There are 40 bowl games plus a national championship this year, but with the college football regular season finished, now is a good time to take stock of the regular season, conference by conference, with league awards and grades for every Power Five team. We start in the ACC, which featured a Heisman Trophy winner and another playoff bid for Clemson.
Offensive Player of the Year: Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville. Deshaun Watson is a great player, as is Dalvin Cook. But it's Jackson's year. The youngest Heisman Trophy winner ever, Jackson had a jaw-dropping season that featured 3,390 passing yards, 1,538 rushing yards and 51 total touchdowns, leading to countless highlight-reel plays. At his best, he appeared to be unstoppable, blending elite speed and explosiveness with a strong arm and an increased grasp of Bobby Petrino's offense as a sophomore. He's the most exciting player in college football, and he'll keep that status heading into next season, too.
Defensive Player of the Year: DeMarcus Walker, DE, Florida State. Clemson had the better defense, but individually, nobody in the conference had a better season on that side of the ball than Walker. After breaking out with 10 ½ sacks as a junior, Walker returned for his senior season and is tied for the national lead in sacks with 15 (joining conference rival Harold Landry of Boston College). Walker made a living in opposing backfields, and he also clinched the win over Miami by blocking an extra point. He finished the regular season with 63 tackles and three forced fumbles.
Coach of the Year: Dabo Swinney, Clemson. Justin Fuente did a great job in his first year at Virginia Tech, but there's nothing wrong with giving the nod to Swinney, who has built Clemson into a powerhouse capable of reloading. The Tigers sometimes struggled to meet astronomical expectations, but it speaks to Swinney's success that expectations have gotten so high and that they were scrutinized even while they kept winning. Clemson won back-to-back ACC titles for the first time since 1987-88 and is heading to the playoff for the second year in a row.
Freshman of the Year: Dexter Lawrence, DT, Clemson. Clemson is able to reload because it's been able to attract top-tier talent like Lawrence. The 6-foot-5, 340-pound defensive tackle was the nation's No. 2 overall recruit, according to 247Sports, and he lived up to the hype as a disruptive, powerful and athletic asset up the middle for a new-look defense.
How successful should this season be viewed by each team? Grades for each team's season reflect 2016 achievements within the context of program history and expectations.
Clemson (12-1): A. Maybe Clemson didn't always give an "A" performance -- a loss to Pitt, inconsistent running, inconsistent downfield passing, a lucky win over N.C. State -- but the nitpicking shows just how far this program has come under Dabo Swinney. Seemingly a perennial underachiever, Clemson didn't win more than nine games in a season from 1991-2010. It's won at least 10 in six straight years, and despite the loss to Pitt, it has accomplished its highest regular-season goals for the second year in a row: an ACC championship and a College Football Playoff bid. The Tigers opened the season ranked No. 2, and they're still No. 2. Deshaun Watson finished second in the Heisman race. The defense has reloaded, led by another fabulous line. Clemson out-dueled Lamar Jackson and Louisville in a thriller, then won at Florida State for the first time in a decade. The golden age of Clemson football continues.
Virginia Tech (9-4): A-. There's no denying that first-year coach Justin Fuente did a terrific job. Faced with the task of replacing a legendary coach, Fuente led the Hokies to the ACC title game for the first time since 2011, beating top division rivals North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Miami to get there. After four mediocre seasons, the offense found life, led by juco transfer QB Jerod Evans, scoring 35 points per game. And, in the end, the Hokies gave Clemson all it could handle with the conference title on the line, losing 42-35. A few points are docked here for inconsistency: Given a perfect schedule with no Clemson, Louisville or Florida State in the regular season, the Hokies lost to Syracuse in a cross-division game. Overall, the season is an unquestioned success, though, as the Hokies will head to the Belk Bowl against Arkansas and hope for 10-win season to set the stage for raised expectations in 2017.
Louisville (9-3): B+. On one hand, Louisville was frequently entertaining, blew out a lot of opponents, beat Florida State by 43, reached No. 3 in the AP poll -- tied for its highest ranking ever -- and produced its first Heisman Trophy winner, QB Lamar Jackson. This has been one of the best Louisville teams ever, ranking fourth in yards per play and sixth in yards per play allowed, with the nation's most entertaining player at quarterback. That all sounds like it has the makings of an A-plus season. Instead … doesn't the Cardinals' ultimate result feel like a bit of a missed opportunity? They did go 7-1 in ACC play, losing only at Clemson in a down-to-the-wire thriller. But they ended the season with a devastating 36-10 loss at Houston and a 41-38 loss to Kentucky. The Citrus Bowl with a 9-3 record is hardly a lackluster result, especially at Louisville, but this season appeared to be on track for more.
