North Carolina, NC State, Wake Forest and Duke all started the 2022 football season with 3-0 records. All 4 will end the season by playing in bowls.

Based on the fact that neither of those things had ever happened in the same season, an argument can be made that this is the most successful regular season in the history of the ACC’s North Carolina-based schools.

So how come only 1 of them feels like celebrating now that it’s over?

And it’s the 1 team that was never ranked at any point during the year.

Whether the expectations were in place before the first pass was thrown on Week Zero or escalated as a result of the promising start, only the Blue Devils are looking at their bowl assignment as anything more than a consolation prize.

It’s a reality best illustrated by 2 contrasting events on Saturday.

A few hours after Duke’s Mike Elko was saluted with a standing ovation for his selection as ACC Coach of the Year during a basketball game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, a defeated Mack Brown sat before a roomful of reporters in Charlotte trying to put a positive spin on UNC’s 39-10 thumping at the hands of Clemson in the ACC title game. His team’s 3rd loss in as many weeks.

Brown, like his Wolfpack counterpart Dave Doeren and to a lesser extent Dave Clawson of the Deacons, has declared his team’s results a success.

There’s at least some factual basis to the claim, even though the momentum of those first 3 weeks has turned into a slow limp to the finish line.

The last time UNC, NC State, Wake and Duke all finished a season with winning records was 1947, 6 years before the ACC came into being. It’s guaranteed to happen this year.

And yet it’s hard to shake the image of the “Baghdad Bob,” the Iraqi Minister of (Dis)Information infamous for his exaggerated claims during the second Gulf War in 2003, as Doeren and especially Brown publicly declare victory for seasons that left so much on the table.

The Wolfpack started the season as the chic pick to win the ACC’s Atlantic Division and their first league title since 1979.

They rose to No. 10 in the nation before their hopes flew off the rails early with a loss in a top-10 showdown at Clemson on Week 5. Things only got worse when star quarterback Devin Leary went down with a season-ending injury shortly thereafter before the disappointment was salved by wins against in-state rivals Wake and UNC.

State will have a chance to finish on a high note and match last year’s 9 win total in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl against Maryland, an old ACC rival.

The Tar Heels’ hopes were raised by the superlative play of redshirt freshman quarterback Drake Maye and an uncanny ability to win on the road and in close games.

They got off to a 9-1 start despite a defense that ranked at or near the bottom of the ACC in every statistical category and rose as high as No. 13 in the College Football Playoff rankings. That success helped elevate Maye into a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender.

Then the bottom dropped out on them, too.

The sting of close losses to Georgia Tech and NC State were eased by a Coastal Division title and the prospect of playing for their first ACC championship since 1980. That dream was crushed emphatically by Clemson on Saturday.

All they have to look forward to now is an opportunity to bounce back against Oregon in the Holiday Bowl — a sneaky-good matchup pitting 2 of the best QBs in the country in Maye and Bo Nix.

Wake’s drop-off was almost as dramatic. 

The Deacons had visions of spending their holidays in Florida at the Orange Bowl after a 6-1 start that had them tied with USC at No. 10 in the national polls. They’ll still be headed to the Sunshine State for the postseason. Just not to Miami on New Year’s weekend.

Four losses in their final 5 games starting with an ugly 3rd quarter turnover fest at Louisville has relegated them to the Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa, where they’ll play Missouri 2 days before Christmas. 

That brings us to Duke.

The Blue Devils would have been happy to go bowling anywhere after 3 straight losing seasons, including a 2021 campaign in which they went 3-8 overall and winless in the ACC.

Because of that, their Military Bowl matchup against UCF will be as much of a celebration of their surprising success under Elko as it is a chance to add to an 8-win season that has already far exceeded even their wildest projections.

Duke’s 3 North Carolina neighbors also thought they’d been in a partying mood this time of year. But instead of putting an exclamation point on arguably the most successful season in their collective history, they’ll have to be satisfied simply by finishing it the way they started.

By winning.