2015 was a typical year for the ACC. By typical of course, I mean one team outclassing the rest and trying to remove itself as far as possible from the negative connotations that “ACC football team” brings. The ACC has long been considered the worst of the Power 5 football conferences and did little to dispel that notion this season. Clemson did its best by not only reaching the playoff, but dispatching Oklahoma and going toe-to-toe with Alabama in what may have been one of the three best title games of all time. Florida State and North Carolina each won double-digit games but I think many, myself included, would say that was more a byproduct of the conference’s weakness than the strength of those two football teams.
Today we’ll take a look at the Good, the Bad, and the downright Ugly for each ACC team in 2015. As far as the Atlantic Coast Conference itself? The good could really only come from the aforementioned Clemson. The bad was harder to choose if only because there were so many more options, but we’ll go with defense, something that will be a common theme throughout this piece. Ten of the conference’s fourteen teams ranked 43rd or worse in scoring defense. The ACC misery saved its best (the Ugly) for last. That would be bowl season, where ACC teams not named Clemson went 3-5. Even those wins weren’t a lot to hang their hat on. Duke defeated Indiana who had one of the worst defenses on college football. Virginia Tech beat Tulsa, giving up 52 points in the process. Then there’s Louisville, who scored a 27-21 victory over a Texas A&M team that had just seen its top two quarterbacks transfer.
This article would have been much easier if it was just “The Bad and the Ugly”. Can we find some good from the 2015 season for each team? I gave it my best shot.
Boston College Eagles
Good – I mentioned defense in the intro. Well Boston College was one of the four ACC teams not abysmal on that side of the ball. BC ranked fourth in the country, allowing just 15.3 points per game. This included giving up just 34 to Clemson, 14 to Florida State, and 19 to Notre Dame. Sure they shortened games by running the ball a ton on offense, but only three times all year did they give up more than 20 points in a game.
Bad – As stellar as the defense was, the offense was the complete opposite. After the first two games of the season against non-D1 schools, Boston College didn’t top 17 points even once the rest of the year. Spearheading this vaunted offense was a leading passer that only had 464 yards on the season.
Ugly – We’re staying with the offense here. In a time when offenses are upping the tempo and putting up 40s and 50s left and right, the Eagles would struggle to outscore the Red Sox. BC put up 76 points against Howard the second week of the season. They then proceeded to score just 73 points COMBINED in their eight conference games. The cherry on top of this offensive ineptitude sundae was an October contest where they ran the ball 54 times and didn’t even get to 200 yards, getting shut out at home by Wake Forest.
Good – Does the whole season count? Clemson had its best season in recent memory, finding itself at the top spot every week of the playoff committee’s rankings. After losing most of the starters off college football’s top defense of 2014, the Tigers managed to have one of the best defenses again. DeShaun Watson, coming off a torn ACL, was a Heisman finalist in just his sophomore season and led the Tigers to the national title game. Though falling just short against the Alabama empire, Watson had a scintillating performance against the Tide defense that will propel him to be the Heisman favorite going into 2016.
Bad – It’s hard to find the bad for a team that started the year 14-0. In this spot we have to look at the defense, which might have to do more re-tooling for next year. Brent Venables did an incredible job in 2015 but it may take more next year. That’s because the Tigers may lose DE Shaq Lawson and CB Mackensie Alexander to the NFL draft, both of whom were stars of the Clemson defense. It always hurts to lose players early to the NFL, it hurts even worse when those players are just redshirt sophomores.
Ugly – The Tigers had every opportunity to win the championship on Monday night, but big plays allowed Alabama to stay in the game. They gave up a 50 yard touchdown run to Derrick Henry. Besides that long run, they held the Heisman winner to just 108 yards on 35 carries, barely over three yards per carry. The defense was also smothering QB Jacob Coker, but mental breakdowns allowed him to have a big second half. Blown coverages accounted for two 50+ yard touchdowns to OJ Howard, which also accounted for almost 1/3 of Coker’s passing yards. Then there was the back-breaking kickoff-return touchdown by Kenyan Drake. While Clemson’s offense consistently moved the ball on Alabama throughout the game, it felt the opposite for the Tide’s offense. Clemson shut down Alabama for longer stretches, but the coverage breakdowns allowed the Crimson Tide to not just stay in the game, but ultimately win it.
