When The Associated Press released its preseason Top 25, nobody did a double take when Clemson came in at No. 2 and Florida State ranked No. 4.
Yet those rankings made history for the ACC. In 63 years as a conference, this marks the first time the league has ever had two teams ranked in the AP preseason top 5. For those crowing about the dominance of other conferences, the ACC led the way with multiple teams in the top 4.
The top 4, as we all know, end up making the College Football Playoff.
Suddenly, snark has turned into high praise, and two playoff-caliber teams in the ACC passes as normal. It is a stunning development, considering just how badly this league has been beaten up for its football product since -- well, since forever.
In just one year, the ACC went from a league with zero playoff contenders to a league with two legitimate playoff contenders. Many national pundits have picked both Florida State and Clemson to make the playoff even though the thought of a one-loss ACC team making it in seemed laughable just one year ago.
The quick turnaround has had everything to do with winning, and winning when it counted most. Just five seasons ago, Virginia Tech lost another BCS game to Michigan in the Sugar Bowl. Clemson lost in embarrassing fashion to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. Their twin failings came to embody the jokes many told at the ACC’s expense. This was a league that wanted to be big time but fell flat year after year on the biggest stage. National championships? That's what the SEC is for!
Administrators across the league, starting with commissioner John Swofford, saw it clearly. “We needed to get better in football,” he said.
Since then, Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech have each won the Orange Bowl; Florida State won a national championship in 2013 and made the first College Football Playoff in 2014; Clemson made the second playoff and played for a national title in 2015.
Those big wins and nationally prestigious games have upped the cachet the ACC holds, making it now entirely plausible for offseason discussion to center on whether the ACC truly can get two teams into the playoff.
The discussion is a victory in itself, rooted in win-loss projections but also the acknowledgment that Florida State and Clemson are among the most talented teams in the country. They just happen to play in the same division, like Alabama and LSU (also in the early playoff discussion).
What is missing? The yearly staple that has fueled detractors: Nobody -- at least not yet -- has said strength of schedule will kill the playoff prospects for either a one-loss Florida State or a one-loss Clemson. The Seminoles have the No. 3 hardest schedule in the country, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index; Clemson comes in at No. 36.
Remember, it was only two years ago that pundits debated unbeaten Florida State’s merits because it played close games against such a "weak" schedule. A one-loss Florida State team would have never made it in the CFP for the 2014 season.
So now let’s get to the discussion: What are the chances that Florida State and Clemson both make the playoff?
ESPN’s Stats & Information group says there is a 13 percent chance that both Florida State and Clemson enter playoff selection with zero or one loss. FPI projects about a 67 percent chance that fewer than four Power 5 teams will finish with zero or one loss.
The College Football Playoff committee has said it would give preference to conference champions, everything else being equal. But if the FPI projections hold up, there would certainly be an opening for an at-large team.
There also is this: According to FPI, Florida State has a 10.4 percent chance to win out, the second-highest percentage in the country behind Oklahoma. Clemson is third, at 8.2 percent. They can’t both win out since they play each other Oct. 29, but no other conference has two teams that each has a greater than 5 percent chance to go undefeated.
Nothing will be certain until December, when the final four teams are announced. But the fact that this is even up for debate proves real progress has been made by the ACC.