ACC: Duke Blue Devils

In a game fitting of its Wild West setting, Arizona State survived Duke's pesky upset attempt. The Sun Devils proved better than the Blue Devils in the Hyundai Sun Bowl, securing a 36-31 victory in El Paso. ASU has now posted consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time since 1973, and Todd Graham has won more games in his first three years as coach than anyone else in program history. Meanwhile, Duke's long drought continues: The Blue Devils have not won a bowl game since 1961.

How the game was won: When ASU jumped out to a 20-3 lead midway through the second quarter, it looked as if they were going to run the other Devils out of the building. But Duke battled back using an array of screen passes to burn ASU's aggressive pressure defense, and two quick touchdowns cut the deficit to 20-17 by halftime. This flurry was indicative of how the second half would go: The Sun Devils seemed to have an overwhelming stockpile of explosive weapons on offense, but Duke simply would not die.

After the Blue Devils took a 31-30 lead on the fuel of two trick plays late in the fourth quarter, ASU freshman Kalen Ballage immediately responded with a 96-yard kickoff return. The Sun Devils regained the lead when fellow youngster Demario Richard scored on the next play, and their defense sealed the victory after that. This was a classic see-saw battle down the stretch, and ASU ultimately had more ammunition than Duke.

Game ball goes to: Veteran Jaelen Strong grabbed seven passes for 103 yards in his final ASU game before heading to the NFL, so he deserves acknowledgement here. But the game ball itself must go to the future of the Sun Devil program. Less than a month after turning 18 years old, Richard scored four touchdowns -- including the game winner. He was the dependable force that the Sun Devils turned to whenever they were in scoring range, and he ended up playing a perfect complement to Strong and DJ Foster (121 all-purpose yards)

It was over when: ASU defensive back Kweishi Brown intercepted Duke quarterback Anthony Boone in the corner of the end zone with 45 seconds remaining. The Blue Devils were driving at the time, and they were hungry to deliver a go-ahead score that would give the Sun Devils little time to rebut. But Brown's excellent defense on Boone's lofty fade pass finally stifled Duke's hopes. Prior to that play, the Blue Devils simply wouldn't go away; they had been a combined 14-for-23 on third- and fourth-down conversions.

Stat of the game: Plus-2. That was the turnover margin, and ASU fell on the positive side of it. It's ultimately the reason the Sun Devils prevailed in this football game, because Duke ended up outgaining ASU (400-392) and outperforming them on third and fourth down. Brown's interception, though, was the big play that stopped the bleeding elsewhere and secured a hard-fought win for Graham's club.

Recruit and return: Duke Blue Devils 

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Under David Cutcliffe, Duke has transformed itself into a contender in the ACC and a real threat on the recruiting trail. Gone are the days when Duke fans only go to football games as something to do before the start of basketball season.

Viewer's Guide: Hyundai Sun Bowl

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Which Devils are better, the Blue ones or the ones that come from the Sun? We'll find out Saturday when 9-3 Duke meets 9-3 Arizona State in El Paso for the Hyundai Sun Bowl. This is a chance for both teams to reach that coveted 10-win mark. Here are three storylines to watch in the battle between David Cutcliffe and Todd Graham:

1. Who will best shake off disappointment?

The 2014 trajectories of these teams mirrored each other. Both Arizona State and Duke entered Nov. 15 with identical 8-1 records. The Sun Devils dreamed of a berth in the College Football Playoff, while the Blue Devils were on track for a spot in the ACC championship game. The November chill was not kind for either squad of Devils, as each group lost two of three games in a critical stretch that month. Arizona State dropped bitter decisions to Oregon State and archrival Arizona, while Duke lost a close one to Virginia Tech before being pulverized 45-20 at home by hated North Carolina. It's time to shake off the "what could have been" syndrome, and the team that does this best will be in line for that 10th win.

2. Can the Blue Devils take the next step?

Arizona State is the favorite here, so it is expected to win. But Duke's program stands to gain more with a victory. In fact, the Blue Devils have not won a bowl game since the 1961 Cotton Bowl, and they haven't defeated a Top 25 team from outside the ACC since 1971, when they took down Stanford. Those are streaks of 53 and 43 years, respectively, that Cutcliffe's program can break with a win in El Paso against an explosive Sun Devils team. Such a victory would certainly represent progress for Duke after it finished last season with a heartbreaking 52-48 bowl loss to Texas A&M.

3. Duke's Crowder versus ASU's Strong

The Sun Bowl is a chance to see two talented receivers square off. Jamison Crowder's 276 career receptions and 5,402 all-purpose yards are both third among active FBS players. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound speedster had 78 catches this season, three more than his aptly named 6-3 counterpart Jaelen Strong, who announced earlier this week that he'll be entering the 2015 NFL draft. Though Crowder and Strong feature distinctly contrasting styles, both receivers are potential game-changers with the ability to make up-and-down quarterback play look spectacular. Even if their contributions don't mark the difference in this game, they'll certainly be worth a watch.
It has become a yearly ritual across the ACC -- waiting on the coaching turnover that is bound to happen.

No job is ever too safe, it seems.

Just remember back to when the regular season ended a few weeks ago. Nobody appeared in imminent danger of getting fired or leaving. But alas, dominoes across the landscape brought the inevitable.

Paul Chryst exited Pitt and the ACC last week for Wisconsin and just like that, the ACC coaching fraternity will have a new member. It has gone on this way since the 2009 season ended, every single year bringing a first-year head coach to the league.

