ACC: Florida State

ACC mailblog

December, 19, 2014
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Only a few more days until the bowls begin!

Eric from Atlanta writes: Jimbo Fisher made a huge mistake in not snagging Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator, not only by failing to upgrade Florida State's defense but by letting him go 200 miles up the road to Auburn to pair up with Gus Malzahn's offense. This will haunt FSU in both recruiting and performance. Agree/disagree?

Jared Shanker writes: I would disagree. There are few defensive coordinators out there better than Muschamp, but Charles Kelly has not even finished his first season as the Seminoles’ defensive coordinator. Did I miss something or is Florida State not 30th in scoring and 52nd in total defense? Obviously, the defensive numbers aren’t as good as recent seasons, but there also isn’t the same amount of talent and depth as recent years. Kelly’s defenses have struggled at times, especially in early games, but they have answered the bell in crucial moments.

Kelly has earned praise from previous coaches he has worked under for his recruiting ability, too. It’s not as if the Seminoles are struggling on the recruiting trail either.

Also, the Seminoles are in the middle of a playoff race. It’s probably not the best idea to start making or planning personnel changes with the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual a few weeks away.

Last, all of this is contingent on Muschamp even wanting to come to Tallahassee over the number of SEC schools that courted him.

Chris from Atlanta writes: I think it is kind of funny how everyone is making a big deal about the controversy this year. Let’s go ahead and imagine what would have happened this year if we still had the BCS system. You have a one-loss SEC team who you have to assume would make it in. Then you have a one-loss Oregon team and an undefeated Florida State team. There IS NOT a correct choice. If they pick Florida State the country erupts in one giant roar about how a team that barely beat Boston College and Florida was in the championship game. If they pick Oregon (I don't think it would happen) then you’re leaving out an undefeated team over two 1-loss teams. That would cause even more chaos. I think fans should be grateful that we got to see the four best teams in football all make the playoffs.

Shanker: If this was the BCS system, Florida State would likely be No. 1. I understand the projected BCS rankings have the Seminoles second, but I think the College Football Playoff has influenced the pollsters and the Seminoles aren’t earning as many first-place votes as they would have under the old polling system. There would be a little controversy, in my opinion, about who would go between Alabama and Oregon, but I’d believe Alabama would get the nod and there wouldn’t be a huge uproar about it since the Ducks lost at home. I agree with your overall statement that this system -- at least the part where four teams play it out on the field -- is better than the old and we’re set up for a wild ride beginning on New Year’s Day.

Eric from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, writes: I'm just wondering what makes Oregon so great? All I hear from the media to fans to Vegas is that Oregon is going to dominate FSU. The general consensus is that FSU is the team that all the other teams wanted to play as that would be the easiest game. FSU is faster and outweighs the toughest defense that Oregon has played all season. That weight and speed disparity never gets mentioned. FSU has played many defenses similar to Oregon's and beat far tougher. People talk about the schedule that Oregon played, but I don't see it. FSU has overcome far greater injuries that cost Oregon in the loss column. If FSU had lost a game because of those injuries they would not be afforded excuses that Oregon gets. Tell me what makes Oregon better than FSU?

Shanker: I don’t expect Oregon to dominate Florida State, and if I was a betting man taking Florida State and the nine points would look pretty good. I did pick Oregon to win the game but think it will be very close. Stanford has one of the country’s best defenses and, although the Cardinal struggled this season, they are a better defense than Florida State’s. I also think Florida State’s schedule is much better than some people give it credit for. Florida, Notre Dame and Oklahoma State were not as strong as they normally are, but the Seminoles still had three Power 5 teams on their nonconference schedule and those teams are capable of combining for 30 wins in any given season. I don’t know if Florida State has overcome more significant injuries than the Ducks have, but the Noles would not get the luxury of a pass if they lost partially because of an injury. Ultimately, I think Oregon wins because the Ducks will have success running the football and it will continue into the second half. I think Florida State’s slow starts will finally catch up to them. But I make that pick knowing full well there’s a really good chance the Seminoles will make me look foolish.
Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual: No. 3 Florida State (13-0) vs. No. 2 Oregon (12-1)

Jan. 1, 5 p.m. ET, Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California (ESPN)

