As we get closer to college football's opening night on Aug. 28, all week we'll be previewing the 2014 season, conference by conference. Today, it's 20 things to know about the ACC.
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1. It is, yet again, a new-look ACC, with Louisville joining the Atlantic Division, Notre Dame beginning its scheduling affiliation (four games this year) and conference co-founder Maryland bolting for the Big Ten to cash checks and watch Urban Meyer and James Franklin raid its backyard for recruits. But the conference's power balance remains the same. In July, we compiled the top 100 players in college football. Ten were from Florida State, and that number could have (and probably should have) been higher. The gap between the haves and the have-nots in the league is as wide as any in the nation, and it's not just Florida State: Clemson has also assembled a deep pool of talent -- both players and coaches -- that might not match the Seminoles but still stands out above the rest of league.
2. That's not to say some others can't catch up, or at least come close. While it has appeared to be a team capable of breaking out for much of the 21st century, only to never do it, North Carolina is the team best equipped to make a leap and challenge the ACC's current heavyweights. Of course, that was supposed to happen last year too, but the Tar Heels dug themselves into a 1-5 hole by mid-October and had to scratch and claw their way to the Belk Bowl. So, yes, you've heard this one before, but North Carolina has loads of potential, and maybe now, in his third season, Larry Fedora will reach it. With Marquise Williams (assuming he beats redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky for the job) at quarterback, flanked by the running back combination of T.J. Logan, Romar Morris and blue-chip freshman Elijah Hood and receivers Quinshad Davis and Ryan Switzer, Fedora may have an explosive, high-powered offense capable of out-scoring everyone on a schedule that is pretty difficult but doesn't include Florida State or Louisville.
3. The UNC schedule does, as always, include Duke, which has had reason to shake its head all offseason as most assume it will go back to being, well, Duke. But after shockingly winning the ACC Coastal and nearly beating Texas A&M in a Chick-fil-A Bowl shootout, Duke may be as good of a bet as anyone to win the Coastal again. A few important pieces are gone -- offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, situational running QB Brandon Connette, shutdown corner Ross Cockrell -- but Duke returns as much talent as it ever has, at least in recent history. While mistake-prone, QB Anthony Boone is a solid, experienced starter, surrounded by a handful of talented skill players, including wideout Jamison Crowder (108 catches), tight end Braxton Deaver (46 catches)* and running back Josh Snead (6.1 yards per carry). With David Cutcliffe still in charge, we know Duke will be well-coached and play fundamentally sound football. Given that the Blue Devils don't play Florida State, Clemson, Louisville or Notre Dame, the road to another big season, especially by Duke standards, is wide-open.
*Note: It was announced on Tuesday that Deaver tore his ACL, which is a big blow to the Blue Devils' offense, which has some talented players but lacks great depth.
4. Just as we always know David Cutcliffe will deliver a well-coached offense, a great Virginia Tech defense under coordinator Bud Foster is all but guaranteed. That dominant defense makes Virginia Tech a certain player in the Coastal race. Last year, a pair of All-America candidates at cornerback -- then-seniors Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum -- struggled to overcome injuries, but no matter: True freshman Kendall Fuller (Kyle's brother) and Brandon Facyson stepped in and led one of the nation's best pass defenses, which allowed opposing teams to complete only 48.2 percent of their passes. This year's defense faces some hurdles in replacing key pieces of a talented pass rush, but with Dadi Nicolas and Luther Maddy back up front and Fuller, Facyson and safeties Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner forming a potentially dominant secondary, Virginia Tech could again rank among the nation's top 10 defenses.
5. A top-10 defense nationally can do a lot to carry a team to a division title, especially in the uncertain Coastal. But after a remarkably consistent eight straight 10-win seasons, the Hokies have gone 15-11 the past two seasons largely because of an anemic offense. That Virginia Tech offense might have a hard time making big enough strides to snap out of this two-year funk. The departure of quarterback Logan Thomas at least allows the Hokies to hit reset, and the running game has a good deal of potential, but unless Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer exceeds expectations -- should he win the quarterback job over senior Mark Leal -- second-year coordinator Scot Loeffler has a lot of work on his hands in trying to help prevent coach Frank Beamer's career from fading down the stretch.
