|Dabo Swinney and Clemson prove they're the new top dogs in the ACC. (Getty Images)|
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Streaks, trends, and droughts. Toss them all out the window in the ACC, because times are changing.
These changes have nothing to do with conference realignment, or any rule changes. The new era in ACC football was not brought on by any executives in suits. It was a enthusiastic head coach and his team clad in Clemson Orange.
The Tigers finished their breakout 2011 season by shaking up the ACC landscape with a 38-10 win over Virginia Tech, knocking the defending champs from their spot atop the conference. Entering the game after dropping three of their last four, experts were giving the edge to Virginia Tech. The Hokies had won seven straight, and after all -- this was their game. A win in the title game on Saturday would have been the fourth in five years for Frank Beamer, who has become quite comfortable at ACC championship games since the Hokies joined the league in 2004.
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In fact, since 2004 no one has been as dominant in the ACC as the Hokies. They have now appeared in five of the seven ACC championship games, and finished with 10-plus wins every season since joining the conference. The team looked loose on Friday at walk-thru, a team of veterans ready to claim what they believed to be theirs. They were playful, wearing big smiles and joking with each other as they ran through the schedule that had become so routine.
But no smile in Mecklenburg County was as big as the one on Dabo Swinney's face as he opened his postgame press conference following the Tigers' first ACC championship in 20 years.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to announce that I will be taking my Clemson talents to South Beach baby!"
The media assembled laughed along with the fourth-year head coach as he delivered his own take on the famous lines from LeBron James' free agent television special. But unlike James, Swinney has delivered on his promise of competing for championships.
But the glory from Saturday night did not come without tribulations for this young Clemson team. After a hot 8-0 start, the Tigers had moved themselves up to the top 5 in the BCS standings and were becoming darkhorses for the BCS championship. But the team that knocked off three ranked opponents in a row -- including a dominating 23-3 defeat of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg -- did not look like the team that we witnessed down the stretch of the regular season. Clemson came into the title game having lost three of its last four, including two very unimpressive performances in losses to N.C. State and South Carolina to close the season. But if the Tigers were going to avoid being another tick mark on Frank Beamer's win count, something had to change. This young Clemson team needed to mature, quickly.
"We had a nice little meeting on Monday, I probably should have done it three weeks ago because we really don't have an ability problem, we have a little bit of an accountability problem and responsibility and dependability," Swinney explained. "So it was a challenging week. Just like you discipline your children, sometimes you need a little tough love, but you've got to respond. And they responded the right way."
Seventeen different players from Saturday night's game were named All-ACC first or second team, announced earlier this week. But for the most part, it was only the Tigers from that group that looked like ACC elite. First-team quarterback Tajh Boyd was phenomenal against a usually stout Virginia Tech defense. He shook off the "phantom pressure" from the last month and hung in the pocket to complete 20 of 29 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns. Much of that credit also goes to the Clemson offensive line, led by All-ACC center Dalton Freeman, who only allowed Boyd to be sacked once.
Andre Ellington and Sammy Watkins -- both limited during Clemson's slump with nagging injuries -- were back to their usual explosive selves on Saturday night. Ellington (second-team selection) ran 20 times for 125 yards and a touchdown while Watkins (first-team WR and ACC Rookie of the Year) added a 53-yard touchdown reception of his own as part of his 155 all-purpose yards. But as Clemson's all-conference stars were shining under the lights in Bank of America Stadium, there was one player on the other side of the field that was unusually absent: ACC Player of the Year David Wilson.
Virginia Tech's star running back was held to just 32 yards on 11 carries, both season lows for one of the nation's most prolific rushers. His inability to find a rhythm early and deliver late changed the Hokies offensively, neutralizing the one home-run threat that could keep the hope of a comeback alive for Virginia Tech.
"David Wilson is, if not the best running back in the nation, one of the tops, and Coach Swinney pretty much put it on the D line and said if they're able to run the ball, then it's on the D line," first team All-ACC defensive end Andre Branch explained. "You know, that was just a challenge for us showing everybody what type of players we have, and we just meshed all together the whole night. Our DB's were playing physical and the D-line and linebackers, we just played like one family and one unit. We made them one dimensional, and once we did that we already knew what time it was -- we pinned our ears back and brought the pressure."
So for the first time since their appearance in the inaugural ACC Championship Game, Virginia Tech was knocked off on the conference's biggest stage. The mystique of Virginia Tech's dominance was rattled, and the arrival of new perennial powerhouse was heard loud and clear across the 12 -- soon to be 14 -- team conference.
This Tigers team went through heaven and hell in a season, and are hungry for more. Two decades of frustration came crashing down like the Oranges hurled onto the field in the game's final seconds. From Heisman to Howard, Clemson has one of the most storied traditions in college football. But on Saturday night they did not have to rely on the history books for respect.
These young Tigers have no time to be concerned with history, simply because they are too busy writing their own.