We are just days away from kickoff of the 2013 college football season, and to prepare Sports on Earth is spending all week publishing everything you need to know about each conference in America. The schedule:
Here is everything you need to know about the ACC:
1. If Louisville were able to join the ACC this year, we could be talking about three top-10 teams in one ACC division. Alas, the Cardinals won't come aboard until 2014, but the ACC Atlantic still has two legitimate national contenders. This also means that the ACC is quite top heavy. The league has taken a lot of heat recently, given that entering the last season of the BCS era, it is a miserable 3-13 in BCS bowl games -- one of which was Florida State's drubbing of an overmatched Northern Illinois last January, which hardly made up for the previous season's Clemson-West Virginia game.
2. But, for the most part, the ACC has been getting some positive preseason attention. And one major reason is the gargantuan expectations placed on the shoulders of Jameis Winston before he's even officially won the job over Jacob Coker. A redshirt freshman, Winston spent the offseason playing baseball, and did so well in spring football that Clint Trickett transferred to West Virginia. He's already become a legend without taking a snap under center for the Seminoles, and while calling anyone the "next Johnny Manziel" is ridiculous, Winston is the best bet to make the biggest impact among freshman quarterbacks on the national level.
3. We will finally see what Winston can do in the national spotlight on Labor Day night, when Florida State visits Pittsburgh to open the season. Barring catastrophe, the Seminoles will win that, then win their next four before the midseason showdown everyone has circled: Florida State at Clemson on Oct. 19. While not quite on the level of LSU-Alabama and Stanford-Oregon, Clemson-Florida State is starting to become one of the nation's best modern division rivalries, after Clemson's 35-30 win in 2011 and Florida State's entertaining 49-37 win last season. Home teams have dominated the series in the last decade, and this year the Seminoles must head to the snake pit that is Death Valley for what's really one of only two difficult road tests for the young Winston, with a season-ending trip to Florida being the other.
4. What's great for college football is that the season-ending Florida-Florida State rivalry is back on track, and Miami could be joining them as contenders in a talent-rich state that finally has all three of its powerhouses among the nation's best again. Miami enters its 10th season of ACC play improbably having never even won its division and played for a league title. While the Hurricanes are still a distant third, at best, among conference contenders -- especially given their ongoing concerns on defense -- this could and maybe should finally be the year they win the Coastal, which lacks the top-10 caliber teams of the Atlantic but has better depth, and go to the league title game, assuming the NCAA doesn't step in and decide they can't again.
5. The Coastal is deeper because North Carolina is also back in the mix with the right coach in place. Not that Larry Fedora's first year was anything out of the ordinary, given that the Tar Heels have now won eight games in four of five seasons. But UNC finally has a ton of talent in place to go along with bowl eligibility and a lessened threat of half the roster being declared ineligible. Offensive tackle James Hurst and defensive end Kareem Martin give the Tar Heels a pair of stars on the lines, while they also have an underrated passer in senior Bryn Renner. Entering his third year as starter, Renner has surpassed 3,000 yards in consecutive seasons, and last year he completed 65.4 percent of his attempts with 28 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. Nearly everything is in place for North Carolina to succeed, except for perhaps the biggest loss of the offseason in the ACC: versatile, explosive tailback Giovani Bernard leaving early for the NFL.
The 20 Best Players in the ACC
1. Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson
2. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
3. Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
4. Lamarcus Joyner, DB, Florida State
5. Christian Jones, LB, Florida State
6. James Hurst, OT, North Carolina
7. Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland
8. Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
9. Jeremiah Attaochu, DE, Georgia Tech
10. Antone Exum, CB, Virginia Tech
11. Ross Cockrell, CB, Duke
12. Stephen Morris, QB, Miami
13. Timmy Jernigan, DT, Florida State
14. Bryn Renner, QB, North Carolina
15. Rashad Greene, WR, Florida State
16. James Gayle, DE, Virginia Tech
17. Kareem Martin, DE, North Carolina
18. Bryan Stork, C, Florida State
19. Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
20. Jack Tyler, LB, Virginia Tech
6. Bernard's departure means that Miami has the best quarterback-tailback combination in the ACC. Running back Duke Johnson is unfairly fast. Like De'Anthony Thomas at Oregon, we don't know what he'd do with a full load of carries, as at only 5-foot-9, 194 pounds, Johnson shared the backfield with Mike James and ran 139 times for 947 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also caught 27 passes and did ridiculous things on kick returns, and despite his size he proved that he can run hard and stay on his feet. So, ACC defenses will have to attempt to contain Johnson, while also dealing with the enigmatic Stephen Morris, a talented NFL prospect with a strong arm who has yet to really put it all together, especially in terms of accuracy (a 58.2 percent completion rate last year). If Morris does well, this offense has a high ceiling with 10 starters returning, including the entire offensive line.
7. Morris isn't the only senior NFL prospect quarterback whose progression could decide his team's season. Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas may in fact be under more pressure after a brutal junior year in which he completed only 51.3 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and 16 interceptions as the Hokies failed to win 10 games for the first time since 2003. It's hard to imagine Virginia Tech finishing the regular season 6-6 again, but getting back to the familiar territory of 10 wins will be difficult. The offense finished 97th in yards per play, and to shake things up Frank Beamer brought in Scot Loeffler as his new coordinator.