[+] EnlargePaul Johnson
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsPaul Johnson joined the ACC coaching ranks in 2008, along with David Cutcliffe and Dabo Swinney.
For three years in a row, coaches have left for bigger jobs. But on the whole, coaches are not leaving en masse to take bigger opportunities. In this respect, it is clear the ACC is not the old Big East, the ultimate in steppingstone conference jobs.

Still, the league has had to deal with more yearly turnover than most. There is no one explanation that ties them all together. Most of the coaches who are no longer around were fired, some after finding early success in their careers.

But sometimes yearly coaching turnover leads to longevity. After Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, the next longest-tenured coaches in the ACC are David Cutcliffe, Paul Johnson and Dabo Swinney.

All started coaching in the ACC in 2008.

So in this respect, coaching turnover ended up bringing a strong group of coaches together all at once. Why did it all come together in 2008? Maybe the stars aligned just so. Swinney laughs at the mention, because he actually became Clemson interim coach in October 2008 before earning the full-time job at the end of the season.

Still, Swinney, Johnson and Cutcliffe all have led their respective teams to ACC championship games and provided their programs a level of stability that has begun to change perceptions. Johnson and Cutcliffe have won ACC Coach of the Year honors a combined five times in the last seven years; Swinney has an ACC championship and an opportunity to post four straight 10-win seasons.

They each believe they have found their destination jobs. Cutcliffe has turned down various overtures to leave Duke; Johnson and Swinney just earned contract extensions over the last year.

“I guess the ADs did a good job, they picked good people that fit the situation at each school,” Swinney said when asked for a way to explain their collective success.

There is no one explanation that links all three. Johnson and Cutcliffe had been head coaches at successful programs before. Swinney was the outlier in the group. He remembers walking into his first ACC coaches meeting and seeing Bobby Bowden, along with a slew of other veteran coaches just looking at him.

“Paul recognized I was a fish out of water,” Swinney says with a laugh. “I’m sitting in there with all these people thinking, ‘What am I going to do here? Paul just said, ‘Hey sit here,’ and showed me the ropes. We were both new, but he was an old veteran guy who’d been around the block a couple times.”

It was not long before Swinney and Johnson were winning. It took Cutcliffe much longer, only because he inherited the worst situation of the three. Duke athletic director Kevin White did not hire Cutcliffe, but he knew exactly the coach he was getting when he arrived in Durham.

White first heard about Cutcliffe while working as Tulane athletic director, when he became close with the Manning family. The Mannings did nothing but sing Cutcliffe’s praises. Later, White’s son played basketball at Ole Miss when Cutcliffe was coaching there, so the two got to know each other. They briefly worked together at Notre Dame.

White came to Duke several months after Cutcliffe was hired and knew his football program would be a winner. No matter how long it took to get there.

“Joe Alleva made a brilliant hire with David,” White recalled recently. “I remember writing him a note and saying, ‘You've hit the cover off the ball here. This guy's going to be brilliant at Duke. He'll be a great fit.’ And so I got a chance to come here and kind of jump in the foxhole with David. … And I've used a really bad kind of analogy that, oftentimes we talk about a whale on the beach. … For about 60 years, we had foreclosed on football.

“So the whale wasn't on the beach when David came. It was up in the parking lot. And so I knew it was going to take a couple years to get the whale down in the sand, and then a couple years to get the whale's belly wet, and here we are, now we're looking for the gulfstream. We've got a chance to have a darn good football program and we've got, I think, arguably the very best coach in college football.”

So coaching turnover does sometimes end up having benefits. Just look at 2008.

ACC reporter Matt Fortuna contributed to this report.

Duke has one objective: Bowl win

December, 22, 2014
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Over the past three seasons, the Duke football program has gone on a record-breaking tear, racking up wins, top-25 rankings and bowl appearances along the way.

That, in turn, has started to change expectations.

[+] EnlargeJamison Crowder
Mark Dolejs/USA TODAY SportsJamison Crowder is aiming to lead Duke to its first bowl win in 54 seasons.
Three seasons ago, Duke was just happy to make a bowl game. Now, making a bowl game is no longer good enough. Duke wants to make a bowl game AND win a bowl game, a feat that last happened in 1960.

The Blue Devils (9-3) get their chance Saturday in the Hyundai Sun Bowl against No. 15 Arizona State (9-3), the second straight season they have faced a ranked opponent in a bowl game.

“That’s a goal and a milestone for this program,” receiver Jamison Crowder said. “The first bowl we had against Cincinnati -- that was an accomplishment in itself making it to a bowl. We came up short in that game and last year we came up short.

“Right now, we’re focused on what we need to do to win the bowl. We feel if we are able to win, that definitely helps out the program, and that just adds another accomplishment to what we have achieved.”

Go back to 2012, when Duke finished the regular season 6-6 and made it to the Belk Bowl against Cincinnati, its first bowl appearance since 1994. There was cause for celebration because the program had been down for so long. As proof, coach David Cutcliffe was selected ACC Coach of the Year despite failing to post a winning record.

Most folks seemed to view Duke as a one-hit wonder, giving the Blue Devils a little pat on the head for a job well done. But Duke had no plans to go anywhere. Last season, Cutcliffe won ACC Coach of the Year honors again after Duke won the Coastal Division and made it to the ACC championship game. It faced Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

Not many gave Duke a chance in either game. Yet the Blue Devils nearly won them both, losing in heartbreaking fashion in the fourth quarter both times. Cincinnati scored two touchdowns in the final 44 seconds to win the Belk Bowl; Texas A&M scored 21 fourth-quarter points to win in perhaps the most entertaining bowl game of last season.

“We put a big emphasis on finishing,” defensive end Dezmond Johnson said. “We come out hot in the first half and maybe a little bit in the third, and then kind of die off in the fourth, which is kind of where we lose the game. [We need] to come out strong and finish strong.”

