ACC: Florida State Seminoles

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Walking off the Doak Campbell Stadium field, Mario Edwards Jr. held his helmet in his left hand. The relentless Florida sun reflected off the helmet’s base, which was only now visible through the scratches and scrapes that rubbed the gold paint off.

This wasn’t after a Clemson, Florida or Miami game. Florida State just finished up its first preseason intrasquad scrimmage.

The only players whose helmets might look similar? “Maybe the offensive linemen,” Edwards said, because those are the unfortunate ones the physically imposing junior defensive end bludgeons on a daily basis.

[+] EnlargeMario Edwards
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsSack totals don't explain the impact of Mario Edwards Jr. for the Seminoles.
Edwards’ job along the defensive line is often an unenviable one, as his helmet that will require a retouching every week indicates. It’s also a position where Edwards doesn’t get the same recognition as his Florida State predecessors, such as Cornellius Carradine, Brandon Jenkins or Bjoern Werner, who each had the liberty of focusing on rushing the passer from the edge more than Edwards, who is shifted all over the defensive line.

Last week, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher was asked about Edwards and whether he should be in line for more than the 3.5 sacks he tallied as a sophomore in 2013. Once the reporter mentioned the word “sacks,” it set Fisher off and he challenged the logic of the query.

“Sacks don’t equate to greatness. You better watch that film. That guy’s a heck of a football player. You watch when the draft comes around,” said Fisher, pointing to Edwards' role on the country's top-scoring defense. “He’s as athletic and dominant as any defensive tackle we’ve ever had.”

The question set in motion a 10-minute coach's clinic session from Fisher, who broke down all of the responsibilities Edwards has, and there were many.

Edwards said he probably missed a few sacks last season because he didn’t understand the entire playbook, and it is easy to see why. As a first-year starter, Edwards was shifted from end to tackle and asked to line up in gaps, heads up with a lineman or shaded to a shoulder. The difference could be a matter of a few inches, but it completely alters the landscape of a defensive scheme. First-year defensive coordinator Charles Kelly said this season Edwards might edge rush one play then drop into coverage on the next because he’s “very powerful but at the same time he’s athletic.”

Fisher likes to call upon the time he witnessed Edwards do a standing back flip … in full pads. If that’s not impressive enough, consider the 20-year-old stands 6-foot-3 and tips the scales at a Twinkie shy of 300 pounds. And while the weight was a concern early in his career, Edwards dedicated himself this offseason, reshaping his body and turning much of the weight into muscle to prepare for the increased attention he’ll see with Timmy Jernigan off to the NFL.

“Talking with Timmy and talking to other guys, I realized it’s back on me now. I’m an upperclassman and we have to carry the tradition,” Edwards said. “I took my workouts serious. I lifted, ran, tried to watch what I ate.”

That has opposing offensive coordinators on heightened alert, especially after observing Edwards chase down speedy Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall in the national championship game. While many offenses are switching to uptempo speeds predicated on spreading the defense out, the philosophy of running the football between the tackles remains largely unchanged. However, the scheme forces defenses to eliminate players from the box and substitute a lineman or linebacker for a smaller defensive back.

The rise of the spread formation has made linemen with Edwards’ athletic ability all the more vital.

“The front guys that are big and agile are so much more critical now than they’ve ever been because the game is spread so they’re getting isolated more,” Fisher said. “… He’s as strong and naturally powerful as anyone I’ve been around.”
Bobby Bowden, Matthew McConaugheyMCT via Getty Images, AP PhotoBobby Bowden said some have pegged Matthew McConaughey to play him on the big screen.

On Monday morning, legendary Florida State coach Bobby Bowden allowed fans to "ask me anything" via a Reddit.com chat. Here is the best of what we learned about Bowden during his hour-long conversation.

On who would play him in a movie about his life: There were some people that came to see me about making a movie, but they didn't end up doing it. They talked about, dadgummit, about the guy that played Jack Lengyel in We Are Marshall. Yea, Matthew McConaughey!

On his most memorable season: My memorable season was 1977. It was my second year at Florida State. Now the year before we had our only losing season and before that we had an 0-11 season. In 1977 we played in our first bowl game in about 5 years, we were nationally rank for the first time in about 5 years, and we beat Texas Tech in the Citrus Bowl. It finally turned our program around.

On Jameis Winston being best ever FSU QB: Let me say this. He's got the best start no doubt about it. And he could definitely end up the best, but let's see how his career goes. A lot of things can happen. People forget Chris Weinke took us to the NCG 3 straight times. How many quarterbacks have ever done that?

On peanuts in soda: Well you know, I always did that. I'd get an orange drink and put peanuts in it, or any cold drink. I think Jimbo does that too. It's an old country habit. That's just like lunch to me, boy.

On best player he ever coached: I think the best athlete I ever coached was Deion Sanders. We had other players who were good in their own way. But, I don't think we ever had anyone with as much natural talent.

On what he orders at Taco Bell: Wooh. Gosh, seldom do I eat at Taco Bell, I'm not sure. I don't know. I guess I'd look to see what the most expensive thing was and go ahead and buy it. Hoping that they know what they're talking about.

Steve Spurrier
AP Photo/Dave MartinBobby Bowden said he was a big fan of his rivalry with Steve Spurrier, especially the games he beat the Ol' Ball Coach.
On player unionization: I don't think that will go over. I think it's best that it doesn't go over. When a kid starts getting his own lawyer to tell you and the university how much to pay him, that's going too far.

