1. Clemson Tigers: Making it to the CFB Championship game is no simple task. The fact that both Clemson and Alabama reached such a benchmark two years in a row is quite a statement from both programs. Clemson’s victory over Alabama is the punctuation mark of the overall 2016 effort from the ACC. Coupled with the ACC’s performance against Power Five competition, throughout the regular and bowl season, it is clear the ACC was the undisputed best conference in 2016. Congratulations to Clemson! They will likely be losing Watson, and other key starters, to the NFL Draft. There will gaps to fill, but I fully expect the Tigers to remain amongst the college football elite.
2. Florida State Seminoles: The Seminoles had some sloppy plays against the Michigan Wolverines. FSU and the referees provided several gifts to Michigan, and the Wolverines had plenty of opportunities to take control of that game, but the Seminoles just kept coming back. It is a testament to the nerve and relentless effort of Florida State that they could stick with it and win. Regardless of the manner of victory, the Seminoles defeated a Big 10 team that many felt should have had a place in the CFB Playoff. Considering the starters Clemson will likely lose, FSU is set up to win the Atlantic and make their second appearance in the playoff.
3. Louisville Cardinals: It certainly did not help that the Cardinals’ offensive coordinator, Lonnie Galloway, was suspended for his role in the Wakeyleaks scandal. Regardless, losing so convincingly to a Leonard Fournette-less Louisiana State Tigers team can easily lead one to believe that the FBS has figured out how to mitigate Louisville. The Cards finish the season with a three-game skid including losses to Houston and Kentucky, who also lost their respective bowl games. Looking ahead to next season, Louisville is an enigma. If the team that devastated Florida State shows back up they will be in the playoff hunt. If Jackson is, in fact, able to be marginalized, the Cardinals will have a hard time repeating the success of the first ten games of 2016.
4. Wake Forest Demon Deacons: It is impossible to accurately determine the effect of the Wakeyleaks scandal that plagued the Deacons post regular season. Louisville admitted to receiving information and Army was also implicated. Two games that Wake lost. Furthermore, there is no way to really determine if they were the only teams to receive information. The Demon Deacons handily defeated the No. 24 AAC champion Temple Owls. One cannot help but think about what the 2016 WF team would have been able to accomplish if there had not been a traitor in their midst, and they hadn’t suffered such injuries on offense. Head coach, Dave Clawson, has the Demon Deacons set up to be quite the factor in the ACC, even if they won’t necessarily be in the hunt for the Atlantic.
5. N.C. State Wolfpack: The ACC to the SEC: Our six win teams are better than your six win teams.
6. Boston College Eagles: The ACC to the Big Ten: Our six win teams are better than your six win teams.
7. Syracuse Orange: The Orange did not have a post season appearance… for now.
1. Virginia Tech Hokies: First in the Coastal and first in our hearts, the Virginia Tech Hokies! After disturbing losses to the Tennessee Volunteers and the Syracuse Orange there were questions about the Hokies’ ability to answer when facing adversity or playing from behind. As the season progressed that concern was assuaged. The most resounding response occurred during the Belk Bowl when VPI responded to a 0-24 deficient to not only win, but cover the spread, in the program’s largest comeback. The Hokies have already hemorrhaged significant offensive talent with Ford, Hodges, and Evans all declaring for the 2017 NFL Draft. But, they have talent waiting in the wings with C.J. Carroll, Divine Deablo, and Joshua Jackson. Although VT had a phenomenal season under first year coach, Justin Fuente, I expect them to take a step back during the 2017 season. The Hokie faithful must be patient and allow Coach Fuente to collect the requisite talent to fully implement his desired offense. Virginia Tech will likely be favored to repeat as Coastal champions, but the division will remain, as usual, very competitive deep into the regular season.
2. Miami-Florida Hurricanes: The then unranked Hurricanes scored a solid victory against a top-25, non-conference, Power Five opponent when they unseated the then No. 16 West Virginia Mountaineers. Miami finished the season with a five-game winning streak, in which all the victories were by double digits. Although QB, Brad Kaaya, has declared I expect Miami and VT to be the primary teams vying for the Coastal crown in 2017.
