How did the ACC become college football's top conference in 2016?
A funny thing happened in college football last season: The ACC was the best conference. No, seriously.
We’re only a couple years removed from a time when the ACC regularly challenged the old Big East for the label of worst major football conference. From 1998 through 2011, the ACC had a 2–13 record in BCS bowls and was a laughingstock.
But the narrative turned dramatically in 2016. It wasn’t just that Clemson topped Alabama for the national title, although that certainly helped. But Clemson also routed Ohio State in the semifinals, Florida State edged Michigan at the Orange Bowl and the ACC had a combined 16–6 record vs. the SEC and Big Ten.
From 2004-13, the ACC was 30–54 vs. the SEC, which used to lord over the sport. Since 2014, the ACC is 19–13 vs. the SEC.
“I think all you media folks need to change your stories,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says. “It sounds good. I’ve been in this league a long time, and this league has never gotten the respect that it deserves. But I said about five years ago or something, just keep your mouth shut and go play. If we want to change the story, then we’ve got to change it from the inside out.”
The ACC did. Now, can a basketball-centric conference sustain football success?
“Now we just need to continue that upward trajectory of staying there, and that’s hard to do,” ACC commissioner John Swofford says. “But to stay there, you have to get there first. I think the narrative of ACC football has changed over the last five years, and it needed to.”
The SEC still has more money than the ACC, which plans to launch a TV network with ESPN by 2019. In 2014-15, the most recent available year for tax records for both conferences, the SEC distributed about $32.7 million to schools, while the ACC paid out roughly $27 million. The SEC was up to $40.4 million per team in 2015-16.
The ACC won’t always be this good in football. The SEC won’t always be Alabama And Everyone Else. But the ACC, which has always fielded a lot of NFL-caliber talent, at least now has the blueprint for sustained success.
Related: ACC Football Predictions for 2017
Hiring Better Coaches
Lately, the ACC has made the kind of coaching hires that we’re used to seeing from the SEC. Money is no problem for the SEC, yet its schools are sacrificing accomplished résumés for cost savings, coaches connected to Nick Saban, or both. The 2016 season marked the least experienced group of SEC head coaches in 52 years, and it showed.
The eat-or-be-eaten world of the SEC seems to have turned off some coaches. Tom Herman chose Texas over LSU, which promoted interim head coach Ed Orgeron. Georgia went with Kirby Smart, who had no head coaching experience until last season. Will Muschamp got a second life at South Carolina after failing at Florida. Jim McElwain won the SEC East his first two years, but that’s not the achievement it used to be. Missouri, the SEC East champion in 2013-14, hired Barry Odom without college head coaching experience.
Look who the ACC hired in 2016: Miami’s Mark Richt, Syracuse’s Dino Babers, Virginia’s Bronco Mendenhall and Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente. Prior to their arrival at their respective schools, they had a combined .698 winning percentage and 307 career wins. Meanwhile, the ACC had previously brought in Pat Narduzzi (Pittsburgh), Bobby Petrino (Louisville) and Dave Clawson (Wake Forest) to increase the depth.
Ultimately, a conference is measured by how many elite teams it has. The ACC changed dramatically as Clemson and Florida State — the subject of Big 12 expansion rumors not too long ago — became elite simultaneously. Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher, two former SEC assistants, brought an SEC mentality to the ACC that upped the ante.
Fisher turned down LSU in consecutive years to stay at Florida State, which he obviously considers a better job.
Swinney may one day face the question about whether he wants to replace Saban at Alabama. But that day isn’t here yet, and Clemson is built to be elite over the long haul. The Tigers just moved into DaboLand, a $55 million team building that includes a slide, mini-golf, wiffle ball field, basketball courts and outdoor grills.
“You don’t want to play a team from this conference,” Swinney says. “You just don’t. I don’t care — name one. That’s why we’re ready. That’s why we’re ready to go play Oklahoma two years in a row. That’s why we’re ready to go play Ohio State two out of the last four years. We’re ready because of what we see week in and week out in this conference.”
In recent years, the ACC closed the gap with the SEC by gaining an edge at quarterback. Elite quarterbacks from the ACC/SEC footprint started swinging to the ACC.
