ACC: Jeremy Cash

Top ACC players: Nos. 25-21

July, 28, 2014
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As we get set to open fall camps around the ACC, we're counting down the conference's top 25 players -- five per day all this week.

25. Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech Hokies

Position: Defensive tackle
Year: Senior

If Virginia Tech’s defense is to be among the best in the nation once again, Maddy will likely be the centerpiece of the front seven. He was exceptional last season, racking up 13.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks -- most among returning interior linemen in the conference. He also racked up 55 tackles and 16 quarterback hurries for a Hokies squad that allowed the fewest rushing yards per game in the league. But Tech also lost three senior linemen at season's end.

24. Jeremy Cash, Duke Blue Devils

Position: Safety
Year: RS Junior

The perfect fit in Duke’s 4-2-5 defensive scheme, Cash racked up a whopping 121 tackles and four interceptions last season working as both a safety and linebacker. At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, he’s a bit undersized as a true linebacker, but he matches up well against bigger receivers and is still strong enough to help in the run game. He was an All-ACC selection last season and got a nod from the media on this year’s preseason balloting. The Blue Devils’ secondary ranked 11th in the ACC in pass defense last season, but it's a young group that can develop nicely with Cash as a centerpiece in 2014.

23. Ronald Darby, Florida State Seminoles

Position: Cornerback
Year: Junior

Darby has been a standout since he set foot on campus in Tallahassee, Florida, yet he’s always managed to fly a bit beneath the radar with stars like Lamarcus Joyner and Xavier Rhodes alongside him in FSU’s secondary. But if fans have overlooked him, quarterbacks haven’t. Darby was Florida State’s most-feared defensive back last season despite a nagging groin injury that hampered him all year. According to STATS, LLC, no returning ACC defensive back targeted at least 20 times last season allowed a lower completion percentage than Darby.

22. Grady Jarrett, Clemson Tigers

Position: Defensive tackle
Year: Senior

He’s 6-1 and nearly 300 pounds, but coach Dabo Swinney gushes that Jarrett is as physically sculpted a player as he’s come across. In fact, Swinney said if he was starting a team from scratch, he would build around Jarrett. That’s high praise considering the other stout defensive linemen on the Tigers roster. Still, Jarrett is unquestionably one of the conference’s top interior linemen, having racked up 83 tackles (including 11 for a loss) and 14 quarterback pressures last season.

21. Stephone Anthony, Clemson Tigers

Position: Linebacker
Year: Senior

One of the ACC’s top tacklers, Anthony adds another weapon to a ferocious Clemson defensive front. His 15 tackles for loss in 2013 were the most among returning ACC linebackers, and with a deep defensive line in front of him, those numbers could go up in 2014.

By the numbers: Dominant DBs

July, 24, 2014
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Let’s begin with a little either-or exercise.

Below are the basic stats for two defensive backs — tackles, tackles for loss, interceptions and passes defended. If forced to choose Player A or Player B for your team, which one would you want?

Player A: 121 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 4 INTs, 8 PD
Player B: 49 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PD

Look over the numbers for a minute or 10, but really, it should’t take that long. It’s pretty clear that by any of our regularly deployed metrics, Player A is a clear frontrunner, right?

But here’s where it gets a little tricky. Player A is Duke safety Jeremy Cash, and those gaudy numbers from 2013 earned him a spot on the media’s preseason All-ACC team.

[+] EnlargeJalen Ramsey
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State's Jalen Ramsey isn't on the preseason All-ACC team. Was it an oversight?
The funny thing, however, is after that happened, a whole host of fans and media erupted in confusion because of the clear oversight that Player B, who happens to be Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey, was left off the squad.

So how is it that in the eyes of many experts, Cash seems not just the wrong choice compared to Ramsey, but a ludicrous one?

I’ll admit, I was one of the many offering confusion that Ramsey could miss out on first-team All-ACC status, and my basic rationale was two-fold. On one hand, Ramsey passes the eye test. He looks like a great player, was a five-star recruit and coaches and scouts gushed about his quick grasp of Florida State's defense. He was a true freshman last season and started every game, playing both safety and corner. Secondly, Duke’s defense, which did post some gaudy stats when it comes to tackles and takeaways, was also pretty darned bad. Florida State's secondary allowed 90 fewer yards per game and 11 fewer passing touchdowns than Duke. So shouldn’t the Seminoles’ defensive backs earn the rewards?

It’s an argument that makes sense, too, which only goes to underscore how limited our typical metrics for evaluating defensive backs are.

Cash has more tackles, more interceptions, more passes defended. Ramsey was a key figure in a secondary that was perhaps the best in the country. But maybe Cash benefited from opposing QBs attacking him more often because they weren’t concerned he’d beat them. Or maybe Ramsey benefited from having so many elite players around him. For every argument, there’s a perfectly reasonable counterargument.

Of course, we also don’t have to live with just those basic metrics, either. We wanted to dig a little deeper.

Stats LLC uses a stat called “burn rate” to track defensive backs. It looks at the number of times they were targeted and how many of those passes were completed. This should be a far better way of isolating a single DB, right?

So, using those numbers, how does our theory about Cash being a more ripe target for opposing QBs hold up? Actually, not too well. According to Stats LLC, Cash was targeted 41 times last season, 32nd-most in the ACC. Ramsey was targeted a tick less — 35 times, 47th-most in the ACC. So yes, it does speak highly of Ramsey that a true freshman was targeted, on average, just 2.5 times per game, but the numbers also don’t entirely serve the simple narrative that Cash’s counting stats (tackles, INTs, etc.) benefited from more opportunities.

But if Cash wasn’t targeted significantly more often, surely he didn’t snuff out those targets quite as well as Ramsey. Again, the numbers don’t make the case quite so clear.

Cash’s burn rate (43.9 percent) ranked 22nd in the ACC and was better than Ramsey’s (45.7 percent, 27th in ACC). Cash picked off four passes, the 10th-best rate in the ACC, to Ramsey’s one. Cash defended 19.5 percent of passes, good for 25th in the conference and better than Ramsey’s rate of 5.7 percent (good for 85th). The one area where Ramsey stood out was that, when he was burned, it was rarely for a lot of yards. His 9.7 yards per completion ranked eighth-best in the ACC and his 4.4 yards per attempt was seventh. And, after all, limiting the big plays is the primary job of a safety. Cash allowed 15.2 yards per completion (53rd in ACC) and 6.7 yards per attempt (32nd).

