Around the ACC: League Does Well in Bowls

The Atlantic Coast Conference won four of its six bowl games this season, rebounding from a 2-6 mark in last season’s bowls.  Furthermore, the four wins were each impressive in their own right. ACC teams snapped a losing skid in the Orange Bowl, earned wins against two of the nation’s prominent and most historic programs, and rallied for a fourth-quarter comeback.

DISCOVER ORANGE BOWL – #12 Florida State 31, #15 Northern Illinois 10: Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch said before the Orange Bowl that his team’s offense would have the Seminoles “on their knees” in the fourth quarter.  In reality, the fourth quarter was when Florida State put away the pesky Huskies for a 31-10 win.  NFL-bound Xavier Rhodes forced a fumble with 11:15 remaining and Northern Illinois driving to make it a one-score game, effectively snuffing the chances of an upset.  With the win, an ACC team won the Orange Bowl for the first time since 2009, when Virginia Tech defeated Cincinnati 20-7.

Unfortunately, in the realm of public perception, the Seminoles had very little to gain and a lot to lose with his pairing.  Even in victory, most of the analysis was of the “What if?” variety.  This game, like the NC State game, was a game where Florida State was the better team and was expected to flex their muscle throughout. And, like the NC State game, the Seminoles struggled to put points on the board in the first half and allowed the opposition to hang around.  Fortunately, they did pull away in the second half (unlike that night in Raleigh), or the criticism would have been even louder.

CHICK-FIL-A BOWL – #14 Clemson 25, #8 LSU 24: The season ended in much the same way it began for the Tigers: With Sammy Watkins unavailable, Clemson defeated an SEC team in the Georgia Dome.  In September, the defense shut down Auburn’s last-chance attempt to tie the game with a key sack.  In the Chick-Fil-A bowl, it was Clemson’s offense driving into field goal range for Chandler Catanzaro’s 37-yard game winner.

In both games, junior DeAndre Hopkins stepped up for the absent Watkins, recording 13 receptions in each game.  His 191-yard, two touchdown performance against Louisiana State allowed him to finish the season with 1,404 receiving yards, a single-season school record at Clemson.

This marked the fourth-time in school history Clemson has reached the 11-win mark.  For coach Dabo Swinney, it’s another step towards establishing the Tigers as a legitimate national contender.  The win also marked the third time in the past four seasons the ACC has won the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, which has paired an ACC and SEC team against each other every season since 1993.

HYUNDAI SUN BOWL – Georgia Tech 21, USC 7: After losing the ACC Championship Game to Florida State, Georgia Tech was 6-7 and needed NCAA approval to be selected for a bowl game.  Southern Cal really wishes the NCAA had been less charitable.  The Yellow Jackets rambled to 294 yards rushing in a decisive victory over the Trojans, which began the season as national title contenders behind Heisman hopeful Matt Barkley.

Barkley did not partake in the Sun Bowl proceedings, recovering from a right shoulder injury suffered against UCLA.  In his stead was freshman Max Wittek, who threw three interceptions and struggled to put together a consistent offensive effort.  Georgia Tech, along with the interceptions (including two late in the fourth quarter to stifle a USC rally), held the Trojans to 205 total yards.

Although it was the ground game that decimated the Trojans, two of Georgia Tech’s touchdowns came through the air.  In the second quarter, Vad Lee completed a three-yard pass to David Sims to get the Yellow Jackets on the board.  USC’s lone touchdown came just before halftime to tie the game, but Georgia Tech responded in the third quarter by forcing a USC three-and-out and returning the ensuing punt 56 yards to set up a Tevin Washington goal-line scamper.  Washington then completed a 17-yard pass to Orwin Smith early in the fourth quarter.

FRANKLIN AMERICAN MORTGAGE MUSIC CITY BOWL – Vanderbilt 38, NC State 24: Former Maryland-head-coach-in-waiting James Franklin led Vanderbilt to a 38-24 win over the Wolfpack, who missed the memo that, while this was the season of giving, that doesn’t mean you have to give up the football five times.

Interim head coach Dana Bible, representing the bridge between fired head coach Tom O’Brien (who will be an associate head coach at Virginia next season) and Dave Doeren, took the blame for some of the turnovers, claiming that he wanted his team to play aggressively. “Against a Southeast Conference team, Southeast Conference talent, those type things, we weren’t going to play it safe. We weren’t going to play back on this team. We were going to be attacking on it, and if they made a play on it, more power to them.”

