ACC: Larry Fedora

Rival ACC coaches compare six-packs

July, 29, 2014
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On Monday, the college football social media world was equally amazed and impressed by a shirtless picture of North Carolina Tar Heels football coach Larry Fedora, who at 51 years old is still sporting a six-pack and looks like he could suit up as a UNC linebacker at any given moment.
 
Not to be outdone, Fedora's two rival coaches in the North Carolina Triangle -- NC State's Dave Doeren and Duke's David Cutcliffe -- went to a gas station Tuesday to show off their own six-packs.
 
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 North Carolina will win the Coastal

The running game. Last year’s team struggled to run the ball, finishing 11th overall in the conference in rushing with QB Marquise Williams serving as the team’s leading rusher. But dig a little deeper into the numbers and a more optimistic narrative unfolds. In UNC’s first seven games, it averaged 102 yards on the ground, 2.8 yards per carry and scored six rushing touchdowns. In its last six games, that average jumped to 202 yards per game, 5.1 yards per carry and the Heels scored 13 times on the ground. Now Larry Fedora’s crew adds hulking freshman Elijah Hood to a backfield that already includes T.J. Logan, Khris Francis and Romar Morris and promises to be one of the deepest, most diverse units in the league.

Special teams are special. Only Bowling Green (10) had more non-offensive touchdowns last season than UNC (9), and the Tar Heels’ special teams were a big reason why. Ryan Switzer was an All-American, scoring five times on punt returns last year, but Fedora says his sophomore only scratched the surface of his talent. Switzer may get work on kick returns this year, too. And even if teams work to avoid kicking to Switzer this year, he says that's fine by him. It will simply mean UNC will start every drive with solid field position as the opposition boots them short or out of bounds.

The QB competition. While the rest of the league is searching for one quarterback it can count on, North Carolina’s quandary is how to find reps for both of its QBs. Williams led the Tar Heels to a 6-1 finish last year and showed he can command the offense. Mitch Trubisky was a top recruit with a strong arm and impressive mobility. Fedora said he believes he can win with both -- and that means both will likely see some playing time. There may not be another team in the conference with as much depth at the QB spot as Carolina enjoys.

Why North Carolina won’t win the Coastal

The QB competition. Wait, what were we just saying about the advantages of having two QBs? You know the old saying — if you have two quarterbacks, you’ve got none. That may not necessarily apply to UNC’s situation, but regardless which QB is tabbed as the starter, the expectations will be high and any early struggles could quickly lead to a restless fan base and a divided locker room.

The offensive line. Fedora has been blunt in saying the Tar Heels will likely go just as far as their revamped offensive line can carry them. The unit lost two starters to the NFL after last season, and a host of spring injuries meant there was no time for cohesion to be built among the newcomers. Bentley Spain could be a breakout star at left tackle, but for a team with eyes on an ACC title, relying on a true freshman at that position is never an ideal scenario.

They’re just too young. It’s both exciting and unnerving, Fedora admits. He has just six seniors on his team. The offensive line has only three juniors on the entire depth chart. A host of key personnel on both sides of the ball are freshmen and sophomores. Yes, this is Year 3 for Fedora, and he believes last year’s strong finish was a good sign that players are beginning to grasp his philosophy, but with youth come mistakes, and in a crowded Coastal, there may not be room for too many setbacks.
The Roanoke Times is counting down to ACC Kickoff by digging deeper into some of Virginia Tech's impact players, and today's installment features a look at receiver Josh Stanford.

Here's the basics:
"It didn't seem like Stanford was anything too special for the first half of last year. He was inconsistent, had bouts of drops (like all the receivers), making an occasional solid grab but never really taking command of a game. Then the Boston College game went to the second half. From there to the rest of the season, Stanford shined."

I don't know that “shined” is really the right word. Stanford had an incredible second half against BC, though Virginia Tech still lost that game. He had a big day the next week -- 7 catches, 107 yards and a TD — against a reeling Miami team in a win that salvaged some of Tech's season. After that though?

Against Maryland: 2 catches, 29 yards
Against UVA: 1 catch, 15 yards
Against UCLA: 3 catches, 34 yards

Indeed, his final three games accounted for the lowest amount of production during a three-game stretch Stanford had all year.

The BC and Miami games confirmed Stanford's potential, but they didn't exactly mark a turning of the tide. This is the problem for the Hokies' offense (and really, it has been for two years): There is talent in the receiving corps, but consistency has been non-existent.

Here's a look at the top returning receivers in the conference this year, based on 2013 yards:

1. Jamison Crowder (Duke), 1,360
2. Tyler Boyd (Pitt), 1,174
3. Rashad Greene (FSU), 1,128
4. DeVante Parker (Lou), 885
5. Quinshad Davis (UNC), 730
6. Willie Byrn (VT), 660
7. Demitri Knowles (VT), 641
8. Stanford (VT), 640

Of the top eight returning receivers, three play at Virginia Tech. That should be a real sign of encouragement for a passing game dealing with transition at the QB spot, but it's also worth pointing out that Byrn, Knowles and Stanford caught just 56 percent of their total targets last year. Overall, Virginia Tech finished ninth in the ACC in passing last year and 10th in completion percentage, despite what seems like a deep receiving corps.

