If the Seminoles and Tar Heels win their bowls , the ACC will finish the season with three top-10 teams for the first time.
Three, or even more, teams from the same conference in the final Associated Press top 10 is hardly unusual. Indeed, courtesy of league expansion throughout the Bowl Subdivision – the Big Ten has 14 teams, after all -- it’s happened 16 times in the last 15 years.
The Southeastern Conference has boasted such a season seven times during that stretch, including 2012, when five of its teams landed in the final AP top 10: Alabama, Texas A&M, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.
Founded in 1953, the ACC didn’t have two season-ending top-10 outfits until 1981, with national champion Clemson and No. 9 North Carolina. That’s happened seven times since, most recently last year with No. 5 Florida State and No. 8 Georgia Tech – Clemson finished 15th to give the ACC three top-15s for only the second time.
But the ACC has long lacked the depth of elite teams that has marked other conferences, especially the SEC. From 2002-12, no ACC team entered postseason with fewer than two losses, and during that span Virginia Tech in 2010 was the lone squad to go 8-0 in the league.
Contrast that to the last three seasons, in which four teams – Florida State in 2013 and ’14, and Clemson and North Carolina this year -- went 8-0. Better yet, the Seminoles in ’13 and ’14, and the Tigers this season were 13-0 entering the bowls.
And that’s beyond rare. The last power conferences to produce unblemished champions entering three straight postseasons were the SEC from 2009-11 and the late, great Southwest Conference from 1963-65.
Florida State earned its third national championship in 2013 and has won 37 of its last 40 games. Clemson is 34-5 over the last three seasons and is the top seed in this year’s College Football Playoff – so much for those national preseason stories that pegged the ACC for CFP exclusion.
While Clemson is assured a top-10 season, No. 9 Florida State and No. 10 North Carolina must win their respective bowls to finish there. The Seminoles (10-2) face No. 14 Houston in the Peach, while the Tar Heels (11-2) encounter No. 18 Baylor in the Russell Athletic.
As with any piece extolling recent ACC football, none of this is to say that the league suddenly lords over college football like the Golden State Warriors do the NBA. Vegas clearly isn’t impressed, favoring the conference in just two of its nine bowls.
Florida State and Virginia Tech – the Hokies play Tulsa in the Independence – are the lone favorites, while North Carolina is an underdog to Baylor, as are Clemson to Oklahoma in the Orange, Miami to Washington State in the Sun, Duke to Indiana in the Pinstripe, Louisville to Texas A&M in the Music City, North Carolina State to Mississippi State in the Belk, and Pittsburgh to Navy in the Military.
The last decade suggests Vegas may be on to something. The ACC’s lone winning bowl records in the last 10 years were 5-3 in 2005 and 4-2 in 2012.
But you can’t have everything – witness Donald Trump’s hair -- and three consecutive seasons of national prominence have been far more valuable to the league than any collection of second-tier bowl conquests. And amid this momentum comes an infusion of coaching talent: Dino Babers from Bowling Green to Syracuse, Justin Fuente from Memphis to Virginia Tech, Bronco Mendenhall from Brigham Young to Virginia, and Mark Richt from Georgia to Miami.
Mendenhall and Richt are the most accomplished coaches to change addresses this offseason, and both landed in the ACC Coastal Division. Combine them with the likes of Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, North Carolina’s Larry Fedora, Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson, Duke’s David Cutcliffe and Louisville’s Bobby Petrino – proven winners all – and you have a recipe for sustained success.
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