Key matchup: Oregon RB Royce Freeman vs. Florida State RB Dalvin Cook

Why it matters: The battle between the two most recent Heisman Trophy winners will generate the most headlines, but one of the defining factors of this game will be which freshman running back has a better afternoon. Both first-year players are hitting their stride at the perfect time; it’s imperative for teams to run the football well late in the season. Freeman has toppled the 100-yard mark in six of his last eight games, and he ran for 98 and 99 in those other two performances. Cook has ran for 321 yards over his last two games and was named the MVP of the ACC championship game for his 31-carry, 177-yard effort. Adding to the intrigue of this matchup is the difference in running styles. Freeman tips the scales at 229 pounds and sends would-be tacklers tumbling backward. Cook runs through tackles, too, but he also embarrasses defenders with his nifty footwork.

Who wins: The winner of this matchup could determine the winner of the game. It would not be a shock to see both teams light up the scoreboard in the first half, but eventually the running games will need to take control for Oregon or Florida State to win. Florida State (60th nationally) and Oregon (50th) are essentially equally average against the run, so it’s not as if one running back will have a significantly easier afternoon against a porous defense. What could help Freeman is the running threat of Marcus Mariota on option plays. The Ducks will look to put pressure on the Seminoles’ defensive line with the read option, forcing it to make a decision to take away either Marcus Mariota or Freeman. IF the unit makes the wrong decision it could lead to big gains for the Ducks. Freeman will have a productive day and cross the 100-yard threshold in a 35-34 Oregon win.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The Florida State offensive line wasn’t scaring defensive coordinators through the first month of the season. A unit hailed as the country’s best during the preseason had struggled clearing space for a rushing attack that ranked 103rd at the end of September.

Four games ago, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher made a bold switch along the offensive line in the midst of an undefeated season. Before the Nov. 15 game against Miami, just as starting center Austin Barron was cleared to play after fracturing his forearm back in early October, Fisher moved all-conference performer Cam Erving from left tackle to center. That meant true freshman Roderick Johnson was being inserted at left tackle, the position responsible for Jameis Winston’s blind side.

Fisher’s roll of the dice worked. The Seminoles are averaging 146 yards rushing over their past four games -- not a sizable difference -- but they are averaging 4.8 yards per carry. They averaged less than four yards per rush in September. And in the ACC title game, FSU averaged 5.42 yards per rush, a stat that helped carry them to the No. 3 playoff seed and a date against No. 2 Oregon in the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Orlando Sentinel via Getty ImagesFlorida State's offensive line has improved since a bold late-season move by coach Jimbo Fisher.
With this new starting five, Florida State might as well be Wisconsin South. Both Florida State and Wisconsin, whose offensive line’s girth is annually celebrated, have a starting five that averages 6-foot-5 along the line. The Seminoles’ combined weight across the group is actually greater than Wisconsin’s, and Florida State still has athleticism along the unit, too.

"We got great size," said Josue Matias, who is the link between Johnson and Erving at left guard. "We got intimidation off the bus. It just has a different attitude."

As early as this spring, Erving was being groomed as a potential center. Fisher originally said it was strictly for emergencies that Erving would play center, but as the 6-foot-7, 330-pound Johnson continued to hold his own in fall practice against a talented FSU defensive line, Fisher felt at some point during the season he would be able to move Erving to center.

At 308 pounds, Erving is the smallest player on the line, but he’s also maybe the most athletic. As the offensive line anchor, Erving has been effective firing off as a run blocker, but also when he’s pulling.

"Athletically you can see our difference, and in height and weight and you don’t really drop off with Rod at left tackle," right tackle Bobby Hart said.

Erving, one of the team leaders, praised the effort of Barron and fellow center Ryan Hoefeld, but he said the chemistry of this starting five just seems to be better.

"It’s all about chemistry on the offensive line," Erving said. "You got to know what each other is thinking and how you’re going to do each block. The chemistry is coming together better."

Through the first nine games, despite Florida State winning them all, there were legitimate questions as to whether the Seminoles could win a second straight national title without an effective running game. And the offensive line had struggled to protect Winston at times. The new structure of the offensive line potentially returns Florida State to its perch among football’s most talented groups as it hits its stride.

