There are 2 schools of thought when it comes to judging a coach’s performance.

The 1st puts a heavy emphasis on results, especially when it comes to winning championships. The 2nd puts more value on coaches whose teams far exceed their preseason expectations.

I’m usually a proponent of the former. But this year in the ACC, the latter takes precedence. 

The best coaching jobs came from those other than the 2 who brought home trophies for winning their respective divisions – Clemson’s Dabo Swinney in the Atlantic and North Carolina’s Mack Brown in the Coastal.

Duke’s Mike Elko winning the league’s coach of the year reinforces that opinion.

Now that the regular season is in the books, it’s good time to look back and rank the performances of all 14 of the ACC’s head coaches in 2022.

I’ve broken them down into 5 categories. So let’s dive right in.

Head of the class

No coach in the ACC did a better job in 2022 than Elko.

One of 4 first-year coaches in the league at the start of the season, the former Wake Forest, Texas A&M and Notre Dame defensive coordinator energized a program that had won only 1 conference game during its final 2 seasons under former coach David Cutcliffe.

His 5 ACC wins were the same number as the other 3 ACC rookies – Miami’s Mario Cristobal, Virginia Tech’s Brent Pry and Virginia’s Tony Elliott – combined. And the Blue Devils’ 8 wins overall were their most since 2018. That also was the last time Duke qualified for a bowl.

It will end that drought this month against Central Florida at the Military Bowl.

Elko did more than just step in and inject new life into what had become a stagnant situation. He and his staff made several key personnel decisions that strengthened the team and gave its most talented players opportunities to contribute.

The most significant of those moves was moving Jordan Moore to wide receiver after losing a preseason battle with Riley Leonard for the starting quarterback job. Leonard passed for 20 touchdowns and ran for 11 while Moore led the team with 57 catches for 643 and 5 touchdowns.

Job well done

Elko wasn’t the only league coach who distinguished himself during 2022. Joining him in the top tier are NC State’s Dave Doeren, Florida State’s Mike Norvell and Georgia Tech’s Brent Key.

Doren’s inclusion in this category might seem like a surprise since his Wolfpack fell considerably short of its preseason expectations of 10-plus wins and an Atlantic Division championship.

But after losing star quarterback Devin Leary to a season-ending injury during Week 6, falling out of the rankings and seeing his team teeter on the brink of collapse, Doeren and his staff somehow found a way to piece together a strong finish.

Despite a roster held together with duct tape and wire, State won games with 4 quarterbacks. That includes an upset of Coastal Division winner and arch-rival North Carolina with 4th-stringer Ben Finley in the regular-season finale to finish at 8-4.

Norvell also spent his season riding a roller-coaster.

It started with a 4-game winning streak that cooled off his once-hot seat considerably. Then after a frustrating 3-game losing streak that threatened to derail the season, he resisted the urge to make knee-jerk changes before hitting on a winning offensive combination that helped reignite his team’s spark.

Led by dynamic quarterback Jordan Travis with a dominating ground attack fueled by a stable of talented backs, the Seminoles finished the regular season by winning their final 5 games to reach the 9-win mark and establish themselves as a legitimate championship contender in 2023.

Key, meanwhile, wasn’t even a head coach when the season began. He took over from Geoff Collins in Week 5. The Yellow Jackets were 1-3 at the time, with their win coming against Western Carolina of the Football Championship Subdivision.

The former offensive line coach made an immediate impact, upsetting then-ranked Pittsburgh on the road in his 1st game before following it up with a victory against Duke.

Key finished with a 4-4 record and fell just short getting his team to bowl eligibility. Two of those wins came against ranked opponents on the road, factors that helped him earn a 5-year, $15 million contract to remain as coach.

Good, not great

Swinney and Brown both had championship seasons in leading their teams to their respective division titles. But even with that success, it’s hard to shake the feeling that both missed out on opportunities to accomplish even more.

For Swinney, the 2nd-guessing began before the season began when he hired from within to replace both his coordinators rather than conducting a national search to find the best coaches available. He then cost his Tigers a possible spot in the College Football Playoff by sticking with struggling starting quarterback DJ Uiagalelei too long.

Swinney finally decided to replace Uiagalelei with prized freshman Cade Klubnik in the ACC Championship Game and the youngster responded by earning MVP honors. While the change helped Clemson win its 7th league title in 8 years, it came a week too late to propel the Tigers toward the bigger goal they were chasing.