Duke Blue Devils
Good – While 2015 saw the fewest wins from the Duke football team in the last three years, it’s hard not to consider an 8-5 season a success for a basketball school. To top it off, they had the aforementioned bowl win against Indiana, a 44-41 OT thriller. It just so happened to be the first bowl win in 55 years.
Bad – The Blue Devils were riding high at one point, sitting at a stellar 6-1. Then the Miami game happened. And the last play lateral controversy happened. Duke didn’t handle the outcome of that ending well and it showed. They went on a slide that saw them lose three more games with the defense getting torched in all three.
Ugly – Duke had the unfortunate position of having to face a rival following that Miami game. Normally heading to Chapel Hill for a football game isn’t something you’d worry too much about, but this year happened to be the one wear Larry Fedora had the Tar Heels’ offense humming. The Blue Devils had their worst defensive performance in a year that was full of bad ones, giving up 66 points and over 700 yards in a game that was 38-10 at halftime.
Florida State Seminoles
Good – There are never really lowered expectations at Florida State, but after losing Jameis Winston and a plethora of defensive talent to the NFL, it’s hard not to consider the Seminole’s season a success considering the drop-off in QB play. Winning ten games in a down year tells you your program is in a good place. The brightest spot of the season had to be Dalvin Cook. Cook dazzled every time he was on the field and if not for a hamstring injury may have been a Heisman finalist.
Bad – Injuries. Cook’s injury was the biggest bummer for Seminoles fans. He only had 229 carries on the year (about 5 games for Alabama’s Derrick Henry) and basically missed two full games, robbing him of a shot at 2,000 yards. QB Sean Maguire’s injury in the bowl game was another tough one. While Maguire didn’t take over until the second half of the season and didn’t play all that great once he did, he was a reshirt junior who had waited a while for his chance. After waiting around another half of a season thanks to Everett Golson showing up, he was able to lead the Seminoles to a New Year’s Six bowl game but got hurt early on. He was able to finish the game but his play was clearly impacted by the injury.
Ugly – That bowl game. Maguire may have played injured, but that wasn’t the reason Florida State lost. Other aspects of the team were abysmal and it was clear Florida State was not nearly as amped up to be there as Houston. FSU rushed for just 16 yards and had five turnovers which were only partially to blame for giving up 38 points to an offense that had Greg Ward Jr. and not much else.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Good – Ugh..Umm. Can anybody help here? The Yellow Jackets had a dismal season from the start. One bright spot however was that Paul Johnson’s triple-option attack still resulted in the 7th most rushing yards per game in the country.
Bad – Here’s another team that more than struggled on the defensive side of the ball. The Yellow Jackets couldn’t put pressure on the quarterback (121st in sacks) or create turnovers (T-92nd in interceptions). The defense was at its worst during a five game mid-season stretch that saw them allow over 30 points in each game.
Ugly – This whole year couldn’t get over soon enough. Tech started the year in the Top 25 and after beating two doormats by a combined 134-16 to start the year it was hard to tell anything was wrong. After being ranked 14th heading into Week 3, the Yellow Jackets went 1-9 in their last ten games with their only win coming in improbable fashion, scoring a touchdown off a blocked field goal as time expired.
Good – The Cardinals began the year on some sleeper lists but that was quickly vanquished after starting 0-3. Though the opening season loss to Auburn isn’t exactly one to put on the resume, looking back the three-point losses to Houston and Clemson don’t look so bad. It would have been easy to fold after that start, but the Cardinals bounced back by finishing strong and winning eight of their last ten games.