On rivalry with Steve Spurrier: That was always a great motivating ballgame with Spurrier. The reason is, he was kind of an offensive genius so I always liked it when we'd outscore him, which we did a lot. He's one of the greatest coaches there has ever been though. Those were great matchups.

On the College Football Playoff and committee invite: I was not invited to join, but there were some rumors. I'm interested to see how that comes out. How do you keep your prejudices out of it? If you're a graduate of Oklahoma and it comes time to vote, are you really going to pick Oklahoma State?

I kind of liked it the way it was. They always got 1 vs. 2 right. Who cares about 3 or 4?

And the best answer of the day:

On what he would do if his statue on campus came to life: I wouldn't want to stop it. Keep raging.

ACC's biggest battles: Nos. 1 & 2

August, 19, 2014
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The 2014 college football season starts in just nine days. We’re getting you ready by counting down the ACC’s 10 biggest battles of the fall. Today, we’re wrapping things up with the two games most likely to define the season for the ACC.

No. 2

The matchup: Clemson vs. Georgia

Date/Location: Aug. 30, Sanford Stadium, Athens, Georgia (5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Last meeting: The rivalry was reignited last season, when Clemson out-gunned Georgia, 38-35, in the season opener in Death Valley. The two starting QBs combined for nearly 600 yards passing, but neither will be back for this year’s game.

Why it matters: Much like Virginia Tech’s season-opening date with Ohio State, FSU’s date with Oklahoma State and Miami’s Sept. 20 showdown with Nebraska, this is a chance for the ACC's upper echelon to establish the conference’s standing against top-tier non-conference foes. Georgia has plenty of buzz entering the season and projects as a possible SEC East favorite. Clemson is clearly in the shadows of FSU in the ACC. But a win on the road for the Tigers would certainly put Dabo Swinney's crew back into the conversation for the College Football Playoff and, just as importantly, give the ACC a marquee non-conference win as ammunition when the selection committee decides who's in and who's out at year's end.

No. 1

The matchup: Clemson vs. Florida State

Date/Location: Sept. 20, Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, Florida

Last meeting: The game was billed as the biggest of the year in the ACC last season, too, but it took all of 12 minutes for Jameis Winston and Florida State to take all the air out of the building in Death Valley. The Seminoles led by 20 at the half and cruised to a dominant 51-14 win behind 444 yards passing from Winston.

Why it matters: The easy answer here is the winner of this game has gone on to win the ACC's Atlantic in each of the past four years, and that'll be Step 1 in the road to a national championship. But, of course, both Clemson and FSU have significant non-conference games that will already be in the books by the time this one's played, and if both emerge from those Week 1 battles with a 'W,' it could mean this game has as much national cache as any in the nation this year -- and certainly any that kick off before the weather gets cold. Clemson will be a much bigger underdog this year after last season's thrashing, but Swinney insisted then that his team was more evenly matched with FSU than the score reflected. He'll get a chance to back up his words in Tallahassee for what, once again, promises to be the best game the ACC has to offer on its schedule.

Group efforts in ACC backfields

August, 19, 2014
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There's a certain order to the chaos at the line of scrimmage, and after a few hits, tailbacks begin to make some sense of it, Virginia's Kevin Parks said. It's usually a game of trial and error. A few hits, a few near-misses, and then it becomes clear.

In other words, ask most running backs what they need to break a big run, and the answer is simple: Just a few more touches.

"Once you get out there and the ball in your hands, it's natural," said Parks, who racked up 1,031 yards on 227 carries last year, both tops among returning ACC tailbacks. "You're getting in the flow of the game. You're taking your hits and get stronger as the game goes on. Some guys are like that."

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Which team has the best RB tandem in the ACC?

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Of course, some guys aren't. In fact, finding a true every-down back is a rarity these days, even at the NFL level. The position has become more specialized, and as that's happened, the need for a deep and diverse stable of backs has grown.

Even Parks, one of the league's true bell cows at tailback, doesn't figure to be the only show in town for Virginia. Sophomore Taquan Mizzell, one of the Cavaliers top recruits under coach Mike London, is right behind him on the depth chart, providing a dynamic change of pace for the offense.

The same is true at Louisville and UNC and Syracuse and Pitt (which has a pair 0f 700-yard backs returning) and nearly every other program in the conference. At Florida State, where Jimbo Fisher has given a tailback 25 carries in a game just four times during his tenure, Karlos Williams is the epitome of an every-down back, but even he's being challenged by freshman Dalvin Cook and sophomore Mario Pender -- neither of whom have taken a snap at the college level.

It's really a game of probabilities, Fisher said. Depth provides alternatives, and at a position where physical punishment comes with the territory, it's best for teams to be prepared with a contingency plan.

"A running back only has so many hits in him," Fisher said. "The durability, the freshness in the fourth quarter, developing depth on your team and if guys have certain skill sets you have to put them in position to have success like that. I think it helps your team grow."

Fisher certainly has the evidence to back up his theory. During the past two seasons, only Oregon and Ohio State have averaged more yards-per-carry (excepting sacks) than Florida State's 6.40 mark. Last season, the Seminoles averaged 6.33 yards-per-carry in the second halves of games, too — the fourth-best mark in the country and an improvement of more than 1.5 yards per touch from its first-half average.

Specialization and distribution have become paramount, even for programs that have traditionally relied on a lead ball carrier.