Though Duke ended up losing to Texas A&M, the Blue Devils believe they gained respect in a roundabout way. They proved they could hang with the former Heisman Trophy winner despite being a heavy underdog. Duke led 38-17 at halftime but only scored 10 points in the second half of the 52-48 loss.

Crowder called the Chick-Fil-A Bowl “one of the best experiences of my college career.”

“We felt like we could go in there and compete,” Crowder said. “I think people saw that. A lot of people didn’t think we could compete with a team like Texas A&M last year but just going out there and playing, even when we lost in the last moments of the game, I think a lot of people see the Duke program -- now we have athletes that can play and compete with the best of them.”

Competing is one thing. Winning is another. Having said that, some perspective is still in order.

As much as Duke wants to win a bowl, it only has made five postseason appearances since beating Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl, 7-6, in 1960. Three have come since 2012.

“It’s a very interesting chance for our team to go out there and do something that our team last year didn’t do or the year before that or teams a long time in the past,” quarterback Anthony Boone said. “It’s not going to be easy, playing the No. 15 team in the country. They do a lot of good things, and they come from a great conference, so this is more a program game for us more than proving a point or having a chip on our shoulders. Just a chance for our program to be matched up against another great program and seeing where we are.”

ACC bowl predictions

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Quick Lane Bowl

Hale: Who knows what to make of the Jekyll-and-Hyde Tar Heels? Their defense isn’t good, but neither is Rutgers’. The offense looked stagnant in its last outing, but Larry Fedora will have had a month of prep time to fix any flaws. UNC at least beat some quality opponents (Georgia Tech, Duke), while Rutgers was 2-5 against teams that finished .500 or better, allowing 457 yards and 36 points per game. North Carolina 38, Rutgers 28.

Fortuna: Fans of defense will have to close their eyes and look away in horror. Though Marquise Williams has been phenomenal for much of the season, the Rutgers' offense is riding high off its comeback win at Maryland. With the chance at an eight-win season in its inaugural Big Ten campaign. Leonte Carroo will be a handful for a UNC defense that has already seen its coordinator get fired. Rutgers 38, UNC 31

Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl

Adelson: The Wolfpack ended the season on a high note after a total domination of in-state rival North Carolina. The defense has started to gain momentum and play a little more aggressively, while the run game has started to find some footing, too. Jacoby Brissett and Shadrach Thornton each had 100 yards rushing against the Tar Heels. Look for that combination to be the difference. NC State 28, UCF 27.

Shanker: UCF has their own Jacoby to combat NC State’s Brissett. The Knights' Jacoby Glenn was the AAC’s defensive player of the year. UCF will keep NC State offense in check and score just enough points. UCF 24, NC State 17

Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman

Adelson: The Hokies have not been consistently reliable this season, but they did show signs of life offensively last time out against Virginia. J.C. Coleman ran hard -- and that run game will be a big key against a Cincinnati run D that ranks No. 80 in the nation. Here is betting Virginia Tech will get its run game going to make the difference. Virginia Tech 24, Cincinnati 21.

Shanker: This should be an interesting battle of strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness. Cincinnati’s offense and Virginia Tech’s defense are among the country’s best. Each team’s other unit is among the worst. The Bearcats will have more motivation in this game, though. Cincinnati 20, Virginia Tech 17

Duck Commander Independence Bowl

Shanker: It was an ugly finish for Miami, but South Carolina couldn’t beat a Clemson team that had a one-legged Deshaun Watson at quarterback. Miami 23, South Carolina 14

Adelson: In a game that presents such even matchups, this one might come down to coaching. That is where South Carolina has the edge. Miami has lost four straight bowl games; South Carolina has won three straight. The Hurricanes have shown no motivation to play; Spurrier will find one for the Gamecocks. South Carolina 27, Miami 24.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl

Fortuna: Points will be hard to come by at Yankee Stadium. Penn State might have the nation's No. 1 rushing defense, but it struggled the one time it faced a mobile quarterback in J.T. Barrett, as Ohio State rushed for 219 yards. Tyler Murphy is an even bigger threat with his legs, and he'll be able to make a few big plays that will ultimately prove to be the difference for an Eagles team that just keeps getting better. BC 17, Penn State 13

Hale: OK, Penn State’s offense isn’t much to rave about, but what has been lost in the Nittany Lions’ season is that the defense has been exceptional. Penn State allowed just 85 yards per game on the ground -- tops in the country -- which could negate BC’s top offensive threats. Expect a low-scoring game, with the Lions having a slight edge. Penn State 17, BC 14

Russell Athletic Bowl

Adelson: It is hard to forget how different Clemson looks offensively with Cole Stoudt behind center, so all the attention in this one will be squarely focused on the Tigers' No. 1-ranked defense. Oklahoma expects Samaje Perine to play, but he will not have much running room against Vic Beasley & Co. Clemson 20, Oklahoma 17

Hale: Since their respective regular-season finales, Oklahoma has gotten healthier and Clemson has learned it will be without star QB Deshaun Watson. The Tigers’ D is terrific, and perhaps that will be enough to secure a win, but odds are the offense is going to have to muster at least a few sustained drives, and Cole Stoudt is averaging just 5.6 yards-per-attempt since Oct. 1 with four TDs and eight interceptions. Oklahoma 17, Clemson 13

Hyundai Sun Bowl

Adelson: Duke has improved defensively this season, but the Blue Devils have not faced many teams as explosive as Arizona State. Plus, they beat only one team with a winning record. Both teams struggled down the stretch, but Arizona State has a better body of work and offense, so expect a Sun Devils victory. Arizona State 35, Duke 28.

