The ACC: 2015 Year in Review

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney (left) has led the Tigers to a No. 1 ranking and an ACC Atlantic Division title.

The regular season came to an end Saturday, but there was nothing regular about the year in ACC football.

Over the course of 12 games, the league has seen three coaches fired and one legend retired. A “kick-six” kicked Florida State out of College Football Playoff contention and was the center of the sports universe — that was until the next week, of course, when it was eclipsed by an eight-lateral, last-second kick return for a touchdown.

Thanks to Clemson (12-0), the ACC has held the No. 1 spot in each and every College Football Playoff rankings that have come out this year, something no one could have predicted a few months ago. The Tigers’ rise has since put an end to the phrase “Clemsoning” and has given birth to the acronym B.Y.O.G. (Bring Your Own Guts).

With bowl season upon us, there is still plenty of room left for big plays and catchy phrases, but for now it’s time to look back at some of the best and worst for the 2015 season.

BEST PLAYER: Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson

He’s the undisputed leader of the No. 1 team in the country and plays the most important position in football. However, if you need stats to support his case, here you go: The sophomore signal-caller leads the ACC in total offense (331.6 ypg), total offense TDs (36), is second in passing yards per game (268.6) and has thrown seven more touchdowns (27) than any other player in the league.

Stats aside, Watson is a heady player who keeps his cool in big games and is athletic enough to scare defenses with is feet.

BEST PLAY: The “Kick-Six”

Georgia Tech’s “Kick-Six” victory over then-ranked No. 9 Florida State was one of the top plays in all of college football. Sure, some of you might be thinking, “What about the Miami-Duke play?” While that that was no doubt thrilling, it was also later deemed illegal and should not have counted.

The “Kick-Six” was not only 100 percent clean, it also has all the ingredients needed for an all-time great play: Last play of the game? Check. Big underdog hands an undefeated, ranked team its first loss? Check. Thrilling race to the end zone? Check. An incredible degree of difficulty and improbability? Check and check.

BEST COACHING JOB: Gene Chizik, defensive coordinator, North Carolina

North Carolina is playing in Saturday’s ACC championship game, and Gene Chizik is a big reason why. In his first year in Chapel Hill, Chizik inherited a unit that ranked last in the league in scoring defense (38.9 ppg), pass defense (263.5 ypg) and rush defense (232.2 ypg). This year, Chizik transformed UNC’s defense into one of the tops in the nation. Upon conclusion of the regular season, the Heels stand 19th nationally in scoring defense (20.8 ppg) and pass defense (186.7), while ranking 105th against the run (208.3 ypg).

The defensive turnaround has led No. 10 North Carolina (11-1, 8-0) to 11 straight wins and a Coastal Division championship. It’s also left Chizik as a finalist for the Broyles award, which is handed out to the top assistant coach in college football.

BEST COMEBACK: Miami Hurricanes

The Hurricanes’ season started with rumors swirling about how their head coach was on the hot seat. Then the banners started. Then the tweeting happened. Then came the worst loss in school history, a 58-0 drubbing by Clemson, which then led to the axing of Al Golden.

Miami, 4-3 (1-2) at the time, had every excuse to collapse like a cheap tent, but instead stood strong. Interim head coach Larry Scott held the fort down and guided his team to victories in four out of its last five games to lead Miami to a respectable 8-4 (5-3) record by the end of the regular season.

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Duke’s demise

A season that started off with so much promise ended with so much disappointment for the Blue Devils. Seven games into the year, Duke stood locked in a tie at the top of the Coastal Division with a 6-1 (3-0) record and a No. 22 ranking.

Then “The Play” happened.

On Halloween night, the Hurricanes topped Duke on a controversial, last-second kick return, and the Devils never recovered. The defeat sent Duke into a tailspin, as it lost four straight before managing to beat Wake Forest on Saturday to finish the regular season with a 7-5 (4-4) record.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Georgia Tech

Reigning Coastal Division champion Georgia Tech began the year as a popular dark-horse pick to win the ACC and a spot in the College Football Playoff. It would finish the season failing to clinch bowl eligibility.

Ranked 16th in the preseason AP Poll, the Yellow Jackets jumped out to a 2-0 start, outscoring opponents 134-16. Then, Tech got stung by Notre Dame in its third game of the year, and the season went downhill from there. With the exception of its “Kick-Six” win over FSU, the Yellow Jackets lost every game they played the rest of the way to finish last in the Coastal Division with a 3-9 (1-7) record.

MOST VIRAL MOMENT: Miami-Duke: “The Play”

Dabo Swinney’s anti-Clemsoning rant was epic, but as far as viral moments go it has nothing on “The Play.”

Down 27-24 with six seconds left in the fourth quarter, Miami received a Duke kickoff and lateraled eight times until the ball landed in the hands of Corn Elder, who sprinted 91 yards for the improbable touchdown. While “The Play” was ruled illegal the next day, it’s still by far the most talked-about moment in ACC football this season.

PLAYER TO LOOK FORWARD TO IN 2016: Lamar Jackson, freshman, QB, Louisville

With players like Deshaun Watson and Dalvin Cook hogging the spotlight in the ACC, Lamar Jackson has remained in the shadows for most of the season. That won’t be the case next year.

Louisville’s 6-3, 196-pound freshman dual-threat quarterback set the Cardinals’ single-season record for most rushing yards by a quarterback (734), total offense by a freshman (2,347) and rushing touchdowns by a QB (9), despite splitting time at quarterback.

On the season, Jackson has completed 55.7 percent of his passes for 1,613 yards and 10 touchdowns.