Well that was a pleasant surprise now, wasn’t it? After getting knocked around on and off the field all season, the ACC found itself when it counted — the postseason — and (including Pitt & SU) managed a 5-3 slate, it’s first winning bowl record since 2005. If you want to include Louisville (and I sure do, given their big Sugar Bowl win), that brings the league to 6-3, with wins over the SEC (LSU & Florida), Big 12 (West Virginia) and Pac-12 (pre-season no. 1 USC). But sure, keep laughing at this league. They proved themselves and more during this year’s bowl season, and hopefully it’s a building block for even more excellent football.
1. Florida State Seminoles (12-2) (7-1) (LW: 1): Knock FSU for their schedule, their two losses (why are we criticizing a 12-win team again?) or their lack of a chance at a national title this season. But at the end of the day, they’re exactly where they were slated to be. The ‘Noles will be back in that conversation again this decade. It just takes some time, and this — winning both the ACC and the Orange Bowl — was the first step. Jimbo Fisher’s team will need to get past several big losses going forward, most notably Bjoern Werner and EJ Manuel, but the foundation’s there for a bright future.
2. Clemson Tigers (11-2) (7-1) (LW: 2): Despite not making it to a BCS bowl game, I’d say the Tigers’ consolation prize was still well-worth the trouble, no? On a national stage, Clemson beat mighty SEC’s LSU Tigers, and in the process, ended up being part of the most-watched non-BCS college football game in ESPN’s history. Most stunning in Clemson’s 25-24 victory, however, was the oft-maligned defense. Down 11 points heading into the fourth, the Bayou Bengals could’ve just run the clock out throughout the final stanza. Instead, it was Clemson that stayed strong, shutting out LSU and setting up a defining win for the Dabo Swinney era.
3. North Carolina Tar Heels (8-4) (5-3) (LW: 4): It’s tough to look at UNC’s 2012 season without imagining what could’ve been for a squad that seemed to finally turn the corner here in Larry Fedora’s first year. Knocking on the door of a division title for quite some time, the Heels finally put it all together, only to be ineligible for the postseason. So while it’s a disappointment for North Carolina fans to watch an eight-win season get laid to waste, it’s also built this program some street cred. Despite Giovani Bernard‘s departure to the NFL Draft, QB Bryn Renner will stick around for his senior year, meaning this team returns plenty of firepower; most of which this season only served as a preview for.
4. Syracuse Orange (8-5) (LW: 5): As if it was meant to be, Syracuse closed out their time in the Big East — the conference they built — by putting together its most impressive season in a decade. Up against one of the nation’s toughest non-conference schedules, and a top-heavy league to boot, the Orange still managed to win six of their final seven games. The exclamation point, however (on top of a split conference title), was their resounding victory over rival West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl. As someone who braved the cold to watch in-person, it was amazing to see this squad’s transformation from the season’s opening-week struggles to the machine-like execution against the Mountaineers.
5. Miami (FL) Hurricanes (7-5) (5-3) (LW: 3): The Hurricanes’ biggest victory this season should be the fact that they kept head coach Al Golden around for yet another year amidst this massive program overhaul. Following a promising regular season, the ‘Canes still chose to sit out the rewards, with the hope all will be forgiven by the NCAA. I’m not sure that’ll be the case, but it’s apparent the winds are shifting in the right direction down in Coral Gables with a stable of young talent.
6. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (7-7) (5-3) (LW: 6): Tech had no business playing against Florida State in the ACC Championship Game, and yet they took the ‘Noles down to the wire. Then the Jackets had no business playing USC in the Sun Bowl, and yet, they embarrassed the Trojans on both sides of the ball. Given how it all started — a 3-5 record, while also allowing 49 points to Middle Tennessee State (!!!) — this is about as positive an ending as one could hope for. And still, not too shabby.
