ACC: North Carolina Tar Heels

ACC bowl projections: Week 1

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
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It wasn't the prettiest opening week for the ACC, but the end result wasn't much of a shake-up from our initial preseason projections. Louisville was the week's most impressive team, so the Cardinals make a leap to the Orange Bowl in our projections. The rest of the shake-ups were minor.

So, after a week of games, here are our ACC bowl projections:

College Football Playoff: Florida State
Orange Bowl : Louisville
Russell Athletic Bowl: Virginia Tech
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Clemson
Belk Bowl: North Carolina
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Pitt
New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Notre Dame
Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman: Duke
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: Miami
Quick Lane Bowl: Boston College
BITCOIN St. Petersburg Bowl: Georgia Tech

ACC Power Rankings: Week 1

September, 2, 2014
Sep 2
2:00
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We’re almost through the first week of the season -- we’re still waiting on you, Miami-Louisville -- which means college football is ripe for overreaction. It’s this time of year that is worth reminding everyone to take a step back, take a deep breath and remember it isn’t even September yet.

With that said, there are only 12 games on each team’s schedule, and each school can’t afford to throw a week away. So here are some things the ACC blog thinks we learned through the season’s first few days.

[+] EnlargeRashad Greene
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezWill Florida State find another receiving threat to complement Rashad Greene?
1. Florida State’s 2014 team wasn’t built in a laboratory … and isn’t as invincible as some tried to project upon the preseason No. 1. The Seminoles jumped out to an early lead, but the armor began to crack shortly thereafter. The defense looked out of sync at times and had issues stopping the Cowboys’ offense in the second half. Oklahoma State had 364 yards, with nearly all coming over the final three quarters. All preseason, Jimbo Fisher and his players said the pressure of repeating and being No. 1 would not affect this team, but the fifth-year FSU coach admitted to that in his postgame news conference. Offensively, the Seminoles set records in 2013, but with no Kelvin Benjamin or Kenny Shaw, there is no legitimate No. 2 receiving option opposite Rashad Greene.

The good news is this is an early wake-up call for Florida State, and they still escaped with a win. Though they are considered likely two-touchdown favorites for every game this season, this game probably humbled Florida State a little after the public inflated their egos the past eight months.

2. Clemson’s defense is better, except when it’s against the best:
The Tigers’ defense improved drastically the past season, and Dabo Swinney and Brent Venables deserve credit for that. However, the Tigers allowed 38 points in their toughest games a season ago, and once again a quality offense shredded the unit. Georgia hung 45 on Clemson behind nearly 200 rushing yards from Todd Gurley, who might be the ridiculous early Heisman favorite now, thanks to the Tigers. Gurley averaged more than 13 yards per carry, and on top of it he had an easy 100-yard kickoff return score. All offseason the Tigers’ defense was hyped as possibly the conference’s best as it returns stars along the defensive front, the biggest being Vic Beasley. But the front seven wore down in the second half, and now the Tigers are left questioning whether they deserved the preseason attention.

3. It’s probably a good idea to shelve the perception talk for the time being:
ACC commissioner John Swofford and league coaches must have spent the offseason bench pressing the large stack of papers listing the conference’s 2013 accomplishments because they walked into ACC media days with their collective chest puffed out about the ACC playing second fiddle to nobody. Well, Wake Forest lost to Louisiana-Monroe and failed to eclipse 100 total yards. Syracuse nearly lost to FCS Villanova, North Carolina and Georgia Tech both trailed FCS schools, and NC State needed a touchdown with a little more than 90 seconds left for the win. Clemson looked good in the first half, but the defensive front seven was shredded by the UGA rush game and couldn’t tackle in the second half. Florida State even looked human, but at least the Seminoles pulled out the win. The rest of the league needed to show some progress, but the cupcake scares were all too familiar for ACC advocates.

4. Give a lot of credit to the Virginia defense: All afternoon the Cavaliers’ defense was brilliant against No. 7 UCLA. Despite continuously being put in bad situations, the defense bailed out Virginia, and the Cavs nearly pulled off the upset. We all knew Virginia had the potential to be really good on defense, but it showed it Saturday by holding UCLA to fewer than five yards per play and creating a couple of turnovers. Starter Greyson Lambert did not last long, but Virginia might have found its quarterback of the future in Matt Johns. Unfortunately for Virginia, there were too many mistakes. UCLA returned three turnovers for touchdowns, and the play calling was questionable late in the game. Mike London’s conservative approach might have cost Virginia the win.

5. Pittsburgh’s James Conner wants to join the Heisman discussion:
In Year 3, Paul Chryst has Pitt looking like Wisconsin, at least in box scores. The Panthers rushed 56 times for 409 yards and seven touchdowns. Pitt threw a total of 14 passes in the 62-0 drubbing. Sure it was against FCS Delaware, but there were no gimme games for Pitt during Chryst’s first two seasons. Youngstown State defeated Pitt in the 2012 opener, and there were many more close calls over the past two seasons. The Panthers were a popular dark horse pick in the Coastal Division, and they did nothing to suggest they don’t belong in the conversation. They are going to ride Conner, who ran for 153 yards and four touchdowns on only 14 carries. The bad news is sophomore receiver Tyler Boyd dislocated a finger and could miss the Friday night game against Boston College.

