The national champions. The Heisman Trophy winner. More bowl wins than any other league.
Such was the Atlantic Coast Conference’s mark on college football this season, and all that prompted Clemson coach Dabo Swinney to let the other leagues in America in what’s apparently no longer a secret.
“You don’t want to play a team from this conference,” Swinney said Tuesday, a day after Clemson beat Alabama 35-31 for the national championship. “You just don’t.”
Clemson will be the team getting the national title rings in a few months and the Tigers were the team smudging the trophy with their celebratory fingerprints on Monday night, and the conference enjoyed seeing one of its own back atop the college football mountaintop. Several ACC schools sent congratulatory messages to the Tigers while the confetti was still flying in Tampa, and Commissioner John Swofford basked in the Tigers’ party.
“It’s probably the best year, football-wise, that this conference has ever had,” Swofford said. “It’s been building the last four or five years. Terrific regular season, a great postseason and this really caps it — without question.”
The ACC went 9-3 in bowl games this season, the best record of any conference in terms of both percentage and total wins. Louisville’s Lamar Jackson won the Heisman , Florida State won the Orange Bowl and the ACC finished with five schools in the season-ending AP Top 25 .
Virginia Tech and Miami took steps forward. Half the league was ranked nationally at some point in 2016. Clemson won it all, and later this month moves into a spectacular new football complex that will surely help the Tigers’ already-loaded recruiting hauls.
“I’ve been in this league a long time, and this league has never gotten the respect that it deserves,” Swinney said. “You know, I said about five years ago or something, just keep your mouth shut and go play. If we want to change the story, then we’ve got to change it from the inside out.”
And they have.
Clemson’s win over Alabama was the 17th by an ACC team over a Power 5 school in a nonconference matchup this season. No other league won more than 11 such games. So if any notions still exist that suggest the ACC is merely a basketball league, consider them further debunked now.
“This is the best conference in college football,” Swinney said. “It’s the deepest, it’s the most competitive, 11 bowl teams … 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.”
Swofford said he was particularly happy for Swinney, who survived some time on the proverbial hot seat early in his tenure before getting Clemson on what became its path to the title.
“Dabo’s one of the guys that just represents everything good in college football in my opinion,” Swofford said. “He does it the right way and it’s good to see people who do it the right way and loves his players like he does. He’s just good for the game. He’s good for Clemson, he’s good for the Atlantic Coast Conference, he’s good for the game of football.”
The Big Ten and the SEC, combined, got nine bowl wins — and needed 22 bowl-qualifying teams to get there. Before this season, the ACC never had more than five bowl wins in a season.
“The SEC is a great conference, too,” Swinney said. “But the best and deepest league is this league that we’re competing in.”