Those last two numbers probably sum the argument up the best. When Cash was good, he was exceptionally good. He made a lot of tackles because his teammates didn’t. He made big plays when he had the chance, but he gave up quite a few, too. Ramsey wasn’t nearly as flashy and clearly had better teammates around him (Terrence Brooks, FSU’s other starting safety last season, had the lowest yards-per-completion rate in the ACC) and wasn’t tested in the running game nearly as often. He didn’t post dynamic numbers because he didn’t have to.

So where has all this gotten us?

I’d argue that the numbers prove Cash certainly wasn’t a bad choice for first-team All-ACC honors. His play in 2013 and the assumption he’ll be better in 2014 more than qualifies him for the honor.

But I’d also argue that Ramsey’s vote total (just 13 votes, nine at safety and four at corner, where FSU had him listed on the ballot) was far shy of any of the winners and appallingly low considering his talent.

But hey, a little friendly debate is really the best part of these preseason lists because, regardless of what the numbers say today, odds are they’ll all look a lot different by season’s end.

And since we tracked down the numbers, here’s a quick look at the best burn rates, defended pass rates, and YPC, per Stats LLC, among returning ACC defenders (min. 25 targets).

BURN RATE
1. Ronald Darby (Florida State), 33.3%
2. Maurice Canady (Virginia), 36.2%
3. Breon Borders (Duke), 37.5%
4. Ant Harris (Virginia), 37.8%
5. Justin Simmons (BC), 38.1%

PASS DEFENDED RATE
1. Borders (Duke), 37.5%
2. Harris (Virginia), 31.1%
3. Brandon Facyson (Virginia Tech), 27.7%
4. Hakim Jones (NC State), 27.0%
5. Ray Vinopal (Pitt), 25.7%

YARDS PER COMPLETION
1. Quayshawn Nealy (Georgia Tech), 9.3
2. Cameron Lynch (Syracuse), 9.6
T3. Denzel Perryman (Miami), 9.7
T3. Ramsey (Florida State), 9.7*
5. Brandon Chubb (Wake Forest), 9.8

*Note: Ramsey is the best among returning defensive backs. Nealy, Lynch and Perryman are linebackers. The next best returning DBs were Boston College's Justin Simmons (10.3), Duke’s Bryon Fields (11.7) and Miami’s Deon Bush (11.8).

Why Duke will win the Coastal

July, 23, 2014
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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 Duke will win the Coastal

[+] EnlargeAnthony Boone
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Boone playing with a chip on his shoulder could be good for Duke's ACC Coastal Division title hopes.
1) The Blue Devils are the defending champs. The program has had a steady climb under David Cutcliffe, most notably in the last two seasons, with a six-win campaign in 2012 preceding a 10-win, division-winning season last fall. Similar improvements this season, particularly on defense, will have Duke running away with the division, though one has to wonder how much higher this group has left to climb. Still, Cutcliffe has said that Duke is here to stay. And despite finishing second in the preseason media poll, the Blue Devils had the most first-place votes (33) of anyone, six more than the next-highest total, North Carolina at 27. They are good, and they know it. As does everyone else.

2) They have the skill players. Don't be surprised if Anthony Boone enters this season with a chip on his shoulder after seeing multiple preseason All-ACC teams list UNC's Marquise Williams ahead of him as the second-team quarterback. Boone took his Blue Devils into Chapel Hill last season and beat Williams and the Tar Heels, and Williams isn't even assured of starting this season. More importantly, Boone is throwing to one of the nation's most versatile receivers in Jamison Crowder, along with tight end Braxton Deaver and a talented stable of running backs who will be protected by an offensive line that brings back three key starters.

3) Their secondary is strong. The loss of All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell is not nearly as devastating as it probably could be, given the talent returning among the defensive backs. Safety Jeremy Cash is coming off a 121-tackle, four-interception season. DeVon Edwards is flexible in the back end and has a knack for making plays wherever he is on the field, including on kick returns. Breon Borders is looking to build off a freshman campaign that featured him picking off Jameis Winston twice in the ACC title game. Given the youth up front on the defensive line, this group will probably get tested more often, and it appears well-equipped to handle the workload.

Why Duke won't win the Coastal

1) The Blue Devils are the defending champs. Yes, Duke's success could -- could -- be the reason for its downfall, if there is one. As stated above, this program is no longer a secret commodity. In fact, some Coastal teams are probably still irked by the fact that Duke finished ahead of them in football. It's silly, yes, but it also presents a whole new set of challenges for a program that had not experienced much recent success until the last two seasons. How well Duke can handle having the target on its back will go a long way toward determining its fate in the division race.

2) Brandon Connette's legs will be missed. Connette is the program's career leader in rushing touchdowns (31), and his running ability was crucial in the red zone, which helped his efficiency as a passer as well. With Connette having transferred to Fresno State to be closer to his sick mother, more will be on Boone's plate, as the new No. 2, Thomas Sirk, has yet to take a college snap. Cutcliffe is high on the redshirt sophomore, but asking him to do what Connette was able to accomplish might be a tall task this early.

3) The defensive line is an unknown. Tackle Jamal Bruce is the only returning starter up front, though the other three linemen joining him on the first team are upperclassmen who have seen extensive time before. And, to be fair, the line was hardly dominant last season, averaging less than two sacks per game. Having a pair of 100-tackle linebackers back in David Helton and Kelby Brown sure helps, as does that secondary, but the pass rush cannot afford to take a step back in 2014.
The preseason All-ACC team was released Wednesday, and naturally quarterback Jameis Winston led the way with the most votes. There were not too many surprises, beginning with Florida State players littered throughout the list of 26 names.

Here is the 2014 preseason All-ACC team, as voted on by the media at the ACC Kickoff:

 
 
 

Thoughts: While the ACC had the second-most NFL draft picks in May, there is significant talent returning to the conference for the 2014 season. Of the 26 players, 21 were named to one of the three All-ACC teams at the end of last season. That doesn’t include Parker, who will play his first season in the ACC this coming season. Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and the leading vote getter (although not a unanimous one), and Beasley, who received the second-most votes, are two of the three returning consensus All-Americans from the 2013 season.

Few conferences would be able to rival that offense with Winston throwing to 1,000-yard receivers Crowder and Greene and a 6-foot-3 target in Parker. O’Leary is one of the best tight ends in the country. There was a seemingly close battle at running back behind Duke Johnson, Williams got the nod over Virginia running back Kevin Parks, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season.

