The display at the entrance to the ACC Kickoff said it all. Suspended by wires and illuminated in front of a blue backdrop were the Heisman Trophy won by Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, Clemson’s national championship trophy, Florida State’s Orange Bowl trophy and a trophy the conference earned for its 9-3 bowl record in the 2016 postseason. (Clemson’s ACC championship trophy also was in the display, but that’s not really bragging.)
Even if the quintet of hardware pieces didn’t need much verbal backing, ACC commissioner John Swofford and coaches and players from the league were quite willing to provide it on the first day of the two-day media event.
“The SEC is great,” Jackson said. “I just feel we’re on top right now. I think we’re No. 1 right now.”
It’s not mere talk. Two of the past four national championships have come from the ACC (Florida State won at the end of the 2013 season), as have two of the past four Heisman winners (Florida State’s Jameis Winston was the 2013 winner). Since Clemson was pasted 70-33 in the 2012 Orange Bowl, the league’s ninth loss in that bowl game in a 10-game span, the ACC has won five consecutive Orange Bowls, including Georgia Tech’s victory in 2014.
The conference was 17-9 against power-conference teams last season, a record boosted by Tech’s 3-0 mark against Vanderbilt, Georgia and Kentucky of the SEC.
Going into the season, Clemson and FSU again are touted as national-championship contenders. The website Pro Football Focus’ early mock draft for 2018 lists eight ACC players in the first round.
Ticking down the list of accomplishments, FSU coach Jimbo Fisher summarized by saying, “I think the ACC is as good a league as there is in football, I really do.”
Swofford noted that Clemson, on the way to beating Alabama for the national championship, lost to Pittsburgh and nearly lost to N.C. State, both at home.
“If that doesn’t tell you something about where ACC football is today, I’ll give you my glasses,” he said, “because we’ve made some progress. But I’m proud of our schools. I’m proud of our ADs and our hires. I’m proud of the commitment they’ve made to the sport.”
Swofford praised his league’s teams for their improvement, for scheduling tough non-conference games and for winning their share of them. He noted three marquee neutral-site games that ACC teams will play in in the first weekend this year — Florida State vs. Alabama on Sept. 2 in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia on Sept. 3 in Washington D.C. and Georgia Tech vs. Tennessee on Sept. 4, also in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“Looking ahead to this season, our teams are once again playing arguably the toughest non-conference schedules of any league,” he said.
Swofford recalled a meeting he had with the league’s coaches as college football was transitioning to the College Football Playoff system, first played in 2014. He said he made clear the importance of showing better in the playoff, “because you know and I know that in some years of the BCS, we didn’t perform very well in those BCS games, and it was there for the world to see.”
Swofford said that Clemson coach Dabo Swinney spoke up, telling his colleagues that if they didn’t believe the ACC had a rightful place in the playoff, “you need to take a look in the mirror.”
Once a punchline, the ACC can gloat about much more than its superior academic credentials.
“We’ve won a bunch of big games as a conference, certainly as a program, but as a conference,” Swinney said. “You know, I don’t think this league has ever been better. It’s the deepest it’s ever been.”