Fortuna: These types of games usually come down to who has more to play for, and in this case it is certainly Duke. The Blue Devils are aiming for their second straight 10-win season and for their first bowl win in 53 years after falling just short against Johnny Football last year. Expect a clean offensive performance and just enough stops on defense to escape victorious. Duke 34, ASU 27

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl

Hale: The Fighting Irish have lost five of six and didn’t beat a team with better than a 7-5 record this season. LSU’s offense might not be stellar, but the Tigers took Alabama to overtime, fell five points shy of beating Mississippi State and have wins over Wisconsin and Ole Miss. We’ll take the LSU defense, with just enough help from Leonard Fournette, to get the job done. LSU 24, Notre Dame 20.

Belk Bowl

Fortuna: Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will have his work cut out for him in trying to stop a Bulldogs offense that's No. 8 nationally in scoring (41.7 ppg), but his defensive unit has been among the nation's best as well. If quarterback Reggie Bonnafon is at full health, he and the Louisville run game should be able to open things up for DeVante Parker and the passing attack. Louisville 31, Georgia 24

Shanker: Louisville’s sixth-ranked defense is allowing 364 yards per game against teams with winning records. Behind Nick Chubb, Georgia will be able to score. Georgia 30, Louisville 24

Capital One Orange Bowl

Hale: The bottom line for the Yellow Jackets is that the D has to do a much better job against Dak Prescott than it did against Jameis Winston in the ACC Championship Game. If Prescott gets time to move in the pocket and make throws downfield, it will be hard to corral Mississippi State. If Tech’s D can limit his big plays and force a couple turnovers, the offense will do more than enough to get the win. We’re betting on the latter. Georgia Tech 41, Mississippi State 38

Fortuna: The Bulldogs' rush defense has been solid (No. 31 nationally), which should improve with nearly a month to prepare for Georgia Tech's triple-option attack. MSU also has a really good quarterback in Dak Prescott, who was near the top of the Heisman discussion before losing at Alabama. The Yellow Jackets need to force several Prescott turnovers to give their offense a chance to have its desired effect, and that might be a tall order. Mississippi State 35, Georgia Tech 30

Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual
Adelson: The Seminoles are in a different position -- playing as the underdog. There is little doubt that will serve as motivation. But beyond the intangibles, Florida State will find a way to win behind Jameis Winston and Dalvin Cook, who has emerged to make the Seminoles more balanced and effective. Florida State 35, Oregon 31

Shanker: It was tough to pull the trigger on Oregon after going with Florida State all season. The rash of injuries are continuing for Oregon, but I think they will be able to run the ball effectively against the Seminoles. The Ducks will blow an early lead but put together a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. Oregon 35, Florida State 34

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl

Shanker: Both teams lost their coach, so it will be interesting to see how each team responds. The talent is clearly in the Panthers’ favor as they have James Conner and Tyler Boyd on offense. Pitt 31, Houston 13

ACC morning links

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Boston College took the proper steps to wrapping up Steve Addazio on Thursday, signing the second-year coach to an extension through the 2020 season. The deal should, at the very least, provide some security for a program that has done nothing but overachieve in Addazio's first two years on the job, making consecutive bowl games despite massive personnel losses.

Addazio's name has been floated around plenty during silly season, but Eagles fans can at least rest a little bit easier knowing that his rebuilding plan is still on schedule. But clarity throughout ACC regimes remains difficult to find after Wednesday.

Pittsburgh still needs a new athletic director, in addition to a new head coach, and it is unclear which will come first, or the effect one will have on the other. As colleague Andrea Adelson wrote this week, you cannot blame the Panthers for third-year coach Paul Chryst leaving for his dream job, as he went home to Wisconsin. But it is clear now more than ever that the program needs some stability, something Chryst was able to bring to the program after so much turnover.

The Panthers have plenty of young weapons on offense and are in a much better position now than they were when Chryst took over, but the cumulative effect of a fourth coaching search -- and an AD search -- since 2010 cannot be overstated.

Here are the rest of your ACC links:
The most aggressive offense in the ACC in 2014 was Clemson, which might not have been a surprise in 2012 or 2013, but in a year in which there were so many personnel issues for the Tigers’ offense, it’s a bit shocking.

Clemson threw deep (20-plus yards) on 7.46 percent of its total plays, well above the league average of 5.93 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And that was probably not the best idea either, because while Clemson went deep more often than anyone else, the Tigers also averaged the second-fewest yards-per-attempt on those throws (trailing only Syracuse) and nearly 10 yards per attempt less than what Tajh Boyd mustered last year for Clemson. That’s not exactly a recipe for offensive success.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtDeshaun Watson completed nearly 50 percent of his deep balls in 2014 with seven touchdowns and just one interception.
But, of course, personnel had a lot to do with that, and it only goes to show how much a healthy Deshaun Watson affects Clemson’s overall offensive success, because those aggregate numbers hardly tell the whole story.

Watson completed nearly 50 percent of his deep balls in 2014 with seven touchdowns and just one interception. He averaged 15.9 yards per attempt, which would’ve been tops in the ACC if he’d been the only quarterback throwing for the Tigers in 2014. But he wasn’t.

Cole Stoudt and Nick Schuessler completed just 15 percent of their deep balls this season with one TD, two interceptions and a woeful 5.2 yards-per-attempt average. To put that in perspective, if they’d been the only quarterbacks throwing for Clemson this year, the Tigers would’ve been dead last in the league in YPA by nearly four full yards.

That’s just one of the interesting facts we find when we dig into the ACC’s deep-ball numbers for 2014.