The lack of an effective run game and inconsistent offensive line play put the offense, and specifically Winston, in a weekly bind. Winston was forced to shoulder too much of the offense. Winston averaged 38.5 passing attempts per game in October. That number has dropped to 32 over the past four games.

"We’ve taken on a new identity," Erving said.

With the playoffs only two weeks away, the shift has come at the perfect time.

ACC morning links

December, 18, 2014
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Pitt must try and replace Paul Chryst without an athletic director.

Maybe that is not such a bad idea.

While it is true outgoing AD Steve Pederson helped usher Pitt into the ACC, it also is true he had an uneven track record when it came to hiring football coaches. Though Chryst's departure for Wisconsin after three years on the job cannot be placed on Pederson's shoulders, the next hire Pitt makes will be absolutely crucial for the program. Pitt cannot swing and miss on this hire the way Pederson did with Todd Graham and Mike Haywood, the two men brought in after he fired Dave Wannstedt.

Bill Fralic, a Pitt All-American lineman, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review of Pederson:

"He could not hire a good football coach. And he fired a loyal Pitt guy who averaged nine wins his last three years, and they haven't come close to that since. He meddled with everything. He was a control freak. Hopefully, we can recover from what he's done there."


Pitt is ready to win right now. It must hire a coach who can take what Chryst did and run with it. Make no mistake -- Pitt must hire a coach who will continue on with the blue-collar tradition Pitt fans have come to expect. All the high-octane mumbo jumbo Graham sold in the one year he was in Pittsburgh is just not going to fly. An offense predicated on a strong run game must remain a priority.

Many have already laid out their lists of potential candidates. Greg Schiano and Pat Narduzzi are among the two most intriguing names. They both have recruiting ties to the area, and both would presumably emphasize a power-run game. Double plus right there. Returning running back James Conner has the potential to be a 2,000-yard rusher with the right coach calling the plays.

Having been burned so many times in the recent past, Pitt would obviously be looking for a coach to put down roots in Pittsburgh for the long-term. Whether Pitt is that type of job may be in the eye of the beholder. In any case, Pitt should not concern itself with that idea right now.

It should hire the best available coach, plain and simple. Several outlets reported that Pederson had made contact with Schiano before being removed as AD. Though Pederson is gone, Schiano should remain on the list. At least he has proven he can win on the collegiate level, though he did fail to deliver in the clutch several times at Rutgers.

It is safe to say Pitt is brimming with potential. That is why this hire has to be the right hire. Pitt cannot afford to take any more steps backward.

Here are a few more links to start your morning:

A week later, I still have a hard time understanding how Roberto Aguayo did not win the Lou Groza Award. Now, more puzzlement: the FWAA All-America team does not have Aguayo on it, either. None of this is meant to take away from the year Brad Craddock had at Maryland. He was terrific, too. But there is no real doubt Aguyao is the hands down best kicker in the country, is there?
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.

ACC morning links

December, 17, 2014
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The public and awkward tango Paul Chryst, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh have been dancing -- made all the more uncomfortable after the music stopped playing last week and left them in the middle of the circle -- looks to be over.

Chryst appears set to be named as the Badgers’ next coach, according to Benjamin Worgull of BadgerNation.com.

The Madison, Wisconsin, native and former Badgers player and assistant was the focus of Badgers athletic director Barry Alvarez’s search and was identified as the likely successor to Gary Andersen a week ago. However, Wisconsin state law prevents Alvarez from making a hire until Wednesday, which left Chryst and Pittsburgh in limbo for the last few days.

Considering how the situation has played out, Chryst leaving for Wisconsin is best for all parties. His desire was to go to Wisconsin, and, with all of his ties to the university, it’s hard to blame Chryst for wanting to return. Chryst seemed to handle the situation with class, fulfilling his duties as Pitt’s coach as best he could, conducting bowl practices and recruiting visits. Reports suggest Chryst was upfront with administration and his players over the last few days about his interest in the Wisconsin job.

Pitt was in a tough situation, too, knowing it needed a resolution but also aware it would be unwise to unload Chryst financially. There is no concrete figure being reported, but it is likely Chryst has a buyout that will be owed to Pitt now that it’s only a matter of some red tape before becoming Wisconsin coach.