Pittsburgh (8-4): B. Pitt pulled off a rare feat this season, beating two top-five conference champions, with wins over Penn State, in the resumption of a dormant rivalry, and playoff-bound Clemson. It also experienced a surge on offense under coordinator Matt Canada, scoring 42.3 points per game with the help of star RB James Conner, the season's best comeback story after overcoming cancer. Unfortunately, the Panthers needed all the points they could get. While coach Pat Narduzzi is known as a defensive guru, the Panthers fell apart, particularly against the pass. They're 109th in scoring defense and 127th in passing yards allowed per game, leading to close, high-scoring losses to Oklahoma State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech and a 51-28 pummeling at the hands of Miami. The Panthers scored two of the biggest wins of the season, but those successes were balanced out a bit by losses to top competition in the ACC Coastal.
Georgia Tech (8-4): B. The Yellow Jackets didn't come close to matching the heights of 2014, when they won the Coastal and the Orange Bowl, but they rebounded from last year's disastrous 3-9 free fall, quietly putting together a stellar season. Everything came together late, as Georgia Tech opened the season 3-3 but won five of its last six games, including a surprising 30-20 win at Virginia Tech with QB Justin Thomas out and a 28-27 comeback win over rival Georgia. It's not a division title, but beating the Bulldogs and winning eight games is a recipe for a successful season in Atlanta, especially given what happened in 2015. A win over Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl would make this Georgia Tech's second nine-win season since 2009.
Wake Forest (6-6): B. Wake Forest will play in the Military Bowl, its first postseason trip since 2011. But all anyone outside the program will remember this season for is #WakeyLeaks: Nearly a month after launching an investigation into game-plan information found at Louisville, Wake Forest fired radio analyst Tommy Elrod, a former assistant under Jim Grobe, claiming that he was responsible for leaking confidential information since Dave Clawson took over. It's a truly bizarre scandal as Wake Forest prepares to play in the postseason again following back-to-back 3-9 seasons. On the field, getting to bowl eligibility is undeniably a success for Wake Forest, even if it won six games by beating Tulane, Duke, Delaware, Indiana, Syracuse and Virginia and lost six of its final eight. Wake ranks 125th in yards per play on offense, but it has played solid defense to propel it to the postseason for only the 11th time ever.
Florida State (9-3): B-. Florida State can't be too upset about an Orange Bowl in a season in which it started a redshirt freshman quarterback, Deondre Francois, and played most of the way without all-world safety Derwin James. Still, this is a team that entered the season with national championship aspirations, and all of its goals were wiped out by early October. The Seminoles survived Ole Miss with a massive comeback in Week 1, but the defense was broken early, leading to a 63-20 humiliation at Louisville. They lost to North Carolina at home on a last-second field goal, and they lost a heartbreaker by three to Clemson. The Noles did play a fairly tough schedule, and they did beat in-state rivals Miami and Florida (plus South Florida). Dalvin Cook was mostly brilliant, again, and the defense improved in the second half. But Florida State was ranked as high as No. 2 entering the Louisville game, and it ended up 9-3 and third in the ACC Atlantic, being lucky to get that Orange Bowl bid over the Cardinals. The Orange Bowl is a strong consolation -- and an upset of Michigan would be a huge boost -- but there is undoubtedly disappointment attached to the result
North Carolina (8-4): B-. The Tar Heels got a breakout season from first-year starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who has completed 68.9 percent of his passes for 3,468 yards with 28 TDs and only four INTs. However, after ranking first in yards per play and winning the ACC Coastal last year, their running game wasn't as potent this year. Making matters worse, their run defense was still among the nation's worst, allowing 235 yards per game. An 8-4 record has been the program's ceiling for most of the past two decades, so if the Tar Heels beat Stanford in the Sun Bowl, they'd win nine games again after failing to do so from 1998 until last year, when they won 11. They also pulled off a dramatic win at Florida State. What hurts is that they lost to a beatable Georgia team, got blown out in a hurricane by Virginia Tech and slipped late with losses to in-state rivals Duke and N.C. State.
Miami (8-4): C+. Not surprisingly, expectations were high in Mark Richt's first season as head coach. Miami has never played in an ACC title game since joining the conference in 2004, and it hasn't finished a season ranked in the top 25 since 2009. Richt inherited a decent lineup, with a talented veteran quarterback in Brad Kaaya. And yet here Miami is again, 8-4, showing that patience is still required. The Hurricanes opened the season 4-0 with wins over Appalachian State and Georgia Tech. They proceeded to lose to Florida State, again, on a blocked extra point, then lose their next three games to North Carolina, Virginia Tech and even Notre Dame. Fortunately, the collapse stopped, and the Canes won four in a row to get to eight wins and the Russell Athletic Bowl. The good news is that, despite starting freshman linebackers, Miami's defense improved from 86th to 11th in yards per play allowed. The bad news is that the running game hit a wall in the middle of the season, and another loss to FSU caused the season to unravel. Ultimately, Miami is probably better than its record, but it's not going to be happy until it actually gets over the hump and wins the Coastal.