6. Deshaun Watson is going to push for more playing time: The No. 1 quarterback in the 2014 class did not look like a freshman on his first collegiate drive. He showed great poise on his first throw, which nearly went for a long touchdown. On his next two plays, the Clemson backup threw beautiful passes, with the second going for a touchdown. Stoudt played well in the first half, but the Clemson offense could not get much of anything going in the second half. Watson only attempted four throws, but the Tigers have South Carolina State and then a bye before Florida State. Could we see more of Watson when Clemson travels to Tallahassee?

ACC viewer's guide: Week 1

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
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Time to get you ready for football action with our quick look at Week 1 matchups across the ACC. Use the listed hashtags to follow along on Twitter. All times ET.

Noon

No. 7 UCLA at Virginia, ESPN, #UCLAvsUVA: In his career as a head coach, Mike London has won all six of his season openers, but this one is the biggest challenge he has ever faced to start a season. The Bruins come in off a 10-win season with a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Brett Hundley. Perhaps the only edge the Hoos have is the starting time. UCLA makes its first trip to an ACC stadium since 1955 and will kick off at 9 a.m. PT. As London joked during his news conference earlier this week, "I'd like to play 6 o'clock in the morning our time, if possible."

Delaware at Pitt, ESPN3, #DELvsPITT: The Panthers are going for their first win in a season opener since 2011 and have learned not to pencil in wins against FCS opponents. The biggest point of intrigue is how often they plan to use running back James Conner at defensive end. Coach Paul Chryst said Conner will be used only on rushing situations, the way he was in the bowl game. Still, two-way players are always a bit of a novelty, and folks are waiting to see how effective Conner can be at both positions.

12:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Brissett
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeJacoby Brissett will make his debut as NC State's quarterback against Georgia Southern.
Wofford at Georgia Tech, ESPN3, #WOFvsGT: The Jackets should not have too much to worry about in this matchup, but they definitely will want to take a good look at how their revamped defensive line fares, along with new starting quarterback Justin Thomas. Here is a fun historic fact for you: These teams last met back in 1901, a 33-0 Georgia Tech win.

Georgia Southern at NC State, ESPN3, #GASOvsNCST: Wolfpack players are well aware of Georgia Southern's stunning win over Florida last season and vow not to let the same happen to them. Though NC State is young, its most experienced unit is on the defensive line -- good news against the triple-option Eagles. There's no doubt coach Dave Doeren believes his program has a chance to start fresh after last year's disappointing 3-9 campaign. This is our first shot to see how quarterback Jacoby Brissett fares managing the NC State offense.

3 p.m.

Boston College at UMass, ESPN3, #BCvsUMASS: UMass fans had some fun trolling BC earlier this week, tossing a Minutemen jersey on Doug Flutie's statue outside Alumni Stadium. But BC will actually hit the road in this one, which features the debut of Florida transfer Tyler Murphy at quarterback. The Eagles also will feature a revamped running back and receiving group as they try to make a bowl game for the second straight season.

4 p.m.

William & Mary at Virginia Tech, ESPNEWS, #WMvsVT: Quarterback Michael Brewer makes his debut for the Hokies, who are hoping to reclaim their spot atop the Coastal Division this season. Running back and receiver are also two key areas to watch, especially freshmen Isaiah Ford, Marshawn Williams and Shai McKenzie. Trey Edmunds will play but won't start, as he continues to come back from a broken ankle.

5:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesVic Beasley and the Clemson defense will be tested by Georgia.
No. 16 Clemson at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN, #CLEMvsUGA: It is strength against strength: Clemson's defensive line against Georgia's run game. Todd Gurley rushed for a career-high 154 yards on the Tigers in their matchup last season, and the Clemson defense knows it must stop him first and foremost. The Tigers will play without suspended starting end Corey Crawford, but they have the returning talent and depth to make up for his absence. Clemson had 123 tackles for loss last season. The Tigers also had 28 sacks with just a four-man rush, fifth-best among power-five schools. Just how much Clemson has improved defensively will go a long way toward determining the outcome.

6 p.m.

Elon at Duke, ESPN3, #ELONvsDUKE: Duke is aiming for its fourth straight win in a season opener as it looks to continue on its momentum from the past two seasons. This is the first of four straight winnable nonconference games, which could have Duke 4-0 before it heads to Miami on Sept. 27 for a crucial Coastal Division showdown against the Hurricanes.

Liberty at No. 23 North Carolina, ESPN3, #LIBvsUNC: The storylines for the Tar Heels have been away from the field, as four players were suspended for this game following a Yahoo! Sports report that alleged a hazing incident between players. Larry Fedora has not publicly named his starting quarterback, but it probably doesn't matter whether Marquise Williams or Mitch Trubisky starts in this one.

8 p.m.

No. 1 Florida State at Oklahoma State, ABC, #FSUvsOKST: The Seminoles begin their Dallas-to-Dallas quest against the Cowboys, who return the fewest starters among all Power Five conferences. We all know Jameis Winston returns, but the storyline to watch in this one is who emerges at receiver next to Rashad Greene. A win would give the Seminoles 17 consecutive victories and match the school record set in 1999-2000.