Some of that can probably be blamed on the erratic aim of Logan Thomas, but the history of drops and bad routes among the Hokies' receivers is already well documented.

Byrn had his moments, including 100-yard games against UNC and Miami. He was also shut out against Alabama, had just 15 yards against Marshall and 26 in a loss to Duke.

Knowles had 99 yards against ECU and 101 against UVA. He was also limited to just two catches in six different games.

And yes, Stanford showed his potential against BC and Miami. He's only a redshirt sophomore, so the inconsistency the rest of the season was to be expected. But Virginia Tech is already well aware of potential. What the Hokies need from receivers now are consistently strong results.

More links:

ACC's lunchtime links

June, 25, 2014
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Georgia Tech freshman Terrell Lewis is healthy after shoulder surgery, writes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and he’s ready to provide some versatility for the Yellow Jackets.

Lewis was one of the jewels of Tech’s recruiting class, and while he’s slotted as a linebacker, he said he’s capable of lining up at end or safety, too.

That versatility makes Lewis an intriguing presence this fall. The Jackets have some strength at linebacker with Quayshawn Nealy and Tyler Marcordes, but they lack depth at defensive end and lost some talent in the secondary from a year ago.

And finding some young defenders to step up might be the biggest key for Georgia Tech’s success in 2014. Paul Johnson’s offense gets its share of attention (and criticism), but the option has been pretty consistent over the years. It’s the D that has burned Tech too often.

While the unit certainly made strides in Year 1 under coordinator Ted Roof, when things went sour, they went really sour. Check out these defensive splits for Tech last year:

 

Those numbers speak to a need for consistency on the defensive side of the ball for Tech. Among ACC teams in 2013, only UNC had a wider split in rushing defense between its wins and losses, while only Syracuse and Virginia had a more significant split in its passing D.

In other words, there’s plenty of work to be done on that side of the ball for Roof & Co., but if Tech can come closer to the good half of those splits more often, it should be in the thick of things in the Coastal once again.

More links:

Is North Carolina for real?

June, 24, 2014
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If it seems like every single member of the ACC's Coastal Division has been mentioned this offseason as a darkhorse division title contender for 2014, that's because they probably have. But it's hard to top the offseason buzz that has been around North Carolina as it enters Year 3 of the Larry Fedora era.

Among the recent praise coming the Tar Heels' way:
  • College football guru Phil Steele lists UNC as his No. 5 surprise team for 2014 . More striking, however, is the fact that one of his power ratings calls for the Heels to go 12-0 this fall.
  • The Golden Nugget, which recently opened wagering on 200 games for the 2014 season, seems to think highly of the Heels. UNC is favored in six of its nine games that are open for betting, and it is giving 10 or more points in five of those six contests. The Heels are favored by 10 points against both Virginia Tech and Pitt, and, among games they are favored in, the only one they enter giving less than double-digit points is the Nov. 20 Thursday night trip to Duke, where they are giving the Blue Devils three points. Duke, of course, won at UNC last year to clinch the Coastal, and it returns much of its production from last year's squad. (Even the three games in which UNC is listed as the underdog hardly have David vs. Goliath odds: +4 at Clemson, +2.5 at Notre Dame and +1 at Miami.)
  • Marquise Williams was named a preseason second-team All-ACC selection by both Phil Steele and AthlonSports. Williams, who stepped in for the injured Bryn Renner, had a very strong 2013, totaling 2,234 yards passing and rushing, along with 21 total touchdowns, to anchor a turnaround from a 1-5 start to the season. But Fedora was adamant this spring that the starting quarterback job was up for grabs, and Williams will enter fall camp very much in a battle for his spot with redshirt freshmen Mitch Trubisky, ESPN's No. 7 dual-threat signal caller from the Class of 2013. (And yes, these preseason all-league selections probably say more about the lack of quarterback depth within the ACC.)

There are more examples of big expectations here, here and here.

A number of factors have likely contributed to all of the offseason attention on Chapel Hill. For one, it is always natural to point to teams that finished strong the previous season and wonder if they can sustain that momentum into a new campaign. With a 6-1 stretch to close 2013, capped by a 39-17 thrashing of Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl, UNC fits this bill perfectly.

Furthermore, there is plenty of faith in Fedora, and rightfully so. He led Southern Miss to a 12-2 mark in his final season there, in 2011. The fact that the Golden Eagles lost their first 23 games without Fedora, and are already under their second coach since Fedora's departure, speaks to the work he did in Hattiesburg.

Still, this UNC team has a quarterback battle to solve. And it has some questions on both of its lines. And, despite avoiding Florida State, the Heels face a pretty challenging slate, including a three-game stretch at Clemson, vs. Virginia Tech and at Notre Dame.

