There's a new best conference in college football this season

BY Sports Illustrated and Stewart Mandel/Sports Illustrated • January 3, 2017

This story originally appeared on

On Monday, SEC champ Alabama will meet ACC champ Clemson to determine the nation’s best team for 2016. Regardless of the result, we already know which was the top conference this season.

Can you say, “A-C-C! A-C-C!”

Long a football laughingstock, the ACC completed the non-championship bowls with an impressive 8–3 record, most notably New Year’s Six wins by Clemson (over No. 3 Ohio State) and Florida State (over No. 6 Michigan). For the first time since the 2005–06 bowls, the ACC will finish with a better record than the SEC (6–6), the conference that’s lorded over the sport for most of the last decade.

The SEC, by contrast, went 6–8 vs. Power 5 foes. Pending Clemson-Alabama, the ACC has gone 3–1 against the SEC in bowls and 9–4 on the season.

Advanced stats guru Bill Connelly of SB Nation first highlighted the ACC’s strength this season in a Dec. 19 article, which showed the league in a virtual dead heat with the SEC as measured by his S&P+ efficiency ratings.

“In this way, bowl season is actually important,” he wrote at the time. “This year, it could actually determine superiority between these two nearly tied conferences.”

Which it did. In the ACC’s favor.

Note that the headline of Connelly’s article was “Why the Big Ten isn’t college football’s best overall conference in 2016.” And indeed, after dominating the selection committee rankings and very nearly landing two playoff teams, Jim Delany’s league flopped in the postseason with a 3–7 mark.

The ACC and SEC, like their champs, are the only remaining contenders in this conversation. It wasn’t that long ago, during the BCS days, that the ACC was more frequently mentioned alongside the old Big East for the status of worst power conference. At one point, following the 2011 season, the league sported an embarrassing 2–13 record in BCS bowls.

But thanks to the juggernauts built by Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, the ACC over the past five years has compiled an impressive 7–3 record in BCS or New Year’s Six bowls. The SEC over the same period is 5–7.

So what changed? The coaches, for starters.

The ACC has never been lacking for talent. It recruits much the same geographic area that the SEC does. It produces as many NFL draft picks as all but the SEC.

But look at some of the recent coaching changes in the ACC. Two-time SEC champ Mark Richt replaced Al Golden at Miami and immediately won nine games. Memphis miracle worker Justin Fuente replaced Virginia Tech icon Frank Beamer and the Hokies immediately improved from 7–6 to 10–4. Louisville’s Bobby Petrino, who took two schools to BCS bowls, produced a Heisman winner. North Carolina’s Larry Fedora won 11 games a year ago.

They join Swinney and Fisher, who were only just beginning their runs five years ago.

Conversely, the SEC has quietly undergone quite a coaching talent drain. Two national-championship coaches, South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier and LSU’s Les Miles, and two highly respected mainstays, Georgia’s Mark Richt and Missouri’s Gary Pinkel, were all fired or retired within an 11-month span in 2015 and ’16.

Two of their replacements, Missouri’s Barry Odom and Georgia’s Kirby Smart, are first-time head coaches. The other two, South Carolina’s Will Muschamp and LSU’s Ed Orgeron, were previously fired by other SEC schools.

While hardly the only reason, it certainly helps explain how the SEC suffered through a bizarre 2016 season where Alabama was as dominant as ever but no other team finished with fewer than four losses. There’s no obvious foil to Saban right now, like Swinney and Fisher are for each other.

Then there’s the quarterbacks. The ACC had by far the strongest roster this season, starting with Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and runner-up Deshaun Watson. North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky is a candidate to be the first quarterback drafted. Miami’s Brad Kaaya and Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans turned pro Monday.

Conversely, the SEC had Ole Miss’s Chad Kelly and … Jalen Hurts?

Will the ACC remain an equal or better conference going forward? It’s too soon to say. All we know is the league produced the best non-conference season, bowl season and top two Heisman finishers in this particular season.

A national championship by Clemson would be the cherry on top.

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