ACC: Quin Blanding

This spring provides a Take 2 of sorts for Virginia defensive tackle Andrew Brown.

Now that the exceptionally gifted lineman is completely healthy, coach Mike London is expecting much more. Especially since the defense needs to find playmakers with five key starters gone -- including Eli Harold, Henry Coley and Max Valles, who combined for 24 of the team's 34 sacks.

"Andrew Brown looks good right now," London said in a recent phone interview. "It's time for him. All the things that were talked about when when came in -- now he's healthy. He's 290, squatting over 500. We feel good about where we are right now."

[+] EnlargeAndrew Brown
AP Photo/Steve HelberVirginia DT Andrew Brown battled toe and shoulder injuries in his first season at Virginia, but he's ready to go for spring.
Brown came into Virginia last year with as much hype as safety Quin Blanding. They were two highly touted ESPN 300 recruits with incredible upside. But Brown was never 100 percent healthy. He enrolled in school early but hurt his toe during spring practice and was forced to the sideline. The turf toe lingered throughout the season and then Brown injured his shoulder.

He did end up playing in six games -- including the final four. But he was unable to make the same impact as Blanding, who went on to become ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and a Freshman All-American.

Now, Brown has an opportunity to shine. London said Brown is penciled in with the starters for the start of spring practice, set to begin next month.

"When you’re a big guy and have the whole turf toe issue, pressing that 300 pounds, cutting and planting -- you need that when you’re playing up front," London said. "Then he had the shoulder issue. I know it was frustrating for him, but the kid has been super throughout.

"He's excited about being healthy and we’re going to expect big things from him. He’s got to learn the game as he goes on, but he’s got a lot of talent and ability."

Despite losing five starters -- Daquan Romero and All-American safety Anthony Harris also are gone -- London is encouraged with the group he returns on defense. He points to experience along the defensive front with Mike Moore, David Dean and Donte Wilkins returning along with Brown. He points to the secondary as well. Despite losing Harris, the Hoos return Blanding, Maurice Canady, Tim Harris and Demetrious Nicholson, granted a medical hardship waiver.

At linebacker, London believes Micah Kiser and Zach Bradshaw have what it takes to step into starting roles. What provides some confidence is the notion that many of the veterans are going into Year 3 in Jon Tenuta's defensive scheme. Plus, London believes some of the staff shifts he made this offseason will put players in better position to succeed. Tenuta will now work with safeties, while Mike Archer moves to linebackers.

"It’s the whole maturation process, on the field, in the weight room, in the community -- then the proverbial aha moment occurs," London said. "A few guys like that now are going to be counted on to be the starters and significant contributors. It’s not about the scheme or the system, now it’s about taking all the different situations that occur when you become a smarter player, taking all those things and putting it together on the field."

ACC's most intriguing Nos. 16-20

February, 24, 2015
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We’re still 26 long weeks away from the start of the 2015 season, but there promises to be plenty of twists and turns for ACC teams before the action kicks off. While some of the drama will come as a surprise, there are a number of key figures around the ACC that are already big stories. With that in mind, we’re counting down the 25 most intriguing figures in the conference this offseason -- from players to coaches to administrators -- and digging into the impact they might make on how 2015 unfolds once the games finally begin. Next up, numbers 16 through 20.

16. Devonte Fields

Role: Defensive end, Louisville

[+] EnlargeDevonte Fields
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsLouisville hopes that troubled former Big 12 freshman of the year Devonte Fields can provide a pass-rushing spark.
Intrigue: There’s little doubt about Fields’ talent. He recorded 10 sacks in 2012 and was named the Big 12’s defensive freshman of the year. But an arrest on domestic assault charges led to a dismissal from the school, and he spent last season playing for Trinity Valley Junior College. Fields certainly isn’t the first troubled transfer Louisville has taken a chance on, but he might be the most high profile at this point.

