message was, listen, we’ve got to go play people, and we’ve got to beat them,” Swinney said. “The only way we’re going to change the story lines that five, six, seven years ago the story lines were always the same about this league. I mean, there’s no sense in complaining about it, let’s go. If we want to change it, we’ve got to go play people and we’ve got to beat them. When we do that, then we’ve got to start writing something different. That was really kind of what I said at that time, and I think that we’ve been able to do that.”

From the 2011 season, which ended with Virginia Tech, Clemson and FSU barely in the final national Top 25, there was 2012, which had Clemson and Florida State in the final Top 10, then 2013, which ended with the ‘Noles winning their third national title in school history.

It didn’t happen overnight, as Swofford noted to reporters at the kickoff event.

“It’s not just about last year or even the last couple of years. Our conference schools, programs, coaches, and players have built a strong foundation for the future. Two of the last four national championships, two of the last four Heisman trophies, five consecutive Orange Bowl championships, winning eight games in the BCS New Year’s Six and College Football Playoff since 2012, the achievements in football and accomplishments across all sports, coupled with the continued academic success and the future of the ACC Network has literally been years in the making,” Swofford said.

“The strategic vision by the leadership at our schools, whether on our individual campuses or collectively at the league level, combined with our dedicated business partners, is what has us so well-positioned now as well as for the long- and short-term future.”

Story by Chris Graham

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