A few more, with deep-ball stats courtesy ESPN Stats & Info:

  • No team was worse on the deep ball in the ACC than Syracuse. This is no surprise. The Orange completed just 27.8 percent of its deep balls (worst in the ACC), averaged 9.2 yards per attempt (again, worst), had just two touchdowns (13th) and five interceptions (t-12th). That’s down a bit from last year, but the Orange have struggled on those throws ever since Ryan Nassib left.
  • Perhaps the most improved team on the deep ball this year was Virginia. Last season, the Hoos were just 7-of-50 on throws of 20 yards or more. This year, they more than doubled their deep-ball yards, completion percentage and TD throws.
  • North Carolina had one of the ACC’s most potent offenses, but it wasn’t because of the deep ball. This is one of the reasons Larry Fedora was so high on Mitch Trubisky, but the numbers didn’t back up that confidence. Overall, UNC’s completion percentage of 28 percent on deep balls was third-worst in the league and its 9.93 YPA was fourth worst, but Marquise Williams was far better than his counterpart. Williams wasn’t great (28 percent completions, 12.2 YPA) but Trubisky really struggled (3-of-15 for 100 yards with a pick).
  • Only Wake Forest went deep less often than Pittsburgh (4.28 percent of total plays), which seems a bit odd considering that the Panthers could’ve used play-action well (given the strong running game) and they actually had the highest completion percentage of any ACC team on throws of 20-plus yards (44.4 percent).
  • Florida State was far less successful on the deep ball this year than last, with its completion percentage down (48.8 in 2013 to 35.7 in 2014) and TDs way off (16 last year, nine this). But FSU also threw five fewer interceptions on deep throws this year, and when it did get a completion, it’s YPC was actually improved (40 YPA this year, 32 YPA last year).
  • No team was better on the deep ball than Miami in 2014. Brad Kaaya proved to be an excellent downfield thrower, matched with a good running game and speed at receiver. For the year, Miami completed 41.3 percent of its deep balls (second in ACC), averaged 14.6 yards per attempt (first) and had nine touchdowns on those throws (tied for first). It’s worth noting though that just 12 percent of Miami’s passes in 2014 were 20 yards or more, the third fewest in the league.
  • No team gained a higher percentage of its total offense in 2014 via the deep ball than Louisville (15.9 percent), which is interesting given that DeVante Parker missed seven games and Bobby Petrino cycled through three different quarterbacks. Overall, Louisville’s deep-ball numbers were virtually the same as 2013, in spite of losing its star receiver for more than half the year and a first-round draft pick at quarterback. That’s a real credit to the work Petrino did this season.
  • Not surprisingly, Georgia Tech and Boston College had the highest percentage of their pass attempts be deep balls. Next up though? NC State (17 percent).
  • Virginia Tech wasn’t great on the deep ball (10.5 YPA, four TDs, four INTs), but it was a necessary part of the Hokies’ offense. For the year, 74.1 percent of Tech’s plays of 20-plus yards came on throws of 20-plus yards -- meaning if the Hokies didn’t look deep, they rarely had a shot at a big play. The league average on that stat was 45.6 percent, meaning the rest of the ACC got more than half of its big plays from plays that weren’t deep balls. Virtually all of Virginia Tech’s big-play threat relied on the arm of Michael Brewer. That speaks volumes about the Hokies’ season.

Duke became a winner in tragedy

December, 17, 2014
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DURHAM, N.C. -- On a warm Friday in August, just four days after fall practice opened, Duke coach David Cutcliffe had to prepare yet another one of his men for heartache.

Punter Will Monday would soon learn his mother, Judy, had been hospitalized with a blood clot.

Cutcliffe arranged for team chaplain James Mitchell to drive Monday two hours back home and told Monday he should take all the time away he needed. Monday had no idea how he would ever play football again.

He walked out of Cutcliffe's office and saw roommate Lucas Patrick waiting. Monday dissolved into tears.

"I didn't know what to do," Monday recalled recently.

Patrick knew what to do. He needed to help.

To read the rest of Andrea Adelson's story, click here.
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Duke Blue Devils (9-3) vs. Arizona State Sun Devils (9-3)

Dec. 27, 2 p.m. ET, Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas (CBS)

Key matchup: ASU WR Jaelen Strong vs. Duke secondary

Why it matters: Strong was among the top receivers in the country, and Duke's chances of beating the Sun Devils will hinge largely on containing him. The 6-foot-4, 205-pounder caught 75 passes for 1,062 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Blue Devils, meanwhile were able to build off their 10-win 2013 season thanks in large part to their continued resurgence on defense, which features a deep and talented secondary. They ranked 20th nationally in scoring average (20.6 ppg), and they allow just 6.33 yards per pass attempt, good for 21st nationally. Cornerback Breon Borders was tied for fifth in the ACC with three interceptions, while ball-hawk DeVon Edwards defended 10 passes this season.

Who wins: ASU's motivation level will probably play a big role in this, as the Sun Devils were in the playoff hunt late in the season, and still in the Pac-12 title hunt until losing their finale to rival Arizona. Can they get up for Duke in this game? The Blue Devils, meanwhile, are still looking for a signature win after a 9-3 season that saw them lose fairly convincingly to Miami and North Carolina while dropping a tight contest to Virginia Tech. Still aiming for its first bowl win in 53 years, however, here's guessing Duke comes out fired up and finishes the job, especially after losing a heartbreaker last year to Texas A&M. Duke's offensive line holds off ASU's pressure, Anthony Boone protects the ball and the Blue Devils win, 34-27.

Top sleeper commits: ACC 

December, 15, 2014
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Five-star and ESPN 300 prospects create the most buzz, but with more than a hundred FBS programs competing for talent, it takes more than just those top-rated prospects and rosters are built with mainly prospects that enter college with little fanfare, but their development and contributions are key to a program’s success. Every year we see prospects who flew under the radar, but developed into some of their conference's top players.

