Paul Johnson took over as Georgia Tech’s football coach 10 years ago.
The ACC was still considered a basketball conference, and Johnson joked recently that he wasn’t exactly intimidated when league coaches gathered for annual meetings.
“You’d look around the room to the coaches, and I’d think: OK, that’s one we can win, and that’s one we can win,” Johnson said. “And now they’re probably looking at me.”
The ACC’s recent success has allowed coaches to puff out their chests and stake claim to being college football’s best conference, a suggestion that SEC supporters likely take issue with but certainly is open to debate now.
That argument would have been dismissed as heretical not too long ago.
“We’ve established ourselves as I think the premier conference in college football,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said.
They make a compelling argument:
The league has produced two of the past four national champions — Clemson last season, Florida State in 2013 — after the SEC owned top billing with seven consecutive titles.
Clemson’s win over Alabama in the national championship last season gave the ACC a 9-3 postseason record, tying a national record for wins by conference. The ACC went 10-4 against the SEC in head-to-head matchups.
Since 2012, the ACC has posted an 8-3 record in BCS or New Year’s Six Bowl games, including five consecutive Orange Bowl winners.
“We are the best conference in college football,” Boston College coach Steve Addazio said. “That’s not even debatable anymore.”
Florida State has carried the flag for years as a perennial national power, but Clemson has vaulted into elite status in recent years. Louisville has spent time in the top 10 under Bobby Petrino; Mark Richt is in the process of rebuilding Miami’s storied program; and Virginia Tech has posted double-digit win totals 11 times since 2000.
Eleven of the conference’s 14 teams finished with winning records last season.
“It’s the consistency over the last several years that I think really speaks the loudest,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’ve won a bunch of big games as a conference, certainly as a program, but as a conference. I don’t think this league has ever been better. It’s the deepest it’s ever been.”
Proximity to fertile recruiting areas helps improve the league’s talent level. The conference has produced two of the past four Heisman Trophy winners — Florida State’s Jameis Winston in 2013 and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson last season.
The conference also is stocked with quality coaches. Swinney and Fisher have championship rings, Richt posted a 145-51 record in 15 seasons at Georgia before being fired and Petrino’s off-the-field conduct at times has overshadowed his acumen as a coach. Justin Fuente won 10 games at Virginia Tech in his first season as successor to the legendary Frank Beamer.
The whole perception has changed regarding the ACC as a football conference. Swinney recalled that he had to “beg” former quarterback recruit Tajh Boyd back in 2009 just to get inside his house to make a sales pitch. Clemson now boasts a national brand and resume that is attractive to top recruits.
Swinney believes that transformation started for his program and entire conference when teams began scheduling tough nonconference opponents and then winning big games.
“Five, six, seven years ago the story lines were always the same about this league,” he said. “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.”
The narrative has changed. The ACC is more than hoops. The conference has another opportunity to make a strong statement when No. 3 Florida State plays No. 1 Alabama in the season opener in Atlanta on Saturday, a potential preview of the national championship game.
“Well, I scheduled it, so I’d better be ready for it,” Fisher said. “It’s what college football is about. You get to walk in that atmosphere and environment, the two winningest teams in college football in the last seven years. It’s an outstanding chance for us to take another step toward how we want to play and the things we want to do.”