Breaking down the greatest single season from each ACC college football team

1940 Chestnut Hill has become a hotspot for future NFL talent in the modern era, and the Eagles were a top-25 team for much of the 21st Century’s first decade, but the best season in program history remains the 11-0 campaign in 1940 under the direction of Hall of Fame coach Frank Leahy. Future Chicago Bears and Baltimore Colts quarterback Charlie O’Rourke ran in the game-winning score against Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl to give Boston College a claim to the national championship. Leahy would leave after the season to take the job at Notre Dame and win for more national championships, but the dominance of his 1940 team — which outscored opponents 320-52 on the season — remains the high water mark for the Eagles.  2018 When Clemson finally reached the top of the mountain in 2016, I rushed to claim it as the best season in program history. That team, with a 14-1 record and epic title game win against Alabama in the College Football Playoff, was more talented than the 1981 championship team that held a special place in the hearts of Clemson fans for so many years, and it was led by the most iconic player of Dabo Swinney’s rise to the top, Deshaun Watson. But what if that was just the beginning, and what if the debate for best season includes a debate for the most iconic player in Tigers history?

Because while the 2016 season represented a breakthrough at the game’s highest level, the 2018 season solidified the Tigers’ spot with a 15-0 record and 44-16 blowout win against Alabama in the national championship game. Players like Christian Wilkins and Mitch Hyatt were able to claim the second national championship of their careers, and Trevor Lawrence emerged as a star that will rank right up there with Watson in the halls of Clemson’s history.

All throughout the 2018 season, Clemson was regarded as one of the best teams in the country but always ran second to Alabama until a 27-point win against Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff semifinals and the 28-point win against the Tide in the CFP National Championship left the Tigers not just as the undisputed best team in the land that season. It’s not just the best Clemson season, it might be one of the best seasons for any team in the modern era.

1941 Wallace Wade had the 1941 Iron Dukes ranked among the top teams in the country, finishing the year with a 9-0 regular-season record behind an offense that averaged 34.5 points per game with three 50+ point performances. Duke won six conference titles, had three top-10 finishes and appeared in two Rose Bowls with Wade, but the 1941 season takes center stage because it finished with the Blue Devils hosting the Rose Bowl in Durham, North Carolina. Large crowds were banned on the West Coast following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, so bleachers were brought in from both North Carolina and NC State to increase to the stadium capacity to 56,000. The visiting Oregon State Beavers left with a low-scoring, rain-soaked 20-16 victory, but the season and the game remain an iconic piece of Duke’s football history.  2013 The 1999 Seminoles went wire-to-wire at No. 1, but the 2013 team gets the nod here for its statistical dominance en route to the last national championship of the BCS era. With 23 future NFL Draft picks on the roster, including Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and two more consensus All-Americans (Bryan Stork, Lamarcus Joyner) along with standout wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, Florida State was No. 1 in the country in kickoff return yardage, interceptions, passing yards allowed, red zone offense, scoring defense, passing efficiency and set a new NCAA record with 723 points. The Seminoles were also top-five in the country in total defense, scoring offense per game, turnover margin and set nine new ACC records that included scoring margin, touchdowns and consecutive 40-point games. 1990 The UPI Coaches Poll named Georgia Tech the national champions after the Yellow Jackets beat Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl to finish with an 11-0-1 record. Bobby Ross’ team shared the honor with Colorado — No. 1 in the final AP Top 25 after beating Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl to finish 11-1-1 — thanks to beating them by Buffs by one voting point in the Coaches Poll. Unlike Colorado, Georgia Tech was unranked to start the year and didn’t start garnering national attention until they took down then-No. 1 Virginia in a 41-38 thriller. Ross was named national Coach of the Year, and defensive back Ken Swilling was a consensus All-American in the program’s first conference and national championship season since 1952.  2006 This activity allowed for another run at comparing the final year of Bobby Petrino’s first stint with the Cards to the Teddy Bridgewater-led teams that went 23-3 across 2012 and 2013 with a Sugar Bowl win against Florida and Russell Athletic Bowl win against Miami. The point of separation comes down to competition, as the 2006 team faced a tougher schedule and finished 12-1 with a top-five final ranking all after losing star running back Michael Bush to a season-ending injury in the season opener against Kentucky. Quarterback Brian Brohm stepped his game up and the highlights of the year included wins against Miami and West Virginia that set up an undefeated-against-undefeated edition of Thursday night football against Rutgers in the second week of November. If the Cards end up on the other side of that 28-25 loss, they’re likely in the mix with Ohio State and Florida for a spot in the BCS Championship Game.  2001 We spend a lot of time pointing to the 38 NFL Draft picks on the roster — including 17 first-rounders — but the 2001 Canes deserve consideration as one of the best teams of all time because of how that talent performed in its national championship-winning season. Miami had six (!) consensus All-Americans (Joaquin Gonzalez, Bryant McKinnie, Ed Reed, Phillip Buchanon, Jeremy Shockey, Todd Sievers), played every single game as either the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the country and had an average margin of victory of 32.9 points per game. Much was expected from this group after their finish in 2000, and the competition and intensity up and down the roster to be elite every day produced one of the greatest seasons in college football history that culminated in the 2002 Rose Bowl. 1997 While outsiders may have initially overlooked the significance of Mack Brown’s return to North Carolina, the early returns on the field and success on the recruiting trail highlight the excitement that’s generated by one of the best ever to roam the sidelines in Chapel Hill. Brown’s 1997 season, his last of the first stint before leaving for Texas, was the culmination of a long road to national prominence. North Carolina went 11-1 only to Florida State, was ranked in the top 10 for the entire season and finished the year with three consensus All-Americans (Greg Ellis, Dre Bly, Brian Simmons) and three first-round picks in the 1998 NFL Draft (Ellis, Simmons, Vonnie Holliday).

