ACC rides momentum from big season, but how does it stay at the top?

AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. -- Commissioner John Swofford took some time to brag on his conference once ACC spring meetings wrapped up, and really, who could blame him?

Not only is the ACC coming off perhaps its most successful season collectively as a league, Swofford also noted a sense of normalcy throughout the meetings that, in his words, hasn’t been there for a decade or so.

What’s more, Swofford, league and school administrators and ESPN representatives spent time hammering out details for the forthcoming launch of the linear ACC Network, still on track to debut in 2019. Among those discussion points: best practices for building out and staffing up television studios at each university, and possible Week 1 matchups to help maximize interest in the network right from the start.

So yes, these are heady times for a conference that had been a few steps behind on the football field until about five years ago. While it might be unreasonable to believe the ACC will replicate its 2016 success every single season, it’s also unreasonable to believe the ACC is going to slink back to its days as an afterthought.

The ACC has arguably the best group of football coaches in the country. The ACC has momentum, finally. And the ACC also has a future network it believes will help even the playing field from a revenues standpoint, something that has been a sticking point as the SEC and Big Ten have developed networks of their own.

Solid football brands + solid football coaches + more exposure + more revenues = ability to maintain success. And that is where the ACC is right now, really. The mountain has been climbed. Staying at the top is the new challenge that confronts this league.

“I compare it to a program on a campus,” Swofford said. “It’s really hard to climb that ladder. It’s hard to build to where you want to be. It’s even tougher to sustain it. That’s why I have so much respect for programs, football or basketball, that are able to get there and stay there. I’m not sure you can expect every year to be what we had this year, but we’ve built our programs across the board to a point that this league is really well set for a long time to come. There’s no reason that we cannot continue to be one of the premier conferences, in all sports.”

Ask any coach whether it is easier to build a program or maintain success, and the answer inevitably is the same as Swofford’s answer. Staying at the top comes with a level of difficulty only the truly gifted are able to master.

“What do you have to do to stay there?” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “You’ve got to keep winning. You’re not sneaking up on anybody.”

Scheduling and winning major nonconference matchups remains a high priority for obvious reasons. In the first three weeks of 2017, ACC teams play: Alabama, South Carolina, California, Tennessee, West Virginia, Auburn, Northwestern, Penn State, Baylor, Oklahoma State and Notre Dame.

Zero head coaching turnover for the first time in a decade also helps. Developing teams beyond Florida State and Clemson has been beneficial, and should pay off again this year.

“We used to have these conversations five, six, seven years ago, and I used to say we just need to keep our mouth shut and go to work,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We start winning some games and the questions will change. That’s what’s happened.”

Skepticism is a natural reaction, of course, especially since the script has flipped over a relatively short period. And until the ACC Network officially launches, there will be some who take a “believe it until we see it” approach.

But what the ACC has accomplished over the past five years has it in position to keep telling anyone who will listen, this is only the beginning.

“With stabilization of the league and where we’re headed with our television, there’s no reason for us to be anything but very, very competitive in all sports,” Swofford said.