CLEMSON — ACC Atlantic Division and Coastal Division powers came to fore last week, combining for a big football splash on the biggest stage.
Houston Texans teammates Deshaun Watson (Clemson), DeAndre Hopkins (Clemson) and Duke Johnson (Miami) designed their own trick play, a Hopkins pass to Watson that worked for a touchdown in a Sunday night upset of the mighty New England Patriots.
While head coach Dabo Swinney said Tuesday the play immediately went into the Tigers’ playbook, there is no way for the ACC Coastal Division — or anyone else in the conference — to scheme its way into sharing the spotlight with Clemson.
It’s still a strong national title contender and 13 also-rans heading into Saturday night’s ACC Championship Game in Charlotte, where No. 3 Clemson is a four-touchdown favorite over Virginia.
That’s because for the second year in a row, Clemson likely will be the only ACC team in the final College Football Playoff top 25, due Sunday before bowl matchups are arranged.
The USA Today’s updated Sagarin computer has both the ACC Atlantic and Coastal Division rated below the American Athletic Conference West and every Power Five conference or division.
Clemson doesn’t need the ACC to improve for its own validation (see the Tigers’ recent 10-1 record against the SEC while winning two national titles). But a little competition is a lot more fun.
To get closer to Clemson, ACC schools should follow the model of outside-the-box thinking in Charlottesville and Chapel Hill.
Asked for evidence that the ACC is on the upswing, Swinney mentioned Bronco Mendenhall’s “remarkable job” at Virginia and Mack Brown getting North Carolina into a bowl game in the first year of his second stint with the Tar Heels.
Both of those hires were odd, involving the kind of creative thinking on display among Deshaun Watson and friends Sunday night.
Mendenhall, a 53-year-old Alpine, Utah, native and devout Mormon, pulled up roots in 2016 after 11 seasons as BYU’s head coach.
Virginia’s culture, heart, passion and will to win “oozes out” in tape study of the Cavaliers, Swinney said.
Brown, 68, took to the sidelines from an ESPN studio.
In freshman Sam Howell he has one of the ACC’s best young quarterbacks. North Carolina has made some unusually good recruiting gains since Brown came back aboard.
FSU and BC on the clock
“We just kind of have a lot of people clumped in the middle,” Swinney said. “It’s a very deep league. Ten teams (are bowl eligible). There’s a lot of teams that can win.”
Louisville, Swinney pointed out, was better than expected in Scott Satterfield’s first season as head coach.
Now it’s up to Florida State and Boston College to make bold hiring decisions.
It’s up to Miami and Virginia Tech to play more like they did as members of the Big East.
Or leave the conference and start a Not Ready for Power Five Conference.
Or until Dabo retires
It’s a conference that lacks co-stars on the Clemson marquee.
Swinney called it “top-heavy” Tuesday.
Tigers at the top, that is.
Asked about the 2019 All-ACC team, Swinney complained that while 16 Clemson players made the first, second or third teams, junior linebacker James Skalski did not.
Asked about the best quarterbacks Clemson has faced this season, Swinney said, “The best quarterback we face is in practice.”
And no one in the ACC is close to Trevor Lawrence, who deserves a New York City trip as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
The ACC is 3-5 vs. the SEC this season, but two of those wins are Clemson over Texas A&M and South Carolina.
The ACC went 4-6 vs. the SEC last season. Clemson beat Texas A&M, South Carolina and Alabama.
Not coincidentally, the ACC’s shrewdest hires earned the only other two wins vs. the SEC over the last two seasons.
Mendenhall and Virginia beat the Gamecocks in the 2018 Belk Bowl. Brown and North Carolina beat the Gamecocks on the same Bank of America Stadium field in Charlotte in the 2019 opener.
Miami, catching on, just scheduled a home-and-home series with South Carolina.
But the ACC is a one-horse town until one of these four things happens:
• The ACC gets a second College Football Playoff team
• A program beats Clemson at least twice in five seasons
• A Coastal Division team is crowned ACC champion
• Dabo Swinney retires
At this rate, check back in a decade.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff