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Why the ACC was 2016’s best college football conference

The numbers give a very slight overall edge to the SEC, but Clemson’s trophy is one of a few reasons to argue otherwise.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

[This article was originally published in January 2017 and has been updated to include comments by coaches at the ACC Kickoff.]

Technically, the SEC won again. When all of the drives and plays from the 2016 season were officially added up, the home of It Just Means More still finished No. 1 in average S&P+. Dominant performances by teams like LSU, Florida, and (in the Peach Bowl, at least) Alabama were able to offset the ACC’s overall bowl brilliance.

Going by the SEC’s own bragging bylaws, though — established when the league was winning every national title from 2006-12 and again in 2015 — the title goes to the ACC. Virtual tie goes to the conference with the champ, right? Especially when the Bama Bump is removed? Bonus points for winning both the Heisman and Piesman? ACC head coaches openly declaring their conference the best?

2016 average college football S&P+ ratings

Conference Avg. S&P+ Rk Avg. Off. S&P+ Rk Avg. Def. S&P+ Rk
Conference Avg. S&P+ Rk Avg. Off. S&P+ Rk Avg. Def. S&P+ Rk
SEC 8.91 1 32.6 3 24.0 3
ACC 8.70 2 32.4 4 23.7 2
Big Ten 6.22 3 28.8 6 22.7 1
Pac-12 5.85 4 33.5 2 27.7 4
Big 12 5.61 5 35.4 1 29.8 6
AAC -1.16 6 28.2 7 29.4 5
MWC -2.98 7 29.3 5 32.7 8
MAC -6.15 8 26.9 9 32.7 9
Conf USA -7.96 9 27.4 8 35.2 10
Sun Belt -8.29 10 23.5 10 31.5 7
Bill Connelly, SB Nation

Accordingly, when the 2017 preview series kicks off in a few short weeks, the SEC will once again be the last conference discussed. The trophy will show up any day in the SEC’s Birmingham office, and Alabama can use its No. 1 computer ranking to claim yet another national title if it so chooses. (That was a joke, but ... you never know.)

If we account for the Bama Bump and drop each conference’s highest and lowest teams from the S&P+ rankings, the ACC’s overall quality this year is even clearer:

  1. ACC (+8.4)
  2. SEC (+7.9)
  3. Big Ten (+6.1)
  4. Big 12 (+5.8)
  5. Pac-12 (+5.6)
  6. AAC (-0.5)
  7. Mountain West (-3.0)
  8. MAC (-6.0)
  9. Sun Belt (-7.8)
  10. Conference USA (-9.0)

Like the national title game itself, the battle between the ACC and SEC was a tight race, decided by an eyelash one way or the other. That in and of itself is a victory for the league that was far from the front of the pack a year or two ago.

Change in S&P+ from 2014-16

Conference 2014 Avg 2014 Rk 2015 Avg 2015 Rk 2016 Avg 2016 Rk
Conference 2014 Avg 2014 Rk 2015 Avg 2015 Rk 2016 Avg 2016 Rk
SEC 14.5 1 9.9 1 8.9 1
ACC 7.0 3 6.7 4 8.7 2
Big Ten 6.2 5 7.4 2 6.2 3
Pac-12 8.1 2 6.9 3 5.8 4
Big 12 6.9 4 5.0 5 5.6 5
AAC -6.0 8 -2.1 6 -1.2 6
MWC -4.7 7 -4.2 8 -3.0 7
MAC -10.1 10 -3.6 7 -6.2 8
CUSA -4.7 6 -8.0 10 -8.0 9
Sun Belt -8.5 9 -7.5 9 -8.3 10

The ACC improved by about two points per team in 2016, while the SEC regressed by about one point. And while there was about a touchdown’s difference between the best and worst of the Power 5 in 2014, that was cut to under three and a half points this fall.

So you could say that one winner in 2016 was parity. But the big winner was the ACC.

