CHARLOTTE — In his opening remarks on the first of two ACC football media days, Commissioner John Swofford detailed several notable achievements from member schools last year.
First was Clemson winning the national championship . Next came Louisville’s Lamar Jackson claiming the Heisman Trophy.
“If that doesn’t tell you something about where ACC football is today, I’ll give you my glasses because we’ve made some progress,” Swofford said Thursday morning.
Coaches and players were far more emphatic about the ACC as a football power and how it has evolved from a conference whose national profile had been tied almost exclusively to basketball for decades.
Over the past four years, the ACC has produced two football national champions and a pair of Heisman Trophy winners. Last year the ACC went 17-9 against the rest of the Power Five, the best record of any conference in the country.
It also compiled a 9-3 record in bowl appearances last season, has won five consecutive Orange Bowls, the longest streak by a conference in 72 years, and since 2012 is 8-3 in Bowl Championship Series, New Year’s Six and College Football Playoff games.
“No question about it,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, who led the Tigers to their first national championship in 35 years, said when asked whether football’s standing in the ACC has reached that of basketball. “We won the national championship in football and in basketball. I think that kind of speaks for itself.”
Clemson is seeking to win consecutive national championships for the first time since Alabama did so in 2011 and 2012.
The road to a repeat will not include a core group on offense from last season, most notably departed quarterback Deshaun Watson. Also gone are wide receiver Mike Williams and running back Wayne Gallman, two of the Tigers’ most dangerous playmakers outside of Watson.
“What I’m trying to convey to the rest of the team and just encourage guys what to think or how to think is it was a great accomplishment to reach one national championship and win that, but really just why not win two?” Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. “We shouldn’t get complacent because we won one. There’s still more out there for us.”
The Tigers defeated Alabama in the College Football Playoff national championship game, 35-31, behind Watson, whose touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second to play sealed the comeback.
Watson was named the most outstanding offensive player after completing 36 of 56 passes for 420 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 43 yards and another touchdown. The Heisman runner-up went No. 12 overall in the NFL draft to the Houston Texans, leaving Kelly Bryant, Hunter Johnson and Zerrick Cooper vying for the starting job.
“It’s very important now in the ACC,” Florida State Coach Jimbo Fisher said, referring to winning titles in football as well as basketball. “I think the programs have developed that way. I think right now what we’ve accomplished in the last five years, you’re talking about major wins, big wins, national championships, Heisman Trophy winners.”
The Seminoles won the 2014 national championship behind Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, then a redshirt freshman. The following year, Florida State went 13-0 in the regular season to secure a berth in the College Football Playoff semifinals, where it fell to Oregon, 59-20, in the Rose Bowl for the only loss of Winston’s two-year college career.
Winston was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft.
Jackson, who also has aspirations of directing his team to a national championship, paid close attention to Winston during that time, unaware the two would be linked as the youngest Heisman Trophy winners.
Jackson was 19, just five days younger than Winston, when he became the first player in Louisville history to win the award.
“Well you know, I don’t really worry about it,” Jackson said of the possibility of becoming the second player to win the Heisman Trophy twice. “It’s done. I have it. I’m going to every game trying to win it. I’m not worried about the Heisman Trophy or anything like that. I wasn’t trying to win it last year.”
Still, Jackson accounted for 51 touchdowns along with 3,543 passing yards and 1,571 more rushing. He averaged 410 yards from scrimmage and won the Heisman despite losing the final two games of the regular season, including, 41-38, to Kentucky, which intercepted Jackson three times.
Louisville then lost to LSU in the Citrus Bowl, 29-9, with Jackson running for 33 yards on 26 carries and completing 10 of 27 passes for 153 yards and no touchdowns.
He also was sacked eight times. That result led to Coach Bobby Petrino hiring a new offensive line coach during the offseason.
“The difference I see now in our league, top to bottom, I’m not talking about just the best one or two teams, I’m talking about as a league, we’ve got people in this league now that absolutely want to be the best, that absolutely believe they can be the best,” Swofford said. “I’ve been in this chair 20 years, and I’m not sure in all of those years if that sense was there from a football standpoint.
“It was in there with basketball. Now football has joined that in terms of having that mentality.”