The ACC has legitimate Heisman contenders this season. It has experienced quarterbacks. It has one of the nation’s top receivers. It has one of the country’s best defensive backs. And it has a preseason top-10 team in Florida State.
The question is who will emerge as the lead candidate to represent the ACC in the Heisman conversation? History says we start with players who will likely be leading winning teams. Here are my top three preseason choices:
1. Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel. No, I don’t think he is the best quarterback in the ACC. But I do think he’s playing for the best team, and that goes a long, long way -- especially if the Noles live up to the hype this year and maintain their position in the top 10 and win the ACC. If Florida State wins its first league title since 2005, Manuel would be deserving of consideration -- unless the offense struggled the way it did last year, while the defense and special teams was the difference in many of the games. Manuel, though, is definitely one of the best players in the ACC. He completed 65.3 percent of his passes last year for 2,666 yards and 18 touchdowns with only eight interceptions. He missed one game and parts of two others with injuries. His health will again be critical to the Noles’ chances this year.
2. Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas. Historically, the Heisman candidates play for winning teams, and once again, the Hokies have been picked by the media to win the Coastal Division. There’s not as much national buzz around this team, though, as there is around Florida State. Thomas could help change that. He has a better understanding of the offense now that he’s in his second season as a starter, and he is much more comfortable. Thomas racked up 3,482 yards of total offense last year, a school record. He also accounted for 30 touchdowns. The bigger questions are in his surrounding cast. We’ll get plenty of answers on Labor Day, when the Hokies face Georgia Tech in the season opener.
3. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson. The only reason he’s not No. 1 on this list is because he is suspended for the first two games. Not only will that hurt his production, but it will also hurt his public perception. Watkins, though, is still one of the most talented all-around players in the country, and he has said he has no idea what a “sophomore slump” even is. Watkins broke both the Clemson AND ACC records for most receptions by a freshman last fall. He ended the season with 82 catches -- 30 more than the previous record set by DeAndre Hopkins in 2010. He also had 826 kickoff return yards for a total of 2,288 all-purpose yards. If Watkins plays as well as he did or better this year -- and Clemson is able to defend its Atlantic Division title -- Watkins should be on everyone’s Heisman list.