GREENSBORO, N.C. — During the 15 years between Florida State’s most recent national championships, the ACC’s annual football media kickoff inevitably would come down to two schools of thought when it came to the national relevancy of the league. There were the reporters who would question why the ACC couldn’t win marquee games or produce elite teams, and there were ACC coaches and officials who would spin such rhetoric into a statement about being part of “the most competitive league in the country.”
This year, though, has been markedly different. An unprecedented year on the gridiron produced a conference more than happy to puff its chest out again.
“There’s a difference in facts and marketing,” Duke Coach David Cutcliffe said. “Right now, the ACC can throw out facts. We used to market.”
The list of ACC accomplishments were numerous a season ago, and the hope around Greensboro this week is that the long-term perception of the league has changed as college football moves to a new four-team playoff this season.
The Seminoles, for instance, are the defending national champions after ending the Southeastern Conference’s seven-year reign over college football, and they bring back the Heisman Trophy winner in redshirt sophomore Jameis Winston — part of a slew of national award winners from ACC teams in 2013. The ACC also joined the SEC as the only conference to have a BCS national champion and another BCS bowl winner in the same year when Clemson upset Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. And a year after not even filling its bowl lineup, the conference had 11 teams qualify for bowl games and adds Louisville — a BCS bowl winner in 2012 — to the fold.
Thus, the league’s coaches are more bullish than ever about the product on the field.
“They can’t say go win the big game, go win this,” Florida State Coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We had the greatest year any conference in college football has ever had.”
There are certainly those in the SEC that would disagree with that, but the Seminoles’ success has spurred such confidence all the way up to the ACC’s Greensboro headquarters.
“I’ve said for years that leagues are perceived as a whole simply based on their one or two best teams,” ACC Commissioner John Swofford said. “I don’t think that’s an accurate way to measure entire conferences, but perceptually by a lot of fans and media personnel, that’s the reality of it. So having Florida State win the national championship, it’s very important from an optics standpoint and certainly gives us momentum going into the first college football playoff.”
The new championship format will be the ultimate test of the league’s newfound bravado. The selection committee for the four-team playoff will have specific criteria for determining participants, most notably strength of schedule.
But there is a common belief the SEC champion, regardless of record, will merit a spot in the four-team field. The same hasn’t been said of the ACC, and even Swofford realizes the league won’t know where it stands “until that committee starts going into action.”
In that regard, Winston used his Sunday interview session to advocate on behalf of the league, jabbing at the SEC as he noted “people do need to respect the ACC more.”
“They better [consider the ACC] if they’re knowledgeable about the game of football,” Fisher said of the committee. “Everyone talks about the Big 12, Pac-12. They’re all great conferences. But tell me how they’re better than the ACC?”
The league remains top heavy, similar to when Florida State won 70 of its first 72 ACC games upon joining the conference in 1992. Aside from the Seminoles and Clemson — both in the ACC’s Atlantic division — no other league team lost fewer than four games last season. In the conference’s preseason media poll released Monday afternoon, all but one Coastal division team — Virginia — received at least one first-place vote, an indication of the parity that still exists.
This, though, is the sort of talk that bothers ACC coaches who insist a national title should put any of the past criticism to rest.
“If we can continue to produce teams that are in that mix nationally at the end of the year, then the ACC has some great days ahead,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said. “I personally think we’re strong now and we’re going to get stronger. It’s a league on the rise that I don’t think takes a back seat to anybody.”
“I said for years if we just produced that 12-1 or 13-0 team that the ACC would be right there, and that’s exactly what happened.”