The Panthers were 19-19 under Chryst and underachieved in 2014, but he laid a foundation during his three years. Offensively, the new staff will inherit running back James Conner and receiver Tyler Boyd, who are two of the best players at their position in the country. Both were named to the ESPN.com All-ACC team last week. The offensive line will also return three starters that average 6-foot-5 and 313 pounds.

Colleague Travis Haney offered up a few names that Pitt AD Steve Pedersen could call upon for an interview, and Pedersen has been proactive despite Chryst still not officially being named Wisconsin’s coach. Sam Werner of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports Pitt has contacted former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano.

Hopefully, the new Pitt coach can hit the ground running and bring some stability to a program that has had a revolving door at coach since the end of the 2010 season. With the right hire, Pitt can possibly make a run at the Coastal Division crown in 2015 as the schedule is far from daunting. The Panthers avoid Florida State and Clemson, instead getting Syracuse and Virginia (and Louisville) from the Atlantic. Syracuse and Virginia failed to reach bowl eligibility this fall.

Here’s a few more links for your Wednesday.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- About five hours after Florida State won the final championship of the BCS era, hot off the presses from the Associated Press was a game recap that already called for the Seminoles to compete for the first championship of the playoff era that officially dawned Jan. 7.

The AP was a little late.

Las Vegas already labeled the Seminoles as favorites (11/2 odds) to win consecutive titles and ESPN.com had Florida State perched atop the Way-Too-Early Top 25 before the team retreated to the locker room to celebrate.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images"It was good to give the guys a week off mentally and physically and they needed it after a long season," Jimbo Fisher said of his Seminoles.
Just weeks from the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year’s Day, the Seminoles are where most people expected when 2014 predictions began emanating from Southern California shortly after 9 p.m. local time on Jan. 6. Florida State will play Oregon on the same Rose Bowl field with a bid to the national title game on the line.

But the Seminoles are traveling to the West Coast ranked third. And Vegas believes Florida State needs to be spotted a touchdown just to make the game interesting. In fact, some folks out in the desert suggest Florida State would be an underdog to more than a half-dozen teams on a neutral field.

“Probably so,” Florida State linebacker Reggie Northrup said when asked if he felt the Seminoles are viewed as the weakest link among the other playoff teams Alabama, Oregon and Ohio State.

The story of the preseason darling falling out of favor is not penned exclusively for the 2014 Seminoles. A preseason No. 1 hasn’t played for a national title since Ohio State in 2006.

It’s not often college football minds fall out of love with a preseason No. 1 that is undefeated, though. The 13-0 Seminoles haven’t lost a game but were never ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff Committee Rankings and fell to fourth in the penultimate release.

Expectations for this team over the course of the last four months have changed drastically, from the preferred championship pick to maybe a peripheral contender.

With Alabama sitting in its reserved No. 1 seat and No. 2 Oregon’s quarterback in the award circuit’s spotlight, Florida State is enjoying its first few moments to catch its breath off camera.

“I knew it’d be hard but I didn’t know it’d be this hard,” sophomore Nate Andrews said of the pressure to repeat. “Every week we had to play our hearts out.”

Northrup, who leads the team in tackles, said the pressure is off the Seminoles now that the regular season is over and they’re not looked at as the playoff favorites.

“With No. 1, you have that pressure and you’re a target,” he said. “I feel like there’s no pressure on us. We can just focus and prepare for this game.”

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher was happy with the focus his team showed Sunday in its first bowl practice. Following the ACC championship, Fisher and his assistants scattered across the country to recruit, and players spent last week focusing on finals. Some players went back home. Fisher asked his team to take a break from football after a season that both physically and emotionally taxed Florida State.

“The pressures of winning and being a champion and doing all those things. I mean, sometimes you just got to get away from it,” he said. “You got to walk away, mentally. You got to clear your mind and get a fresh mind.

“... It was good to give the guys a week off mentally and physically and they needed it after a long season.”

New expectations are the season won’t last much longer.