It claimed its second team title in four years and boasted eight of the top 25 teams in the country. How did this happen? How did the ACC achieve this perch?

1. Hiring good coaches

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

In December, I wrote about the SEC’s lack of creativity in its recent head coaching hires.

Despite having all the money in the world, SEC teams have seemingly sacrificed résumés for savings, Saban ties, or both in recent years.

Compare that to what the ACC did in 2016: Miami (Mark Richt, 145-51), Syracuse (Dino Babers, 37-16), Virginia (Bronco Mendenhall, 99-43), and Virginia Tech (Justin Fuente, 26-23) brought in coaches who had combined for 307 career wins and a 0.698 win percentage, 0.709 over the previous two years.

Those were hires the SEC used to make, and depending on your measure, the ACC might have taken the SEC's place atop the power conference totem pole this fall.

Over the last three coaching cycles, the ACC had brought in Richt, Babers, Mendenhall, Fuente, Pat Narduzzi (Pitt), Bobby Petrino (Louisville), and Dave Clawson (Wake Forest). That’s half the teams in the league making a relative upgrade (or, in Louisville’s case, holding steady at worst) in just three seasons. It doesn’t take long for that to have an effect on the field.

2. Quarterbacks

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Louisville's Lamar Jackson and Clemson's Deshaun Watson were the top two finishers in the 2016 Heisman voting. Syracuse's Eric Dungey and North Carolina's Mitch Trubisky ranked in the nation's top 15 in passer rating. Clemson, Florida State (with Deondre Francois), North Carolina, Pitt (with Nathan Peterman), and Louisville ranked in the top 25 in Passing S&P+. Georgia Tech's option attack, guided by Justin Thomas, ranked in the top 25 in both Rushing S&P+ and Passing S&P+.

The lesser offenses in the conference were still awfully shaky, enough that the ACC ranked fourth in average Off. S&P+. But the top-end firepower was impressive.

Is that maintainable? Probably not, at least in the short term. Jackson, Francois, and Dungey return, but Thomas and Peterman were seniors, and Watson, Trubisky, Virginia Tech's Jerod Evans, and Miami's Brad Kaaya have all declared for the NFL draft. For that matter, so have star rushers James Conner (Pitt), Dalvin Cook (Florida State), Wayne Gallman (Clemson), Elijah Hood (UNC), and Joe Yearby (Miami).

One assumes there will be an offensive drop-off among the higher-end ACC offenses in 2017, even if Louisville and Florida State in particular are both potent.

3. Defense

Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

The ACC ranked No. 1 overall despite ranking fourth in Off. S&P+, so if you’re keeping score at home, that must say impressive things about ACC defenses.

Indeed, eight of the top 22 defenses, according to Def. S&P+, claim the ACC: No. 6 Clemson, No. 10 Florida State (which labored early, then caught fire), No. 11 NC State, No. 13 Miami, No. 17 Virginia Tech, No. 19 Louisville, No. 21 Boston College, and No. 22 Wake Forest.

Only the Big Ten, which had much worse offenses, played better defense on average than the ACC.

As with quarterback play, this might not be sustainable. Eight of the 11 players on the first-team All-ACC defense were seniors, including All-Americans DeMarcus Walker (Florida State), Carlos Watkins (Clemson), Ben Boulware (Clemson), and Cordrea Tankersley (Clemson). Plus, Nazair Jones (UNC) and Josh Jones (NC State) have declared for the draft.

There will still be star power here next year. Clemson linemen Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence are scheduled to return, as is sacks leader Harold Landry of Boston College. And the all-conference list included quite a few sophomores in the back seven: Florida State's Tarvarus McFadden, Louisville's Jaire Alexander, Virginia Tech's Tremaine Edmunds, and Duke's Ben Humphreys. But producing eight top defenses again might be a large ask.

Sustainability, however, is a conversation to have further into the 2017 offseason. For now, 2016 belonged to the ACC.