Monday

Miami at Louisville, 8 p.m., ESPN, #MIAvsLOU: Miami has been waiting on its chance at revenge since December, when the Cards embarrassed them in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando. Much has changed for both programs since then: Louisville has a new coach and new offensive and defensive schemes; both teams have a new starting quarterback; Miami welcomes the return of running back Duke Johnson. And let's not forget this is the ACC debut for Louisville, as well. One pretty interesting note: Louisville was 22-1 at home under Petrino during his first stint as coach.
video 

There's Shaq Mason and Shaq Lawson. Shaquille Powell and Shaq Wiggins. There's even Shakeel Rashad.

Here a Shaq, there a Shaq, everywhere a Shaq Shaq.

Indeed, there has been a proliferation of Shaqs across the ACC and college football over the last few seasons thanks to Shaquille O'Neal.

What does basketball have to do with football? In this case, when O'Neal emerged as an NBA All-Star, his name started to become popular, too. In 1994, Shaquille was the 234th most popular name in the United States, according to the Social Security names database. Shaquille retained its popularity enough to earn a ranking in 1995 and 1996, too.

Mason was born in 1993, when O'Neal would have been going into his second year in the league with the Orlando Magic. The Georgia Tech guard confirms he was indeed named after Shaq Diesel.

"Every time I met a new person, they were always like, 'Were you named after Shaquille O’Neal?' Mason said. "But growing up, I was the only person around me named Shaquille. I didn’t know any others until I got older."

Mason is the only Shaq in the ACC named to the preseason All-ACC team, but he is not the only standout at his position named Shaq across the country. Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson is a preseason All-American candidate; South Carolina's Shaq Roland is one of the better receivers in the SEC.

Back in ACC country, Shaquille Powell will start at running back for Duke on Saturday against Elon. Lawson is the primary backup to Vic Beasley at Clemson; Wiggins has to sit out this season after transferring to Louisville from Georgia. Though his name is spelled differently, let's count Rashad in here, too. Especially since one of his nicknames is "Shakinabox."

Maybe we can spell that "Shaqinabox" just for this exercise.

Naming babies after athletes is nothing new. The name Jordan also started rising in popularity when Michael Jordan became basketball king. So did the name Peyton, after Peyton Manning emerged at Tennessee and then as a perennial NFL All-Pro.

Makes you wonder whether we will see a new generation of Jameises in 18 years.

ACC bowl projections: Preseason

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
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If predicting the order of finish in each division is tough duty this time of year, figuring out the bowl scenarios is an even crazier endeavor. Still, we'll take a crack at it each week of the season, beginning with our preseason projections.

A few quick caveats:
  • If the Orange Bowl selects a Big Ten team this year, a spot would open up in the Capital One Bowl for the ACC. We're not banking on that just yet.
  • Either the TaxSlayer Bowl or Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl gets an ACC team, but not both. For the purposes of our preseason projections, we're slotting a team into the TaxSlayer Bowl, but that could change down the road.
  • For bowl selection purposes, Notre Dame is treated as an ACC team, meaning the Fighting Irish will grab one of the conference's tie-ins unless it is invited to the College Football Playoff.
  • The Birmingham Bowl serves as a backup for the ACC should enough teams become eligible. We're not projecting that yet either.
  • After the playoff committee makes its selections and the Orange Bowl makes its pick, the Russell Athletic gets the next choice of teams. After that, the next group of four work together to decide on selections with geography and a fan base's likelihood to travel to the game playing a role. We attempted to account for that below.

With all that said, here's our best guess at what awaits the ACC in December and January.

College Football Playoff: Florida State Seminoles
Orange Bowl (Miami): Clemson Tigers
Russell Athletic Bowl (Orlando, Florida): Virginia Tech
TaxSlayer Bowl (Jacksonville, Florida): Miami
Belk Bowl (Charlotte, North Carolina): North Carolina
Hyundai Sun Bowl (El Paso, Texas): Louisville
New Era Pinstripe Bowl (Bronx, New York): Notre Dame
Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman (Annapolis, Maryland): Pitt
Duck Commander Independence Bowl (Shreveport, Louisiana): Duke
Quick Lane Bowl (Detroit): Syracuse
BITCOIN St. Petersburg Bowl: Georgia Tech
Larry Fedora finds a certain amusement in toying with the media, as evidenced by his quip earlier this week that he hasn't named a starting quarterback simply because it annoys his interrogators.

So perhaps it was that same devilish sentiment that led Fedora to offer reporters at last month’s ACC Kickoff a chance to line up against his new running back for a few tackling drills. Or maybe it was simply that the power of Elijah Hood needs to be experienced to be believed.

Either way, his point was clear: Being on the wrong side of a blow from the UNC freshman is not a pleasant experience.

[+] EnlargeElijah Hood
AP Photo/The Herald-Sun, Christine T. NguyenElijah Hood, right, will bring a physical presence to the Tar Heels' rushing attack.
“Hood is like a bull in a china closet,” Fedora said. “He’s 225 pounds, he’s got great speed and he likes to run into things. When he breaks through, he’s not looking to avoid contact. He’s looking for something to run into — our team, their team, it doesn’t matter. He just wants something to hit.”