Jameis Winston started the trend by leaving Birmingham, Ala., for Florida State. Deshaun Watson was raised in Gainesville, Ga., but he became a Clemson Tiger, not a Georgia Bulldog. Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, who was under-recruited out of Boynton Beach, Fla., chose Louisville despite a late push by Florida. Deondre Francois, from Orlando, went to Florida State after Florida swung and missed on him, too.
“Quarterback is where I think the rest of the country, especially the ACC, has been able to close the gap to a degree on the SEC,” says Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, a former NFL general manager.
“The [ACC] quarterback play is just better than in the SEC. People argue the defenses in the SEC are better, and that’s probably true. But for just the pure spinning of the football and the overall arm talent, there’s been a quartet of [ACC] guys that can really throw it.”
The SEC has led college football in NFL Draft picks for 10 consecutive years. But all of the speed, strength and athleticism can only take a team so far without a quality quarterback. Alabama’s Jalen Hurts showed great poise and may be terrific in the future, but he got exposed as a true freshman in the College Football Playoff given his passing limitations.
From 2012-16, SEC teams signed 39 four- or five-star quarterbacks, according to 247Sports. So far, only one of those recruits turned into a very important player who finished his career at the same school: Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs. Major SEC recruits David Cornwell, Kyler Murray, Kyle Allen, Kenny Hill, Will Grier, Maty Mauk, Hayden Rettig and Zeke Pike have come and gone.
Over the same period, ACC teams signed 21 four- or five-star quarterbacks. As of now, three have been very good players and stayed at their schools the entire time — Winston, Watson, and Miami’s Brad Kaaya. Jackson and Francois appear headed in that direction, too. So far, the hit-rate scoreboard on these QB recruits: 14 percent for the ACC, 3 percent for the SEC.
The SEC had one passer in 2016 ranked among the top 25 in quarterback rating (Dobbs), according to CFBStats.com. The ACC had six (Pittsburgh’s Nathan Peterman, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans, Watson, Kaaya and Jackson).
However, only Jackson returns from that ACC group in 2017. The SEC will bank on the possibly bright futures of Hurts, Ole Miss’ Shea Patterson, Georgia’s Jacob Eason, Florida’s Feleipe Franks (or Kyle Trask), Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano (or Quinten Dormady) and South Carolina’s Jake Bentley. Half of the top-14 rated quarterback recruits in 2017 are going to the ACC or SEC, including No. 2 Hunter Johnson to Clemson and No. 3 Tua Tagovailoa to Alabama.
According to Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings, eight of the top 22 defenses in the country last season came from the ACC: No. 6 Clemson, No. 10 Florida State, No. 11 NC State, No. 13 Miami, No. 17 Virginia Tech, No. 19 Louisville, No. 21 Boston College and No. 22 Wake Forest. Only the Big Ten, which had worse offenses, played better defense on average than the ACC based on the S&P+ rankings.
Now, whether that’s sustainable for the ACC remains to be seen. Eight of the 11 players on the first-team All-ACC defense were seniors, and two others declared early for the draft. The next wave of stars includes Clemson defensive linemen Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence and Florida State defensive backs Derwin James (who missed most of 2016 with an injury) and Tarvarus McFadden.
Having several quality defenses was a huge key for the SEC becoming a major power. The last time the ACC seriously tried to compete with the SEC was more than a decade ago.
From 1999-2003, the ACC and SEC split 36 games. There were arguments made by coaches and in the media that the ACC had surpassed the SEC and was better positioned for the future due to adding Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College in 2004-05. Florida State’s Bobby Bowden even bragged in 2004 that, by adding Miami, “The state of Florida is going to learn about the ACC,” and “the stepbrother is down in Gainesville.”
That didn’t happen. The SEC won seven straight national titles (from 2006-12) with Alabama, Florida, LSU and Auburn. The ACC, which has won only seven football national titles in its history, went 14 years without winning one during its longest drought since 1953-81.
But thanks in part to the league’s defensive resurgence, the ACC and SEC have somewhat flipped roles in recent years. Last season, for the first time since 2002, only one SEC team finished in the final top 10 of the Associated Press top 25. The SEC had five final top-10 teams combined from 2014-16, down from 13 in the previous three seasons.
Is ACC Success Sustainable?
Herein lies the major question for the ACC: How many of its schools really want to win big in football? Clemson and Florida State are givens. They’ve got SEC-style fan bases and history.
