Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
No conference compared to the ACC this season in terms of depth, competitiveness and unpredictability. The ACC redefined parity this season, as 10 of the 12 teams finished either tied for first or within a game of first, and an NCAA-record 10 teams are going to bowl games. The ACC had the lowest percentage of losing teams (2 of 12) in any conference in the history of college football.
For all of the chaos during the regular season, though, the ACC championship game reeked of familiarity, as Virginia Tech and BC met for the second straight season before a barely-there crowd, and the Hokies won their third ACC title in five seasons. Both teams epitomized the strength of the ACC this year -- defense.
More than half the league -- seven teams -- finished the regular season ranked among the nation's top 25 in total defense, including BC and Virginia Tech, which were both in the top 10. The offenses, though, struggled behind subpar offensive lines and inexperienced quarterbacks. There was an infusion of youth from Coral Gables to Chestnut Hill, and flashes of potential that should have ACC fans excited about the near future.
Two first-year coaches -- Paul Johnson and David Cutcliffe -- didn't need more than a year to make a difference.
|Kim Klement/US Presswire|
|Mark Herzlich led the Eagles with 105 tackles and had 11 tackles for loss.|
The league fared far better than many originally thought it would in the days after Clemson lost to Alabama, as the ACC went 6-4 against the SEC, its first winning record against the powerhouse conference since 2003.
Here are this year's awards for the ACC:
Georgia Tech B-back Jonathan Dwyer: He led the ACC with 110.7 rushing yards per game, but would have succeeded in any offense. He rushed for at least 100 yards nine times, and is tied for second in the ACC with nine touchdowns. He had 128 yards and two touchdowns in the first HALF of a critical Coastal Division win over Miami. Dwyer ran for 144 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-42 win over rival Georgia.
Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich: On a team that relied so heavily upon its defense, Herzlich's playmaking abilities were invaluable to the Eagles. He returned two of his team-high six interceptions for touchdowns, and had two fumble returns -- both of which were in the ACC title game. Herzlich led the Eagles with 105 tackles and had 11 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and seven pass break-ups.
Newcomer of the year
NC State quarterback Russell Wilson: Wilson was the difference in the Wolfpack's turnaround, and the biggest reason they're in a bowl game. Wilson led NC State to four straight wins to end the season, and has thrown just one interception all season. In his last eight starts, Wilson has thrown 16 touchdowns and no interceptions, a national-best and school-record streak of 226 passes without a pick. Wilson leads the ACC in pass efficiency at 134.3.
Coach of the year
Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson: Not only does his offense "work" in the ACC, it beats the SEC, too. Johnson enters the Chick-fil-A Bowl against LSU with a 2-0 record against the SEC, including the league's most impressive nonconference win, as he beat rival Georgia. His nine wins were the most by a first-year coach at Georgia Tech. He did it with an entirely new offense, a new defensive coordinator, injuries to 11 starters, and without the maximum 85 scholarships.
Boston College. Who would have thought that the Eagles would be playing for the ACC title in their first season without Matt Ryan, and without a proven running back? The Eagles lost their leading rusher and receiver from 2007, their punter and five starters on defense. BC was picked to finish fourth in the league and didn't get a single vote in the preseason Top 25. The Eagles lost five starters to injury en route to Tampa, including their quarterback.
Clemson. In the beginning, the Tigers disappointed their own fans. In the end, they disappointed many college football fans by sneaking into the Gator Bowl with five losses. Preseason No. 9-ranked Clemson started the season 1-4 in the conference and lost coach Tommy Bowden along the way. The Tigers lost one of the better defensive coordinators in the league in Vic Koenning after his defense helped propel them to a bowl game.
Game of the year
Georgia Tech 31, Florida State 28 -- This game came down to the final minute, when FSU's Marcus Sims fumbled in the end zone, ending the Noles' four-game winning streak and their chances at what Bobby Bowden said would have been one of the best comeback wins of his career. It was Georgia Tech's first win over Florida State since 1975, and the Yellow Jackets ended a 12-game losing streak to FSU.