The entire 2012 season is in the books. So what did we learn during bowl season?
1. The ACC had a rockin' bowl performance. You guys know as well as I do that the league did not exactly earn much national recognition for its performance in the regular season. The league only had two ranked teams and was forced to go with a 6-6 team in the ACC title game because of postseason bans. But who cares about the regular season when you have such an outstanding bowl season! The ACC went 4-2, its first winning bowl record since 2005, beating to a pulp the dismal 2-6 mark from a year ago. That means the ACC joined the SEC and Big East as the only leagues among the automatic qualifiers with winning bowl records. So sorry Big 12 (4-4), Pac-12 (4-4) and Big Ten (2-5). Better luck next year. You can check your ACC jokes at the door while you're at it.
2. Heavy D! By all accounts, this was a down year for defense in the ACC (outside of Florida State), if only because offenses exploded and set league records left and right. But when it counted most, defenses stepped up big time in the four ACC bowl wins. I have gone back and forth on which team had the most impressive performance: Florida State and its complete shut down of Jordan Lynch? Georgia Tech holding USC to seven points? Clemson with its best defensive performance of the season? Virginia Tech giving up less than 200 yards of total offense in a game that went into overtime? No sense in picking. They were all outstanding performances -- just what the ACC needed after an up-and-down season across the league.
3. The ACC can beat the SEC. So the ACC split against SEC competition during bowl season, with Clemson beating LSU and NC State losing to Vanderbilt, but that beats the dreadful performance in the final week of the regular season when the league laid a big ol' goose egg against its SEC opponents. The highlight, of course, was Clemson beating No. 8 LSU with a thrilling come-from-behind 25-24 win in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Not only was that game one of the best during bowl season, but the win marked the highest-ranked SEC team Clemson has beaten since taking down No. 6 Tennessee in the 2004 Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Tigers ended the year with the only two ACC wins over SEC competition. So maybe this should read: "Clemson can beat the SEC ..."
4. Duke still has a ways to go. Props to the Blue Devils for getting back to a bowl game, but this program still has a long way to go on the road toward respectability. Duke dropped its final five games of the season -- all to teams with winning records. In fact, it only beat one team with a winning record all season. There is no doubt that final stretch was brutal, but this team had opportunities to beat winning teams throughout the year. Duke blew first-quarter leads against Virginia Tech and against Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl and had its chances late against Georgia Tech. To take it to the next level, the Blue Devils have to find ways to win these games. Next season is absolutely critical for momentum.
5. So long Werner and Rhodes. The Discover Orange Bowl marked the last time we got to see Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner and cornerback Xavier Rhodes in Seminoles uniforms. Both players declared early for the NFL draft in the days after the win over Northern Illinois. No doubt both were major impact players on a defense that ended the year ranked No. 2 in the nation. Werner was a unanimous All-American selection and ACC Defensive Player of the Year; Rhodes was an All-ACC first-team selection as one of the top shutdown corners in the nation. Good luck to both as they embark on their new careers.