ACC: D.J. White
The ACC's Coastal Division is wide open entering the 2014 season. With six of seven teams receiving at least one first-place vote in the preseason media poll, the possibilities for how this race shakes out are seemingly endless. Here, we take a look at the six teams that garnered first-place votes, examining reasons that are working for and against them in their quests to get to the ACC title game.
Why Georgia Tech will win the Coastal
1) The secondary should be improved. Lose three starters, welcome back four. Sound confusing? Well, Georgia Tech does say goodbye to cornerbacks Jemea Thomas and Louis Young, but it returns a pair of players who had missed most or all of last season, as safeties Isaiah Johnson (knee) and Jamal Golden (shoulder) return from injury. Demond Smith had replaced Golden at safety last season and is now at corner, along with D.J. White, who was dominant in the Music City Bowl loss to Ole Miss (career-high 13 tackles, two forced fumbles, interception). This group should anchor the defense, perhaps offsetting some of the potential shortcomings that could await the defensive line this fall.
2) Don't sleep on special teams. Getting Golden back is crucial, as he is a versatile talent who showed he can make plays as both a punt and kick returner, having been the only player in the nation to finish in the top of each category in 2012. That might be easy to forget after some of the exploits of the rest of the ACC's returners in 2013, but Golden could be as good as any of them. Harrison Butker, meanwhile, is a reliable kicker with a strong leg, having converted 53 of 54 extra points as a true freshman last season, along with 10 of 14 field goal tries (including five of 40 or more yards).
3) The schedule is (fairly) favorable. Sure, six home games may be tough for most Power-5 conference schools to swallow in this era, but the Yellow Jackets do get Miami and Duke in Atlanta. More importantly, they get the Hurricanes following a bye week. The same goes for their trip to Athens, Ga., for the regular-season finale at rival Georgia. Georgia Tech's other three nonconference games to open the season are certainly winnable (Wofford, at Tulane, Georgia Southern), so it could help give this group some confidence going into the Sept. 20 conference-opening showdown at Virginia Tech.
Why Georgia Tech won't win the Coastal
1) The offseason turnover will take a toll. As noted Wednesday, Georgia Tech has had no shortage of turnover this offseason, and not in a good way. In addition to the seniors it said goodbye to like every other team, the Yellow Jackets have had 13 different non-senior players depart the program this offseason due to a number of different issues. ESPN 300 athlete Myles Autry, meanwhile, has been unable to enroll at Georgia Tech yet because of NCAA clearinghouse issues.
2) The defensive line has some question marks. Three starters are gone up front, the biggest among them being All-ACC end Jeremiah Attaochu. It will now likely be up to nose tackle Adam Gotsis to anchor the group after he tallied 14.5 tackles for loss last season. With second-year coordinator Ted Roof operating out of the nickel instead of the 4-3, Jabari Hunts-Days was moved up after playing linebacker, but he now finds himself sidelined for the season, as he is academically ineligible.
3) What do we know about the quarterbacks? Here's what we do know: Last year's starer, Vad Lee, is gone, having transferred to James Madison. Speedster Justin Thomas will replace him and seems like an ideal fit for Paul Johnson's triple-option attack, although he still has some work to do. Johnson is very high on reserve signal-caller Tim Byerly, but the possibility of him earning meaningful playing time inevitably begs the question of whether the Yellow Jackets have a controversy or competition on their hands.
QB: Tajh Boyd, Clemson: The big stage hadn't been kind to Boyd through most of 2013, but on the first day of 2014, he was exceptional. Boyd accounted for 505 yards and six touchdowns in a Discover Orange Bowl win over Ohio State, giving the ACC two BCS bowl game victors.
RB: James Conner, Pittsburgh: The freshman tailback carried 26 times against Bowling Green, blowing past Tony Dorsett for the Pitt bowl game record with 229 yards on the ground. For good measure, Conner chipped in on the defensive line for a few snaps, too.
RB: Devonta Freeman, Florida State: It wasn't the most spectacular performance of bowl season -- Freeman wasn't even the best running back on the field in the BCS title game -- but his hard running early kept FSU from falling too far behind, and his final tally -- 11 carries for 73 yards and a TD -- helped Freeman become the first FSU running back since Warrick Dunn to top 1,000 yards on the season.
WR: Jamison Crowder, Duke: Ho-hum, another 12 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown for Crowder, who turned in one last stellar performance to cap an exceptional season for the Blue Devils.
WR: Rashad Greene, Florida State: The Seminoles' dramatic comeback against Auburn in the BCS championship game wouldn't have been possible without Greene's big day. He was the only FSU receiver with positive yardage in the first half of the game, and his 49-yard reception -- he dodged two tacklers and picked up most of that yardage after the catch -- was the key play on FSU's dramatic last-minute, game-winning drive.
