CHARLOTTE — Jimbo Fisher went ahead and threw it out there.
“I think we’ve established ourselves as the premier conference in college football,” the coach of the Florida State Seminoles said Thursday at Atlantic Coast Conference media days.
Backers of Southeastern Conference schools immediately began choking on their Golden Flake potato chips at the spoken heresy. After so many years on top, they take their league’s supremacy as a self-evident truth with no expiration date. And they’d already heard the party line earlier in the day at SEC media days from Auburn coach Gus Malzahn.
“The [SEC] West is the best league in college football,” Malzahn said. “It’s a man’s league.”
But the fact is, the men are more manly in the ACC right now – at least in the ACC Atlantic. That is the new glamor division in college football. (The Coastal has some work to do, having lost six straight conference title games.)
The ACC Atlantic is the only division that has the defending national champion (Clemson), the defending Heisman Trophy winner (Louisville’s Lamar Jackson) and a preseason top-two team (Florida State). That roster of heavy hitters is why I left the SEC confab a day early. If you’re chronicling what’s buzzing in college football right now, this was the place to be Thursday.
The ACC’s buildup has been steady (albeit lopsided). Florida State got back into the championship business in 2013, and Jameis Winston won the Heisman the same season. That’s two titles, three championship game appearances and two Heismans in the last four years – all within one division.
The final breakthrough point was a 30-day stretch last winter. On Dec. 10, 2016, Jackson won the Heisman – becoming the first ACC player not from Florida State to take the award. On Dec. 30, the Seminoles beat Michigan in an epic Orange Bowl. On Dec. 31, Clemson destroyed Ohio State 31-0 in the College Football Playoff semifinals to reach a rematch against Alabama in the CFP title game. And on Jan. 9, 2017, the Tigers scored the winning touchdown with one second remaining to dethrone the Crimson Tide and defeat Nick Saban.
Very suddenly, the college football bragging rights shifted locales. Now they belong to a traditional basketball conference that expanded for basketball reasons in 2012, yet now finds itself on top of gridworld.
“We’re No. 1 right now,” Jackson said of the ACC.
The SEC will get its chance to rebut that Sept. 2 in Atlanta. That’s when Alabama and Florida State meet in what Chick-fil-A College Kickoff organizers are billing as the GOAT Game – the Greatest Opener of All Time.
Maybe the Tide restores order. But the last time ‘Bama was on the field against an ACC opponent, Deshaun Watson was finding Hunter Renfrow in the end zone in Tampa to win it all. Plowing through Urban Meyer and Saban – winners of a combined eight national titles – was a sea-change result in terms of establishing Clemson and the conference.
A step back seems inevitable for the Tigers after losing the best quarterback in school history, leading rusher Wayne Gallman and their top two receivers. But Clemson has recruited so prodigiously that coach Dabo Swinney had reason Thursday to sound like he’s got a surprise up his sleeve.
“We’ll be all right,” Swinney said. “We’ll be just fine.”
The Tigers have become master recruiters at two vital positions: quarterback and defensive line. They lost 2016 leading sacker Carlos Watkins, but have two monsters returning on the defensive front (Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence). They lost Watson but signed the Rivals.com No. 2 quarterback in the class of 2017, Hunter Johnson – and they’ve got a commitment from Rivals’ No. 1 QB and overall player in the class of ’18, Trevor Lawrence.
“I had to beg [former star QB] Tajh Boyd to let me come see him, let me in the house,” Swinney said, recalling the recruiting struggle early in his Clemson tenure. “Now, as our brand has grown … not only do they take our call, but a lot of people are calling us.”
The question is when the Coastal Division will return to some level of prominence. It might not be long.
There were some positive signs last year for that maligned division: Virginia Tech won 10 games for the first time since 2011; and North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky was the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft. Now we’ll see if dormant power Miami is really on the rebound after years of false proclamations.
The Hurricanes had a whopping nine players picked in the draft, showing that Al Golden could at least get talent on campus even if he couldn’t win enough games to keep his job. Second-year coach Mark Richt might be a quarterback away from taking down the Atlantic powers this season – and if he can maintain what Rivals currently ranks the No. 1 2018 class in the nation, the future is all kinds of bright in Coral Gables.
With just one coach definitively on the hot seat (Boston College’s Steve Addazio), the mood here is almost uniformly relaxed, upbeat and optimistic. That extends to commissioner John Swofford, unexpectedly overseeing a football power.
“I think it’s tougher to win the Atlantic Coast Conference than it’s ever been,” Swofford said.
Tougher to win the ACC Atlantic, for sure. That’s where the manliest men are, even if Gus Malzahn disagrees. That’s the new glamor division in college football.