Pittsburgh's upset of Clemson in Death Valley was one of the more unexpected, but no less entertaining games in the ACC this season
It was in many ways a banner season for the ACC, which saw Clemson take the conference title and make the College Football Playoff for the second season in a row. And not only did Louisville’s Lamar Jackson win the Heisman Trophy, but the Tigers’ Deshaun Watson finished second in the voting while taking home the Davey O’Brien Award.
But what about that regular season that led to 11 of 14 teams going bowling? Well, that one produced a number of thrillers, all-time classics and memorable upsets. From start to finish the ACC was one of the more fun leagues to watch if you were a college football fan and loaded with games that could best be described as gems.
It’s hard to narrow things down of course, but here are the best 10 ACC games of the 2016 regular season and the five best non-conference contests involving an ACC school.
10 Best ACC Games of 2016 Regular Season
10. Georgia Tech 38, Duke 35 – Oct. 29
There probably weren’t a ton of non-ACC fans that tuned into this one given the two teams involved, but they missed a doozy if so. Things looked like they were going to be a runaway for Georgia Tech early on as the Yellow Jackets jumped out to a 28-7 lead at halftime and showed no signs of slowing down. Things mostly went Duke’s way after halftime though, as the Blue Devils rallied with a 28-3 run and an improbable lead in the fourth quarter. Justin Thomas played a big role in a late scoring drive that started near his own end zone and was responsible for a whopping 459 yards of offense and four touchdowns in the eventual win. A clock-eating drive to close things out was just the cherry on top.
9. Louisville 63, Florida State 20 – Sept. 17
We’re pretty sure this game has already been forgotten about by Florida State fans while it probably did more than any other to propel Lamar Jackson to the Heisman Trophy. The shellacking between top 10 teams at the time all but ended the Seminoles’ hopes of making the College Football Playoff after becoming a trendy preseason pick. Jackson scored five times and put up nearly 400 yards of total offense despite not playing most of the second half. The Cardinals completely dominated this one from start to finish and made the Muhammad Ali tribute that occurred at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium that much more special with one of the biggest wins in school history.
8. Clemson 24, NC State 17 (OT) – Oct. 15
It seemed like most of the country was watching this game as the clocked ticked down and a massive win became a bag of hot potato between both teams. Clemson turned the ball over four times, including a Deshaun Watson pick-six, to breathe life into the Wolfpack’s underdog status. Matthew Dayes was the star of the show offensively for NC State, while quarterback Ryan Finley was picked off for the first time all season. The Wolfpack offense set up Kyle Bambard for a game winner from 33 yards out, but the kicker pushed it to the right to send the game to overtime. Deshaun Watson found the end zone in the extra frame while Finley was picked off to end the upset threat in Death Valley in a bit of a low-scoring classic.
7. North Carolina 37, Florida State 35 – Oct. 1
The Tar Heels jumped out to a three-touchdown lead in the first half behind the arm of quarterback Mitch Trubisky (in a 405-yard, three-TD effort) but a stunned Doak Walker Stadium stuck around for a thrilling second half that was as crazy as they come. Dalvin Cook played a big role in that by rushing for more than 100 yards and three scores while hauling in six passes to top the century mark through the air as well. Deondre Francois had a masterful touchdown run to cap a furious FSU rally and it looked like the team was going to hold on for a win after UNC kicker Nick Weiler had an extra point blocked the drive before. The Tar Heels got the ball back with 23 seconds left though and needed just three plays (and a pass interference penalty) to get into range for Weiler to drill a 54-yarder that pulled off the upset.
6. Clemson 37, Florida State 34 – Oct. 29
A classic fourth quarter and late rally helped Clemson survive a tough test in Tallahassee to keep its ACC championship dreams alive when all eyes were on the conference heavyweights. Deshaun Watson racked up 430 yards of offense and a pair of touchdown throws, but did toss two costly interceptions that kept the Seminoles in the game. Dalvin Cook scored a career-high four times and did most of his damage in the second half with some monster runs through a tough defense. Deondre Francois nearly came through with a late fourth-quarter rally but penalties doomed the drive and he was sacked on FSU’s final play to end the game.
5. Pitt 37, Georgia Tech 34 – Oct. 8
This game probably hit every box on a college football bingo card. Crazy fourth quarter that featured five scores? Check. Game-tying 74-yard touchdown pass to a tight end off a tipped pass with less than four minutes left? Check. Fourth down defensive stand with less than two minutes left? Check. Game-winning field goal that doinked off an upright? Check. Oh, and there’s also this trick play touchdown to a 300-pound offensive lineman:
4. Pitt 76, Syracuse 61 – Nov. 26
Go ahead and re-read that final score and try to comprehend the fact that it came in an ACC football game, not a basketball one. Yes it was very much a track meet between the two squads in a defense-optional game that saw numerous scoring and yardage records fall. To start with, the two combined to set a new FBS record for points scored in a game with 137, saw Pitt average more than 10 yards a carry, had Syracuse run 102 plays for 644 yards against Pat Narduzzi and amazingly had the Panthers score 76 points but fail to cover the 24-point spread. Oh, and Pitt completed just nine passes for four touchdowns and 251 yards while rushing for four bills. Wild.