Potential impact: Bobby Petrino has asked for plenty of second chances in his own life, so it’s no surprise that he’s been willing to give some to his players, too. Time will tell whether Fields has learned from his past mistakes, but if he can stay out of trouble, he could be an instant impact playmaker as an outside rusher, filling in for the departed Lorenzo Mauldin.

17. Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott

Role: Co-offensive coordinators, Clemson

Intrigue: So much of Clemson’s success the past four years was defined by offensive coordinator Chad Morris, including the arrival of phenom QB Deshaun Watson last season. Watson and Morris had a close relationship, and the young QB knew Morris’ system inside and out. Now Morris is at SMU, and Dabo Swinney chose replacements from in house. Elliott will be calling plays this season, and just how much he plans to tweak the offense from what Morris ran so successfully will be one of the biggest stories to watch in the ACC.

Potential impact: The magic formula for Clemson isn’t much of a mystery: Get Watson healthy, let him make plays. But there’s so much young talent on the Tigers’ offense that Scott and Elliott have to be drooling at the possibilities. While they’ve learned the ropes working under Morris, there’s still a good chance they’ll want to put their own stamp on the offense. Swinney took a bit of a risk replacing one of the highest-paid coordinators in the country with more cost-effective alternatives, but with Watson, Artavis Scott, Mike Williams, Wayne Gallman and others at their disposal, Elliott and Scott are playing with a stacked deck.

18. Kelby Brown

Role: Linebacker, Duke

Intrigue: One of the ACC’s top defenders in 2013, Brown blew out his knee in fall camp last season and missed the entire season. He’s still rehabbing the injury and has been limited in spring practice, but with Duke losing a ton of experience in its front seven, Brown’s recovery might be more crucial than anything that happens on the practice field.

Potential impact: Brown finished 2013 with 114 tackles, including 11 for a loss, and two interceptions to help set the tone for Duke’s D. With a full, healthy season in 2015, he could easily match or exceed those numbers, particularly with fellow linebacker David Helton moving on. Duke’s run defense was the second-worst in the league last season with Brown sidelined, but a return to action could help fill some glaring holes.

19. Steve Addazio

Role: Head coach, Boston College

Intrigue: Addazio has been a magician since arriving in Chestnut Hill. In his first season, he turned the 2-10 Eagles into a bowl team. In his second, he replaced a Heisman finalist tailback, starting QB, his top receiver, pass rusher and tackler and still won seven games. Now, it’s time to revamp once again, with QB Tyler Murphy, LB Josh Keyes and a number of other veterans leaving.

Potential impact: Addazio’s best asset is that he’s been willing to adapt to the players he has. Two years ago, his power run game was his bread and butter. Last year, the option got the job done. So what’s his next trick for 2015? In a division that has seen plenty of talent depart from the top contenders, Addazio has already shown he’s adept at finding solutions.

20. Andrew Brown

Role: Defensive tackle, Virginia

Intrigue: A year ago, UVA signed two five-star defenders. One, Quin Blanding, quickly developed into one of the ACC’s top defenders. The other, Brown, struggled to gain much footing. Now with a year of experience under his belt, the 305-pound defensive lineman has a chance to show he’s made up for lost time by stepping into a much bigger role in 2015.

Potential impact: Injuries hampered Brown early and he never really got going as a true freshman, but there’s still plenty of optimism about his potential impact at UVA. The Cavaliers are losing a trio of talented linebackers, along with star defensive end Eli Harold, which makes Brown’s development on the line crucial to maintaining the strong pass rush and run-stuffing capability they showed a year ago. He arrived with the size and the talent to make it happen. If he's also learned from his year waiting in the wings, he could easily emerge as the ACC's next big star on D.
RecruitingNation released its Ultimate ESPN 300 this week, a ranking of the best prospects since we began evaluating high school talent, in 2006.

One of the more interesting pieces of the package is the newcomers list Insider, a group of 37 players added to the rankings. The SEC led the way with 14 newcomers, but the ACC made a strong showing as well, coming in second, with nine players. (The Big Ten and Pac-12 had five newcomers apiece, while the Big 12 had four.)

