The 2014 NFL draft gave the SEC plenty of attention, and with good reason; the conference was home to the No. 1 overall pick—South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney—and the most players selected overall (49). It marked the eighth consecutive year that the SEC has led the nation in NFL draft selections, dating back to 2007.
What you might not have noticed, however, was the ACC’s draft success. The conference had 42 players selected this year, the second-most in ACC history behind the 51 who were selected in 2006.
It was the most visible sign yet that the ACC is closing the gap on its bigger, more successful regional rival. Over the last two seasons, ACC football has made big changes and gains that show that it will catch up with the SEC in due time.
Two years ago, few would have predicted it, but rumors surrounded the conference on what seemed like a daily basis. Clemson was going to the Big 12. No, Florida State was. No, Miami was. No, Clemson and Florida State were going to the SEC. It was like a game of “Telephone” gone horribly wrong.
But when the smoke cleared, the ACC had positioned itself as one of the best conferences in the reshaped college sports landscape. In one fell swoop, it poached Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East—one of a series of moves that led to the Big East’s ultimate demise, forcing the conference to split into football-focused and basketball-focused factions.
Charter member Maryland surprised many by bolting for the Big Ten, but the ACC upgraded itself by plucking Louisville as the Terrapins’ replacement. In fact, had the Cardinals been in the ACC this past season instead of Maryland, the conference would have had 45 overall selections and eight first-round picks featured in this year's draft—and those eight first-rounders would have ranked second to the SEC’s 11.
Both Clemson and Florida State—two long-time ACC members—have made a strong commitment to football in recent years, with sparking new facilities and salaries for coaches.
Per USA Today, Clemson paid its coaching staff a total of $4.2 million in 2013, which ranked third nationally, and Florida State spent $2.87 million, coming in at No. 16 nationally.
The Tigers spent $70 million on the WestZone addition to Memorial Stadium, which added club seats and a team facility and locker rooms among other bells and whistles. Last year, they opened a $10 million indoor practice facility, and plans are in place for a new team facility which will be built next to the indoor practice facility.
Florida State also just opened a $15 million indoor practice facility and is renovating its football locker room and team offices.
The investment is paying off. Last year, the Seminoles won the BCS national title, breaking the SEC’s seven-year hold on the national crown. Clemson broke through with an Orange Bowl win over Ohio State, which was the Tigers’ first-ever BCS bowl win. Together last season, Florida State and Clemson matched the ACC’s BCS bowl-win total from the previous 13 seasons combined.
Under head coach Dabo Swinney, Clemson is 6-6 against SEC schools, including wins over LSU, Auburn and Georgia. The only stumbling block has been South Carolina, as Swinney is 1-5 against the Gamecocks.
Under Jimbo Fisher, Florida State is 5-1 against the SEC, with their only loss coming to Florida in 2012.
Louisville’s addition will only help the conference. The Cardinals have won multiple BCS bowl games, including 2013’s Sugar Bowl thumping of Florida. Louisville has shown its commitment to football by building excellent facilities and hiring proven winners like Bobby Petrino (how long Petrino stays at Louisville is another question entirely).
If Miami can find its former glory under Al Golden, the league will have a quartet of teams that can compete with the top of the SEC as well as improved depth with the likes of Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Duke, a team that won the Coastal Division in 2013 and gave Texas A&M a major scare in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Notre Dame’s arrangement as a partial ACC member (the Irish will play five games per season against league schools) only adds to the league’s credibility.
Recruiting is improving as well. Florida State and Clemson have each had top-20 classes in each of the last four seasons and will look to once again in 2015. In 247Sports' latest composite rankings, the Tigers 2015 class ranks fourth nationally, with the Seminoles coming in at No. 13. In addition, Miami is No. 11.
Swinney believes the ACC can compete against the SEC, and compete well. He said as much on national signing day in 2013, per Kerry Capps of OrangeandWhite.com:
You just want great players. The SEC would maybe want you to think that, and that they invented football, and that you just can't be successful if you don't play in their league. We don't buy that. And thankfully, the recruits that we've been bringing in for three years in a row don't buy that lie either. They're more focused on bringing a championship back to Clemson. That's all we're focused on, just trying to get the best players.
Fisher doesn’t buy into the ACC-SEC rivalry hype, however, telling Fox Sports' Bob Ferrante before the national title game:
I built our program like I thought we needed to build it to win a championship. We don't model ourselves after nobody. We're Florida State, we do things the way we do them and the way I think you have to play to win a championship.
The ACC has established itself as one of the “Power 5” leagues in America, and recent decisions show that it is mirroring the SEC with its philosophy.
At last week’s spring meetings, league athletic directors voted to keep the ACC slate at eight games, as opposed to expanding to nine, while also requiring teams to play at least one “Power 5” non-conference opponent (Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) per season.
Who else made the same decision recently? The SEC.
If Florida State and Clemson can maintain their nationally prominent positions and be joined by Louisville, Miami and perhaps Virginia Tech, there’s no reason that the ACC can’t rival the SEC as the best conference in college football and find a way to become the most prominent league on NFL draft weekend as well.
Connect with Greg via Twitter: @gc_wallace