But that’s what transpired. The wins weren’t landmark and don’t erase a disappointing regular season, but they were part of the conference’s best bowl performance since 2003.
Florida State concluded the ACC’s season Tuesday night with a predictable 31-10 Orange Bowl cuffing of 15th-ranked, but athletically overmatched, Northern Illinois. Playing his final college game, Seminoles quarterback EJ Manuel of Virginia Beach’s Bayside High threw for 291 yards and a touchdown and rushed for another score.
That gave the ACC a 4-2 bowl record, its first above .500 since 5-3 in 2005, its best by percentage since 5-1 in 2003.
Also, Florida State improved the ACC’s grim Bowl Championship Series record to 3-13. In most years, a BCS victory is the postseason’s highlight. Not this.
The Tigers’ 25-24 conquest of No. 9 LSU was the postseason’s best game to date. The ACC Atlantic runner-up scored the final 12 points — Chandler Catanzaro kicked a 37-yard field goal as time expired — and showed that, yes, some ACC teams are capable of trading haymakers with a Southeastern Conference heavyweight.
Now some have claimed that LSU lacked motivation and would have preferred a Cotton Bowl bid. But anyone who watched LSU’s defense punish Clemson ball carriers knows better — led by Malliciah Goodman’s three sacks, Clemson’s defense responded in kind.
LSU is the highest-ranked bowl victim for the ACC since Clemson toppled No. 6 Tennessee in 2003. This also marks only the second time the ACC has defeated two top-15 teams in the same bowl season — in 2001, Georgia Tech beat No. 11 Stanford, and Florida State bested No. 15 Virginia Tech, then in the Big East.
Speaking of Georgia Tech — plead guilty to lame segue — the Yellow Jackets snapped their seven-game postseason losing streak with a 21-7 Sun Bowl upset of USC. A defense that appeared helpless at times this season — coach Paul Johnson fired coordinator Al Groh in early October — shut out Florida State in the second half of the ACC championship game and limited the Trojans, albeit without injured quarterback Matt Barkley, to one touchdown.
Virginia Tech’s defense was even better in a 13-10 overtime victory over Rutgers in the Russell Athletic Bowl. The Hokies will have plenty of Coastal Division competition next season from Georgia Tech and Miami.
The ACC would have matched 2003’s 5-1 bowl record absent Duke’s inventive, 48-34 loss to Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. Tied at 34, the Blue Devils were parked at the Bearcats’ 5-yard-line with 1:32 remaining, only to have running back Josh Snead fumble the ball away.
Cincinnati promptly scored on Brendon Kay’s 83-yard touchdown pass to Travis Kelce with 44 seconds left and Nick Temple’s 55-yard interception return 30 seconds later. If that doesn’t dissuade you from gambling — Duke was favored by nine points — perhaps nothing will.
North Carolina State, a 38-24 loser to Vanderbilt in the Music City, was the only ACC bowl team not positioned to win in the fourth quarter. Playing under interim head coach Dana Bible, the Wolfpack fell behind 14-0 and could not overcome five turnovers and 90 yards in penalties.
As mentioned earlier, the bowls don’t heal all the wounds from a regular season in which ACC teams were 0-10 against non-conference opponents ranked by the Associated Press at kickoff. But it does create a positive vibe as the league enters 2013, welcomes Syracuse and Pittsburgh and starts business with 14 teams.
Syracuse routed West Virginia 38-14 in the Pinstripe Bowl to complete an 8-5 season, but coach Doug Marrone reportedly is interviewing for multiple NFL vacancies. Pitt (6-6) plays Ole Miss on Saturday in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Here’s a link to my Daily Press print columns.