Here are the ACC's newcomers, and their Ultimate ESPN 300 ranking:

64. Dalvin Cook
78. Eddie Goldman
80. Quin Blanding
100. Gerod Holliman
151. Tyler Boyd
152. Stephone Anthony
161. P.J. Williams
179. Brad Kaaya
298. Vic Beasley

What's encouraging here is the number of freshmen and underclassmen making up the ACC's group. The highest-rated newcomer, Cook, is coming off a standout freshman season. So, too, is Blanding, along with Kaaya. Boyd will be back next year as well, for his junior season.

While players from the 2015 class were not included, RecruitingNation allowed 2014 players who "who we felt had significant roles and their placement was based on forecasting similar production over the next three years."

That is a testament to the ACC's upswing, especially on the recruiting trail. And it can be looked at as a good sign that a pair of ACC rookies of the year (Blanding and Kaaya) aren't even the ceiling for this recent ACC freshman class.

ACC morning links

February, 13, 2015
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Because most teams won’t start spring practice for a few more weeks, we’re in the season of list-making, and Bleacher Report has an interesting rundown of its top weapons in college football.

The list includes 25 players, with just three coming from the ACC: Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, Georgia Tech QB Justin Thomas and Florida State RB Dalvin Cook.

It’s tough to argue with those selections. If we’re making a list of ACC player of the year candidates, those would certainly be among the favorites. Having said that, there are plenty of other big-time playmakers around the league.

Obviously Pittsburgh’s James Conner and Tyler Boyd warrant mentioning, while Miami’s Brad Kaaya, UNC’s Ryan Switzer and Clemson’s Artavis Scott and Mike Williams all are emerging stars.

But looking a bit deeper, here are a few more names who figure to be legitimate weapons around the ACC in 2015…

QB: North Carolina’s Marquise Williams was terrific last season, and he’s poised to be even better this year with a more established O-line and some talented receivers to work with. After Mitch Trubisky was shuffled to the bench full-time starting in October, Williams racked up 25 touchdowns. Only five Power 5 QBs had more, and four of them finished in the top 10 in Heisman balloting.

RB: NC State’s Matt Dayes didn’t get a full workload last season, and that might not change dramatically in 2015, but when it comes to all-around weapons, he’s one of the ACC’s best. Dayes was the only player in college football last season to tally at least 300 yards rushing, receiving, and on returns while scoring at least 10 touchdowns. In the last decade, just 14 others have done that, and the list includes some big names such as Reggie Bush, DeMarco Murray, C.J. Spiller, Randall Cobb, Tavon Austin, Maurice Jones-Drew and Jeremy Maclin.

WR: Florida State’s Travis Rudolph averaged 15 yards per catch last season, the sixth-best total among returning ACC receivers, as a true freshman. He improved dramatically as the year went along, catching 11 passes for 136 yards in the ACC Championship Game and Rose Bowl.

TE: Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges is as big a mismatch on offense as any team will have this season. The Hokies used him as a traditional tight end, split him out wide and lined him up in the Wildcat routinely last year. He was among the ACC’s top red-zone targets, and only Wake’s Cam Serigne had more catches among returning Power 5 tight ends.

And while Bleacher Report’s list included just one full-time defensive player, FSU’s Jalen Ramsey, Duke's Jeremy Cash, Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander, Virginia’s Quin Blanding, Virginia Tech’s Kendall Fuller and Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins all warrant discussion, too.

A few more links:

ACC morning links

January, 15, 2015
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Florida State said goodbye to one more underclassman Wednesday, as defensive lineman Eddie Goldman announced that he is entering the NFL draft.

Goldman is the fifth Seminoles player to declare early for the pros, joining quarterback Jameis Winston, cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby, and defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. The junior Goldman really burst onto the national scene this year, especially in the Sept. 20 win over Clemson. He finished the season with 35 tackles, eight tackles for loss and four sacks, which led the team.

