ACC football: the year in review

Monday night, I was supposed to appear on a podcast produced by the All Sports Discussion website.

The co-founders, whom you can find here and then over here, are terrific people. Their website is a go-to resource for ACC fans who want responsible yet passionate grassroots coverage of the league. Visit here (often). Follow the site on Twitter, too.

There was just one problem about that Monday podcast: I forgot to call in. We all have our excuses and sob stories, but ultimately, I should have called, and I failed. I apologized to the team at ASD — I owe them one.

All Sports Discussion prepared some questions for me. I want to make sure they get some publicity… and that their questions are answered before Christmas.

Here, then, as a courtesy to Matt and Jeff and everyone at All Sports Discussion, is my ACC year in review, football-style:


All Sports Discussion: Who is your team of the year, and which team disappointed you the most?

Clemson is the team of the year, and Georgia Tech was the biggest disappointment.

These aren’t terrifically difficult calls. North Carolina has an argument to make as the team of the year, given many underachieving seasons in the past. However, Clemson ran the table with a lot of new starters on defense and Chad Morris out the door, working at SMU. The Tigers answered so many questions the right way… but they answered several questions which weren’t even asked of them at the beginning of the season.

Georgia Tech’s collapse continues a remarkable pattern I wrote about over the summer… but did not expect to see in 2015: This program simply can’t stack great seasons together.  Sure enough, the trend continued this year… even though I thought the Yellow Jackets would be where Clemson is, representing the ACC in the playoff while the Pac-12 stayed home.

The inability of the offensive line — a seasoned offensive line — to perform is what shocked me the most about Georgia Tech. More narrowly, the team never recovered from the gack attack in the fourth quarter against North Carolina. That was the second-most pivotal ACC game of 2015, Clemson-Florida State being number one.

ASD: Who is your ACC coach of the year, and who’s on the hot seat for 2016?

Dabo Swinney’s growth as a coach and leader over the past several years has been a remarkable thing to watch. No Chad Morris this season? No problem. Attrition on defense? No problem. Dabo was such a frail leader — or at least, a man searching for the right way of doing things — in 2009 and 2010. His relentlessness has impressed on a number of levels; successful relentlessness is what makes me admire Dabo that much more. His is a special and inspiring story for young coaches thrust into positions of great responsibility. It’s possible to figure it out.

Dave Clawson of Wake Forest should sit on the hottest seat next season. The lack of growth and development in Winston-Salem is alarming. Would I recommend a pink slip if Wake struggles, though? No — this job is one of the toughest at the Power 5 level. However, with all the ACC coaching changes in the offseason, no one occupies a hotter seat. Boston College, North Carolina State, Louisville, and Duke do not need to pull the trigger on any moves. Wake is what’s left by process of elimination.

ASD: Give us your thoughts on some of the more recent coaching hires in the ACC.

Virginia Tech won the coaching carousel, and Miami finished second.

The key for Virginia Tech wasn’t bringing in Justin Fuente; it was bringing him in while convincing Bud Foster to stay on as defensive coordinator. That’s a tremendous head coach-coordinator combo. The Hokies should rock before too long.

Mark Richt should win a division title in Miami. Simply doing that will make the Hurricanes better and more relevant. His chess match with Bud Foster will be must-see TV in the coming years.

Syracuse did well with Dino Babers. I felt this is where the Orange needed to go, if not to Jeff Brohm. An offense-first coach is the right choice for a team which plays in a climate-controlled environment.

The only hire I didn’t like was Virginia’s selection of Bronco Mendenhall. I will admit that the Cavaliers should be better than they once were. However, I felt they could have aimed higher (Brohm, Brent Venables, Matt Rhule, Jeff Tedford, Troy Calhoun).

Realize this about Mendenhall: He reeled off several very successful seasons at BYU a number of years ago. Recently, though, he hasn’t won at the same level. BYU does schedule a lot of tough games, but an independent schedule offers several breathers as well. The ACC is getting better, especially on the coaching front, and I think Virginia needed a sharper mind in the newly-loaded Coastal.

