Back in 1990 a gentleman who was a friend of mine – and a friend of Bobby Bowden – asked me if I’d like to come out to a local golf course and grab a quick early morning interview with the Florida State coach.
It would be a coup for me, instead of a standard cattle call I’d get a coveted one-on-one with Bowden, who was already coaching royalty.
And 1990 also happened to be the year Florida State decided to join the ACC while the SEC announced a pending expansion that would increase its membership to 12 teams. The Seminoles’ new conference affiliation was set for 1991, along with the SEC’s, but the real game changer would come in1992.
Turns out a lesser-known NCAA rule would apparently allow any conference with 12 or more teams to have a league championship game, and thus the SEC was about to become the first Division I-A league to hold a playoff. Bowden thought it would be a passing fad.
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“I don’t think the NCAA is going to allow the SEC to do it,” Bowden said. “They don’t want a playoff and that’s a playoff.”
Bowden was half right.
It was and is, indeed a playoff, but not only did the NCAA allow it, the governing body has embraced it.
Of course it took a while for the Atlantic Coast Conference to join the party. When FSU came on board, it increased the conference’s membership to nine teams.
It wasn’t until May, 2003, that ACC presidents voted in favor of expanding from nine to 12 members, bringing in Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. And its first championship game didn’t take place until 2005.
This Saturday’s ACC Championship Game between 12-0 and top-ranked Clemson and 11-1, No. 10 North Carolina will be the biggest contest in the history of the event – its first “marquee” matchup.
This title tilt hasn’t always been a rousing success on or off the field.
The novelty of its first postseason divisional showdown in 2005 drew 72,747 fans to Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Fla., to watch Bowden’s Seminoles defeat Virginia Tech, 27-22.
The novelty quickly wore off.
Attendance reached a low of 44,897 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa in 2009, the season Georgia Tech held off Clemson, 39-34. And the clash was always overshadowed by the SEC Championship Game, which wisely ditched Birmingham’s antiquated Legion Field after two seasons and made Atlanta its permanent home in 1994.
But times have changed, and the ACC Championship Game is looking less and less like a little brother.
In 2013 Florida State used it as a springboard to its first national championship since the Bowden era, and last year the ’Noles’ win at Bank of America Stadium sent it through to the inaugural College Football Playoff.
In two days, the fifth consecutive ACC Championship Game staged in Charlotte will be the first to showcase two Top 10 teams. It also playoff implications.
A Tiger win, of course, assures Dabo Swinney’s team a spot in college football’s Final Four. They could still conceivably make the cut with a loss.
A Tar Heel upset – along with some extremely weird goings-in in the SEC, Pac-12 and Big Ten championship games – might sway some members of the CFP selection committee, although a playoff spot appears unlikely for UNC.
Regardless, the stakes have never been higher in the ACC Championship Game – and the game has never had a higher profile. It’s funny to look back now at that long-ago interview with Bowden and consider the perceptions he and many others had about “playoffs.”
A couple of decades ago the thought of conference championships in major college football seemed almost ridiculous. Today, it seems ridiculous that it took so long to implement them.