Friedlander: What we learned about every ACC team in 2022
There’s still 1 game to be played in the 2022 ACC football season. But because both Clemson and North Carolina are out of the Playoff picture and are coming off losses, the championship they’ll decide in Charlotte next Saturday feels a lot like a consolation prize.
About the best thing that can be said for the regular season is that it’s over.
Sure, there were some memorable moments. And the folks at NC State, Florida State and Duke are all in a celebrating mood after their teams’ rivalry victories in Week 13.
But overall, the lows far outweighed the highs. Both on the field and tragically, off it.
Now that it’s done, let’s take a look back at what we learned about all 14 teams during the 2022 regular season.
The Eagles were by far the biggest disappointment in the conference this season. They started the season with the goal of surpassing the 6-7 win plateau on which they’ve been stuck for the past few seasons. But instead of earning 8 victories, they lost 9 times.
If we learned anything from their struggles, it’s that it takes more than a talented quarterback-receiver duo for an offense to succeed. Zay Flowers had a solid season, setting the school record for career touchdown catches with 29 in Saturday’s season-ending loss to Syracuse. But senior Phil Jurkovec struggled behind a depleted offensive line before going down with a season-ending injury.
One positive in an otherwise lost season was the emergence of redshirt freshman Emmett Morehead as BC’s quarterback of the future. He provided a rare highlight when he led a last-minute game-winning drive to beat NC State on Nov. 12.
While coach Jeff Hafley’s job isn’t on the line after receiving a vote of confidence from athletic director Blake James, his seat will be among the ACC’s warmest once the 2023 season begins.
The Tigers returned to the top of the Atlantic Division standings after a 1-season absence and will be playing for their 7th league championship in the past 8 years. But while literally every other team in the conference would consider that a success, 2022 will be looked upon as a disappointment by Clemson’s higher standards.
Dabo Swinney has some serious evaluations to make this offseason after a campaign in which an 8-0 record against a weak ACC was offset by losses to Notre Dame and South Carolina, the 2 most important nonconference opponents on the schedule.
It’s a review that’s likely to start with his decision to hire replacement coordinators from within rather than considering outside candidates after Tony Elliott on offense and Brent Venables on defense left for head coaching positions.
New offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter will likely come under the most scrutiny. Whether he continues in that position or not, it’s almost certain the Tigers will have a new starting quarterback in 2023. DJ Uiagalelei failed to build on a solid start and struggled with turnovers for the 2nd straight year, leaving the door open for highly-touted Cade Klubnik to get his shot at leading Clemson back to national prominence.
While Coastal Division rivals Miami, Virginia and Virginia Tech all struggled to adjust to new coaching staffs, the Blue Devils clicked immediately on the way to becoming the surprise success story of the ACC.
Mike Elko and his staff injected a badly needed jolt of energy into a program that had stagnated during the final few seasons of former coach David Cutcliffe’s tenure. They made several important personnel moves, including the move of Jordan Moore to wide receiver after he lost the starting quarterback battle with Riley Leonard and instilled an aggressive, opportunistic mentality on defense.
Duke’s 8 wins and counting are its most since 2018 and its 5 conference wins are 1 more than it earned in the past 3 seasons combined. The Blue Devils finished the regular season in the top 5 of the league in scoring offense and defense and rank No. 2 nationally with a plus-14 turnover margin while firmly establishing Elko as the front-runner for ACC Coach of the Year honors.
The book is still out on whether the Seminoles are “back” as an ACC championship contender. But if they’re not there yet, the final 5 weeks of the season showed that they’re certainly on an upward trajectory.
With 9 wins already and a bowl game to come, they’ve got a shot at reaching double digits for the first time in 6 years.
Mike Norvell’s team bounced back from a 3-game midseason losing streak to Wake Forest, NC State and Clemson to finish the season as the league’s hottest team. It dominated the first 4 opponents in its current 5-game winning streak by a combined margin of 173-39 before outlasting Florida for its first win against the Gators since 2016.
While FSU has found a formula for success in a ground attack that churned out more than 200 rushing yards in each of its final 7 games, the catalyst for its late-season success has been dual-threat quarterback Jordan Travis – whose strong finish has positioned himself as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate in 2023.
It’s yet to be seen if interim coach Brent Key is given the keys to the program on a permanent basis. Whether he’s retained or not, we learned that the Yellow Jackets owe their proud alumnus a debt of gratitude for helping to make the best of a bad situation.
After taking over from Geoff Collins in Week 5 following a 1-3 start, the former offensive line assistant led Tech to 4 wins in its final 8 games – including upsets of 2 ranked opponents, both on the road. And he did it while using 4 different quarterbacks because of injuries and other external factors. Defensively, the Yellow Jackets ranked among the top 10 nationally with 24 takeaways and had 2 of the ACC’s top 5 tacklers in linebackers Ayinde Eley and Charlie Thomas.
Key’s work helped build an unexpectedly solid foundation on which to build for whoever gets the job on a permanent basis.
The Cardinals taught us that it’s not wise to make judgments on a team’s season until all the results are in. They were all but written off after an 0-3 start in the ACC. Coach Scott Satterfield reportedly had 1 foot out the door.
But the team continued to grow and improve as the year went along. Bolstered by a defense that was among the nation’s best in both sacks and takeaways, along with a running game that took considerable pressure off star quarterback Malik Cunningham, Louisville turned its season around.
It won 4 straight at one point late in the year, guaranteeing a winning record despite Saturday’s loss at rival Kentucky.
Maybe we finally learned to stop judging the Hurricanes on their long-distant past. Maybe we learned to stop taking enthusiastic coaches that talk a good ballgame at face value.
Then again, probably not.
