Clemson University

How Clemson dethroned the SEC

Believe it! Clemson is No. 1

Tiger Town is now home to another football national championship after Clemson's thrilling 35-31 victory over Alabama. (Narrated by Phil Kornblut. Photos and video by Gerry Melendez, Tim Dominick and Ben Breiner)
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Tiger Town is now home to another football national championship after Clemson's thrilling 35-31 victory over Alabama. (Narrated by Phil Kornblut. Photos and video by Gerry Melendez, Tim Dominick and Ben Breiner)

Clemson knocked Alabama off the top of the college football mountain early Tuesday morning, but the ACC dethroned the SEC – for the 2016 college football season at least – long before Hunter Renfrow’s 2-yard touchdown clinched the national title for the Tigers.

Supremacy isn’t about feel or, as the SEC’s unbelievably smug slogan, “It just means more,” suggests, passion. It’s established by numbers.

Here’s the ACC’s indisputable numerical argument: 10-4.

The ACC won 10 of the 14 games played between the two Power 5 conferences this season, including a 4-1 mark in the postseason. To put that in perspective, the SEC went a combined 31-9 against all other FBS conferences.

So Clemson’s 35-31 win over No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff title game was the icing on the cake. The ACC, after a sterling 9-3 overall mark in the postseason, gets to take the cake, the icing, the serving plates and the forks for the 2016 season.

The Big Ten could’ve made an argument before the postseason, but its top three teams, which finished in the top 6 of the CFP rankings, all lost – two in head-to-head matchups with the ACC (Ohio State and Michigan).

To be clear, this one season doesn’t change what the SEC has done. The SEC, indisputably, has been the country’s top football conference and has pushed the sport to new heights financially and in popularity. It just means the SEC doesn’t get shout “S-E-C!” all summer.

Here’s where the ACC has caught the SEC – league depth. Florida State (10-3), Virginia Tech (10-4), Miami (9-4) and Louisville (9-4) finished the season in the Top 25.

Pittsburgh (8-5) beat Clemson (14-1) on the road and N.C. State (7-6) nearly beat the Tigers on the same field, save for a missed 33-yard field goal.

“I think all of you media folks need to change your stories,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who’s 8-4 vs. the SEC since the start of the 2012 season. “This league has never gotten the respect it deserves.”

Alabama’s average margin of victory in nine SEC games was 24.8 points. The Tide (14-1) only played one conference game decided by single digits (its first, a 48-43 win at Ole Miss on Sept. 17).

While the ACC has gotten deeper, with five teams in the final AP Top 25 – compared to just three in 2013 – the SEC has seen what was its strength become a weakness.

Four different SEC teams won the national title in a four-year span between 2007 and ’10. The league claimed seven consecutive national titles between ’06 and ’12.

But since the 2013 season, when Florida State won the last Bowl Championship Series title (beating Auburn), the SEC has slowly devolved into the ACC from the 1990s, when it was FSU and everyone else.

(The ACC is 19-13 vs. the SEC since that season.)

Alabama was the only SEC team to finish the season with double-digit wins, compared to three from the ACC. The Tide was the only SEC team with fewer than four losses and the only one in the Top 10. The ACC had more teams in the Top 10 and more in the Top 20.

So it’s the Clemson flag on the top of the mountain, as Swinney said after the game, and there’s the ACC’s flying right next to it.

At least for this year.

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