Rod McDowell racked up 189 carries for Clemson last year, but Dabo Swinney said that was more a factor of necessity than desire. With four running backs vying for carries on this year's depth chart and coordinator Chad Morris aiming to run at least 85 plays a game, the rushing attempts figure to be portioned out in smaller doses in 2014.

"It's really become a specialized position," said Swinney, who plans to have a backfield-by-committee approach this season. "You need different flavors. You don't want all vanilla ice cream. You need some strawberry, chocolate, blueberry."

Nationally, just 15 running backs averaged 20 carries per game last season, half the number to reach that average in 2007. But including QBs, there were 36 runners who averaged 6.5 yards-per-rush or better last season, nearly double the total from 2007.

There are still a few every-down ball-carriers, but they're the exception. Andre Williams accounted for 68 percent of Boston College's rushing attempts last season and ended the year as a Heisman finalist, but Parks was the only other ACC runner to carve out more than a 40 percent share in his backfield.

Duke Johnson certainly would've eclipsed that total at Miami, but he went down with an ankle injury in Miami's eighth game and was lost for the season. Johnson figures to return to a prominent role in 2014 -- perhaps the closest thing the ACC will have to a true bell cow -- but last year's injury showcased just how crucial it is to have depth. With a healthy Johnson, Miami averaged 5.4 yards per carry and 200 yards per game on the ground. Without him, the Hurricanes mustered just 3.6 yards per carry and less than 100 yards per game rushing.

Spreading the wealth even when there's a clear No. 1 on the depth chart helps build depth that might not have been there before, NC State coach Dave Doeren said. The Wolfpack figure to give at least three — and maybe four — tailbacks a share of the pie this year, and while Doeren said he'll play the hot hand on a series-by-series basis, the knowledge that each player will get his shot while not being guaranteed anything more has had a positive effect on practice.

"When you have two or three backs, they've got to maximize their carries and put themselves in a position to get more," he said.

The game of mix-and-match tailbacks doesn't always sit well with players who, like Parks, would love a chance to get into a rhythm and take a few hits, but it's a fact of life most have gotten used to.

"It's a hard thing when you get your mojo running and you get pulled," Parks said, "but at the end of the day, you've got to be a team player. If the coaches feel you're hitting on all cylinders, they'll keep you in."

And there's an advantage for them, too. All those hits may help a tailback get a feel for the game, but they're also a lot of wear and tear on players who are hoping to still have plenty of spring in their steps when it's time to play at the NFL level.

"It means they have more tread on the tires when they get to the NFL and can truly make money," Fisher said. "But you're still getting the most out of them while you're here."
Boston College coach Steve Addazio remembers an era when players wanted to redshirt as true freshmen to better prepare them for the final four years of their college career.

"Now it's 'I want to play,' " Addazio, 55, said. "If you're talking about not playing them early, the majority are like 'What do you mean?'"

So, the ability to play or possibly even start as a true freshman has become a regular sales pitch for coaches from the Power Five to the Group of Five. It's certainly a tool in the belt for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. Last week, Fisher alluded to the number of freshmen All-Americans he's coached the last four seasons. Twenty-four hours later, it was on the program's official recruiting Twitter page.

"The last [four] years we've had 14 freshmen All-Americans," said Fisher, condensing multiple outlets' freshmen award teams into one, concise Florida State propaganda poster. "If you come in ready to play, we're willing to put you on the field. It's critical for guys to come in saying 'When I'm the best, I'll play.'"

Fisher has the goods to back up his claims, even if the numbers are obviously skewed to best represent his program. But how does his résumé compare to those coaching some of the country's other top programs?

I tried to come up with a way to accurately discern which schools play the most freshmen and decided true freshmen letterwinners was the simplest and most effective way to crunch the numbers. To earn a letter, a player has to actually play consistently through the season. The disclaimer is each program can use different benchmarks when awarding letters, but there is never going to be a perfect way.

I began with Florida State's, looking back at the 2011-2013 classes. To properly quantify the data from Florida State, I decided I'd look at the five schools ranked highest in the preseason polls that have had its coach in place at least five seasons. Oregon's Mark Helfrich was offered an exemption because he was promoted from within and is in his sixth season with the Ducks. Coaches in place at least five years was the stipulation since an incoming coach might be susceptible to playing the prospects he recruited or having a number of transfers that could open up starting or rotational spots.

The criteria: Each class was looked at and the total number of signees was pared down to just those who enrolled as members of the football team in the fall. Junior college signees were excluded, as were any recruits who were academically or medically disqualified before playing a game. That explains why the total number of freshmen for our purposes might look different than what might be seen on RecruitingNation. Any true freshmen who spent a year at a post-graduate or prep school was also excluded. Redshirt freshmen were disqualified, too.

Bottom line is if the player was not a part of the football team the fall following his high school graduation, he was excluded.

Nearly all of the data was collected after poring through media guides and archives, although the communications departments at some of the schools were also helpful providing numbers and deserve recognition.

So, here is the actual data:

 

It is hardly a coincidence that Fisher and Alabama's Nick Saban, who mentored Fisher at LSU, have identical percentages of true freshmen earning a letter. Fisher and Saban arguably have been the two best recruiters over the last few cycles, and, the data shows those two are not going to keep young talent off the field simply because of age. Nearly half of the true freshmen at Alabama and Florida State lettered over the last three seasons.

