1. Clemson Tigers: Clemson handled their SEC in-state rival with ease, 56-7. Deshaun Watson put on an absolute passing clinic, throwing 26-32 (0.812), 347 yards, six touchdowns, and no interceptions. In addition to finishing the season with the ACC’s best record, Watson likely catapulted himself past fellow Heisman hopeful, Lamar Jackson. This Saturday, Clemson will face Virginia Tech at the ACC Championship game in Orlando, Florida. The Tigers have shown their belly a few times this season, namely their recent loss to Pitt and the OT win against NCSU. The Hokies are something of a wild card, and Clemson cannot take them lightly. Considering they are still feeling the sting of the home loss to the Panthers, it is unlikely the Tigers overlook the Hokies. Clemson remains the only realistic ACC entrant into the College Football Playoff. Should the Tigers fall to VPI, it is probable the ACC would not be represented in the Top Four.
2. Florida State Seminoles: For the fourth year in a row the Seminoles defeated their greatest rival, the then No. 15 Florida Gators. Considering Louisville’s performance, which there will be more about below, the Seminoles have put themselves in a position for a New Year’s Day Bowl Game.
3. Louisville Cardinals: What the hell, Louisville? I said last week that the matchup against Kentucky had all the makings of a letdown game, but I did not expect the Cardinals to actually lose to a 6-5 Wildcats squad at home! QB phenome, Lamar Jackson, arguably had his worst performance of the season. While he threw for 281 yards and two TDs and ran for 171 yards and two more TDs, he also threw three interceptions and lost a crucial fumble that set up UK for their game winning field goal. This is a really brutal loss, for Louisville and the ACC. Clemson, FSU, and Georgia Tech all defeated their SEC rivals this past weekend, while the Cards lost a game they should have easily won. Lamar Jackson probably lost the Heisman, and Louisville likely forfeited a chance for a New Year’s Day Bowl. 16 days ago we were discussing scenarios where the Cardinals could join Clemson in the CFB Playoff and now they finished the season on a losing streak and are looking at a second tier bowl game.
4. N.C. State Wolfpack: Well… that was a surprising win for the Wolfpack! In defeating the Tar Heels they earned that critical sixth win, qualifying for a bowl, likely saving their head coach, and salvaging what has been a very disappointing season. If NCSU can find a way to maintain a modicum of consistency they could become quite the factor in the Atlantic.
5. Boston College Eagles: Man, did the Eagles need that win! They too earned a sixth win, and qualified for a bowl berth. That being said, BC was very dependent on Wake Forest mistakes and miscues to squeak by, 17-14. The Eagles offense still barely qualifies for the moniker. They managed 74 whole yards in the air and 93 yards on the ground, for a grand total of 167 offensive yards. To put that in perspective, Lamar Jackson had more yards on the ground, in the Louisville loss, than the entire BC offensive effort. In the end, the Eagles won the turn over battle and took advantage of the opportunities provided to them.
6. Wake Forest Demon Deacons: Boston College did not beat Wake Forest. Wake Forest lost the game. The Demon Deacon’s offensive woes showed up in full force. WF only converted 2-15 third downs and 1-4 fourth downs… ouch. They were only able to generate 287 total yards – 137 in the air and 150 on the ground. What ended up being the deciding factors were turnovers and missed field goals. Wake lost a fumble, Wolford tossed two picks, and missed a 40-yard FG attempt that would’ve tied the game with 1:22 left in regulation. Wake has lost five of their last six and enter bowl season riding a three game skid. Regardless, this season has been a significant success for the Demon Deacons.
7. Syracuse Orange: The Orange is the only squad in the Atlantic that failed to qualify for a bowl. They finish the year 4-8, but not before writing their name into the college football record book. The Orange allowed Pittsburgh to score 76 points, while Pitt allowed 61 points to be scored. The two teams combined for 137 points, setting the FBS record for points scored during regulation. The Orange generated 668 total offensive yards, but also allowed 644. Although Syracuse only managed to match last season’s overall record, considering injury issues and state of the program, when Babers took over, there was incremental improvement and much to be excited about.
1. Virginia Tech Hokies: In case there was any question about which FBS program owns the state of Virginia, it has been answered. Rookie head coach, Justin Fuente, and the Hokies liquefied rookie head coach, Bronco Mendenhall, and the Cavaliers, 52-10. The game was over at the start of the second quarter when the Hokies executed a 99 yard scoring drive, which was punctuated by a 39-yard TD strike from Jerod Evans to Cam Phillips. The Hokies generated 579 offensive yards against a completely overmatched Hoo’s defense. VT’s attack was almost perfectly symmetrical. The Fighting Gobblers threw for 290 yards and rushed for 289 yards. In addition to the six offensive touchdowns the Hokies defense joined the fun when Andrew Motuapuaka scooped and scored on a 70-yard fumble recovery. Although the Hokies had locked up the Coastal when UNC was defeated by NCSU, VPI came out and played as if their season depended on it. Finishing 9-3, winning the Coastal, and earning a place in the ACC Championship game is an incredible accomplishment and not something that many thought the Hokies would achieve in Coach Fuente’s inaugural season. If the team’s performance wasn’t enough of an indicator, it is clear from the emotions of the players on the field, during the senior ceremony, that the buy in of Coach Fuente and his philosophy is complete. Winning the Coastal all but guarantees Mr. Fuente ACC Coach of the Year, and should at least result in him being part of the discussion for NCAA College Football Coach of the Year. This Saturday Virginia Tech will face their greatest challenge of the season when they travel to Orlando and play the Clemson Tigers in the ACC Championship game. Clemson is an elite squad that has aspirations of returning to the College Football Championship. Although they have shown some vulnerability, the Tigers have also shown, time and time again, the ability to respond to adversity. The one time they failed to respond occurred against Pittsburg, which happened recently enough for Clemson to still remember that pain and show up ready to play their hardest. Virginia Tech needs to execute at a level higher than they have all season to unseat Clemson. LET’S GO HOKIES!!!