As for Brown, he and his Tar Heels were riding high after 10 weeks. They were 9-1 with 6 road wins – all by a touchdown or less – and sat just outside the top 10 of the playoff rankings when they clinched the Coastal Division title.

And they did it despite the worst defense in the ACC. But then the bottom dropped out.

UNC and its Heisman-hopeful quarterback Drake Maye crashed back to Earth with a resounding thud with consecutive losses to Georgia Tech and NC State. Then came the 39-10 thumping in Charlotte at the hands of Clemson for the ACC crown. It was the 3rd straight game in which the Tar Heels were beaten by a backup quarterback.

More disconcerting than the results was Brown’s post-championship game admission that his team was unprepared to defend Klubnik because he and his staff didn’t think the freshman would play against them.

Just so-so

Somebody always has to finish in the middle of the pack and this year, that distinction went to the teams coached by Pittsburgh’s Pat Narduzzi, Syracuse’s Dino Babers, Louisville’s Scott Satterfield and Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson.

Narduzzi’s Panthers were plagued by inconsistent quarterback play from transfer Kedon Slovis and a rash of injuries on defense before winning their final 4 to finish 8-4. 

Babers got the Orange off to an impressive 6-0 start and a No. 14 national ranking. But after earning bowl eligibility for the first time in 4 years and throwing a scare into Clemson at Death Valley, Syracuse went more than a month without winning. 

A victory against Boston College in the final week of the regular season salvaged a winning record and likely bought Babers at least another season on the job.

Satterfield also avoided The Turk by fashioning a midseason surge that saw his Cardinals win 5 of 6 after starting the year at 2-3 (1-3 ACC). He did it on the strength of a defense ranked among the top 3 in the nation in sacks and takeaways.

While the 7-5 regular-season record was good enough to keep Satterfield from getting fired, it wasn’t enough to earn him a contract extension. So instead of following Babers’ lead by sticking around and spending another season on the hot seat, he left to take the job at Cincinnati.

That opened the door for Louisville to hire popular alumnus Jeff Brohm from Purdue.

Clawson isn’t going anywhere. He’s firmly entrenched at Wake Forest and is 1 season removed from an Atlantic Division title. 

But after reaching the top 10, taking Clemson to double-overtime and entertaining thoughts of a New Year’s 6 bowl trip, the Deacons slumped to a 7-5 finish Clawson blamed squarely on himself.

“The job of the head coach is to help his team get over the hump in those close games,” he said after a season-ending loss to Duke. “If I’m going to take credit for our team doing that in the past, I have to take the blame when we don’t do that this year. The difference between us being 7-5 or 10-2 and 11-2 is all these close games. We just didn’t get over the hump.”

Needs improvement

No coach in the ACC had a rockier season than Miami’s Mario Cristobal. The former Hurricanes offensive lineman returned to his alma mater with great fanfare and talked such a good ballgame that his team was picked as the preseason Coastal Division favorite.

As it turned out, Cristobal and the Canes were all talk and no substance.

They never recovered from an early loss to Middle Tennessee State and stumbled to a 5-7 finish that sent an ACC-leading 15 players into the NCAA transfer portal.

Jeff Hafley’s high hopes at Boston College began to unravel before the 1st game thanks to a season-ending injury to All-ACC tackle Christian Mahogany in preseason camp.

It was the 1st of several injuries that decimated the Eagles’ offensive line and prevented them from taking full advantage of the talented pass-catch combo of Phil Jurkovec and Zay Flowers. The only bright spot in a 3-9 season was an upset of NC State that ended the Wolfpack’s school-record, 16-game home winning streak.

Virginia Tech’s Brent Pry and Virginia’s Tony Elliott both went through their share of growing pains in their 1st seasons as head coaches. They won only 3 games each and went 1-6 in the ACC.

Both of their teams struggled offensively. They were 2 of the lowest-scoring teams in the league at less than 20 points per game apiece. The lack of firepower was especially confounding for the Cavaliers, whose veteran quarterback Brennan Armstrong led the ACC in passing under former coach Bronco Mendenhall the previous year.

While Elliott’s in-game performance wasn’t anything to write home about, he distinguished himself as a strong leader following the tragic deaths of players Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry.