Dabo Swinney had a right to puff out his chest and crow a little bit about the previously suspect football product in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

 

The league known almost exclusively for hoops put together a resume last season to support Swinney’s declaration – after his Clemson team knocked off Alabama to win the national championship – of the ACC being “the best conference in college football.”

There’s no denying the ACC took a massive step forward, rising above the traditionally dominant SEC and every other Power 5 conference. It had a record 11 bowl teams with winning records, went 19-10 against Power 5 opponents, and finished 1-2 in the Heisman Trophy race with quarterbacks Lamar Jackson (Louisville) and Deshaun Watson (Clemson).

How significant is that? Well, consider only once previously has the ACC had two top-5 Heisman finalists since the league formed in 1953. It has simply lacked the all-around depth to ever be a dominant presence.

So after forever living in the SEC’s football shadow, the ACC deserves every plaudit for rising to the top. It was a planet-aligning situation in some respects, buoyed by the Atlantic division trio of Clemson, Florida State and Louisville doing nearly all the heavy lifting, a situation similar to the West division carrying the SEC.

But as commissioner John Swofford mentioned Thursday at ACC Media Days: “You don’t live too long on last year’s laurels.” Which brings up this compelling question about the 2017 college football season: Can the ACC sustain success or will it fall back into its usual third, fourth or fifth-place standing among the Power 5?

If the ACC expects to regularly challenge the SEC for supremacy, it’s going to require a certain former national power from the feeble Coastal division to stop a 13-year run of ho-hum football.

Yes, I’m pointing at you, Miami. The “U” is right. It stands for underachiever, which is exactly what the Hurricanes have been since entering the ACC in 2004. When UM joined the league and was placed in the opposite division from FSU, who didn’t think it’d be playing for championships and hoisting several trophies?

To think the ‘Canes have never reached an ACC title game, endured a minimum three conference losses 12 times in 13 years, and have zero Top-25 finishes in the last seven seasons is unfathomable.

The ACC can keep ascending if second-year coach Mark Richt, who has earned tons of compliments for his recruiting gains, can find a suitable quarterback and ignite a long-term turnaround. College football is better when programs with brand-name recognition like UM are in the national conversation.

Though Clemson and nearly the entire Coastal division has to find a new quarterback, Swofford maintains the ACC has “more good teams than we’ve ever had.”

The ACC was a college football bully in 2016, but sustaining dominance is another matter. Now that it has the spotlight, let’s see if the ACC is more than a one-year wonder.

Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540