CHARLOTTE, N.C. — On Thursday, Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford gave Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney a lot of credit for the league’s rise as the top conference in college football.
Five years ago, when Swofford told his coaches and athletic directors they needed to find a way to improve football in the conference, Swinney stepped and offered some advice.
“We were talking about scheduling and things like that, and my message was, listen, we’ve got to go play people, and we’ve got to beat them,” Swinney said during the ACC Football Kickoff from The Westin Charlotte in Charlotte, N.C.
At the time, the ACC was the laughingstock of the Power 5 conferences. They had lost 11 of 13 Bowl Championship Series Games and had not beaten the SEC in overall head-to-head matchups since 2003.
In bowl games, most of the time, the league was on the bad side of defeats.
However, at Clemson, Swinney was trying to change that. Since Swinney became head coach at Clemson in 2008, the Tigers have played non-conference opponents such as TCU, Auburn, Georgia and Notre Dame, as well as rival South Carolina.
“The only way we’re going to change the story lines … that five, six, seven years ago the story lines were always the same about this league,” Swinney said. “I mean, there’s no sense in complaining about it, let’s go — if we want to change it, we’ve got to go play people and we’ve got to beat them.”
Clemson did its part. Not only did the Tigers schedule tough out of conference opponents, but they beat them too.
“When we do that, then we’ve got to start writing something different,” Swinney said. “That was really kind of what I said at that time, and I think that we’ve been able to do that. I mean, even just this year, if you look at this league, there’s one conference that had a winning record versus Power Five teams, the ACC.”
Everyone started following Clemson’s lead as Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech, Virginia and North Carolina all started scheduling tough non-conference games. This year, NC State is getting in the act by playing South Carolina, while Georgia Tech is playing Tennessee in one of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta.
Of course, Florida State plays Alabama in the other Chick-fil-A Classic on Sept. 2, while Clemson will host Auburn on Sept. 9.
Last year, the ACC was 17-9 versus other Power 5 opponents, the best in the country. The league was 10-4 against the SEC and is 19-13 versus the SEC since the start of the 2014 season.
“Only one conference had a winning record versus ranked teams last year … the ACC,” Swinney said. “We had 11 bowl teams. We were 10-4 versus the SEC. There’s a reason why we have played so well.”
Since Swofford’s conversation with league coaches in the spring of 2012, Clemson has won five straight bowl games against national powers such as LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma, while also taking down Alabama in last year’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
Swinney says the Tigers’ postseason success is a direct correlation of its success against other non-conference opponents from the Power 5.
“I mean, it’s not because I’m some great coach,” Swinney said sternly. “I’ve got a good staff and all that. We’ve had good players. It’s what we practice against every day, and it’s what we play against week in and week out.
“So when we’ve got into postseason, we’ve not been overwhelmed, we’ve been able to match up. But you can’t just do that one time. Nobody is going to really give you credit for that. It’s the consistency over the last several years that I think really speaks the loudest because we’ve been incredibly consistent in a lot of areas. We’ve won a bunch of big games as a conference, certainly as a program, but as a conference.”
Since those gloomy days of the old BCS, the ACC has produced an 8-3 record in BCS, New Year’s Six and CFP games since 2012.
“You know, I don’t think this league has ever been better,” Swinney said. “It’s the deepest it’s ever been. Incredible coaches in this league. I mean, really, really good coaches, and every single week you’d better come to play.
“Then it’s the same — and for us, you’d better show up to practice. If you’re (Tyrone) Crowder and you’re going to have to block Christian Wilkins in practice, you’d better show up, otherwise you’re going to get exposed. That’s good for us as a program, and then also to be able to show up on game day and play a quality team from this league I think is the reason why we’ve been so successful in the postseason.”
–Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
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