TE: Braxton Deaver, Duke: The junior had six catches for 116 yards, including three grabs that went for 25 yards or more and five that went for first downs.
OL: Dorian Johnson, Pitt: The Panthers simply overwhelmed Bowling Green's defensive front in the Little Caesars Bowl, racking up 487 yards of offense, including 255 on the ground. (Ed. note: We mistakenly included Matt Rotherham here in an initial post. Johnson slid from tackle to guard for the game, replacing Rotherham, and the Pitt line didn't miss a beat. We apologize for the error.)
OL: Jon Heck, North Carolina: Cincinnati entered the Belk Bowl second in the AAC in sacks with 35, but the Bearcats couldn't get to UNC QB Marquise Williams, as the Tar Heels' offense racked up 39 points -- the second-most Cincinnati gave up all season.
OL: Laken Tomlinson, Duke: The Blue Devils racked up 661 yards of total offense and 29 first downs against Texas A&M, with the offensive line -- led by Tomlinson -- paving the way for a 300-yard passer and a 100-yard rusher.
OL: Tre' Jackson, Florida State: Yes, the Seminoles' line allowed four sacks in the game, but Jackson and Co. also helped FSU run for more yards per carry (4.8) than the vaunted Auburn ground game and provided Jameis Winston with plenty of time to throw on a dramatic game-winning drive in the final minute.
C: Macky MacPherson, Syracuse: The Orange rushed for 208 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner with 1:14 left, to knock off Minnesota in the Texas Bowl. The physically dominant performance on the line was a fitting conclusion to MacPherson's Syracuse career.
DE: Mario Edwards Jr., FSU: Edwards had one sack and three tackles for loss among his six total tackles for a Seminoles front that turned it up a notch in the second half, allowing the offense to catch up and ultimately escape with the win.
DT: Andre Monroe, Maryland: The Terrapins' finale as an ACC member ended on a sour note with a 31-20 loss to Marshall in the Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman. Monroe tied for a game-high with 10 total tackles, three of which went for a loss, one of which was a sack. Monroe added a quarterback hurry as well.
DT: Aaron Donald, Pitt: With one more game to go in a historic season, Donald did not disappoint. The senior closed out his career with two tackles for loss, including one sack, to go with a pass break-up in the Panthers' 30-27 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl win over Bowling Green. Donald's sack came on second down of the Falcons' final drive, all but sealing the win.
DE: Vic Beasley, Clemson: Beasley was part of a Tigers front that made life extremely difficult for Braxton Miller and the rest of the Ohio State backfield. Beasley recorded four tackles for loss and a sack among his five total tackles, and in the end Clemson's defense proved to be the difference in a shootout win.
LB: Norkeithus Otis, UNC: The Tar Heels capped their strong second half with a bang, routing Cincinnati 39-17 in the Belk Bowl to make them 6-1 over their last seven games. Otis tallied seven total tackles -- two for loss and one sack among them -- to go with two quarterback hurries.
LB: Jack Tyler, Virginia Tech: UCLA proved to be too much for the Hokies in a 42-12 win in the Hyundai Sun Bowl, but Tyler played well, totaling seven tackles, including half of a sack, to go with one pass break-up and one quarterback hurry.
DB: P.J. Williams, FSU: The defensive MVP from the Vizio BCS National Championship came up huge when it mattered most, picking off Auburn's Nick Marshall early in the fourth quarter to set up a touchdown that cut the Tigers' lead to one. Williams finished with seven total tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss.
DB: Jemea Thomas, Georgia Tech: Thomas ended his college career with a bang, totaling a game-high 15 tackles. Three of those stops were behind the line of scrimmage, including one sack.
DB: D.J. White, GT: The Yellow Jackets get two more years of White, a future that looked all the brighter in the 25-17 loss to Ole Miss in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. White finished with 13 total tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception and three pass break-ups.
DB: Bryce Jones, Boston College: The Eagles' turnaround campaign under Steve Addazio ended on a down note, falling to Arizona 42-19 in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl, but Jones was a bright spot, with the sophomore notching a team-high 12 tackles, including one for loss.
K: Chris Blewitt, Pitt: Blewitt went 3-for-4 for the Panthers in Detroit, connecting from 25, 28 and, most important, 39 yards with the game-winning kick with 1:17 left in Pitt's 30-27 win.
P: Tommy Hibbard, UNC: Hibbard was phenomenal for the Tar Heels, punting four times for an average of 44.2 yards per boot. He pinned Cincinnati inside its own 20 three different times, and he had a long of 59 yards in the win.