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The ACC's Best
1. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
2. Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
3. Karlos Williams, RB, Florida State
4. Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh
5. Will Gardner, QB, Louisville
1. Vic Beasley, DE, Clemson
2. Kendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
3. P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State
4. Denzel Perryman, LB, Miami
5. Jalen Ramsey, DB, Florida State
1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
2. Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
3. Derrick Nnadi, DT, Florida State
4. Andrew Brown, DT, Virginia
5. Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina
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6. Somehow, Virginia Tech's quarterback situation might be better than Miami's. With Stephen Morris gone, the job was expected to fall to senior Ryan Williams, but a torn ACL in April sidelined those plans. The next most natural fit, redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen, is firmly in the doghouse after a failed drug test. That leaves two unexpected candidates: true freshman Brad Kaaya and former Kansas and BYU starter Jake Heaps, who arrived this summer as a graduate transfer. Maybe Heaps will finally realize his expected potential, four years after starting as a touted freshman two schools ago at BYU. Or maybe Kaaya represents Al Golden's future hope at quarterback.* Or maybe Williams does continue a quick rehab and return to the mix by midseason. Regardless, there's not a lot to be confident about yet as Miami searches for its first ACC title, 10 years after joining.
*UPDATE: Golden named Kaaya the starter for Miami's opener against Louisville.
7. The good news for the winner of Miami's quarterback derby? Weapons galore. For one, there's a rising star to throw to in sophomore receiver Stacy Coley, who averaged 17.9 yards per catch. There's also a solid security blanket in tight end Clive Walford. Most importantly, there's a healthy Duke Johnson. While not all that big at 5-foot-9, 206 pounds, and known for some of the best breakaway speed in the nation, Johnson also functioned as a successful workhorse when needed, before breaking his ankle last November. He averaged 6.3 yards per carry last season, rushing for 920 yards and six touchdowns in eight games, and while the end of last season proved that the Hurricanes offense was too reliant on Johnson, his return gives the team one of the most valuable players in all of college football, one capable of changing the tide of a game at any moment.
8. Nobody in the league should be more confident in its starting running back than Miami. As always, though, nobody should be more confident in its running game overall than Georgia Tech. It's just a matter of the Yellow Jackets making everything else work well enough. Coach Paul Johnson and quarterback Vad Lee couldn't get on the same page last season, and with Lee's transfer, the offense will get back to option football basics behind sophomore QB Justin Thomas. Is it too little, too late, though? Tech fans seem to be getting restless with mediocrity -- 28-25 since going 11-3 in 2009 -- and Johnson's recruiting has left a lot to be desired. At the beginning of Johnson's tenure it looked like Georgia Tech would be a consistent threat to win the Coastal -- and perhaps it still will be, in a wide-open race -- but things have gotten a bit stale since then, and it's hard to see a big leap forward for the Yellow Jackets this season.
9. Pittsburgh fans know that feeling: From the Dave Wannstedt era to the year of a thousand coaches to a difficult-to-notice open to Paul Chryst's tenure, the Panthers have languished in the land of .500 football and have been rewarded with a string of holiday trips to Birmingham and Detroit. But don't worry, Pitt, there is hope -- even without departed DT Aaron Donald (the St. Louis Rams' first round pick), who was the only reason anyone paid attention to Pitt the last few years. The Panthers lose a few significant pieces -- Donald, QB Tom Savage, DB Jason Hendricks -- but they return a solid number of building blocks, especially if touted sophomore QB Chad Voytik breaks through with the help of stud sophomore wideout Tyler Boyd (85 catches), and a promising sophomore tailback in James Conner (799 yards). Until he appeared on ESPN's Film Room during the BCS Megacast, Chryst had gone through an incredibly anonymous first two seasons as head coach. Now it appears he can finally start shaping an identity for himself around a talented young core on offense, one that faces a very favorable schedule.
10. Meanwhile, Mike London may never be able to establish an identity at Virginia. Perhaps no one is on a hotter seat than London, who went 8-5 in 2011 but has gone 10-26 in his other three seasons, including 2-10 last year. London has had some impressive recruiting success (look for blue-chip DT Andrew Brown and DB Quin Blanding early and often), but other than star safety Anthony Harris, there isn't much else to be excited about in Charlottesville, barring a star turn by sophomore QB Greyson Lambert. The schedule (UCLA, at BYU, at Florida State, Louisville, plus the Coastal) does the Cavaliers no favors, either. One could make a realistic case for six teams as possible Coastal winners. The argument doesn't exist for Virginia.