Mark Dantonio has built Michigan State into a national title contender in a different manor, relying on experience. Only 12 percent of true freshmen lettered over the last three seasons. Recruiting to Michigan State is not the easy task it is at some other top-10 programs, and the Spartans are not recruiting as many ESPN 300-level players as the likes of Alabama and Florida State.

It should be noted Michigan State, Oklahoma and Oregon don't have quite the recruiting base Alabama and Florida State do.

Inquiring minds want to see how that 45 percent stacks up to some of the other top programs in the country, so even though they did not fit the criteria I looked at a few other schools with coaches in place at least five seasons and lately in the top half of the rankings. LSU was worth a look considering it's Les Miles' 10th season in Baton Rouge and, like Fisher and Saban, has recruited exceptionally well for a long period of time. Mark Richt is in his 14th season at Georgia and, like Miles, usually has a highly-regarded recruiting class. Steve Spurrier is in his 10th season at South Carolina and has steadily improved the Gamecocks' class to the point that the 2015 class is No. 5 nationally. Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson from a perennial disappointment into a two-time BCS bowl participant. And Ohio State and Texas A&M, mainly because it's worth seeing how third-year Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer fares considering he frequently voices his preference to avoid redshirting. Kevin Sumlin is also in the process of trying to build an SEC power that can compete with Alabama and LSU in the SEC West.

 

For the Buckeyes, out of the 69 true freshmen to land in Columbus, Ohio, from 2011-2013, 31 lettered -- the same 45 percent. Looking at just Meyer's two seasons, however, he is decimals ahead of Fisher and Saban at 46 percent (21 out of 46), thanks in large part to 14 freshmen letterwinners in his first season.

Georgia's Mark Richt has a percentage of nearly 50 percent, but the Bulldogs' numbers might be the most skewed. Along with South Carolina, the Bulldogs had several recruits that either did not qualify or spent time at a prep school or junior college. Also, Georgia's long list of dismissals and transfers is well documented, and all of the departures has opened up spots for freshmen to earn immediate playing time.

It is Miles, though, who plays a higher percentage of freshmen than all of the others. Twelve true freshmen lettered for LSU in both 2012 and 2013, and another nine earned a letter in 2011. There were a total of 65 applicable freshmen to enter LSU during that span and 33 of them lettered. That's a percentage of 51 percent.

Certainly the numbers will fluctuate year to year, and coaches at every single program are playing freshmen more frequently than ever before. When taking into account the timeline is over three years, LSU averages just one more freshman letterwinner per season than Alabama and Florida State. For our intents and purposes, though, the data shows which top programs consistently play the most freshmen in this new era of freshmen phenoms.

And, uh, FYI, Alabama has 19 ESPN 300 players prepping for their freshmen season this fall. LSU has 16, and Florida State isn't far off with 13 of their own.

ACC morning links

August, 19, 2014
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It is nearly time to begin preparing for Week 1 matchups. Does it surprise anybody that there are still unanswered questions at quarterback for three Coastal Division contenders?

Miami held a scrimmage Monday night in which true freshman Brad Kaaya continued to impress, throwing two touchdown passes. Transfer Jake Heaps, competing for the starting job, sat out the scrimmage to rest his arm. Coach Al Golden has repeatedly said he would name his starter following both scrimmages. Kevin Olsen is suspended for at least the opener; Kaaya played in both scrimmages; Heaps in just one. Do we read anything into where this leads headed into the opener against Louisville?

Meanwhile in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, coach Larry Fedora said he will not publicly announce his starter before kickoff against Liberty on Aug. 30. Returning starter Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky have been in a dogged competition. The Tar Heels will begin game prep Wednesday.

"We'll make a decision before the 30th," Fedora said. "I mean, you guys won't know it. But we will make a decision before the 30th. We'll start as we get into the game-planning, we'll have a plan what we're going to do and how we're going to implement it and those guys will be aware of it.

"It won't be like we walk out there on the 30th and I flip a coin and throw one of them out there."

Finally, the race to start at Virginia Tech is down to Michael Brewer and Mark Leal. Brenden Motley, who left the spring No. 1 on the depth chart, has been dealing with back issues throughout fall camp and has fallen out of the competition. Brewer and Leal split first-team reps during a weekend scrimmage, but a decision remains up in the air.

Now here is quick look at other headlines across the ACC:

ACC's biggest battles: Nos. 3 & 4

August, 18, 2014
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The 2014 college football season starts in 10 days. We're getting you ready by counting down the ACC's 10 biggest battles with playoff implications. Nos. 3 and 4 are up today.

No. 4
The matchup: No. 9 South Carolina at No. 16 Clemson
Date/location: Nov. 29 at Memorial Stadium, TBA
Why it matters: The Gamecocks have owned the Tigers in recent years, but Clemson has still been able to play in two BCS bowl games. If Clemson is going to make the College Football Playoff, the Tigers will likely have to defeat their in-state rival. Those two could be playing for a bid in the playoff the final weekend in November. The game could have implications for Florida State, too. If the Seminoles lose a game -- whether to Clemson or another team --they might need all the strength of schedule help they can get. The Gamecocks are a preseason top-10 team, and a Clemson win over South Carolina would benefit Florida State’s case.