KR: Levonte Whitfield, FSU: At the time, Whitfield's 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown seemed as if it would go down as one of the greatest returns in BCS championship game history. The touchdown gave Florida State a 27-24 lead with 4:31 to play -- but the lead would change twice more before it was over. Whitfield finished the game with 172 return yards.
PR: Ryan Switzer, UNC: The Tar Heels had a huge day on special teams in a Belk Bowl win over Cincinnati, with Switzer -- an All-American -- leading the way, returning his fifth punt of the season for a touchdown.
Maryland could end up playing the most, and having players who make the biggest impact. You have quarterback Perry Hills starting in place of the injured C.J. Brown. Highly touted athlete Stefon Diggs has had an outstanding preseason camp. Don't forget about running backs Albert Reid and Wes Brown, who also have looked really good.
Here are a few young players to keep an eye on at each school.
Boston College: Justin Simmons, DB. Defensive back is an area where Boston College needs help, especially after the loss of Al Louis-Jean, who's out six to eight weeks with a foot injury. Simmons already has made his presence felt. In a scrimmage last weekend, he had two interceptions. Also watch for defensive back Bryce Jones and linebacker Steven Daniels.
Duke: Jela Duncan and Shaquille Powell, RBs; Ross Martin, PK. Duncan and Powell have turned heads during the preseason, and coach David Cutcliffe said he would feel comfortable using both players in the opener against FIU. Martin is sure to get plenty of game experience as the starting kicker this year. Others to watch: receiver Max McCaffrey, tight end Erich Schneider and safety Dwayne Norman, who had an interception return for a touchdown in one scrimmage.
Florida State: Ronald Darby, CB. Do not be surprised if Darby ends up starting in the spot vacated by Greg Reid. Darby and Nick Waisome are competing for the starting job. Coaches like both players, but there is something special about Darby. Said coach Jimbo Fisher: Darby is "going to be a very, very good one." Also watch for defensive tackle Eddie Goldman and tight end Christo Kourtzidis.
Georgia Tech: Anthony Autry and Micheal Summers, WR. Georgia Tech only has four other scholarship wide receivers, so that increases the chances for Autry and Summers to play this season. Autry seems to have a slight edge over Summers. Others to watch: defensive back D.J. White.
Maryland: In addition to Hills, Diggs, Brown and Reid, several others could make an impact this year. Punter Brad Craddock is competing for the starting position with redshirt freshman Nathan Renfro; and cornerback Sean Davis could be starting on opening day because he has done well, and there are some injuries on defense.
Miami: Ereck Flowers, OL. Flowers is listed as a starter right now at right tackle, helped in part because of Seantrel Henderson's absence. Offensive line coach Art Kehoe has been extremely impressed. Others to watch: defensive back Tracy Howard and running back Duke Johnson. Howard is listed on the two-deep behind Ladarius Gunter but has drawn raves so far and so has Johnson, who should also return kickoffs this year. Deon Bush is in the mix for a starting safety spot.
North Carolina: Quinshad Davis, WR. Davis missed some early practice time because of a medical issue but has returned in the last week and has a big chance to make some noise. The Tar Heels are lacking depth at this position, and the way Larry Fedora likes to spread the ball around, he will take as many good receivers as he can.
NC State: Charlie Hegedus, WR. Receiver is a position of need for the Wolfpack, and Hegedus has seen more reps during fall camp with the injury to Bryan Underwood. One player NC State hopes you do not see this year is backup quarterback Manny Stocker, a true freshman behind veteran Mike Glennon.
Virginia: Maurice Canady, CB. Coaches are extremely high on Canady, who is in the mix to earn a starting spot in a secondary that has to be rebuilt this year. He has been working with the first team recently. Others to watch: Michael Moore at outside linebacker, and Eli Harold at defensive end.
Virginia Tech: J.C. Coleman, RB; Donaldven Manning, DB. Both players enrolled in January and are virtual locks to play this season. Coleman has separated himself from another true freshman, Trey Edmunds, despite a hand injury. He has had an outstanding fall camp. Manning has had to deal with a hamstring injury, but his early enrollment works in his favor.
Wake Forest: The Deacs rarely play true freshmen. But if there is one player who has a shot this year, it is defensive end Tylor Harris, who has stood out this fall for his pass-rushing ability -- something Wake Forest needs help improving this year.
Final East Carolina 28 17 Virginia Tech 21 Final Georgia Southern 38 Georgia Tech 42 Final Pittsburgh 42 Florida International 25 Final Syracuse 40 Central Michigan 3 Final 21 Louisville 21 Virginia 23 Final Arkansas State 20 Miami (FL) 41 Final North Carolina State 49 South Florida 17 Final Kansas 3 Duke 41 Final Wake Forest 24 Utah State 36 Final 9 USC 31 Boston College 37