GREENSBORO, N.C. – The expectation of a rise in ACC football prominence has been there since its 2005’s expansion to 12 teams.
Eight years later, the results have yet to come on any grand scale, but last season’s finish has stoked some justified optimism.
For the first time since 1998, the league had two teams with double-digit wins and two or less losses from Florida State (12-2) finishing No. 10 and Clemson (11-2) No. 11 nationally.
The Tigers clinched the ACC’s first winning bowl season since 2005 by downing No. 9 LSU and the Seminoles pushed the record to 4-2 by dominating No. 15 Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl. The conference tied for the top winning percentage of the postseason (.667), capturing only its third BCS bowl win in 16 tries.
Clemson’s head coach says that kind of close is just what the ACC needs big picture-wise.
“We haven’t consistently won those type of games,” Dabo Swinney said at ACC media days. “Our league has been very good and very strong. We’ve been second in a lot of the statistics you try to find out which the best conferences are. NFL players and on and on and on, we just haven’t produced the 12-1 or 13-0 team that’s had a chance to go carry the banner for the ACC.
“We’ve had some really good teams and had some great competition and parity within our league. The SEC has had three, four or five teams that have been consistently dominant. Somebody has come out of that thing 12-1 or 13-0 and they’ve earned it.”
Yes, the SEC comparison is inextricably tied to any conference conversation – and more so with regional foe ACC.
It really isn’t a conversation considering the trump card of seven-straight national titles in the SEC’s favor. Top-to-bottom though, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson isn’t so convinced the gap is there.
“I remember in ’08 when we beat Georgia and (Clemson) beat South Carolina (and) it wasn’t such a big deal,” Johnson said. “Florida State’s beaten Florida (two of the last three years). We played Mississippi State twice and beat them both games. We played Vanderbilt and won the game.
“Now if you’re talking about Alabama and LSU, nobody is beating them. They’ve been pretty good. The biggest difference is at the top, but if you look as a whole, I bet you there isn’t as big difference as a whole.”
The top-tier analogy has some, but not much merit.
Over the last five years, the SEC leads the way with an even five AP top-25 teams per season. The next-nearest is the Big Ten and Big 12 (3.8) then the ACC (2.8) and PAC-12 (2.6).
Head-to-head in that span, the ACC is 18-27 against the SEC (.400), holding a better mark in neutral sites (6-7) and on the road (6-9) than home games (6-11). That is the SEC’s second-lowest winning percentage against any other conference with a minimum of five games (Big East - .524).
FSU defensive back Lamarcus Joyner says conference comparisons tend to stray off the actual field of play.
“At the end of the day, a lot of guys don’t like to be honest and truthful,” Joyner said. “Sometimes, it’s all about politics. Sometimes other teams in other conferences, teams may not be better than teams in the ACC, but national attention they get is what people portray of those schools.
“The ACC, we have a lot of great teams with great talent, but all we have to do is control what we can control and represent the ACC as best as possible.”
With the addition of Syracuse and Pittsburgh, nine of the now 14-team league was bowl-eligible last season (tied for the most with the SEC). In the last three seasons, every team has made the postseason at least once.
“I think the league has some stability now going into this season that we didn’t have last year,” said Swinney. “I think it’s a great league that’s on the rise that in my opinion will produce the overall champion very soon.”
A chance to prove to itself on a national and local level comes in the first two weeks of the season.
Of course in Death Valley, Clemson meets SEC East favorite Georgia in the opener. Two days before that, UNC heads to South Carolina for a Thursday night matchup, while Virginia Tech takes on reigning national champ Alabama in the Georgia Dome that weekend too. The next week, Coastal favorite Miami hosts Florida.
“You got to win your share of them,” Swinney said. “We certainly have a great opportunity out of the gate with Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. That’s what you’ve got to do.”