Virginia Tech has a passionate fan base that wants to return to the glory years of Frank Beamer. Richt returned to his alma mater to try to reinvigorate “The U,” and Miami is raising millions of dollars to build an indoor practice facility. Louisville is the ACC’s best example of a basketball-centric school that has shown how it’s possible to build up football, too.
Still, as a whole, the SEC will always have more rabid fans than the ACC, for better or worse. That passion drives schools to win at all costs — sometimes at the expense of NCAA violations (hello, Ole Miss). Who in the ACC is really willing to stay involved in cutthroat recruiting, managing the academic eligibility shell game for pockets of players, and the football spending arms race? Some ACC schools will be willing, but probably not as many as in the SEC.
Where the ACC has an edge is coaching stability, and that’s huge. In recent years, the SEC has become an odd whack-a-mole game where almost every coach not named Saban appears on hot-seat lists every so often.
The SEC isn’t going to wither and die. Florida, Alabama and Tennessee have made smart athletic director hires recently in Scott Stricklin, Greg Byrne and John Currie, respectively. Yet it’s a conference in transition compared to the ACC, which lost a few key assistants to the SEC this offseason, such as Mississippi State defensive coordinator Todd Grantham (from Louisville) and LSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada (from Pittsburgh).
What changed? “The easy observation is everybody wants what we achieved,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey says.
No kidding. The ACC took the bold step of moving up its media days this summer to compete for one day with the SEC. On July 13, the media can choose between hearing Gus Malzahn, Hugh Freeze and Will Muschamp talk about the SEC, or Dabo Swinney, Jimbo Fisher and Bobby Petrino about the ACC. The SEC could have countered by scheduling Saban on July 13, but didn’t.
The ACC has sent a message. Now comes the hard part: Sustaining that success.
Game of the Year
It’s long past time to state the obvious: Clemson-Florida State is college football’s best annual game.
Rest in peace, Alabama-LSU, at least until the Tigers snap their six-game losing streak to Nick Saban. We see you, Ohio State-Michigan — which had a classic thriller last year — but Jim Harbaugh still must beat Urban Meyer to get the series over the hump.
Neither of those games feels like where we’re at with Clemson-Florida State, which is the game that’s most likely to have huge national championship implications each year. That’s what we mean by “best.” We don’t mean best rivalry, most-watched game or even necessarily the most well-played game.
Rather, Clemson-Florida State is the one game you can bank on having to watch to figure out the College Football Playoff.
Look at the facts. Only four schools have had top-15 teams over each of the past five years: Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State and Clemson. Clemson-Florida State has produced five straight years of top-15 final rankings for both teams, something the Alabama-LSU series never accomplished under Saban and Les Miles.
Alabama and LSU each finished in the top 15 for four straight years (2010-13). So did Stanford and Oregon out of the Pac-12 during that same period. Clemson and Florida State are at five and counting.
Florida State won the final BCS title in 2013 and reached the CFP semifinals in 2014. Clemson narrowly lost the CFP National Championship to Alabama in 2015 and exacted revenge by topping the Crimson Tide in 2016.
The talent in Clemson-Florida State games has reached an incredibly high level. From 2011-15, the Clemson-Florida State games produced 62 NFL Draft picks and 12 first-rounders. That’s very close to the Alabama-LSU series (71 draft picks, 16 first-rounders) and Florida-Florida State (64 draft picks, 14 first-rounders).
Clemson-Florida State surpasses the talent produced from more hyped annual series, such as Miami-Florida State (55 draft picks, 10 first-rounders), Ohio State-Michigan (43 draft picks, eight first-rounders) and Oklahoma-Texas (40 draft picks, 12 first-rounders).
Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher says that the talent and physicality of the Clemson games is “absolutely” similar to SEC games he used to coach in for 13 years. Just like Alabama-LSU once was, Clemson-Florida State is the game in the back of everyone’s mind that will define both teams’ seasons.
Recently departed Florida State running back Dalvin Cook says Clemson is moving into the conversation of becoming the Seminoles’ top rival.
“That’s a game that the fans and the players and our whole staff look forward to,” he says. “They recruit talent just like we do so you’ve got to respect the game. That’s just become the rivalry between Florida State and Clemson and I love it.”
For six straight years, the Clemson-Florida State winner has won the ACC. The loser of that game has still averaged 10 wins. In other words: Circle Nov. 11, 2017, for Florida State at Clemson. It’s the game that matters most.
Written by Jon Solomon (@JonSolomonAspen) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 ACC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.