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Louisville-Clemson, another early top-10 matchup, on tap for rising ACC

When the ACC struggled to post big wins and play for championships, league coaches defended the league the best way they could -- with stats about NFL draft picks or bowl wins or awards won.

But they also shared a frustration that no matter what they said or how their teams performed, the narrative never went away. Back in 2013, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, “There's a perception that the ACC is the bottom dweller, and that's so far from reality.”

Two years later, Swinney defended his league again, saying, “The Atlantic Division had more draft picks than any division in college football. I don’t hear that being written about. We’re still going to talk about some other division in college football. This mighty division. The fact of the matter is this league is incredibly strong.”

The comments fell flat without tangible results, often met with skepticism or a rebuttal. But given the way the ACC has performed recently, coaches such as Swinney were not just paying their league a compliment because they had to.

This league is a bottom dweller no more. It started with Florida State, then moved on with Clemson. Now Louisville is right up there with the flag bearers, hoping to become the next ACC team to make the College Football Playoff.

When No. 3 Louisville travels to play No. 5 Clemson on Saturday, it will mark the first time the ACC will have two top-10 matchups within the first five weeks of the season. Only twice before has the ACC had multiple top-10 matchups (three in 2004, two in 2013) -- but never before so early.

The early blockbuster matchups mean the spotlight has squarely landed on the ACC in a way that it never has previously. To that point, College GameDay will be at an ACC game for the third time in four weeks (Bristol Motor Speedway for Tennessee-Virginia Tech, a first-ever trip to Louisville for the Florida State game, and now Clemson this weekend), a scenario that would have been hard to fathom even three years ago.

Meanwhile, the league is coming off one of the best weekends it has ever had, going 8-0 in nonconference play on Saturday. That includes the most nonconference road wins in any week in league history (five). Two came at Power 5 venues -- Duke over Notre Dame and Wake Forest over Indiana -- both upset victories.

While it is undeniable the league has gained in stature, the truth is there is no way to draw any conclusion about how it all will end. Only four weeks have been played, and more big ACC showdowns loom: Could No. 12 Florida State and No. 14 Miami be top-10 teams by the time they play on Oct. 8? Will the traditional ACC showdown between Clemson and Florida State on Oct. 29 have playoff implications or no implications at all?

What happens between Louisville and Clemson on Saturday could end up going a long way toward determining not only an ACC champion, but how the league is viewed moving forward. And we are only in the first week of October.

When the season began, much of the playoff talk centered around whether the ACC could get two teams into the playoff. Clemson and Florida State dominated the discussion, though Louisville was heavily discussed as a dark horse playoff candidate.

The possibility still exists for an unbeaten ACC team to make it, and a one-loss at-large ACC team could make it too, though that does not seem as certain now. Much will depend on how the other conference champions shake out and how many ACC teams are left in the final mix.

Ah, but there is the rub: The ACC needs to be in the final mix for the season to be a success. Looking good in October is one thing. Looking good in December is what matters.