The voters on the ACC’s preseason were fooled again when they picked Miami as the favorite to win the Coastal Division in Year 1 under alumnus Mario Cristobal. It’s a prediction that started to sour just 3 weeks in with an upset at the hands of Middle Tennessee State. And the Hurricanes never fully recovered.
An injury to quarterback Tyler Van Dyke didn’t help. But things weren’t going well even before he went down. They lost 4 straight at home, their longest skid since 1973, suffered their worst-ever loss to rival FSU and with an opportunity to salvage a bowl bid on the line, they went out with a whimper not a bang in a 42-16 thumping at the hands of Pittsburgh.
More than likely, Cristobal will look to clean house over the next few weeks. A major rebuild is in his future.
The assessment of the Tar Heels’ 2022 season depends on whether you’re a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty kind of person.
It’s half full if you consider that Mack Brown’s team went 6-0 on the road, won 9 games and the Coastal Division title and still has a shot at its first outright ACC championship since 1980. It’s half empty if you consider that just 3 weeks ago, UNC was 9-1 and ranked as high as 12th in the nation before losing its final 2 at home to unranked opponents, most painfully to rival NC State.
Either way, it’s been an eventful year for the Tar Heels. We learned that they have a superstar quarterback in Drake Maye, who is as good as anyone in the country when he gets time to throw. But that wasn’t always the case. UNC’s offensive line surrendered 36 sacks, the 3rd-most in the league.
That negative aside, Maye and the Tar Heels’ offense taught us that a good offense can overcome a bad defense. At least to a point. But we also learned that playing close games every week isn’t necessarily a great recipe for success. After winning its first 6 games decided by a touchdown or less, the law of averages caught up with UNC with a pair of 1-possession losses to finish the year.
The biggest takeaway from the Wolfpack’s season is that the Law of the Wolf is alive and well. Whenever the team’s prospects seem to be their most promising, that’s when the results turn out to be their most disappointing.
State’s hopes for its first ACC title since 1979 ended early with a loss at Clemson in Week 5. Its chances for only the second 10-win season in school history died shortly thereafter with a season-ending injury to quarterback Devin Leary.
But despite the setbacks and a parade of replacement quarterbacks that followed, the Wolfpack never quit on coach Dave Doeren and his staff.
Their resilience and an ACC-leading defense anchored by the linebacking corps of Drake Thomas, Payton Wilson and Isaiah Moore, helped them finish on a high note in spite of the adversity. In the words of 4th-string quarterback Ben Finley after leading Friday’s win at UNC, the double-overtime victory in Chapel Hill “put a big-ole Band-aid on the season.”
The Panthers learned that it’s not easy replacing a Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback and an All-American receiver. Even with the emergence of Israel Abanikanda as the ACC’s leading rusher and 1 of the top touchdown producers in the nation, Pat Narduzzi’s team wasn’t able to develop a consistent enough passing game without Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison to seriously challenge for a 2nd straight league title.
It didn’t help that several top players on their highly-ranked defense, including Outland Trophy semifinalist Calijah Kancey and fellow pass rushers Habakkuk Baldonado and Deslin Alexandre, missed time with injuries.
Despite the obstacles, Pitt still managed to recover from its midseason doldrums, win its final 4 games and earn bowl eligibility.
The Orange taught us that it’s never a good idea to celebrate an accomplishment before the job is done.
That’s what they did after a field-storming victory against NC State on Oct. 15 that improved their record to 6-0, clinched bowl eligibility and raised their national ranking to No. 16 and, presumably, saved coach Dino Babers’ job.
Then they promptly lost the next 5 games to thrust Babers right back onto the hot seat.
It took until the final 15 minutes of the final game, a 32-23 win against lowly BC in which they scored 23 4th quarter points to avoid losing out, for them to finally get their mojo back. As it is, they finished with a more-than-respectable 7-5 record and their first winning season since 2018.
The Cavaliers experienced their share of growing pains in Year 1 under coach Tony Elliott. especially on offense. They were the lowest-scoring team in the league at just 17 points per game, even with the return of Brennan Armstrong, the ACC’s leading passer in 2021.
But as we learned, tragically, there are more important things than football.
Because of that, the work Elliott and his staff have ahead of them on the field pales by comparison to the job they face in facilitating the emotional healing of their program following the shooting deaths of team members Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis and D’Sean Perry.
The Hokies also got off to a rocky start under their rookie coach, Brent Pry, losing 7 straight at one point in the season – including a pair of 1-point decisions in which they led by double-digits in the 4th quarter.
And yet, they still managed to head into the offseason with optimism after rallying to beat a solid Liberty team in what turned out to be their final game.
They also won the hearts of their rival with an amazing show of sportsmanship. Pry, his players and the Hokies’ fans showed what a rivalry should be about by coming by showing public support and compassion for UVA in its time of need.
They did it by dedicating their win against Liberty to the Cavaliers, by sending out messages of support to the Cavaliers and agreeing to cancel their Commonwealth Cup showdown, even though it meant losing a home date.
The Deacons’ motto during their Atlantic Division championship season in 2021 was “Good to Great.” It wasn’t until this season that they learned just how fine a line there is between those 2 superlatives.
After winning 3 conference games by a field goal or less last year on the way to 11 wins and a 7-1 ACC record, Dave Clawson’s team reversed that trend this time around by losing 3 times by similar margins. As a result, it finished with a much-less-satisfying 7 wins and a 3-5 league mark.
There were some notable accomplishments along the way. Quarterback Sam Hartman tied Tajh Boyd’s ACC career record for touchdown passes at 107 with a bowl game still to play. Top receiver AT Perry also set a mark by becoming Wake’s all-time leader in touchdown catches with 29. And despite a disappointing finish that saw the Deacons lose 4 of their last 5, they can at least take consolation in their school-record 7th straight bowl trip.