Andrea AdelsonESPN Staff Writer
One conference had more bowl teams. Another had more 10-win teams. Both were lauded as stronger.
As it turns out, neither the SEC nor the Big Ten proved its superiority over all the college football land this postseason. Another conference did, one that has finally risen up after years of looking up.
All hail the ACC, the new king of bowl season.
This should be surprising only to those who have sat alone in a dark room over the past four years. It is indisputable how much better the ACC is today than it was just a few seasons ago. After Florida State beat Auburn to win the national championship to end the 2013 season, the narrative started to shift, albeit slowly. The league and its teams knew it needed big wins to make its case, a theme repeated nearly every offseason.
This bowl season happens to be the most compelling proof for its rise.
The ACC stands at 8-3, the most bowl wins in conference history. Its previous best? Five. But more importantly, the ACC leads all conferences in bowl victories, and that will not change no matter what happens in the national championship game between No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson on Monday.
Now consider whom the ACC beat this bowl season for further context. The ACC played only one Group of 5 team; the others came from the Power 5. The ACC was an underdog in six of its 11 contests. Four of those teams won (Boston College, Wake Forest, Florida State and Clemson). Pitt was the only favorite to lose.
The ACC had four games each against the SEC and Big Ten, the two conferences many believed to be better throughout the course of 2016. The ACC went 3-1 against both. Overall? The ACC is 9-4 against the SEC (its best mark ever) and 6-2 against the Big Ten — including a perfect 5-0 against the Big Ten East (you know, the division considered the best in college football).
Though the ACC has spent years trying to prove itself against the SEC, the aim this postseason focused squarely on the Big Ten thanks to its two biggest matchups: Florida State vs. Michigan in the Capital One Orange Bowl and Clemson vs. Ohio State in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.
What unfolded in those two games showed why both teams have won 10 games for five consecutive seasons. Florida State and Clemson went into the games with clear advantages over their opponents at quarterback and the skill positions. Indeed, the ACC has the best collection of quarterbacks in the entire country.
But both showed once again why their defenses have been so dominant — the play of their respective defensive lines.
The old stereotype about Big Ten teams being better in the trenches no longer applies. The SEC and ACC built their championship teams with speed and athletes, but they also built their teams with strong, athletic linemen who are able to pass rush and stop the run with equal proficiency. If there was one question that loomed over both games, it was this: How would their opponents’ offensive lines stop Florida State and Clemson? We got our answer early: They simply could not.
Florida State’s and Clemson’s victories were among the biggest this bowl season. One game now remains for Clemson as it tries to unseat Alabama atop the college football mountain. There is no diminishing the importance of that game not only for Clemson but for the ACC itself.
The league has been in the College Football Playoff or national championship discussion for four consecutive seasons, just the same as the SEC. Only Florida State won the title (in the aforementioned 2013). Adding another national championship to the discussion would just pile onto what the ACC already has accomplished.
And there are no plans to stop. Florida State and Clemson are not going anywhere — expect both to be preseason top 10 again. Virginia Tech just won 10 games under Justin Fuente. Miami won nine in Year 1 under Mark Richt. Louisville returns Lamar Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
For years, the common complaint about the ACC was that it was too top-heavy. But that is changing, too. What you see now is what the ACC has tried to build for so long. A winning ACC is something its opponents are just going to have to get used to.