As North Carolina gets set to open the 2014 season, Hood is currently listed as one of three backups to starter T.J. Logan, but that’s hardly an indication that the freshman will lack opportunities to deliver punishment on the field.

The Tar Heels’ backfield is diverse, with Logan playing the part of Hood’s polar opposite, a shifty, 185-pound speedster. Logan is the Ferrari. Hood is the bulldozer.

“He’s bringing the power to our backfield,” Logan said. “When DBs come up to make tackles, they’re going to have to adjust to Elijah.”

That can be a difficult adjustment, with bruisers like Andre Williams (6-0, 227) running wild last year, and a host of big backs gearing up for big seasons this year, including Florida State’s Karlos Williams (6-1, 225), Louisville’s Dominique Brown (6-2, 233), Miami’s Gus Edwards (6-1, 221), Syracuse’s Adonis Ameen-Moore (5-11, 246), and Pitt’s James Conner (6-2, 250), who also plans to play a bit at defensive end.

Even among the new faces in the conference, Hood isn’t alone in his role as battering ram. Virginia Tech has freshmen Marshawn Williams (5-11, 229) and Shai McKenzie (5-11, 221), while Louisville backs up Brown with another big back in L.J. Scott (6-1, 228).

But Hood may be the first of the true freshmen to garner a major role this season, and his presence could be a huge benefit for the Tar Heels. Fedora raved about how quickly the freshman picked up blocking schemes and blitz pickups -- “faster than any freshman I’ve had,” he said -- and Hood’s role as a between-the-tackles runner is a significant asset.

Last year, UNC had the lowest rushing average in the ACC on third-and-short runs and the fourth-lowest third-and-short conversion rate. The Heels scored on just 13 of 31 rushing attempts from inside the 5-yard line, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They also lost their biggest back from 2013 in A.J. Blue.

As the team looks to establish its ground game this season, Hood’s presence presents options.

“He’s special,” Fedora said. “What’s his role going to be? It’s hard to say that. He’s going to play in the first game and his production will determine how much he plays in the next game.”

That’s the game plan for each of North Carolina’s four primary backs, Fedora said. There’s a plan in place for touches and substitutions, but none of it is etched in stone. If Logan or Romar Morris or Khris Francis looks particularly sharp, they’ll keep getting the ball. And if it’s Hood that steals the bulk of the carries, that’s fine too.

“I have confidence in him from what I’ve seen, but there’s still some unknown,” Fedora said. “But I’m excited to see him out there.”
North Carolina defensive tackle Ethan Farmer has been cleared to play by the NCAA after having his eligibility issue resolved, the school announced Thursday.

Farmer, who started 13 games last season, is the only returning starting defensive lineman on the team. This is especially big news, considering fellow linemen Shawn Underwood and Greg Webb are no longer part of the program.

During the ACC coaches' call Wednesday, coach Larry Fedora described just how important Farmer is to the line when asked what the Tar Heels would do without him.

"There's the most experienced guy that we've had in the interior defensive line, going into his senior year. It will just make an opportunity for some younger guys to
step up and grow up even quicker."

While the Tar Heels got good news on that front, they still will be without four suspended defensive players Saturday against Liberty. Starting cornerbacks Desmond Lawrence and Brian Walker, redshirt freshman Donnie Miles and true freshman M.J. Stewart are all out.

ACC Week 1 predictions

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
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Why Clemson will win: Defense. It wins championships, right? It will win this game for the Tigers, who led the nation in tackles for loss last season and return every single major contributor to the group. An improved front seven means better results slowing down Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, the two players Clemson needs to slow down the most. Rather than the shootout we saw a year ago, the defenses will have a much bigger role this season. Right now, Clemson is better than Georgia there, so I'm calling for the upset.
-- Andrea Adelson

Why Georgia will win: Early-season games against nationally recognized teams have not been kind to Georgia coach Mark Richt over the years (see: Clemson, Oklahoma State, Boise State, South Carolina x 2), so the law of averages says he has to win some, right? Well, there's more than just cosmic balancing in the Bulldogs' favor. While the Tigers made huge gains on defense a season ago, they also allowed an average of 38 points per game against Florida State, Georgia, Ohio State and South Carolina. We're not quite sure what to expect out of new Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason, but the duo of Gurley and Marshall at running back is unmatched anywhere else in the country. Last season's game might have played out differently had Gurley not strained a quad on a 75-yard touchdown run.
-- Jared Shanker

Why Miami will win: Duke Johnson changes everything for the Canes, as he keeps their offense moving and takes plenty of pressure off Brad Kaaya. Likewise, the loss of DeVante Parker takes plenty of punch out of Louisville's offense. A new coach, a new league and a new quarterback create too much uncertainty around a Cardinals team that has the target on its back after embarrassing Miami last time around. -- Matt Fortuna

