College football's greatest teams: The best season from every ACC program
A look at the best teams in the history of each of the 14 ACC schools
In ranking the best teams for each ACC college football program, you're taking a spin not only through ACC history but also Big East history, and the long history (much of it independent of conference affiliation) of some of the sport's first participants on the East Coast.
The collective history of these programs is rich, and it's part of the reason why the ACC has embraced its new arrivals over the last 15 years with open arms. Half of the league has a national championship in the trophy case and most of the league has at least one top-10 finish in the poll era.
Before Clemson, Miami, Florida State and the rest of the ACC look to make their own history in 2018, let's take a look back at the best team for each program. The activity itself was fun and makes for good debate. Ties were often broken here by teams, players, coaches or seasons that were particularly interesting or notable.
Boston College (1940)
The legendary Frank Leahy arrived at Boston College promising new levels success and delivered immediately, taking the Eagles to their first-ever bowl game in 1939 and then leading the team to an 11-0 season the following year. It was Charlie O'Rourke, who would go on to play professionally with the Chicago Bears and Baltimore Colts, who ran in the game-winning score to upset Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl and give BC a national championship claim. The Eagles were not only undefeated, but outscored opponents 320-52 on the season. Leahy left shortly after the Sugar Bowl to take the job at Notre Dame that would lead to four more national championships for the Hall of Famer.
Record: 11-0 | Final ranking: No. 5
Coach: Frank Leahy | MVP: QB Charlie O'Rourke
Championships won: National (claimed)
Accolades: Six College Football Hall of Famers (Leahy, O'Rourke, Chet Gladchuk, Gene Goodreault, Mike Holovak, George Kerr)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 3
Did you know? On Nov. 16, 1940, O'Rourke ran away from Georgetown tacklers to burn the final seconds of regulation and took a safety in his own end zone as time expired to seal a 19-18 Eagles win. It was the first football loss for Georgetown in three years.
The 1981 Clemson team that emerged from one of the craziest college football seasons of the last 40 years is held in such high regard that this pick might get some push back. But I suspect that the emotions tied to that team were also fueled by Clemson fans' longing for a return to the top of the mountain during the decades that would follow. When you lay out the rosters and start judging talent, it's not even close. Dabo Swinney and his staff have transformed what Clemson football is today and what we expect when the Tigers take the field.
It's not so much the recruiting rankings as it is the lack of recruiting misses, as Clemson has balanced landing five-star future pros and four-star prospects that make the right fit and become valuable contributors later in their career. That personnel bridge was present on the title team with senior linebacker Ben Boulware serving as the heartbeat of the defense while freshman Dexter Lawrence started to flash the potential (now realized) of being one of the most disruptive defensive lineman in the country. Oh yeah, and Deshaun Watson. History will judge us if we do not take time to appreciate just how much fun it was to watch Watson play college football.
Record: 14-1 | Final ranking: No. 1
Coach: Dabo Swinney | MVP: QB Deshaun Watson
Championships won: National (CFP), ACC
Accolades: Davey O'Brien Award (Watson), Johnny Unitas Award (Watson), Paul "Bear" Bryant Award (Swinney), Broyles Award (Brent Venables)
NFL Draft picks on the roster: 9 (and counting)
Did you know? The total of likely NFL Draft picks on the roster looks low because there are about a half-dozen members of the 2016 title team that are going to be looking to lead the Tigers back to the College Football Playoff in 2018. While the ultimate legacy of many of these teams has been sealed, players like Lawrence, Christian Wilkins and Mitch Hyatt have a chance to be the first group of players in program history with multiple national championships.
In addition to being the highest poll ranking in program history, the 1941 Iron Dukes will forever stand out in college football history for its participation and hosting of the 1942 Rose Bowl. After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, large crowds were banned on the West Coast and bowl officials agreed to move the game to Durham, North Carolina. Bleachers were brought in from both North Carolina and NC State to increase the stadium capacity at Duke Stadium to 56,000 to watch the Blue Devils take on Oregon State on New Year's Day. Duke was higher ranked and dangerous offensively, averaging 34.5 points per game with three games of 50 points or more during its 9-0 regular season. Unfortunately, the steady January rain and a lost fumble on the opening kickoff prompted a low-scoring 20-16 loss to the Beavers, but this team and this season bookended a remarkable nine-year run for Wallace Wade that included six conference titles, three top-10 finishes and two Rose Bowl appearances.