Throughout our evaluations we come across many players who show promise and based of their upside for development or scheme fit are great additions.

Here are five unheralded commitments in the ACC worth keeping an eye on.

OG Wyatt Knopfke, Boston College
While Knopfke is an ESPN 300 player, he’s not as well-known as other interior linemen in the rankings. The big man out of Florida is a physical, strong player with the tools to be a good well-rounded player. And while listed at guard, he could be a candidate to develop at center as well. With an Eagles line that was loaded with seniors this season, head Coach Steve Addazio, an O-line coach himself, has a player who can develop into a key contributor in Knopfke.

DE LaSamuel Davis, Clemson
Four-star prospects like OT Zach Giella and athlete Van Smith are talented prospects and still rated highly, but they could be overlooked in a Tigers’ class that features double-digit ESPN 300 prospects. Another prospect in that group is Davis who notched over 100 tackles and 16 sacks this season. A rangy defender with wiry strength, he can use his hands well, flashes a good first-step and displays the tools to at least develop into a productive edge rusher. He needs to work to fill out his frame and be more consistent with his motor, but among this great collection of talent, Davis could emerge in time as a productive defensive contributor.


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ACC's 2015 Heisman hopefuls

December, 15, 2014
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Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy on Saturday, and while the ACC had plenty of impressive performances in 2014, Jameis Winston was the lone representative from the conference to finish in the top 10 in voting.

That could certainly change in 2015, when the ACC has several emerging stars who could contend for the award. Here’s a quick look at the league’s top challengers for the 2015 Heisman Trophy.

(Note: We’re assuming that Winston and Miami’s Duke Johnson won’t return for 2015, but if either does come back, he would immediately jump to the top of our rankings.)

1. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson

If he had stayed healthy all season, Watson might have been a contender for the award as a true freshman. Assuming he can stay on the field in 2015, he looks poised to be the biggest playmaker in the conference for an offense in which he will be surrounded by young talent.

2. Miami QB Brad Kaaya

Kaaya had his ups and downs as a true freshman in 2014, but he showed plenty of poise and was arguably the ACC’s top deep-ball threat. Miami’s offense has plenty of skill-position talent, but Kaaya will need the Hurricanes to finish better than 6-6 if he wants a crack at the Heisman.

3. Florida State RB Dalvin Cook

There will be plenty of enthusiasm surrounding Cook’s sophomore campaign in 2015, and if Florida State makes another run at the playoff, he would likely be in the Heisman conversation. The problem for Cook is that he will likely be starring on an offense forced to replace its top receiver, top tight end, four starting linemen and Heisman-winning quarterback.

[+] EnlargeJames Conner, Detrick Bonner
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsPitt running back James Conner rushed for a school-record 24 touchdowns in 2014.
4. Pittsburgh RB James Conner

Few players in the country carried a heavier share of their team’s offensive load in 2014 than Conner did for Pitt. While he was a bit overshadowed by the Big Ten's top running backs, his 1,675 yards and 24 rushing TDs would have had him in the Heisman Trophy discussion most seasons. He could certainly match or exceed those numbers next year.

5. Georgia Tech QB Justin Thomas

In his first year running Paul Johnson’s offense, Thomas was exceptional, but as the Georgia Tech coach was quick to point out, this could be just the tip of the iceberg. With a year of experience and wider latitude in directing the offense in 2015, Thomas could easily emerge as one of the country’s most explosive offensive threats.

6. North Carolina QB Marquise Williams

Williams’ numbers in 2014 were exceptional, but he was largely overshadowed by UNC’s rocky season defensively. If the Tar Heels can finally emerge into a Coastal contender with Williams leading a high-powered offensive attack, he could emerge as one of the nation’s biggest dual threats at quarterback. His numbers this year were already similar to Dak Prescott, so perhaps 2015 will be Williams’ chance to spend the season getting the Heisman hype.

7. Pittsburgh WR Tyler Boyd

It’s tough for wide receivers to push their way into the Heisman campaign, but Boyd’s numbers in 2014 were exceptional. Whether he can turn in a 2015 season similar to what Alabama’s Amari Cooper did this year depends greatly on whether there is a new coaching regime at Pitt and the progress of Panthers QB Chad Voytik. But Boyd’s talent as a receiver and on special teams certainly will be worth monitoring.

8. Miami RB Joseph Yearby

He played second fiddle to Johnson this year, but it’s easy to see why Miami fans are so excited about the future for Yearby. As a true freshman, he averaged 6.1 yards per carry and 600 yards of total offense. With a starter’s share of the offense next season, Yearby could emerge into an all-purpose star for the Hurricanes.

[+] EnlargeRonald Darby, Jalen Ramsey
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsJalen Ramsey (8) will be a leader on a Florida State defense that might have a little more on its shoulders in 2015.
9. Florida State DB Jalen Ramsey

Defensive players aren’t usually in the Heisman conversation, but with so much turnover expected on FSU’s offense in 2015, it will be up to Ramsey and the defense to keep the Seminoles afloat. Ramsey is already one of the nation’s top defensive backs, and in his third year as a starter, he could easily take the next step into the Heisman Trophy conversation with a few big plays at crucial times -- much as Notre Dame’s Manti Te'o did in 2012.

10. Duke RB Shaun Wilson

Here’s an under-the-radar player to watch as a potential Heisman hopeful in 2015. Wilson wasn’t Duke’s starter this season, but as a true freshman he still led the Blue Devils in rushing (590 yards) and was second in TDs (5) while finishing sixth in the nation in yards per rush (8.0). He could secure the starting job next year on an offense that could be more run-heavy, giving Wilson a chance to rack up huge numbers as one of the league’s most explosive runners.

