Gone are the days when Florida State just ran roughshod through the Atlantic Coast Conference on pure talent alone.
Clemson’s three straight conference titles and College Football Playoff appearances may not show it, but the ACC now boasts depth up and down and throughout the conference.
The depth has been proven the past two years when the conference sent 10 (2016) and 11 (2017) teams to bowl games.
It’s also evident in how razor-thin the margin of victory from defeat can be.
Just ask Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets lost two games by one point and had another four-point setback last fall when they finished 5-6. Similarly six single-digit setbacks led to a 3-9 campaign in 2015.
“It’s frustrating,” Tech senior linebacker Brant Mitchell said. “We were one possession here, one possession there, one step, one missed tackle away from having a successful season and going to a really good bowl game or even further than that.”
Georgia Tech has been there before, playing for the ACC title in 2012 and 2014, both times coming within one score of a conference title.
Clemson, obviously, has been there as well with the Tigers becoming the behemoth in the conference. But even with all their success, the Tigers have had close calls — six wins in conference games by one score, and have been tripped up by Syracuse a year ago and Pittsburgh in 2016.
Again, a deep conference where anybody can play with anybody.
“It’s a challenge every year,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “It’s incredibly competitive. You’d better show up and get better. You’d better show up and be ready.”
Dino Babers is entering his third season as Syracuse’s head coach. Prior to joining the Orange, he had spent time as an assistant at Arizona and Baylor, Pittsburgh and Purdue, Texas A&M and UCLA.
All those years and all that travel has meant he’s seen a lot of good teams and good conferences.
He’ll put the ACC up there with any of them.
“This conference is no joke,” he said. “You know, coaches come up here and they read their lines and they try to reinforce their conference and everybody does that, okay. This is no baloney cheese for me. This conference is a real football conference. And the diversity of the coaches and the different ways that they try to attack you, I’ve never seen anything like this before.
“I mean, this conference is as good a football conference as the top conferences in the country.”
It wasn’t always that way.
When Florida State joined in 1992, the Seminoles had little trouble with their conference brethren. FSU won its first 29 conference games and won or shared the ACC title every year from 1992 through 2000 when it was 70-2 in league play.
“Florida State at that time, we just — we out-classed a lot of people in just the athletic ability and all that type of thing,” Miami coach and former FSU assistant Mark Richt said about those days.
Louisville coach Bobby Petrino remembers having a similar feeling at times with the Cardinals when the school played in the Big East and Conference USA.
That’s no longer the case.
And that’s because, as a whole, the conference has made a commitment to improve and then backed it up on the field.
“You’ve got to go beat people, and I think that rhetoric has changed,” Swinney said. “When I got the job nine years ago, that’s where we were, and we earned that, too. We didn’t beat anybody.
“And so I used to tell people all the time, I’d be like, ‘Guys, let’s just shut up — we’ve got to play people you’ve got to beat people, then the story will change, and that’s what’s happened.”
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