North Carolina's explosive offense led by quarterback Sam Howell had the Tar Heels involved in many of the ACC's most exciting matchups
It's been said ad nauseam in the past several months, but 2020 was an odd year in college football. That's an understatement in the context of the most newsworthy development in the year: Notre Dame played in the ACC!
OK, so the Fighting Irish spending the season in a conference for the first time in its history was a big deal, but hardly the big deal of 2020 — even if Notre Dame's presence in the league resulted in one of the best games of the year in any conference and gave the ACC two participants in the College Football Playoff.
10 Best ACC Games of 2020
10. Georgia Tech 16, Florida State 13 – Sept. 12
Georgia Tech rallied with nine points in the fourth quarter to beat Florida State for the fourth time in six meetings and the first under head coach Geoff Collins. But it was the Yellow Jackets' defense that shaped this game. Here's Georgia Tech's work against the Seminoles' offense in the second half: Punt, field goal, fumble, fumble, turnover on downs.
9. North Carolina 26, Boston College 22 – Oct. 3
North Carolina played a wild month of October, kicking it off appropriately enough with a raucous final minute against Boston College. With the Eagles trailing by eight points and just 45 seconds to go, C.J. Lewis caught a touchdown pass from Phil Jurkovec that put them a two-point conversion away from overtime.
Instead, it ended on the rare pick-two return for Trey Morrison.
8. North Carolina 56, Virginia Tech 45 – Oct. 10
Don't feel bad if you changed the channel after Michael Carter's touchdown run early in the third quarter, which extended North Carolina's lead to 42-17. For those who tuned into another game, you missed the Hokies scoring three touchdowns in 5:43 of game time, pulling within a score — before giving up back-to-back North Carolina scores in the first half of the fourth quarter.
Virginia Tech scored again to threaten, though failed to get it back to within single digits. The ACC provided other games with closer finals, but the sheer oddity of how this matchup played out, with more than 100 combined points, earns it a place among the 10 best.
7. Virginia 44, North Carolina 41 – Oct. 31
North Carolina played a wild October, as illustrated above. Eventually, the Tar Heels' fortunes ran dry with a Halloween loss at Virginia. Of course, despite the Cavaliers building a three-touchdown lead in the third quarter, it had to go down to the wire.
Sam Howell hooked up with Dyami Brown twice, and Javonte Williams chalked up another touchdown after the Tar Heels fell behind 41-20. The last of those scores was too little, too late.
6. Miami 25, Virginia Tech 24 – Nov. 14
A rivalry that carried over from the Big East into the ACC added an exciting new installment in 2020, with Miami rallying from down 11 points late in the third quarter to steal a road win.
Fittingly in a matchup of two programs that built their lofty reputations on defensive prowess, Miami sealed the win with three critical stops: Te'Cory Couch's interception of Hendon Hooker; a forced punt; and running out the clock on Virginia Tech's last-gasp effort.
5. NC State 30, Pitt 29 – Oct. 3
A wild second half between the Wolfpack and Panthers featured four lead changes, the last of which came on Emeka Emezie's touchdown reception from Devin Leary in the final minute.
The game-winning touchdown capped an awe-inspiring, 79-yard drive that spanned just 1:21.
4. Clemson 34, Boston College 28 – Oct. 31
What do you do when you catch a Tiger by the tail? This was the dilemma Boston College faced on Halloween, building a three-score lead on Clemson with D.J. Uiagalelei filling in for Trevor Lawrence. Brandon Sebastian flipped the game in the Eagles' favor with a 97-yard fumble return for a touchdown, which was followed by a C.J. Lewis TD catch in the second quarter after the Tigers kicked a field goal.
But Uiagalelei showed promise for Clemson's future with a long touchdown run in the third quarter, part of a 24-0 Clemson run that, in hindsight, was critical to the Tigers' College Football Playoff aspirations.
3. Miami 44, NC State 41 – Nov. 6
In a back-and-forth shootout, D'Eriq King went off for 430 passing yards and another 105 on the ground with five touchdowns. His individual performance stole the show, and powered Miami to a come-from-behind win in which the Hurricanes nickel-and-dimed their way to victory.
A defense giving up 41 points should have to run some extra gassers come Monday, but Miami locked up NC State down the stretch to set the stage for its offense.
2. North Carolina 59, Wake Forest 53 – Nov. 14
When Donavon Greene scored on a Sam Hartman pass in the late third quarter, Wake Forest pulled ahead by three touchdowns and it looked like North Carolina was headed to a big loss, but then Sam Howell played lights out.
He scored four of his ridiculous seven touchdowns all in a row to give North Carolina a lead that it extended to two touchdowns on Javante Williams score with less than three minutes remaining. At the point, the Heels looked headed for an easy win — then Hartman found Jaquarii Roberson. The subsequent two-point conversion gave Wake Forest a chance to win and even though the Deacons came up short, it was still the most raucous, roller-coaster game of the 2020 season.
1. Notre Dame 47, Clemson 40 (2OT) – Nov. 7
The most highly anticipated game of the ACC's 2020 season lived up to its billing — and then some. After coughing up a 10-point halftime lead, Notre Dame appeared headed for a fate similar to other teams that have had early leads against the juggernaut Tigers. When Travis Etienne scored a touchdown with 3:33 left, putting Clemson ahead by a touchdown, it looked like ball game.
With 91 yards to go on its ensuing possession, Notre Dame completed one of the most impressive drives of the season — and arguably, the most significant drive in recent Fighting Irish history. Ian Book's touchdown pass to Avery Davis with 22 seconds remaining sent the game into overtime, where Kyren Williams punched in two scores and the Fighting Irish touchdown kept the Trevor Lawrence-less Clemson offense out of the end zone in the second frame.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.