Play that changed the ACC race

December, 16, 2014
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It was the scene every Florida State fan feared. Sean Maguire, still in the game in the fourth quarter because of a second suspension handed down to Jameis Winston less than a day before the game, was walking off the field having seemingly cost the Seminoles a chance at consecutive national titles.

With a little more than two minutes left in a tied game, Maguire threw an interception on the Seminoles' side of the field. Clemson began what it hoped would be the game's final drive at the FSU 26-yard line with 2:14 remaining. A win would give the Tigers a vise grip on the Atlantic Division title.

The Seminoles still had all three timeouts, though, and Clemson kicker Ammon Lakip missed field goals of 23 and 40 yards earlier in the game. The Tigers couldn’t just sit on the ball and hand it off to Lakip for an easy go-ahead kick. So the Tigers ran quarterback Deshaun Watson on first down before handing the ball to C.J. Davidson on second-and-short.

The offensive line paved a nice hole for Davidson, who looked as if he might be able to take the ball the final 18 yards. However, Seminoles defensive tackle Eddie Goldman got his big left paw on Davidson and the football and ripped the ball loose as he took Davidson to the ground. Nate Andrews was there to dive on the ball and push the game to a fifth quarter.

video

The play, pure and simple, is the epitome of “Clemsoning.” In about a five-second span, that play sums up all that "Clemsoning" is and is potentially the defining "Clemsoning" moment considering it happened in a game with so many Tigers miscues that it generated this headline from The Washington Post.

Despite all the missed field goals and bad snaps, the Tigers were in the red zone with time winding down. Any score would have given Clemson the lead and forced the Seminoles to drive the field with Winston relegated to the sideline in jeans and a baseball cap. For Clemson fans, it might have been a satisfactory resolution for what happened in Death Valley in 2013.

If the remaining results of the 2014 ACC schedule held, the Seminoles would have been shut out of the conference championship game and the playoff. Clemson would possibly be playing in its third Orange Bowl in the last four seasons.

Instead, Florida State kept winning games in similar fashion and is on the cusp of having a 30-game winning streak.

ACC morning links: Tech's pass rush

December, 16, 2014
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If Georgia Tech is going to win the Orange Bowl, it's going to have to have a much better game up front on defense than it did in the ACC Championship.

The Dispatch takes a look at the battles along the line of scrimmage in the Orange Bowl and notes that Dak Prescott is more than capable of having a huge game if his offensive line handles Tech's D-line.

Tech got virtually no pass rush against Florida State in the ACC title game, and Jameis Winston used that cozy pocket to pick apart the Yellow Jackets' pass rush while tailback Dalvin Cook racked up one big run after another.

The lack of a serious pass rush was an ongoing problem for Georgia Tech -- despite KeShun Freeman's spot on ESPN's Freshman All-America team. Against Power 5 opponents, Tech had a sack rate of just 4.1 percent -- the eighth-worst of any Power 5 team. And those numbers made a big difference.

This season, Tech had six games in which it recorded at least two sacks. It was 6-0 in those games and opposing quarterbacks completed 58 percent of their throws with six touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The defense allowed an average of 18 points per game.

In the seven games in which Tech had zero or one sack, the Yellow Jackets were 4-3 and the opposing QBs completed 67 percent of their throws with 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. Tech's D surrendered an average of 31 points per game in those contests.

There could be some potentially good news on that front for Georgia Tech as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution says Jabari Hunt-Days could potentially return to action after sitting out the fall semester for academic reasons.

Regardless of Hunt-Days' status, however, Prescott figures to be a formidable foe and Josh Robinson adds some extra punch to the Mississippi State ground game. How well Tech can disrupt the Bulldogs' backfield may well tell the story of whether it takes home a win in Miami.

A few more links:

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

ACC morning links: Miami goes young

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
8:00
AM ET
It’s not exactly a great time to be a Miami fan right now. The 6-6 finish for a team with loads of talent was disappointing, to say the least. Saturday’s broadcast of “The U Part 2” only underscored how far Miami is from its glory years. Duke Johnson and Denzel Perryman, the heart and soul of the current Canes’ roster, both figure to be gone after the bowl game.

So what’s left to boost the optimism around Coral Gables?

