TAMPA -- The ACC Championship Game was Saturday's side dish.
|Clemson's C.J. Spiller, the ACC's all-time leader in all-purpose yards, makes the conference worth watching. (US Presswire)|
They've played five of these now, and none of them have meant much on the grand BCS landscape, including the No. 10 Yellow Jackets' 39-34 victory Saturday against the Tigers at Raymond James Stadium.
But oh, what a treat. Neither of Saturday's conference championship games with national title implications came close to matching Georgia Tech-Clemson for sheer entertainment value.
Yes, there's that ugly 2-9 conference record in BCS bowl games. Sure, no ACC team since Florida State in 2001 has played for a national championship.
If they can keep on producing thrillers like this, at least they will have given the world a reason to watch.
"We are proud of who we are," said Michael Kelly, the ACC's associate commissioner for football operations.
It's part of Kelly's job to sell the football side of this basketball conference, and he doesn't shy away.
"Obviously, we perceive ourselves to be very strong," Kelly said. "Going into last weekend, we had five teams ranked in the top 25 in the BCS, which no other conference could claim.
"We don't compare ourselves to one specific conference. But rather, we want to be the best in everything that we can be, obviously."
Which is all well and good. But what about the football?
Saturday, the football belonged to Clemson's C.J. Spiller. He took it where he wanted, and he did so to the tune of 233 yards and four touchdowns on 20 carries.
• ACC championship: No. 12 Georgia Tech 39, No. 25 Clemson 34
"C.J. was making plays," said Georgia Tech running back John Dwyer, who did all right himself, rushing for 110 yards and scoring the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. "They didn't give him ACC Player of the Year for nothing."
The ACC lacks championships, sure. But at least it consistently produces players who keep things interesting, like Spiller and league Defensive Player of the Year Derrick Morgan of Georgia Tech.
ACC football aficionados are quick to list the league's honor roll of current NFL players: Julius Peppers (North Carolina), Matt Ryan (Boston College), Phillip Rivers (N.C. State), Brian Dawkins (Clemson), Anquan Boldin (Florida State), Calvin Johnson (Georgia Tech), Frank Gore (Miami) and more.
Spiller will join that list next spring. The ACC's all-time leader in all-purpose yards overshadowed a remarkable two-year rise for the Jackets under second-year coach Paul Johnson.
He could have done so after his junior year. There was one thing missing from his resume, though.
An ACC championship might not mean much these days in terms of national title aspirations, but it was enough to compel Spiller to stay in Clemson, S.C. for another year.
"I'm very glad I came back," Spiller said.
So were roughly half of the 57,227 fans Saturday at Raymond James. That was about 30,000 more fans, by the way, than actually came to last year's snooze fest between Virginia Tech and Boston College.
What they saw was, perhaps, a step toward those national championship aspirations for Johnson's Yellow Jackets. In two seasons, the former Navy and Georgia Southern coach has been named the league's Coach of the Year twice and has molded the Jackets into an option-running, steam-rolling offensive powerhouse that has a knack for winning the close games.
A league title and a January trip to Miami for the Orange Bowl is, in fact, a huge step in the right direction.
"I guess it all started at last year's bowl game," said Dwyer, referring to a 38-2 thumping at the hands of LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta. "After getting embarrassed in the bowl game, everybody had the mentality that we were going to go for it next year and our No. 1 goal was to win the ACC and then our next goal was to win a bowl game."
The Jackets are young, with only three seniors among the 22 starters on offense and defense. Now, they are champions, representatives of a conference whose national title hopes once were pinned on the state of Florida.
Now, with an 11-2 Georgia Tech team attempting to solidify its standing in the top 10 with an Orange Bowl victory, there might be dreams of something bigger somewhere besides Miami and FSU.
That's getting ahead of ourselves, of course. Today, the ACC and its newly crowned champion remain second (or even third) fiddle in the big picture of the BCS.
Still, Johnson didn't downplay talk of gunning for an undefeated season one year. Perhaps as soon as 2010.
"Well, I think it's a goal, certainly," Johnson said. "It's hard to get there, but it's certainly the goal when we start every year. That's what you're shooting for, is to win the first one and the last one and all of them in between."