Why Louisville will win: It's not that I'm supremely confident in this pick, but the Cardinals have a few things going for them. First, it's a marquee game for the program, its first as a member of the ACC. Secondly, while a lot has changed on defense for Louisville, it was the top-ranked rushing D in the country last season, which should help Todd Grantham's crew deal with the dynamic Duke Johnson. Most important, however, at quarterback Miami is starting a true freshman in his first career game on the road in a frenzied atmosphere. It won't be a gimme, but Louisville will pull off the victory. -- David Hale

Upset pick of the week

Why ULM will win: ULM has three advantages: It beat Wake Forest a year ago and is familiar with some of the returning personnel; the WarHawks bring back 14 starters; and they are playing at home. Wake Forest is starting true freshmen at quarterback and center. It's never easy to go on the road and make your first career start, let alone on national television. Factor in all the youth and inexperience for the Deacs, and you see why ULM has the edge. -- Andrea Adelson

More consensus picks: Syracuse over Villanova; Pittsburgh over Delaware; UCLA over Virginia; Georgia Tech over Wofford; NC State over Georgia Southern; Boston College over UMass; Virginia Tech over William & Mary; Duke over Elon; North Carolina over Liberty; Florida State over Oklahoma State

ACC morning links

August, 27, 2014
Aug 27
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If the first season is usually when a coach gets the benefit of the doubt, Year 2 is when fans want to see improvement so that by Year 3 the coaching staff's plan is coming to fruition.

The ACC has three second-year coaches, each with differing expectations. Athlon Sports took a look at those coaches and what the 2014 outlook is for each coach's program.

Writer Steven Lassan states Boston College's Steve Addazio exceeded expectations in his inaugural season as BC's coach, and there is little doubt Addazio did a great job getting to a bowl game. Without Andre Williams it will be a challenge to get back to a bowl game, but the first half of the schedule sets up pretty nicely.

A bowl game in 2013 and key returners has Syracuse fans believing Scott Shafer will keep the Orange moving in the right direction. There are only two games on the schedule where the Orange will not be given a great chance to win, so there is an expectation for Syracuse to once again be bowl eligible.

At NC State, Dave Doeren is given a partial pass last season after losing his starting quarterback. While the Wolfpack have a long way to go, Doeren has his quarterback in Jacoby Brissett. There is definitely an expectation the Wolfpack will be better, and they can't be much worse after going winless in the ACC last season. Brissett was a highly regarded quarterback coming out of high school, so there is the potential NC State can surprise some teams this season and pull off an upset or two.

Here's a few more links to help you through the day. Remember, we get FBS football tomorrow!

ACC fearless predictions

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
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The college football season is finally ready to kick off. No doubt all the time we’ve spent studying depth charts and devouring news will be rendered meaningless by September’s end, but that won’t stop us from making a few bold predictions about what’s to come in 2014. If we get half of them right, we’ll call it a success.

1. Jameis Winston will post better numbers -- but won’t win the Heisman.

Much has been made of the depletion of Winston’s receiving corps, but losing Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw won’t spell doom for the Florida State QB. In fact, Winston struggled at times last year when getting too greedy down the field, and a renewed emphasis on a shorter passing game could up his numbers. When throwing to RBs or TEs last year, Winston completed 79 percent of his throws and averaged 11.6 yards per attempt, with 11 of his 86 passes going for touchdowns. Add the likelihood he’ll play more fourth quarters this season, and his numbers could well go up in 2014 -- but, of course, winning back-to-back Heisman Trophies is no easy task, and neither Winston nor coach Jimbo Fisher has ever shown much interest in chasing individual awards.

[+] EnlargeWill Gardner
AP Photo/Garry JonesUnder coach Bobby Petrino, Will Gardner has a chance to flourish as Louisville's starting QB.
2. Louisville’s Will Gardner will be the ACC’s second-best quarterback.

It’s telling that what could’ve been one of the most discussed QB vacancies in the conference was actually among the least interesting this offseason. Coach Bobby Petrino waited until Sunday to make it official, but Gardner was the obvious choice since the spring. Then there’s this: In nine years as a head coach, Petrino’s starting QBs have averaged 63 percent completions, 8.8 yards per attempt, 21 TDs and 8 interceptions -- stats that would’ve rivaled any QB in the league last year, save Winston and Tajh Boyd.

3. Virginia Tech wins 10 again.

The Hokies won at least 10 games in each of their first eight seasons in the ACC, but that streak ended in 2012 and the team is just 10-10 against Power Five conference foes in the past two years. But coach Frank Beamer is giving his young talent a chance to shine, the Week 2 date with Ohio State suddenly looks a lot more winnable and the rest of the schedule shapes up nicely for the Hokies. The offense needs to get a lot better to be a legit College Football Playoff contender, but Virginia Tech will at least be in the conversation.

4. Virginia goes bowling.

The schedule makes this a tough sell. Ten of Virginia’s 12 opponents played in a bowl game last year, and there may not be a single easy win on the slate. But there’s talent in Charlottesville, including 19 four- or five-star recruits inked in the past four years. That’s more than Louisville (16) and just one fewer than Virginia Tech (20). That talent has to translate to wins eventually, right? It’ll take some upsets, but the Hoos will get to six wins.

