The ACC has so desperately wanted a team to reach the top again in college football. So on the day that the path was paved to make Florida State the nation's No. 1 team, that part of the story was almost pale compared to what Duke has done.
The Blue Devils, believe it or not, are headed to the ACC championship game for the first time.
Florida State is on the national radar, but Duke might be the darlings of the whole country. The Blue Devils have struggled for most of the past two decades, enduring winless seasons and eliminated from bowl pictures by mid-October.
Now, Duke holds an eight-game winning streak after toppling rival North Carolina 27-25 to win the ACC's Coastal Division.
"We just keep on going to the next thing," senior cornerback Ross Cockrell said. "We enjoy what we are doing, but the job isn't done."
So often for the past two decades, by the last day of November the next thing for the Blue Devils is the offseason.
Duke is unbeaten in five road games. It has been more than two months since it has lost a game.
"It's not even real," Duke tight end Braxton Deaver said. "I don't know when we're going to come down from Cloud Nine. I couldn't dream how incredible this has been."
Duke will have its toughest test against Florida State. The Seminoles must win to stay on track for a national championship, so that will be the overriding story in the ACC championship game.
Even so, it has been a storybook season for Duke, which has secured the first 10-win season in the program's history.
BOSTON COLLEGE (7-5, 4-4)
Game: Syracuse 34, Boston College 31. The Orange scored the winning points on QB Terrel Hunt's 8-yard pass to TE Josh Parris with six seconds remaining, spoiling the regular-season finale for Boston College. The Eagles were hurt by the first-half loss of star RB Andre Williams, who exited with a shoulder injury after managing only 29 yards on nine carries.
Takeaway: The overriding story coming out of the regular-season finale was the status of RB Andre Williams, who watched from the sidelines after a first-half shoulder injury.
He was an emerging Heisman Trophy candidate by eclipsing the 2,000-yard mark in rushing. Those aspirations took a hit when he produced 29 yards before departing. He had a 26-yard touchdown run among his touches.
So Williams' availability for the postseason game is bound to be a big factor for the Eagles. On the encouraging side, they put up some decent offensive numbers against a pretty solid Syracuse defense despite the injury to Williams.
Still, it's clear that the Eagles don't want to rely on senior QB Chase Rettig for a lot of heavy lifting with the offense.
Boston College's defense has shown some holes during the final month of the season. Teams such as Syracuse that have shown some offensive limitations have been able to produce decent numbers against the Eagles.
Next: Awaiting bowl assignment.
CLEMSON (10-2, 7-1)
Game: South Carolina 31, Clemson 17. The Tigers, who committed six turnovers, suffered their fifth loss in a row to their in-state rivals and that spoiled what had been a splendid regular season. QB Tajh Boyd had a touchdown run, but he didn't throw a touchdown pass among his 19-for-27 passing.
Takeaway: The Tigers knew they would be in a battle after a series of lopsided results in their favor. Then they weren't up to the task against South Carolina.
Most alarming for Clemson is the fact that it had such trouble moving the ball. Even against South Carolina's highly regarded defense, the Tigers figured they could do better than 352 yards of total offense.
A good chunk of those yards were provided by RB Roderick McDowell, who gained 111 rushing yards. WR Sammy Watkins collected 93 receiving yards.
Clemson was in ideal situation to land in a BCS bowl, but thoughts of a major bowl spot might have dwindled. The Tigers are hoping that their 10-win credentials (not to mention strong fan base) is enough to put them in a big-time game.
Wherever they end up, the Tigers and QB Tajh Boyd will be eager to make amends for a frustrating night in Columbia, S.C.
Next: Awaiting bowl assignment.
DUKE (10-2, 6-2)
Game: Duke 27, North Carolina 25. The Blue Devils went ahead on K Ross Martin's 27-yard field goal with 2:22 remaining, then secured an interception to clinch the road victory and a spot in the ACC championship game. QB Anthony Boone completed 23-of-34 passes for 274 yards for Duke.
Takeaway: The Blue Devils are headed to the ACC championship game for the first time, rising from a projected last-place finish in the Coastal Division to win it.
Duke lost its first two ACC games, then reeled off two non-conference victories and six league triumphs.
The Blue Devils have shown a knack for late-game production. They've trailed in the second half of four of their last six games, but found ways to win.
A veteran offensive line has been good enough to wear out some opponents, but the Blue Devils will have a task a different level against Florida State.
Duke's defense has been stout enough against teams that are careless or lack significant firepower.
And the Blue Devils tend to pull off a special teams gem in each game. That was the case against North Carolina with S DeVon Edwards returning a kickoff for a touchdown.
Duke has accomplished so much that every week there seems to be something special happening. The Blue Devils have the first 10-win season in school history, with two games remaining.
With that in mind, the possibilities seem endless even as the competition will stiffen again.
Next: vs. Florida State, Dec. 7 in ACC Championship game in Charlotte, N.C.
FLORIDA STATE (12-0, 8-0)
Game: Florida State 37, Florida 7. QB Jameis Winston threw three touchdown passes for a road romp to complete an unbeaten regular season. The Seminoles held injury-riddled Florida to 193 yards of total offense, so it was good tune-up for the ACC championship game.
Takeaway: The Seminoles worked on a lot of areas and didn't find out who they would be playing for the ACC title until after their finale.
Duke is the next foe, but it might not matter much who's in the way if the Seminoles click like they have throughout the season.
QB Jameis Winston seems unfazed by the potential legal issues looming as Tallahassee, Fla., police investigate an alleged sexual assault. On the field, Winston is at ease.
He threw for 327 yards against Florida, so that figures to be a good way to enhance his Heisman Trophy credentials.
The Seminoles, though, might be most pleased with their defense. So if there are interruptions in personnel on the offensive side, they might be stingy enough to fend off whatever challenge upstart Duke poses.
Next: vs. Duke, Dec. 7 in ACC championship game at Charlotte, N.C.
GEORGIA TECH (7-4, 5-3)
Game: Georgia 41, Georgia Tech 34 (2 OT). The Yellow Jackets gave up 10 points in the last seven minutes of regulation and tumbled to another defeat to their in-state rivals. QB Vad Lee threw two interceptions for Georgia Tech, which led 20-0 until Georgia finally scored in the final minute of the first half.
Takeaway: The Yellow Jackets will be kicking themselves for the way their regular-season finale played out. They failed to protect a 20-point lead, so it matched the largest collapse in the program's history.
Georgia Tech's rushing game churned at times, but the predictability might have caught up with the Yellow Jackets by the second half. The inability to produce a threatening passing attack on a regular basis continues to haunt Georgia Tech against some opponents.
It didn't start as a great week because a day before the regular-season finale the Yellow Jackets knew they couldn't reach the ACC championship game when Miami won at Pittsburgh. Then there wasn't even a share of the Coastal Division title because of Duke's victory at North Carolina.
Georgia Tech's defense did a decent job for stretches in the game. Even though Georgia RB Todd Gurley gained 122 yards on the ground, the rest of the Bulldogs were kept in check in the rushing attack.
The Yellow Jackets might have improved their bowl status if they won, but about the only signature victory -- as odd as it sounds -- on the resume is a September triumph at a 10-win Duke team.
Next: Awaiting bowl assignment.
MARYLAND (7-5, 3-5)
Game: Maryland 41, N.C. State 21. QB C.J. Brown rushed for three touchdowns and threw for two more in the road victory. The Terrapins bolted to a 34-14 halftime lead and unlike two years earlier when the Wolfpack produced an historic comeback, this time Maryland wasn't threatened.
Takeaway: The Terrapins reverted to a form that was successful early in the season and it shows what QB C.J. Brown is capable of when he's healthy.
Maryland rolled up some big offensive numbers in the regular-season finale.
But perhaps just as satisfying for the Maryland contingent was creating a fond memory in the final ACC football game for the program. The Terrapins depart for the Big Ten Conference next season, so going out on a positive note was something they were looking for before their time in the ACC wrapped up.
It figures that most of the old-school ACC folks were pulling against Terrapins, whose departure hasn't been a popular topic.
Still, Maryland, with only three league victories and probably not much support from league officials, figures to factor in toward the lower end of the ACC bowl tier. But if the Terrapins flash the type of offense with Brown directing the controls at full speed, they could be a tough bowl matchup for wherever they end up.
Next: Awaiting bowl assignment.
MIAMI (9-3, 5-3)
Game: Miami 41, Pittsburgh 31. The Hurricanes received two touchdown catches from WR Stacy Coley en route to the road victory. Pittsburgh's late rally included two touchdown throws by QB Tom Savage, but it wasn't enough.
Takeaway: The Hurricanes extended their bid to reach the ACC championship game to the final day of the regular season by winning at Pittsburgh on Friday. Then the Hurricanes had to wait to see how Saturday's result played out.
