TALLAHASSEE — For the past few years, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher has called the ACC as one of, if not the best, conferences in college football.
Fisher's comments were usually quickly dismissed by fans and media members alike. Many thought his chest thumping was mere exaggeration, a product of an insecure coach trying to promote his program, which is in the heart of SEC territory, and the ACC, which was widely thought to be inferior when compared to the SEC.
But after the 2013 season, Fisher can now boast about his conference without drawing as much skepticism. FSU beat SEC power Auburn in the national title game while Clemson defeated Ohio State in the Orange Bowl, proving that there was substance to his comments after all.
"It made it a reality," Fisher said. "They couldn't say 'win the big game, go win this.' We had the greatest year any conference in college football ever had. Win the national championship, win another BCS title, have 11 winning teams, 11 bowl teams and more award winners than any conference in history."
Fisher's number rattling does not stop there. He has told anyone who would listen this offseason how the ACC had the second-most picks in the 2014 NFL Draft of any conference, behind the SEC, and had the most players selected in the first 150 picks.
Now FSU and the rest of the ACC have to prove that 2013 was no fluke.
The Seminoles will be No. 1 nationally in most preseason rankings, so they fittingly enter the year as the overwhelming favorites to win the ACC. FSU received 104 of 108 votes to finish atop the conference by media members at the ACC's media days in July.
Last year's favorite, Clemson, is thought to have the best chance to dethrone the defending champs. The Tigers bring back 11 starters from last year's 11-2 squad, but must replace star players like quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins. FSU embarrassed Clemson 51-14 at home last season, an outcome that will stick with the Tigers when the teams meet in Tallahassee on Sept. 20.
"I don't think there's any doubt that we were capable of competing for [a national championship]," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "We just didn't win the key games when we needed to to warrant the opportunity like Florida State did and like Auburn did."
The ACC Atlantic Division will be deeper than in past years with the addition of Louisville. The Cardinals have finished the season ranked in the top 15 nationally in the past two years, but they must also replace a star quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater.
"I think it's as tough a division as there is out there, three teams that have been nationally in the mix the last few years," Swinney said.
The Coastal Division is a little more wide open.
Miami was voted to win the division, but the Hurricanes had fewer first-place votes than defending division champion Duke and North Carolina. Add Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and, to a lesser extent, Pittsburgh to the mix and it looks like the Coastal could be an even bigger logjam than it was in 2013.
"I think if you look at the Coastal Division, … you could really do a real serious one through seven, and then for fun, right on the other piece of paper, flip it, make seven to one right back down," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said of the division's parity. "It will be interesting."
The perception of the ACC earned a boost, but the league's teams must keep winning big games to stay on par with the SEC.
"We won significant games, won significant moments, won big games out of conference and bowl games and now we have to continue," Fisher said. "We can play football in the ACC and can play football with anyone in America."