No. 3
The matchup: No. 17 Notre Dame at No. 1 Florida State
Date/location: Oct. 18, Doak Campbell Stadium, TBA
Why it matters: The fact of the matter is every game on the Seminoles’ schedule is big for the ACC. They are the conference’s best shot at the playoff and a national championship. Notre Dame could be down their top defensive back and receiver, but the Fighting Irish do return quarterback Everett Golson. The reviews on Golson out of the Irish’s camp have been promising, and he was recently named the starter after missing the 2013 season. It’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the backfield develops, especially with running back Greg Bryant. He was a highly regarded prospect in the 2013 class but failed to make a mark as a freshman. A strong running game, one of the best ways to counteract a Jameis Winston-led offense, could be the beginning of a recipe to upset Florida State. The defense, which carried Notre Dame to the 2012 title game, will not be nearly as strong, though.

ACC morning links

August, 18, 2014
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Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher says he’s checking homework.

“We have notepads and pencils and you’re required to take notes,” Fisher said last week. “We’ll check them periodically.”

The fifth-year Seminoles coach was referring to his mandate that his players keep their eyes forward and jot down diligent outlines during positional meetings. I asked Fisher’s policy on taking notes after the Wall Street Journal published an article on the philosophy of the Cleveland Browns' Mike Pettine, a first-time head coach.

A former high school coach, Pettine found out from other teachers how actually putting pen to paper improves the odds a student will retain the information and retrieve the lesson when it’s test time. Kevin Clark, the WSJ writer, spoke with a UCLA professor who co-authored a paper on how writing instead of typing is often more useful, this at a time when there might be more laptops than notepads in college classrooms throughout the country.

It’s an interesting concept as it relates to football, which is catching up to the rest of the country in its fascination with technology. Several professional and college teams are using GPS tracking during practice. A handful, Florida State included, have armed players with tablets, and the Seminoles have a tablet in each player’s locker. Advanced metrics, usually reserved for baseball stat heads, are creeping their way onto football coaches’ desks. Drones are even being used to add yet another camera angle of practices.

But, even during football's technological revolution, it goes to show that sometimes simpler is better -- at least when it comes to filing away that the fullback is always option No. 1 on Spider 2 Y Banana.

“They’re taking a test every week, except they have to do it in front of 83,000 instead of a classroom,” Fisher said.

Here are a few more links to check out:
  • FSU is No. 1 in both preseason polls. That is due in large part to QB Jameis Winston, who took on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and then nominated his coach to do the same.
  • Miami was in the bottom half of the ACC blog's preseason power rankings, and much of that has to do with questions at quarterback and the defensive line. However, freshman QB Brad Kaaya is impressing the team with his maturity, and the defensive front is improving through camp.
  • Clemson opens the season at Georgia, but the Tigers will open up their home stadium so their fans can watch the game from inside Death Valley. The Bulldogs might be hurting on defense with a few losses during the offseason, but the Tigers' offense has not consistently impressed the Clemson coaches yet this fall. Chad Morris said quarterbacks Cole Stoudt and Deshaun Watson made some "really lousy decisions" in the latest scrimmage.
  • Louisville also held a weekend scrimmage, and Cardinals fans should be happy with the offense. The unit's pace and its future quarterback were among the five biggest takeaways.
  • Boston College's scrimmage looked like Christmas morning, which is not a good thing for an offense. Hint: They gift-wrapped turnovers.
  • An Atlantic division outlook from the (Charlottesville, Virginia) Daily Progress.
  • A few notes from Syracuse's Saturday practice.
  • Defense was optional in the Triangle in 2013, but there are defensive playmakers at Duke, NC State and North Carolina.
  • Nobody is quite sure what to expect out of Blacksburg, Virginia, this season: Does Virginia Tech continue to slide or are the Hokies poised for a return to double-digit wins? Frank Beamer believes it is the latter.
  • Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof sees signs that the Yellow Jackets' defense is improving, but that doesn't mean the unit is where it needs to be.
  • The name Kenechi Udeze might ring a bell for some football fans. He was a first-round NFL draft pick not long ago, but cancer cut his career short. He's back involved with the sport he loves, though, as a first-year assistant strength and conditioning coach at Pitt.

ACC mailblog

August, 15, 2014
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Step into my office ...

Richard in Raleigh writes: I beg you to put this in the mailbag. It involves the preseason predictions for UNC. Let me first state my bias against UNC so it is known. I'm a NC State grad and Miami fan. I hate Carolina, but I still think I'm right on this point. Most people have UNC ranked. Many project them to win the Coastal. Now I have to imagine some of this is based on projection of talent and belief in Larry Fedora and his system, but I have to imagine that a large part of it was based on their change in quarterback and improvement at the end of the year, starting 1-5 and finishing 6-1. It aggravated me as soon as the season ended and this talk started, but today I looked at a few more numbers and am shocked I haven't seen anyone bring it up. The teams UNC beat were a combined 44-44. The teams they lost to were a combined 55-24. They only had two road wins and only one was against an above .500 team (Pitt). The closest thing they have to a quality win are victories against 7-6 Pitt and BC and a bowl win against 9-4 Cincinnati in a stadium two hours from their campus. All of this would seem to suggest to me that rather than UNC improving at the end of the year, they just finally started playing teams they were capable of beating. I think what UNC showed at the end of the season is the same thing they showed at the beginning of the season. They are capable of beating bad teams. They are not capable of beating good teams. And all of that makes them remarkably average. Now you add to that no offensive or defensive line, an incredibly young group of players ... None of that points to improvement to me. Now UNC certainly has the talent on the roster to fix their holes and improve this season. I just see little to suggest that so far. So please tell me how all this is being overlooked.