Record: 9-1 | Final Ranking: No. 2
Coach: Wallace Wade | MVP: HB Steve Lach
Championships won: Southern Conference
Accolades: Two concensus All-Americans (Lach, Mike Karmazin)
NFL Draft picks on the roster: 7
Did you know? Wade left the team after this season for military service in World War II. Eddie Cameron filled in for him as head coach from 1942-1945 and then Wade returned for the 1946 season. The three-time national championship winner at Alabama retired in 1950 with a 110-36-7 record at Duke and 171-49-10 record overall.
Florida State (2013)
As prisoners of the moment, sports fans are guilty of wondering aloud if everything they are watching is the greatest or worst of all time. In the moment, conversations about this Florida State team existed almost entirely in the orbit of Jameis Winston. Hindsight has expanded the frame of view to allow us to appreciate what I think was the best team in the storied history of Seminoles football. The 1999 team, which went wire-to-wire at No. 1 after finishing as the runner-up to Tennessee the previous season, is just as worthy of this honor, but choices have to be made and I want to use this space as a reminder of the 2013 team's historical dominance.
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. It wasn't until Auburn was up 21-3 in the second quarter of the BCS Championship Game that FSU showed any signs of being stopped, but we know how that story ended.
Record: 14-0 | Final ranking: No. 1
Coach: Jimbo Fisher | MVP: QB Jameis Winston
Championships won: National (BCS), ACC
Accolades: Heisman Trophy (Winston), Walter Camp Award (Winston), Davey O'Brien Award (Winston), AP Player of the Year (Winston), Lou Groza Award (Roberto Aguayo), Rimington Trophy (Bryan Stork), AFCA Coach of the Year (Fisher), three consensus All-Americans (Winston, Stork, Lamarcus Joyner)
NFL Draft picks on the roster: 23
Did you know? Four players from this team have made the NFL Pro Bowl.
Georgia Tech (1990)
The Yellow Jackets came from off the radar in 1990, creating buzz with wins against South Carolina and Clemson early in the season. Things changed for Georgia Tech in November, when they went on the road to play Virginia -- then ranked No. 1 in the country and coming off its first-ever ACC title. Scott Sisson's 37-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining to beat the Cavaliers 41-38 remains one of the most significant plays in Georgia Tech football history. With the win came an in-road to winning the ACC, and a leap in the polls that with an undefeated season (one tie) and a bowl win against Nebraska earned the program a claim to a title via the Coaches Poll.
Record: 11-0-1 | Final ranking: No. 2
Coach: Bobby Ross | MVP: DB Ken Swilling
Championships won: National (Coaches), ACC
Accolades: Consensus All-American (Swilling)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 3
Did you know? Georgia Tech's claim to a national championship in 1990 came by the slimmest of margins (one point) in the final Coaches Poll tally. Georgia Tech had 30 first-place votes, Colorado had 27 and Miami received two in the UPI's polling of 59 coaches.
Bobby Petrino's final season from his first stint with Louisville took the program to a new peak that would only be matched once, in 2012 by Charlie Strong. That Teddy Bridgewater-led team and the Sugar Bowl win against Florida has a strong argument for consideration (as does the 2013 team), but that group was never as close to playing for a national championship as the Cardinals were in 2006. Ranked No. 3 in the country heading into the second week of November, Louisville collided with Rutgers in one of the greatest weeknight games since the inception of Thursday night football. Both teams were undefeated and if the 28-25 loss had gone the other way, Louisville had an in-road to playing for a national title.
Record: 12-1 | Final ranking: No. 5
Coach: Bobby Petrino | MVP: QB Brian Brohm
Championships won: Big East
Accolades: Lou Groza Award (Art Carmody)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 11
Did you know? We'll also remember this team for Michael Bush, who entered the season as one of the game's biggest stars but broke his leg in the season-opener against Kentucky. Bush, a Louisville native, ran for 1,143 yards and 23 touchdowns the previous season and had already shown enough to get him discussed as a top NFL Draft pick. If Bush was healthy for the whole season, this could have been a BCS champion, but the success the Cardinals celebrated with that BCS bowl win was enough to earn their spot here.
I don't think there should be much debate here. The only debate is whether or not the 2001 Miami team is the greatest college football team of all time for any school. The talent is absurd, and this was the group that not only demanded perfection, but followed through on it from start-to-finish. We've seen plenty of teams with huge talent advantages or loaded rosters in college football, but usually there's a slip-up somewhere on the schedule. They are forever enshrined because of the pros that many of them became, but it's a joy to look back at how thoroughly they won football games, even at the highest level against the best teams.
