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ACC has finally reached mountaintop, but trick is staying there

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Swinney: 'This is not the pinnacle for us' (3:39)

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney describes what it was like in the locker room after his team won the College Football Playoff Championship and what it will be like getting prepared to defend the title next season. (3:39)

ACC commissioner John Swofford stood behind the Clemson end zone as the final minute ticked away in Monday's national title game between the Tigers and Alabama.

Tensions rose and nerves frayed all around him, but Swofford watched stoically, waiting on the one play that would deliver the championship they all so desperately wanted. When Deshaun Watson threw the winning touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with 1 second left, pandemonium erupted on the field and in the stands.

Swofford pumped his fist high in the air and screamed, "YESSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!" He hugged his wife, Nora, and soon disappeared in the crowd to find his place on stage for the trophy presentation. Swofford stood behind coach Dabo Swinney, his giddy smile plastered on the big video boards for all to see.

Just like that, the ACC became the undisputed college football kings, a remarkable postseason capped with a remarkable national championship. When Swinney proclaimed the conference the best in college football, it was hard to argue. This moment was 35 years in the making for Clemson, but it was 64 years in the making for the ACC.

Once derided as a basketball conference attempting (badly) to play football, the ACC has worked during the past five years to reinvent itself, to change outside perceptions and stake its claim as a conference that could do more than just bounce a round, orange ball.

The climb up has been steady, with clear benchmarks along the way. Florida State won the national championship in 2013, then made the first College Football Playoff in 2014. Clemson followed with national championship game appearances in the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Those two have been the unquestioned leaders in this turnaround.

What had been missing until this season was success beyond just those two. We saw Louisville rise, in the playoff discussion all the way through November. We saw Lamar Jackson win the Heisman Trophy, the league's first winner who wasn't a Florida State quarterback. We saw Virginia Tech win 10 games again. We saw Miami finish the season in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2009.

Eleven teams finished with winning records, more than any conference in the country. The 9-3 bowl record, the 10-4 record against the SEC, the 6-2 record against the Big Ten, the 51-17 nonconference record -- these all speak on their own. In every measurable category, the ACC bested its conference competition.

Contrast that with the end of the BCS era in 2013, when the ACC finished with a 5-13 record.

"Overall we weren't good enough to be what we wanted to be going forward," Swofford said. "That stimulated a stronger commitment at some schools that needed a stronger commitment and understanding we needed to have a bigger region, we needed to have a larger league, we needed to be better in football, we needed to retain our consistent place as one of the very best basketball leagues in the country and we've been able to do that."

There is conference pride in that. For years, league coaches have touted the conference as being better than anybody would give them credit for. The results this season proved their point. On the ESPN film room telecast during the championship game, NC State coach Dave Doeren, Boston College coach Steve Addazio and Syracuse coach Dino Babers all offered commentary.

When Clemson scored to win, Addazio chanted, "A-C-C!" and Doeren said, "ACC 9-3 in bowl season!" ACC players, current and former, rushed to offer their congratulations on social media. The win was a collective one, for a program that has strived for so long to get to the mountaintop, and a conference that has strived for the same.

But now that the league has finally and fully arrived, there must be consistency in the success. What made the SEC so powerful for so long was its ability to win championships year after year, while also producing more than just a few elite teams year after year. Part of the reason the SEC fell from its post this season is what plagued the ACC for so long: one elite team, then everybody else.

Stronger teams in the top half translate into a stronger overall conference. Already in Mark Schlabach's way-too-early Top 25, the ACC has six teams ranked. The ACC won't shy away from playing marquee national games -- Florida State and Alabama open the 2017 season in Atlanta, Clemson plays Auburn, Pitt gets Penn State and Oklahoma State again, and Virginia Tech takes on West Virginia.

They just have to keep winning them to build on all the success 2016 brought. To do that, Swofford said the league has to do "the same things, playing the same nonconference schedules, giving yourself the opportunity doing the same kinds of things in postseason throughout our bowl lineup and particularly at the top and in the playoff.

"The narrative for ACC football has changed over the last five years and it needed to."