As a late note, Mendenhall’s choice to bring offensive coordinator Robert Anae with him from BYU to Virginia is not a good one, from my vantage point. Virginia improved itself… but not by enough to matter (beyond getting to 6-6 and bowl territory, which the Cavaliers will achieve). Virginia will clear a low bar of expectations. I felt the Hoos could have raised the bar even more for their program.

ASD: How do you feel about the ACC’s chances in their bowl games?

Playoffs aside, North Carolina has to love its chances against Baylor, given the injuries which have befallen the Bears. Florida State should be too powerful for Houston, but the Seminoles do have to punch the Cougars in the mouth before Greg Ward makes plays with his legs or arm.

In other games, I think Frank Beamer will ride into the sunset with a win over Tulsa — that’s a good matchup for Virginia Tech. Pittsburgh will have a problem playing Navy in what is essentially a road game. Miami will have a tough time stopping Luke Falk of Washington State in the Sun Bowl. North Carolina State faces an uphill battle against Mississippi State and the Dak (Prescott) Attack. Louisville will beat Texas A&M because the Aggies seem to lose a quarterback every 3.4 seconds.

The playoff, the New Year’s Six, and North Carolina-Baylor are all huge games. Outside of those three contests, the ACC’s biggest bowl is Duke-Indiana in the Pinstripe. Duke needs to end a bowl victory drought of more than half a century. If the Blue Devils can do that and the big hitters can win their spotlight games (Clemson, Florida State, UNC), the ACC should feel great about its bowl season.

ASD: Who wins the College Football Playoff semifinals? How are you feeling about Clemson’s chances of winning the national title?

If you study Oklahoma’s history in championship-stage bowl games, the Sooners’ offense is the question mark.  Brent Venables shut down his former team in the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl. If he can limit OU again, Clemson should advance to the title game. Will he? Venables has a good chance. We’ll see if an Oklahoma offense can actually perform in a championship game… unlike the 2001 and 2005 Orange Bowls and the 2009 BCS National Championship Game.

I rate the game as a coin flip, but Oklahoma does give the appearance of a team which has figured things out both mentally and tactically. It’s a tough matchup for Clemson.

In the final, Clemson would have a great chance against either team. Alabama’s passing game is average at best (and that might be charitable). Michigan State must have Connor Cook healthy coming out of its semifinal with Bama, and that might not happen.

Oklahoma is the tougher game for Clemson. If the Tigers get past that obstacle, they will be hard to stop in Arizona.

ASD: Let’s talk about the ACC Network. When it was revealed that ESPN asked for a delay, it became a PR fiasco for the ACC with John Swofford having to make a statement that the story was premature. What’s your feeling on the whole process? Does the ACC need a network or some new revenue generator?

Let me put it this way: If the ACC Coastal’s coaching hires are as good as we all think they are, and if Miami becomes a big hitter again, the ACC will have what it wants. A network could help promote the conference, but in terms of a hierarchy of needs, having the coaching hires hit the mark is the first need.

Let’s briefly talk some ACC hoops, as that is also part of the Student Section’s mission.   Which ACC teams have impressed you so far this year?  How many ACC teams will be in the NCAA tournament in March?

Miami seems less erratic so far this season. Jim Larranaga and Team Tilde are not going to let an NCAA berth slip through their fingers in the coming months.

Virginia is getting used to the new foul rules and points of emphasis, but in March, the Cavaliers should be fine… as long as Michigan State isn’t in their bracket again. People look at the early exits the last two seasons, but Michigan State is kinda good. Those losses were more about MSU’s quality than UVA’s defects.

North Carolina State has shown a troubling inclination: It looks a lot like a typical N.C. State team — exasperating to no end. One could also say this is a typical Mark Gottfried team. Doing things the easy way? HELL, NO!

Georgia Tech has made some forward strides this season — I wasn’t expecting that. However, Brian Gregory then lost a game he couldn’t afford to lose: versus Georgia.

When the dust settles, I think eight teams will get in. Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Florida State, and N.C. State might all flirt with the bubble; three of the four will make it. North Carolina, Duke, Virginia, Louisville, and Miami should get in comfortably.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |