2014 CFN Preview: The ACC
By Pete Fiutak
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Crank up the grunge music. Pop open a cold Zima. And dig out those tattered jeans from the back of the closet. The ACC is about to party like it’s the 1990s.
You remember the nineties. Caps on backwards. Brick-sized cellphones. And an Atlantic Coast Conference that was perennially dominated by Florida State. From the day the Seminoles joined the ACC in 1992 until the end of the 20th century, they lost just two league games, while winning the title every season. FSU isn’t that far ahead of the field these days, but everyone else could be looking up at Jimbo Fisher’s team for a very long time.
The Noles have officially left the tail end of the Bobby Bowden era in the dust. They’ve won 28 of their last 30 games, including all 14 in 2013 to capture the final BCS National Championship. No one in the league is stockpiling more talent in recruiting, and confidence in Tallahassee is soaring. With Jameis Winston back to defend his Heisman Trophy, Florida State has the best odds of any Power 5 conference team to participate in the inaugural College Football Playoff. The Noles are once again the ACC’s undisputed standard-bearer.
Looking to keep Florida State from achieving what seems to be the inevitable is Clemson, which has been on quite a three-year run of its own under Dabo Swinney. The Tigers have won 32 games over that time, but last October’s 51-14 loss to the Seminoles signaled that the gap between the ACC’s two best teams may be widening. Of greater concern in the short-term is that QB Tajh Boyd and WR Sammy Watkins are gone, which will place more pressure on the defense to fulfill lofty expectations.
The balance of power shifts in the direction of the Atlantic Division, even more so now that Louisville has replaced Maryland as the ACC’s fourteenth member. The Cardinals are embarking on a new era in football, with a new coach, Bobby Petrino, and a new quarterback, Will Gardner, guiding the program into a new league. If Florida State, Clemson and Louisville don’t occupy the first three spots in the standings, it’ll be a surprise. Syracuse, Boston College and NC State are .500-type teams, with hopes of playing in the postseason in December. Wake Forest is facing a steep climb, as Dave Clawson takes his first stab at replacing Jim Grobe.
The Coastal Division? As wide-open as ever. Virginia aside, everyone has a legitimate shot finishing in first, a level of parity that was typified by Duke’s appearance in last year’s ACC Championship Game. The Blue Devils are no fluke, and are capable of returning to Charlotte again this December. Challenging them will be Miami, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Pitt, in no particular order. The Canes continue to surge forward for Al Golden, though quarterback and defensive concerns present big hurdles. The Hokies are trying to shake loose from their worst two-year malaise in two decades. Carolina could be ready for lift-off for Larry Fedora if both of the team’s lines can rebuild on the fly.
Whoever emerges from the tightly-packed Coastal might simply be Florida State’s sacrificial lamb on Dec. 6 at Bank of America Stadium. The Noles are that far ahead of the rest of the league. It wasn’t long ago that the ACC was struggling for national respect in football. FSU has helped change perceptions by giving the league a signature player capable of competing for a national championship, year-in and year-out. Just like it did two decades ago.
Coach on the Hot Seat
Mike London, Virginia – Cavalier AD Craig Littlepage still believes in his football coach. Littlepage also knows how costly it would have been to fire that coach last year. London is fortunate to be back for another season, considering how poorly he and his staff have performed since being hired in 2010. Thank goodness for seven-digit buyouts. The coach enjoyed a breakout 2011, going 8-5, and he’s recruited very well, but the on-field results have been disappointing. London is just 18-31, losing at least eight games in three of his four seasons. He’ll enter another pivotal season with a staff that’s been thoroughly shaken up from top to bottom. This is London’s final stand in Charlottesville. He can’t possibly expect another reprieve if the ‘Hoos once again wallow near the seabed of the ACC Coastal.
5 Non-Conference Games the ACC had better take very, very seriously
1. Cincinnati at Miami, Oct. 11
2. North Carolina at East Carolina, Sept. 20
3. Georgia Tech at Tulane, Sept. 6
4. Old Dominion at NC State, Sept. 6
5. Colorado State at Boston College, Sept. 27
- Florida State will take a perfect record into the playoffs, winning every regular season game by double-digits. The gap between the Noles and the rest of the ACC is even wider than it was in 2013.
- By the second half of the season, Louisville fans will be more excited by Will Gardner’s future than disappointed by the loss of Teddy Bridgewater. No, Gardner isn’t Bridgewater yet, but Bobby Petrino does things for young quarterbacks that aren’t in Charlie Strong’s coaching toolbox.
- Beleaguered head man Mike London will be coaching Virginia in 2015. And he’ll have his defense to thank for the continuing paycheck. The Cavalier D has next-level talent at each unit. If the offense ever gets its act together, UVa is capable of bowling in 2014.
- Cole Stoudt won’t be Tajh Boyd at Clemson. But he will play well enough this season to get chosen in next spring’s NFL Draft, despite occasionally sharing reps with hotshot rookie Deshaun Watson.
