CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The ACC's annual preseason event at The Westin Charlotte didn't seem like the league's usual kickoff for football season.
It felt like a celebration.
A display by the escalator showed off the conference's second Heisman Trophy in four seasons and its first national title of the College Football Playoff era. Imagine Dragons' On Top of the World blared as the soundtrack for its hype video.
And almost every coach, player and official proudly echoed the same talking point that until recently seemed unthinkable for a basketball league.
The ACC is the best football conference in the country.
"That's not even debatable anymore," said Boston College coach Steve Addazio, a former Big Ten and SEC assistant who won two titles with the Gators. "That's backed up by every stat you can look at."
Like the 11 teams that finished with a winning record (two more than any other league).
Or the five that ended the year ranked (tied for most in the country).
Or an 8-3 record in top-tier bowls over the last five years.
Or a nation's best 17-9 record against other Power Five teams.
The coronation took place at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium in January, when Clemson's last-second win over Alabama gave the league its second national championship in four years.
But the ACC's road past the SEC to the top of college football began 11 years earlier and 170 miles north with one shocking signing-day decision that helped build a national power.
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Before C.J. Spiller was a Pro Bowl running back, the five-star recruit seemed like a perfect fit for the SEC.
He lived in Lake Butler, 30 miles outside Gainesville, where Urban Meyer was preparing to sign top-20 prospects Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow as part of 2006's No. 2 recruiting class. Fueled by speedy athletes like Spiller, the SEC was booming, about to begin its run of seven consecutive national titles.
Clemson seemed like an unlikely option. The Tigers hadn't finished in the top 10 since 1990 and struggled to land top-tier talent.
Coach Dabo Swinney didn't care.
"That was kind of a mentality at the time, that we couldn't recruit guys like that …" said Swinney, then the receivers coach in charge of recruiting Spiller. "I never bought into that theory. I just know the guy would take my call every week."
Whatever Swinney said, it worked. Spiller spurned the Gators on signing day to join defensive end Ricky Sapp as one of Clemson's first two five-star recruits of the Rivals era. The move was so surprising, his high school coach told reporters that day, that not even Spiller's mom saw it coming.
Spiller became an immediate star on the field. He was the ACC's 2009 player of the year and helped the Tigers earn a trip to Tampa for that year's ACC title game.
But the bigger long-term effect came on the recruiting trail. Spiller's success led more elite Florida athletes (including Sammy Watkins, East Lake High's Artavis Scott and Tampa Bay Tech's Deon Cain) to choose Clemson. The Tigers' recruiting class ranking jumped from an average of 33rd in the four years before signing Spiller to 13th over the last four, helping Clemson become one of the most talented programs in the country.
"It's really what slowly started what you see today — which is Clemson as a landing spot for five-star prospects all over the country," said Mike Farrell, Rivals' national recruiting director.
Clemson's rise coincided with coach Jimbo Fisher's resurrection of Florida State. Having two national powers didn't just make it easier for the ACC's other 12 teams to attract top talent. It forced them to, if they wanted to remain competitive.
"It ultimately leads to recruiting…" Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "I see everybody elevating themselves in that regard."
Some of that has happened at the top. In 2003, the ACC landed only three recruits who were five-star prospects in 247Sports' composite rankings. The league's 25 blue-chip recruits averaged 2.8 per team. Over the four years, the ACC has averaged five five-star recruits and 49 blue-chip prospects (3.5 per team).
But some of the push has happened at the bottom. From 2003-07, five ACC teams had recruiting classes ranked 70th or worse. Over the last four years, only one team has fared so poorly.
The deeper rosters got a boost last year with better development at the game's most important position. A decade ago, the league had two strong quarterbacks (Boston College's Matt Ryan and Wake Forest's Riley Skinner) … and that was about it.
"It was just bad," Farrell said. "It was maybe two or three top guys, then everybody else was just terrible."
Compare that to last season. Louisville's Lamar Jackson won the Heisman over runnerup Deshaun Watson of Clemson. Brad Kaaya left as Miami's all-time leading passer, North Carolina's Mitch Trubisky was the NFL's No. 2 overall draft pick, and no freshman in the country passed for more yards than FSU's Deondre Francois.
Yet none of them even led the league in passer rating; Pitt's Nathan Peterman did.
"When you have good quarterback play," Fisher said, "you usually have a great league."
• • •
As the ACC began beefing up its rosters and quarterbacks, the league was bulking up in other ways.
Adding Louisville and Pitt look like two of the wisest decisions in the last rounds of conference realignment. The collective coaching knowledge increased with the additions of proven veterans (Miami's Mark Richt, Louisville's Bobby Petrino, Virginia's Bronco Mendenhall) and rising stars (North Carolina's Larry Fedora, Virginia Tech's Justin Fuente).
The ACC also began making greater financial investments. In 2003, the league's current 14 teams averaged $9.8 million in football expenses, according to figures submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. That was last among Power Five conferences.
By 2015, the conference had passed the Big 12 and Pac-12 and was spending almost $25 million per team.
How the football expenses for the ACC's current schools compare to the rest of the Power Five:
ACC: $9.8 million
Big 12: $10.1 million
Big Ten: $10.3 million
Pac-12: $10.4 million
SEC: $10.4 million
Pac-12: $23.5 million
Big 12: $24 million
ACC: $24.9 million
Big Ten: $27.6 million
SEC: $31.4 million
Source: U.S. Department of Education's Equity in Athletics Data Analysis
The bigger budgets expand beyond the cranes working constantly in Tallahassee, or the sparkling new Clemson facility that includes laser tag and mini golf. Duke's $100-million upgrades include 6,000 new seats at Wade Stadium. Syracuse and Wake Forest have both opened eight-figure indoor facilities in the past three years, and construction is underway for similar facilities at Boston College and Miami.
"I think several programs made a commitment financially, and whatever they needed to do to try to play at the top level," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. "And so that's kind of forced the other teams: Either do something, or you get left behind."
Commissioner John Swofford said one of the turning points came at a coaches meeting at Amelia Island five or six years ago, after high-profile losses (like Clemson's 70-33 Orange Bowl defeat to West Virginia) damaged the league's image as the playoff era approached. Swinney told his colleagues that the only way to fix it was to start scheduling tougher non-conference opponents.
"It obviously resonated," Swofford said.
And with upgraded talent and infrastructure, the ACC was finally ready to take advantage of it last year.
The ACC was the only conference with a winning record against other Power Five teams, including a 10-4 mark against the SEC and 6-2 against the Big Ten. It wasn't just FSU beating Ole Miss, Florida and Michigan, or Clemson topping Auburn, Ohio State and Alabama. Pitt knocked off Big Ten champion Penn State. Miami earned a 17-point bowl win over West Virginia. Georgia Tech beat three SEC teams by a combined 47 points.
"The proof is in the pudding, I guess," North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren said. "We hadn't been able to stand on it until the last couple years. Now you've got national champions. You've got Heisman Trophy winners."
And you've got the nation's best football conference — at least for one year.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.