Move over, SEC. There’s a new sheriff patrolling the upper-echelon of college football.
Okay, so that’s a little hyperbolic. But the conference with the most successful bowl season for 2016 has been the ACC, which enters the College Football Playoff national championship game with an 8-3 mark—its most bowl wins ever in a postseason. There’s the opportunity for one more as Clemson, the ACC champion, will battle No. 1 Alabama for the crown on Monday night in Tampa, FL.
Despite the SEC sending 12 teams to postseason showcases and the Big Ten being represented by four teams with at least 10 wins—Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin—it has been the ACC that has impressed the most during the 2016-17 postseason.
As we head into the final game of a wild season, here is how the conference bowl records stand for the Power Five leagues:
Big 12: 4-2
Big Ten: 3-7
Could any college football observer have envisioned such success for the ACC?
Well, this wasn’t an overnight shift. Since Florida State broke the SEC’s seven-year streak of national championships with its Jameis Winston-led title run, the ACC has been getting stronger and stronger as the likes of Clemson and others recognized the importance of improving their football programs to compete with the Seminoles. Now, the Tigers are one win away—for the second year in a row—from claiming a national title. Even if he falls short, Dabo Swinney has essentially made Clemson an SEC squad.
Meanwhile, FSU should enjoy a bounce back season in 2017, and programs such as Virginia Tech, Miami, Pitt and North Carolina are improving and making the league much deeper than it has ever been.
It’s a great time to be associated with the ACC, which is the healthiest it’s been in the post-expansion era.
Let’s take a look back at how the ACC has fared this postseason.
Quick Lane Bowl: Maryland vs. Boston College
Did any college football fan expect offensive fireworks in this one? The Eagles claimed a 36-30 win in a game that was supposed to be a defensive battle. Boston College came in with the nation’s eighth-ranked defense, though the Terrapins had 27 points by the end of the third quarter. Meanwhile, the Eagles had not scored more than 26 points this season against a Power Five team, yet they had 29 points by halftime.
BC head coach Steve Addazio was likely disappointed with his team’s defensive effort, but there’s no question that he enjoyed the win. The Eagles last won a bowl game in 2007 and will look to build off of the win this offseason. We know that BC’s defense will be stingy year in and year out, but Addazio must be able to field a more consistent, competent offense if the Eagles want to be serious league contenders.
Independence Bowl: NC State vs. Vanderbilt
The Wolfpack dominated the Commodores in Shreveport, as quarterback Ryan Finley connected with tight end/fullback Jaylen Samuels for three touchdowns passes in a 41-17 win. NC State won three of its final four games to finish with a winning record as the ‘Pack built a 28-3 lead by midway through the third quarter.
This was a team that underachieved this season, suffering some tough, close losses—including a near-upset of Clemson. But head coach Dave Doeren needed to finish strong, and his ‘Pack did against a Vandy team that had wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee to end the regular season. 2017 will be an important year for him, as the talent base has improved in Raleigh, meaning that more is expected.
Military Bowl: Temple vs. Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons had ended the regular season on a three-game losing streak and losers of five of their last six, but Dave Clawson—who received an eight-year contract extensionon Tuesday—finished the year on a high note with a 34-26 win over Temple, which gave Wake its first winning season in eight years. Much like Boston College’s surprising offensive performance, Wake fans were probably stunned to see quarterback John Wolford help the Demon Deacons rattle off 31 straight points before halftime.
Wake won more games this season (7) than in Clawson’s first two years combined (6), and the win over the AAC champion Owls was an impressive way to end the year. This is a team that reminds me of the Vandy squads that James Franklin had when he was in Nashville.
Pinstripe Bowl: Pitt vs. Northwestern
The Panthers were unable to contain star Wildcats running back Justin Jackson, who ran for 224 yards and three touchdowns to help Northwestern claim its third bowl victory in program history, 31-24. Pat Narduzzi’s squad also had to deal with injuries to quarterback Nathan Peterman and running back James Conner, but it never quit against the ‘Cats.
It was a successful 2016 campaign for the Panthers despite the disappointing loss in the finale, as they finished with victories over Big Ten champ Penn State and ACC champ Clemson. But the Panthers do have to replace the inspirational Conner in the backfield and find a new offensive coordinator, as Matt Canada has assumed the same position at LSU. Narduzzi, a defensive guy, also has to improve a pass defense that was woeful. But there’s no doubt that the Panthers will be a tough “out” every Saturday against upper-echelon ACC squads.
Russell Athletic Bowl: West Virginia vs. Miami
The Hurricanes received a huge game from star quarterback Brad Kaaya to end the school’s 10-year bowl-victory drought, as he threw four touchdown passes in a 31-14 win over the Mountaineers. There was a stretch in which he went 18-of-19 passing, although Mark Richt will need to replace that production with Kaaya going pro.