Defensively, that is one talented line. Beasley received the second-most votes for the preseason player of the year, and Edwards was the No. 1 high school recruit in the 2012 class. Maddy and Jarrett are two of the best defensive tackles in the country.

Duke has the second-most players on the team, which speaks to the program David Cutcliffe is building in Durham. The Blue Devils were not picked to win the ACC Coastal despite winning it last season and returning quarterback Anthony Boone. There is a constituency out there that still doesn’t believe Duke is the real deal and is bound for a letdown, but the media believes there is talent throughout the roster; the Blue Devils have a player at receiver, offensive line, linebacker and the secondary. Miami, which was picked to win the division, has two players on the list.

Even as Duke had four players, the Seminoles still had nine, only further signifying the gap between Florida State and the rest of the conference, although the league is undoubtedly improving. That list does not include Ronald Darby or Jalen Ramsey, two players who will almost certainly be on an All-ACC team by the end of the season. It is no surprise Florida State was ranked as having the most talent on its 2014 roster two weeks ago in ESPN.com's future power rankings.
NFL.com has made its predictions for the ACC’s leaders in the major statistical categories, and it didn’t exactly go out on a limb with any selections. In fact, I’d say NFL.com’s picks are probably the same as mine.

But let’s play devil’s advocate for a bit today and dig a little deeper into the ACC’s talent pool to find some other contenders. So, here are my not-so-obvious choices:

Passing yards

NFL.com choice: Jameis Winston (Florida State)
Not-so-obvious choice: Will Gardner (Louisville)

OK, there’s really only one contender for this, and it’s Winston. But if we’ve got to find an alternative, we’ll go with Bobby Petrino’s new QB. In nine years as a college head coach, Petrino’s QBs have topped 3,000 yards five times (and that includes four different quarterbacks). Louisville also has a strong group of receivers and a veteran line in front of Gardner, so the passing game should be solid. And who knows? Perhaps FSU blows out so many of its opponents again that Winston’s numbers suffer as a result of too many second halves spent on the bench.

Rushing yards

NFL.com choice: Duke Johnson (Miami)
Not-so-obvious choice: Zach Laskey (Georgia Tech)

What separates Johnson beyond talent is that he figures to be a bell cow in the backfield, and that’s something that just doesn’t exist much anymore. Florida State, Syracuse, Clemson, UNC, Pitt — they’re all going to have more of a committee approach that will likely prevent any one back from piling up too many yards. That’s true at Georgia Tech, too, but because the Yellow Jackets run the ball more than anyone else (78 percent of its plays last year), we’ll assume Laskey will get his shot at a title anyway. Of course, despite all those carries, Tech tailbacks have led the ACC in rushing just twice under Paul Johnson (2008 and 2010).

Receiving yards

NFL.com choice: DeVante Parker (Louisville)
Not-so-obvious choice: Rashad Greene (Florida State)

OK, so Parker might actually be the not-so-obvious choice here, as Greene, Tyler Boyd and Jamison Crowder all return fresh off 1,000-yard seasons. We’d bet all four top 1,000 again this year, but the edge will go to Greene, who has the best QB throwing to him, but won’t have to compete with Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw for targets this year.

Tackles

NFL.com choice: Steven Daniels (Boston College)
Not-so-obvious choice: Kelby Brown (Duke)

A lot gets made of BC’s run of great tacklers. Every year, the Eagles produce another 100-tackle defender. But do you know which team had the top three tacklers in the ACC last season? That’d be Duke (David Helton, Jeremy Cash and Brown), and all three are back this year. In fact, in the last six seasons, Duke has produced eight players with 100-tackle seasons.

Sacks

NFL.com choice: Vic Beasley (Clemson)
Not-so-obvious choice: Corey Crawford (Clemson)

Beasley has already received so much attention, it would be a mild surprise if he led the league in sacks again just because opposing linemen will make him a focal point all season. In fact, the last time the same player led the ACC in sacks in consecutive years was Florida State's Peter Boulware in 1995 and 1996. So here’s betting that one of Beasley’s teammates reaps the rewards of all the attention he figures to get in 2014.

Interceptions

NFL.com choice: Kendall Fuller (Virginia Tech)
Not-so-obvious choice: P.J. Williams (Florida State)

This one is sort of a crapshoot, but Florida State figures to be up big in many games, forcing the opposition to throw, and with a balanced and deep corps of defensive backs, it will be hard for teams to avoid throwing to any one side of the field. So that means Williams should get a few chances, and he’s as talented as any corner in the country, so we’re betting he makes the most of a few of those opportunities.

More links:
It is a lighter day for preseason watch lists as only one was released on Friday. The Jim Thorpe Award, given annually to the nation’s top defensive back, announced 39 players on its watch list.

The conference players named to watch lists for this season can be found here. The ACC players to make the Thorpe Award watch list are below.

Jeremy Cash, Duke: Cash was an instant-impact player for the Blue Devils in 2013 following a transfer from Ohio State. With another year in the system, Cash is poised for a huge season. Cash is also on the Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy watch lists.

Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech: An impact performer as a freshman and a second-team All-ACC selection, Fuller is set to be the next great defensive back at Virginia Tech. Fuller is also on the Bednarik Award and Nagurski Trophy watch lists.

Anthony Harris, Virginia: An All-ACC selection as a junior, Harris will be looked upon to lead the turnaround for the Cavs on defense. It is a talented unit, and Harris, a team captain this fall, might be the best. Harris is also on the Bednarik Award and Nagurski Trophy watch lists.

Jalen Ramsey, Florida State: Only a sophomore, Ramsey is the Seminoles’ all-everything defensive back and will take over the role left by Lamarcus Joyner, a Thorpe semifinalist last year. On a defense stockpiled with NFL talent, many believe Ramsey is the best.

P.J. Williams, Florida State: Williams was one of FSU’s best players this spring, and he might be the country’s best cornerback. Williams also is on the Bednarik Award and Nagurski Trophy watch lists.
Two more watch lists were released Thursday, and the ACC is well-represented. The Bronko Nagurski Trophy is awarded to the nation’s top defensive player by the Charlotte Touchdown Club. The Outland Trophy is given to the nation’s top interior lineman, offensive or defensive.

Here are the ACC and Notre Dame players to make the watch lists:

Bronko Nagurski Trophy

LB Stephone Anthony, Clemson: A third-team All-ACC selection last season, Anthony was brilliant in the Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State with 11 tackles and an interception. Anthony is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DE Vic Beasley, Clemson: Beasley is a disruptive force in opponents’ backfields and registered 13 sacks as a junior. He led the ACC in sacks in 2013. Beasley also is on the Bednarik Award watch list.

