As the confetti fell from the sky and the trophy was raised, none of Clemson’s players or coaches were holding bowl signs or College Football Playoff rankings.
They weren’t booking travel plans or talking about preparing for the next opponent.
Following Saturday’s 42-10 victory over Coastal Division representative Pittsburgh at Bank of America Stadium, the No. 2 Tigers, at least for one night, were celebrating the ACC Championship.
Sure, a playoff berth followed and a Cotton Bowl matchup vs. Notre Dame is next, but a program that’s morphed into one of the nation’s premier contenders captured their fourth consecutive conference crown.
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No Power Five team has won that many league championship games in a row since the Florida Gators in 1993-96.
Clemson also became the first team in ACC history to win four outright titles. Florida State grabbed a share of the conference every season from 1992-2000, but the Seminoles had just two three-year consecutive runs of outright championships.
“It’s been a historic year,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “These guys have done an amazing job of working toward those things. Just unbelievable. I’ve never really been a part of a team like this. The consistent leadership and the focused leadership that we’ve had has been really special.”
There’s not a four-year senior on the team who hasn’t won an ACC title.
The class’s 53 wins ranks only second all-time in FBS to Alabama’s current senior group, which won its 54th game Saturday against Georgia in the SEC Championship.
“It means a lot to know the work that we’ve put in. To cherish this moment with the people that are here, it means the most to me,” Clemson senior defensive end Austin Bryant said. “We’ve won a lot of games, but it’s the times in between with my teammates I’ll remember the most, like going in this locker room celebrating with them.”
“If we can compete for this league, then we have a chance to do bigger and better things. So, you know, this is important,” Swinney said. “When I got the job (10 years ago), that was when I said, ‘We got to compete in the league. We’ll become great from the inside out. We got to learn how to compete in practice. We got to learn how to think. Got to create this attitude of belief. I got to get other people to believe in what we’re doing. We got to become a consistent team in our league, then we’ll blossom from there.’ ”
There’s constant debate about the role of conference championships when it comes to the playoff committee’s ultimate decision. Do they weigh them enough? Should it become a qualification? Some believe these games aren’t even needed and have used that as a springboard to creating an eight-team format in the future.
For now, though, it’s still a worthy accomplishment and something that’s not easy to do, even in a down year for the ACC.
Pitt came into the game with a 7-5 record and a four-touchdown underdog. Clemson did what it was supposed to do.
“If you can’t win this league, or compete consistently for the league, you’re never going to be the type of program that you want,” Swinney said.
Swinney said the ACC “never gets the amount of credit it deserves,” and that he believes it has helped his team prepare for the last three playoff appearances.
That may or may not be the case this season, but another championship trophy in the case enhances Clemson’s image and dominance in a league that continues to look up at the Tigers.
“Clemson is the best football team we’ve played so far to this point,” said Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, whose team played No. 3 Notre Dame earlier this season. “They deserve to be where they are. They’ll probably win a national championship, in my opinion. Clemson is the measuring stick in the ACC right now.”