When the Atlantic Coast Conference first opened its doors in 1953, it was always understood that it had to stay on its side of the street and play basketball, while the Southeastern Conference was on the other side and played football.
Occasionally someone from the ACC was allowed to come over and play football with the SEC, like Clemson in the late 1970s and 1980s and Florida State in the 1990s, but it was with the understanding that the whole league could not come over.
So why the SEC controlled things in college football, the ACC owned the basketball world. For more than 50 years that was okay. The SEC did its thing, while the ACC made a name for itself doing its thing.
For years, the ACC just accepted being the little brother to the SEC in college football and rarely challenged their bigger brother from the SEC. However, at some point the little brother has to stand up to his big brother if wants to gain some respect and in 2005, the ACC started doing just that.
In 2005, the league officially expanded from nine teams to 12 and began playing a conference championship game, something the SEC had been doing since 1992. It was a big deal at the time because it was the first time the ACC showed it was committed to improving its image in football. It was the first time it stood up to its SEC brother and crossed the other side of the street.
Sure it got punched in the nose a few times and was knocked down, but it got back up and kept fighting. After being laughed at, poked at and made fun off, ACC Commissioner John Swofford decided he had enough. He knew he had to do something to increase the image of his conference in football so it could thrive for years to come in all sports.
Five years ago, he commissioned his member schools to put more of a premium in football so the league could compete at the highest level, just as it has done in basketball since it began. Swofford was no longer satisfied with just being great in basketball. He knew they had to become an elite football conference, too.
“I can think back to these meetings when I got here five years ago and in that room that was the topic of discussion,” North Carolina football coach Larry Fedora said during last week’s spring meetings in Amelia Island, Fla. “What did we need to do as a league to become elite and to become the best football league in the country?”
What they needed to do was beat the best teams in the country from the other Power 5 Conferences, especially their rivals from the SEC.
“The first thing we had to do when we wanted to raise the image of this league is that we have to play quality non-conference opponents and we have to go win big games. We have done that,” Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher said.
Fisher’s Seminoles and Clemson were already doing that as they were not only beating their SEC brethren but also opponents from the other Power 5 Conferences such as Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Michigan to name a few.
In 2014, the ACC started to take a small step forward against the SEC. First it began by beating the SEC in the two conference’s four biggest rivalry games – Florida State vs. Florida, Clemson vs. South Carolina, Georgia Tech vs. Georgia and Louisville vs. Kentucky. In each of the last three years, the ACC has gone 3-1 vs. the SEC in those games.
In 2015, the ACC was 4-6 overall vs. the SEC in head-to-head matchups and in 2016, its member schools beat SEC schools 10 times in 14 head-to-head games. The ACC was also 7-5 vs. the Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 last year.
The ACC was the only Power 5 Conference to post a winning record against other Power 5 Conferences, finishing with an impressive 17-9 overall record.
“Clemson has won their share, we have won our share and now other schools are doing the same thing,” Fisher said. “I think when you have the marquee teams at the top winning those significant games it does enhance the value of your conference and the overall perception of your conference.”
Florida State and Clemson then topped it off with the Seminoles win over Michigan in the Orange Bowl, the Tigers’ 31-0 victory over Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl and then their victory over SEC Champion Alabama in the national championship game.
“By just about any measure this was the best year in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference in the sport of football,” Swofford said. “I think that is something that has been building for the last four or five years. I don’t know if you can realistically expect every year to be what this year was in football from a competitive standpoint.
“As great as this year was, I think looking back over the last 4 or 5 years, that’s what we have been looking for in football in the ACC. That is what I harped on with our schools going back 8 or 10 years in terms of what we needed to be as a league in that sport.”
In the last four years, Florida State and Clemson have both won national championships, while the Tigers played for another. In those three national championship games, the ACC went 2-1 and more importantly, it was 2-1 against the SEC in doing it.
Finally, the ACC is on the same side of the street with the SEC, and it does not appear its going back.