CLEMSON – Clemson, undefeated and ranked No. 3, is doing its best to boost the reputation of the Atlantic Coast Conference in football.
And the rest of the league apparently is hellbent on joining the Tigers.
The ACC is the only conference to have five teams ranked among the Top 17 in the nation in the latest Associated Press poll, and this week’s opponent – N.C. State – is unranked, but is 4-1 and striving to get there.
“I don’t think anybody is excited when they look at their schedule and see they’re playing an ACC team,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Tuesday.
Probably not, which represents a welcome change.
For years, the ACC was widely considered to be the fourth- or fifth-best league in football, but that has changed recently as more teams have come along for the ride, with Clemson and Florida State sharing the driver's seat.
Louisville, which lost to Clemson 42-36 two weeks ago, is the best 4-1 team in the country and may not lose again.
Miami is 4-1 and showing an obvious resurgence under coach Mark Richt.
Virginia Tech is 4-1, with its lone loss to Tennessee, and has the league’s top defense.
Nine of the league’s 14 teams already have four or more victories, and the ACC has a 35-10 record against non-conference opponents this season. That translates to a winning percentage of .778, which ranks second best of all the Power 5 conferences and would be the best in league history if maintained.
The ACC Atlantic Division could make a case for being the toughest in the country, particularly since the division is 2-0 against the SEC West this season. The league also is 16-13 in head-to-head match-ups against the SEC since 2013, including a 3-2 mark this season, and will be favored in at least three of the final four games remaining against SEC foes in 2016.
Perhaps it’s a good thing from Notre Dame’s perspective that the Fighting Irish haven’t joined the ACC as a football-playing member; they’re 1-2 against ACC teams this season and would be mired near the bottom of the league standings.
“I think it’s what I’ve been saying for the last few years – this league is a tough league,” Swinney said. “That has been played out in out-of-conference games, played out in the NFL Draft, and in the major college awards. And the coaches in this league are tremendous.
“It’s a great academic league as well. It separates from the pack when you put the whole package together.”
Swinney also acknowledges the fact that the better the rest of the ACC is, the more Clemson’s reputation and standing is enhanced.
You can go 11-1 or 12-0, but if your toughest opponent is of little consequence, hopes for a College Football Playoff berth are greatly diminished.
The ACC’s upswing in stature has been recognized nationally, and former Texas coach Mack Brown, an ESPN analyst who provided color commentary for week’s Clemson-Boston College game, has been impressed.
“As you start looking at this league, it’s coming on from top to bottom,” Brown said. “There’s a chance for any team to win at any time. Clemson and Florida State have been there, but Miami’s getting better, Louisville is coming on like gangbusters, North Carolina is improving and Virginia Tech is a factor.”
N.C. State and Duke have both defeated Notre Dame this season, Pitt has beaten Penn State, and Wake Forest is 5-1.
“We all fight our history and our tradition,” Brown said. “The ACC has been up and down and the SEC has been steady, with bigger stadiums, bigger crowds and strong teams, but in recent years the ACC has shown itself to be as good as any.”
Scott Keepfer, The Greenville News