Player of the year: Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Apologies to the Heisman winner, but nobody affected his team, the ACC or college football more in 2016 than Watson. His Clemson career comes to a close with two trips to the national title game, one victory and a legacy that might never be topped in Tigers history.
Play of the season: Lamar’s leap
Is this an appropriate consolation for Lamar Jackson? He won the Heisman Trophy and certainly at the time appeared a deserving winner. He was spectacular in 2016 and clearly the most electric player in college football. No single play illustrated that better than his hurdle of Syracuse’s Cordell Hudson for a touchdown in Week 2. The play essentially announced the arrival of a new superstar in college football.
Play of the postseason: Renfrow’s tackle
Hunter Renfrow made his share of big plays in the postseason for Clemson, and the touchdown catch that ultimately won the Tigers a national championship will probably be the one most fondly remembered. But the play that really decided Clemson's fate was a tackle of Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson, who was headed for a touchdown that would have made Clemson’s comeback bid nearly impossible.
Coach of the year: Dabo Swinney
Mark Richt did a terrific job in his first season at Miami and Justin Fuente did the same at Virginia Tech. Dave Clawson took lowly Wake Forest and turned the Demon Deacons into a seven-win team with a bright future. But this award has to go to the guy who just won a national championship, the one who kept his team focused on the prize in spite of so many players eyeing the NFL. It was a masterwork of psychology and management as much it was coaching.
Rookie of the year: Deondre Francois
If we’re limiting this to just true freshmen, Clemson defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence probably gets the nod, but in the bigger pool of all first-year players, Florida State’s quarterback is the winner. Francois was thrown into the fire early and proved he was ready for the big stage with a victory in the opener over Ole Miss, then finished off his redshirt freshman season by helping engineer a win over highly ranked Michigan. With better O-line play in 2017, he could be in the Heisman discussion.
Biggest surprise: Virginia Tech’s emergence
It’s not that we didn’t see Fuente’s hire as a great one. We did. But who turns things around that quickly in the shadow of a legend? Fuente was the perfect man for the job, and Virginia Tech returned to the ACC championship game and finished with 10 wins, the standard by which the program had been judged under Frank Beamer. The only problem? The next-biggest surprise might’ve been QB Jerod Evans' decision to bolt for the NFL after the bowl victory.
Biggest bust: Louisville’s offensive line
Oh, how perfect the Louisville story seemed for so long this season. Jackson was a star, the Cardinals played an epic game against Clemson, and the Atlantic appeared to have a true challenger to the Tigers’ and Seminoles’ stranglehold on the division. And then it all fell apart as the line was decimated by Houston’s pass rush, struggled with Kentucky and utterly vanished against LSU, with Louisville losing three straight to end the season and seeing Jackson subjected to 46 sacks, six more than any other quarterback.
Best feud: Hokies fans vs. UNC fans
No Twitter debated raged longer this season than the bitter dispute between Virginia Tech and North Carolina faithful. UNC shrugged off a 34-3 beating Oct. 8 because of hurricane conditions that unraveled the Tar Heels’ game plan, particularly with running back Elijah Hood out due to injury. Tech fans were furious their team wasn’t getting credit for a 31-point victory. The feud remains ongoing on social media, and it should provide a fun backdrop for their 2017 meeting ... particularly if it’s raining.
Biggest upset: Pitt topples Clemson
Ladies and gentlemen, your 2016 transitive-property national champs: The Pitt Panthers. Yes, the only team over the past two years to beat Clemson in the regular season was Pitt, which used two brutal second-half interceptions by Watson to fuel an unlikely upset as a three-touchdown underdog. It was indicative of Pitt’s season, which included two victories over eventual top-10 teams and four frustrating losses by a combined 18 points.
Best finish: Doeren’s Wolfpack
OK, the best finish clearly goes to Clemson, but enough about the champs. Look at the momentum swing in Raleigh. On Nov. 19, Dave Doeren’s seat was an inferno after a loss to Miami that left the Wolfpack sitting at 5-6 and on the verge of missing out on a bowl. But a victory over rival North Carolina and a thumping of Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl has NC State’s fortunes for 2017 looking much brighter.
Biggest question looming over 2017: Where did all the quarterbacks go?
This was a historic season for the ACC, with a Heisman winner, a national champion, an Orange Bowl winner and the best postseason (and best non-conference season) of any league. The key was QB play, but now the league must say goodbye to Watson, Evans, Brad Kaaya, Mitch Trubisky, Nathan Peterman and Justin Thomas and, well, it’s going to be hard to replace all that talent. If the ACC wants to be a real force instead of a one-season wonder, it’ll be up to Francois and Jackson to lead the way and Zerrick Cooper at Clemson, Jack Allison at Miami and a host of other up-and-comers to emerge as stars.