While Duke's victory at North Carolina quashed Miami's chances of playing for the ACC title, at least the Hurricanes could take some satisfaction that they rescued their season by winning their last two regular-season games following a three-game losing skid.
The last game came relatively mistake-free in the sense that the Hurricanes didn't commit a turnover at Pittsburgh. QB Stephen Morris was efficient by completing 17 of 28 passes for 296 yards.
If there was a snag that developed it was with the run defense, which surrendered 220 yards to a Pittsburgh team that often struggled moving the ball on the ground. Miami has softened along the defensive front during the latter part of the season and that's something the coaching staff will look to shore up prior to a bowl game.
Next: Awaits bowl assignment.
NORTH CAROLINA (6-6, 4-4)
Game: Duke 27, North Carolina 25. A late field goal by Duke wiped out North Carolina's brief fourth-quarter lead and the Tar Heels lost to their rivals for the second year in a row. QB Marquise Williams rushed for two touchdowns and threw for another for North Carolina.
Takeaway: The Tar Heels let one get away against Duke and so their five-game winning streak came to an end.
North Carolina's defense has endured some rough moments this season and Duke was content to just pick away at the Tar Heels. It worked, especially when a couple of would-be interceptions throw by Duke QB Anthony Boone were dropped by the Tar Heels defenders.
Penalties were a problem for North Carolina in the regular-season finale, so expect the coaching staff to be emphasizing discipline prior to the bowl game. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty moved the Tar Heels back in the fourth quarter after they moved inside the Duke 10-yard line. They settled for a go-ahead field goal, but Duke trumped that with a winning field goal.
North Carolina's offense is a youthful bunch so, so there's all sorts of soaring expectations. QB Marquise Williams has showed he should be able to handle the first-string role, not only in the bowl game but during the next two seasons. He's a dual-threat quarterback and he seems to be improving on a regular basis.
The goal for North Carolina was to improve its spot in the bowl pecking order. Even though tiebreakers wouldn't have worked in their favor, the Tar Heels could have secured a share of the Coastal Division title by defeating Duke.
Now, the Tar Heels could be pegged for a lower-tier bowl with their fourth-place finish in the division. There are some projections that have them staying in-state for the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C., and that might be a positive landing spot for them.
"We still have one more game to play and the seniors still have one more opportunity to go out and do something big," junior TE Eric Ebron said.
Next: Awaits bowl assignment.
N.C. STATE (3-9, 0-8)
Game: Maryland 41, N.C. State 21. The Wolfpack fell into a 34-14 halftime hole and unlike two years ago when Maryland visited there was no dramatic second-half comeback. Twenty-one seniors went out with a loss at home as Maryland QB C.J. Brown ran for three touchdowns and threw for two more.
Takeaway: The attention for the Wolfpack turned immediately to the offseason, and for good reason. The Wolfpack would like to forget the 2013 season.
An eight-game losing streak to end the season gave the program is worst mark in the ACC. Along the way, the Wolfpack lost all four matchups with in-state opponents, including a non-league encounter with East Carolina.
The finale against Maryland didn't produce anything out of the ordinary for N.C. State, so that was a problem. Instead of spoiling Maryland's last ACC game (before the Terrapins depart to the Big Ten Conference), the Wolfpack was the fodder for providing the parting gifts.
Coach Dave Doeren's first season with the team was full of misery and injury problems and quarterback woes and, by the end, a sense of apathy from a normally intense fan base. So there will be lots of work to do in the offseason.
Doeren said there were signs of putting in a foundation. Unfortunately for him, most of those weren't evident on Saturdays.
There was a solid season from RB Shadrach Thornton after he returned to the good graces from last summer's off-field problems. He gained 96 yards on the ground in the finale, and he became about the only consistent part of the offense.
Next: 2014 opener
PITTSBURGH (6-6, 3-5)
Game: Miami 41, Pittsburgh 31. The Panthers made the score look respectable with QB Tom Savage throwing a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes. Miami's 31-10 halftime edge was too much to overcome for the Panthers.
Takeaway: The Panthers failed to improve their spot in the bowl pecking order and they're probably destined for another lower-tier bowl.
That has been a trend for Pittsburgh, extending to the past few seasons in the Big East Conference. Now the Panthers are likely to experience a similar fate in the ACC bowl mix.
Pittsburgh's three ACC victories puts it tied with Maryland, which won seven games overall, with the lowest league win total among the bowl-eligible teams in the ACC.
