COLUMN: This is the golden age of ACC football
CHARLOTTE — Like a proud father ready to brag about his children, John Swofford had a lot to talk about as the Atlantic Coast Conference kicked off its football media day in Charlotte on Thursday.
Even though he admitted that the business of college sports means you can’t “live too long on last year's laurels,” the ACC commissioner could be forgiven for being eager to recap his conference’s recent football success.
But even if he had remained silent, the presence of Lamar Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Dabo Swinney, the man who will forever be a hero for bringing a national championship back to upstate South Carolina, and Jimbo Fisher, the architect of one of the sport’s most consistent powerhouses as of late, would’ve done the talking.
This is the golden age of ACC football, and it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.
Clemson and Florida State are recruiting at extremely high levels — their spots among the nation’s elite seem sustainable and probable. And while Jackson's Cardinals might be a notch below that, head coach Bobby Petrino has proven himself capable of fielding teams that can remain in championship contention for long stretches of the season at Louisville and Arkansas.
“If you ask me, I feel like the ACC is the best conference,” N.C. State’s Jaylen Samuels said.
While that opinion isn’t shared by many, most would still agree to this: At last, the ACC’s upper echelon no longer pales in comparison to its competition from the fellow Power Five conferences.
Since the advent of the College Football Playoff era, ACC schools have appeared in three semifinal games and two championship games, with Clemson doing the grunt work (four of those five total CFP games) and winning it all in 2017. The arrival of this moment has been long overdue for the ACC brass.
A lot has changed in the college football landscape since Swofford, who just began his 21st year on the job at the beginning of the month, managed to bring Miami and Virginia Tech into the fold ahead of the 2004 season. It was a move many thought would help transform the conference into a greater power on the gridiron.
As fate would have it, Miami has enjoyed more success on the hardwood than the field since then, while Virginia Tech more or less reached its ceiling prior to joining the conference. During that time, the universal adoration of the SEC began as the ACC’s most geographically similar conference won nine national titles from 2003-15.
Meanwhile, the extent of the ACC’s relevancy in late November and early December most years was limited to finding out who its representative would be in the Orange Bowl, a contest ACC foes went 1-6 in from 2006-12.
“You know and I know that in some years of the (Bowl Championship Series) we didn't perform very well in those BCS games, and it was there for the world to see,” Swofford admitted.
Indeed it was, but so too were Clemson’s dramatic victory over Ohio State and Florida State’s triumph over Michigan.
Now, it’s reasonable to expect the ACC to have multiple playoff contenders most seasons, though that becoming a reality is hindered by the current unevenness that exists at the top of the league’s two divisions.
But even in the Coastal Division, the arguably deeper but certainly less star-studded side of the ACC, there’s reason for optimism.
Mark Richt seems more keen on taking the Hurricanes to their first-ever ACC Championship game than predecessors Randy Shannon and Al Golden, while second-year Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente could get the Hokies back to the level those in Blacksburg believe they should be playing at.
Even Pittsburgh, a team that has finally started to benefit from some coaching stability, stunned the eventual national champs last November.
“If that doesn't tell you something about where ACC football is today, I'll give you my glasses,” Swofford said.
They’ll see soon enough.