Bad – You would expect teams to play worse on the road, but Louisville definitely underwhelmed away from home considering the talent level on the team. A couple of single-digit wins over NC State and Wake Forest hardly make up for getting crushed at Florida State and losing by 11 against Pitt.
Ugly – For a Bobby Petrino-led team, the offense was awfully hard to watch at times. Petrino couldn’t settle on a quarterback and it seemed like no matter if Lamar Jackson or Kyle Bolin were behind center, the offense could never find consistency. Jackson often dazzled as a runner, but was nowhere near good enough as a passer to provide the type of threat we’ve come accustomed to seeing out of Petrino passing attacks.
Good – The improvement of young offensive players. The Hurricanes started an incredibly young offensive line in its bowl game. Though the team lost, the line wasn’t a disaster and bodes well heading into next season. Sophomore RB Joe Yearby quietly surpassed 1,000 yards on almost five yards per carry and should grow with the offensive line. The brightest sign however was the improvement of sophomore QB Brad Kaaya. Kaaya improved his completion percentage and threw one less interception on 11 more throws.
Bad – Head Coach Al Golden was fired. While in the long run this was probably needed for the program, it’s a definite sign that things aren’t going well if the coach is getting fired.
Ugly – Part of the reason Golden got fired? How about a 58-0 loss to Clemson. At home. I don’t care who you’re playing, if you are a Power 5 conference team you shouldn’t lose by this much, especially at home. This game was embarrassing. Almost as embarrassing was Miami giving up 59 in a 38 point loss to North Carolina. Those two games put a dark cloud over an otherwise solid 8-4 regular season.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Good – The Tar Heels had one of the best seasons in school history, going 11-3 and not losing a conference game until the ACC Championship against title runner-up Clemson. It was led by a balanced and explosive offense that finished 11th in the country in scoring at 41 points per game.
Bad – Thanks to UNC’s loss to Clemson in the conference championship game, their opening season loss to South Carolina didn’t cost them an undefeated season and shot at the playoff. But man was that a bad loss. South Carolina went on to be a dumpster fire, with Steve Spurrier quitting in the middle of the year. Somehow that high-scoring Tar Heel offense was held to just 13 points by a team that’s only other wins on the year came against UCF and Vandy.
Ugly – UNC managed to one-up its opening season loss with its bowl performance, bookending its season with an equally embarrassing loss to Baylor. As good as the offense had been all year, the defense was just as bad if not worse in the bowl game. Going up against a team that had seemingly every offensive playmakers out and wasn’t a threat to pass, the Tar Heels allowed the Bears to rush for a bowl record 645 yards.
North Carolina State Wolfpack
Good – NC State was a mediocre team, just as their 7-6 record would have you believe. But unlike other undermanned squads (ahem, Miami) the Wolfpack didn’t roll over against superior competition. NC State brought their A game when they had to, losing by a respectable 17 at Doak Campbell against Florida State, by 15 to Clemson, and just 11 to North Carolina after giving their rival a scare for much of that game.
Bad – Overall it was a disappointing year, but particularly for Jacoby Brissett. Brissett came out of high school as a somewhat highly regarded prospect and after transferring to NC State following two years at Florida, he put up 23 touchdowns and just 5 interceptions for the Wolfpack in 2014 while adding over 500 yards on the ground. Because of this, he came into 2015 with some deep sleeper Heisman buzz and high hopes for his team. It never came together for either as the senior QB saw a regression in almost every passing category.
Ugly – The kicking game. Teams like Florida have gotten more national attention for their kicking woes, but NC State was right there with them, resulting in the team attempting the 7th most 4th down conversions in the country. Nothing outside of 30 yards was a gimme, as just 6/9 field goals from 30-39 yards were converted and a grand total of zero field goals made from beyond 37 yards.
Good – The run game for the Panthers showed that it isn’t just a one-man show. Lead back James Conner went down in the first game after running for 1,700 yards and 26 touchdowns last year. With an iffy passing attack, it was fare to wonder how Pitt would score. But Qadre Ollison stepped in and was a nice surprise, leading the Panthers ground attack finishing with a more than respectable 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns on 5.3 ypc.
