Parity, coaching changes themes of ACC season

How strange of a year was it in the ACC?

So strange that Virginia Tech, which finished second in the Coastal Division, was ranked ahead of ACC champion Wake Forest and Coastal Division winner Georgia Tech in the final Associated Press and USA Today Top 25 polls released before the start of the bowl season.

So strange that Miami and Florida State, the preseason picks to win the Coastal and Atlantic divisions and meet in the ACC title game, finished fourth and fifth in their respective divisions.

But nothing was stranger or more unexpected than seeing Wake Forest's players hoist the ACC championship trophy over their heads after beating Georgia Tech 9-6 in Jacksonville on Dec. 2 to win the second conference title in school history.

The Demon Deacons were picked to finish last in the Atlantic Division, a prediction that seemed on target after Wake began the 2006 campaign by losing starting quarterback Ben Mauk and standout tailback Micah Andrews to injuries.

"We have a team that has been pretty resilient," said Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe.

ACC watchers spent most of the season waiting for the Deacons to fold, but they never did. Wake used the combination of a mistake-free offense, opportunistic defense and the strong leg of punter/kicker Sam Swank to win a school-record 11 games with a chance to make it 12 victories in the FedEx Orange Bowl against Louisville.

Wake Forest wasn't the only surprise in the ACC.

Georgia Tech, picked to finish third in the Coastal Division behind Miami and Virginia Tech, blasted both the Hurricanes and Hokies and had the division clinched by early November.

Maryland, coming off consecutive losing seasons, entered its final regular-season game with a chance to win the Atlantic and earn a berth in the ACC title game, but lost to Wake Forest at home.

On the negative side, there were Miami and Florida State. Both schools dropped out of the polls by early October and suffered through miserable seasons.

With the Hurricanes and Seminoles down, the rest of the ACC took advantage. Virtually every conference member – with the exception of North Carolina and Duke – had a legitimate chance of winning a division title at midseason.

But that parity – some might say mediocrity – wasn't necessarily good for the ACC's national image. Only Florida State and Clemson were able to crack the Top 10 during the season and the league finished 4-10 against schools from other BCS conferences. At No. 15, Wake Forest is the only champion from a BCS conference ranked outside the Top 10.

The lack of a dominant team coincided with the lack of a dominant quarterback in the ACC. Boston College's Matt Ryan topped conference quarterbacks with 2,700 passing yards, a figure that ranked 22nd nationally. Maryland's Sam Hollenbach was second in the ACC with 2,148 passing yards, but only 48th nationally.

There is no question that defense was king in 2006. Six ACC teams ranked among the nation's top 21 in total defense.

Looking ahead, one-third of the ACC's 12 teams will begin the 2007 season with new coaches. Miami, North Carolina and North Carolina State fired their coaches, while Boston College's Tom O'Brien pulled a rare intraconference move and will replace Chuck Amato at NC State.

O'Brien, who has built a reputation as a no-nonsense, straight-shooting ex-Marine, left BC one day after releasing a statement that said he was "not a candidate for any job."

It was that kind of strange season in the ACC.

Most Valuable Player
WR Calvin Johnson, Georgia Tech
Neither double coverage nor the inconsistencies of Georgia Tech quarterback Reggie Ball could keep the super-talented Johnson from a dynamic season. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound junior led the ACC in receptions (67), receiving yards (1,016) and receiving touchdowns (16) while becoming only the fifth receiver in conference history to earn Player of the Year honors. Johnson has a season of eligibility remaining, but you'll be able to catch his act next season in the NFL.

Coach of the Year
Jim Grobe, Wake Forest
Forget Greg Schiano, Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer. Nobody in college football did a better coaching job this season than the 54-year-old Grobe, who resurrected a program once viewed as a national laughingstock to the best in the ACC. Grobe's plan to make Wake Forest competitive was simple, but brilliant: If you can't compete athletically with the conference elite, beat them with experience. His philosophy of redshirting virtually all of his freshman classes gave the Deacons one of the ACC's most veteran teams this season. It showed on the field. Grobe has been flying under the radar since he moved from Ohio University to Wake Forest six years ago, but that's going to change.

Newcomer of the Year
RB C.J. Spiller, Clemson
There's no denying that Wake Forest freshman quarterback Riley Skinner, named the ACC's Rookie of the Year, had a huge impact on the Deacons' conference championship. But while Skinner was spectacularly efficient, Spiller was just plain spectacular. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound sprinter was second in the ACC in all-purpose yardage (111.9 ypg) and fourth in rushing (76.2 ypg) despite spending virtually all season working as a backup to starter James Davis. Spiller's average of 7.4 yards per carry was by far the best in the ACC, and there's no more exciting player in the league.

Biggest Surprise
Wake Forest
Forget about being the ACC's biggest surprise. The Demon Deacons shocked the nation with their second conference title in school history. Wake used a bit of good fortune (five victories by seven points or less) and an opportunistic defense to become the first team in school history to register more than eight wins. The Deacons didn't have great numbers. Their leading rusher gained less than 400 yards during the regular season, while the offense ranked ninth in the ACC and the defense was eighth. But Wake took care of the ball (second in the ACC with a plus-14 margin) and the defense was No. 1 in the conference when opponents entered the red zone. This combination, along with the steady leadership of coach Jim Grobe, made for magic in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Biggest Disappointment
Florida State could easily be the pick here, but we'll give it to the Hurricanes who opened the season by losing to the Seminoles in the Orange Bowl. Things got progressively worse for the U. By the fourth week of the season, the Hurricanes were out of the national rankings and never found their way back in. Turmoil seemed to follow Miami all year long. The brawl with Florida International was a black eye for the university and was a significant factor in Larry Coker's firing after six seasons. The 'Canes managed to make their way into the postseason, but a spot in the MPC Computers Bowl hardly made up for a lost season.

All-ACC Team
QB -- Matt Ryan, Boston College
RB -- Branden Ore, Virginia Tech
RB -- Tashard Choice, Georgia Tech
WR -- Calvin Johnson, Georgia Tech
WR -- Chansi Stuckey, Clemson
TE -- Anthony Hill, North Carolina State.
OL -- Steve Vallos, Wake Forest
OL -- Josh Beekman, Boston College
OL -- Barry Richardson, Clemson
OL -- Nathan Bennett, Clemson
OL -- Steve Justice, Wake Forest
K -- Sam Swank, Wake Forest

DT -- Tank Tyler, North Carolina State
DT -- Joe Anoai, Georgia Tech
DE -- Gaines Adams, Clemson
DE -- Calais Campbell, Miami
LB -- Jon Abbate, Wake Forest
LB -- Vince Hall, Virginia Tech
LB -- Buster Davis, Florida State
CB -- Brandon Flowers, Virginia Tech
CB -- John Talley, Duke
S -- Josh Gattis, Wake Forest
S -- Jamal Lewis, Georgia Tech
P -- Durant Brooks, Georgia Tech

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