Perhaps UNC will in fact emerge as the leader of the Coastal pack when all is said and done this fall. But for now, some of the offseason hype seems a bit premature.

Analysis of ACC awards polls

June, 17, 2014
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In a series last week, the ACC blog broke down some of the early preseason candidates for several of the conference’s top postseason awards. Colleague Matt Fortuna gave a short brief on each of the candidates, listed a few honorable mentions and a SportsNation poll asked readers to vote on which candidate, if any, would win.

We asked for your prediction on who would be the conference offensive and defensive players of the year, offensive and defensive rookies of the year and coach of the year. With just about a week for fans to vote, here are the results from the polls.

ACC offensive player of the year

Results: QB Jameis Winston, Florida State (52 percent), RB Duke Johnson, Miami (19), Other (14), WR DeVante Parker, Louisville (12), WR Jamison Crowder, Duke (3).
Analysis: Winston is the overwhelming favorite in the poll, and his 33-percentage point lead over second-place Johnson is the widest gap among the five SportsNation polls. That is hardly a surprise, considering the Heisman winner returns and has yet to lose a game as a starter in his college career. Johnson is a reasonable second option, as the Miami running back will play a pivotal role for the Canes as they break in a new quarterback. If Miami can achieve double-digit wins this season, Johnson will be tough to beat.
Write-in votes: Gauging from the comments section, it seems as if readers had Seminoles running back Karlos Williams in mind when voting “other” for the most part. A third-string running back last season, the former five-star recruit will start as a senior in 2014. Many FSU fans are expecting Williams to easily surpass 1,000 yards.

ACC defensive player of the year

[+] EnlargeMario Edwards
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThere are big expectations for Florida State's Mario Edwards, the No. 1 recruit in the 2012 class.
Results: DE Mario Edwards, Florida State (35), DE Vic Beasley, Clemson (34), Other (15), LB Denzel Perryman, Miami (13), S Anthony Harris, Virginia (3).
Analysis: Edwards narrowly edged Beasley, who could have been a first-round pick in last month’s NFL draft. Edwards, a junior and former No. 1 high school recruit, could be the first defensive lineman taken in next year’s draft. However, Edwards’ statistics could keep him from winning defensive player of the year. While he certainly could be the most dominant league defensive player, he likely won’t have the same sack numbers as Beasley, who had 13 a season ago, or 2013 winner Aaron Donald, who registered 11 sacks and 28.5 tackles for loss as an interior lineman.
Write-in votes: Once again, the FSU voices were heard in the comment section, offering their thoughts on why sophomore defensive back Jalen Ramsey is the favorite on the Seminoles’ defense. Ramsey is going to fill the void in the backfield left by the departed Lamarcus Joyner, a Thorpe Award finalist in 2013.

ACC offensive rookie of the year

Results: Other (31), QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson (26), QB Kevin Olsen, Miami (24), RB Elijah Hood, North Carolina (16), QB Mitch Trubisky, North Carolina (3).
Analysis: This is definitely a difficult one to predict as there is an inherent unpredictability in the award, much more than any other postseason trophy. Other is probably the safe choice and I tend to agree with the readers. Olsen is a good pick if he is the Canes’ starter for the entire season. Watson, who was injured during spring camp, was the top quarterback in the 2014 recruiting class nationally. North Carolina could not afford to miss on Hood, who enrolled early and figures to be featured extensively in the UNC offense.
Write-in votes: With so many departures on the Clemson offense, one reader suggests redshirt freshman running back Wayne Gallman will win the award. He was a four-star recruit in the 2013 class.

ACC defensive rookie of the year

Results: CB Mackensie Alexander, Clemson (36), DT Keith Bryant (33), Other (20), DT Andrew Brown (6), S Quin Blanding, Virginia (5).
Analysis: Alexander is a smart pick for rookie of the year on defense considering the reputation he had coming to Clemson before the 2013 season. The No. 4 player nationally in the 2013 recruiting class, Alexander redshirted as a freshman. He should get extensive playing time this upcoming season, though, and he has arguably the best defensive line in the ACC in front of him, which could force rushed and errant throws in his direction that are prime for interceptions. With the loss of Timmy Jernigan at defensive tackle for FSU, the Noles certainly will need someone at the position to step up. It remains to be seen if Bryant will be that person, and a strong summer would definitely help his cause as the Noles open up preseason camp in a little more than a month. Both Blanding and Brown are sleepers, especially if the Cavaliers can reach bowl eligibility.
Write-in votes: One commenter agrees with Fortuna that Florida State redshirt freshman linebacker Matthew Thomas could win this award. Thomas was spectacular in spring drills and could be a starter for the Noles this season.