- For all of the offseason hype, Carolina isn’t quite ready to take the next step. The Heels have too many unanswered questions along both lines.
- Virginia Tech will remain in a semi-rut as long as it fails to develop a competent quarterback. Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer won’t be the answer, because they don’t operate the Air Raid in Blacksburg. Still, Bud Foster’s D will make sure the Hokies contend for the Coastal.
- Now that he has a capable quarterback running his offense, Dave Doeren will take a giant step forward in his second year leading NC State. Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett has ACC Newcomer of the Year potential, provided he gets help from a shaky line and receiver corps.
- Pitt’s James Conner will emerge as one of the most popular and visible young stars of the ACC. The sophomore is not only a battering ram out of the backfield, but he also plans to pitch in on the D-line, building on a breakout bowl effort.
- Brandon Connette, who’s now playing for Tim DeRuyter at Fresno State, will be sorely missed by the Duke offense. He brought a running element to the Blue Devils that made David Cutcliffe’s offense doubly difficult to stop.
- Clemson NG Grady Jarrett will pull a Kelcy Quarles this year, outshining more heralded linemate Vic Beasley. Oh, Beasley will be his usual disruptive self, but Jarrett at full strength will be a force on the inside.
- Miami’s Stacy Coley will lead the country in all-purpose plays of 50 yards or more. As a receiver and a return man, the second-year burner is already one of the most dangerous weapons in the game.
- The Florida State secondary will be talked about as one of the best in the history of the ACC. You want depth? The Noles’ second unit might still be the best in the ACC, with the only serious challenges coming from Virginia and Virginia Tech.
- After taking an NCAA-record-tying five punts back in 2013, Carolina’s Ryan Switzer will have no special teams touchdowns this year. No opponent is going to allow him to return punts this fall. However, Switzer will grow exponentially on offense as the Heels’ slot receiver.
- The groans to sweep Paul Johnson—and his triple-option—out of Atlanta will grow even louder. Georgia Tech’s four-year bout with mediocrity will continue in 2014.
- For the first time in the Dabo Swinney era, Clemson will win with defense, while Chad Morris’ offense finds its rhythm. The Tiger D-line could be the best in America, taking some much-needed heat off a rebuilding secondary banking on a big year out of precocious rookie CB Mackensie Alexander.
Team That'll Surprise
Louisville – New league. New quarterback. New coach. Same old expectations. The Cardinals won’t retreat simply because Teddy Bridgewater is a Minnesota Viking, Charlie Strong is a Texas Longhorn and the level of play will be much tougher in the ACC. In fact, Louisville has the right personnel, on the staff and on the field, to instantly become the league’s third best team, further widening the Atlantic Division’s gap with the Coastal. The hiring of Bobby Petrino will make for a smooth transition, as will the maturation of QB Will Gardner. There’s still an outstanding talent base here, particularly on offense, which means the Cards will remain ranked, when many assume they’ll be rebuilding.
Team That'll Disappoint
Miami – In July, the media pegged the Canes as the Coastal Division favorite. It would not be a shock, though, if they wound up as low as fourth in the division by early December. The Coastal is a toss-up, sans the powerhouses that exist on the other half of the conference. While the division lacks a national title contender, its depth is improving around the likes of Carolina, Duke and even Pitt. Yeah, Miami is heading in the right direction, and the return to health of RB Duke Johnson is a boon to the program. But the Hurricanes remain unsettled at quarterback and on defense, which are not exactly the trademarks of a champion.
Game of the Year …
Clemson at Florida State, Sept. 20 – Sure, the Seminoles will be heavily-favored in Tallahassee, especially since Tajh Boyd has graduated … and Jameis Winston has not. And no, this won’t be the defending champ’s only tough game on a schedule that includes an opener with Oklahoma State, visits from Notre Dame and Florida and trips to Louisville and Miami. However, the Clemson-Florida State game perennially sets the tone for the rest of the season, and establishes a defined pecking order in the Atlantic Coast Conference. And until further notice, these rivals are still the league’s two best teams.
5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight ...
1. LB Denzel Perryman, Sr. Miami
2. DB Jalen Ramsey, Soph. Florida State
3. WR Jamison Crowder, Sr. Duke
4. NG Grady Jarrett, Sr. Clemson
5. S Anthony Harris, Sr. Virginia
5 Best Pro Prospects
1. QB Jameis Winston, Soph. Florida State
2. CB P.J. Williams, Jr. Florida State
3. OG Tre’ Jackson, Sr. Florida State
4. DE Vic Beasley, Sr. Clemson
5. DE Mario Edwards, Jr. Florida State
5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. DT Darryl Render for Aaron Donald, Pitt
2. QB Cole Stoudt for Tajh Boyd, Clemson
3. WR Mike Williams for Sammy Watkins, Clemson
4. RB Myles Willis for Andre Williams, Boston College
5. C Austin Barron for Bryan Stork, Florida State
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