A funny thing happened on the way to Week 3 of the college football season – the Atlantic Coast Conference became relevant.
Clemson beat No. 5 Georgia on opening Saturday night. Florida State unveiled a nearly perfect freshman quarterback two days later. Miami followed up the next Saturday with a win over No. 12 Florida.
Now the Tigers, Seminoles and Hurricanes are ranked Nos. 3, 10 and 15 in the latest AP poll, and people aren’t laughing at the ACC as a viable BCS title contender anymore.
Dabo Swinney’s Clemson team is not only the most likely to succeed in that quest, the Tigers’ coach is also the conference’s biggest cheerleader. He even flashed the “U” sign after Miami registered the second Southeastern Conference scalp for the ACC.
“We’ve got the tradition and the history from a team standpoint, the teams that are within this conference,” Swinney said. “But we just haven’t produced that 13-0, 12-1 team. Part of that is because this league is incredibly competitive and we haven’t had that dominant team like the SEC has. The SEC, they’ve had three, four, five teams, that between them, they’ve produced that one team.
“This league hasn’t done it. It is what it is. Until you win games, big games like this conference has done as of late, you have to put up with people saying this and saying that. Until you win those games, at least your fair share of those games, you deal with that stuff.”
The ACC’s recent history doesn’t warrant the benefit of the doubt. When your league champ is 2-12 in BCS bowls since 2000 with those lone victories against Northern Illinois and Cincinnati, the perception is reality.
A few teams might have a chance to help change that reality this year, and no doubt the conference is off to a good start at the top.
The ACC is so eager to brag about its two early season take-downs of ranked SEC foes that it mistakenly demeaned itself in its own conference press release claiming it marks “the first time the league has had multiple wins over nationally-ranked opponents since 2005.”
Hardly a ringing endorsement for the conference’s history, but the truth is actually slightly less embarrassing. In 2009, ACC teams actually scored three regular-season victories against ranked non-conference opponents – Florida State over No. 7 BYU, Miami over No. 9 Oklahoma and Virginia Tech over No. 19 Nebraska. That those three foes combined for eight additional losses before the season ended shouldn’t diminish it that much.
Still, the ACC is so proud of this upswing in form that it featured a video on its Web site this week of Clinton Portis – a former Miami star running back pre-ACC era – enthusiastically arguing his “Top 3 reasons why the ACC is catching the SEC.”
“I know everyone’s tired of the SEC – I am too,” Portis said. “Big Bad Wolf. Huff, puff, you’re not going to blow my house down.”
Two of Portis’ trash-talking reasons are quarterbacks and playmakers. He cites only Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M on the SEC side of the QB ledger versus Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, Miami’s Stephen Morris and Florida State freshman Jameis “Famous” Winston. Apparently Aaron Murray and A.J. McCarron didn’t make the cut.
“Are you kidding?” Portis said. “Johnny Manziel who?”
For playmakers, Portis credits the SEC with “one playmaker,” though he doesn’t name him. Then he cites the virtues of Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, Maryland’s Stefon Diggs and Miami’s Duke Johnson as superior in quality and numbers.
His primary argument, of course, is head-to-head results.
“Clemson just beat Georgia – beatdown! Georgia just beat South Carolina - gotcha!” Portis said. “University of Miami just beat Florida. Florida just beat ... oh, they’ll beat somebody in the SEC. The ACC head-to-head matchups is killing the SEC. Look at it. With Clemson, Miami and Florida State, I’ll stack them against the SEC any day. N-E-Day!”
Any day, that is, except when South Carolina whips North Carolina or Alabama rips Virginia Tech. It’s 2-2 with a four-game inter-conference showdown looming Nov. 30.
Continuing to win these games, however, is the only thing that’s going to get the ACC taken seriously and build up lasting credibility. Excluding Clemson’s back-to-back victories over top-10 SEC programs Louisiana State and Georgia, the ACC’s record in these high-profile opportunities has been abysmal and no amount of expansion has helped. Since Florida State went on the wane after losing to No. 1 Oklahoma in the 2000 season BCS title game, the ACC’s record against top-10 non-conference teams is 6-34. Those 34 losses have been by an average of more than 21 points.
So it’s fine to talk about the all the history the conference has, but when that history is ancient it’s not relevant. What counts are victories in the most meaningful games. And you don’t “catch” the SEC in September. Brag when you snap that streak of seven BCS titles or close the gap on the SEC’s 15-5 BCS bowl record vs. non-conference teams this century by improving your own 2-12 mark.
Clemson is doing more than its share of the ACC’s heavy lifting.
“I think as we continue to win those games, then those perceptions change,” Swinney said of the conference’s rep. “The bottom line is, if this league produces a 13-0 or 12-1 team, they’re going to be in the mix.”
If the Tigers continue on this trajectory and get to December with an ACC title and non-conference wins over Georgia and rival South Carolina, they will most definitely be in the mix. The ACC needs Clemson to bring back a reason to swagger.