When it comes to the biggest debate in college football, it shouldn't involve whether the ACC has spent the past few years surpassing the SEC for the first time since before anybody heard the name "Bear Bryant." I know, you know, and everybody else knows the ACC is better.
The question is, how much better?
While you're thinking, I'll give you something else to ponder: If you take the latest Alabama dynasty out of the mix, is there a conference, a division or a league in college or pro sports more overhyped than the SEC? Nope, and the ACC is significantly better, by the way. After decades with the reputation of operating as a basketball conference that only plays football because the NCAA won't allow teams to dribble all year, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher had it exactly right last week at the ACC media days when he told reporters, "I think we've established ourselves as the premier conference in college football."
Yes, indeed. If you combine Fisher's proclamation with several games involving ACC-SEC opponents in early September featuring (the ACC team is mentioned first) Florida State versus Alabama, Georgia Tech versus Tennessee, N.C. State versus South Carolina and Clemson versus Auburn, you have to wonder if the SEC teams will even bother showing up. I'm guessing they will, but since there are so many reasons the ACC is peerless, I don't know where to begin.
How about at the top of the sport, which involves the ACC? Clemson and Florida State have captured two of the past four national championships. If not for a trick play by Alabama over Clemson during the title game after the 2015 season, Clemson would have back-to-back national championships over the Crimson Tide, and the Big Ten's Ohio State would rank as the only non-ACC team to win it all during that stretch. Then you have this: Two of the past four Heisman Trophy winners were from the ACC in Louisville's Lamar Jackson last year and Florida State's Jameis Winston in 2013. Alabama's Derrick Henry in 2015 was the SEC's only pick within that four-year period.
I'm just getting started.
"What's happening is that the perception of the two leagues is changing, and whether the ACC is better top to bottom, I don't know," Bill Curry said as somebody who was a head coach in both conferences before he scrutinized them even more as an ESPN college football analyst. "I think when Clemson and Florida State started to become dominant on the national scene, that was a big part of it, and, of course, having great teams, that wasn't anything new for Florida State, even before they won the national championship (2013 season). Then with Clemson going from struggling in the bowl season, but then coming on two seasons ago in the bowls to hammer Oklahoma and then going toe-to-toe with Alabama and finally beating Alabama last season, I think those two teams have changed the perception of the league entirely.
"The most important group of people affected by everything I just said are the recruits. That change of perception has caused those two teams and other ACC teams to get better football players. And the SEC, with Alabama dominating the national scene, it has pretty much been just Alabama."
Such things happen when you're the Crimson Tide, and you have one of the greatest coaches of all time in Nick Saban, four national championships during his decade on campus, along with a storied tradition, loyal fans and plenty of money. The road to an SEC crown and toward the throne of college football will continue to wind through Tuscaloosa for a while. That said, Alabama is only one of 14 SEC teams, and collectively, they can't carry the ACC's chinstrap, even with the Tide rolling into college football history.
Take the bowl games last season. The ACC went 9-3 to lead all conferences in victories, percentages and anything else of significance. The SEC? Six victories and seven losses. Against teams from Power Five conferences last season, the ACC was 17-9, but the SEC finished 11-14, including 4-10 against the ACC. For the early 2018 mock draft of Pro Football Focus, eight ACC players are projected to go in the first round compared to seven for the SEC. If all of that isn't enough to convince you the ACC is now THE conference in college football, 10 of those 14 SEC teams lost the last game they played against an ACC team.
The ACC-SEC scenario was a little different during Curry's seven seasons through 1986 coaching Georgia Tech, his alma mater.
"Just in terms of size and speed, there just was no comparison between the two leagues back then," Curry said. "Clemson, at that time, was physically the equal to some SEC schools, but none of the rest of us were. We would look at our Georgia Tech squad, and we would count the number of 'war daddies' that we had, and that would be anybody who was over 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds and who could run the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds. We'd have two, and Auburn would have 14, and Alabama would have 13 and Georgia would have 12. They were just big, fast, good players in the SEC. If you study what wins games, in addition to turnovers, obviously, it is the quarterback position and the dominating defensive players, especially when it comes to linemen."
From 1987 through 1990, Curry had more than a few "war daddies" when he left Georgia Tech for Alabama. His seven Kentucky teams through 1996 didn't have as many, but they owned enough overall back then to help the SEC continue its years of reigning over the ACC and everybody else in the sport.
"There was a huge difference in depth when I got to the SEC, because at Georgia Tech, we had starters who were reasonable, but if we lost anybody, we just couldn't compensate for it," Curry said. "At Alabama, you lose a really good player, and you usually have another really good one to slide in behind him. That depth is what counts when you're coming down the stretch of a season, and it's even much more important now that they have so many more games. It ties back into what's been happening in recent years with the ACC. Clemson and Florida State are now along the lines of the top echelon in the SEC when it comes to depth, and other teams are gaining ground."
All you need to know is this: The Georgia Tech football program was so overwhelmed by the SEC and other top-tier conferences during Curry's coaching years on campus that school officials reduced the size of their stadium by thousands of seats. In contrast, with season tickets selling like crazy for the current Georgia Tech team, the Yellow Jackets spent their 10th season under Paul Johnson last year going 3-0 against the SEC.