LB Kelby Brown, Duke: The Blue Devils under David Cutcliffe are most known for offense, but Brown is a stout defender and one of the conference’s best. He will make a run at 100 tackles for a second consecutive season this fall. Brown is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DB Jeremy Cash, Duke: Cash was an instant-impact player for the Blue Devils in 2013 following a transfer from Ohio State. With another year in the system, Cash is poised for a huge season. Cash is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DL Mario Edwards, Florida State: The former No. 1 recruit nationally was dominant in the national title game. Edwards is now the leader of the defensive line and has just as good a chance as any to win the Nagurski. Edwards is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DB Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech: An impact performer as a freshman and a second-team All-ACC selection, Fuller is set to be the next great defensive back at Virginia Tech. Fuller is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DB Anthony Harris, Virginia: An All-ACC selection as a junior, Harris will be looked upon to lead the turnaround for the Cavs on defense. It is a talented unit, and Harris, a team captain this fall, might be the best. Harris is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DT Grady Jarrett, Clemson: With Beasley constantly seeing double-teams, this opens up the door for Jarrett to be an interior force for the Tigers’ defensive line, which is arguably the country’s best. Jarrett is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DT Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech: He helped make a name for himself against Alabama at the beginning of the season, and his strong play continued throughout the season. Maddy is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

LB Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville: It will be interesting to see how he fares without defensive guru Charlie Strong, but he is as talented as they come. Mauldin is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

LB Denzel Perryman, Miami: One of the few bright spots on Miami’s defense last season, Perryman is the unquestioned leader of the Hurricanes defense. He could put up a huge number of tackles this fall. Perryman is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

CB KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame: He has started every game in his career and was a FWAA Freshman All-American in 2012. He starred in the Irish’s bowl game with an interception and three pass breakups. Russell is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

LB Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame: Poised to be one of the best linebackers of recent history for the Irish, Smith started all 13 games as a freshman. He had the third-most tackles for a Notre Dame freshman in school history in 2013. Smith is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

CB P.J. Williams, Florida State: Williams was one of FSU’s best players this spring, and he might be the country’s best cornerback. His stiffest competition could come from the opposite side of the field in teammate Ronald Darby, who surprisingly did not make the list. Williams also is on the Bednarik Award watch list.

Outland Trophy

DL Sheldon Day, Notre Dame: An impact player since his freshman season, Day was second among Notre Dame defensive linemen in tackles last season.

OT Cameron Erving, Florida State: A potential first-round draft pick, Erving elected to stay in school for another run at a national championship. As Jameis Winston’s blindside protector, few linemen nationally hold as much responsibility.

OT Sean Hickey, Syracuse: A workout warrior and one of the strongest players in college football, Hickey is the linchpin to the Orange offensive line.

OG Shaquille Mason, Georgia Tech: A two-time ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week, Mason has started 26 of the last 28 games for the Yellow Jackets.

OG Josue Matias, Florida State: Another potential first-round candidate along Florida State’s offensive line, Matias is athletic enough to play offensive tackle, too. He experimented at left tackle this spring.

OC Jake Smith, Louisville: Smith could end up playing right guard, where he started earlier in his career, but he is coming off a junior season in which he started at center. Smith is also on the Rimington watch list.

OG Laken Tomlinson, Duke: A key along the offensive line for the Blue Devils, Tomlinson likely will be a preseason All-ACC team selection. He was a first-team All-ACC coaches selection in 2013 as the Blue Devils’ best lineman.

Clemson’s Grady Jarrett and Virginia Tech’s Luther Maddy were represented on both lists.
Duke lost All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell from its secondary, but the Blue Devils are poised to be even better this season thanks to a philosophical shift on the recruiting trail.

After the 2012 season ended, the Duke coaching staff sat down to discuss ways to make the program better. Defensive backs coach Derek Jones wanted to start recruiting a more complete and versatile player, capable of playing both cornerback and safety. That way it would be harder for opponents to find weaknesses in the secondary.

The change paid off immediately. Duke signed Breon Borders, Bryon Fields and Deondre Singleton in the class of 2013. All three came in after lettering in multiple sports in high school. Singleton was rated as both a cornerback and safety; Fields was listed as an athlete.

[+] EnlargeDeVon Edwards
Lance King/Getty ImagesDeVon Edwards started eight games as a redshirt freshman in 2013 and had two interception returns for a touchdown against NC State.
All three played as true freshmen. Add into the mix DeVon Edwards, who switched from cornerback to safety as a redshirt freshman, and Duke had an unprecedented youth movement in the secondary.

“I had never played that many true freshmen, and when I did it, I was very nervous,” Jones says with a chuckle. “I went into the season without a lot of depth. We only had Ross Cockrell who had starting experience.

“First game of the season, I told Ross I’m going put [Borders and Fields] in at corner on the third series of the game. We’re not going to tell them. I’m just going to throw them out there. I put them out there, and they both performed with the same confidence they practiced with. Once they got out there and got their teeth cut, that meant something to them.”

Borders and Fields both played in all 14 games last season, taking the second- and third-most snaps among all Duke cornerbacks. Borders broke the school freshman record for interceptions with four. They are the new starting cornerbacks for 2014.

Edwards started eight games last season and against NC State became the second player in NCAA history to score on interception returns on back-to-back plays. He returns to the starting lineup along with Singleton and junior safety Jeremy Cash, expected to be a preseason All-ACC selection after racking up 121 tackles and four interceptions last season while playing the most snaps of any Blue Devil.

Duke has no seniors among its most experienced defensive backs, so this is a group that can build on the steps it began taking last year.

“We had some success last year but the biggest thing is not to be satisfied,” Fields said in a recent interview. “One of the things that makes us successful as a group is the way we compete with each other. When we go into workouts and practices, we’re competing, jawing back and forth during every drill. Even off the field, we compete and that all makes us closer. That trust level we built is what makes our ceiling so high. We have the skill level, but that’s not what separates us.”

The closeness was built once they arrived on campus. Nobody knew each other in high school, but they all quickly became friends, including players who ended up redshirting last season such as Quay Mann and Evrett Edwards. Mann also has moved positions, switching from cornerback to safety.

Evrett Edwards, meanwhile, was the highest-rated defensive back recruit in the 2013 class and impressed in the spring game in March, tying for the team lead with eight tackles while adding a sack.