Andrea Adelson writes: No need to beg, Richard. You make some good points. For the record, I do not have North Carolina winning the Coastal but I do have the Tar Heels No. 2. Why? A few reasons. First, to your concerns about who North Carolina beat last year. I think this team deserves credit for turning around the season after staring in such a massive hole. Were the opponents weaker in the latter part of the season? Yes. But other teams could have folded at 1-5 no matter the opponent. This team found a way to win and that should count for something. I did not use the momentum from last season in my projection, however. I based mine on the talent returning and the schedule this season, not last. North Carolina is extremely talented at the skill positions, and I think the offensive line will solidify itself early in the season. The Tar Heels have four winnable nonconference games, and they get Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech at home (though there are some toughies at Clemson, Miami and Duke). Plus, there is little to no separation between the teams in the Coastal. So regardless of what happened last season, North Carolina has as good a shot as any to win the division.


Mike D in Hamilton, Ontario, writes: Whenever you guys do write about Miami and their impact players Phillip Dorsett is rarely mentioned. Have people forgotten he was Stacy Coley (the speedy deep threat) before he got hurt? I don't think he gets nearly enough credit. If he's healthy, and Miami can find a serviceable QB, he and Coley will should put up some good numbers.

Adelson writes: I certainly have not forgotten Dorsett. In fact, I think it is a tight race for top receiving group in the ACC between Louisville and Miami. The Dorsett-Coley combination has a chance to be the best in the league. I look forward to watching them both this season.


Josh in Syracuse, N.Y., writes: Miami should definitely be ranked higher in your power rankings. While I understand the uncertainty at the quarterback position factored into their ranking, Miami will be one of the strongest, fastest and most talented teams in the conference even with a MEDIOCRE quarterback. You could say that Stephen Morris was a "mediocre" quarterback last year and they started 7-0, I mean he wasn't a Jameis Winston. Though this year the schedule is tougher, one can honestly argue that Miami has one of if not THE best WR corps in the conference. THE best running back in the conference, even after injury. They are also the deepest they have been on the defensive line in recent years and have one of the best LB's in the nation (Denzel Perryman) with a legitimate shutdown corner in Tracy Howard. Their O-line was pretty decent last year and returns key guys. I feel as though underestimating this team because of uncertainty at QB is a mistake because whoever it is will have a boatload of talent and speed to utilize. I don't think they necessarily need a "superstar" at QB to compete for an ACC championship. They just need someone who's "good enough" to distribute the ball effectively to the many weapons they have on offense. Thanks Andrea!

Adelson writes: The ranking was not only because of quarterback uncertainty. Neither you nor I know for certain this defense will develop the type of physicality and aggressiveness up front to change its fortunes. So Miami is deep up front. Are they bigger? Stronger? Will they push into the backfield? Perryman is terrific. So is Howard. But they need help around them. I applaud the move of Dallas Crawford to safety, an area in major need of an upgrade. But that defensive line still worries me, maybe moreso than quarterback.


Dusty in Hunstville, Ala., writes: Hi Andrea, I love the blog, but I have to ask...Syracuse above Georgia Tech in the power rankings? Did you happen to miss GT winning 56-0 last year? In a game where returning GT players Justin Thomas and Zach Laskey were the top two yardage gainers? And where Syracuse QB's couldn't muster a QBR above 8.8?

Adelson writes: Dusty, we arrived at the first power rankings after taking rankings from our four ACC reporters: myself, David Hale, Matt Fortuna and Jared Shanker, using a weighted point system to come up with the end result. In my ballot, I had Georgia Tech ahead of Syracuse. I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I think there is some genuine skepticism about the Jackets this season.


Greg in Annapolis, Md., writes: So I went through all those "best seasons" ever that were listed in all the blogs. How is Peter Boulware's 20 sack season, an NCAA record at the time, in 1996 not on the ACC list? Not only was it left off the list, but it should have been No. 1 for the best defensive season ever in the ACC. I love Deion Sanders and he was exciting, but 20 sacks in only 12 games, for a team that played for the national championship that year? This definitely blows away all the other guys on the ACC defensive list as well.

Adelson writes: Thanks, Greg. Shoutout to Peter Boulware for an outstanding season. Just to clarify: We did not rank the best individual defensive performances in ACC history. We merely listed the best single-season performance in school history for all 14 ACC schools. Jameis Winston took that honor for Florida State. Chris Low ranked the 10 best defensive seasons of all-time.

Bus Blitz: Jameis Winston

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
2:10
PM ET
video
Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston breaks down his goals for the upcoming season

Fisher's advice to Winston in Year 2

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
12:30
PM ET
video
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher discusses how he is advising Jameis Winston to deal with all the scrutiny he faces and battling complacency after winning a national championship.

ACC's biggest battles: Nos. 5&6

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
12:00
PM ET
The 2014 college football season starts in 13 days. We're getting you ready by counting down the ACC's 10 biggest battles with playoff implications. Nos. 5 and 6 are up today.

No. 6
The matchup: No. 1 Florida State at Louisville
Date/location: Thurs., Oct. 30 at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
Why it matters: Florida State trades Maryland on the schedule for Louisville, a team that has won 23 games over the last two seasons. It is probably safe to assume that Florida State will not beat the Cards 63-0, the way they did Maryland a season ago. Despite losing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and some major playmakers on defense, Louisville remains one of the toughest teams Florida State will face this season. Bobby Petrino remains an elite coach, and Louisville should be one of the fastest teams in the ACC. DeVante Parker and the receiver group will present a challenge to defend, along with the high-tempo offense the Cardinals will run. Plus, the game is on a Thursday night, with the national spotlight squarely in Louisville. Already this offseason we have been reminded what happened the last time Florida State visited Louisville on a Thursday night. The Cards upset No. 4 Florida State 26-20 in overtime in 2002.