Well, according to the Sun-Sentinel, Al Golden is giving plenty of practice reps to the young players in preparation for Miami’s Duck Commander Independence Bowl date with South Carolina, and that’s probably a good step in the right direction.

There will be plenty of turnover at Miami after the season, and as much as Johnson says he’s still undecided on the NFL, it certainly feels like these practices are the beginning of the Canes turning the page.

"It was very important to us," freshman tailback Joseph Yearby told the Sun-Sentinel. "The veteran guys were sitting back, watching and coaching us so the younger guys could get their feet wet and be prepared for next year."

And for a 6-6 team that wrapped up the year with some serious questions about its motivation, that’s a good attitude to have.

If Johnson does depart, Miami will lose its top rusher, leading receiver (Phillip Dorsett), star tight end (Clive Walford), top tackler (Perryman) and leader in sacks (Thurston Armbrister). But Yearby and Gus Edwards, Jermaine Grace and Braxton Berrios, Stacy Coley and Brad Kaaya all will be back, giving an injection of new blood to a program that is probably much better off looking to the future than the past right now.

A few more links:

ACC mailblog

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
4:00
PM ET
Mailbag is back!

Eric in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., writes: Does the selection committee have it out for FSU and the ACC? FSU was ranked fourth the previous week, so why not just leave FSU in that spot? By moving FSU up a spot it seems the selection committee is trying to make it hard as possible on FSU and its fans. Playing in the Sugar Bowl would have been a neutral site game for FSU, but the Rose Bowl is giving Oregon a home game vs. FSU. FSU wins the positional matchups against Oregon and Oregon isn't as good as Alabama, but the travel is much tougher. The fans can't reasonably be asked to go to both the Rose Bowl and Dallas. Fans are going to have to choose between one or the other and Dallas is both cheaper and the championship game. When it comes to the ACC itself it smells fishy that the selection committee can reasonably justify jumping an idle Mississippi State team over an idle Michigan State team. Mississippi State had the most impressive idle week ever. That cost the ACC the Citrus Bowl, so that had to be intentional on the part of the committee.

Andrea Adelson writes: Conspiracy theorists are out in full force, aren't they? From my perspective, I believe Florida State should have been given the opportunity to play in New Orleans, as the only team, with an unbeaten record. The selection committee has tried to justify its ranking because Florida State has not passed "eye tests" or had much "game control" but I still cannot understand how a team that won all its games is ranked No. 3. It certainly feels like a shot fired at the ACC. As for Mississippi State, I have seen many suggest that move was made to help the Big Ten fill its entire bowl allotment (voila! It did). But one person I spoke to in the ACC office said it would be hard to believe the committee concerned itself with another conference's bowl ties beyond the New Year's Six games. It all is quite interesting, isn't it?


Matthew Gann in Washington, D.C., writes: I was wondering if anyone asked the CFP Committee why Mississippi State found themselves ranked ahead of Michigan State in the latest rankings. Neither team played a game. Did they just change their minds in 5 days? Was it a geographical decision, seeing as Mississippi State will go to Miami instead of Michigan State? Whatever the reason is, I'd like to know.

Adelson writes: The committee wants to remind everybody that it starts with a clean slate each and every week, and does not use its previous rankings as a starting point. So forget about the rankings from last week. In looking at Mississippi State and Michigan State without a ranking attached, the committee believed the Bulldogs have a better body of work. Michigan State essentially lost to the only two good teams it played, against Oregon and Ohio State. Though Mississippi State ended the season with losses in two of its final three games, the Bulldogs also had more quality wins, against Auburn and LSU. So that was their rational. And that is why these weekly rankings served to confuse us all.


Jon in Atlanta writes: Do you think that Winston's off the field issues is what kept him out of the voting for the Heisman? also ... Do you think GT is getting a little disrespected as a 7 point underdog?

Adelson writes: I think there are a variety of reasons. I do think off-the-field issues played a role. I do think winning last year played a role as well. But I think above all, Jameis Winston was not nearly as good this season as he was last season, nor was he as good as Marcus Mariota. It is tough to invite a quarterback with 17 interceptions to New York, especially when he only has 24 touchdown passes. His completion percentage also is down, and so are his passing yards. Though we all know how Winston has performed in the clutch, he did not consistently perform well all season.