It's the same Loeffler who, in one year as Auburn's offensive coordinator, directed an offense that finished 90th in yards per play. Not that Loeffler deserves most of the blame for Auburn's free fall, but he has his work cut out for him, as Thomas is far from the offense's biggest problem. Sure, he needs to snap out of his funk and drastically improve his accuracy and decision-making, but he could use some help after he doubled as the team's leading rusher. To make matters worse, sophomore tailback Michael Holmes was kicked off the team, and J.C. Coleman is trying to recover from two sprained ankles. Considering the talented pieces North Carolina and Miami have on offense, the Hokies have a lot of questions to answer -- and Week 1 against Alabama is not going to be pretty.
8. With that said, it's not as if the cupboard is bare in Blacksburg, thanks to the defense. Virginia Tech ranked a solid 17th in yards per play allowed last year, and nine starters return, including disruptive pass rusher James Gayle, playmaking linebacker Jack Tyler and standout cornerback Antone Exum, although unfortunately a January knee injury won't allow Exum to try his hand at containing Alabama's Amari Cooper in the opener. Still, if the unit can get itself into shape health-wise, Virginia Tech will be competitive no matter how inconsistent the offense is, especially if freshman corner Kendall Fuller lives up to his enormous expectations.
9. Hovering between the top tier and the bottom tier of the Coastal is Georgia Tech, which made the ACC title game by default last year despite a .500 season, because Miami and North Carolina were ineligible. The Yellow Jackets were blown out by Middle Tennessee (!) and BYU at home, yet they also scored 68 on North Carolina and beat USC by two touchdowns in the Sun Bowl. A modern triple-option offense like Georgia Tech's is unpredictable, and if it falters then the Yellow Jackets will always have trouble playing from behind. Sophomore Vad Lee is now positioned to take the starting quarterback role after scoring nine rushing touchdowns behind Tevin Washington last year. Still, redshirt freshman Justin Thomas, who's small at 5-foot-11, 169 pounds, will likely push him all season. Regardless, we will continue to see a great disparity, on purpose, between the Yellow Jackets' passing and rushing offenses.
10. If nothing else, Georgia Tech should at least be a lock to match last year's seven-win mark, with as many as nine wins there for the taking should the QB situation play out favorably. Everyone else in the division will have to fight for a bowl, including Duke, Virginia and newcomer Pittsburgh. Virginia returns a lot of starters, but it has an unsettled QB situation -- former Alabama transfer Phillip Sims left for Winston-Salem State -- and returning a lot of starters doesn't always mean great things for a 4-8 team. Duke finally got out of the basement under David Cutcliffe, earning a trip to the Belk Bowl for its first postseason bid since 1994, and with an upset along the way could get to one again. The talent level isn't exactly high, but Cutcliffe is a good coach, and the Blue Devils have one of the best defenders in the league in corner Ross Cockrell. Same goes for Pitt, which has been a perennial poster child for mediocrity but at least has defensive tackle Aaron Donald to wreak havoc up front. The Panthers defense isn't the problem; it's the shaky offense that lost a pair of good runners in Ray Graham and Rushel Shell -- who transferred to hated West Virginia, no less -- and will break in a new QB in Rutgers transfer Tom Savage.
Five ACC Heisman Candidates
1. Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson
2. Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
3. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
4. Stephen Morris, QB, Miami
5. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
Five Breakout Players
1. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
2. Mario Edwards, DE, Florida State
3. Kendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
4. Roderick McDowell, RB, Clemson
5. Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
11. Both ACC newcomers may be breaking in transfer QBs, in fact. In the Atlantic, Syracuse may go with senior Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen, although he's still battling sophomore Terrel Hunt for the starting job. The Syracuse offense made an impressive leap forward last year in an 8-5 season, resulting in coach Doug Marrone taking the Buffalo Bills job. While Marrone is gone, the program stays in familiar hands with Scott Shafer, who was promoted from defensive coordinator.
12. Shafer is one of three new head coaches out of seven teams in the division, although he's the only first-time head coach. Dave Doeren, fresh off Northern Illinois' improbable BCS bid, takes over at a middle-of-the-road N.C. State program that rarely rises above Belk/Music City Bowl territory, while Steve Addazio jumped from Temple to Boston College to try to revive a previously solid program that tanked under Frank Spaziani following the bizarre firing of Jeff Jagodzinski. Addazio needs some time after the Eagles declined from eight wins to seven to four to two over Spaziani's four-year reign. Doeren, meanwhile, walks into a decent situation in which he has his pick of transfer QBs -- Pete Thomas from Colorado State and Brandon Mitchell from Arkansas -- and a laughable schedule that includes only four road games, three of which are against Duke, Boston College and Wake Forest, and no Miami, Virginia Tech or Georgia Tech.