ACC coach of the year

Results: Jimbo Fisher, Florida State (40), Dabo Swinney, Clemson (26), Other (22), Larry Fedora, North Carolina (7), Paul Chryst, Pittsburgh (5).
Analysis: The safe bet in the conference is to go with Fisher or Swinney. The two have Clemson and Florida State in a league of their own within the ACC. Both are coming off BCS bowl wins but have holes to fill on their 2014 teams. Swinney needs to overcome the losses of his starting quarterback, running back and star receiver. Fisher loses defensive leaders Jernigan, Joyner and Telvin Smith. I thought Fedora would receive more votes, considering the Heels are one of the favorites to win the division.

Poll: ACC coach of the year

June, 13, 2014
Jun 13
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It is never too early to make predictions, and with the season less than three months away, we are seeking your input on who you think will take home some of the ACC's top honors at season's end.

We continue today with coach of the year.

Dabo Swinney, Clemson: So often, this award goes to the coach who does more with less. And while no one would suggest that Clemson does not have a talented roster, the fact is that the Discover Orange Bowl winners lose their top skill players from last year in quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins, among others. Fair or not, outside expectations for Clemson aren't what they were going into 2013. The Tigers also face a brutally tough schedule early on, so if Swinney can have this group competing for the ACC title, he is sure to receive a lot of credit for keeping his program at an elite level.

SportsNation

Who will be the ACC's Coach of the Year?

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    26%
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    39%
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    7%
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    5%
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    23%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,708)

Jimbo Fisher, Florida State: The other side of the "more with less" argument can be seen in coaches like Fisher, who is coming off a national title season but will probably never receive too much credit given the location and prestige of his program. That, of course, is not really fair, but if Fisher didn't win it in either of his last two conference title-winning years, it would probably take nothing less than an undefeated season this year — his second in a row — to truly wow the voters and win this honor in 2014. Just look at Jim Tressel, who won seven Big Ten titles and a national title in his 10 years at Ohio State — but had zero league Coach of the Year awards.

Larry Fedora, North Carolina: If North Carolina can emerge as the Coastal Division champion, Fedora will have a legitimate argument for this honor. For one, he has himself a very big decision to make at the most important position on the field, as Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky battle it out for the starting quarterback job. How Fedora handles what could be a delicate situation will undoubtedly have an impact on the kind of season UNC has. And if things work out for the Tar Heels in 2014, that would be a very nice answer to rival Duke's recent success, not to mention an impressive turnaround for Fedora in just his third year in charge.

Paul Chryst, Pitt: Chryst is also in his third year. And he also coaches a team considered to be a darkhorse Coastal Division title contender. (Hey, at this point, who isn't?) The schedule breaks right for the Panthers to have a chance at a strong season. And if that happens — in just their second year in the ACC, after losing key players like Aaron Donald, Tom Savage and Devin Street — you can bet Chryst will receive a ton of credit.

Others: No David Cutcliffe, you say? Well, he did win this award the past two seasons, so the chances of him pulling off a three-peat have to be very slim. (It's never been done before in the ACC.) If Louisville can contend for a league title during its first year in the ACC, Bobby Petrino will receive plenty of votes. Of course, teams that come out of nowhere tend to be pretty popular with voters, so NC State's Dave Doeren and Virginia's Mike London could be in play if either of their squads make huge turnarounds after winless league campaigns in 2013.

ACC's lunch links

June, 10, 2014
Jun 10
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Good luck, D-Fish.
With nonconference schedules out of the way completely for the most part, this begins the part of the schedule where the contenders and pretenders are separated.

Week 7 schedule

Saturday, Oct. 11
  • Duke at Georgia Tech
  • Boston College at NC State
  • Florida State at Syracuse
  • Louisville at Clemson
  • Cincinnati at Miami
  • North Carolina at Notre Dame
Our pick: North Carolina at Notre Dame

Why you should come along: The Tar Heels are being pegged as a team that could contend for an ACC championship despite coming off a 7-6 season. There is a vibe around Chapel Hill that coach Larry Fedora has the program heading in the right direction, and this season, his third at UNC, is when the Heels will begin its ascension toward the top of the league.

While the game against Notre Dame is not a conference game, it is the final contest in a three-game stretch that will be the Heels' toughest all season. The Heels travel to Clemson, host Virginia Tech and then play at Notre Dame three consecutive Saturdays, and winning two of those three will be pivotal. Ideally, the Heels would like to win the two ACC games if they were to choose two, but a victory at Notre Dame would give them significant momentum through the rest of the season. The schedule sets up nicely for UNC following the Notre Dame game, and they could coast into Duke for a Thursday night showdown Nov. 20 on a five-game winning streak if they upset the Irish.

It would also be a major statement game for Fedora, who is in the process of shutting down the state's borders and drawing in the top homegrown talent. The Heels are doing well with in-state recruits, considering the sanctions Fedora dealt with, but North Carolina is loaded with elite prospects and UNC needs to land more of them. A nationally televised victory over Notre Dame, which nearly plucked prized 2014 recruit Elijah Hood from the Heels during the last recruiting cycle, would resonate with the recruits the SEC has made a habit of poaching recently.
Thanks to everyone for all the great feedback on the ACC coach rankings. Now it's your turn to weigh in. Go!