Bad – Pitt had a good regular season, going 8-4 and hovering around the fringe of the Top 25 for much of the year. That’s what made the team’s bowl performance so disappointing. Even with extra weeks to prepare for Navy’s triple option offense, the Panthers defense was trampled, giving up four touchdowns to Keenan Reynolds.
Ugly – As nice of a surprise as the running game was post-Conner, the passing “attack” was not a surprise. It was awful. Pitt finished 95th in passing yards per game, a number you’d expect to see from a team like Georgia Tech or Navy. Further illustrating how ineffective the passing game was, the Panthers threw for less than 200 yards in 8 of the team’s 13 games.
Good – They say you need to defend home turf. Well as limited as Syracuse was talent wise, they did everything they could to give the hometown faithful something to cheer about. ‘Cuse went 4-3 at home with those three losses coming to Pittsburgh by just three, Clemson by just ten and LSU by just ten as well. That’s how you keep the Carrier Dome rockin’.
Bad – Ok maybe “rockin” wasn’t the right term for Syracuse home games. Though the Orangemen kept things close against good teams, it certainly wasn’t keeping the fans awake with an exciting offense. They struggled to score points and even though they ran the ball 139 more times than they passed it, they still only finished 76th in rushing yards per game.
Ugly – They must have spent all of their energy during home games, because Syracuse road games usually weren’t close. They lost all five contests away from home by an average of 18 points.
Good – There wasn’t much to cheer about for Cavaliers fans in a season that resulted in the team hiring a new coach, but Taquan Mizzell was a lone bright spot. Mizzell showed play-making abilities that at least gave fans hopes of a big play when the ball was in his hands. A running back, Mizzell actually had more yards receiving (721) than rushing (671) but scored four times each via both methods.
Bad – Like most bad teams, they can usual salvage something at the end of a bad season by beating a rival. Virginia had that opportunity in the season finale against Virginia Tech in a game they had control of in the fourth quarter. A defensive meltdown and turnovers allowed the Hokies to take it to over time and get the comeback win. On top of it, it gave Frank Beamer the opportunity to do this.
Ugly – Usually for bad Power 5 teams, the offense or defense is at least average. This was not the case for Virginia, where there was little hope no matter what side of the ball was on the field. Their scoring offense finished 93rd in the nation. Not to be outdone, the defense was 96th.
Virginia Tech Hokies
Good – Virginia Tech has slid from ACC powerhouse to mediocrity for the last few years and 2015 was no different. Considering Frank Beamer basically built the program, it was nice for the Hokies to not only get that comeback win against rival Virginia, but also send Beamer into retirement with a win, notching a 55-52 victory in their bowl game.
Bad – Even though the Hokies haven’t been relevant on the national scene in a while, folks in Blacksburg could still always rely on the defense to be nasty and make difficult for even the best of the opponents. But even that slipped in Beamer’s final year where the Hokies had just the 47th best scoring defense.
Ugly – Beamer dabbing, again. And I’m not just one of those people who hates what “the kids are doing these days” but I can’t stand the Dab to begin with and Beamer’s rendition frankly makes me cringe.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Good – Wake Forest was probably the toughest team to find something good for. I think QB John Wolford did enough to give Demon Deacon fans some hope for the future. Given that he was just a sophomore, he did about as reasonably well as you could expect in a five-game stretch that included games at North Carolina, home to Louisville, at Notre Dame, and at Clemson.
Bad – Believe it or not, Wake was actually 3-3 at one point with their eyes on a potential bowl bid. Their wins weren’t anything to write home about but they also played tough against Indiana and Florida State. And then reality hit and the team lost their last six, most in ugly fashion.
Ugly – 120th in scoring, as a Power 5 team, is unacceptable. Oh and 33 PLAYERS had more rushing yards than Wake Forest had as a team all season.
Featured Image courtesy of Lauren Nelson