“We’re together everywhere we go off the field,” DeVon Edwards said recently. “If you’re not with the whole group, you’re with one person in the group. So our bond is real strong even away from football and that puts trust in our relationships on the field, allows us to get on each other.”

Bonding as young players helped, too, because they shared similar experiences together.

“I’d say it was just a stroke of luck that we all got together,” Fields said. “We all have similar personalities, we’re all competitive and that can be attributed to recruiting. Even Coach Jones has that dog-eat-dog mentality and that’s been translated down to us. We have a desire to be the best we can be.”
From Florida State's veteran line to Clemson's fearsome defensive front, the ACC projects to have some of the country's best position groups this fall, while a few other contenders will enter 2014 with some major question marks in key areas. With that in mind, we're looking at the ACC's best units, a few more that might surprise in 2014 and the top teams with holes that could keep them from an ACC title.

Previous installments of this series can be found here.

Next up: The secondary

Best of the best: Florida State

Where do we begin? FSU's defensive backs may be the best in the nation. Start with safety Jalen Ramsey, who started as a true freshman last season, earned freshman All-America honors and should step right into the role all-everything DB Lamarcus Joyner filled last season. Both Ramsey and corner P.J. Williams shined this spring, and they were recognized as such by sharing the team's Hinesman Award (spring standout), along with Jameis Winston. Ronald Darby has the potential to become a shutdown corner, Tyler Hunter has made a strong comeback from neck surgery that forced him out of the final 11 games of last season and Nate Andrews is looking to build off a standout rookie campaign that saw him lead the Seminoles in interceptions, with four.

Next up: Virginia Tech

If FSU's secondary is the best in the nation, Virginia Tech's probably isn't far behind. The Hokies return all four starters from a unit that ranked No. 8 nationally in passing defense last season. Corners Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson were thrust into immediate meaningful action in 2013 because of injuries and neither disappointed, tallying a combined 11 interceptions. Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner added two picks apiece, with Jarrett serving as the team's leading returning tackler this fall as well (71 in 2013). Injuries limited several key pieces of the secondary this spring, but if it's any consolation, that could prove valuable long-term for the next-in-line at DBU. It's how Fuller and Facyson were able to thrive so early, after all.

Possible sleeper: Duke

The departure of Ross Cockrell will be tough to fill, but the Blue Devils have a ton of talented and experience playmakers returning. And there could be more opportunities coming their way, thanks to the fact that they have a very green defensive line. Safety Jeremy Cash had four of the secondary's 16 interceptions last year (the team had 18 total), but his biggest impact may be up front, where he tallied 9.5 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles, in addition to tallying 121 tackles in 2013. Corner DeVon Edwards came on strong down the stretch and finished with three picks, and safety Deondre Singleton added one pick and two forced fumbles as well. Corner Breon Borders, meanwhile, holds the distinction of picking off the Heisman winner Winston twice last season as a freshman, and he is looking to build off a four-interception rookie campaign.

Problem for a contender: Louisville

It's all on the corners now. Replacing safeties Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor is a huge task for Todd Grantham in his first season as Louisville's defensive coordinator, and he at least benefits from a pair of returning starters at corner in Terrell Floyd and Charles Gaines. Still, there could be a pair of redshirt freshmen starting at safety (Charles Williams and Richard Benjamin), though Gerod Holliman and Michael Johnson might figure into the mix.
Do you need a sign college football is close but still just a little too far away? The first preseason award watch lists were released Monday, a list of more than 70 players that could be the best in the country by season’s end.

It doesn’t matter if you have started only three games in your career and haven’t played a down since November 2012 -- there is a spot for you on the list.

That said, it’s college football and as ridiculous as these often are, I admit I enjoy looking at them. The watch lists for the Maxwell Award, given to the college player of the year, and Bednarik Award, given to the top defensive player, were released Monday. As the season progresses, the list will be pared down before a winner is announced in December.

Here is a look at the ACC players to make the cut and some justification for each player being on the list.

Maxwell Award

WR Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh: As a freshman last fall, Boyd was as good of a receiver as there was in the ACC. As the Panthers’ No. 1 receiver heading into the 2014 season, Boyd could put up monster numbers and follow in the footsteps of Pitt great Larry Fitzgerald.

[+] EnlargeJames Connor
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJames Conner set a Pitt record with 229 yards in the Panthers' bowl win over Bowling Green.
QB Jacoby Brissett, NC State: This is not a knock on Brissett, but his inclusion is certainly puzzling considering he sat out all of 2013 after transferring from Florida, where he saw limited time as a starter and backup. However, the Wolfpack staff is high on Brissett leading the program’s turnaround, and Brissett was a blue-chip high school recruit.

WR Stacy Coley, Miami: Much like Boyd, Coley had a strong freshman season and is poised for a breakout sophomore campaign. One of the country’s elite recruits in 2013, Coley could make a national name for himself if he can build a connection with Miami’s quarterbacks, which have struggled with inconsistency and injury.

RB James Conner, Pitt: It’s almost unfair Conner was limited to just the Maxwell watch list Monday considering he is a two-way standout for the Panthers. Conner is already a huge fan favorite in the Steel City for his bruising and relentless running style, and he broke Tony Dorsett’s school bowl-game rushing record in December.

WR Jamison Crowder, Duke: Any time you catch more than 100 passes for more than 1,300 yards, you deserve to be on this list.

RB Duke Johnson, Miami: Johnson’s inclusion here is a credit to how dominant he was before the injury against Florida State and how woeful Miami looked after. If he can stay healthy, Johnson has the potential to be an elite back nationally.

WR DeVante Parker, Louisville: As the Cardinals’ leading returning receiver and now in Bobby Petrino’s offense, Parker should light up stat sheets this coming season.

WR Rashad Greene, Florida State: There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Seminoles’ receivers, but none of it includes Greene, who led the Noles in receiving in 2013. With Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw in the NFL, Greene will be looked upon to bail out Jameis Winston this fall.

QB Jameis Winston, Florida State: Speaking of Winston, the Maxwell is about the only thing he did not win last season. Another spectacular season and it will be hard to ignore him again.

RB Karlos Williams, Florida State: Similar to Brissett, this is a bit of a projection pick, although Williams has done significantly more than Brissett. Williams was the third-string running back in 2013, but with his five-star talent base coupled with a senior-laden offensive line and Williams could set records in his final season in Tallahassee.

