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In a Tumultuous College Football Season, the ACC Has Risen Above the Rest

Many of the buttons the conference pushed have panned out, from Notre Dame's one-year membership to changing how its championship game is selected.

This really isn’t a year for declaring winners and losers in college football. Maybe just finishers. But some are managing a brisk jog toward the tape while others are crawling, and nobody is finishing 2020 in better shape than the Atlantic Coast Conference.

America’s basketball bedrock league has become America’s most interesting football league. And maybe its most successful football league, too.

The ACC staged arguably the best game of 2020 in November, when Notre Dame beat Clemson in double overtime, 47–40. Now the Saturday rematch for the conference title stands to be the most important game of 2020.

If the Tigers win, the ACC almost certainly will have half the College Football Playoff. Even if they don’t win, two bids for the league is not out of the question. High stakes, high ratings, multiple Heisman Trophy candidates, blueblood adversaries—this is merely the biggest game in the history of the conference.

“This is a massive, massive game,” said Eric Mac Lain of the ACC Network, a former Clemson offensive lineman.

Notre Dame's offense lines up vs. Clemson in a November game

The game, and subsequent playoff, is turning into quite a victory lap for retiring commissioner John Swofford. In a season of incredible tumult and epic dysfunction in some leagues, the ACC has navigated a savvy and rewarding path for itself.

Extending Notre Dame the one-year rental membership has been a master stroke. (“A study abroad year,” is the way ACC Network host and former Notre Dame basketball player Jordan Cornette has phrased it.) Yeah, it probably benefited the Fighting Irish more than the league itself, since the eternal independent would have been in BYU scramble mode trying to stitch together a schedule. But having Notre Dame play 10 ACC games—nearly double the customary five the Irish have played while maintaining independence—broadened the league’s national reach. So did having the Irish involved in a conference title race for the first time, culminating in a game that has snatched Championship Week center stage from the SEC and Big Ten.

But that’s not all.

In late July, the ACC voted in a schedule that allowed for one nonconference game—essentially putting the onus on the SEC to join them or be the bad guys for canceling annual rivalry games Georgia–Georgia Tech, Florida–Florida State, Clemson–South Carolina and Kentucky-Louisville. (The SEC chose to wear the black hat, sticking with a conference-only schedule.)

There was the decision to move away from two divisions and place the league’s two highest-rated teams in the championship game. That was a welcome change for a league that has seen a succession of mismatches in this game, with the Atlantic Division champion’s pummeling the Coastal Division champion. (Clemson/Florida State have won the last nine ACC title games, by an average margin of 18 points.)

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There was the decision to push forward with playing, in lockstep with the SEC. While there was considerable debate about the appropriateness of that, the entire college football season probably would’ve fallen apart in August without the ACC/SEC solidarity that ultimately offered the Big 12 a life raft to come aboard. Starting the season early allowed for the inevitable cancellation/postponement dominoes to fall without hampering the conference race. Then the Big Ten, Pac-12 and other leagues eventually jumped in.

And while playing unabashed favoritism with the Dec. 12 schedule was objectionable, it did protect the playoff status of both Clemson and Notre Dame. Canceling the Irish game at Wake Forest and a Clemson trip to Florida State ensured that both teams would avoid exactly what happened to Florida last weekend—an unexpected flop that badly jeopardized the Gators’ playoff standing. Still: That doesn’t mean anyone has to buy the conference boast about both the Tigers and Irish playing 10 games—not when one of those games was a glorified scrimmage against the Citadel (Clemson) or American Athletic Conference cellar dweller South Florida (Notre Dame).

“The commissioner did an unbelievable job this year,” said Mark Richt, former Miami coach and current ACC Network analyst. “There were a lot of great decisions made by the league.”

Top it off with the league’s this week announcing Swofford’s replacement, Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, to widespread positive reviews, and the ACC has many reasons to feel good about itself. Now it just needs a well-played championship game that, from the league’s perspective, would ideally end in a Clemson victory.

That could not only put two league members in the playoff, it would preserve some sanctity for the conference. If Notre Dame waltzes in for one year and leaves with all the hardware, the benefit of this arrangement will tilt even more in the direction of South Bend.

Mac Lain said he’s received texts from alums of other ACC schools saying, “I’m a Clemson fan for now.” Which is not the way the league bully is accustomed to being viewed.

“If Notre Dame wins, they’ll have that bragging right forever—literally forever,” said fellow ACC Network analyst EJ Manuel, a former Florida State quarterback. “This is kind of bragging rights for the conference on the line. Clemson definitely needs to hold it down for the other teams in the league.”

The reason why Clemson is favored by 10 1/2 points, after losing by seven last month in South Bend, is simple: Trevor Lawrence and other key Tigers will play this time after missing that game.

In addition to being an outstanding passer and leader, Lawrence diversifies the Clemson ground game: Without his running threat on the zone read, the Irish ganged up on Travis Etienne and held him to a career-low 1.6 yards per carry. Defensively, the Tigers will have pile-making interior lineman Tyler Davis, linebacker James Skalski and others in action.

Should the Tigers win the rematch, it could set up Clemson–Notre Dame III in the College Football Playoff. That would be unprecedented, and perhaps unwelcome. While the selection committee is tasked with choosing the best four teams, in order, regardless of potential semifinal matchups, don’t be shocked if the rankings are manipulated to avoid that rubber match.

If the double-digit favorites at the top of the rankings all win this weekend, expect the following: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Ohio State and No. 4 Notre Dame. That likely would produce an Alabama–Notre Dame Sugar Bowl and a Clemson–Ohio State Rose Bowl. “If they do play for the third time,” Richt said, “it will be for the national championship.”

And that would be quite a capper to an ACC year that has gone far better than most in college football.