Jon in Atlanta writes: Hey AA, I agree mostly on your list. However, I rank coaches based on their ability to coach. I think (David) Cutcliffe is No. 1. Why? Because he took basically 2-3 star players and competed with teams full of 4-5 star players. That in my mind, is what coaching is. Getting your players to play above their level. Also, I would rank Paul Johnson higher. We have a great graduation success percentage. In a college, key word college, coach that is what you want.

Brent in Charlotte writes: Really do not understand your criteria about ranking the coaches in the ACC. What I don't understand is how Jimbo (Fisher) gets credit for what he has done lately (which is due to having a great roster of talent) but others like (Dabo) Swinney don't. Prior to last year, you were questioning how good of a coach Jimbo really was since he had all that talent and hadn't gotten "over the hump". Because in your next argument, you talk about (Frank) Beamer's body of work and Cutcliffe's one good season (and throw out his five bad seasons). I think Cutcliffe is a great coach as well but No. 2 in the ACC after one good season in a weak division? Your rankings are all over the map and do not make any sense as to what you are comparing them against. If it's body of work, then it's clearly Beamer. If it's turnarounds, then it's Cutcliffe and (Al) Golden. And arguably Golden since he won at TEMPLE of all places. If it's who is doing the best now, it's Fisher and then Swinney.

Neil in Leland, N.C., writes: Beamer, (Bobby) Petrino AND Cutcliffe ahead of Dabo? Are you serious? Cutcliffe is 16-11 the last two years with bad bowl losses to Texas A&M and Cincinnati. Beamer has been owned by Clemson the last two times out, losing by 61-13. Petrino inherits a Louisville team WITHOUT (Teddy) Bridgewater and several others, and has yet to coach a single game in the ACC. Dabo is 22-4 the last two years, two top 10 finishes, and bowl victories over two top 10 teams. Me thinks you might have something against Clemson or Coach Swinney. It's the only thing I can think of.

Chris Butterick in Nashville, Tenn., writes: Like your list and agree on Cutliffe and Beamer but would think with the quality of player Swinney has recruited, he could have done a better "coaching" job. He is entertainment but just not as good as he is rated -- would put him eighth or ninth and also move Petrino down with Swinney. Honestly, it is about his character or lack thereof, but what has he really done lately? Also might flop Golden and (Larry) Fedora. Thanks for the rankings.

Stevie in Simpsonville, S.C., writes: Seriously? Just when I thought you knew what you were talking about? Swinney below Beamer (who he beat) as well as Cutcliffe (admirable, don't get me wrong) but in a division that has artificially been pumped up as "competitive"? I say do away with the divisions, rotate the games fairly, and let the best teams represent a rising ACC. Yes, rising! That and how about a rule against UNC for these classes I wish I could have taken back in college.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cutcliffe
Ellen Ozier/USA TODAY SportsDavid Cutcliffe is 31-44 in six seasons as Duke coach.
Dana Dill in Cincinnati writes: You can't punish Swinney simply because he recruits well. Recruiting is part of coaching in college football. Swinney has turned the whole culture around at Clemson, not just the football program and it continues to thrive four years into his reign. He is a couple big wins away from a national championship and if Cutcliffe was competing in the same division as Clemson/FSU he wouldn't be playing for the ACC championship.

Will Graham in Liverpool, N.Y., writes: Scott Shafer should of been higher because winning a bowl game and finishing third in your division of the ACC conference where nobody expected them to do either must warrant something.

Yungdungbeetle87 in Chamapaign, Ill., writes: I like the job that Shafer is doing at the Cuse. I realize his body of work as a HC isn't very extensive and that surely is part of the reason why his coach ranking falls near the bottom of the ACC. On the other hand, he has done a lot with comparatively little, recruiting seems to be trending upwards, and the program looks to heading in the right direction despite being in the stronger division. I think that he, among the coaches in the ACC, has a really good chance to move up on that list within the next couple of seasons. I think he could be the biggest mover on this list next year. Thanks for reading (I've never done one of these before).

Robert VT in Blacksburg, Va., writes: Hi Andrea, thanks for your input. However, I do not feel that Bobby Petrino should be ranked in the top 6 for ACC coaches, when he hasn't coached a league game yet. Nothing against Petrino, and I'm happy to see Louisville enter our league on July 1. Granted Petrino has demonstrated in the past his high football acumen, but I think he may be cast a little too high right now. We'll see!

John P in St. Louis, Mo. ,writes: As you mentioned in your article, I believe there is a fairly large qualifier to this ranking. Are you ranking the coaches as they sit today, or as a body of work throughout their entire career? Those two lists would have quite a few differences for me, with Beamer being Exhibit A. For a coaching career, it's hard not to throw him at No. 1 with what he has accomplished, but in May 2014 would I pick him first out of this list to be my coach? Not even close. With that said, I'll assume the rankings are as if I'm picking a coach to run my team tomorrow: 1. Fisher 2. Cutcliffe 3. Swinney 4. Petrino 5. Fedora 6. Beamer 7. Golden 8. Chryst 9. Johnson 10. Doeren 11. Clawson 12. Addazio 13. Shafer 14. London. Go Cards!