Reaction: While Brissett is obviously a surprise, overall it is hard to argue with much of the list. Williams' inclusion might be pushing it a little bit, although he certainly could be one of the best running backs in the country with his blend of size and speed. It's a positive sign for the ACC that several underclassmen are on the list, including special playmakers Boyd, Coley and Conner, who will all be true sophomores this fall. The biggest question is whether Winston will win the award if he performs the way most expect him to as a redshirt sophomore. AJ McCarron won the award last season over Winston, who was a semifinalist along with Johnny Manziel. Winston's off-the-field issues might have played a role, so it would be interesting to see if the Maxwell Award will continue to take those incidents into account.



Bednarik Award

LB Stephone Anthony, Clemson: A third-team All-ACC selection last season, Anthony was brilliant in the Orange Bowl win against Ohio State with 11 tackles and an interception.

DE Vic Beasley, Clemson: A semifinalist for the award last season, Beasley is a disruptive force in opponents’ backfields. If he can show a little more consistency, he might win the award in 2014.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesClemson's Vic Beasley is among the favorites to repeat as a finalist for this season's Bednarik Award.
LB Kelby Brown, Duke: The Blue Devils under David Cutcliffe are most known for offense, but Brown is a stout defender and one of the conference’s best. He will make a run at 100 tackles for a second straight season this fall.

DB Jeremy Cash, Duke: Cash was an instant impact player for the Blue Devils a season ago following a transfer from Ohio State. With another year in the system, Cash is poised for a huge season.

DL Mario Edwards, Florida State: The former No. 1 recruit nationally was dominant in the national championship. Edwards is now the leader of the defensive line and has just as good a chance as any to win the Bednarik.

DB Anthony Harris, Virginia: An All-ACC selection as a junior, Harris will be looked upon to lead the turnaround for the Cavs on defense. It is a talented unit, and Harris, a team captain this fall, might be the best.

DE Eli Harold, Virginia: Last season he finished sixth in the ACC with 15 tackles for loss, an impressive number. He could see his numbers improve drastically with five-star Andrew Brown now at defensive tackle.

DB Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech: An impact performer as a freshman and a second-team All-ACC selection, Fuller is set to be the next great defensive back at Virginia Tech.

DT Grady Jarrett, Clemson: With Beasley constantly seeing double teams, this opens up the door for Jarrett to be an interior force for the Tigers’ defensive line, which is arguably the country’s best.

DT Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech: He helped make a name for himself against Alabama at the beginning of the season, and his strong play continued throughout the year.

LB Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville: It will be interesting to see how he fares without defensive guru Charlie Strong, but is as talented as they come.

DE/LB Norkeithus Otis, North Carolina: Otis is another player poised to possibly gain national recognition and it begins with his inclusion on this list. He had a very strong junior season with 6.5 sacks.

LB Denzel Perryman, Miami: One of the few bright spots on Miami’s defense last season, Perryman is the unquestioned leader of the Hurricanes’ defenses. He could put up a huge number of tackles this fall.

CB P.J. Williams, Florida State: Williams was one of FSU’s best players this spring, and he might be the country’s best cornerback. His stiffest competition could come from the opposite side of the field in teammate Ronald Darby, who surprisingly did not make the list.

Reaction: It was surprising Darby's name was not included on the list despite missing the spring. He could be the first cornerback taken in the NFL draft next year. The ACC is home to some of the country's best defensive backs with Williams, Fuller and Harris. Beasley is certainly one of the favorites coming into the season, but he was shut down by Florida State last season and will need to rebound against the Seminoles to make a push for the Bednarik as a senior. His sack numbers should be impressive once again, and if he can perform on the big stages, it might be the little extra that wins him the award this season. FSU's Edwards could be the best defensive lineman in the ACC and the country if he plays like he did against Auburn all season. What could hurt Edwards is he will not always be in a position to pile up sacks and tackles even when he is dominating opposing offensive linemen.
Tommy Tuberville has never been one to hold back. Whether you want to hear it or not, brutal honesty is all you are going to get.

So when Derek Jones asked his former coach for a bit of advice about whether to join the Dallas Cowboys for a minicamp tryout, Tuberville laid it down: Forget about playing in the NFL, he told him. You need to be a coach.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jones
Courtesy of Duke University PhotographyDerek Jones is beginning his seventh season as a Duke assistant, and is on a path to being a head coach someday.
Jones had never given coaching a thought. He figured after his playing career was over, he would become a lawyer. But Tuberville made a convincing argument: Jones was a team leader, a hard worker and knew how to sell the Ole Miss program to incoming recruits while he was still playing.

Tuberville presented him with an opportunity, offering him a graduate assistant job on his Ole Miss staff in 1998. Try it, Tuberville told him. If you hate it, at least you will be on your way toward law school.

Jones considered the possibilities. He realized what Tuberville said was right. He was a 5-foot-8 cornerback with some CFL experience, but would he really have a future in the NFL? Jones gave up on his NFL dream and accepted the job. Now, 16 years later, he is going into his seventh season as a Duke assistant.

But more than that, Jones is headed down a path that could lead him toward a head coaching job. Jones recently participated in the NCAA Champion Forum in Orlando, Florida, where minority assistants identified as potential head coaches participate in sessions designed to prepare them to take the next step in their careers.

"I get it now, and I really appreciate Coach Tuberville seeing something in me that I didn’t see in myself," Jones said. "If he hadn’t given me that hard love and that advice, I may not have had a chance with Coach [David] Cutcliffe when he came to get in the door. Who knows where I would be now."

Indeed, one decision often becomes life-changing. Jones had a chance to work with Tuberville for one year before Cutcliffe took over at Ole Miss in 1999. Cutcliffe retained Jones, and they each left impressions on the other. Jones went on to become a full-time assistant at Murray State and spent time at Middle Tennessee, Tulsa and Memphis.

Jones' phone rang shortly after Cutcliffe became head coach at Duke in December 2007. Cutcliffe wanted Jones to join him with the Blue Devils.

“When he offered me the job, I had three other job offers on the table at some pretty big football-playing schools,” Jones said. “He said something that stuck with me. He said, ‘I know you’ve got some other things going on, and you can go to those places and you’ll probably be successful, but I think we have a chance to do something significant at Duke.’

“Going to place a like that, where the odds were against you, I knew I’d have a chance to make a difference not only in the lives of young men and on the football field, but also proving to myself that I’m actually good at this. It was more of a personal thing and believing in him. I saw what he was able to do at my alma mater. I knew if he could go into Ole Miss and do the things he’d done there, I knew there was a chance we could get it done at Duke.”

Cutcliffe sold his vision to incoming players, too, and has turned Duke into a division champion because everybody inside the program bought in. Jones has had opportunities to leave Duke, but he has stayed, largely because of Cutcliffe.