No. 5
The matchup: Florida at No. 1 Florida State
Date/location: Nov. 29, Doak Campbell Stadium, TBA
Why it matters: Simply put, rivalry games are unpredictable enough for surprises to happen. I am sure Noles fans do not want me to mention what happened in 1997 when No. 1 Florida State lost to Florida to close out the regular season, ending its hopes for a national championship. Florida State should be favored to win, but Florida is expected to be much better than a season ago and could present a tougher challenge than anybody anticipates right now. Plus, this game closes out the regular season. Let's say the Noles go into the game unbeaten and lose. That could end up impacting their place in a four-team playoff, making this one of the more significant games on the schedule.
Because the world needs one more preseason All-America team, and because there has to be a reason to talk about this one differently than the last, USA Today has its out, and the most noteworthy item is the guy atop its quarterback depth chart.

That would be the Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota and not the reigning Heisman winner, Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston.

It's not that picking Mariota is such a silly idea. He's exceptional, and he's a candidate to unseat Winston as the Heisman winner.

But lots of folks seem to be a good bit higher on Mariota now than Winston, and it's tough to follow that logic beyond the fact that Winston's off-field troubles make people want to look elsewhere. (Though, Chantel Jennings and Jared Shanker did their part to debate the battle rationally.)

Yes, Mariota was exceptional to start last season before sliding a bit in November due to an injury that severely limited his mobility. But how much did that really matter?

Pre-injury, here's how their numbers stacked up.

Mariota: 64 completion percentage, 10.1 yards per attempt, 2,562 total yards, 29 touchdowns, 0 interceptions
Winston: 70 completion percentage, 11.8 yards per attempt, 2,608 total yards, 27 touchdowns, 6 interceptions

The big mark in Mariota's corner is the zero in the interceptions department, but he had fumbled four times (two were lost). Mariota also played in a more stat-friendly offense (that averaged seven more plays per game) and had yet to play his most difficult opposition of the season. Winston had already dominated two top-10 opponents in Clemson and Miami.

There's a case for Mariota, certainly, but it's not as if he was head and shoulders better even before the injury. And, the funny thing is, he wasn't that much worse even afterward.

Post-injury numbers for both QBs:

Mariota: 63 completion percentage, 8.6 yards per attempt, 1,466 total yards, 11 touchdowns, 4 interceptions
Winston: 63 completion percentage, 9.0 yards per attempt, 1,621 total yards, 17 touchdowns, 4 interceptions

Winston's totals came with one extra game, too, so aside from the picks, they were pretty close. The only difference is, Mariota was hurt, Winston had off-field troubles, and Florida State won a national title while Oregon lost twice.

So what will change in that equation this season?

Maybe Mariota stays healthy and Oregon runs the table. That seems less likely though, given the tougher slate the Ducks face in the Pac-12 and the more hits Mariota figures to take compared with Winston. And Winston, at least for the time being, has a healthy left tackle.

Either way though, it should be a fun battle to watch. They're both in prime position for a Heisman, for a run to the College Football Playoff and, perhaps, for a shot to be the first player taken in the 2015 NFL draft.

Oh, and on that subject, I wrote a bit about Winston's approach to 2014 earlier in the week, and that story involved a lot of interviews with friends and family. One thing his father, Antonor, made clear: The talk about staying for two more seasons at FSU was hardly a guarantee.

"What I said was, that was our original plan was to get his degree," Antonor Winston said. "That was our original plan. I didn't know when they offered a scholarship, he's guaranteed to go to the NFL. If they'd told me that, I'd have said he's going to the NFL.

"I will never look at it in that way because whatever the situation is at the end of the season, that's the situation we're going to take. You really don't know what path you're going to be taken. But we know we want that degree no matter what."

In other words, if Winston is in line to go in the first five to 10 picks of the draft, the decision will be easy.

One other Winston tidbit: Yes, he's lost Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw, but his high school coach, Matt Stephens, said he fully expects Winston to adapt by checking down to underneath receivers, using his speed in the slot and his running backs out of the backfield far more often. He also said that Winston wanted to prove he was a legitimate pocket passer last season, but not to be surprised if he runs a lot more often this season.

That may actually help Winston's numbers a bit. That decline in completion percentage down the stretch was, in part, a result of looking deep a bit too often.

OK, a few more links before getting ready for the weekend:
  • Duke has a plan in place to replace injured linebacker Kelby Brown, writes the Charlotte Observer.
  • Florida State looks like its found an answer to fill a linebacking void, too, writes the Orlando Sentinel.
  • Louisville could be looking at a stadium expansion, writes The Courier-Journal.
  • Special teams are getting special attention at Wake Forest, writes the Winston-Salem Journal.
  • If you're a Boston College fan stoked for a trip to Columbus … well, make yourself comfortable. It'll be a while. The proposed series with Ohio State was pushed back to 2023-24, as BC Interruption notes. Just think what the world will be like by then: iPhone 15 will be on the market, North West will have his own reality show and clothing line, the College Football Playoff will include 32 teams. The possibilities are endless.