Brown had gone from back-to-back one-win seasons to back-to-back 10-win seasons over the course of a decade, raised the talent level in the program and forever changed what many thought could be accomplished at North Carolina. The program won ACC championships in 1976 and 1980, but the banner year for what the Tar Heels could do on a national scale was 1997. 

2002 This is another example of allowing for context, not hardware, to determine the best season in program history. NC State’s first and only 11-win season came in the midst of Florida State’s ACC dominance thanks to a former Bobby Bowden assistant, as Chuck Amato brought the national spotlight to Raleigh in 2002. NC State won seven ACC championships from 1957-79, but the highest ranking in the poll era (No. 12) came from this team that went 11-3, knocked off the Seminoles and beat Notre Dame 28-6 in the Gator Bowl. What the 2002 team lacks in championships it makes up for with national significance and the star power of Philip Rivers, Terrence Holt and eight other future NFL Draft picks. 1976 With all respect due to Pop Warner and Jock Southerland, the greatest season and best team in Pitt’s history is the lone national champion of the post-World War II era. Hall of Famer Johnny Majors was named national coach of the year and even on a team that had 19 future NFL Draft picks there was one lone star who shined brighter than any other: Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett. The 1976 season saw Dorsett win the Heisman Trophy, the Walter Camp Award, the Maxwell Award and break what was then the NCAA career rushing record. The Panthers beat Notre Dame to start the year and finished with a win against Penn State in the regular season finale before taking down Georgia in the Sugar Bowl to finish as a 12-0 consensus national champion. 1959 Football tradition at Syracuse is anchored in two Hall of Fame running backs: Jim Brown, an All-American in 1956, and Ernie Davis, the 1961 Heisman Trophy winner. But the heartbreaking end to Davis’ story — dead at the age of 23 after a leukemia diagnosis in 1962 — leaves us only his stellar college career to remember him on the field. Davis was the MVP of Syracuse’s Cotton Bowl win against Texas at the end of his sophomore season in 1959, capping an 11-0 season and securing the program’s lone national championship. Offensive lineman Roger Davis, another key piece to Davis’ success that year, was a consensus All-American that year as well as Hall of Fame coach Ben Schwartzwalder, who oversaw the program’s incredible run of dominant backs that stretched from Brown to Davis all the way to Floyd Little and Larry Csonka.  1995 When this question has been presented before, I’ve often turned to the 1989 team as the one worth highlighting. It was the program’s first ACC championship in more than three decades of league competition and featured consensus All-American linebacker Ray Savage. But with some time to reconsider we’ve pivoted to George Welsh’s second ACC championship season in 1995. This season was notable not just for the league title but for the national attention that Welsh, Tiki Barber and the rest of the Wahoos garnered throughout the season. Specifically, who they beat.

Virginia was the first team to beat Florida State in an ACC conference games when they took down the No. 2 -ranked Seminoles 33-28 in Charlottesville. They also went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Austin, Texas, for top-20 nonconference games, losing both but doing so by one point each. Virginia didn’t win as many games as they did in 1989, but taking down Florida State, winning an ACC crown and finishing the year with a win against Georgia in the Peach Bowl made for an epic season that stands out as the program’s best. 

1999 Michael Vick was dealing with the effects of an ankle injury for much of the 1999 season but still led the Hokies to an 11-0 regular season, won Big East Offensive Player of the Year and nearly stormed back against Florida State in the BCS Championship Game. Of course, it wasn’t all Vick on that 1999 team. Corey Moore was a consensus All-American and two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year, and the roster featured 16 future NFL Draft picks. Virginia Tech stated its ACC membership with eight straight double-digit win seasons and four ACC championships, the seeds of which were planted with the success of Frank Beamer and Michael Vick’s national championship contenders around the turn of the century.   2006 Virginia gets bonus points for being the first to hand Florida State an ACC loss, and the 2006 Wake Forest team gets rewarded as well for not only winning but going to Tallahassee, Florida, and leaving with a 30-0 shutout win in primetime. The victory came after the Demon Deacons notched the head-to-head victory against a strong Boston College team to capture the in-road the ACC Championship Game. The rainy 9-6 conference title game win against Georgia Tech won’t provide many highlights for fans to review, but the trip to Miami for the Orange Bowl against Louisville allowed Jim Grobe to give Wake Forest fans a big-time BCS bowl game experience. Life in the ACC Atlantic is tough with Clemson and Florida State battling to be the ruling family, but Wake Forest proved in 2006 that there’s still a path from that side of the standings to a league championship.  1988 There is something to be said for long standing excellence like what we saw from Notre Dame in the post-World War II years. The Irish won three national championships in four years, going 46-0-2 between 1946-49 with Johnny Lujack (1947) and Leon Hart (1949) both claiming Heisman Trophies along the way. But for single-season excellence it’s hard to look past the 1988 team led by Lou Holtz, then in his third year as coach of the Irish. That group had 30 future NFL Draft picks, snapped Miami’s 36-game regular season winning streak in epic fashion and totaled four top-10 wins on the way to an undefeated 12-0 record and national championship.

Most schools don’t have nearly a dozen national championship seasons to choose from for this exercise, so with Notre Dame, just winning the hardware isn’t going to be enough. The cultural significance to the national brand of college football — something that is mostly a byproduct of television over the last 30-40 years — of the 1988 team puts it over the top.  

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