If there was any sort of encouraging development in the regular-season finale it came from an unexpected boost in an often-sluggish rushing attack on offense. RB Isaac Bennett gained 141 yards on 21 carries.
But it's still a pass-oriented attack that the Panthers turn to most. To some degree, that's a product of them facing some early deficits and that has been the case in two of the last three games -- both losses at home.
The Panthers won only one of four ACC home games. They began the season with a home loss to Florida State and ended the regular season with a home loss to Miami.
Next: Awaiting bowl assignment.
SYRACUSE (6-6, 4-4)
Game: Syracuse 34, Boston College 31. The Orange scored the win on QB Terrel Hunt's 8-yard pass to TE Josh Parris with six seconds remaining, allowing it to reach bowl eligibility. An injury to Boston College RB Andre Williams, who entered the game with more than 2,000 rushing yards this season, early in the game eased some of the pressure on Syracuse's defense.
Takeaway: The Orange went to the limit before becoming the final ACC to secure bowl eligibility this season. It adds up to an encouraging first season in the ACC.
Syracuse finished tied for third place (with Boston College) in the Atlantic Division, trailing only national powers Florida State and Clemson.
QB Terrel Hunt said his final game of the season was the best game he ever played. He completed 29 of 43 passes, but it wasn't until his final completion that the Orange was in line to pull out the victory against Boston College.
If Hunt's development continues, it will be worth the investment in time that the Orange put in him because he struggled for stretches throughout the season.
The Orange hasn't allowed an opposing player to gain more than 100 yards on the ground this season. That was one of the storylines involving the visit from Boston College, so keeping RB Andre Williams under wraps to the tune of 29 yards on nine carries until he departed with an injury was a good sign.
Next: Awaiting bowl assignment.
VIRGINIA (2-10, 0-8)
Game: Virginia Tech 16, Virginia 6. The Cavaliers had only 285 yards of total offense in losing to their rivals for the 10th time in a row. The home loss was pretty much devoid of highlights in a game that was without any second-half points.
Takeaway: The Cavaliers lost their last nine games and finished winless in the ACC. There weren't many bright spots.
Searching for something positive, there were signs of improvement from the defense at times. That's something that the Cavaliers will look to carry over to next year.
But there's bound to be a bunch of uncertainty around the program. Coach Mike London has been offered the verbal signs of support from the administration, but there will need to be signs of improvement in 2014 if he's still in charge.
London's status could be complicated by what appears to be dwindling support among fans. Attendance has slumped and there needs to be an infusion of energy.
QB David Watford didn't do much to improve his stock during the season. It's just that there weren't other reasonable options for the Cavaliers. He was 13-of-23 for 122 yards in the finale against Virginia Tech.
Next: 2014 opener.
VIRGINIA TECH (8-4, 5-3)
Game: Virginia Tech 16, Virginia 6. The Hokies beat their in-state rivals for the 10th year in a row, with the defense holding Virginia to 285 yards of total offense. QB Logan Thomas finished the scoring with a touchdown pass with 21 seconds left in the first half and the defense did the rest.
Takeaway: The Hokies let their defense do the dirty work and that was plenty enough in the finale, coming two weeks after a disturbing loss to Maryland.
Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas was pretty basic at best, completing 13-of-29 passes with an interception in the regular-season finale. Without a reliable rushing attack, the Hokies are almost forced to rely on Thomas.
The victory means the Hokies finished in a three-way, second-place tie in the ACC's Coastal Division. That's hardly comforting for this program.
Virginia Tech entered the final day of the regular season with a chance to end up in the ACC championship game, but at about the time the Virginia Tech game was starting those hopes were dashed. That's because Duke overcame North Carolina and took that spot in the title game.
Coming off open weeks on the schedule twice this season, the Hokies didn't produce much on the offensive side. So there's little reason to think that a few weeks before a bowl game is going to solve those shortcomings.
Next: Awaiting bowl assignment.
WAKE FOREST (4-8, 2-6)
Game: Vanderbilt 23, Wake Forest 21. K Carey Spear of Vanderbilt kicked two fourth-quarter field goals, including the winner from 38 yards away with 39 seconds left. Wake Forest had gone ahead in the third quarter on LB Justin Jackson's 63-yard return for a touchdown with an interception.
Takeaway: The Demon Deacons lost their final five games, including for a third year in a row to Vanderbilt. That's five years in a row with a losing season for Wake Forest.
