Atlantic Coast Conference football — the subject of ridicule for the better part of a decade because of its inability to produce a national-championship contender — has finally discovered the spotlight.
And it’s very bright.
For only the fourth time in ACC history, the league features a matchup of top-five teams on Saturday night when the No. 5 Florida State Seminoles (5-0) visit the No. 3 Clemson Tigers (6-0).
For the first time since 2005, three ACC teams are ranked in the top 10, including the No. 10 Miami Hurricanes (5-0) who travel to North Carolina for tonight’s ESPN showcase game.
And for those who already are looking ahead, future ACC member Louisville (6-0) is ranked No. 8.
“I’ll tell you, this is fantastic,’’ said coach Frank Beamer of the Virginia Tech Hokies (6-1), who have won six straight games after an opening loss against Alabama, rising to the nation’s No. 19 ranking. “I’ve said all along, just give us time and this is going to come around. The coaching is good, the recruiting is good and the facilities are improving. I don’t think there’s any question the ACC is going to hold its own against the competition.’’
Seemingly, since the 2005 season when Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College arrived to give the ACC a super-conference that some felt could stand up to the SEC, the ACC has been biding its time.
Plenty of really good teams.
No truly great ones.
Part of it has been the result of diminishing returns for FSU and Miami. Many longtime ACC fans feared that the league’s title game would become an annual Seminoles-Hurricanes matchup. In reality, FSU and Miami never have met for the championship. Not once.
The ACC has gone an unthinkable 3-12 in Bowl Championship Series games — with eight straight defeats at one point — and once saw Clemson get embarrassed 70-33 by West Virginia. The ACC hasn’t participated in the BCS title game since FSU lost against Oklahoma 13-2 in the 2001 Orange Bowl.
Meanwhile, the SEC, with whom the ACC shares mostly the same region and the inevitable comparisons, has captured seven consecutive national championships.
“We have unlimited potential in football,’’ said ACC commissioner John Swofford, who plucked Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the old Big East and will add Louisville next season.
“You hear a lot about the SEC and the teams in the SEC,’’ Beamer said. “I think you’re going to start hearing a lot about the ACC.’’
Look out for FSU against Clemson.
The winner, almost certainly, will be positioned for a spot in the BCS title game at Pasadena, Calif.
“That’s what we’ve been needing from a national standpoint,’’ Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Listen, our league has been good. There has been a lot of good football played. There has just been a lot of parity.
“We haven’t produced a dominant team, the 12-0, 13-1, whatever-type team like some other conferences have. We need to have a couple teams vying for the BCS bids. It’s good to see us starting to develop some of those teams that have separated a little bit. But it’s a long way to go, and we have to be consistent with that.’’
It’s already a long way from the recent ACC results, though.
Not only is FSU-Clemson a powerful matchup — perhaps the ACC’s version of LSU-Alabama — but it features a pair of dynamic Heisman Trophy candidates in Seminoles freshman quarterback Jameis Winston and Tigers senior quarterback Tajh Boyd.
“Tajh is part of the bricks and mortar around here,’’ Swinney said. “His first season was my first season (as head coach). We’ve built a great foundation around here, a great foundation that can sustain consistent success. When Tajh Boyd is gone, we can continue to do well around here.’’
Winston, meanwhile, has become the kind of dual-threat quarterback FSU hasn’t seen since the days of Charlie Ward.
“He’s a terrific young man and a terrific talent,’’ Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said. “He’s young, but I think he’s not fazed by the big games.’’
These are the kind of games that FSU used to have every season. They haven’t come along as often in recent seasons.
“When I came to Clemson (as an assistant in 2003), Florida State was the standard,’’ Swinney said. “But Clemson has a great tradition as well. It’s good for Clemson to be back where we want to be as a program, and that’s being one of those top teams every year that’s consistently in the mix.’’
“We’re establishing ourselves back into national prominence,’’ Fisher said. “The more times we’re in games like this, the better success we’re going to have.’’
Big-time game. Big-time quarterbacks. A potential national-championship spot on the line. The nation taking notice.
ACC football, lingering in the deep background for a decade or more, could get used to this.