Others to watch: Boston College RB Jon Hilliman, Louisville RB Brandon Radcliff, NC State QB Jacoby Brissett, Virginia RB Taquan Mizzell

All-ACC team's toughest omissions

December, 12, 2014
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ESPN released its All-ACC team today, and though we certainly won’t expect much sympathy, it’s worth mentioning that putting those lists together is no easy task. This year, in particular, there were so many strong performances around the ACC that narrowing down the top guards, linebackers, defensive ends -- even the quarterback -- was an arduous task destined to leave some deserving players off the final list.

But since we don’t want to ignore those near-misses entirely, here is a quick look at some of the toughest decisions we had to make for this year’s All-ACC team.

Quarterback: The bottom line is that there is no better player in the conference than Jameis Winston when he’s on, but unlike last season, he had his share of struggles, too. Meanwhile, Marquise Williams emerged as a tremendous dual threat for UNC, helping to overcome a lot of the Tar Heels’ defensive struggles with some huge performances on offense, and Justin Thomas injected new life into Paul Johnson’s old option offense at Georgia Tech. Both Thomas and Williams were deserving candidates for first team — and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson would have been, too, if he had stayed healthy all season. Overall, it was a stellar year for quarterback play in the ACC.

Offensive guard: The problem with debating the merits of offensive linemen is that there aren’t many stats to use to break a tie, and when it came to our top three choices at guard -- Laken Tomlinson, Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson -- there was ample debate. In the end, we went with the first two, but Jackson’s contributions -- particularly with the revolving door at center for FSU this season -- shouldn’t go unnoticed. He might have been the Seminoles’ best offensive lineman.

Tight end: In the end, numbers set Clive Walford apart here. He led all ACC tight ends in yards, touchdowns, first downs, yards-per-catch and receptions per game while working with a true freshman quarterback. Still, it’s hard to ignore Nick O'Leary’s fine season (plus bonus points for taking on a bus and winning). Bucky Hodges, Gerald Christian, David Grinnage and Cam Serigne all had fine seasons as well.

Defensive end: OK, we cheated here. Vic Beasley was the obvious choice, but for the opposite side of the line, the debate between Dadi Nicolas and Mario Edwards Jr. was intense, with viable arguments made for both players. Edwards was a crucial cog on FSU’s defense, one of the most dynamic mixes of size and speed in college football. Nicolas was a force throughout the season and stepped up when interior lineman Luther Maddy went down with an injury. In the end, we followed the playoff selection committee’s precedent and avoided the tough question altogether by making our defense a 3-4 unit instead. Sorry, Dadi and Mario -- but now you know how Baylor and TCU feel.

Linebacker: There probably isn’t a more stacked position in the ACC than linebacker. Denzel Perryman and Stephone Anthony were exceptional. David Helton led the ACC in tackles. Lorenzo Mauldin was the most dynamic pass-rusher on Louisville’s stout defense. They all made the cut, but it meant a host of deserving options were left out, including BC’s Josh Keyes, Virginia’s Max Valles and Henry Coley, Syracuse’s Cameron Lynch and Georgia Tech’s Paul Davis.

ESPN.com's All-ACC team

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
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Presenting the 2014 ESPN.com All-ACC team:

Offense

WR Rashad Greene, Florida State: Whenever FSU was in trouble, Greene was there to save the day. He made big catch after big catch, took big hit after big hit, and ended the season with 93 catches for 1,306 yards, helping him break both FSU's records for receptions and receiving yards.

WR DeVante Parker, Louisville: The senior caught 35 passes for 735 yards and five touchdowns, the latter two numbers among the top 10 in the ACC. Oh, did we mention he missed the first seven games?

TE Clive Walford, Miami: Was there a more complete tight end in the country? The numbers say there might not be: 44 catches (third nationally), 676 yards (third), 7 TDs (third nationally). Walford did this all with a true freshman QB, too.

OT Cameron Erving, Florida State: Erving repeated as the ACC's blocking trophy winner, moving from left tackle to center in Game No. 10 this season and staying there, further showing his value to a unit that had dealt with interior injuries but came on strong late to help running back Dalvin Cook bloom into one of the country's finest freshmen.

OT T.J. Clemmings, Pittsburgh: Clemmings ought to get at least a piece of James Conner's player of the year trophy. The converted defensive end was among the nation's most improved players, starting every game for the second season in a row while using his athleticism to ace a position switch he had resisted earlier in his career.

C Andy Gallik, Boston College: BC lost a Heisman finalist at running back and actually improved its rushing totals this season. A dual-threat QB explains part of that, but so, too, does a powerful offensive line, led by Gallik in the middle, who helped pave the way for the league's No. 2 rushing attack.

OG Shaquille Mason, Georgia Tech: The only ACC team that rushed for more than BC? The only one that kept its QB unscathed more than Duke? The Yellow Jackets are the answer to both, with Mason captaining an oft-overlooked unit that was absolutely integral to the program's resurgence this season while running its famed triple-option attack.

OG Laken Tomlinson, Duke: The future pro turned in his best season yet, helping a Blue Devils offensive line that anchored a balanced offensive attack and kept QB Anthony Boone upright all season long, as Duke surrendered just 13 sacks, tied for 11th-best nationally.

QB Jameis Winston, Florida State: The reigning Heisman winner was not as sharp as last season, but he once again put up big numbers (3,559 yards, 24 TDs) while leading FSU to another perfect mark. Winston is 26-0 for his career as a starter. You simply cannot beat that.

