ACC has finally reached mountaintop, but trick is staying there

ACC commissioner John Swofford stood behind the Clemson end zone as the final minute ticked away in Monday’s national title game between the Tigers and Alabama.

Tensions rose and nerves frayed all around him, but Swofford watched stoically, waiting on the one play that would deliver the championship they all so desperately wanted. When Deshaun Watson threw the winning touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with 1 second left, pandemonium erupted on the field and in the stands.

Swofford pumped his fist high in the air and screamed, “YESSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!” He hugged his wife, Nora, and soon disappeared in the crowd to find his place on stage for the trophy presentation. Swofford stood behind coach Dabo Swinney, his giddy smile plastered on the big video boards for all to see.

Just like that, the ACC became the undisputed college football kings, a remarkable postseason capped with a remarkable national championship. When Swinney proclaimed the conference the best in college football, it was hard to argue. This moment was 35 years in the making for Clemson, but it was 64 years in the making for the ACC.

Once derided as a basketball conference attempting (badly) to play football, the ACC has worked during the past five years to reinvent itself, to change outside perceptions and stake its claim as a conference that could do more than just bounce a round, orange ball.

The climb up has been steady, with clear benchmarks along the way. Florida State won the national championship in 2013, then made the first College Football Playoff in 2014. Clemson followed with national championship game appearances in the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Those two have been the unquestioned leaders in this turnaround.

What had been missing until this season was success beyond just those two. We saw Louisville rise, in the playoff discussion all the way through November. We saw