The league seemed headed toward an embarrassing season when Virginia Tech fell to East Carolina, Clemson got blown out by Alabama and N.C. State was blanked by South Carolina in the opening week of the season. The conference's lack of an elite team – ACC champion Virginia Tech is 19th in the BCS standings – produced even more criticism.
But even though the ACC didn't have any great teams, it certainly had plenty of solid programs. A record 10 of the ACC's 12 members earned bowl bids. The ACC showed off its newfound strength Thanksgiving weekend by going 3-1 in four head-to-head matchups with the SEC, including Georgia Tech's 45-42 upset of Georgia.
Most of the ACC teams also seem headed in the right direction.
Georgia Tech was one of the nation's biggest surprises in Paul Johnson's first season. Duke regained respectability in its first season under David Cutcliffe. Miami and North Carolina made great strides in their second years with new coaching staffs. Boston College proved it could withstand the loss of Matt Ryan. Russell Wilson gave North Carolina State the quarterback it had been seeking since Philip Rivers' departure.
Here's a rundown of the best and worst of the ACC in 2008.
Player of the year: Georgia Tech RB Jonathan Dwyer. This sophomore was a perfect fit for Paul Johnson's option attack. Dwyer led the ACC with 1,328 rushing yards and averaged 7 yards per attempt. He ended the regular season by rushing for at least 128 yards in each of his last four games against Florida State, North Carolina, Miami and Georgia.
Coach of the year: Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech. It was supposed to take him at least a year or two to accumulate the talent to match his system. Johnson instead exceeded all expectations by leading Georgia Tech to a 9-3 record and ending the Yellow Jackets' seven-year losing streak against Georgia in his first season at Atlanta. Johnson benefited from having an ideal option quarterback on campus in Josh Nesbitt, but Johnson still deserves all sorts of credit for his team's quick adjustment to a new scheme.
Freshman of the year: North Carolina State QB Russell Wilson. This one's a no-brainer. Wilson emerged as the ACC's top quarterback in his redshirt freshman season by throwing 16 touchdown passes with only one interception. The athletic Wilson – he's also a baseball player – also rushed for four touchdowns and beat defenses with his versatility. Wilson carried North Carolina State to a four-game winning streak at the end of the regular season to make the Wolfpack bowl eligible.
Offensive coordinator of the year: Steve Logan, Boston College. One year after he helped Matt Ryan develop into the top quarterback taken in the NFL draft, Logan proved he could succeed without Ryan in the lineup. Logan guided Chris Crane well enough that the fifth-year senior improved markedly over the course of the season. The quarterback guru also helped redshirt freshman Dominique Davis lead Boston College to an Atlantic Division title-clinching victory over Maryland after Crane fractured his collarbone late in the season.
Defensive coordinator of the year: Frank Spaziani, Boston College. The Eagles had to replace Thorpe Award finalist Jamie Silva at the start of the season. Early in the year, star linebacker Brian Toal went down with a season-ending injury. None of that bothered BC. Spaziani built a defense that made the most of the Eagles' strengths: B.J. Raji and Ron Brace at tackle and Mark Herzlich at linebacker. The plan paid off. Boston College is ranked sixth in the nation in total defense, seventh in run defense and seventh in pass efficiency defense.
Best game(s): North Carolina 28, Miami 24, Sept. 27 in Miami, and Georgia Tech 31, Florida State 28, Nov. 1 in Atlanta. We'll go with a tie between these games because they had something in common. In both games, the winning team capitalized on a late turnover to grab victory from defeat. North Carolina rallied from a 14-point deficit against Miami and won the game when Trimane Goddard snatched a pass away from Miami wide receiver Kayne Farquharson in the end zone on the game's final play. Florida State was on the verge of rallying from an 11-point, fourth-quarter deficit at Georgia Tech when Cooper Taylor's helmet-to-football hit on Marcus Sims forced a fumble inside the Yellow Jackets' 3. Rashaad Reid recovered the fumble with 45 seconds remaining to preserve Tech's victory.
Biggest upset: East Carolina 27, Virginia Tech 22, Aug. 30 in Charlotte. In hindsight, this really wasn't much of an upset. East Carolina beat West Virginia the following week and went on to win the Conference USA title. But when the reigning ACC champion lost to a Conference USA team on the opening week of the season, it created a negative perception of the ACC that lasted all season, even though the league performed well in non-conference games the rest of the year. This result also coaxed Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer to remove the redshirt from quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who would go on to lead the Hokies to a second consecutive ACC title.
Biggest surprise, player: North Carolina State QB Russell Wilson. Wilson's remarkable redshirt freshman season made him an easy fit for this category. He was unquestionably the best quarterback in the conference by the end of the season.
Biggest surprise, team: Georgia Tech. Picked to finish fourth in the Coastal Division before the season, Georgia Tech currently is the highest-ranked ACC team in the BCS standings, at 14th. In a conference without an elite team, the Yellow Jackets clearly were playing the best of any ACC member by the end of the season.
Biggest disappointment, player: Clemson QB Cullen Harper. The preseason ACC player of the year threw 12 interceptions and 11 touchdown passes one season after posting a 27-6 touchdown-interception ratio. Harper played better after Dabo Swinney replaced coach Tommy Bowden at midseason, but Harper still didn't come close to matching his 2007 production.
Biggest disappointment, team: Clemson. Perhaps we got a little too carried away by Clemson's plethora of talented skill-position players on offense and overlooked the Tigers' inexperience on the offensive line. Whatever the reason, Clemson was an overwhelming preseason pick to win the conference title. The Tigers instead had to win their last three games just to become bowl eligible. Clemson's season started so disappointingly that the Tigers made a midseason coaching change, though their late-season surge allowed interim coach Dabo Swinney to get the full-time job.
Next season's division winners: Florida State and Georgia Tech. Florida State's young offensive line should only get better next season. Assuming the Seminoles get consistency at quarterback, they should be headed toward a nine-win season in 2009. Georgia Tech will have a tough time replacing all those stalwarts from its defensive line, but the offense could be something special. Don't be surprised if Georgia Tech wins the conference title and ends the ACC's search for an elite team next season.