5. Clemson is a running team.

With Boyd and Sammy Watkins stealing the bulk of the headlines the past three years, Clemson’s passing game got a lot of credit for the team’s success. But the Tigers actually ranked in the top three in the ACC in rushing attempts in each of those three seasons. Now with a new QB and significant turnover at receiver, the passing game is a question, but Dabo Swinney loves his tailbacks. Don’t be surprised if freshman Wayne Gallman tops 1,000 yards -- something a Clemson tailback has done each of the past three seasons.

6. Young runners make a big impact.

Gallman won’t be the only rookie runner to make noise in 2014. The ACC has some impressive veterans in Duke Johnson, Karlos Williams, Kevin Parks and Dominique Brown, but there are plenty of fresh faces eager to make an impact, too. Virginia Tech’s Marshawn Williams, North Carolina’s Elijah Hood and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook could join Gallman as freshman sensations, while sophomores like T.J. Logan, James Conner, Myles Willis, Matt Dayes and Taquan Mizzell could all have big seasons, too.

7. Stacy Coley catches a TD from three different QBs.

If there was a more settled QB situation at Miami, Coley might be a niche pick for Heisman honors as one of the game’s most explosive players. Unfortunately, it could be a revolving door at QB for the Canes. Freshman Brad Kaaya gets first crack, and the hope is that Ryan Williams will return from an ACL injury sooner than later. Don’t be surprised if Jake Heaps or Kevin Olsen gets a shot to start at some point, too. Coley will make them all look better, but he’d benefit from some stability at QB.

8. Jamison Crowder sets the standard.

Crowder had 30 more targets last season than any other ACC receiver, and now Duke is without its second-best pass-catcher in Braxton Deaver. That makes Crowder an even more integral part of the Blue Devils’ passing game, and it means he should cruise past former teammate Conner Vernon’s ACC record for receiving yards. Crowder is just 1,152 yards short entering the season.

9. Tyler Murphy and Jacoby Brissett look good.

Boston College and NC State will both be starting QBs who transferred from Florida, and both have a chance to put up solid numbers. In fact, we're predicting both Murphy and Brissett post better stats this season than Jeff Driskel, the man who kept them both on the bench in Gainesville.

10. The Coastal champ will be ...

Is there really any answer here that would feel remotely safe? Heck, Georgia Tech could win the division or miss out on a bowl game. Anything seems possible. But since it’s prediction time, we’ll ante up, just so you can remind us how wrong we were in December. So, let’s say ... Virginia Tech.

ACC morning links

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
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ESPN Stats & Information has unveiled its first set of conference power rankings for 2014.

What if I told you the ACC was ranked fifth?

Not surprising in the least.

At this point, it is hard to see the ranking as a huge slap at the league, considering the ACC also was ranked fifth in the final 2013 conference power rankings with a national championship and Orange Bowl win to brag about. The ranking speaks to the state of the entire conference, which we all can agree needs to upgrade its product behind the Noles and Tigers.

The key difference between last season and this season, though, is the College Football Playoff. And conference ranking could come into play when the selection committee begins its evaluations. Because strength of schedule will matter. As our friends at Stats & Info point out in their post:
Among Power Five conferences, the ACC is considered the weakest by both the AP Poll and FPI. That means that if the top four conferences place a team in the playoff, it would leave the ACC on the outside looking in. Yet, there is a lot more that goes into those decisions, including the fact that the ACC has the clear No. 1 team in the country. Florida State received 57 of 60 first place votes in the AP Poll and has by far the best chance (39 percent) to finish the season undefeated according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

However, what if Florida State loses a conference game? Does the relative strength of the ACC come into play?

All fun questions to ponder before the season begins.

Let's take a tour around the rest of the ACC as the games quickly approach:
  • Boston College may use its running backs out of the backfield more than it did a year ago.
  • Clemson has studied tape from its game against Florida State last year for clues on how Jeremy Pruitt will run the Georgia defense.
  • Duke football has come so far, what if it takes a step back?
  • More fun predictions! Stewart Mandel at FoxSports has Florida State in the playoff and Clemson facing Alabama in the Discover Orange Bowl.
  • Louisville running back Michael Dyer remains doubtful for the opener against Miami.
  • Ryan Williams and Jake Heaps talk about Brad Kaaya winning the Miami quarterback job.
  • Joe Giglio has a great read on NC State quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who has high expectations for himself headed into the season.
  • Is North Carolina going to be the Coastal champ? One columnist says yes.
  • Apparently, Larry Fedora takes pleasure in tormenting people.
  • Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer compared freshman receiver Isaiah Ford to Antonio Freeman.
  • Could Kevin Johnson and Merrill Noel be Wake Forest's best cornerbacks ... ever?
The biggest problem facing the ACC moving forward in the College Football Playoff era is not the teams at the top of the league.

It is everybody else.

While it is great that Florida State and Clemson have proven capable of being playoff contenders year in and year out, what would give both teams and the entire league a huge boost is the development of a solid, consistent Top 5 teams.

That is what the SEC has right now and why it is viewed as having the toughest strength of schedule in the country. Folks look at the ACC strength of schedule and shrug their shoulders. With a selection committee now parsing through every schedule, every strength and every weakness, the idea that the ACC has a relatively weak strength of schedule is one that could end up hurting playoff contenders.

