By Aaron Beard
AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For years, the Atlantic Coast Conference has been regarded as the basketball power lagging in football behind Southeastern Conference, considered stronger, tougher and deeper on the gridiron.
It’s a perception that doesn’t line up with today’s reality.
After two national-title wins against SEC opponents and two Heisman Trophy winners in four seasons, the ACC has closed the gap if not erased it entirely. And that’s left the two leagues — which have combined for 10 of the last 11 national championships — looking awfully similar these days, from clear top tiers and divisional imbalances to their Southern-stronghold recruiting bases.
“Really,” Clemson defensive end Christian Wilkins said, “it just says those are the two best leagues right now in college football.”
It wasn’t that long ago that there was no comparison. The SEC earned its reputation as Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU combined to win seven straight national championships from 2006-12. Meanwhile, the ACC struggled in marquee matchups and BCS games, with ACC Commissioner John Swofford noting during preseason media days in Charlotte that it was “there for the world to see.”
But things look much different amid the ACC’s recent run.
“Oh, I think we’re right there with them now,” Swofford said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Top to bottom, they’ve probably been there longer than we have. But if you look at last year, as well as the previous four or five years, our football’s been coming very, very strongly.
“It’s not an overnight thing. … By every measureable account, a year ago ACC football was the strongest in the country. I don’t think that’s even arguable when you put the numbers down compared to any league.”
Florida State started the ACC’s four-year run by winning the 2013 national title behind Heisman winner Jameis Winston. Clemson followed last year by beating Alabama in a thrilling title-game rematch from a year earlier. And the ACC had last year’s top two Heisman finishers in Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson followed by Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson.
The ACC finished 17-9 in 2016 against power-conference opponents — including 10-4 against the SEC — and went 9-3 in postseason bowl games to earn a seat alongside the SEC.
“I think it’s great to have rivalries throughout the sport,” said Greg McElroy, a former Alabama quarterback and now an SEC Network analyst. “That’s what makes the sport unique. And the geographic pride that each one of these places has is special and unique to college football.
“I think the fact they compete on recruits, the fact they compete within their own state and the fan bases are competing constantly for bragging rights. It makes it fun to have some rivalries. I know the ACC has been very good of late.”
Now the two leagues enter 2017 sharing some common traits:
• Both have a clear top tier, with Alabama several steps ahead of the SEC field while Clemson and Florida State headline the ACC.
• The power of those leagues are centered in one division. The SEC West (Alabama, Auburn, LSU) has won eight straight league titles against the SEC East, while the ACC Atlantic (Clemson, FSU and Louisville) has six straight league titles against the Coastal Division.
• The two leagues share geographic footprints that overlap in Kentucky, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina and create annual instate interconference matchups.
“Some of those rivalries are embedded in states — South Carolina/Clemson, Louisville/Kentucky, Florida/Florida State, Georgia Tech/Georgia,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said. “And then when you elevate those games to the national stage it probably adds a little to the intensity. It seems healthy. It elevates attention around our states certainly.”
• Finally, both leagues are working some of the country’s most fertile recruiting grounds in their backyards.
“We all try to recruit the best players in the southeast,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who has won four national titles with the Crimson Tide. “And Florida State and Clemson are probably two of the leading teams in the ACC, and they both do an outstanding job of recruiting. And we end up recruiting a lot of the same players.”
Fans won’t have long to wait for the first marquee game between the leagues. Alabama and FSU play Sept. 2 in Atlanta to start the season.
“I think (the SEC) is a tremendous conference, I think the Big Ten is a tremendous conference,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “I think they all are. But I think right now what we’ve accomplished in the last five years … I think the ACC is as good a league as there is in football, I really do.”