Just five years ago, the Atlantic Coast Conference was perceived as the fourth- or fifth-best among the Power 5 leagues.
Two national titles, two Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks and an influx of top-notch coaches throughout the league have allowed the ACC to now argue that the league is right up there with the SEC — and perhaps ahead of that conference.
“We’ve established ourselves as I think the premier conference in college football,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said on Thursday at ACC Kickoff.
It wasn’t that long ago that the SEC could claim it was far and away the best league, ahead of the B1G Ten, Big 12, ACC and Pac-12. The SEC won seven straight titles from 2006-12, including two by Florida and three by Alabama in that stretch.
But since then, FSU won the national title in 2013 (by defeating Auburn) and Clemson claimed the championship in January (by knocking off Alabama). So the ACC’s image has not only been strengthened by raising two trophies but also in taking down the SEC’s best in the process.
“There’s no question – Louisville, Clemson, Florida State, Miami — anybody can compete with any team in the country,” FSU safety Derwin James said.
That will again be tested as the ACC will have high-profile matchups with the SEC in 2017, led by FSU vs. Alabama on Sept. 2 in what could be a top-5 showdown in the season opener. Clemson hosts Auburn a week later in another intriguing ACC-SEC matchup.
The ACC has been a league that boasted quarterbacks like Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, a former Boynton Beach star who along with FSU’s Jameis Winston has won the Heisman. They headline a group that included talented stars like Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky, both of which were first-round picks in 2017.
While the ACC has been helped by the resurgence of FSU under Fisher and Clemson with coach Dabo Swinney, the league has also enjoyed depth from top to bottom in the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions.
One reason is the quality of recent coaching hires. Justin Fuente guided Virginia Tech to a Coastal Division title in Year 1. Miami won nine games, including a bowl victory over West Virginia, in Mark Richt’s first season. Larry Fedora has won 40 games in five seasons at North Carolina, while Dave Doeren has 22 victories in three years at NC State.
Those men had head coaching experience elsewhere, brought their ability to rebuild programs and attract top recruits to campus. FSU and Clemson have won the ACC title in each season since 2010, but the league is enjoying quite the run.
“We understand that the way you get better is by playing the best teams, and there’s no doubt that some of the best football being played anywhere in the country right now is in the ACC,” Syracuse second-year coach Dino Babers said.
Even struggling programs like Wake Forest (which went 7-6 with a bowl win in 2016) have assembled talent and depth. And they’re prepared to let people know they aren’t the Demon Deacons of past years.
“People doubt us a lot, you know,” said Wake defensive tackle Wendell Dunn, a senior from Miami Palmetto High. “I don’t know if you guys heard the saying, ‘little old Wake Forest,’ but it’s a true saying. Everybody thinks that about us. When we talk about beating the top teams, people look at you like you’re crazy. And the thing about us right now is we embrace that.
“We like to say that and for you to look crazy, because once we do it, you’ll look crazy then, and it’s just something that we embrace.”