[+] EnlargeFrank Beamer
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesThe ACC would benefit from a return to power by Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech Hokies and the Miami Hurricanes. The teams meet this season Oct. 23 in Blacksburg, Va.
All you need to do is look at the final ESPN.com conference power rankings for the explanation. Despite a national championship from Florida State and a BCS win from Clemson, the ACC finished No. 5 among the Power 5 conferences. ESPN Stats & Information, which compiled the rankings, noted:
The only reason that the ACC is not ranked higher in the conference rankings, however, is the conference is still lacking depth; the ACC went 3-6 in its non-BCS bowl games, with the six losses by a combined 103 points.

With only four spots in the playoff and five power leagues, somebody is going to get left out. The nightmare scenario, of course, would be for the ACC to be on the outside looking in, with strength of schedule the big reason why.

The only real way to fix that is for the rest of the league to rise up.

We're looking squarely at you, Miami and Virginia Tech.

Back when both teams were added in 2004, the hope was that they would instantly improve the league's football profile. Virginia Tech held up its end as one of the most consistent winners in the ACC over the past 10 years. But this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, and Virginia Tech has not done much for the ACC lately. The Hokies put together eight straight 10-win seasons and four conference championships between 2004-2011, raising their profile as one of the marquee teams in the ACC.

Yes, they took some hits for their BCS performance over that period, but overall this program raised the bar higher. Virginia Tech had been a virtual lock to hold up the ACC banner. Since 2004, the Hokies finished with a Top 25 ranking eight times, more than any other team in the league. Ten wins are now expected, a big reason why two straight down years have hurt both the program and the league.

The ACC, meanwhile, is still waiting on Miami, which has not won 10 games since joining the ACC. The Canes came close a few times, including last season, but have had myriad issues to deal with on their climb back up to the top. Every season, the common refrain often includes, "Is this the year Miami will be back?" Its football history and tradition means the ACC needs Miami to thrive as a playoff contender, more than Virginia Tech.

After all, a program that has been known as a football power is held to a much different standard.

That is another reason why the ACC needs these four specific teams to be good. They are football schools. Look at how national perception has started to change with Florida State back on top. If Miami can get there, and if Virginia Tech can get there, all of a sudden the ACC has four strong football powers and can compete with any conference.

Another team into the mix would be ideal. It could be Louisville, coming off 23 wins in two years. It could be Georgia Tech, an ACC program with previous national championships. It could be Boston College, with three Top 25 finishes since 2004. It could be North Carolina. Anybody, really. It has been too long since the ACC had five teams ranked. With the league now expanded to 14, five should be the lowest number to hit.

The last time the ACC had five teams ranked was 2005, when Virginia Tech, Miami, Boston College, Clemson and Florida State were all in the Top 25. Note a common theme there?

Virginia Tech, Miami, Clemson and Florida State.

The ACC needs more of that.

By the numbers: Tight end talent

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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Much has been written about Florida State’s new-look receiving corps this offseason, including:
So, with all that talk about receivers, it’s not surprising that perhaps the Seminoles’ biggest mismatch in the passing game has dipped a bit beneath the radar.

[+] EnlargeNick O'Leary
Jeanine Leech/Icon SMINick O'Leary might go down as the best tight end in Florida State history.
That, of course, would be tight end Nick O'Leary, who projects to depart after this season as the best at his position in school history, notes Tomahawk Nation.

O’Leary could be crucial for Florida State this season as the Seminoles look for a red-zone target to replace the departed Kelvin Benjamin and a reliable receiver to take some pressure off the sure-handed Rashad Greene.

Based on last year’s statistics, O’Leary should be an obvious answer in both cases.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, O’Leary was targeted 10 times in the red zone last season, trailing only Greene (14) and Benjamin (13).

O’Leary also caught 8 of 9 passes thrown to him on third down, easily the highest percentage among FSU’s receivers last season.

And then there’s this: Among all ACC teams, no tight ends had a higher percentage of targets caught than Florida State (79.5 percent) and none averaged more yards per target (13.1) or reception (16.5) than the Seminoles. FSU also tied with Clemson and Boston College for the most touchdown receptions by a tight end last year with seven.

That’s serious production for a unit that also figures to have a healthy No. 2 option in Kevin Haplea this year, too, and it’s made O’Leary a clear All-American candidate.

O’Leary was targeted just 42 times last year, however, and that number figures to increase quite a bit in 2014. Would a 50-catch, 10-TD season be out of the question? That might actually be a starting point for predictions.

But Florida State isn’t the only ACC team with some tight-end talking points. Here are a few more ACC tight-end tidbits, courtesy ESPN Stats & Info.