Smittyknows1961 in Milledgeville, Ga., writes: Under the current Playoff format, Mark Richt, although he has the highest integrity of all college football coaches, will need to take his foot off the break and slobber clobber every team we play from here on out. That is the message this playoff selection committee is sending. Style over what was once good old fashioned football. The bling is the thing now. I say screw the bling and go to 16 teams down to 8 down to 4 down to 1. You're going to have cut out the patsy teams on your schedule and schedule higher ranked schools. All these years of helping those lesser schools athletics departments out with payout checks on Saturdays comes to a screeching halt. If the big schools want to help the smaller schools out with a paycheck - then let all the big boys donate funds into an escrow account during the year from each game played. If you got to be out for blood!, then let the blood flow. The game is not what it used to be. There could be a bye week system built into a format that includes more teams. The 16 team format gives Baylor and TCU of this year an opportunity for what their players worked so hard for -- a chance to relish a championship!

Adelson writes: Not just Richt. Jimbo Fisher has never been somebody to run up the score, and he reiterated this season he refuses to do so. But he had opportunities to ratchet up the score in several of the "close" games this season. What if the Virginia win goes from 14 points to 21? Does that make a difference? As for going to 16 teams, I cannot see programs eliminating cupcake games. The financials are not only important for the teams they are bringing in, but for the schools hosting, because home games generate good money. And athletic directors don't want to kill their players with impossible schedules. I know the game is radically different, but these are still college students (I know that sounds ridiculous in the face of so much money changing hands with the current playoff structure). The 16 teams would also force teams to play way too many games. I already think this format, with all 4 playoff teams potentially playing 15, is an enormous stress on the players being asked to perform at a high level over such a long season. I know the selection did not work out smoothly this season, but let's see how four works out first.


Martin Lisius writes: Hi Andrea. I have a solution to determine a national champion among the 6 top college football teams. 1. Name only the top two teams. 2. Tell the remaining 4 they are all worthy but only two more spots remain and ask those schools if they would consider an impromptu set of games at a neutral site one week prior to the semifinals. They will accept. This is brilliant because it allows 4 high quality candidates to have a chance to prove themselves on the field. This will make pretty much everyone happy and would be the right thing to do. I'm pretty certain the committee has the authority to do this if the schools agree as this new playoff thing is a work in progress. I think not doing this would be irresponsible.

Adelson writes: Well the current contract only calls for four teams over a 12-year period. The format you suggest essentially would give the top 2 teams a first-round bye, correct? As I mentioned above, I am not sure playing more games is the answer. Under the BCS, several qualified teams got left out of the national championship game. This is not really unprecedented, but with more opportunities and now a selection committee comes much more controversy.

All-ACC team's toughest omissions

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
10:30
AM ET
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.
Without question, the ACC upgraded its bowl lineup. There are way better matchups across the board; way better conference opponents across the board; way more reason for excitement across the board.

The opportunity is there for this league to make a collective statement.

Now is not the time to blow it. Especially after a blockbuster final weekend in which the league went 4-0 against the SEC. Ultimately, the way the ACC performs during bowl season will determine how people perceive the ACC headed into 2015.

That is why this postseason in particular is so critical. Because we already saw how a shaky national reputation impacted Florida State in 2014. The ACC cannot afford to keep slipping in the court of public perception, not when that perception clearly matters when it comes time to selecting four teams to make the playoff.

Fair or not, it is more important for the ACC to finish with a winning bowl record than any other Power-5 conference, starting with Florida State in the Rose Bowl and the three games against the SEC. While many have dismissed the wins over the SEC on rivalry weekend because they all came from the East, Georgia Tech has a big opportunity to quiet some of those critics with a win over Mississippi State in the Capital One Orange Bowl.

The Jackets are a seven-point underdog but that does not matter much. They were a 13-point underdog against Georgia and won that game to end the season.

Speaking of Georgia, the Bulldogs are favored over Louisville in the Belk Bowl, one of the best matchups in the postseason. The Cards and their No. 6-ranked defense are not exactly going to allow themselves to get pushed around in this one. Louisville will have every opportunity to win and finish with 10 wins (again).