13. As those coaches settle in at their new schools, both Wake Forest and Maryland could have coaches on the hot seat. If anyone can actually be identified with Wake Forest football, it is Jim Grobe, so it's somewhat hard to imagine a coach who guided the Demon Deacons to the Orange Bowl ever leaving town. Still, it's been downhill ever since, with no bowl game in three of the last four seasons and an offense coming off a season in which it ranked 122nd in yards per play. That means Wake was somehow a couple spots worse than Maryland, which went through so many quarterback injuries that linebacker Shawn Petty ended up starting behind center. Maryland's prospects appear better than Wake Forest's, and Randy Edsall needs them be, as the Terrapins get set for their big move to the Big Ten, where they're not exactly poised to make a big splash in a division with Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State.
14. For Edsall, it's at least hard to imagine having worse luck at quarterback this year. Fortunately athletic senior C.J. Brown returns to action after missing 2012 because of a torn ACL. Which means that star receiver Stefon Diggs -- a legitimate All-America candidate -- has someone to throw him the ball. Diggs was Edsall's prized recruit, and he immediately proved himself by catching 54 passes for 848 yards and six touchdowns and returning two kicks for a touchdown in a freshman season in which he was one of the few bright spots for a 4-8 team.
15. Diggs would be considered the most explosive receiver in the ACC if it wasn't for Sammy Watkins. The Clemson junior had a sophomore slump, despite Tajh Boyd's huge season, as he played second-fiddle to DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins left early for the draft, though, meaning all the focus is back on Watkins, who starred as a freshman in 2011 with 1,219 receiving yards and regular eye-popping plays before a down stretch that included an arrest and an ankle injury. With enormous expectations and Hopkins and tailback Andre Ellington gone, Clemson's explosive offense hinges in large part on a return to form by Watkins regularly making big plays.
1. Clemson (11-1, 8-0)
2. Florida State (10-2, 7-1)
3. N.C. State (7-5, 3-5)
4. Maryland (6-6, 3-5)
5. Syracuse (5-7, 3-5)
6. Boston College (5-7, 2-6)
7. Wake Forest (4-8, 2-6)
1. Miami (10-2, 7-1)
2. North Carolina (9-3, 6-2)
3. Georgia Tech (7-5, 5-3)
4. Virginia Tech (8-4, 5-3)
5. Pittsburgh (5-7, 2-6)
6. Virginia (4-8, 2-6)
7. Duke (5-7, 1-7)
16. Of course, it's a given that Clemson's offense will be productive under coordinator Chad Morris. The real question, as always, is where the Tigers defense stands. After the Orange Bowl debacle against West Virginia to end the 2011 season, Dabo Swinney hired Brent Venables from Oklahoma for big money to run the defense, and there were signs of improvement, including a rise from 81st to 48th in scoring defense. The Tigers were hardly perfect -- giving up 48 to N.C. State, for example - but with how talented the offense is, the defense doesn't need to be perfect. The front, led by nose guard Grady Jarrett and pass rusher Vic Beasley, is solid, and the secondary is hoping to get a boost from touted true freshman Mackensie Alexander, although those plans have been slowed by preseason injuries.
17. For how good Florida State's defense is, it's not as if it's totally without questions either. However, the talent is unquestionably there. The front seven loses six starters and nobody seems concerned. That's because tackle Timmy Jernigan, who started only two games, is already an All-ACC player, outside linebacker Christian Jones is one of the best players in the league and defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. was one of the highest rated recruits in the class of 2012. Now, the next wave of talent just has to come together under new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, formerly Alabama's secondary coach, who replaces new Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops.
18. Florida State's defense will surely stay dominant, in part because the schedule is hardly littered with explosive offenses. There are home dates with Miami and Nevada, but that's about it … aside from that all-important trip to Clemson, where it's possible Tajh Boyd will take a run at the Heisman. An accurate passer with mobility, Boyd has thrown 69 touchdowns over the last two seasons, despite taking a beating from opposing pass rushes, and he was the only QB to throw three TD passes against Florida State last year. For all the justified attention on the defense, and on Watkins, priority No. 1 for Clemson will continue to be finding a way to keep Boyd healthy.
19. In terms of the ACC title, nothing is more important than the Clemson-Florida State game. In terms of the ACC's national hopes, everything depends on regular season games against SEC teams. Barring a midseason letdown against someone -- which is what would happen to the old Clemson -- the Tigers' season comes down to three games: Florida State, the opener against Georgia and the last week at South Carolina. Clemson finished last season winning a toss-up game against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl after losing by 10 to South Carolina. The Georgia game should be a shootout; South Carolina more of a wild card because the Gamecocks are the one team Clemson has struggled to score against. As for Florida State, its post-Clemson fate hinges on the Nov. 30 date with Florida in the swamp, assuming, of course, that it avoids another letdown against someone like N.C. State.
20. Clemson will beat Florida State, which means it will win the ACC. However, asking the Tigers to win both their games against Georgia and South Carolina is asking too much, which means a jump into national title contention is also too much to ask. While the ACC won't make its first trip to the BCS title game since 2000, getting two BCS bids for once (not to mention a Miami team trending back toward relevance, again NCAA-pending) would at least help the league's reputation a bit despite its rather thin depth. Given that Clemson and Florida State are both worthy of top-10 rankings, that's a realistic goal.