National champion Clemson headlined the ACC campaign
The transition from 2018 to '19 marks an era of change in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Gone are head coaches Paul Johnson and Mark Richt to retirement, while Bobby Petrino and Larry Fedora were dismissed. In comes Geoff Collins, Manny Diaz, Scott Satterfield, and the return of the Mack... Brown.
But while a not-insignificant portion of the ACC retools, the 2018 season solidified that the conference has a clear benchmark to which everyone else aspires: Clemson.
The Tigers claimed the third national championship for the ACC in six years, along the way surviving some tough tests. Clemson's time in the spotlight headlined the 2018 ACC docket, but the conference's other members provided their own memorable moments.
10 Best ACC Games of 2018
10. Georgia Tech 66, Louisville 31 – Oct. 5
A 35-point game that was not nearly as close as the final point margin would not often qualify as a "best" game. An exception is when it serves as a final exclamation mark in the career of a head coach like Paul Johnson.
Before arriving at Georgia Tech, Johnson resurrected a then-moribund Navy program and laid the foundation for a perennial winner that has had Top 25 finishes and a Heisman-worthy quarterback in the 2010s. He shipped up to Annapolis after continuing the success of legendary Erk Russell at Georgia Southern, winning the last two of the program's six Div. I-AA national championships. Johnson won at both stops with variations of the same triple-option offense that became Georgia Tech's defining trait for the past decade.
In the mid-2000s, Brian VanGorder stepped in at Georgia Southern and scrapped the scheme, all the while appearing in an ad campaign that promised, "There Is No Option." As Louisville defensive coordinator in 2018, he may have wished that mantra held universally true. Georgia Tech rolled up an astonishing 542 rushing yards with eight touchdowns, and attempted just two passes on the night.
9. NC State 34, North Carolina 28 (OT) – Nov. 24
The in-state rivalry between North Carolina and NC State does not feature a trophy. Should the programs choose to introduce one, however, a pair of gold-plated boxing gloves might be fitting after this year's installment.
Players from the two teams coming to blows in the aftermath overshadowed what was an entertaining, back-and-forth game that exemplified the most often-repeated cliche about rivalries: Throw out the records. NC State came in with a Top 25 ranking, but no tangible motivation beyond pride. North Carolina's season had been a mess, resulting in the dismissal of Larry Fedora. The Tar Heels could have opted to just get the season over with and head into the Mack Brown Era, Ver. 2.0 as quickly as possible.
Instead, the two exchanged proverbial punches on the turf for the game's duration, with neither side ever leading by more than a single score. The rivalry contest marked a coming-out party of sorts for quarterback Cade Fortin, who threw for two touchdowns and rushed for a third. That wasn't enough to outdo NC State running back Reggie Gallaspy, who scored all five of the Wolfpack's touchdowns.
8. Florida State 22, Boston College 21 – Nov. 17
A season that kicked off with a Top 25 ranking proved to be an exercise in undue optimism for Florida State. It became evident quickly into Willie Taggart's first season as head coach that the program needed a lot of work, as the Seminoles were blasted in Week 1 by Virginia Tech, then needed a comeback to beat FCS opponent Samford in Week 2.
For all the misfires that defined Florida State's trying 2018, the latter portion of the campaign provided a building block for 2019. The Seminoles rallied in the fourth quarter to knock off a good Boston College team, 22-21, notching the winning score on a 74-yard Tamorrion Terry reception from Deondre Francois.
7. Wake Forest 37, Memphis 34 – Dec. 22
Quarterback Jamie Newman delivered one of the best individual performances of the postseason, rushing for three touchdowns and passing for a fourth in Wake Forest's thrilling defeat of Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl. Newman's heroics — which included the game-winning score with just 34 seconds remaining — outdueled the tandem effort of Memphis' Patrick Taylor Jr. and Tony Pollard, who both rushed for more than 100 yards, picking up the slack for All-American Darrell Henderson.
6. Miami 28, Florida State 27 – Oct. 6
The best description for football in the Sunshine State during the 2018 season is partly cloudy. UCF reached an impressive 25 consecutive wins en route to the Fiesta Bowl, Florida enjoyed a resurgence in Dan Mullen's first season as Gators head coach, and FIU set a program record for wins. But the state also endured USF's stunning 0-6 finish after a 7-0 start; FAU fading from national darling to out of the bowl picture; and both Florida State and Miami wilting after buzzworthy offseasons.
If nothing else, the Seminoles and Hurricanes were miserable together. That provided one of the wildest finishes in the ACC during the 2018 campaign.
Florida State — seeking its first FBS win of the Willie Taggart era — went into Miami and shocked the then-dubiously No. 17-ranked Hurricanes with a deluge. The Seminoles built a 27-7 lead in the early third quarter, culminating in D.J. Matthews' 74-yard punt return for a touchdown. It was Florida State's last score of the day, as Miami packed three touchdowns into a 10-minute span over the late third and early fourth quarters. Miami then held on over the ensuing 12-minute, scoreless stalemate.
5. Syracuse 40, North Carolina 37 (2OT) – Oct. 20
One doesn't typically think of a hangover game as lasting almost a month, but that was nearly the case for Syracuse in 2018. The Orange led much of the way at Clemson in Week 5, nearly replicating Dino Babers' signature upset from 2017. Clemson took over in the fourth quarter, and the residual side effects from a classic body-blow game — one in which playing a physical opponent carries into the ensuing week — cost Syracuse an overtime loss at Pittsburgh.
