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ACC Flexing Its Muscle

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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To say ACC football is on the rise would be selling the conference short; the league has officially arrived.

When the ACC walks into the room, the bright lights now follow. Led by the defending national champions and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, a highlight-hue has shadowed the league's ascension to the forefront of the national conversation. Simply put, the conference's credibility is at an all-time high. There's more than just star power at the ACC Kickoff, there is a powerful momentum years in the making. 

In addition to showcasing major players like Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher, two of the four active head coaches with title rings, Lamar Jackson and Derwin James, the ACC, literally and figuratively, displayed both recent hardware and notable league-wide accomplishments at conference media days; a 17-9 record versus power five competition in 2016, along with a 9-3 postseason record, an 8-3 mark in major bowl games the last five years and five straight Orange Bowl winners.   

The ACC Kickoff was on the second-floor at the Charlotte Westin; the league, for now, is on top of the college football world.

"This is an exciting time for the Atlantic Coast Conference. You know that. I know that," explained Commissioner John Swofford. "We're enjoying unprecedented success, both academically and athletically, and as we look to the future, we're extremely well-positioned with countless opportunities in front of us."

The ACC appears to have staying power. Swinney and Fisher have dynamic programs at Clemson and Florida State, respectively. Virginia Tech, Miami and Louisville also finished last fall in the national polls. Remarkably, every league member except Duke, Syracuse and Virginia compiled winning records, with the Orange and Cavaliers having first-year head coaches. Notable hirings and facility improvements have strengthened the foundation of the conference.

Growth, for the league, has been a multi-faceted venture. In combination with recent expansion efforts, the upcoming ACC Network will help reconfigure how the conference is branded and marketed. From Miami, up through Atlanta, D.C., New York and Boston, demographics and distribution will continue to be an asset for the league. There is significant infrastructure in place, with more on the horizon. 

"As for the linear network, there's a lot of activity currently underway, and that activity is on our 15 campuses," Swofford added. "It's at our offices in Greensboro. It's at ESPN campuses in Bristol, as well as here in Charlotte, as we prepare for the launch in just 24 months."

On the field and off, the ACC has found stability.

"The strategic vision by the leadership at our schools, whether on our individual campuses or collectively at the league level, combined with our dedicated business partners, is what has us so well-positioned now as well as for the long- and short-term future," Swofford continued.

Though somewhat-newfound, the spotlight won't be dimming any time soon. Clemson and Florida State will enter the fall with lofty pre-season rankings and Jackson will be looking to become just the second two-time Heisman winner ever. The first Saturday will be a primetime showcase for the ACC as the Seminoles will meet Alabama in the first-ever football game at Atlanta's new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Georgia Tech and Tennessee will play on Labor Day two nights later. Week one, alone, will feature five neutral site contests.    

Per Swofford, that approach, playing the best of the best, has been a key part of the plan. 

"Looking ahead to this season, our teams are once again playing arguably the toughest non-conference schedules of any league. That's something we started talking more and more about five, six, seven years ago, that we had to step up to the plate, improve our own league, play our share of tough outside competition, and win our share of those games," he detailed. "Our programs have done that. They've done all of those three things over the last half dozen years."

Not long ago, the outlook wasn't as optimistic for the ACC. Following some high-profile struggles in BCS games, the league needed a national boost. Correspondingly, the conference really found its rhythm right as the transition to the College Football Playoff was made. The ACC has used a new platform as a new opportunity. The results have been significant.  

"I was telling the story of going back a few years when we were leaving the BCS behind and moving to the Playoff. In talking to our coaches at Amelia Island at our spring meeting about the importance of us stepping up program-wise and talking with our athletic directors about the importance of that, that we had to make a better showing going forward, to have our place in the playoff, because you know and I know that in some years of the BCS we didn't perform very well in those BCS games, and it was there for the world to see," Swofford acknowledged.

The last few seasons have come with a different theme. The ACC has been a leading figure throughout all of college football's fluidity. Swinney, fittingly enough, talked it into existence.

"I told them the story about Dabo Swinney in that particular meeting, and Dabo said, 'Listen, we've got to do what the Commissioner is talking about, and any of you that don't think this league is going to be a prominent part of the playoff, you need to take a look in the mirror. We need to take a look in the mirror'," Swofford recalled. "Because if you play the right people and you develop your program enough to win enough of the right games, there's no reason we shouldn't be in the playoff every year."

To say ACC football is on the rise would be selling the conference short; the league has officially arrived. 

A clear plan and deliberate persistence has led the ACC forward. Don't expect that to change. As storylines emerge for this fall, they do so fueled by optimism. A conference that, not long ago, had considerable questions, is now getting a palpable benefit of the doubt. The challenge, looking ahead for the league, will be maintaining the status quo.  

"I think this league, strategically, in positioning itself and on our campuses, with our coaching hires, our recruiting, our willingness to play tough games, and now our ability to win enough of those tough games -- you're not going to win all of them, that's why we are where we are today," Swofford concluded.

Through the complexities of change, a very real confidence and camaraderie has emerged.

"I think we've established ourselves as I think the premier conference in college football," stated Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher.

Trophies in tow, this is no longer progress; it's prowess.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Matt Osborne and Kevin Thomas on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network and is the sports director for multiple ESPN Radio affiliates based throughout southeast Georgia. @BJBennettSports