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1. Florida State
4. N.C. State
6. Boston College
7. Wake Forest
1. North Carolina
2. Virginia Tech
6. Georgia Tech
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11. Of course, Virginia isn't the ACC's biggest long shot. That honor belongs, by far, to Wake Forest, who is 1) almost certainly worse than Virginia; and 2) plays in the same division as Florida State and Clemson. By somehow getting Wake Forest to the Orange Bowl in the 2006 season, Jim Grobe accomplished more than anyone could have asked of him in Winston-Salem. But this is a very tough job, and he exits with a pretty bare cupboard left behind for new coach Dave Clawson, who comes over from Bowling Green (a team that would likely pound Wake Forest if they played this fall). Last year's two stars, defensive tackle Nikita Whitlock and receiver Michael Campanaro, are gone, leaving 10 returning starters for a team that went 4-8 and finished 120th in yards per play, while ranking between 65-70 in 247Sports' composite recruiting rankings each of the last five years.
12. It isn't just Wake Forest that makes depth in the ACC Atlantic a problem. N.C. State, Syracuse and Boston College all look to be in fights to reach six wins and a minor bowl. With the return of promising dual-threat QB Terrel Hunt, as well as All-ACC candidates LB Dyshawn Davis, S Durrell Eskridge and OT Sean Hickey, Syracuse is the safest bet among this tier of the Atlantic. After a disastrous 3-9 debut season for coach Dave Doeren, N.C. State adds a big wild card in Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett, who was immediately named the starter after last season (which he sat out, per transfer rules). And while Steve Addazio turned Boston College around from 2-10 to 7-6, he faces a steep rebuilding task with nearly all the Eagles offensive production gone -- Andre Williams' 2,177 rushing yards, Alex Amidon's 1,023 receiving yards, QB Chase Rettig's four years as starter -- along with the defense's three best playmakers. All are flawed, and all will have a hard time getting un-stuck from Independence Bowl type territory.
13. All of which makes newcomer Louisville the clear favorite to finish third in the top-heavy Atlantic. In fact, the Cardinals are probably getting unfairly overlooked, because of the move to a tougher conference and the losses of coach Charlie Strong, QB Teddy Bridgewater and a pair of first-round picks on defense, Marcus Smith and Calvin Pryor. But despite all the baggage that comes with the hire, bringing back Bobby Petrino gives Louisville a sharp offensive mind to mold what can be one of the league's best offenses, with a veteran line, one of the nation's top receivers in DeVante Parker*, a solid tight end in Gerald Christian and two capable running backs in Dominique Brown and Michael Dyer. They won't go 12-1 again -- the schedule won't allow it -- but this could easily be the ACC's third-best team, especially if sophomore quarterback Will Gardner lives up to the decent offseason buzz he's been getting. Unfortunately, being the ACC's third-best team still means they'll also finish third in their division.
*UPDATE: Parker injured his foot at practice, putting his status up in the air for now.
14. Don't let last season's 51-14 debacle against Florida State fool you: Clemson was and still is a very talented team, capable of getting itself back into the top 10. Everything starts up front on defense, where Clemson has come a long, long way from allowing 70 to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl at the end of the 2011 season. The Tigers front seven matches up with anyone in the country, fueled by All-America pass rusher Vic Beasley (13 sacks), a defensive tackle in Grady Jarrett who finished third on the team with 83 tackles, a tackling machine at linebacker in Stephone Anthony (131 tackles, 15 tackles for loss) and a solid rotation of ends to complement Beasley (Corey Crawford, Shaq Lawson). Clemson finished fourth nationally in sack percentage last season, and it should repeat that success, with that disruptive front making life easier for a still-developing secondary that's hoping for a breakout from redshirt freshman cornerback Mackensie Alexander.
15. It feels strange to say that the offense has so many more questions than the defense, but even with a lot of youth, a Chad Morris-led Tigers offense will always find a way to put up points. Only LSU lost a playmaking core that matches up with Tajh Boyd, Roderick McDowell, Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant (plus left tackle Brandon Thomas), but Morris is the type of coordinator who can successfully scheme success out of his offense, and it's not like the unit is devoid of up-and-coming talent. The running back race is wide-open, and naturally all eyes turn to quarterback, where solid senior Cole Stoudt appears ready to inherit the job, but there's no way that uber-talented freshman Deshaun Watson -- who's clearly being groomed as Clemson's future centerpiece -- won't see the field in some capacity. This should be a unit that gets a lot better as the year goes on. It's too bad three of the first four games are against Georgia, Florida State and North Carolina.