An argument for inclusion of Pitt-Syracuse exists, although a lengthy weather delay hampered that contest. In this instance, the roofed Carrier Dome protected the Orange from inclement weather, but not a long, mid-game absence.
Syracuse coughed up a 20-7 lead when it allowed two touchdowns and two field goals from 10:52 in the third, to 10:15 in the fourth. Eric Dungey's absence threw the Syracuse offense into disarray, but backup QB Tommy DeVito stepped up in the clutch with touchdown passes to Nykiem Johnson (to force overtime), Jamal Custis (to draw first blood in OT); and Ravian Pierce (game-winner).
4. Clemson 27, Syracuse 23 – Sept. 29
Every moment on the road to a national championship counts. In Clemson's case, there are two that perhaps carry weighted significance. Trailing Syracuse 13-7 in the third quarter Week 5, with freshman phenom Trevor Lawrence injured and Kelly Bryant recently transferred out of the program, the ballyhooed Tigers defense denied the Orange a first down on 3rd-and-4 in the red zone.
The stop resulted in a field goal. A potential two-touchdown hole remained a single-digit deficit.
As the defense continued to bow its neck and running back Travis Etienne started to get going en route to a 203-yard, three-touchdown day, Eric Dungey completed a long jump pass on 4th-and-1 in Clemson territory. However, an ineligible man downfield negated the gainer, which set up Syracuse nicely to potentially take a two-score lead. That kept the margin to a field goal, laying out the scene. With a backup quarterback, Clemson drove 94 yards in 5:25 to notch the winning touchdown.
The drive was a defining sort of moment for a championship team.
3. Virginia Tech 34, Virginia 31 – Nov. 23
In the time since Virginia last beat Virginia Tech in football, the Boston Red Sox snapped an 86-year World Series championship drought; the Chicago White Sox ended an 88-year drought; the Chicago Cubs reached baseball's peak for the first time in 108 years; the Washington Capitals won their first Stanley Cup in 44 years of existence; and the city of Cleveland brought home a professional championship.
All that's to give perspective that, yes, Virginia, you will beat Virginia Tech. Some time. But in the same vein, much has happened since the Cavaliers scored a 35-21 victory over the Hokies in 2003. Among the changes: Bronco Mendenhall took over at UVa and breathed life into the struggling program, while Frank Beamer finally bowed out at Tech, leaving the reins of Justin Fuente.
In 2018, Virginia was arguably the better team. The Cavaliers went 8-5 with an impressive Belk Bowl blowout of South Carolina to cap things off. But Virginia Tech found a way to make it 15 wins in a row over its archrival despite surrendering a 14-0 lead. The Hokies rallied from a fourth-quarter deficit with a late touchdown, kicked a field goal in overtime, and then denied Virginia a chance to tie or win by recovering a fumble on the ensuing possession.
2. Clemson 28, Texas A&M 26 – Sept. 8
Marquee, on-campus matchups between Power 5 programs become more rare with every passing season. Clemson's trip to College Station in 2018 stands as a reminder of just how electric such contests can be.
More than 100,000 packed Kyle Field for Game 2 in the Jimbo Fisher era, hoping to see a signature win from the new head coach's club. A powerhouse Clemson bunch rolled up an early 14-3 lead, which inched to 28-13 by the end of the third quarter. Dabo Swinney's two-quarterback plan had no ill effect on the Tigers in those first 45 minutes, with both Trevor Lawrence and Kelly Bryant scoring touchdowns.
In the fourth quarter, however, Texas A&M stifled Clemson's offense. Kellen Mond then delivered on a pair of scoring drives to erase the two-touchdown deficit, needing just a two-point conversion with 46 seconds remaining. The Clemson defense came through, quieting the home crowd to secure a win in SEC Country.
It marked Clemson's first win over an SEC opponent in the 2018 season, but certainly not the last.
1. Clemson 44, Alabama 16 – Jan. 7, 2019
Evaluating the historical context of a sporting event too soon after its conclusion yields overreactions. That's basically the state of daytime cable TV nowadays. With this in mind, it's difficult not to reminisce on the still-fresh memories of Clemson's 44-16 rout of Alabama and not view it as one of the all-time greatest shockers in a championship setting. Indeed, one can see how this could fairly go down in the same category as the New York Jets' Super Bowl III defeat of the Baltimore Colts, or Duke's Final Four upset of UNLV in 1991.
Now, don't let Dabo Swinney's "little ol' Clemson" rhetoric fool you. Clemson was hardly an astronomical underdog like those aforementioned champions. The Tigers and Crimson Tide had three previous installments, two of which produced instant classics that showed the programs on equal footing. And while Alabama rolled in the 2017 season's edition, the margin of victory was hardly comparable to the decimation of Duke that UNLV leveled in the 1990 Final Four.
This wasn't a historic stunner based on who won; Clemson was a not-uncommon preseason pick for No. 1, after all. However, the Tigers' thorough domination of an Alabama team that had generated some "greatest of all time" talk earlier in the campaign provided the most jaw-dropping result of the 2018 campaign — if not of the decade.
(Top photo courtesy of clemsontigers.com)