[+] EnlargeCutcliffe
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesDerek Jones believed in David Cutcliffe's vision for Duke football.
“The ability to work under Coach Cutcliffe is good for my growth,” Jones said. “He’s as good as any coach I’ve been around at so many things. The more knowledge I can obtain from him, the better I’m going to be long term. I can’t think of many other situations outside of the situation we’ve been in that compares to anything.”

Jones has aspirations to become a head coach, which is why attending the Champion Forum was so important to him. Assistants go through mock interviews with current athletic directors, have opportunities to network and learn everything that goes into becoming a head coach -- because it goes way beyond coaching. Jones has never interviewed for a head coach job, but when that opportunity comes, he will be much better prepared.

“Now I have a background on what it takes for me,” he said. “I can start to work on the things I don’t have in my arsenal right now.”

Jones does have the coaching. As defensive backs coach, he helped cornerback Ross Cockrell earn first-team All-ACC honors in 2012 and 2013. Cockrell was picked by Buffalo in the fourth round of the NFL draft in May. Duke returns a young but very talented secondary in 2014, led by All-ACC second-team safety Jeremy Cash, DeVon Edwards, Bryon Fields and Breon Borders.

They remain his focus, thanks in large part to the brutal honesty of a coach who believed.
AthlonSports was the latest publication to release a preseason All-ACC team, joining Phil Steele from a week ago. We already broke down Steele's teams, but now that we have multiple forecasts to look at, it's worth checking out some trends and differences.

The one similarity that jumps out immediately is that North Carolina's Marquise Williams is Athlon's second-team quarterback, just like he was Steele's. As we said last week, this could very well turn out to be the case, but the fact that Williams remains engaged in a highly competitive quarterback race with Mitch Trubisky speaks to just how much uncertainty there is at the position throughout the ACC.

Duke's Anthony Boone is the third-team quarterback on both teams, while Athlon has Clemson's Cole Stoudt as its fourth-team quarterback. (Steele had Louisville's Will Gardner.)

Athlon does list Pitt's Tyler Boyd as a first-team receiver, along with Florida State's Rashad Greene. Boyd was a second-teamer on Steele's list, which featured Greene, Duke's Jamison Crowder and Louisville's DeVante Parker as first-teamers.

Athlon, however, listed just two receivers per team, and 26 total players per team (11 offense/11 defense/four special teams). Steele listed 28 total players per team (12/12/4).

Boston College's Andy Gallik gets the nod as Athlon's first-team center over Louisville's Jake Smith, who was a first-teamer on Steele's list. FSU's Bobby Hart gets the nod as one of Athlon's first-team tackles over Syracuse's Sean Hickey, who made Steele's first team.

Defensively, the biggest (and only real) difference comes at one of the safety spots, where Athlon has FSU's Jalen Ramsey as a first-teamer and Steele has him as a third-teamer. Duke safety Jeremy Cash made Steele's first team, as did teammate Kelby Brown at linebacker, where Steele had four players per team. (Athlon had three per team. Both Cash and Brown were second-teamers.)

Punter is the only difference on the first-team special teams squad, with Athlon picking Virginia Tech's A.J. Hughes and Steele taking UNC's Tommy Hibbard. Hibbard was on Athlon's second team, while Hughes was on Steele's third team.

Also of note: No Andrew Brown on Athlon's list. The five-star Virginia freshman was on Steele's fourth team at defensive tackle.
Last weekend’s NFL draft in which 42 ACC players were selected was a reminder of how much talent was departing the conference. But just as Sammy Watkins, Aaron Donald and Kyle Fuller say goodbye, the focus turns to the players who’ll step into the spotlight in 2014.

With that in mind, here’s a quick look at the top returning players in the ACC this upcoming season, based on their stats from 2013. (Last year’s ACC ranking in parentheses.)

[+] EnlargeDuke Johnson
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsMiami tailback Duke Johnson rushed for 920 yards in 2013, despite missing five games due to injury.
PASSING YARDS
1. Jameis Winston, FSU - 4,057 (1st)
2. Anthony Boone, Duke - 2,260 (6th)
3. David Watford, Virginia - 2,202 (9th)

Of note: The turnover at the quarterback position has already gotten its share of press, but it’s almost impossible to overstate how green the QBs across the ACC will be in 2014. Of the 23 players who passed for at least 250 yards in 2013, only seven will be back in 2014. Watford, the third-leading returning QB, isn’t projected to start at Virginia, and Marquise Williams, who ranks fourth among returners, is locked in a battle for the starting job at North Carolina, too. Next up among definitive starters is Syracuse’s Terrel Hunt, who finished 14th in the league in passing last season.

RUSHING YARDS
1. Kevin Parks, Virginia - 1,031 (2nd)
2. Duke Johnson, Miami - 920 (5th)
3. James Conner, Pitt - 799 (8th)
4. Isaac Bennett, Pitt - 797 (9th)
5. Shad Thornton, NC State - 768 (11th)

Of note: Louisville’s Dominique Brown would actually rank third on this list after racking up 825 rushing yards last season, good for fourth in the AAC. Including Brown, the ACC returns 11 running backs this year who accounted for at least 500 yards on the ground in 2013, though Miami’s Dallas Crawford (558 yards) is currently working with the Hurricanes’ secondary. Parks returns after a 1,000-yard season. The last running backs to return following a 1,000-yard effort in the ACC were Gio Bernard and Andre Ellington in 2012. Both topped 1,000 again in their follow-up campaigns.

RECEIVING YARDS
1. Jamison Crowder, Duke - 1,360 (2nd)
2. Tyler Boyd, Pitt - 1,174 (3rd)
3. Rashad Greene, FSU - 1,128 (5th)
4. Quinshad Davis, UNC - 730 (13th)
5. Willie Byrn, Virginia Tech - 660 (14th)

Of note: Louisville’s DeVante Parker would rank fourth on this list. He had 885 yards last season, good for seventh in the AAC. Crowder is in position to reach 1,000 receiving yards for the third straight season and is 1,153 yards shy of breaking former teammate Conner Vernon’s ACC record. The Hokies have three of the top seven returning receivers in terms of yards.