7. Virginia Tech Hokies (7-6) (4-4) (LW: 9): Virginia Tech’s season in two words: not pretty. When they lost, they lost bad. When they won, the Hokies did so by the seat of their pants, and with little help from the offense (managed just 60 points total in their final three wins). But nonetheless, this was a resilient team in 2012, and one that was just 4-6 at November’s halfway point. Apparently overmatched in the Russell Athletic Bowl against Rutgers, they held their ground, as they had throughout the stretch run, and scored a big win over a team that was once 9-1 this year. Yes, Rutgers was incredibly overrated, but a win’s a win, and the Hokies did manage to score another pelt for the ACC during this bowl season.
8. NC State Wolfpack (7-6) (4-4) (LW: 7): The Dave Doeren era can’t come soon enough for NC State, who looked absolutely listless while getting shellacked by Vanderbilt in the Music City Bowl. If we learned anything from NC State this season, it’s that they’re the most “ACC” team of all-time (perhaps), beating the conference’s top team in FSU, while also getting smoked by UVA and struggling to keep Clemson under 70. No matter which players come back, this defense will be a major project for 2013, and that’s not the only shake-up with an offense that largely needs to be replaced as well.
9. Duke Blue Devils (6-7) (3-5) (LW: 10): Duke STILL hasn’t had a winning season since 1994, but you have to love the fight they put up for the large majority of their Belk Bowl loss to Cincinnati. When the game started, the Blue Devils were aggressive on both offense and defense, and looked like a team primed for a landmark postseason victory. And though it ended up not being in the cards (thank you, late 83-yard touchdown pass), it’s a blessing for the ACC to see Duke find success once again.
10. Pittsburgh Panthers (6-7) (LW: 8): Streaky all season, the trend continued for Pitt in the postseason as they performed very poorly against Ole Miss in a 38-17 drubbing. And thus ends a bizarre season in which the Panthers alternated two losses and two wins all year, and then lost the same pointless bowl game in Birmingham for the second straight season (and their third consecutive trip to the BBVA Compass Bowl). Like Miami, their biggest bright side is keeping their coach around — made all the more important by the fact that this is Pitt’s first offseason without head coaching turnover since 2010.
11. Virginia Cavaliers (4-8) (2-6) (LW: 11): Virginia played well down the stretch, but we can still count 2012 as a major disappointment for a program that appeared to be on the uptick. At least now, as we enter 2013, the quarterback controversy/carousel will grind to halt, though. Michael Rocco, once the starter down in Charlottesville, is transferring to Richmond. With a full offseason to prepare and the confidence of his coach, all eyes will be on Phillip Sims next year.
12. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (5-7) (3-5) (LW: 12): The state of Wake Forest athletics has got to be painful for the Demon Deacons faithful. And I mean that in a sympathetic way after watching the football team slog through one of the more mediocre and frustrating campaigns I’ve watched (yes, this is coming from a Syracuse fan). In case anyone needed reminding, the Deacs ranked 120th in total offense this year; the second time in the last three seasons they’ve been among the bottom 12 teams in that regard.
13. Maryland Terrapins (4-8) (2-6) (LW: 13): Speaking of inept offenses, just four FBS teams were worse off than the Deacons, and Maryland was one of them; ranked 123rd out of 124 teams (just over 284 yards per game). Of course, the Terps actually have an excuse for their ineptitude, most notably linebacker Shawn Petty playing quarterback for several games, but let’s stop writing excuses for these turncoats. They’ll fit in perfectly with fellow offensive bottom-dwellers Illinois (122nd), Iowa (117th) and Minnesota (111th) once they head off to the Big Ten.
14. Boston College Eagles (2-10) (1-7) (LW: 14): Is Steve Addazio the savior this program’s looking for? Quite possibly. I mean, I was half-convinced Addazio was the guy for ‘Cuse when the Orange hired Doug Marrone back in ’09, and why not? His impressive resume — stops at SU, Indiana and Notre Dame, with a lengthy stay on the Florida staff before turning the Temple program around — shows he’s put in the time, and has experience with excellent programs (save the Hoosiers, of course). Also, got to hand it to new AD Brad Bates on the upcoming football town hall he’s putting on. Great idea to try and revitalize a fan base that feels pretty beaten down right now.