ACC football isn't elite just yet

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney is a Miami fan, sort of.

We all know Dabo Swinney lives in the moment.

“How about that ACC?” the Clemson head coach said Saturday following the Tigers' rout of S.C. State and after hearing that Miami upset Florida. “Spunky little old league.”

Then Swinney, grinning that Dabo grin, used his thumbs and fingers to flash Miami's “U” sign.

Finally, maybe. This is the start to a football season the ACC has been waiting for since Tajh Boyd was in grade school.

Only two weeks in, Clemson fans shouted “A-C-C” during a Death Valley victory over then No. 5 Georgia and Miami wore all orange while knocking the Gators down from No. 12. Meanwhile, Florida State redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston looks like he has Jay Cutler's arm strength.

Three ACC teams in this week's top 15, not counting incoming member Louisville. Not bad for a basketball league.

“The only problem the ACC has had is that we have not produced a dominant team of late,” Swinney said Wednesday.

Not even close.

The ACC's football mediocrity numbers surprise even its most knowledgeable defenders.

Zero ACC teams in the final Associated Press top eight since 2005.

None in the final top 14 in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2011.

Alas, the Boise State years.

From 2002-2012, the ACC hasn't had a national champion or Heisman Trophy winner.

The SEC over the same stretch produced seven national champions (all in the last seven seasons) and five Heisman winners.

But the SEC wasn't so big and bad as recently as 2001. In fact, the programs that make up the current ACC were at least as prominent 12 football seasons ago.

National championships for current ACC members, 1981-2001: 8 (Miami 5, Florida State 2, Clemson 1). SEC: 3 (Alabama, Florida, Tennessee).

Heisman winners for current ACC members, 1981-2001: 5 (Boston College's Doug Flutie, Miami's Vinny Testaverde and Gino Torretta, Florida State's Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke). SEC: 3 (Georgia's Herschel Walker, Auburn's Bo Jackson, Florida's Danny Wuerffel).

I know, I know. Miami and Boston College weren't in the ACC for those glory years, but league officials certainly thought they were getting some of those Hurricane-force wins when the school was welcomed into the lodge.

Instead, what a letdown from Coral Gables to Tallahassee to Blacksburg.

All that slippage came just as the SEC was taking off. “The national league of college football,” Nick Saban has called it.

The turning point for Saban at Alabama, and the SEC monster as a whole, came with the Crimson Tide's 2008 opener. It was a 34-10 upset – yes, upset – of Clemson in Atlanta. Tommy Bowden's Tigers were ranked No. 9. Alabama was coming off a 7-6 season in which Saban and Co. suffered a home loss to the lowly Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks.

The ACC has taken a lot of abuse.

“Until you win your fair share of those games, you deal with that stuff,” Swinney said Tuesday.

He is correct. Thorough respect takes more than sad Bulldogs and Gators. The ACC is off to an impressive 16-5 record against a relatively tough slate of non-conference foes, but the lasting impression will come from three Nov. 30 games: Clemson at South Carolina, Florida State at Florida, Georgia at Georgia Tech.

A lot of this conference loyalty stuff is overrated. Clemson fans, for instance, aren't carrying the ACC banner for North Carolina — unless it's against another Carolina. Boston College isn't a big TV draw in the South.

But when the league gets kicked around long enough, the Florida State head coach gets excited about Clemson and Miami victories.

“I think it's great for them,” Jimbo Fisher said this week. “Clemson is a very good ball club and, I said this before, that did not surprise me with what happened in Miami. Florida has a very good ball club too. Miami won the division last year. They lost two or three games by a point or two. They're very talented, they're athletic, they've got good players.

“I think you're seeing that this league is much better than what people give it credit for.”

First step toward bridging the college football credibility gap: Become a spunky little old league.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff