You’ve heard the talk for months now. Really, for three years now.
The ACC is Clemson and everyone else. (And by everyone else, its critics mean nobody any good.)
This is why Alabama fans, and more generally, SEC fans, complain repeatedly about Clemson and strength of schedule, why Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses made headlines when he said Georgia was a tougher opponent than the very Clemson team that steamrollered them 44-16 in the national championship game.
What Clemson has done to separate itself is staggering, if only because a program that used to be the butt of jokes is now the one laughing. Clemson has four straight playoff appearances, two national championships and is a heavy favorite to play for another title this season. That has some to do with its ACC schedule and everything to do with the future NFL draft picks the Tigers have up and down their roster.
But distinguishing what Clemson has done seems to always get tangled up with what the rest of the ACC has done. As coach Dabo Swinney likes to say, “Used to be we couldn’t win because we don’t play anybody. Now we only win because we don’t play anybody. That doesn’t add up to me.”
It’s a double standard that always comes up with the ACC, in large part because the ACC struggled to produce a championship-caliber football program during the height of the BCS era. At the same time, the SEC produced four programs that won national titles. Though the ACC has never missed the College Football Playoff, Clemson cannot escape hearing the jeers that it simply did not play a worthy-enough schedule.
Even though Clemson had the No. 1 strength of record last year. Even though over the past three seasons, Clemson has played 15 games against teams ranked in the final AP top 25, compared to 17 for Alabama. Swinney is 14-1; Nick Saban is 14-3. The difference is two games, but sure, Clemson has played no one.
Yes, it is true the ACC had two teams ranked in the final AP top 25 last year (Syracuse was 15th). Yes, it is true it would help the league and the ongoing narrative for more teams to join the rankings and perhaps challenge Clemson for conference supremacy.
New North Carolina coach Mack Brown, who spent the past five seasons as a college football analyst for ESPN, knows its not a problem unique to the ACC.
“There’s a gap between Ohio State, Georgia, Oklahoma, Alabama and Clemson,” he said. “Right now, we’ve got a group at the top that are looking down on everybody else.”
We are in an era of the superpower team, and that truly has little to do with conference affiliation. In fact, ESPN Stats & Information projects that if Clemson played Alabama’s schedule, the Tigers and Tide would be projected to have similar records. Clemson also is the higher-rated team in the FPI rankings. If that doesn’t dispel the “they don’t play anyone in the ACC” argument, not much else will.
There is one more case to be made here for Clemson and the ACC. It is far better to have an elite team at the top than to be the Pac-12, which might be the most balanced conference in the nation but is derided as a nonfactor because it hasn’t been in the championship conversation since the first year of the playoff.
What has been good for Clemson has actually been great for the ACC, especially with the ACC Network set to launch on Aug. 22.
“It wasn’t that long ago that we weren’t in a position for this to happen,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said recently. “That fact had a lot to do with our pursuit of expansion because we felt like looking ahead, that if we didn’t expand, we just weren’t going to be in a strong enough position to have the opportunities to really enhance our television. Football, more and more, has driven the train from a business standpoint and we’ve transitioned from a basketball-centric league to one that’s extraordinarily well balanced, football and basketball-wise.”
Jimbo Fisher helped change the ACC football narrative as he built Florida State into a national champion in 2013, just before Swinney and Clemson turned the corner from good to elite. But expansion also changed the way the conference had to think, and programs beyond the more traditional football schools had to start investing in football.
The result has been a far better football product over the past six years. A program like NC State, for example, has produced 17 draft picks since 2016. In the nine years before that, the Wolfpack had 16 total players drafted. Louisville, new to the ACC, is in a slump now. But this is also the program that produced Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson only three seasons ago.
Syracuse is coming off its first 10-win season since 2001, and is one of two ACC teams to beat Clemson over the past three seasons. These are all tangible signs the ACC overall is better, even if the total number of ranked teams in 2018 doesn’t necessarily show it.
“The gap is not as big as everybody thinks, but certainly it’s there,” Boston College coach Steve Addazio said. “They’ve had an elite quarterback and great defense. I love their culture, or at least my perception of that. If you look back, there has been a segment of time, programs have been just a little bit up there. That doesn’t mean you can’t get beat. Everybody gets beat. It just means you’re hitting it at all cylinders. I think they are hitting it at all cylinders, and I think it’s great for our conference.”
When Louisville coach Scott Satterfield was at Appalachian State, he and his staff would visit with Swinney and the Clemson staff during the spring. He saw firsthand how Swinney built the program, so now that he is in the same division, he has a complete understanding about what needs to be done to at least try to compete.
“It starts with how you run your program. I think we’re very similar,” Satterfield said. “We try to lead with love and not fear. Some programs are going to make you do things; I want these guys to want to do these things, and to me that’s Clemson’s model. After that, you have to get some talented players. That’s the difference now with Clemson compared to six, seven, eight years ago. They’re getting some of the best players in the country. Last spring, when I visited with them, of guys that early enrolled — there may have been five or six different players of the year in their state. When that happens, you’ve got a chance right off the bat to be pretty good.
“So we’ve got to do a great job getting the right kind of players here, that fit what we do that will give us an opportunity to compete for a championship. You’ve got to start with one, then get two, then you win some games, and the next thing you know, it snowballs. I’ve seen that at Clemson and now they’ve got the facilities and the recruits now it’s rolling.”
Perhaps it rolls all the way to another national championship. And if the Tigers do, it will be because they are the best team in the country, not because they somehow lucked out playing a softer schedule.