All in all, Richt had a successful first season at his alma mater, as he has started to change the culture in Coral Gables. Of course, eventually, the Hurricanes will need to start competing with and beating the likes of Clemson and Florida State in the ACC for the Richt tenure to be considered a success.
Belk Bowl: Arkansas vs. Virginia Tech
The Hokies enjoyed an incredible comeback win, fighting back from a 24-0 halftime deficit to claim a 35-24 decision over the Razorbacks to win 10 games in a season for the first time since 2011. That was kind of VT’s thing this year, though, as Justin Fuente’s squad came back from a 17-0 deficit to beat Notre Dame and nearly overcame a two-touchdown deficit in the ACC championship game against Clemson.
The Hokies would later receive crushing news, though, as dual-threat QB Jerod Evans announced that he would enter the 2017 NFL Draft. Fuente knows quarterbacks and will be able to recruit his type of QBs to Blacksburg, but Evans was in line for a special 2017 campaign if he came back to the Hokies. Still, the marriage of Fuente’s offense and Bud Foster’s defense is a scary thought for ACC foes.
Sun Bowl: Stanford vs. North Carolina
The Tar Heels fell to the Cardinal, 25-23, as Bryce Love filled in nicely for Christian McCaffrey at running back. UNC pulled within two with 25 seconds left on quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s 2-yard pass to Bug Howard, but Trubisky was sacked on the two-point conversion try. It is still not known whether or not Trubisky will return next year, and it would be a big loss for a UNC team that lacks experience at the position. However, Larry Fedora is known to field productive offenses, so expect the Tar Heels to remain competitive either way. Trubisky is projected as a possible first-round pick, so it would be surprising if the former Ohio Mr. Football returns. Fedora’s name has been linked to head-coaching openings the last few offseasons for a reason. As long as he stays in Chapel Hill, UNC football will be on the rise.
Orange Bowl: Michigan vs. Florida State
Jimbo Fisher and Co. received a nice final performance from star tailback Dalvin Cook, who faced the Wolverines in his own backyard. Cook rushed for 145 yards and a touchdown, as the ‘Noles held on to beat the Wolverines, 33-32, in a game that FSU controlled most of the way before needing a rally in the final moments. Quarterback Deondre Francois completed only nine passes, but he threw for 222 yards and showed a toughness all season that is rare for a redshirt freshman signal-caller.
FSU had designs on a College Football Playoff berth, so there’s no question that 2016 was a disappointment. But Fisher and his staff made sure this team did not tank the rest of the season after some early losses. And we know that talent will never be the issue in Tallahassee. The annual FSU-Clemson tilt will continue to have CFP ramifications.
Citrus Bowl: LSU vs. Louisville
Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals did not finish their 2016 season strong, as they dropped three straight to Houston, Kentucky and LSU after being in the CFP mix for the majority of the year. Before the loss to the Cougars, though, the Cardinals had only the close road setback to Clemson. Jackson was sacked 22 times over his final three games, so he had no chance to even try to carry the Cards because he didn’t have time to throw or holes to run through.
Still, this is far from the Louisville program we saw in C-USA and the AAC. Bobby Petrino has it on the map now. The key now is to continue to further develop that depth and improve the talent base across the roster.
Taxslayer Bowl: Georgia Tech vs. Kentucky
While Paul Johnson still wasn’t completely satisfied with his offense this season, he had to be pleased with the campaign put together by freshman Dedrick Mills, who ran for a career-high 169 yards and a touchdown in a 33-18 victory over Kentucky. Mills will be a big part of this offense moving forward, especially with quarterback Justin Thomas moving on and fellow running back Marcus Marshall transferring. But he must take care of himself off of the field, too, as he dealt with two suspensions this season.
GT will play its third straight game against an SEC foe when it opens 2017 against Tennessee on Labor Day in Atlanta. Johnson’s team bounced back beautifully from a disastrous 2015 campaign, and he has two Orange Bowl appearances to his credit. So you never know when GT can rise up and have a surprise breakthrough year in the league.
Fiesta Bowl: Clemson vs. Ohio State
Swinney’s Tigers will be the opponent for Alabama for the second straight season in the College Football Playoff national championship game after crushing Ohio State, 31-0, in the Fiesta Bowl. After claiming consecutive ACC titles for the first time in 28 years, Deshaun Watson and Co. are trying to bring home a national championship to Clemson for the first time since 1981. Swinney is looking for his first national title, and—although Alabama has proven to be the nation’s best team this year—this is Swinney’s best chance thus far.
Clemson will be looking to deliver the ACC its ninth victory in 12 tries this postseason, which would be a real coup for a league that is finally starting to get recognized nationally for being a premier conference. A win by the Tigers over the Crimson Tide on Monday night would really put the league on the national map, especially because it would leave the SEC—long considered the standard of excellence—with a losing mark this postseason.