Friedlander: Looking back at the 5 biggest surprises of the 2022 ACC regular season
No season ever goes exactly as expected. Between injuries, the improvement of young players and the unpredictable bounces produced by an oblong ball, anything and everything can – and usually does – happen over the course of 12 games.
And 2022 was no exception.
Here’s a look back at the 5 biggest surprises of the recently completed ACC regular season.
5. Who’s house? Finley’s house
Ben Finley spent most of the season as NC State’s scout team quarterback. But like any good scout, he adhered to the motto “Be Prepared.”
That philosophy paid dividends on the final weekend of the regular season when injuries to Devin Leary and MJ Morris, along with the effectiveness of Jack Chambers, pressed him into service as the Wolfpack’s starter.
Finley threw only 9 passes last season and none this year before relieving Chambers late in the 1st half of the previous week’s game at Louisville. That inactivity didn’t prevent him from throwing for 271 yards and 2 touchdowns while out-dueling ACC Player of the Year Drake Maye in a 30-27 double overtime upset of rival North Carolina.
Finley’s performance was a proverbial bolt out of the (Carolina) blue, to be sure. But it was also right on brand considering his family history. His older brother Ryan went 3-0 in his State career against the Tar Heels. Two of those wins came at UNC’s Kenan Stadium, a venue he derisively nicknamed “Carter-Finley North.”
The Wolfpack’s Carter-Finley Stadium is actually located due east of Chapel Hill as the crow flies. It’s a mistake Ben corrected in the postgame media room after doing his part to, in the words of coach Dave Doeren, “keep the tradition going for the Finleys.”
4. The Seminoles’ seminal moment
Florida State surged back toward prominence by winning its final 5 regular-season games, punctuated by a defining victory against rival Florida. But the successful 9-3 season that will finish in the Cheez-It Bowl against Oklahoma would never have been possible without a dramatic upset of LSU in New Orleans on Labor Day Sunday.
The Seminoles were a decided underdog against a team that went on to win the SEC West. Their 24-23 win served as a springboard for the rest of the season and helped turn down the temperature on coach Mike Norvell’s seat.
As unexpected as the result was, an even greater surprise was the way it came about.
After leading almost the entire game, FSU nearly squandered it away when running back Treshaun Ward fumbled a pitch just before reaching the goal line as the Seminoles were going in for what would have been a clinching touchdown.
LSU then drove 99 yards in the opposite direction and needed only to kick an extra point to force overtime with no time remaining on the clock. But instead of turning into a crushing defeat, the Seminoles came away with an uplifting victory when redshirt freshman safety Shyheim Brown saved the day by getting his hand on the kick and causing it to doink off the upright.
3. Georgia Tech’s Key to success
Brent Key started the season as one the many semi-anonymous foot soldiers that are the backbone of college football programs across the country. But that changed on the morning of Sept. 26.
That day, he went from being the respected offensive line coach at Georgia Tech to the Yellow Jackets’ interim leader in the aftermath of coach Geoff Collins’ firing. He was basically a placeholder to get the program through the rest of the season after a miserable 1-3 start.
Apparently, someone forgot to tell him that.
In his 1st game as head coach, Key led Tech to an upset of then-No. 24 Pittsburgh. He then followed with an overtime win against Duke. A former 4-year letterman with the Yellow Jackets, Key’s popularity with his players seemed to bring out the best in them.
He finished the season with a 4-4 record (4-3 in the ACC). Two of the wins came against ranked opponents on the road. While that wasn’t good enough for Tech to gain bowl eligibility, it did help Key earn a 5-year, $15 million contract to serve as the team’s permanent coach.
2. Duke defies the odds
One word kept getting repeated by DeWayne Carter, Shaka Heyward and Jacob Monk – the players representing Duke at the ACC’s Football Kickoff media event last summer.
It’s a quality that had been lacking among the Blue Devils for the final 2 seasons of former coach David Cutcliffe’s tenure. The team won a combined 5 games and went 1-17 in the ACC in 2020-21. But new coach Mike Elko came in and reignited a spark in the program. And his players bought in.
They shut out Temple 30-0 in the opener, beat Northwestern on the road and surpassed last year’s 3-win total by Oct. 1. Riding an opportunistic defense that produced the 2nd-best turnover margin in the nation at plus-14 and balanced offense that averaged 33 points per game, Duke became the only Power 5 team to win 8 or more games after earning 4 or fewer victories in 2021. It went 5-3 in the ACC with all 3 losses by a field goal or less.
It’s a turnaround only Elko, the ACC Coach of the Year, and his players saw coming.
“It’s been an unbelievable culture shift for us,” the former Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Texas A&M defensive coordinator said before the season began. “A lot of times when you take over a new program, you get a lot of resistance. You get a lot of fight back. I think these guys … have just done an amazing job buying into what we’re trying to do.”
1. Maye, UNC go Coastal
The Tar Heels were picked to win the Coastal Division and their quarterback Sam Howell was projected as a 1st-round NFL Draft pick when the 2021 season began. Neither lived up to the hype.
Howell’s departure as a 5th-round selection and the uncertainty of his successor helped temper expectations at the start of this season. But thanks to the emergence of Drake Maye, those lowered expectations were quickly surpassed.
Maye, a 4-star prospect whose father also quarterbacked the Tar Heels and whose brother helped them to a basketball national title, won the starting job after a tight preseason competition with Jacolby Criswell.
The redshirt freshmen didn’t just put up video game passing numbers. He also had a knack for making big plays at just the right time in leading UNC to 6 road wins, all decided by a touchdown or less. In the process, Maye led coach Mack Brown’s team to a Coastal Division championship and gained national attention as a serious Heisman Trophy candidate.
Even after a late-season slump that saw the Tar Heels lose 3 straight after a 9-1 start and dropped Maye to 10th in the Heisman voting, it was an unexpectedly successful season for both. One that raised the expectations to even greater heights heading into 2023.