ACC vs. SEC

Kyle Riviere
kriviere@weeklycitizen.com
Clemson celebrates their national title victory over Alabama. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.

The national title game between Alabama and Clemson did more than just serve as an epic finish to another wild and unpredictable college football season.

It ended Alabama’s 26-game winning streak, and it ended their quest for a dynasty as they sought their third national championship in five years.

On the flip side, it gave Clemson their first national title since 1981. It cemented quarterback Deshaun Watson’s legacy as one of the greatest college football players of all time.

But the magnitude of the Tigers’ thrilling 35-31 upset victory was felt in so many places outside of Clemson and Tuscaloosa.

It shook up the landscape of college football and, for the fist time in over a decade, allowed us all to wonder if the SEC’s reign as the best conference in America had ended and the era of the ACC had begun.

That notion was laughable just five years ago.

In 2011, there were two SEC teams competing for the national title—guaranteeing that the conference would take home a sixth straight crystal ball.

The SEC went 6-3 in bowl games that year. The ACC went just 2-6—which included conference champion Clemson’s embarrassing 70-35 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.

Bowl performances like that made the ACC a running joke. Their power teams were often marginalized because their week-to-week competition was considered putrid and watered down.

Oh, how things have changed.

The tide turned in 2013, when Florida State ended a string of seven straight SEC national titles by beating SEC champion Auburn in a classic Rose Bowl encounter.

To add more depth to the conference, Louisville and Pittsburgh were added.

Ever since, an ACC team has qualified for the College Football Playoff in all three seasons since its inception.

Clemson came an eyelash away from toppling Alabama and taking the title last year. This season, they finished the job.

That now makes it two ACC national champions in the past four years. Prior to this stretch, a champion hadn’t come from the conference since 1999-2000 (when Miami won in 2001, they were still in the Big East).

After beating Alabama, Clemson’s outspoken head coach Dabo Swinney said, “This is the best conference in college football. It’s the deepest, it’s the most competitive. You look at the head-to-head records against the SEC. You don’t want to play a team from this conference.”

Everything Swinny said rings true. The proof is in the pudding.

By all accounts, the SEC had a down year. Alabama was the only conference team to win double-digit games.

In bowls, the conference only finished 6-7 (including Alabama’s national title loss).

Conversely, the ACC had three teams win at least 10 games, and in bowls, the conference went a superb 8-3.

In head-to-head bowl matchups with the SEC, the ACC went 4-1. Three of those wins came by double-digits.

This wasn’t an anomaly. During the regular season, the two conferences met head to head nine times. ACC teams went 6-3 in those matchups.

So, is Swinny correct when he says that the ACC is “the best conference in America?”

This season, yes. They absolutely were the best.

However, you can’t judge the strength of a conference by one year.

To be the best, you have to be the top dog over a significant period of time. It’s all about sustained success and consistency.

Let me remind you that at this time last year, I was saying the same things about the SEC.

Rewind the tape to the 2015-16 bowl season and Alabama won the conference it’s second championship in four years.

SEC teams went an impressive 9-2 in bowls. Six of those wins were by double-digits, and overall, four teams from the conference finished with at least 10 victories.

Meanwhile, the ACC went just 2-6.

Clemson was able to redeem the conference this season. The rest of the teams picked up their slack as well.

But if they want to truly be the best conference, this year can’t become an aberration. They have to continue this momentum.

They have to continue to win over 50 percent of their bowl games, and they have to continue to beat the SEC head to head.

They won the battle, but it’s going to take more to win the war.