The Wolfpack outgained the Commodores, 424 yards to 225, but were doomed by the turnovers, four of which came in the first half.  It marked the fifth time this season NC State turned over the ball at least four times.

Tobias Palmer was a bright spot for NC State, returning a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter and catching eight passes for 111 yards.

RUSSELL ATHLETIC BOWL – Virginia Tech 13, Rutgers 10 (OT): Suffice to say, Virginia Tech did not meet the standard they have established since their arrival in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2012.  However, a gritty comeback effort against Rutgers put a happy ending on a trying campaign for the Hokies.

A Virginia Tech botched snap and a Nick Borgese field goal gave the Scarlet Knights an early 10-0 lead.  The game then developed into a defensive showdown, as Rutgers held the Hokies to three yards rushing and Virginia Tech didn’t allow the Scarlet Knights to extend their advantage.  Ultimately, it was the Hokies who gained the upper hand in the arm-wrestling contest, notching a Cody Journell field goal, an Antone Exum interception, and a Logan Thomas touchdown pass over a span of 78 seconds to tie the contest.

Journell then booted a 22-yarder in overtime, placing the game in the hands of the Virginia Tech defense one more time.  And one more time, the unit held their own, forcing Rutgers to attempt (and miss) a 42-yard field goal to clinch the Hokie victory.  Now to see which members of the staff will be back next year …

BELK BOWL – CINCINNATI 48, DUKE 34: The NC State loss was disappointing, but the Duke loss was just heart wrenching.  In its first bowl game since 1994, Duke was five yards away from a 41-34 lead with 1:20 remaining. However, Josh Snead fumbled, Cincinnati’s Brandon Kay found tight end Travis Kelce for an 83-yard touchdown.  Snead had also fumbled in the red zone earlier in the game, meaning two potential touchdowns were left in Charlotte, spoiling a 16-0 jump start for the Blue Devils.

To add injury to insult, senior Sean Renfree suffered a torn pectoral muscle late in the game, in which he passed for 358 yards.  Renfree finished the season with 19 touchdowns to ten interceptions and 3,113 yards passing, but the injury will cost him the chance to participate in NFL Draft workouts.

Nonetheless, Duke has proven to be a program on the rise simply by making a bowl game. As painful as this loss was (literally and figuratively), David Cutcliffe should be able to build on the experience and continue to make the Blue Devils a force to reckon with for seasons to come.

RANDOM TAKEAWAYS: Not only was it a good bowl season on the gridiron for the conference, but some players proved to be pretty good people, too.  Several Duke players, including wide receiver Desmond Scott and linebackers Kelby and Kyler Brown, used their shopping sprees at Belk provided by the Belk Bowl to help underprivileged children celebrate the holidays.  Virginia Tech’s Antone Exum used his Best Buy shopping spree courtesy of the Russell Athletic Bowl to help three kids he met buy presents.  We may not remember who won these bowl games five years from now, but you can be certain these families will never forget these players.

The “future” members of the ACC also fared well in bowl season.  #21 Louisville handled third-ranked Florida in a convincing 33-23 victory over the Gators in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.  Teddy Bridgewater passed for 266 yards and two touchdowns, which surprised some staunch believers of SEC superiority but came as no shock to those who have seen Bridgewater during his two years so far with the Cardinals (North Carolina and NC State, for example).  Meanwhile, Syracuse recorded a 38-14 win in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, dominating a snow-covered contest despite their climate-controlled home field during the regular season.  Saturday, Pittsburgh wlll face Ole Miss in the BBVA Compass Bowl. And, of course, Notre Dame will meet Alabama in the BCS National Championship.

Zach Evans is brilliantZach Evans, managing editor of, is a 2012 graduate of the University of North Carolina and a lifelong fan of the Tar Heels and follower of the ACC. Outside of the ACC, Zach is also a fan of the Atlanta Braves, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Carolina Panthers, and bad puns. He includes nailing the Final Four in his 2009 NCAA Tournament group and batting .000 during the 2011 intramural softball season among his crowning achievements. For more commentary, follow Zach on Twitter at @ztevans.

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