Doug Levy in Radford, Va., writes: I get Fisher being up there based on winning a National Championship, but if you look at the body of his work, it may not merit the top spot. Cutcliffe ahead of Beamer just because he took Duke to the ACC championship game? Once? Yeah, it's Duke, but come on ... Name one coach on the list who has changed the way college football is played? There is only one: Frank Beamer. His approach to special teams play changed the game. His body of work is better than most in the nation, not just the ACC. Has he had a few down years? Yup, but who hasn't. Alabama, Texas, etc. have all had their slumps. Beamer is best.

Ranking the ACC coaches

May, 6, 2014
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After Florida State won the national championship, some began to debate where Jimbo Fisher stood among all coaches nationally.

Had he reached an elite level with that title?

The Sporting News has attempted to answer that question in its coaches rankings, released last week. Fisher ranks No. 10 among all head coaches on the list, the highest among all ACC coaches. But that still seems too low for a coach who has two ACC titles, an Orange Bowl victory, a national championship, a Heisman Trophy winner on his roster and a school-record 11 draft picks in 2013 alone. Especially when you consider how much work had to be done to get the Seminoles back into the national conversation.

[+] EnlargeBobby Bowden
AP Photo/Steve CannonA national championship has raised Jimbo Fisher's profile after coaching under Florida State legend Bobby Bowden.
While it is true that Florida State lost games it simply should not have under Fisher, what happened last season should carry more weight. It did for Gus Malzahn, who surprisingly checks in only three spots behind Fisher on the list.

At the very least, Fisher deserves to be ranked ahead of Chris Petersen, David Shaw and Brian Kelly. You could have a great debate on whether Fisher should be ranked ahead of Les Miles or Mark Dantonio, too. Very few teams rival the talent and depth Fisher has assembled over the last few seasons. If the Seminoles contend for another national championship, I expect Fisher to be ranked much higher when the 2015 version comes out next year.

As for the rest of the ACC, here is how the rankings shake out, with overall national ranking:

  • No. 10 Jimbo Fisher, Florida State
  • No. 16 Dabo Swinney, Clemson
  • No. 18 David Cutcliffe, Duke
  • No. 21 Bobby Petrino, Louisville
  • No. 30 Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech
  • No. 31 Larry Fedora, North Carolina
  • No. 32 Al Golden, Miami
  • No. 53 Paul Johnson Georgia Tech
  • No. 60 Paul Chryst, Pitt
  • No. 65 David Clawson, Wake Forest
  • No. 66 Steve Addazio, Boston College
  • No. 68 Dave Doeren, NC State
  • No. 83 Scott Shafer, Syracuse
  • No. 102 Mike London, Virginia

I would make a few tweaks to this list. Swinney has done a great job at Clemson, but I would move Cutcliffe ahead for a few reasons. Nobody ever expected the Blue Devils to compete for an ACC title, but that is exactly what happened last year. Cutcliffe has taken this team to back-to-back bowl games, an ACC championship game and has won consecutive coach of the year honors while having to recruit to a tough academic school. Duke is not bringing in the kind of quality classes Clemson is; Cutcliffe is simply doing more with less.

I also would move Beamer up, but the question is where? Ahead of both Swinney and Petrino? Ahead of Petrino only? Should the last few years take away from all his accomplishments? I understand the Sporting News rankings are a snapshot of how coaches fare year to year, but Beamer should get credit for his long body of work. Beamer has won seven conference titles and made six BCS appearances, including one national championship game. Petrino has a great offensive mind and Swinney has put Clemson back into the Top 25 every year, but neither has come close to Beamer's career accomplishments.

I would also move Chryst down. Doeren did have a disappointing first year at NC State, but he also led Northern Illinois to an Orange Bowl appearance. Chryst is 13-13 overall as a head coach, though he had a rough deal handed to him to fix the Pitt mess he inherited. I feel pretty confident in the top 5. The rest? Flip 'em up, down and all around and you could make arguments to move just about everybody. Taking into account recent success (weighted slightly more), body of work and results at a power-5 job (weighted slightly more), the AA rankings would look something like this:

1. Fisher
2. Cutcliffe
3. Beamer
4. Swinney
5. Petrino
6. Golden
7. Fedora
8. Johnson
9. Addazio
10. Doeren
11. Chryst
12. Clawson
13. Shafer
14. London

Send me your thoughts into the mailbag, and I will publish your responses this Friday. Let the debate begin!