TACKLES PER GAME
1. David Helton, Duke - 9.5 (1st)
2. Jeremy Cash, Duke - 8.6 (3rd)
3. Denzel Perryman, Miami - 8.3 (5th)
4. Kelby Brown, Duke - 8.1 (7th)
5. Ryan Janvion, Wake Forest - 7.9 (8th)

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesClemson's Vic Beasley has 21 sacks in his career.
Of note: Duke’s front four took a big hit with the loss of three senior starters, but the back seven should be one of the most experienced and productive in the conference. Of the 25 ACC players with at least 50 solo tackles last season, 12 return this season.

INTERCEPTIONS
1. Ant Harris, Virginia - 8 (1st)
2. Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech - 6 (2nd)
3. Brandon Facyson, Virginia Tech - 5 (3rd)

Of note: Eleven ACC players had at least four interceptions last season, and a whopping nine of them return in 2014, including sophomores Facyson and Fuller at Virginia Tech. Add to that list two more returners from Louisville in Charles Gaines (5 picks) and Terell Floyd (4 picks), and the young QBs in the ACC in 2014 are going to have a lot to worry about.

SACKS
1. Vic Beasley, Clemson - 13 (1st)
2. Eli Harold, Virginia - 8.5 (9th)
2. Norkeithus Otis, UNC - 8.5 (9th)
4. Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech - 6.5 (12th)
5. Adam Gostis, Georgia Tech - 5.5 (16th)

Of note: Louisville’s Lorenzo Mauldin (9.5 sacks) would be second on this list. And here’s a number that should have a lot of Clemson fans excited: Of the 32 players who finished with at least 10 tackles for loss last season, just 13 will be back in the ACC in 2014. Of those 13 returners, five play for the Tigers.
Florida State is the overwhelming favorite to repeat as ACC champions in 2014. But that doesn't mean the rest of the league is going to step aside for the Seminoles.

So which team has the best chance to unseat them from their throne? Let's look at some of the top contenders:

SportsNation

Who has the best chance to unseat Florida State as ACC champion in 2014?

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Discuss (Total votes: 6,309)

Clemson: Skeptical fans will ask how the Tigers will take down Florida State considering: 1. They have lost to the Noles the last two years; 2. They play in Tallahassee in 2014; 3. They do not have Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant and Roderick McDowell, just to name four. Well, the truth is Clemson is not going anywhere anytime soon. Florida State had a lot of questions last season about replacing 11 NFL draft picks -- including its starting quarterback. But thanks to recruiting, the Seminoles were even better. Now, this is not to say Clemson will be even better in 2014 than it was a year ago, but it is to say the Tigers are not going to go back to winning seven games. They have kept pace with Florida State on the recruiting trail, have outstanding candidates to step in at quarterback, should be better at running back and will have one of the strongest defensive lines in the ACC. Boyd and Watkins might be gone, but Clemson is here to stay.

Duke: The Blue Devils, you say? Well, yes, they are a big-time dark horse, especially because the gap between the two programs was exposed for the world to see in the ACC championship game last December. Still, Duke will be one of the favorites to repeat as Coastal champions for several reasons. First, the Blue Devils return eight starters on offense, including All-ACC receiver Jamison Crowder, starting quarterback Anthony Boone and backup Brandon Connette. Second, they have some excellent players back on defense, including linebacker Kelby Brown and safeties Jeremy Cash and DeVon Edwards. Third, their schedule should make them favorites as they avoid playing Florida State, Clemson, Louisville and Notre Dame. Given the progress that has been made, this team could easily win 10 games again.

Louisville: The Cards are a bit of a wild card for a host of reasons. Not only do they have to replace potential No. 1 draft pick Teddy Bridgewater, their front seven has to be rebuilt and they have a new coach and new schemes to get used to in a short period of time. The schedule is much more challenging in 2014, too, with games against Florida State, Clemson, Notre Dame and Miami. The program is a step behind Florida State and Clemson, but Bobby Petrino sure knows how to coach. He won 10 or more games in the SEC West. Twice. Their chances are remote, but they should still be one of the top-tier ACC teams this year.

Miami: While it is true the in-state rivals are lagging behind the Seminoles, the Hurricanes have made some major strides on the recruiting trail and have talent all over the roster. If Duke Johnson had not gotten hurt last season, perhaps Miami would have stayed in the game. The Canes have a receiving group that can challenge the Florida State secondary. A healthy Johnson is a game-changer. And they meet in Miami this year in mid-November. Still, there are questions at quarterback and on defense that make Miami a long shot to unseat the Seminoles.

Other: Is it North Carolina? Virginia Tech? Anybody else? Now it's time for you to weigh in with our handy dandy poll.

AA put some distance between herself and HD with the picks last week. HD admits she choked with the vaunted predictions trophy on the line, going 4-5 in Week 14. AA kept chugging, going 7-2 to open up a four-game lead on HD in the overall standings. AA stands at 85-23 as we head into the postseason. Seems like a pretty insurmountable lead at this point.

No headway to be made this week, either -- not when the easy choice to win the ACC championship game is Florida State. Here is how we both see the game playing out.

AA picks: Exactly zero media prognosticators had Florida State playing Duke in the ACC championship game when the season began. Of the 120 ballots tabulated, only 15 declared the Seminoles their preseason choice to win the ACC. That handful of voters will turn out to be right after Saturday comes to a close. Florida State is too talented and too deep to have much of a problem with the Blue Devils. Duke has been such a terrific story to watch unfold throughout the course of the season, and the Blue Devils do have some rising stars in Jamison Crowder, Kelby Brown, DeVon Edwards and Jeremy Cash. They deserve an inordinate amount of credit for turning around a moribund program. But they still have a ways to go to match the upper echelon not just in the ACC, but in the nation. Florida State lost 11 NFL draft picks off last season's team; Duke has had eight players drafted in the last 20 years. So you see the talent disparity. Duke has never beaten Florida State and has lost by an average margin of 34.5 points per game. The Blue Devils are a much better team than they were the last time these teams played last season. But the problem for Duke? Florida State is a much better team, too. Florida State 48, Duke 10.

HD picks: The magic ends here, where good meets great. Duke will play better than many expect, as it has an opportunistic defense and the ACC’s coach of the year, but it won’t be enough to overcome the matchup problems the Noles’ elite talent will create. This won’t be as ugly as it was last year during the regular season, but it won’t be pretty, either. Duke has recruited talent and speed, but not enough to match the likes of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin or quarterback Jameis Winston. Florida State will win the turnover battle, and Duke’s defense will give up too may big plays and struggle to get FSU off the field on third down. FSU has given up more than 17 points just once this season (to Boston College). Duke’s preparation, discipline and determination will get it to 20, but it will only be good enough for a moral victory. Florida State 45, Duke 20.

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