ACC enters 'new era' stronger than ever

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- On Sunday evening, long after the interviews and dinner reception had ended at the ACC Football Kickoff, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora joined Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson for a cigar outside the posh Grandover Resort, where this year’s ACC media days are being held.

Somebody should get one for ACC commissioner John Swofford, too.

The good ol' boys of the ACC are feeling pretty good about themselves this year -- as they should.

There was an overriding sense of solidarity at the ACC Football Kickoff, a reflection of the confidence within the league moving forward with its new membership. Over the past two years, the ACC has quietly put itself in position to enter the 2013 season as strong as it’s ever been -- not necessarily on the field, but collectively off it. The league has secured a grant of rights, the first step in even considering the possibility of a television channel. It has added Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville to its membership. It has enhanced its bowl lineup, adding a partnership with the Big Ten. It has added Notre Dame as a partial member in football and extended its relationship with the Discover Orange Bowl.

The ACC has made all the right moves to remain a power conference, which means that at the very least, the ACC is winning off the field -- and that’s a start.

“When you start talking about the population the ACC covers, the TV households the ACC covers, the whole East Coast we cover, you look at competition from within the league -- we’re the strongest we’ve ever been, no question,” said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer. “The perception of the conference has changed, the landscape has changed, the population of TV households you go into has changed, the turnout of the media here has changed -- but the reputation of the conference is still going to depend on us winning our share of games out of conference.”

The ACC might very well go 0-for-3 in Week 1 versus Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, but the message was clear at media days: Nobody is afraid of the SEC, or, as Fedora calls it, “the other league.”

He won’t name 'em. Why?

"Why should I?" he says.

Regardless of what others might think of the ACC, the conference is thinking a little more highly of itself. This is a league that year in and year out has to defend its record in BCS games and nonconference matchups, a league that is forever overshadowed by the SEC and that has been plagued by coaching turnover in recent years. With all the positive changes that have taken place in recent years, though, league officials this year made sure to promote “a new era” of ACC football.

Swofford on Sunday called the past year a “monumental one” for the ACC.

“It's hard to believe the many milestones that have taken place since we were in this same room at this same event last July,” he said during his forum. “As we look to the future, we do so with great anticipation in this league. The composition of the long-term membership of the ACC has never been stronger.”

And they all actually like each other.

Nobody here was talking out of the side of his mouth, calling out former coaches, or creating news with trash talk. Instead, they were golfing together, some coaches were having a glass of wine together, and some players went bowling together. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd and UNC quarterback Bryn Renner took time during their interviews to praise South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney as one of the best defenders in the country -- after Clowney said Boyd was scared of him. Pitt receiver Devin Street talked about how it was an honor to be here, and Panthers coach Paul Chryst sat at dinner on Sunday night and talked about how he has enjoyed learning from veterans like Beamer and Duke’s David Cutcliffe.

At the league’s May spring meetings in Amelia Island, Fla., Chryst and Syracuse coach Scott Shafer had breakfast with Georgia Tech's Johnson. Wake’s Jim Grobe, Cutcliffe and Beamer have long been good friends. And everyone in the ACC -- including Swofford -- has Al Golden's back as he waits for a decision from the NCAA.

“I think the ACC is really strong right now,” Johnson said. “It’s a fun conference to be a part of, unlike some of the other leagues, maybe, or whatever. The coaches do genuinely like each other, respect each other and get along. There’s competition, and it’s fierce on the field, but if you look at the big picture, from academic APR rates, to graduation rates, to performance on the field, of the five conferences, we’re in the top two.”

The ACC didn’t just survive conference realignment, it found a way to benefit from it.

The next step?

Finding a way to beat “the other” conference in Week 1.