RB James Conner, Pitt: The ACC player of the year rewrote the Pitt record books -- no easy feat for a place that boasts names like Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin and LeSean McCoy. Conner rushed for 1,675 yards and 24 TDs, responding to each defense's best shot game after game.

RB Duke Johnson, Miami: Like Conner, Johnson set himself above his peers at a program that has produced plenty of great running backs. Coming off an injury-shortened 2013 season, the junior ran for 1,520 yards and 13 TDs, becoming Miami's all-time leading rusher and its career leader in all-purpose yards.

Defense

DE Vic Beasley, Clemson: The ACC's defensive player of the year has seen his decision to return for his senior season pay off, as Beasley led the ACC in sacks (11) and tackles for loss (18.5) while making Clemson's defense the top-ranked unit nationally.

DT Eddie Goldman, Florida State: Who can forget Goldman forcing a Clemson fumble late to keep FSU's perfect season alive? The junior was in the right place at the right time often, a versatile threat who moved back inside this season after playing end. He dominated the line of scrimmage, and one just needs to look at how FSU fared without Goldman -- giving up 331 rushing yards to Georgia Tech as he went down early -- to see his value.

DT Grady Jarrett, Clemson: Ends might get all the stats and glory, but Jarrett's impact on offenses might have been as big as Beasley's, as he helped form arguably the top defensive line in the country. Jarrett had 6.5 TFLs and 11 QB hurries, freeing up those around him and making running the ball next to impossible down the stretch for opponents.

LB David Helton, Duke: The senior led the ACC in tackles (125) and ranked 11th nationally. Helton helped Duke overcome the preseason loss of linebacker Kelby Brown and led a unit that continued its ascension under coordinator Jim Knowles, finishing fifth in the ACC in scoring average (20.6 ppg), and 20th nationally.

LB Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville: A step-up in competition for Mauldin and the Cardinals meant even better results, as the hybrid notched a career-best 45 tackles and led the team in tackles for loss (13), while notching 6.5 sacks. Louisville's defense was one of the most surprising units in the country this season in its first year under coordinator Todd Grantham, ranking No. 6 nationally.

LB Stephone Anthony, Clemson: The leading tackler (73) on the nation's top defense, Anthony impacted games in a number of ways for the Tigers, making 9.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage while forcing two fumbles and picking off one pass.

LB Denzel Perryman, Miami: The senior led the Hurricanes in virtually ever major category: Tackles (102), TFLs (8.5) and forced fumbles (3) among them. He validated his decision to return after last season, recording yet another 100-tackle season and making his case as perhaps the top linebacker in the ACC.

S Gerod Holliman, Louisville: Fourteen interceptions. Fourteen! What more needs to be said? Holliman broke the ACC record and tied the NCAA mark. He had four multi-pick games, including a three-pick performance at BC. And he did this all after transitioning from corner to safety under Grantham's tutelage.

S Jalen Ramsey, Florida State: The sophomore made big play after big play, giving FSU's D an edge at the star position. He clinched the Miami game with a late pick and had two on the season to go with two forced fumbles, 11 break-ups, 13 passes defended and 9.5 TFLs. He blocked a kick, too.

CB Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech: The last in line of the storied Fuller family to come through Blacksburg, the sophomore showed plenty of the same NFL promise that has guided his older brothers. One of only a handful of Hokies to start every game, Fuller finished second in the ACC in passes defended (15), recorded 4.5 TFLs and recovered one fumble.

CB Garry Peters, Clemson: As overlooked as one can be on a defense loaded with stars, Peters quietly executed his job to a T, picking off one pass, breaking up 11 and defending 12. He forced a fumble and managed eight TFLs as well on a pass defense that ranked No. 3 nationally.

Special teams

K Roberto Aguayo, Florida State: Just another year at the office for Aguayo: 25-of-27 on field-goal attempts, perfect on extra points and a number of crucial kicks, which wasn't always required last year when he first stepped into the national spotlight. Aguayo is a whopping 46-of-49 for his career on field-goal attempts.

P Will Monday, Duke: Monday averaged 43.4 yards per punt, with 12 of his boots going for 50 or more yards. Eight of his punts were touchbacks, 19 were fair caught and 17 were inside the 20-yard line.

KR DeVon Edwards, Duke: Edwards averaged 25.4 yards per kick return, including a 99-yard touchdown in a high-scoring affair at Pitt, which the Blue Devils ended up winning in OT.

AP Tyler Boyd, Pitt: Boyd was a jack-of-all trades for Pitt, catching 69 passes for 1,149 yards and eight touchdowns. He was also the ACC's top punt returner, averaging 10.8 yards per return, which ranked 15th nationally.

ACC morning links

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
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Thursday brought news on two ACC quarterbacks, as former Miami signal-caller Kevin Olsen announced that he has found a new home while Syracuse's Mitch Kimble said that he is seeking a transfer.

Olsen, who posted the news on Instagram, will be hoping for a fresh start at Towson after a brief Hurricanes tenure that went about as poorly it possibly could have. The former four-star recruit and brother of ex-Miami star TE Greg Olsen had several run-ins with the law and eventually left school this past September. He would be eligible to play for the FCS Tigers in 2015. Here's hoping he is able to turn things around off the field and resurrect his promising career.

Kimble, meanwhile, will likely be taking the FCS route as well. The redshirt freshman told Syracuse.com's Nate Mink that Illinois State, Eastern Illinois and Western Illinois are among the schools he is considering. Kimble had entered the season as the Orange's No. 4 signal-caller and saw limited time with the rest of the reserves after Terrel Hunt went down for the season in October.

Kimble is a Jerseyville, Illinois, native, which would help explain some of the programs he is looking at.

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