Enjoy the weekend, folks. After this one, just one Saturday left without college football.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Odell Haggins has been Florida State’s defensive tackles coach since 1996, a total of 19 consecutive seasons. As far as stability goes on the defensive staff, it begins with Haggins. It ends there, too, as the remaining three assistants have been on staff a combined five seasons.

Charles Kelly is in his second year on staff but shifts from linebackers coach to the secondary while also adding the title of defensive coordinator, a position he’s never held for an entire season at the FBS level. In his stead coaching the linebackers is Bill Miller, who was hired away from Minnesota.

Early returns indicate Kelly, who received rave reviews when he was hired, has hit the ground running as the new leader of a defense that finished No. 1 in points per game during their 2013 championship run.

“He stays positive. He gets on you when you mess up but he explains it when you do,” cornerback Ronald Darby said. “If I’m going to do something, he asks why you did it, and if I explain why, he’s more understanding as a coach instead of ‘Shut up I don’t want to hear that!’ He’s a great coach.”

Despite switching defensive coordinators, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said not much has changed schematically. Kelly worked under 2013 coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, and the players have said the changes have been minimal. The terminology and the scheme remain largely intact, which could foster an easier transition this season for a defense replacing its best player at every level of the unit.

Kelly said there will be small differences, though, simply because he and Pruitt are not clones of each other. Kelly said he will have his own identity, which is really just a mosaic of the knowledge he’s gained in his 23 seasons of coaching.

Over those 23 seasons, Kelly has coached nearly every position group, and that is not limited to just the defense. There are challenging aspects to that, but Kelly said a good coach is able to adapt to any position and it’s prepared him to coordinate the entire defense.

“I grew up wanting to be a coach, so if you can coach and communicate and teach, you should be able to coach any position,” Kelly said. “Coaching different positions, sometimes the personalities at positions are different, so it teaches you how to handle people differently.”

Kelly acknowledges the potential issues of adding a new coach in the mix, but he welcomes the addition of Miller, who began coaching in 1978 and has coached six first-round draft picks, including Ray Lewis.

“Change is good sometimes because it’s new blood, new ideas. It’s a different way of looking at things,” Kelly said. “When you’re the only one doing it, you get tunnel vision. When you trust people you work with, then you trust what they say.”

Helping facilitate a smooth transition for Miller is his familiarity with Fisher’s coaching philosophies. Fisher is a protégé of Nick Saban, and Miller was on Saban’s staff at Michigan State.

“There’s kind of an unwritten club of guys that worked for Nick Saban,” Miller said. “What helps me a lot is I’ve been in this defensive system before. Sal [Sunseri] and I were together at Michigan State, and having that kind of background and knowing what this system is all about has been a great aid to me.”

Fisher said E.J. Levenberry is working with the first team at linebacker, and the sophomore said during fall camp that Miller has helped him with his fundamentals.

Florida State held its first scrimmage this week, and throughout the defense the fundamentals were not lacking. Fisher was upbeat following the scrimmage, and defensive lineman Mario Edwards said the players are comfortable in the system. Any mistakes were attributed to tired legs, Edwards said.

“We know the defense,” Edwards said, “and we know where to be.”

ACC's biggest battles: Nos. 7 & 8

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
12:00
PM ET
The 2014 college football season starts in 14 days. We're getting you ready by counting down the ACC's 10 biggest battles of the fall. Today, we're looking at numbers 7 and 8.

No. 8

The matchup: Florida State vs. Oklahoma State

Date/Location: Aug. 30, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas (8 p.m., ABC)

Last meeting: Florida State defeated 19th-ranked Oklahoma State, 34-23, in the 1985 Gator Bowl when freshman QB Chip Ferguson threw for 338 yards and two TDs.

Why it matters: All eyes (including “College GameDay”) will be on this season-opening matchup in Texas, one of the marquee non-conference showdowns of the season. FSU's defense will be in transition after losing several key seniors from last season's squad, and Oklahoma State can certainly put up points. A win for the Cowboys would be huge in setting up the Big 12 for a spot in the College Football Playoff -- particularly given the league's lack of an end-of-season conference title game to boost its credibility -- while an FSU victory could set the stage for another march toward a national title. Last season's run for FSU included plenty of criticism that the Seminoles hadn't played a worthy schedule. The date with Oklahoma State to open 2014 ensures there won't be similar commentary this time around.

No. 7

The matchup: Florida State vs. Miami

Date/Location: Nov. 15, Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.

Last meeting: Florida State toppled No. 7 Miami for the fourth straight time, 41-14, last November, while the Hurricanes lost leading rusher Duke Johnson to a season-ending ankle injury in the process. It was Miami's first loss of the season.

Why it matters: Last year's showdown in Tallahassee, Florida, marked the first time since 2004 that FSU and Miami faced off as top-10 teams, and while the season deteriorated quickly for the Hurricanes, it certainly felt like the rivalry had regained some of the momentum it had lost over the years. There were scuffles on the field and strong words afterward, and, of course, the Seminoles' dominant win was held as proof they were ready to compete for a national title. This year, ESPN's Football Power Index suggests Miami has a better shot than anyone to knock off Florida State (though, in fairness, the odds still aren't high), and the late-season showdown means the Canes will have had time to find their QB. Since Miami joined the league, the ACC has been hoping this game would be a national event, and perhaps this year it will be. The Hurricanes could either add one more marquee win on the Seminoles' run to another championship or Al Golden's crew could finally vault back into the national spotlight with its biggest win in years.

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