Best and worst of ACC bowl season: Clemson leads the way

Time to take a look at the best and worst from the best bowl season in ACC history:

Best win: Clemson. No brainer here. Clemson beat No. 1 Alabama 35-31 to win its first national championship since 1981 with a final drive for the ages. In the first half, the Tigers looked like they had no answers for the strong Crimson Tide defense. But the game plan to wear them down started to work in the second half. Clemson ran 99 total plays and outscored Alabama 21-7 in the fourth quarter to complete the comeback win.

Second-best win: Florida State went into the Capital One Orange Bowl as an underdog to Michigan, but the Seminoles helped the ACC Atlantic finish with a perfect record against the Big Ten East after the 33-32 win. Dalvin Cook ended his career with a strong 145 yards. The ACC has now won five straight Orange Bowls, the longest such streak at the Orange Bowl by a conference in 72 years.

Worst loss: Louisville. The season started with so much promise for the Cards, who found themselves squarely in the College Football Playoff discussion after opening 9-1. But a disheartening loss on the road to Houston sent their season into a tailspin, and they ended with a lackluster 29-9 loss to LSU. Louisville ended up losing three straight to close the season. And in a year in which the ACC went 10-4 against the SEC, Louisville had two of the four losses.

Best record: The ACC went 9-3 in bowl season, a league record and tops among all conferences in 2016.

Best story: Hunter Renfrow. From former walk-on to national championship game hero, there is no way anyone could have scripted this, even in Hollywood. What Renfrow did in two games against Alabama (four total touchdown receptions), nobody has ever done against Nick Saban. What Renfrow has done is a tribute to his work ethic, perseverance and will to win. He has become as important to Clemson as all its four- and five-star recruits.

Best comeback: Virginia Tech. The Hokies deserve a shoutout for the biggest comeback in school history, a highly entertaining 35-24 win over Arkansas in the Belk Bowl. Well, highly entertaining second half anyway. After trailing 24-0 at halftime, Virginia Tech scored 35 unanswered points to put a bow on a 10-win season in Year 1 under Justin Fuente.

Best “take that” moment: Wake Forest went into the Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman as a double-digit underdog to Temple, with the cloud over the WakeyLeaks scandal hanging over them. But the Demon Deacons showed what they are capable of on offense in the 34-26 victory, its first bowl win since 2008. It also was their first game since the school announced former broadcaster Tommy Elrod gave specific offensive plays to three different teams over three years. With a majority of its key players returning, Wake Forest has a chance to truly show off its progress in the season to come.

Best record vs. the SEC: (Tie). Clemson and Georgia Tech each went 3-0 against the SEC this season, helping the league go 10-4 overall. After the Jackets beat Kentucky 33-18 in the TaxSlayer Bowl, coach Paul Johnson said, “We’re 3-0 against the SEC East and have Tennessee next.”

Worst end to a season: North Carolina. This one could have gone to Louisville, but we are going with North Carolina for a few reasons. First, the Tar Heels were picked to repeat as Coastal Division champs but ended the season with losses in their final three FBS games, including tough defeats to rivals Duke and NC State. Then in the Hyundai Sun Bowl, the Tar Heels had no answers for Solomon Thomas and couldn’t complete a comeback late in the fourth quarter. Despite talent across the board on offense, North Carolina scored only 23 points, second fewest among all ACC bowl teams (behind Louisville). And it went from Coastal champs to 8-5.

Most disappointing end to a season: Pittsburgh. The Panthers went into the New Era Pinstripe Bowl ranked No. 23, with wins over Clemson and Penn State. But with a chance to win more than eight games for the first time since 2009, Pitt came up short against Northwestern. Its record-setting offense stalled after James Conner and Nathan Peterman both got hurt (starting guard Dorian Johnson also was injured), and the usually stout run defense couldn’t slow down Justin Jackson (224 yards, 3 TDs).

Best end to a bowl losing streak: Miami. The Hurricanes entered the Russell Athletic Bowl against West Virginia hoping for their first bowl win since 2006, a six-game losing streak that players really wanted to end. After a slow start, Brad Kaaya found a great rhythm to close the first half and Miami won 31-14.