3. North Carolina Tar Heels: Granted they did not have McCaffrey on the field, but the Stanford Cardinal is a solid football program. The Tar Heels should not hang their head after such a hard-fought game. I fully expect UNC to continue being a factor in the Coastal, but the loss of Trubisky to the draft and the resurgence of VT and Miami leads me to believe that their star is likely fading.
4. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: GT did what Louisville couldn’t and defeated the Kentucky Wildcats. Furthermore, they did it by double digits. I am not surprised that the Yellow Jackets recovered from their abysmal 2015 effort, but I do feel that Paul Johnson’s triple option has limited viability in Power Five play. The Yellow Jackets, like UNC, will still be a factor in the Coastal, but I do not see them challenging for the division championship.
5. Pittsburgh Panthers: The Panthers easily suffered the most disappointing loss, for the ACC, during the bowl season. Yes, I understand that they lost their starting QB and RB in the second half, but there were plenty of opportunities to win this game. In the end, it came down to what it always has for Pittsburgh: their defense. Pitt allowed a 6-6 Northwestern team to methodically move the ball with a balanced attack, including a three TD, 224-yard effort from Wildcats RB, Justin Jackson. The Panthers also lost the turnover battle, 2-4. Next season they will join UNC and GT as potential factors in the Coastal, but have little chance to compete for the division, especially with the loss of former All-American running back, James Conner.
6. Duke Blue Devils: As was mentioned before, the Blue Devils suffered significantly from early season-ending injuries to key starters. Although not a likely challenger for the Coastal, I fully expect Duke to return to the post season.
7. Virginia Cavaliers: A complete dumpster fire. UVA is in need of a total remodel. It is difficult to ascertain whether the abysmal 2016 season is a result of the previous regime or the reality of Bronco Mendenhall’s ability. Undeniably, the Cavaliers performed better as the season progressed, but ended the year with arguably their worst performance when the Hokies extended their win streak to 13 years. I personally think it is too soon to make an assessment, but Bronco is going to need to perform better next year, or his tenure in Charlottesville may be short lived.
Final 2016 Season ACC Rankings
In the End of Regular Season ACC Rankings, I wrote that the ACC looks more like the SEC than the SEC does. That was before the bowl season kicked in, and after the bowl season it seems that my assertion is confirmed. From top to bottom the ACC was the best conference in 2016. Including the national championship, the ACC had the best bowl record, by far, at 9-3. After the ACC, referencing the Power Five, the Big 12, at 4-2, has the best percentage of winning bowls. For conferences with comparable bowl appearances one must look at the SEC who sits at 6-7. The ACC also had 51 non-conference wins, which is the most of all CFB conferences. The ACC was 5-0 against the Big Ten East, which was the CFB division widely regarded as the best in the nation. PSU lost to Pitt. OSU lost to Clemson. Michigan lost to FSU. Indiana lost to Wake Forest. Maryland lost to Boston College. The ACC has three CFB National Championship appearances in the last four years, and two victories. Without a doubt the ACC is finally developing into the dominant conference that was envisioned when the expansion was started in 2004.
1. (No. 1 AP / No. 1 Coaches) Clemson Tigers (14-1)
2. (No. 8 / No. 8) Florida State Seminoles (10-3)
3. (No. 16 / No.16) Virginia Tech Hokies (10-4)
4. (No. 20 / No. 23) Miami-Florida Hurricanes (9-4)
5. (No. 21 / No. 20) Louisville Cardinals (9-4)
6. North Carolina Tar Heels (8-5)
7. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (9-4)
8. Pittsburgh Panthers (8-5)
9. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (7-6)
10. N.C. State Wolfpack (7-6)
11. Boston College Eagles (7-6)
12. Duke Blue Devils (4-8)
13. Syracuse Orange (4-8)
14. Virginia Cavaliers (2-10)