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PASADENA, Calif. -- There were a lot of smiles on the floor of the Rose Bowl in the aftermath of Florida State's 34-31 thriller over Auburn for the BCS national championship Monday night.
But nobody was smiling more and with greater satisfaction than ACC Commissioner John Swofford.
"It's been a long time -- too long -- since we were in this position," said Swofford, a former quarterback at North Carolina. "We hope this is a sign that it won't be as long before we get back again."
Not only did the ACC win its first national championship since 1999, the league picked up two BCS wins for the first time ever thanks to Clemson's upset victory over Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. The ACC sent a record 11 teams to bowls this season and finished 5-6. The conference almost picked up another high-profile victory in the Chick-fil-A Bowl but Duke lost a heartbreaker to Texas A&M 52-48.
"We have a lot of respect for the SEC but we play very good football in the ACC," said Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. "And it's only going to get better."
The ACC was the first conference to sweep the major awards -- Heisman, Outland, Nagurski -- and over the past nine seasons only the SEC and ACC have 30 or more NFL Draft choices.
But the reality is that it wasn't long ago that lot of people were having doubts about the future the ACC on a rapidly changing college football landscape.
Florida State represented the ACC in the first three BCS championship games, winning only one as Bobby Bowden's only undefeated team beat Michael Vick and Virginia Tech in New Orleans for the 1999 title. Florida State lost the first BCS championship to Tennessee in 1998 and then fell to Oklahoma and second-year coach Bob Stoops after the 2000 season.
And then the drought began.
Not only did the ACC not reach another BCS title game again until Monday night, it lost seven straight in the series until Virginia Tech finally broke through against Cincinnati in the 2009 Orange Bowl. Going into this season the ACC was 3-13 in BCS appearances.
The ACC's struggles in the post-season became so great there were suggestions that when the BCS formed its new four-team playoff model, the ACC might get squeezed out by the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12. It didn't happen.
"That was never going to happen," said Swofford. "Our programs have too much tradition and have been too successful. It was simply a process of strengthening our conference to get ready for the future."
So Swofford and company made definitive moves to strengthen the ACC's position among the other conferences for the long term:
• First it dipped into the Big East and added Virginia Tech and Miami in 2004 and Boston College in 2005. Then it got ahead of the curve on the next wave of expansion and added Pittsburgh and Syracuse for the 2013 season.
• Then it struck a deal with Notre Dame, which would play all of its sports but football in the ACC. In exchange Notre Dame agreed to play five games per year -- almost half of its football schedule -- against ACC competition, which boosted the value of the ACC's television package and is expected to improve season ticket sales.
• When Maryland, a charter member in 1953, suddenly announced it was leaving for the Big Ten, the ACC moved quickly to add another good program in Louisville. Louisville, the defending NCAA champions in basketball, will join the ACC next season.
• Then the ACC presidents voted to create an exit fee of $52 million for any team wishing to leave the conference moving forward. Maryland is currently in the courts trying to get that exit fee waved or reduced with no success thus far.
• Then last April the ACC presidents made the most powerful move of all to protect its long-term security by signing a grant of rights agreement through 2026-27. In essence it means that any team leaving the ACC, in addition to the exit fee, would relinquish its individual television rights to the conference. What it means is that no other conference will raid the ACC because that school would come without its television rights.
• Finally, with the SEC/Big 12 partnership in the Sugar and the Big Ten/Pac-12 partnership in the Rose, the ACC had to have a long-term bowl partner to be a part of the new four-team playoff which starts next season. The ACC signed a 12-year agreement, the length of the College Football Playoff, to send its champion to the Orange Bowl.
Put it all together and the ACC is pretty secure on the football side moving forward. In fact, CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd saw this coming when he met with ACC officials last May during their spring meetings at Amelia Island, Fla.
Check out some of these numbers.
"The reality is week in and week out our teams can play with anybody in the country," said Clemson's Dabo Swinney, whose team has won 11 games for the second year in a row and has beaten two national powers (LSU, Ohio State) in its last two bowl games. "I like where we are."