  • Earlier this week, we wrote about Virginia Tech’s emerging weapons at the position. Coordinator Scott Loeffler has made a habit of using his tight ends in every other offense he’s been a part of, but when starter Ryan Malleck went down last year in fall camp, it put a crimp in the Hokies’ plans. Expect much bigger things in 2014.
  • Pitt is hoping to use its tight ends more, too, as The Post-Gazette noted earlier this week. That would mark a significant change of direction for the Panthers. Just 9.7 percent of their passing yards last year went to tight ends — the fourth-lowest percentage in the league.
  • The three most targeted tight ends in the ACC last year won’t be around in 2014. UNC’s Eric Ebron is off to the NFL, Virginia’s Jake McGee transferred to Florida, and Duke’s Braxton Deaver is out for the season after an ACL injury earlier this week.
  • How big might the Deaver injury be for Duke? One notch below O’Leary’s big numbers for Florida State was Deaver. Duke’s tight ends accounted for the league’s second-best completion percentage (78.5 percent) and yards-per-target (9.9). David Reeves likely steps in as the starter, but the guy to watch out for in Duke’s passing game, according to QB Anthony Boone, will be redshirt senior Issac Blakeney (6-6, 225), whom Boone described as “Kelvin Benjamin-esque.”
  • The loss of McGee might be a mixed bag for Virginia. No team in the conference targeted its tight ends more (120 times) and none received less production from those targets (4.7 yards per target). Overall Virginia’s tight ends caught just 52.5 percent of their targets, with McGee hauling in just 53.1 percent of his targets.
  • Miami’s Clive Walford could be a crucial player for the Hurricanes’ offense in 2014. With a new QB taking the reins, Walford makes for a fun target. No ACC tight end had a higher percentage of his yards come after the catch last year than he did (61.5 percent). The downside? Walford also had more drops than any other ACC tight end (six).
With the news that Ohio State lost quarterback Braxton Miller for the season, USA Today wondered what the effect might be of a major injury on a few of the other top College Football Playoff candidates, including Florida State.

[+] EnlargeSean Maguire
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsEven with second-stringer Sean Maguire at quarterback, Florida State would be an ACC favorite. But maybe not a national favorite.
According to the story, a switch from Jameis Winston to Sean Maguire at QB would mean roughly 10 fewer points per game and two fewer wins for FSU.
Substitute Maguire for Winston and the Noles still win the ACC championship, but without Winston they only average 33.9 points per game and win 9.4 games on average.

The Orlando Sentinel digs a bit deeper, looking at what the ramifications of a Winston injury might be for the Seminoles.

I didn’t crunch any serious numbers, as USA Today did, or dig too deep into the roster the way the Sentinel did, but if I was putting together a list of the ACC’s most irreplaceable players, it’d probably look something like this:

1. Winston — for obvious reasons, as discussed above.

2. Duke Johnson — We saw what happened last year when he went down. Miami was 7-0 with him healthy, 2-4 when he wasn’t on the field the whole game. Not to mention the Hurricanes' rushing average was cut in half.

3. Jamison Crowder - The guy was targeted 174 times last year (40 more than Sammy Watkins) and that was before Duke lost Braxton Deaver and Brandon Connette.

4. Eli Harold - The guy averaged 24 more snaps per game than All-American Vic Beasley did, and Virginia’s defense is predicated on penetrating the line of scrimmage.

5. Jacoby Brissett — OK, NC State might not do much this year even with Brissett, but what’s the option if he goes down? The Pack’s hopes for 2014 are riding almost entirely on his shoulders, and unlike last year, there’s actually some reason for optimism.

Beyond that top five, Mario Edwards Jr., Luther Maddy, Norkeithus Otis and Tyler Boyd come to mind, too.

Of course, there’s surely a few more players left off the list that warrant discussion. So, who’d we miss?

A few more links:

  • The (Syracuse) Post-Standard has Virginia’s Mike London as the ACC’s only coach on the hot seat this season. One reason London is on the hot seat: a lack of production in spite of talent. Virginia is 18-31 under London. Only eight other teams have performed worse during the past four years, and of that group, only Cal has signed more four-star and five-star recruits than the 19 signed by London, according to ESPN’s rankings. (Of note: Kentucky has signed 16, but 14 have come in the last two years since Mark Stoops was hired as head coach. The other six programs with worse records than Virginia during that stretch have signed just 30 four-star or five-star recruits.)
  • The Wall Street Journal took a look at how each Power 5 conference coach has done against top-25 opposition in his career. The Louisville Courier-Journal followed up with a deeper look at Bobby Petrino’s credentials as well as a look at the individual ACC coaches.
  • There are still plenty of starting jobs up for grabs on the Virginia Tech offensive depth chart, as The Roanoke Times points out.
  • For years, Jim Grobe avoided playing true freshmen at Wake Forest. In the first season under Dave Clawson, it appears as many as nine will get a chance to play in this year’s opener, the Winston-Salem Journal writes.
  • And on related notes, earlier this week Matt Fortuna wrote a bit about Clawson’s journey to Wake Forest, and Jared Shanker looked at the programs most apt to play true freshmen.
  • Duke certainly projects to have a speedy secondary, which has earned the unit a unique nickname, writes the Charlotte Observer.
  • Steven Daniels is in line to be the next great middle linebacker at Boston College, writes the Boston Herald.
  • And lastly, if you don’t hear from me for the next 10 days, it’s because FXX is marathoning every “The Simpsons” episode ever, starting today. Here’s the full schedule if you’re portioning out your time to the most important episodes (“Marge vs. the Monorail is tomorrow at 9 p.m.) and here’s your requisite Simpsons gif to showcase my feelings about the event.

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