North Carolina spring wrap

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
7:30
AM ET
Three things we learned in the spring about the North Carolina Tar Heels:

1. The running game looks sharp: T.J. Logan emerged down the stretch last season for North Carolina, but coach Larry Fedora said the rising sophomore still had much to learn. By the spring game, Logan looked like an established veteran, running for 109 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries. His backfield counterpart Khris Francis had 88 yards and two scores, too, while early enrollee Elijah Hood had a quiet day in the spring finale, though he managed to impress coaches and teammates throughout the five weeks of practice.

2. Replacing Ebron will be a group effort: Eric Ebron was the offensive backbone for the Tar Heels last season, and he’ll likely be rewarded as a first-round pick in next month’s NFL draft. Replacing all that production won’t be easy, but UNC’s receiving corps figures to be far deeper. Quinshad Davis is a budding star, while sophomores Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard made big strides throughout the spring.

3. The defense should be better: Fedora said the biggest takeaway from the spring is that his defense, which struggled at times last season, looks far more savvy in the system. The bulk of the Tar Heels’ experience is on that side of the ball, and Fedora said he was pleased with how poised and refined the unit looked consistently throughout the spring. After finishing 10th in the league total defense last season, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Three questions for the fall:

[+] EnlargeT.J. Logan
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsAs a freshman in 2013, North Carolina tailback T.J. Logan rushed for 553 yards and four touchdowns.
1. So, who’s the quarterback?: Fedora said from the outset that the QB job was up for grabs, and the spring game didn’t bring much closure to the debate. Neither Marquise Williams nor Mitch Trubisky looked particularly sharp -- both throwing a pick, neither tossing a touchdown. Fedora said he wants the competition to continue throughout the summer, and while Williams has an edge in experience, it’s clear Trubisky is a legitimate contender.

2. How will the O-line hold up?: UNC loses two key starters off last season's line and entered the spring with several other veterans banged up. Even highly touted early enrollee Bentley Spain couldn’t make it through the spring without a few dings, which left the Tar Heels working with a makeshift unit throughout. Fedora hopes the group will be healthier by fall, but it remains a work in progress and, with all due respect to the QBs, perhaps the most important question left to be answered.

3. Can the Heels stop the run?: It’s the inherent Catch-22 of spring football: If the offense is doing well, the defense must be struggling -- and vice versa. So when the running game looked so strong in the spring game, it only served to underscore what was UNC’s biggest defensive shortcoming in 2013. The Heels finished dead last in the ACC in rushing D (182 yards per game) and while Logan, Francis and Co. promise to frustrate a lot of defenders in 2014, Fedora would love to see his front seven look a little more stout moving forward.

One way-too-early prediction:

The big question at the end of 2013 remains unanswered after the spring of 2014: In UNC the inexperienced group that started 1-5 last year or the red-hot team that finished 6-1? It’s certainly encouraging that last year’s freshman have continued to show improvement, and that makes UNC an early contender in the Coastal. The Heels might be the most complete team in the division, but unless they improve on both sides of the line, more inconsistency could await this fall.

ACC's lunch links

April, 22, 2014
Apr 22
12:00
PM ET
Because you know you want to see Larry Fedora rapping Drake lyrics
North Carolina safety Tim Scott is well aware of the surging expectations surrounding his offensive teammates this spring -- further motivation for the Tar Heels’ defense to catch up this fall.

“We feel as if we’re not talked about or we’re not even respected,” Scott said. “Everyone talks about our offense and how explosive they are, but we also have an explosive, physical, fast defense, and that’s really what our main point is to prove this year.”

They’ve got some work to do.

While North Carolina is considered by many to be a team on the rise in the ACC’s Coastal Division, much of that confidence is rooted in the Tar Heels’ offensive potential. North Carolina gave up 55 points in an embarrassing loss to East Carolina last year -- at home -- before improving in the second half of the season. UNC ranked 64th in the country last year in total defense and Scott said the biggest problem was miscommunication, a result of transitioning to a 4-2-5 defense.

“When coach Vic [Koenning] and coach [Larry] Fedora came in with the new 4-2-5, everyone knew their part, but in the 4-2-5 defense, you have to know what everyone is doing,” said Scott, now a leader in UNC’s secondary. “Everyone has to speak to everybody. That’s really what we didn’t get down and that’s what we’re taking the time to do this spring.

“It’s improved a lot,” he said. “Everyone can play at this level, but once you get the mental part down -- which we didn’t have down, of course, for the first six games of the season, when we went 1-5 -- we took the time after that Miami game, and we really wanted to improve in that and make sure we can show the world that the defense we’re playing is the defense that can be successful. That’s what we proved the last couple games of the season going into the bowl game and now the defense is really transitioning to keeping that up during the spring.”

UNC’s defense made significant strides in the second half of the season. Through the first six games, UNC allowed 456 yards per game, including 203.3 on the ground, and allowed 30.7 points per game. Through the final seven games (a 5-2 record), UNC allowed 357.9 yards per game, including 164.6 on the ground, and 19.1 points per game. Five of the final seven opponents were held to 20 points or fewer.