Record: 12-0 | Final ranking: No. 1
Coach: Larry Coker | MVP: QB Ken Dorsey
Championships won: National (BCS), Big East
Accolades: Six concensus All-Americans (Joaquin Gonzalez, Bryant McKinnie, Ed Reed, Phillip Buchanon, Jeremy Shockey, Todd Sievers), Outland Trophy (McKinnie), Maxwell Award (Dorsey)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 38
Did you know? In total, the 2001 Miami football team produced not just 38 NFL Draft picks but 17 first-rounders, including five in the 2002 draft (Buchanan, McKinnie, Reed, DB Mike Rumph and Shockey).
North Carolina (1997)
This was a case of having to debate the value of a conference championship. North Carolina laid claim to ACC championships in 1976 and again in 1980, but that ACC arguably wasn't as tough as the league was in 1997, in part because that ACC didn't have Florida State. It took a few years to get going, but Mack Brown's Tar Heels were producing NFL talents regularly and in 1996 and 1997, finishing with double-digit wins and top-10 finishes. The 1997 team was ranked in the top 10 for the entire season and only lost once, to Florida State. Brown left for Texas in between the regular season finale and the bowl game and Carl Torbush (who took over the job permanently) led the team to a 42-3 trouncing of Big East runner-up Virginia Tech.
Record: 11-1 | Final ranking: No. 6
Coach: Mack Brown | MVP: DE Greg Ellis
Accolades: Three consensus All-Americans (Ellis, Dre Bly, Brian Simmons)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 13
Did you know? The Tar Heels defense produced three first-round picks in the 1998 NFL Draft (Ellis, Simmons, DT Vonnie Holliday).
NC State (2002)
The Wolfpack were consistently in the mix and frequently winning the ACC football championship in the first two decades of the league's existence, but those titles didn't come with the positive response from the poll voters that you'd get with that kind of success in today's ACC. In fact, the highest final ranking in the poll era came after the program's first and only 11-win season, with fiery coach Chuck Amato pacing the sidelines and all-time ACC great Philip Rivers under center. A 9-0 start brought national attention, and then a 17-7 win against Florida State and Amato's former boss, Bobby Bowden, cemented the Wolfpack's status as one of the best teams in the country that season. After beating Notre Dame 28-6 in the Gator Bowl, there was a parade in the streets in Raleigh to honor what was, and still is, the best NC State football team in program history.
Record: 11-3 | Final ranking: No. 12
Coach: Chuck Amato | MVP: QB Philip Rivers
Championships won: n/a
Accolades: Consensus All-American (DB Terrence Holt)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 8
Did you know? The in-house video department at NC State was big into Sopranos in 2002. They nearly went shot-for-shot on an intro title sequence with Amato as Tony Soprano, complete with theme music and shots of Raleigh. Stick around and you'll spot a young Philip Rivers!
There will be at least one, and likely many, Pitt fans ready to break out the grainy black-and-white photos and point to box scores and newspaper clippings to cite the greatness of Pop Warner's teams a century ago, or the Jock Southerland teams of the 1930s. Pitt claims nine national championships in its history with eight of them coming before World War II. Pitt indeed played a pivotal role in the growth of college football during the first half of the 20th century, but its greatness was fully realized on the field with the consensus national championship team in 1976, led by Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett.
Record: 12-0 | Final ranking: No. 1
Coach: Johnny Majors | MVP: RB Tony Dorsett
Championships won: National (consensus)
Accolades: Heisman Trophy (Dorsett), Walter Camp Award (Dorsett), Maxwell Award (Dorsett), consensus All-American (Dorsett), AFCA Coach of the Year (Majors)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 19
Did you know? When Dorsett broke what was then the career rushing record at Navy in late October, the entire stadium in Annapolis honored the Pitt star with a salute that included a cannon blast despite it being in the middle of a 45-0 rout. Also, future Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt was a graduate assistant on this team.
