ACC commisioner John Swofford stood on the field at Sun Life Stadium after Clemson clinched its spot in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, flashing a knowing grin. His wife stood nearby, wearing orange.
Inquiring minds had to know: Did he fist pump after the Tigers beat Oklahoma?
Swofford flashed that grin again.
Any celebration would be warranted, considering the moment. Only a few pundits predicted the ACC would make the College Football Playoff in the preseason. Among 28 ESPN college football game and studio analysts, only three predicted Clemson would make the semifinal.
Zero picked Clemson to make the championship game.
Without ever revealing whether he did, in fact, pump his fist, Swofford had an answer for the doubters.
“That’s OK, we’ve got one playing in the big game,” Swofford said. “This is a team that I don’t think is going to be satisfied with just being there. I think they’re on a mission and have the capability of winning a national championship, and hopefully that’s what they’ll leave Scottsdale with.”
It seems fitting that Clemson is the one representing the ACC this season, considering the parallel perceptions many have of the two. Both the league and Clemson have been derided for their pasts, and it has been exceedingly difficult for them both to shed their “underachiever” labels because of all the misperceptions attached to them.
No other college football team has a verb named after its program, one that should have been retired long ago. Consider: Clemson and Alabama are the only two teams to win 10 or more games in each of the past five seasons. Clemson is the only team in the country to win four consecutive bowl games.
Even during this national championship run, many expected Clemson to fall on its face at some point because, well, "That's what the Tigers do." Many picked them to lose to Notre Dame, to Florida State, to North Carolina, to Oklahoma and now to Alabama.
The disrespect card is an easy one to play, considering not only how people view Clemson, but by how they view the ACC. For the third straight year, the league has the last undefeated team standing; for the third straight year, the league has a team in the national championship hunt.
Yet the ACC and Clemson have a more difficult time shedding their past than just about anybody in the country.
“I don’t think it’s a chip on our collective shoulder type thing,” Swofford said. “They’ve won an awful lot of games. You go back and look over five years, and they’ve won at least 10 games for five years in a row. People that don’t respect that either aren’t paying attention or don’t know college football.”
Aside from Clemson, the ACC did not exactly overwhelm during bowl season. Florida State and North Carolina, the only other 10-win teams in the conference, lost their bowl games. NC State got run out of the Belk Bowl. Duke and Louisville did their parts against Power 5 opponents, helping the ACC to a 4-5 bowl record with one to go. That is a better win percentage than a year ago, though fewer ACC teams made bowls in 2015.
Making it into the national championship game is a better result, too.
Maybe one that will redefine how both a league and a program are viewed.
“From a league standpoint, any time you have a team in the national championship game, you’re pleased with that,” Swofford said. “But with what we’ve been building as a league the last three years with Florida State winning the national championship two years ago, then being in the playoff last year, then Clemson now being in the national championship game, it’s really good to see. Certainly very positive for the entire conference.”