For the first time in years, Florida State exceeded expectations.
The No. 1-ranked Seminoles, destined for the VIZIO BCS National Championship after finishing the season as the only undefeated team in the country, were predicted to play in the shadow of Clemson this season. FSU was picked by the media to finish second in the ACC's Atlantic Division, in large part because the program had to replace its starting quarterback, its entire defensive line, 11 NFL draft picks and six staff assistants.
Didn't matter. Jimbo Fisher has Florida State back.
While Florida State was unstoppable, Duke was simply unbelievable. A school-record 10-win season. Upsets of Miami and Virginia Tech. Back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time in school history. The program's first Coastal Division title, and a spot in the prestigious Chick-fil-A Bowl. Duke finished the regular season on an eight-game winning streak, punctuated by a victory over rival North Carolina for the second straight season.
Duke's 45-7 loss to FSU in the ACC title game wasn't an indictment of the Blue Devils. Rather, it was further evidence that the ACC this year was indeed Florida State "and everybody else."
Nobody else in the conference -- save for Boston College's heroic effort -- even came close to the Noles this fall. They steamrolled Clemson in Death Valley -- early proof that quarterback Jameis Winston was unflappable. They bulldozed in-state rivals Miami and Florida, leaving no doubt which program has ascended to the top in the Sunshine State. And in spite of legal allegations that could have derailed the season, they produced a redshirt freshman Heisman Trophy front-runner.
And then there was the rest of the Atlantic Division.
Wake Forest suffered its fifth consecutive losing season, ending in the unexpected resignation of longtime coach Jim Grobe. NC State, in its first season under coach Dave Doeren, was winless in league play and ravaged by injuries. Maryland's mediocre season ended on a positive note, with the Terps getting to a bowl game for the first time under coach Randy Edsall, but they will leave the ACC still ensnarled in a lawsuit with the conference. Boston College's quick ascension and the jaw-dropping numbers of running back Andre Williams were the surprise of the division in the Eagles' first season under coach Steve Addazio.
For all of the clarity within the Atlantic Division race, there was as much confusion in the Coastal, which once again came down to the final week of the regular season.
Duke, though, left no doubt that it was the best team in the division and earned its title outright. While Clemson's fifth straight loss to South Carolina and Georgia Tech's loss to Georgia in the regular-season finales were disappointments, the ACC this year had two special teams exceed expectations -- and they're not done yet.
Offensive MVP: Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State. Winston was the best player in the country all season, setting FBS and ACC freshman marks with 38 touchdown passes and 3,820 yards. Winston also ranks first in the nation in QBR and passer rating, won the Davey O'Brien Award as the top quarterback in the country, the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award and both ACC Offensive Player of the Year and ACC Player of the Year honors.
Defensive MVP: Aaron Donald, DT, Pitt. Donald went from an unknown before the season to the best defensive player in the nation, taking home four major awards -- the Outland Trophy, the Chuck Bednarik Award, the Lombardi Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy. Donald also was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year. He leads the nation in tackles for loss and ranks 13th in sacks. Of his 54 total tackles, nearly half have been behind the line (26.5).
Newcomer of the year: Winston. What makes the season he had more impressive is that he is a redshirt freshman and has played in only 13 career games. But Winston has looked like a veteran behind center and is a major reason why the Seminoles are playing in the BCS national championship game.
Biggest surprise: Duke. The Blue Devils were picked to finish last in the Coastal Division but ended up becoming one of the most surprising teams in the nation. Duke won a school-record 10 games, made a first-ever appearance in the ACC title game and is now going to consecutive bowl games for the first time in school history.
Biggest disappointment: NC State. Even though the Wolfpack went through a coaching change and returned a young team, nobody anticipated they would be one of the worst outfits in the ACC. Thanks in part to injuries and inconsistent play at quarterback, NC State went winless in league play for the first time since 1959 and posted its worst record since 2006.
Best nonconference game: Clemson 38, Georgia 35. The marquee opening-weekend matchup did not disappoint as the two top-10 teams battled back and forth throughout the game. The turning point came after Georgia flubbed a chip-shot field goal attempt late in the third quarter that would have tied the game. Instead, the Tigers stretched their lead to 10 before thwarting a late-game rally. Tajh Boyd had one of his best games of the season, scoring five total touchdowns and racking up 312 total yards.
Best ACC game: Duke 27, North Carolina 25. Duke needed to beat hated rival North Carolina on the final day of the regular season to secure a spot in the ACC title game. As expected, this game went down to the wire. The lead changed six times, and Duke rallied in the fourth quarter for the victory. After North Carolina went up 25-24 with 7 minutes, 3 seconds to play, Duke went 66 yards in 11 plays to set up what became the game-winning 27-yard field goal from Ross Martin with 2:22 remaining.