Friedlander: Looking back at the 5 biggest disappointments of the 2022 ACC regular season
Lofty preseason expectations aren’t a guarantee of success.
It’s a hard lesson many in the ACC learned this season, from preseason favorites and Player of the Year candidates to College Football Playoff hopefuls.
There were plenty of disappointments to go around in the conference in 2022. Here’s a look back at the 5 most disappointing during the regular season.
5. Going down with DJ
You have to give Dabo Swinney credit for at least one thing: He’s loyal to a fault. That loyalty, however, may very well have cost the Clemson coach and his team a spot in this year’s Playoff.
Swinney continued to stick with quarterback DJ Uiagalelei through the 2nd half of the season, even as his penchant from turning the ball over became a detriment to the offense. Despite those struggles, the Tigers were still in a position to play their way into the final 4 until seeing their 40-game home running streak broken by rival South Carolina in the regular-season finale.
Uiagalelei struggled in the game, especially in a 2nd half that saw him go just 3-of-16 for 13 yards and an interception to help the Gamecocks rally from a 23-14 deficit to a 31-30 win. It took a pair of 3-and-outs to start the next week’s ACC Championship Game for Swinney to finally decide he’d seen enough.
Prized freshman Cade Klubnik came in and lit an immediate spark in leading Clemson to a 39-10 victory. His MVP performance earned the Tigers their 7th conference crown in 8 years. But it also raised the question of what might have been had Swinney turned to Klubnik in the 3rd quarter against the Gamecocks instead of the 3rd possession against the Tar Heels?
Considering that No. 3 TCU and No. 4 USC both lost their respective conference championship games, there’s a realistic possibility that Clemson would be heading to the College Football Playoff later this month rather than a lesser date in the Orange Bowl.
4. Injuries doom BC from the start
Boston College began the season with the goal of escaping the treadmill of mediocrity that had seen them win either 6 or 7 games – 1 game over .500 or 1 game under – in each of the previous 8 seasons.
“You look at the body of work; 6-6 is not good enough,” coach Jeff Hafley said.
Under the circumstances, Hafley would probably have taken the 6 wins and run with them this season. His Eagles never came close to that mark while stumbling to a 3-9 record.
The tone was set before the opener was ever played when All-ACC tackle Christian Mahogany tore his ACL in preseason camp and was lost for the year. That Week 1 game didn’t turn out well, either. BC led the entire way until the final 3 minutes, when a Rutgers touchdown sent it down to a 22-21 defeat.
And things only got worse from there.
Mahogany’s injury was the first of several that decimated the Eagles’ offensive line and prevented them from either generating an effective ground game or taking full advantage of the talented pass-catch combo of Phil Jurkovec and Zay Flowers. Jurkovec, who has since transferred to Pittsburgh, eventually went down with injuries of his own.
One of the season’s few bright spots was a road upset of NC State engineered by redshirt freshman quarterback Emmett Morehead. But that was quickly offset by a 44-0 thumping at the hands of Notre Dame.
3. Crying Wolf, again
The Law of the Wolf states that when things seem to be lining up just right for NC State, that’s when everything that can possibly go wrong does go wrong.
So while the 2022 season began with legitimate hopes of the Wolfpack winning the Atlantic Division and bringing home their first overall ACC championship since 1979, the optimism was tempered by a heavy dose of skepticism.
For good reason, as it turned out.
State’s worst fears came true with a 30-20 loss to Clemson on Oct. 1 that ended any realistic shot at a title. A week later, star quarterback Devin Leary was lost for the remainder of the season with a torn pectoral muscle that required surgery. (He has since decided to transfer.)
Subsequent losses to Syracuse and lowly Boston College also denied the Wolfpack their secondary goal of the 2nd double-digit win season in school history. The latter loss was especially painful since it came on Senior Night and ended State’s school-record tying 16-game home winning streak.
The season ended on a high note when the other half of the Law of the Wolf kicked in. The one that says when things look their worst, that’s when they turn out the best. But while State’s double overtime win against rival North Carolina in Chapel Hill and subsequent Duke’s Mayo Bowl bid helped salve some of the Wolfpack’s wounds, it also served as a disappointing reminder of what could have been.
2. Bad year for quarterbacks
This was supposed to be the Year of the Quarterback in the ACC. Not only did the entire Atlantic Division return its starters, but also back were the league’s 2021 passing leader and Offensive Rookie of the Year in the Coastal.
Five quarterbacks finished in the top 6 of the voting for preseason conference Player of the Year. But only 1 of them, Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman, produced a season worthy of consideration for the actual award as season’s end.
And it wasn’t the player who won it, North Carolina’s Drake Maye.
Injuries and coaching changes had a lot to do with the disappointing performances. NC State’s Leary, the preseason Player of the Year pick, went down in Week 6. Miami’s Tyler Van Dyke, the 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year, injured his shoulder in late October and was never the same while Louisville’s Malik Cunningham was in and out of the lineup all year because of a series of ailments.
Boston College’s Phil Jurkovec, who has since transferred to Pittsburgh, was already struggling behind an injury-riddled offensive line before ending up on the injured list himself. Georgia Tech’s Jeff Sims missed the final 5 games with a wounded knee.
Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong stayed healthy the entire year, but was a round peg trying to fit into the square peg of new coach Tony Elliott’s offense. After completing 65.2% of his passes and leading the ACC with 4,449 yards a year ago, Armstrong managed only 2,210 yards on 54.7% accuracy this year.
And while Uiagalelei did help Clemson win the ACC championship, he failed to sustain a promising start. He was finally replaced by freshman Klubnik, 1 game too late.
1. Short honeymoon in Miami
Saying that expectations were high at Miami after Mario Cristobal decided to return to his alma mater this season is a little like saying that South Beach is a good place to go see some beautiful people wearing skimpy bathing suits.
Cristobal arrived from Oregon with a full understanding of the history and culture of the school he helped earn 2 national championships as an offensive lineman for the Hurricanes. He brought with him a no-nonsense approach that eschewed gimmicks such as the Turnover Chain and focused on more substantive ways of returning Miami back into the national spotlight.
“Let’s put it this way,” Cristobal said in July. “We’ve been working so hard and paying attention to so many other things that in my opinion are much more critical to winning football games.”
Apparently they didn’t work at it enough.
Because despite being picked as the preseason Coastal Division favorite with a team that finished with a winning record in 2021, the Hurricanes performed more like a tropical depression. With an emphasis on depression.
They lost at Texas A&M on Sept. 17, then got stunned by Middle Tennessee State a week later. And they never recovered. They committed 8 turnovers in a loss to Duke, 1 of four straight home defeats. Even their wins were ugly, as was the case at Virginia when they beat in double overtime without ever scoring a touchdown.
They finished the season with a 5-7 finish that leaves them home for the holidays and sent an ACC-leading 15 players into the NCAA transfer portal – which considering the way the season went, might be addition by subtraction.