2. Miami-Florida Hurricanes: Duke was able to hang around with The U for the first half of the game, but Miami took off in the third quarter and never looked back. Mark Richt had a fantastic initial season and the Hurricanes enter the bowl season riding a four game winning streak. Miami’s losses against FSU, UNC, and ND came with a combined deficit of only ten points. The only team to completely defeat the ‘Canes was VT. All of Miami’s victories were by multiple scores. The closest games were 14 point wins over GT and NCST.
3. North Carolina Tar Heels: UNC was completely dominated by the state of North Carolina. Three weeks ago the Tar Heels were 7-2 and in the hunt for the Coastal. Losses to mediocre Duke and NCST teams have resulted in UNC finding themselves out of the rankings and questions surrounding their validity. Wins over FSU and Miami seem to be a distant memory, and with the Hokies and Hurricanes rising it seems that the UNC star may be falling.
4. Pittsburgh Panthers: Deciding how to rank the Hurricanes, Tar Heels, and Panthers was very difficult. UNC has a one point victory over the Panthers and a solid win over Miami, but they just dropped two of their last three against middling competition. Pitt, on the other hand, is riding a three game winning streak that includes a surprising win over then No. 2 Clemson. The deciding factor for the Panthers is their passing defense. They have the 127th ranked passing defense, which is good enough for second to last in the FBS. Although Pitt eventually defeated the Orange, they allowed the second string Syracuse QB to hang 440 yards and five TDs on them. The Panthers have impressive wins over Penn State and Clemson and three of their four losses are by three points or less, but their passing defense deficiency is static and there has been zero improvement for the entire season. The reality is that the Panthers could easily be undefeated and a surprise CFB Playoff contender, if they simply had a middle-of-the-pack passing defense. The larger reality, though, is that they don’t, and it hasn’t gotten better. In fact, their passing defense has gotten worse. It’s such a large weakness that the majority of capable teams would be able to take advantage of it, nine times out of ten.
5. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: The only coach that might challenge Justin Fuente for ACC Coach-of-the-Year is Paul Johnson, and how he and his Yellow Jackets recovered after the resounding disappointment of 2015. GT has won five of their last six, including quality wins over then No. 14 Virginia Tech and a come-from-behind win SEC rival, Georgia. The Coastal is going to be an extremely interesting division (again) next season. As of this writing it seems that VT, Miami, and UNC are the primary contenders. That being said, Pitt and GT can certainly be influencing factors in the division.
6. Duke Blue Devils: Duke was overwhelmed by injuries in key positions for the entire year. Three of their four permanent team captains suffered season ending injuries. David Cutcliffe is an asset to college football and the ACC. I fully expect Duke to recover next year. I also think that Duke represents the largest wild card in the Coastal for 2017. Will they challenge for the Coastal next season? Likely not, but they ability does exist within the team. At a minimum, they will perform in a similar manner I think GT will, in that they will be a significant factor in the Coastal, even if they don’t compete for the ACC Championship.
7. Virginia Cavaliers: With their absolute devastation at the hands of Virginia Tech the Cavaliers tied their record for most losses in a season. Their last ten loss season was 2013 when they went 2-1 and then met with a nine game losing streak. This loss could be particularly painful for the next couple of years. The Hokies did a pretty solid job of defeating their regional recruitment rivals (ALLITERATION). In handling UNC, Miami, and UVA so definitively, two programs that also boast new head coaches, the Hokies have sent a message concerning the future of the Coastal division. This season was a deafening disappointment for the Hoos, and not what they were expecting from Bronco’s first crack. Not that I anticipate unrealistic expectations from the Virginia Athletics Department, but I find it hard to believe that the boosters or administration would tolerate another season that includes losses to teams like Richmond or Connecticut.
End of Regular Season ACC Rankings
The ACC looks more like the SEC, this year, than the SEC does. 11 of 14 teams in the ACC are bowl qualified. Eight of the 14 squads have records of 8-4 or better, while the SEC can only say that about four of their teams. Even the Big Ten only has seven units meeting that qualifier. The Big 12 has three, and the Pac-12 has six. Granted the PAC-12 and Big-12 have fewer teams than the Atlantic. When one looks at the losses suffered by ACC teams it becomes apparent that the majority of their losses came at the hands of conference competition, while they defeated the majority of Power-5 and FBS challengers. Excluding non-FBS competition the ACC went 30-13 (0.697) against non-conference foes. Breaking that down further the ACC defeated Power Five teams (including Notre Dame) 12-7 (0.631) and other FBS squads, 18-6 (0.750). Meanwhile, the conference competition largely cannibalized one another, and almost every team was capable of defeating any other, in the conference. I expect the ACC's ability to play and win outside the conference to translate nicely into the bowl season.
1. (AP No. 3 / Coaches No. 3) Clemson Tigers (11-1)
2. (No. 12 / No. 12) Florida State Seminoles (9-3)
3. (No. 16 / No. 15) Louisville Cardinals (9-3)
4. (No. 19 / No. 18) Virginia Tech Hokies (9-3)
5. Miami-Florida Hurricanes (8-4)
6. North Carolina Tar Heels (8-4)
7. (No. 24T / Unr.) Pittsburgh Panthers (8-4)
8. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (8-4)
9. N.C. State Wolfpack (6-6)
10. Boston College Eagles (6-6)
11. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (6-6)
12. Duke Blue Devils (4-8)
13. Syracuse Orange (4-8)
14. Virginia Cavaliers (2-10)