Like Pitt, Syracuse has its football history forever linked to some of the game's greats. Jim Brown was an All-American as senior in 1956 and already racking up MVP and All-Pro honors in the NFL. With Ernie Davis, Syracuse had another superstar halfback ready to lead the offense. The heartbreaking end to Davis' story, dead at the age of 23 after a leukemia diagnosis in 1962, leaves us with only his stellar college career to remember him on the field. Davis' sophomore year, in 1959, finished with a claim to a national championship after beating Texas in the Cotton Bowl, a game where he took MVP honors. Davis won the Heisman Trophy in 1961, played a season of basketball for the Orange, wore No. 44 to carry on the tradition started by Brown and has his story is immortalized in Hollywood by the film, "The Express." Five Syracuse teams would later lay claim to conference titles, but not since Davis has there been a national championship or Heisman Trophy for the Orange.
Record: 11-0 | Final ranking: No. 1
Coach: Ben Schwartzwalder | MVP: HB Ernie Davis
Championships won: National (consensus)
Accolades: Consensus All-American (Roger Davis)
Did you know? Ger Schwedes and several other members of the 1959 team expressed some disappointment in the way the team was portrayed in the movie, "The Express." "As a work of fiction, the movie is terrific," Schwedes said, via the Post-Standard. "But that's not the way it was."
The University of Virginia was a founding member of the ACC in 1953, but the school's first league championship in football didn't come until Hall of Fame coach George Welsh broke through with a school-record 10 wins in 1989. Welsh would go on to get another ACC title in 1995 and win at a consistent level that hadn't been seen in Charlottesville since the early 20th century. Adversity struck in the form of a season opening loss to Notre Dame and an injury to starting quarterback Shawn Moore in a loss to Clemson in early October, but six straight wins to close the regular season included beating a ranked NC State team in Raleigh. Virginia finished with one of its best poll rankings in the Welsh era.
Record: 10-3 | Final ranking: No. 18
Coach: George Welsh | MVP: LB Ray Savage
Championship won: ACC
Accolades: Consensus All-American (Savage)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 3
Did you know? Herman Moore, the star wide receiver on the 1989 team, would go on to earn All-American honors and finish sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting the following year. He finished his college career holding what was then the NCAA record for most yards per catch in a career (22.0).
Virginia Tech (1999)
During Michael Vick's recruitment, Frank Beamer offered him the opportunity to come in and develop instead of taking the field immediately. By the time he took the field for the first time, as a redshirt freshman in the 1999 season opener against James Madison, Vick had transformed from a high school highlight reel to one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in all of football. Vick led the NCAA in passing efficiency that season, led the Hokies to an undefeated regular season and finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Ron Dayne and Joe Hamilton.
Defensive end Corey Moore was named a consensus All-American and led the way for a Hokie sweep of Big East awards, collecting Defensive Player of the Year for the second year in a row. Vick was named Offensive Player of the Year, Shayne Graham received the award for special teams and Frank Beamer was the Coach of the Year. This Virginia Tech had nearly all the answers, clawing all the way back from an early deficit against Florida State in the third quarter of the Sugar Bowl before the Seminoles pulled away late for a 46-29 win.
Record: 11-1 | Final ranking: No. 2
Coach: Frank Beamer | MVP: QB Michael Vick
Championships won: Big East
Accolades: Consensus All-American (Corey Moore), Big East Offensive Player of the Year (Vick)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 16
Did you know? Vick's incredible, but limited, space in the long history of college football was really only a glimpse of full potential. Vick was dealing with the effects of an ankle injury for pretty much the entire year, and he still managed to be the Big East Offensive Player of Year.
Wake Forest (2006)
The ACC Atlantic Division is one of the toughest in all of college football, but don't ever let someone tell you that winning it is impossible because shortly after the divisions were formed, there was a time when that side of the standings did not belong to Clemson and Florida State. For a few years at the end of the 2000s, the game of the year in the Atlantic Division was Wake Forest-Boston College. A grinding 21-14 home win for the Deacs against BC gave them a leg up in the standings, and a 30-0 shoutout win at Florida State in Tallahassee the following week in primetime all but sealed 2006 as the most memorable season in program history. A rainy 9-6 win against Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game was just enough to get Wake Forest to its first and only BCS bowl game in the Orange Bowl against Louisville.
Record: 11-3 | Final ranking: No. 18
Coach: Jim Grobe | MVP: LB Jon Abbate
Championships won: ACC
Accolades: Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year (Grobe), AP Coach of the Year (Grobe)
NFL Draft picks on roster: 9
Did you know? The Orange Bowl was hailed as the largest gathering of living alumni outside of Winston-Salem. That claim stood unchallenged until this year's Belk Bowl win against Texas A&M.
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