Defying expectations was the theme of the ACC in 2011, for better (Clemson and Virginia) or for worse (Florida State). This was supposed to be the year of the Seminoles. Florida State began the season ranked No. 6 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25, but quickly stepped into the shadows from which Clemson and Georgia Tech emerged. Both programs, a year removed from losing seasons, started the season with perfect 6-0 records and appeared headed for a collision between undefeated teams, but Georgia Tech couldn’t maintain its course and lost back-to-back games at Virginia and Miami. As it turned out, Virginia’s win wasn’t a fluke.
The Cavaliers, in only the second season under coach Mike London, added a twist to this year’s Coastal Division race -- by being in it. The Hoos were picked to finish fifth in the division, and after a 2-2 start, that seemed about right. Virginia had other ideas, though, and won six of its next seven games to set up a division championship game in the regular-season finale against Virginia Tech. The Hoos were beaten soundly 38-0, and one of the few predictions of the preseason came to fruition with the Hokies repeating as division champs.
Unfortunately for Virginia Tech, the Hokies also repeated losses to Clemson.
Clemson, which lost three of its final four games of the regular season after an 8-0 start, found a way to win the games that mattered most this year and beat Virginia Tech soundly twice. The Tigers played their best game of the season in the ACC championship game to win their first league title since 1991. With a first-year starting quarterback (Tajh Boyd) and a new offensive coordinator (Chad Morris) Clemson exceeded expectations from the start when it reeled off three straight wins against ranked opponents Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech in a span of three weeks.
The Tigers were able to finish what they started, while other programs just couldn’t wait to finish.
At Maryland, first-year coach Randy Edsall went backward. He inherited a nine-win bowl team and the ACC’s 2010 rookie of the year in quarterback Danny O'Brien and finished with a miserable 2-10 record and a quarterback controversy that ended only because O’Brien was hurt.
At Miami, a widely publicized NCAA investigation that was revealed during summer camp was the ultimate surprise for first-year coach Al Golden, who had to enter his season opener against Maryland with eight players suspended. Golden ended the season with yet another surprise. After clawing and scraping to become bowl-eligible, the team was told after its sixth win that it would decline a bowl invitation as a pre-emptive strike against expected NCAA sanctions.
There were plenty of surprises throughout the season this year, but possibly none bigger than Virginia Tech’s selection to the Sugar Bowl, which gave the ACC two BCS bowl teams for the first time in the existence of the BCS. It was a fitting end to another season in the ACC which turned out to be anything but what most were expecting.
OFFENSIVE MVP: Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. There’s a reason he was in the Heisman conversation during the first half of the season. He was the unanimous choice for the MVP of the Dr Pepper ACC championship game, and despite some struggles late in the season, Boyd came through in the clutch and had a record-setting season. He threw for 240 passing yards and three touchdowns in the title game against Virginia Tech, and added another rushing touchdown. He finished with 31 touchdown passes and five rushing for the season for a school-record 36 total in terms of touchdown responsibility. Boyd also set the school record for passing yards and total offense in a season. Boyd enters the Discover Orange Bowl with 3,578 passing yards, and 3,764 total yards.
DEFENSIVE MVP: Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly. He won the Butkus Award and finished the season with 191 total tackles, including 102 solo, and three interceptions, including one for a touchdown. Kuechly has 532 career tackles, including 299 solo tackles, in 37 career games and is averaging 14.0 tackles per game and 7.9 solo tackles per game. All four standards are unmatched among active collegiate football players. He also broke the school's career record of 524 tackles (formerly held by linebacker Stephen Boyd) in his 37th collegiate game, and registered the top two single-season tackle totals in ACC history (191 in 2011 and 183 in 2010). He has registered 10 or more tackles in 33 (of 37) games since making his collegiate debut against Northeastern on Sept. 5, 2009.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins. His five catches for 80 yards against Virginia Tech set the school record for receiving yards in a season. He now has 77 receptions for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns. He tied the Clemson season record for touchdown receptions. Watkins now has 12 total touchdowns, tying C.J. Spiller’s record for touchdowns in a season by a freshman. Watkins had 157 all-purpose running yards against the Hokies and went over 2,000 for the season. He is the second Clemson player to do that joining C.J. Spiller, who had a record 2,680 in 2009. Watkins now has 2,077 entering the bowl game.
COACH OF THE YEAR: Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. He led the Tigers, who were unranked this preseason, to the ACC championship this past Saturday with a 38-10 victory over No. 5 Virginia Tech. It was Clemson’s first ACC championship since 1991. Clemson finished 15th in the final BCS standings, tied for its highest finish in the BCS. Swinney guided the Tigers to a 10-3 record overall, including four wins over Top-25 teams, tied for the second most in the nation and the most in one season in school history. Earlier in the year, Clemson defeated Top 25 teams from Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech on consecutive weeks, the first ACC team to defeated teams ranked in both polls in three straight games. The 10 wins are the most for the Clemson program since the 1990 season.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Virginia. That loss to Southern Miss doesn’t seem all that bad now, does it? The Hoos rebounded from a 2-2 start to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007 and were one win away from the Coastal Division title. Virginia to the Chick-fil-A Bowl? Surprise.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: The nonconference record. Florida State was the ACC’s biggest disappointment during the midseason report, but collectively, the ACC’s record against the big boys added up to a bigger flop. Florida State came up short against Oklahoma, Clemson lost to South Carolina for a third straight time and Georgia Tech fell to Georgia. The ACC finished with a 3-3 record against the Big East, 1-2 against the Big 12, 0-1 against the Pac-12, 2-3 against the SEC and 0-3 against Notre Dame. Ugh.
BEST GAME: The best game was Virginia Tech versus Miami, but the most memorable one was NC State’s surreal comeback over Maryland. There was better football in Blacksburg, where Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas scored with 56 seconds remaining to give the Hokies the win. What happened in Raleigh, though, was astounding. NC State trailed Maryland 41-14 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter and overcame a 27-point deficit to beat the Terps 56-41. It was the biggest comeback in school history and the second-biggest comeback in ACC history. NC State scored 35 points in the fourth quarter to become bowl-eligible.