Clemson coach calls ACC 'best conference in college football'
Dabo Swinney says narrative must change about league lacking respect
TAMPA, Fla. – Step aside, Southeastern Conference. There's a new king of college football.
At least that's how Clemson coach Dabo Swinney sees it.
Hours after the Tigers defeated Alabama 35-31 in the College Football Playoff National Championship, Swinney told reporters that he believes the Atlantic Coast Conference is the best league in college football.
"I think all you media folks need to change your stories," Swinney said Tuesday. "It sounds good. I've been in this league a long time, and this league has never gotten the respect that it deserves."
If any team deserves the blame for the ACC's lack of respect, it is probably Florida State. In the first nine seasons since Florida State joined the ACC in 1992, the Seminoles either won outright or shared the conference crown. The Seminoles won 29 consecutive conference games before their first loss at Virginia on Nov. 2, 1995, and their record against ACC opponents during that span was 70-2.
The Seminoles won two national championships and played for three more between the 1993 and 2000 seasons.
Florida State's dominance created the long-standing perception that the Seminoles were holding the torch for the conference.
Georgia Tech and Clemson -- two ACC teams that had won national championships prior to Florida State's admission -- took a backseat to the Seminoles throughout the 1990s, which didn't help. The Tigers never finished better than third in the ACC, and even Georgia Tech's co-championship in 1998 came with an asterisk -- a loss to Florida State that prevented the Yellow Jackets from earning an automatic berth in the Bowl Championship Series.
Then came the 2000s and a sweeping change of the conference landscape. Miami and Virginia Tech joined the ACC in 2004. Boston College joined a year later.
The ACC split into divisions in 2005 and began fielding a championship game. Florida State wasn't winning as frequently as it had in the previous decade, and other champions emerged (Maryland in 2001, Wake Forest in 2006, Georgia Tech in 2009, although the title was later vacated, and Virginia Tech four times). Still, other ACC teams couldn't seem to replicate the success of the Seminoles.
It didn't help that the SEC, which shares at least a portion of its geographic footprint with the ACC, laid claim to the national championship for seven straight seasons from 2006-12.
Florida won a pair of national titles in 2006 and 2008. LSU won the national title in between. Alabama won the first of its four national titles under Nick Saban in 2009, including three in a four-year span. Alabama's rival, Auburn, won the 2010 national title.
There was also the 2011 season, in which two SEC teams met in a rematch to determine the national championship. LSU beat Alabama in the regular season and eventually won the SEC, but the Crimson Tide routed the Tigers 21-0 to win the crystal trophy.
The SEC's trophy case was impressive even before the streak.
Saban led LSU to the 2003 national championship. Tennessee beat Florida State to win the first national championship of the BCS era in the 1999 Fiesta Bowl.
Even before the BCS, SEC teams had found success on the national stage, winning two championships -- Alabama in 1992 and Florida in 1996 -- under the old Bowl Coalition and Bowl Alliance systems and playing for the title on two other occasions, when Florida lost to Nebraska in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl and Tennessee lost to Nebraska in the 1998 Orange Bowl.
Swinney, who took over for Tommy Bowden midway through the 2008 season, said he told his athletic director there was only one way to change the perception of the ACC.
"We've got to go play people and we've got to win," Swinney said. "We've got to find a way. That's the only way it's going to change."
So far, so good.
The SEC's reign came to an end in the 2013 season, when ACC champion Florida State defeated SEC champion Auburn in the final BCS National Championship. The ACC has been represented in each of the first three seasons of the College Football Playoff, with Florida State earning a berth in the playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl during the 2014 season and Clemson playing in the last two national championship games.
"This is the best conference in college football," Swinney said. "It's the deepest. It's the most competitive. Eleven bowl teams, and it's back-to-back years, something like that, that we've done that."
The ACC's head-to-head record against the SEC during the 2016 season was 10-4. The ACC also had the best overall record in bowl games, finishing 9-3. Perhaps more importantly, the ACC was 4-1 in bowl games against the SEC.
In addition to Clemson's victory against Alabama, North Carolina State beat Vanderbilt 41-17 in the Independence Bowl, Virginia Tech rallied from a 24-0 halftime deficit to defeat Arkansas 35-24 in the Belk Bowl and Georgia Tech beat Kentucky 33-18 in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
LSU was the only team to beat an ACC team, defeating Louisville 29-9 in the Citrus Bowl.
"You don't want to play a team from this conference," Swinney said. "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."
Swinney, who won a national championship as a wide receiver for Alabama in 1992, isn't taking anything away from the SEC.
"Look at the NFL Draft, and the SEC is a great conference, too, but the best and deepest league is this league that we're competing in," Swinney said.
Swinney knows the conference debate will last well beyond this season, and not everyone will agree.
"So, you know, it's just how I feel about it," Swinney said.
Disagree? Just ask Alabama.
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