CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In each of the past three years, bowl season has begun with just one undefeated Power 5 team. All three times, that team has hailed from the ACC. Left largely unspoken was the fact that anything short of a perfect record probably would have disqualified those teams from national title contention.
As league players, coaches and administrators convened here the past two days for ACC Kickoff, it has become increasingly clear that, at least within the conference, the boom-or-bust attitude is changing. As Atlantic Division teams met the media Friday, the most popular big-picture questions were no longer about TV networks or lack of league respect.
They were about whether two teams from one division — let alone one conference — could make the College Football Playoff.
“Why not?” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney asked. “The way the rules are what they are: [four] best teams get in. But the good news is, they have to earn it. So who knows? I think we had a team win the national championship in a year with two losses. Didn’t LSU [in 2007] win with a couple losses?
“So who knows what’s going to happen in college football? I mean, everybody might have two losses and there might be two ACC teams, one’s undefeated, one’s got one — I don’t know. One gets in the four, could be any other conference, too. I have no idea. But certainly that’s not an impossible theory, or probability of happening. It could definitely happen.”
Both Swinney’s Tigers and their rival, Florida State, return enough pieces to be widely pegged as preseason top-five teams.
The Seminoles get hosting duties this time around, on Oct. 29, in a series that has quickly become one of the nation’s marquee annual events. It has been 10 years since Clemson won in Tallahassee, which only heightens the preseason anticipation for a pair of schools that have combined to win the past five ACC titles and the past seven Atlantic Division titles.
“That’s an interesting question, because I think it’ll be tough, but I’m not saying it won’t happen because I think there’s so many different scenarios out of your control,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “What if the other league has two losses and you have one who wins the league and the other has one loss and it’s a great game? I think that scenario can happen, I definitely do, but I think there’s other mitigating factors that have to evolve. I don’t know if we’ll let it happen unless something [crazy] like that happens.”
But just how crazy? Swinney was sure to stress the importance that a league championship carries — a carrot that the selection committee hasn’t been shy about stressing. But the Clemson coach presented a scenario in which one team runs the table and another league team goes 11-1, with that lone loss being a close game against the undefeated league team. And even with that, Swinney said, you would probably need another Power 5 champion to have three or four losses just to even get the one-loss, nonchampion team into the equation.
“I think it would have to be a perfect storm,” said Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson, adding: “I think we’re going to have to have two teams that are undefeated and one loss, and things would have to happen in other conferences that, an 8-4 team beat a 12-0 team in the championship game. Those things would probably have to line up.”
Clawson laughed when asked if two teams in his division were good enough to make that a legitimate preseason question: “Yeah, they are. Look at what they’ve done the last three years.”
FSU won the national title in 2013 and made the inaugural playoff a year later before seeing its record-tying 29-game win streak against ACC opponents end with two league losses in 2015. Clemson was a quarter away from winning it all last season, in its fifth-straight campaign of 10-plus wins.
The ACC’s pre-2013 history essentially made every one of those wins a requirement to give the league its chance on the sport’s grandest stage. That the ACC is now home to the discussion of whether two league teams can crash the playoff shows just how well it delivered on those terms, and how far it has come in a short period of time.