Here’s the real reason ACC football has arrived as an elite league

Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant (2) throws a pass against Auburn on Sept. 9, 2017 at Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt, File)
Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant (2) throws a pass against Auburn on Sept. 9, 2017 at Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt, File) AP

ACC football has changed, and it’s not just bountiful bowl bids and last season’s 9-3 postseason record that signify the shift. Nor is it even two national champions in the past four years, easily the best showing in league history.

What’s different is that, thanks largely to Clemson’s success, ACC boosters no longer need puffery and spin, or to import established programs, to promote the league’s football prowess. The ACC finally has a pair of championship-caliber programs to ratify and advance its long-sought success.

Clemson looks quite capable of winning a third straight ACC title and mounting a defense of its national championship despite losing nine multi-year starters, including Deshaun Watson, its outstanding and under-appreciated quarterback. Already Clemson throttled a ranked Louisville team with Lamar Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, on the Cardinals’ home field. A week earlier, in a tangle of Tigers, Clemson recorded 11 sacks against a ranked Auburn squad, matching the most takedowns by an ACC team since the NCAA began recording the statistic in 2000.

Handling opponents is nothing new under Dabo Swinney. Boasting the sort of self-perpetuating program coveted in any sport, since 2011, his third full season on the job, Swinney’s teams have averaged nearly a dozen victories and a mere two losses annually. Over those six years, the Tigers, a true homegrown power, won three ACC championships and three times ranked in the Associated Press top 10.

Polls are partly subjective expressions of regard, and for the longest time, the ACC was found wanting. The conference had no teams ranked in the top 10 in 28 of 39 seasons prior to Florida State’s 1992 arrival. From 1962 through 1971 not a single ACC club appeared in an AP poll. (The AP ranked only 10 teams from 1962 to 1967.)

By contrast, Florida State, the league’s premier football annexation prize, missed being ranked only three times since joining the league in 1992. However far the ACC’s reputation dropped, it could count on FSU. In fact, under Bobby Bowden, the school in the heart of SEC country had a run of 14 consecutive top-10 finishes – most ever among major-college teams – that began before it joined the ACC. Florida State was so dominant from the moment of arrival, it won all but two league contests and a piece of every ACC title during its first nine years in the conference. That span was marked by two national titles (1993 and 1999), the ACC’s first two Heisman winners (Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke), and two more national championship contests (1996 and 2000).

FSU, which was beaten by N.C. State on Saturday, won a third national title in 2013, matching the total by all other ACC programs to that point, and had a third Heisman winner (Jameis Winston) before any ACC school had one. Three times Florida State won at least 24 straight league games, including its first 29. Different sport, different circumstances, but to lend perspective, when Cleveland won 22 in a row earlier this season, it was the best run in the last 101 years of Major League baseball.

N.C. State running back Nyheim Hines (7) beats Florida State linebacker Ro'Derrick Hoskins (18) for a 15-yard gain with 1:13 left to seal the victory for the Wolfpack over Florida State at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahasee, FL, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. Ethan Hyman

Florida State’s dominance inevitably reflected poorly on the rest of the ACC. If it was that easy to win, the thinking went, how good could the competition be? There’s logic and precedent to this eclipsing effect – the last time an ACC men’s basketball team went undefeated in the league, Duke in 1999, the conference got only three NCAA invitations. The next year, when Duke won 18 of 19 league games including the ACC tournament, the conference again got only three bids.

Virginia Tech, a loser to Florida State in the ’99 national title game, likewise landed in the ACC in 2004 as a national heavyweight. The Hokies joined just as FSU and an aging Bowden were gradually fading. Frank Beamer’s teams both asserted their strength and underlined the league’s relative weakness by immediately feasting on ACC rivals to the tune of eight straight seasons with double-digit victories overall. Virginia Tech also won four ACC titles in its first seven seasons as a conference member and lost two other times in the league title game.

Domination by a single school perpetually clouded the stature of the ACC, never particularly strong to begin with. Clemson’s re-emergence on the national stage alongside Florida State helped to shift perceptions of the ACC, replacing hopeful hype with heft.

The Tigers’ fortunes waxed and waned since the 1980s, their high-water mark a national championship under Danny Ford in 1981. But that perfect season lost its luster in short order: Citing a “large number” of recruiting violations, the NCAA hit Clemson with a two-year probation and stripped it of 20 scholarships, most ever to that juncture. Sadly for those who care about more than just winning, this year Ford was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Georgia Tech, another school added to bolster ACC football, shared what was then the quite-unofficial 1990 national title with Colorado. That was it for championships by ACC schools – one every 13 years until FSU came along.

Now that the Clemson program has muscled to the fore in the playoff era, surpassing Florida State last year with its 16th ACC title, the league has two legs to stand on. Sustained high-level excellence might additionally amplify attention for the schools’ annual Atlantic Division meetings (Nov. 11 this year), transforming the contests into avidly anticipated events akin to the old FSU-Miami matchups.

Meanwhile, there’s fresh talk of Miami regaining its long-lost mojo. Virginia Tech seems sound post-Beamer. Louisville is a regular in the polls. Bolstering the ranks with more name brands won’t hurt. But the ACC already has earned an unabashed place among football’s elite, as evidenced by Clemson and Florida State paired in the top 10 in 2016, as they were in 2013. FSU and Georgia Tech duplicated the feat in 2014.

Compared with other leagues this may not seem impressive – the Big 10 had four teams in last year’s top 10. As recently as 2012 the SEC, now suffering a bit in Alabama’s shadow, had five top-10 teams. Still, three pairs of squads ranked that high over a four-season stretch is notable progress for the ACC, which had just six similar showings in its previous 60 years of existence.