A promising season fizzled in a hurry. If there was an upside to the final month, it came that the Demon Deacons were just a play or two away from knocking off bowl-bound teams in Duke and Vanderbilt.
So the Demon Deacons kept competing and that had to be encouraging. But the lack of execution was a season-long problem that was never fully rectified.
The biggest drawback could be that the core of the team was comprised of seniors. The Demon Deacons were without WR Michael Campanaro for the last few games because of a broken collarbone, so that ended his college career. QB Tanner Price and RB Josh Harris are gone on offense, and NG Nikita Whitlock and LB Justin Jackson are gone from the defense.
Price ended up the Demon Deacons' leading rusher in the finale with 47 yards on the ground. He threw a late interception that proved costly.
Next: 2014 opener
--Duke is the newcomer to the ACC championship. The Blue Devils mark the first team from the Coastal Division other than Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech to reach the title game.
So this means the Blue Devils arrived at this stage before Miami, which was added to the conference to bring more pizazz to the football side of things.
That also leaves Virginia without a championship appearance. And Maryland will leave the conference without ever playing in the title game.
But perhaps most notable is that Duke won a spot in the title game before neighbors North Carolina and North Carolina State. That surely is rankling people associated with those schools.
"We are honored to represent the Coastal Division," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "There are a lot of good football teams in the Coastal Division and we're very honored to be the representative. ... I'm expecting to see thousands upon thousands of Duke fans in Charlotte. I'm calling you out right now. Take advantage of this opportunity."
Florida State is Duke's opponent for the game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. It's the venue that's home to the NFL's Carolina Panthers.
Duke and Florida State didn't play during the regular season this year, so there's no rematch for the title game.
--So what impact has newcomers Pittsburgh and Syracuse had on the ACC? Well, it's pretty much a neutral assessment.
The teams proved to be competitive and were middle-of-the-road teams. So they should be encouraged about the possibilities in their new home conference after arriving from the Big East. The ACC, in turn, should be comfortable that these programs can be contributors.
Both of them reached bowl eligibility, so it will be interesting to see how their bowl destinations play out. Northern schools sometimes don't receive preferred destinations because the travel distance to most bowls is more substantial that Southern-based teams.
Syracuse finished tied for third place in the Atlantic Division. All four of its conference victories came against teams in the division.
Pittsburgh ended up sixth in the Coastal Division, ahead of only Virginia. The Panthers defeated Syracuse for one of their three victories.
--If there are coaches on the hot seat in the ACC, the list probably starts with Virginia's Mike London.
The 10-loss season might be too much for some of the team's supporters to deal with.
Other coaches in the league are probably on solid ground because they're so new to their positions or their teams have been on the rise.
Still, expect some grumbling to surface about Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets are become relatively ordinary and that's not something that's viewed too favorable. He runs an old-school offense that has some detractors as well. And remember, of Georgia Tech's seven victories this season, two came against members of the Football Championship Subdivision.
If there's another coaching watch out there it could be at Wake Forest. Jim Grobe is the longest-tenured coach in the ACC (Frank Beamer has been at Virginia Tech longer, but the Hokies weren't members of the ACC for all this time).
Grobe's standing with the school seems strong, but five losing seasons could be wearing on him. He received a long-term contract after the 2006 ACC championship season, but the Demon Deacons weren't able to sustained momentum from that.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We were picked to lose this game and we were picked to lose pretty much every game we've played this year." -- Duke offensive guard Dave Harding after the Blue Devils defeated North Carolina and before his team was dubbed about a 27-point underdog for the ACC championship game against Florida State.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
FIVE BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS FROM WEEK 14 IN THE ACC:
1. Duke is in the ACC championship game for the first time, doing so by winning eight games in a row, including its final six conference games after an 0-2 start in the league.
2. Florida State has moved to the top rung in the BCS, so the Seminoles should have to worry about some other team knocking them out of the national title game so long as they take care of business against Duke in the ACC championship game.
3. The top Heisman Trophy candidate from the ACC might still be QB Jameis Winston of Florida State. The bid from RB Andre Williams of Boston College is still strong, but it took a hit with a 29-yard, injury-impacted outing at Syracuse.
4. Misery has company. Virginia and N.C. State both went winless in ACC play. Two teams benefited most from those 0-8 records as North Carolina and Duke played them both.
5. Syracuse's victory against Boston College in the final seconds pushed the number of ACC teams eligible for bowls to 11 teams. The Orange joined North Carolina and Pittsburgh in the six-win category.
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