Scott said the best is yet to come -- for the defense and the offense.

“I think honestly we can be better than what we’ve been since I’ve been here,” he said. “… I know last year wasn’t the year we wanted. We had a chance to have a three-way go for the Coastal. This year our objective is to win it outright and prove to everyone that we don’t just have draft picks. We have people who can come together as a team and win games.”
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Music blared through speakers above North Carolina’s practice fields as players moved through conditioning drills on a brisk, gray afternoon last month, and Marquise Williams couldn’t ignore the beat.

He sprinted through a drill, bounded back to the group and began to dance. One by one, teammates followed suit, until a huddle of Tar Heels was bouncing and singing, with Williams slapping each on the back as encouragement. When a horn sounded to end the period, Williams quickly broke character and darted to the next drill, his teammates still following in unison.

“When they see me excited, they see me ready to go for practice, they’re going to be excited and ready to go,” Williams said. “I have to try to bring that energy every day.”

Just a year ago, practice was a slog for Williams, but he’s a different man now, and this is a different team. It’s his team, he said, even if his coach hasn’t made that distinction official.

In the midst of a quarterback competition Larry Fedora still insists is too close to call, Williams is enjoying every moment of the battle. He’s not simply interested in winning the job, he said. He wants to own the team, and that starts with the attitude.

[+] EnlargeMarquis Williams
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsMarquise Williams stepped in as UNC's starter last season as the Tar Heels won four of their final five games, including a bowl game victory.
“I’m going to lead the guys, and they’re going to rally behind me,” Williams said. “I’ve been waiting around here for a long time for my chance, and I’m not going to let it pass.”

Williams entered 2013 — his sophomore season — as the clear No. 2 on the depth chart, with occasional work as a running threat to whet his appetite. But when veteran Bryn Renner went down with a shoulder injury midway through the season, Williams stepped in as the starter, winning four of UNC’s final five games, including a 39-17 blowout over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.

The late-season heroics still weren’t enough to earn Williams a full-time job. There was no heart-to-heart meeting with Fedora when the season ended, but Williams said it was understood that he’d enter the spring with a mandate to get better.

Nipping at his heels is Mitch Trubisky, a highly touted redshirt freshman with exceptional mobility and a bit more zip on his throws. Through the first month of spring, Fedora has fed each quarterback a roughly equal share of first-team reps, and the UNC coach said he’s in no hurry to name a starter.

“At every position, you have to earn your position,” Fedora said. “Marquise stepped in because Bryn went down. When he was put in that position, he did a phenomenal job, led us to a bowl game and won. He did a tremendous job. Now I want him to go to another level.”

For Williams, that’s meant refining his game. His legs have always made him a valuable weapon, but his arm is a work in progress. Much of Williams’ mechanics are self-taught, and he knew the details needed work.

During his spring break, Williams traveled to San Diego to work with noted quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. It took just a few quick lessons to convince Whitfield he had a star in the making, but it would take some work before Williams could embrace his potential. Whitfield worked with Williams on shortening his strides, minimizing his motion with his nonthrowing arm, working efficiently in the pocket.

“As I was watching him, I kept telling him that you’re much, much stronger than the ball says,” Whitfield said. “We just kind of set about trying to bring some of those adjustments into play.”

But more than just mechanics, Whitfield challenged Williams to practice with more confidence, comparing it to Justin Timberlake taking the stage for a concert -- never timid, embracing the moment.

Williams had that same power to galvanize an audience, Whitfield said, but he had a tendency to hide in the shadows.

“Whether you call it confidence or swagger or energy, it’s there,” Whitfield said. “But I didn’t want him to try to feel it out. I wanted him to kick that door on open and come through.”

So that’s what Williams has been doing this spring. Whitfield sends him the occasional text message as a reminder, but Williams doesn’t need it. He’s dancing, he’s encouraging, he’s leading. He’s taking the stage like he owns it, even if Trubisky is waiting in the wings to stake his claim.

“I love the word competition because that’s been part of my whole life,” Williams said. “To be that leader, I have to perform. When you say competition, I like that. I laugh at it. That’s my name: Marquise Competition. I’m ready to go get it.”

Fedora said he’s been impressed by Williams’ approach this spring, and it’s clear his teammates respect him. Williams’ game experience gives him a leg up in the battle, and if there’s one thing separating the two quarterbacks right now, it’s the confidence and comfort exhibited by the incumbent.

But the job is still open, and Williams is still charging onto the stage believing he’ll finally win over his coach. If he doesn’t, he said, it would be devastating, but there wouldn’t be regrets. That’s what this spring is all about.

“I’ll determine if he’s going to beat me out because it’s me that’s out there,” Williams said. “It’s not Coach Fedora or Coach [Gunter] Brewer. If he deserved the spot, he’s got the spot. Me, I’m going to keep working and keep going to get it because I feel like this is my team. I’m in the driver’s seat with those guys behind me.”

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