ACC road still runs through Tallahassee

It wasn't long ago that an argument could be made that the ACC was the weakest of the six BCS conferences.

Yes, behind even the Big East.

But with the addition of Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004 and Boston College this season, the ACC can take its rightful place in any discussion regarding the best conference in college football.

Not convinced?

Although Miami was the conference's highest-ranked team at No. 9, six of the ACC's 12 members finished the regular season in the Associated Press Top 25.

That was more than the SEC (5), Big Ten (5), Pac-10 (3), Big 12 (2) and Big East (2).

The conference's muscle was also evident in the postseason bowl pairings. Eight ACC teams earned bowl bids.

But that kind of balance also had its drawbacks. League members took turns knocking each other off. Florida State beat Miami and Virginia Tech, but lost to Clemson, North Carolina State and Virginia. Virginia Tech beat every conference foe but Miami in the regular season. The Hurricanes beat the No. 3 Hokies, but lost to unranked Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech lost to Virginia which beat Florida State which …

Get the picture?

The back-and-forth didn't end until the inaugural conference championship game In Jacksonville. The Seminoles, who lost three ACC games for the first time since joining the league in 1992, entered the game a two touchdown-underdog to Virginia Tech and appeared to be a program in decline. The question wasn't so much whether the Hokies would win but by how much.

But instead of claiming its second consecutive ACC title, Virginia Tech was manhandled by FSU. Only a late surge by the Hokies kept the final score of
27-22 from truly reflecting the Seminoles' dominant effort.

"We just had to show up all our critics," said FSU receiver Willie Reid, who was named the game's MVP. "We're back to normal. We're back to Florida State football."

The conference title was the 12th for FSU, proving the road to the ACC championship still runs through Tallahassee.

Most Valuable Player
Wake Forest tailback Chris Barclay
Virginia Tech quarterback Marcus Vick seemed a cinch to be named the conference's top player after the Hokies began the year by winning eight consecutive games. But a late-season slump caused Vick's stock to drop and Barclay's to rise.

Barclay didn't suffer any slumps -- this season or any other season in his brilliant career. He became only the sixth runner in ACC history to rush for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons, gaining 1,217 yards in 2005 despite playing only 10 games. Barclay went over 100 yards in six of those games, topping 200 yards twice. He finishes as the ACC's fifth-leading career rusher with 4,032 yards.

Behind Barclay, the Demon Deacons led the conference in rushing and were competitive in all of their games except a 31-3 loss to Nebraska in the second week of the season. In Wake's three games against ranked opponents -- Boston College, Florida State and Miami -- Barclay ran for a combined
321 yards and three touchdowns.

Barclay is one of 32 players in the history of college football to rush for 4,000 yards and score 40 touchdowns. Eight of those players won the Heisman Trophy.

Coach of the Year
Clemson's Tommy Bowden
Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer was named ACC Coach of the Year for the second straight season, but that was before his Hokies were dismantled by Florida State in the conference title game.

As it turned out, Bowden did the best job of any coach in the league. He did not allow his team to collapse after it lost three consecutive games in heartbreaking fashion in the first half of the season.

Instead, the Tigers bounced back to win five of their final six games, including back-to-back wins over Florida State and South Carolina. Overall, Clemson won three games against ranked teams, only the fourth time in school history that has happened during a single year.

Clemson's season could have been much better, of course. The Tigers had as much bad luck as anyone, losing consecutive games in overtime to Miami and Boston College and falling short in two other games against Wake Forest and Georgia Tech by a combined five points.

But, if not for Bowden's steady hand, the season could have been much worse.

Newcomer of the Year
Clemson tailback James Davis
There were plenty of solid freshmen to choose from in the ACC, including Florida State's pass-and-catch combo of quarterback Drew Weatherford and Greg Carr, NC State tailback Andre Brown, Miami safety Kenny Phillips, Clemson receiver Aaron Kelly and Wake Forest's duo of defensive back Alphonso Smith and kicker Sam Swank.

But the best of the bunch was Davis, a 5-foot-11, 210-pound native of Atlanta who burst onto the scene in his first collegiate game by rushing for 101 yards on 19 carries in a 25-24 victory against Texas A&M.

Davis finished with 729 yards, the fifth-highest total in the ACC this season and the second-best total ever by a Clemson freshman. That number could have been much higher if not for a fractured left wrist suffered against NC State -- after he ran for 143 yards on 12 carries in the first half -- that forced Davis to miss the Temple game and limited him to two carries against Georgia Tech. He played in the Tigers' final four games with a cast protecting the injury.

Davis led Clemson in rushing five times, with the Tigers posting a 5-0 record in those games. In the regular-season finale against rival South Carolina, Davis accumulated 145 yards and scored the only touchdown in Clemson's 13-9 victory.

With Davis and senior-to-be Reggie Merriweather back next season, Clemson's rushing attack figures to be among the best in the country.

Biggest surprise
Georgia Tech

Going into their Emerald Bowl matchup with Utah, the Yellow Jackets haven't won any more games than they did in coach Chan Gailey's first three seasons.

But for the first time under Gailey, Georgia Tech won a pair of games against top-20 opponents. The Jackets beat No. 16 Auburn and No. 3 Miami and, most impressively, won both games on the road. The win over the Hurricanes was arguably the biggest upset of the college football season.

A victory over Utah would almost guarantee Georgia Tech finishing in the Top 25 for the first time under Gailey.

Biggest disappointment
Virginia Tech

It might be a little harsh to label a team with a 10-2 record and a No. 12 national ranking as the conference's biggest flop, but that's how it felt after Virginia Tech sleepwalked through much of its 27-22 loss to Florida State in the conference title game.

The Hokies were unable to take advantage of a second chance afforded them after a 27-7 loss to Miami in Blacksburg. That defeat spoiled Virginia Tech's spotless record and appeared destined to cost Frank Beamer's crew the Coastal Division championship and a spot in the title game.

But the Hokies' hopes were re-energized when Georgia Tech upset Miami.

Virginia Tech clinched the division title by winning its last two regular-season games, against Virginia and North Carolina, before falling to the Seminoles.

As it turned out, the Hokies beat only two teams that were ranked in the Top 25 when they played Virginia Tech. The Hokies will finish the season Jan. 2 against Louisville in the Gator Bowl. Not bad, but not exactly what was expected in early November when Va. Tech was 8-0 and ranked behind only USC and Texas.

All-ACC Team
QB -- Marcus Vick, Virginia Tech
RB -- Chris Barclay, Wake Forest
RB -- Lance Ball, Maryland
WR -- Calvin Johnson, Georgia Tech
WR -- Chansi Stuckey, Clemson
OL -- Eric Winston, Miami
OL -- D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Virginia
OL -- Kyle Ralph, North Carolina
OL -- Jason Murphy, Virginia Tech
OL -- Jeremy Trueblood, Boston College
TE -- Vernon Davis, Maryland

DL -- Mathias Kiwanuka, Boston College
DL -- Darryl Tapp, Virginia Tech
DL -- Mario Williams, North Carolina State
DL -- Brodrick Bunkley, Florida State
LB -- Kai Parham, Virginia
LB -- D'Qwell Jackson, Maryland
LB -- A.J. Nicholson, Florida State
DB -- Kelly Jennings, Miami
DB -- Brandon Meriweather, Miami
DB -- Jimmy Williams, Virginia Tech
DB -- Tye Hill, Clemson

Special teams
K -- Connor Hughes, Virginia
P -- Ryan Plackemeier, Wake Forest
RS -- Brandon Tate, North Carolina

Jorge Milian covers the ACC for The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.