Maryland won the ACC for the first time since 1985. Under first year head coach and alum Ralph Friedgen, the Terrapins finished an incredible 7-1 in ACC play. To say the result was surprising was an understatement. The preseason magazines picked the Terrapins to finish seventh, just ahead of Wake Forest and Duke. It marked Maryland's first winning conference record (and bowl appearance) since 1990! Were the Terrapins as good as their pristine conference record? Here are the YPP numbers for the 2001 season.
Friedgen arrived at Maryland after a four-year stint at Georgia Tech where he was the offensive coordinator for the Yellow Jackets. While the Terps were good on offense (third in the ACC in yards per play), they were equally as impressive defensively. While Maryland shocked the college football world by winning the league in 2001, I think the bigger story from that season is the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Mack Brown dominated the ACC (outside of Florida State) over his final two seasons in Chapel Hill, going 13-1 against the rest of the league in 1996 and 1997. He parlayed his success at a basketball school into the Texas job where he won a national title with the Longhorns in 2005 and played for another in 2009. His successor, Carl Torbush, quickly brought the Tar Heels back to mediocrity, going 16-18 (10-14 in ACC play) over his three seasons. To replace Torbush, the Tar Heels turned to alum and longtime NFL assistant John Bunting. Bunting played linebacker at North Carolina and later for the Philadelphia Eagles and his experience as an assistant coach in the NFL was on that side of the ball. His defensive acumen, aided somewhat by All-American defensive end Julius Peppers, helped the Tar Heels lead the ACC in yards allowed per play. While they ultimately finished with five losses, they were much better than their record and in my humble opinion, may be the best five loss team in college football history.
How can I make such a bold proclamation? Let's check the schedule. Not only did North Carolina play two Big 12 teams on the road in non-conference play, they played the two best teams. While neither Oklahoma nor Texas won the Big 12 in 2001, most statistical metrics rate them as the top two teams. The Sooners and Longhorns were ranked third and fourth respectively at the time North Carolina faced them, and both finished in the top six of the final AP Poll. Sandwiched between those two teams, North Carolina went on the road to College Park and lost to the eventual ACC champion Terrapins (final AP ranking of eleventh). After that 0-3 start, the Tar Heels dominated sixth ranked Florida State (the best ACC team by YPP standards). The Seminoles finished fifteenth in the final AP Poll. The Tar Heels were still just 1-3 after their unexpected win against the Seminoles. They won their next four games, culminating with a 38-3 beatdown of Clemson in Death Valley. After climbing into the AP Poll, the Tar Heels lost their next two games at Georgia Tech (final AP ranking of twenty fourth) and home to Wake Forest (only loss to an unranked foe). They beat Duke and SMU to finish 7-5 in the regular season and accepted a Peach Bowl berth against Auburn. The Tar Heels won a defensive battle 16-10 to finish 8-5. Their bold non-conference scheduling coupled with a little bad luck in ACC play resulted in five-loss campaign. Switch out one of those Big 12 road contests with an FCS or mid-major guarantee game and couple that with a little better luck in conference play and Bunting's initial ACC sojourn would be fondly remembered by Tar Heel fans. Alas, 2001 was the highwater mark for the Tar Heels under Bunting. The team would win just two conference games over the next two seasons. A rebound to 5-3 (6-6 overall) in 2004 helped him keep his job, but Bunting has relieved of his duties after the 2006 season having not led the Tar Heels to another bowl appearance. The Tar Heels lost more than twice as many ACC games (27) as they won (13) over his final five seasons after their fine performance in 2001. A better record in 2001 probably would not have saved his job five years later, but that 2001 team was not your typical five-loss college football team.