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The ACC's Biggest Games
1. Clemson at Florida State, Sept. 20
2. Clemson at Georgia, Aug. 30
3. South Carolina at Clemson, Nov. 29
4. Florida State at Louisville, Oct. 30
5. Notre Dame at Florida State, Oct. 18
6. Florida State vs. Oklahoma State (at Arlington, Texas), Aug. 30
7. Virginia Tech at Ohio State, Sept. 6
8. Florida State at Miami, Nov. 15
9. Virginia Tech at North Carolina, Oct. 4
10. North Carolina at Duke, Nov. 20
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16. Florida State and Clemson have been in firm control of the ACC the last few years, but while Clemson has some obvious holes to fill, you have to look really, really closely to find anything worth worrying about at Florida State. The Seminoles may have had seven players drafted (all in the first five rounds), but they'll have an even greater amount of talent to flood the NFL draft with next spring. Sure, DT Timmy Jernigan leaves big shoes to fill, and the outside linebackers aren't totally proven, and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt already moved on to Georgia … but, really, there's hardly anything to worry about, with breakouts probable from DE Mario Edwards and DBs Jalen Ramsey, P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby, and a whole bunch more. Nobody in the country has more proven talent returning than Florida State as Jimbo Fisher continues to clean up on the recruiting trail. Next year may be the real test of reloading, not this year.
17. It helps to return a Heisman-winning sophomore quarterback, of course. Jameis Winston's freshman season was remarkable, as he completed 66.9 percent of his passes for 4,057 yards with 40 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. With five seniors on the offensive line in front of him, Winston can match those numbers in 2014. Expectations are almost out of control, sure, and there isn't as much proven depth at running back and receiver, but he still has running back Karlos Williams (8.0 yards per carry), he still has favorite target Rashad Greene (76 catches) and he still has go-to tight end Nick O'Leary (557 yards). Immaturity is an obvious issue, but on the field Winston is the most talented player in college football, with a strong arm, mobility, pocket presence and a knack for improvising big plays. The offense will be highly efficient and explosive, again.
18. So with all that said, picking Florida State to lose is nearly impossible. It would be one thing if the Seminoles played Auburn's schedule. But they don't. They're still in an ACC that has a lot less depth than the SEC. It's important to note that, yes, the schedule is more challenging than last year, with Oklahoma State, Notre Dame and Louisville joining the annual big games against Clemson, Florida and Miami. Even the most talented team in the country can have a down week, and everyone is well aware of how difficult it is to go undefeated in back-to-back seasons. So it's not out of the question that Florida State, despite being the overwhelming favorite nationally, drops a game at some point. Maybe 2001-02 Miami is the model: Dominate everyone for two seasons, then lose unexpectedly at the end in a heartbreaker. With the playoff starting, the road at the end gets tougher, needing to beat two top-four teams instead of one. Going undefeated is incredibly difficult, even for a team with the overwhelmingly obvious talent of Florida State.
19. If anyone's going to beat Florida State in the regular season, maybe Louisville is the trap to point to. Disclaimer: I acknowledge that it's quite possible, maybe even probable, that Florida State blows out Louisville by four touchdowns. But a Thursday night game on Oct. 30 against what could be a sneaky good Cardinals team might not necessarily be a pushover. Clemson's defense could keep the Tigers around, but the offense would have benefited with a November date instead of a Sept. 20 trip to Tallahassee. Notre Dame could be tricky, but the Fighting Irish suddenly face their own massive problems that could damage their 2014 chances. Oklahoma State returns only eight starters. And it's hard to imagine either Miami or Florida making up enough ground from when we last saw them face their in-state rival Seminoles. So a weekday night in Louisville seems as likely as any of these improbable options.
20. Regardless, there is no other justifiable answer, even if nothing is ever a 100-percent lock: Florida State will win the ACC, beating North Carolina in the conference championship game in Charlotte. Florida State will probably go undefeated in the regular season, at least, and even if the Seminoles do slip up and lose a game, they'll likely have the resume and cachet to get into the playoff anyway.
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