Boston College (6-6): C. Boston College is back in the postseason! It also beat zero FBS teams with winning records -- Massachusetts, Wagner, Buffalo, N.C. State, Connecticut and Wake Forest -- and continued to be unwatchable on offense, ranking 123rd in scoring and 126th in yards per play despite being healthier than last year. Despite the bowl bid -- the world's most mediocre bowl against Maryland in Detroit -- coach Steve Addazio will likely enter the 2017 season on the hot seat, needing to make some sort of progress on offense. This year was a improvement upon a 2015 debacle that featured zero ACC wins, but the Eagles still haven't scored more than 21 points against an ACC opponent since Nov. 29, 2014. While Boston College isn't an easy gig, the offense can't keep hanging a stingy defense out to dry.
N.C. State (6-6): C. Dave Doeren may have saved his job by beating North Carolina to get to bowl eligibility -- the Independence Bowl against Vanderbilt -- and he did face a fairly daunting schedule. Still, the knock on the Doeren era is that the Wolfpack have not been able to win big games. The UNC win was nice, but the Wolfpack lost to East Carolina, Clemson, Louisville, Boston College, Florida State and Miami, finishing 3-5 in the ACC to make Doeren's conference record 9-23 in four seasons. It doesn't help the perception of the program that offensive coordinator Matt Canada was forced out last year, then became a Broyles Award finalist at Pitt as is now in demand at LSU.
Syracuse (4-8): C. Syracuse had the type of season that's a bit hard to evaluate, because there were no real expectations. Patience was granted to new coach Dino Babers in his first year as he attempted to begin reshaping the Orange into a prolific offensive team. Stuck in a division with Clemson, Florida State and Louisville, this season was always going to be difficult and more a matter of trying to build some positive momentum for the future. The Orange did that in some respects, especially with an upset of Virginia Tech, but QB Eric Dungey had injury problems and missed most of the last four games, all losses -- including a 76-61 loss to Pitt. Babers was a strong hire and there's hope for the future, but ultimately this season was a rebuilding year in which the Orange ranked 85th in yards per play on offense and 123rd on defense.
Duke (4-8): C. A season like 2016 was inevitable. Last decade, winning four games and beating Notre Dame would be considered a success. David Cutcliffe has raised expectations, though, taking the Blue Devils to four straight bowls after an 18-year drought. After winning eight games last year, Duke fell to just four wins this year, although it did have unfortunate injury problems with QB Thomas Sirk and DB DeVon Edwards out most of the year. Regardless of Notre Dame's horrendous season, Duke winning in South Bend is always going to be a big deal. As is beating North Carolina. So there are silver linings here, even losses to Wake Forest and Virginia were particularly hard to take.
Virginia (2-10): D. The biggest surprise of last year's coaching carousel was Bronco Mendenhall jumping from BYU to Virginia. In Provo, Mendenhall went to a bowl game in all 11 seasons and never finished below .500. In Charlottesville, Mendenhall was faced with a harsh reality: Virginia lost its opener to Richmond, an FCS team, by 17, then ended up going 2-10. Virginia hasn't exactly been a football hotbed, but this was still one of the worst teams in school history, beating only Central Michigan and Duke -- with seven straight losses to end the year, including a 52-10 rout at the hands of Virginia Tech, also under a new coach. This grade isn't really a reflection on the coach; Mendenhall was stuck with the roster he inherited. But the Cavaliers got blown out by an FCS team and finished 115th in scoring and 99th in scoring defense.
ACC OVERALL GRADE: A-. There's no question that some of the teams at the bottom drag down the watchability, but that's true of every conference. Even if Florida State was a slight disappointment, the ACC should be feeling good. It made strong coaching hires, with Justin Fuente in particular ready to lead Virginia Tech back to bigger things. It won the Heisman Trophy and had the second-place finisher, leading the charge for strong quarterback play in the conference. It had some of the most memorable and entertaining games of the season (Clemson-Louisville, Clemson-Florida State, Clemson-Pitt, Clemson-N.C. State, North Carolina-Florida State). And it again has a team in the playoff thanks to Clemson.
Sports on Earth All-ACC Team
QB: Lamar Jackson, Louisville
RB: Dalvin Cook, Florida State
RB: James Conner, Pittsburgh
WR: Mike Williams, Clemson
WR: Amba Etta-Tawo, Syracuse
TE: Jordan Leggett, Clemson
OL: Dorian Johnson, Pittsburgh
OL: Danny Isidora, Miami
OL: Adam Bisnowaty, North Carolina
OL: Mitch Hyatt, Clemson
OL: Roderick Johnson, Florida State
OL: Lucas Crowley, North Carolina
DL: DeMarcus Walker, Florida State
DL: Carlos Watkins and Christian Wilkins, Clemson
DL: Woody Baron, Virginia Tech
DL: Ejuan Price, Pittsburgh
DL: Harold Landry, Boston College
LB: Ben Boulware, Clemson
LB: Marquel Lee, Wake Forest
LB: Micah Kiser, Virginia
DB: Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson
DB: Jaire Alexander, Louisville
DB: Tarvarus McFadden, Florida State
DB: Quin Blanding, Virginia
K: Joey Slye, Virginia Tech
P: Nicholas Conte, Virginia
AP: Quadree Henderson, Pittsburgh