3. Florida State 20, Miami 19 – Oct. 8
Everybody knows about the history these two have when it comes to late game situations and kickers. Well sliding up behind “Wide Right I-III” and “Wide Left,” came the “Block at the Rock.” Both teams entered this one ranked and there was plenty of talk that Miami was on the verge of a breakthrough under new head coach Mark Richt after not trailing all year. This one had plenty of hard-hitting defense — to the point where Hurricanes quarterback Brad Kaaya lost a tooth on a play. FSU signal-caller Deandre Francois was knocked out of the game for a stretch, but battled back to help lead a comeback. Dalvin Cook was once again one of the best players on the field and there were a number of fantastic catches in this one. Miami thought it had tied things up in the final two minutes when Kaaya hit Stacy Coley just inside the end zone but Seminoles DE DeMarcus Walker had other ideas, bursting through the line to block Michael Badgley’s PAT and help seal a huge in-state win over their rivals.
2. Pitt 43, Clemson 42 – Nov. 12
The Tigers were playing with fire at home for most of 2016 and suffered their first home loss in 21 games at the hands of a Pitt team that made every clutch play down the stretch. Tailback James Conner ran for 132 yards and two scores, including a late touchdown that brought the Panthers within striking distance. That’s when the defense stuffed Clemson on fourth down from midfield to give themselves a chance with less than a minute on the clock. Chris Blewitt eventually knocked home the game-winner from 48 yards out to spoil a perfect season and force a shakeup in the playoff rankings at the time. Not everything was bad for Dabo Swinney’s squad however, as the loss seemed to wake the team up on its run to an eventual conference title and return trip to the playoff.
1. Clemson 42, Louisville 36 – Oct. 1
This game had a little bit of everything and played a major role in shaping the ACC title race, determining the playoff rankings and sorting out many of the major postseason awards this year. Clemson needed everything it could muster in a raucous environment at Death Valley to come up with a fourth-down, red-zone stop to keep its championship aspirations alive. Deshaun Watson scored five times, including twice in the final seven minutes, to balance out a few turnovers and a furious second half rally from Lamar Jackson that came up a yard short. This set the tone for the conference’s great season and had so many incredible swings of momentum.
5 Best ACC Non-Conference Games of 2016
1. Pitt 42, Penn State 39 – Sept. 10
Who knew back in September that this game would carry significant postseason weight when it came to the College Football Playoff? Pitt jumped out to a three-touchdown lead in the second quarter but needed to hold on late to prevent a furious rally from its in-state rivals. Running back James Conner ran for 117 yards and scored twice for one of the feel-good stories of the year following his return from cancer treatment, and the Panthers’ defense came up with a crucial interception seal the victory over the eventual Big Ten champions on a day where Pitt honored its 1976 national championship. To add to things, PSU’s Saquon Barkley scored five touchdowns on the day and helped make this contest one everybody discussed later in the year.
2. Florida State 45, Ole Miss 34 – Sept. 10
Everybody had circled this Labor Day matchup between top-15 teams as a potential launching point toward the College Football Playoff. Things didn’t end up working out that way for either squad but this game did bring a ton of thrilling moments in a classic out of Orlando. Deondre Francois struggled initially in his first start but came up big after halftime, as FSU ran off 33 straight points to complete the biggest comeback in school history. Ricky Aguayo also showed he could replace his big brother just down the road with a school-record six field goals. Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly was the definition of hot and cold with four touchdowns on more than 300 yards passing but also was responsible for a costly four turnovers.
3. Clemson 19, Auburn 13 – Sept. 3
This meeting of the Tigers turned out to be one of the bigger matchups this season despite things not looking that way at the time. Clemson entered as the No. 2 team in the country with visions of rolling over their Southern rivals with ease. Things didn’t turn out as such as both defenses looked like world-beaters in a game where it was simply hard to move the football. Dabo Swinney curiously opted to go for it on fourth down late in the game but Wayne Gallman was stopped short and gave Auburn life. The home team couldn’t come up with the victory in the end but it made for a great opener for both squads.
4. Kentucky 41, Louisville 38 – Nov. 26
This game certainly cost Louisville a berth in the Orange Bowl, a top-10 ranking at the end of the regular season, and created a little bit of suspense when it came to the Heisman Trophy outcome. Lamar Jackson did dazzle once again against his in-state rivals but coughed the ball up three times through the air and once more on the ground — a fumble that later set up a game-winning, 47-yard field goal from Kentucky with 12 seconds left to put an exclamation point on Mark Stoops’ rebuilding job down the road in Lexington.
5. Tennessee 45, Virginia Tech 24 – Sept. 10
Ok, this game doesn’t make the list because it was some fantastic, close back-and-forth game. No, it makes the list because of a novelty factor: a record 156,990 people watched a college football game together from Bristol Motor Speedway. It was naturally the most in FBS history and would have been much more fun had the Hokies not turned the ball over so much. Virginia Tech did have a good start in jumping out to a first quarter lead but Tennessee ran off 31 straight to all but put the victory away.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.