Then there is Miami-South Carolina in the “shrug your shoulders” err … Duck Commander Independence Bowl. All I have to say is this: The ACC NEEDS you to show up, Miami. For once, just show up.

In all, the ACC will play eight opponents from Power-5 conferences, one more than a season ago. The ACC upgraded the Belk Bowl and Russell Athletic Bowls, and upgraded with a spot in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, too.

The ACC tweaked the bowl tie-ins this past year as a way to upgrade its standing. The selection process also worked slightly differently this year, because teams were no longer slotted into spots based on record. Plus, Notre Dame entered the mix, creating a little extra drama.

The ACC assigned teams into two tier categories based on record. With Florida State in the playoff and Georgia Tech taking the automatic spot into the Orange Bowl, it left Clemson (9-3), Louisville (9-3), Duke (9-3), Notre Dame (7-5), Boston College (7-5) and NC State (7-5) in the Tier I category.

The Russell Athletic Bowl has priority over the four Tier I games (Belk, Sun, Pinstripe, Music City/Gator). Once the Russell Athletic Bowl selected Clemson, five teams remained in the pool to be selected into a Tier I game. ACC officials and bowl reps decided Louisville and Duke had to be placed into Tier I games based on their record. Notre Dame was a lock to go into a Tier I game based on its brand and ability to draw fans to games. So Boston College or NC State would be bumped down into a Tier II game.

Unlike the Big Ten and SEC, the ACC does not assign teams to bowl games based on potential matchup. The ACC still allows its bowl partners to make their own selections. The four Tier I games submitted their top five choices in rank order. Two bowls ended up with their No. 1 choice. Two bowls ended up with their No. 2 choice.

That clearly means there were ties that had to be broken. Their fairest way to do that? A blind drawing out of a hat. NC State ended up being the team that went unselected out of that pool, and ended up in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl against UCF.

What complicated matters slightly was Mississippi State making the Orange Bowl, taking away an ACC spot in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. The ACC had contingency plans in the event this happened, doing legwork weeks in advance to find a bowl that would have an open spot.

Within an hour of the announcement, the ACC knew that it would be able to place a team into the Armed Forces Bowl. After Tier I bowls made their selections, the ACC held a conference call with Tier II bowls. They did the same, ranking the remaining teams in preferred order.

Once NC State was chosen, Pitt was the odd team out. That is how the Panthers ended up against Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl.

The process worked more smoothly than anticipated. What helped was having three Tier I bowl reps in a hotel conference room in Charlotte with ACC officials. Going over scenarios and doing homework well in advance also helped. So did a less rigid system that allowed bowls to have flexibility to choose their preferred teams.

As one ACC official said, it ended with a “home run across the board."

Now it is up to the teams to avoid striking out.
Florida State senior Nick O'Leary might force his grandfather to move a couple of trophies on the family mantel to make room for his latest honor.

O'Leary
On Wednesday, O'Leary was named the 2014 recipient of the John Mackey Award, presented annually to the collegiate tight end who best exemplifies the play, sportsmanship, academics and community values of Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey. O'Leary will receive the award on Thursday. He was a semifinalist in 2013 but soon will have another trophy to maybe put next to one of his grandfather's. O'Leary is the grandson of Jack Nicklaus, who won a record 18 golf majors and is third with 73 PGA Tour wins.

“I'm honored to be chosen as the winner of the 2014 Mackey Award,” O’Leary told Seminoles.com. “The Mackey Award is something that all tight ends dream of winning, and I'd like to thank the committee and all the voters for selecting me. My coaches, teammates and family have given me great support, and I want to thank them, too. My goal has been to be one of the best there is out there. A lot of great players have won this award, and I want to be able to carry on the tradition that comes with being a Mackey Award winner.”

As a senior, O'Leary caught 47 passes for 614 yards and six touchdowns, which ranks second on the Seminoles this season. He also is the school's career leader among tight ends in receptions (113), receiving yards (1,587) and touchdowns (17). His 17 career scores ranks second in ACC history among tight ends.

He was also named first team on the coaches' All-ACC team Wednesday.

Miami's Clive Walford and Minnesota's Maxx Williams were the other semifinalists for the Mackey Award.

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