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Tuesday, December 8, 2009
2009 ACC conference overview

By Heather Dinich

The ACC entered this season with high hopes for a national title contender, and by the sixth week of the season -- when Virginia Tech held the No. 4 ranking in the country -- it seemed to be a realistic goal. Not only were the Hokies in the mix, but Miami was ranked No. 9, and with only one loss each, both teams seemed capable of great seasons.

Only Georgia Tech, though, was left standing.

Virginia Tech’s stumble against Alabama in the season opener wasn’t entirely a shock, nor was it a huge blow to the conference’s image, as the Hokies looked respectable in their 34-24 loss to the Tide. It was the back-to-back Coastal Division losses to Georgia Tech and North Carolina that sent the Hokies tumbling out of the championship pictures. For Miami, which successfully navigated its way through an unforgiving four-game start to the season, the 40-37 overtime defeat to unranked Clemson was tough to swallow, but it was the loss to North Carolina that closed the door on the Canes’ BCS hopes.

While the Coastal Division eventually handed the reins to the most consistent team of the season and eventual ACC champ - Georgia Tech -- the Atlantic Division was turned upside down. Two first-year coaches -- Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Boston College’s Frank Spaziani -- edged out the veterans in their division and fought for the top spot in the standings until Nov. 21, when BC’s loss to UNC guaranteed the Tigers a spot in the ACC championship game before they even set foot on the field to play Virginia.

Ryan Williams
Ryan Williams finished the regular season ranked fifth in the country in rushing yards per game.
Clemson, which started out 2-3, finally exceed expectations instead of disappointing fans, and Boston College earned the overachievers award after forging through a season with two new coordinators and a 25-year-old rookie quarterback nicknamed “Uncle” Dave Shinskie. The entire conference rallied around BC linebacker Mark Herzlich, who was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma cancer but vowed to return in 2010.

Florida State, which was predicted to win the Atlantic Division, hit rock bottom with a 0-3 conference record in October. It prompted a closed-door meeting of high-ranking officials to discuss the future of the program -- a meeting that foreshadowed Bobby Bowden’s eventual retirement. Bowden was hardly the only coach in the ACC, though, that was scrutinized this year. Virginia coach Al Groh was fired shortly after his loss to rival Virginia Tech, and Ralph Friedgen’s job security was questioned for months leading up to the Terps’ 2-10 finish.

Losses to nonconference opponents were a factor in all three of those coaches’ evaluations, as FSU lost to Florida, Maryland lost to Middle Tennessee for a second straight season, and Virginia lost to William & Mary. The ACC struggled again in its nonconference opportunities, as Georgia Tech and Clemson both lost to their in-state SEC rivals, leading to the ACC's 2-5 record against the SEC, but Virginia Tech helped with a win over Nebraska, NC State beat Pitt, Miami defeated Oklahoma, and Wake Forest’s win over Stanford now seems all the more impressive.

Overall, there were plenty of positive signs for the conference this year. Florida State has finally figured out which direction it’s headed, Duke made remarkable progress in just the second season under coach David Cutcliffe and was within arm’s reach of bowl eligibility, and the ACC championship game saw a significant boost in attendance. Although there was a drop-off in bowl eligible teams -- from an NCAA-record 10 to seven -- the ACC did will enter the bowl season with three teams -- Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Miami -- ranked among the top 15 in the BCS standings.

Offensive MVP – Clemson running back C.J. Spiller. He had three 300-yard games this year, including arguably his best performance of the season, which came in the ACC championship game. Spiller ran for a career-high 233 yards and four touchdowns on 20 carries in the loss to Georgia Tech, and has 1,145 rushing yards this year. His four kickoff returns for touchdowns equaled the total for the 11 other ACC teams combined this year.

Defensive MVP – Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan. He should be a top 15 overall pick in the NFL draft, according to Todd McShay, and is currently sixth in the country in sacks and tied for 18th in tackles for loss. Only one other player in the country has matched his 12.5 sacks, and he has 18 tackles for loss.

Newcomer of the Year – Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams. He finished the regular season ranked fifth in the country in rushing yards per game, third in total rushing yards and tied for third in rushing touchdowns. He became the first Tech freshman to rush for 100 or more yards in four straight games. His 1,538 rushing yards are the fourth-most in ACC single-season history. He set the ACC freshman touchdown record with his 20th score, and had nine 100-yard rushing games.

Coach of the Year – Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson. In just his second season, Johnson won the program’s first outright conference title since 1990, guided the Yellow Jackets to the school’s first appearance in a BCS bowl since 1967, a No. 9 ranking in the BCS standings this week and an 11-win season. Only three teams in ACC history have won 12 games in a season, but Georgia Tech could become the fourth with a win over Iowa in the bowl game. With the 39-34 win over Clemson in the ACC title game, Johnson improved to 10-1 in games decided by five points or less while at Georgia Tech.

Biggest surprise – Boston College. The Eagles (8-4, 5-3 ACC) were picked by the media this past summer to finish last in the Atlantic Division, but instead BC was in the hunt to win its division for the third straight year until late November. Under the direction of first-year coach Frank Spaziani, BC finished second in the Atlantic Division behind Clemson. They were able to overcome the growing pains of a 25-year-old first-year starting quarterback who hadn’t played football since high school, and the devastating news that Herzlich had been diagnosed with cancer.

Biggest disappointment – Florida State’s defense. It has to be painful for FSU fans to wonder what could have been had the Noles’ defense been a more formidable group this year. The offense was soaring under quarterback Christian Ponder before he was hurt, but the defense finished the regular season ranked 108th in rushing defense, 113th in pass efficiency defense, 110th in total defense, and 98th in scoring defense. This team was picked to win the Atlantic Division, and with a better defense, it might have been able to.

Game of the Year – ACC championship game: Georgia Tech 39, Clemson 34. Yes, there were other great games throughout the season -- Virginia Tech’s finish against Nebraska, Clemson’s overtime win at Miami, and Georgia Tech’s upset of Virginia Tech all come to mind. But the final conference game carried the most weight, and as far as entertainment value goes, it delivered. Both teams racked up more than 300 rushing yards, neither team punted and Clemson led 34-33 with 6:11 left -- plenty of time for Johnson’s offense to work its magic.