"Eddie was a tremendous leader, student-athlete and, most importantly, a tremendous person for FSU," coach Jimbo Fisher said in a release. "I can't thank him enough for his contributions over the last three years on the field and for his leadership by example. I expect Eddie to have a tremendous professional career and I'm very excited for him and his family."

Fisher has recruited so well in recent years that the cupboard will be far from bare for the Noles in 2015. And it wasn't all bad news for the program in this young offseason, as linebacker Terrance Smith and kicker Roberto Aguayo both announced their intentions to return next season. But as our Andrea Adelson notes, FSU has now had 13 players turn pro in the last three years. With so many key pieces once again departing from a group that helped contribute to a 29-game winning streak, three ACC titles, one national title and a College Football Playoff berth, this really does seem like the end of an era in Tallahassee. Fortunately for the Noles, the talent is there to start a new run.

Here are the rest of your ACC Thursday links:

Story of the season: Virginia

December, 17, 2014
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Virginia was less than three minutes away from ending two streaks that have defined the Cavaliers of recent memory. An improbable 89-yard touchdown drive gave the Cavaliers a lead over Virginia Tech with 2:55 remaining, and a win would put a stop to a 10-game losing streak to their in-state rival and make the Cavs bowl eligible for the first time since 2011.

It took all of three plays and 1:07 for those dreams to be dashed and for Virginia to walk off the field dejected again. It was the final heartbreaking blow in a season of close defeats in games Virginia was in position to win -- the hallmark of its 2014 season.

For the fourth time in coach Mike London’s five seasons, Virginia will not go to a bowl game. The tough pill for Virginia to swallow is it easily could have won seven games and maybe even eight.

Questionable offensive playcalling late against UCLA in the opener cost Virginia and London a trademark win. Virginia led at halftime a few weeks later against BYU. The Cavaliers outgained Duke 465-334 yards but allowed Duke to score the game-winning touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. The following week, UNC’s backup quarterback, Mitch Trubisky, on his first play, threw a 16-yard touchdown on third-and-15 with 4:05 left to give UNC a one-point lead. Then, the Tar Heels recovered an onside kick and ran out the clock. Virginia even had an opportunity to upend eventual ACC champion and undefeated Florida State in Tallahassee, Florida.

A win in any of those games, including Virginia Tech in the finale, would have sent Virginia to a bowl game.

For the most part, it was an offense hindered by inconsistent quarterback play that cost the Cavaliers. Greyson Lambert was named the starter following the spring, but he never took control of the job and was benched at times for Matt Johns. The offense ranked 88th nationally in yards and 85th in scoring.

However, there is reason for optimism in Charlottesville this offseason. A week after ending a double-digit losing streak, the Cavs snapped a separate 10-game conference losing streak, and, in one of the better moments of the 2014 season, London was nearly brought to tears in his emotional on-field postgame interview. Also, Lambert, who was only a sophomore, did have his moments and looked the part of an ACC quarterback on that late go-ahead drive against Virginia Tech. Defensively, Virginia was in the top third of FBS teams in yards and scoring. And the Cavs return Quin Blanding, the league’s defensive rookie of the year.

London will also return, which means there won’t be the coaching turnover that could set the team back.

“It’s always a disappointment to lose and not make it to where we set our goals but at the same time we did something most people never thought we could do,” Blanding told colleague Andrea Adelson recently. “… We came up a little short but I know it’s going to turn over to next year and we’re going to keep it rolling.”

Q&A: Virginia S Quin Blanding

December, 16, 2014
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Virginia freshman safety Quin Blanding made his presence felt from Day 1, living up to the hype that followed him as the No. 10-ranked player in the class of 2014.

Blanding finished the season second in the ACC with 123 tackles, setting the school record for tackles by a freshman. He was named the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year and an ESPN.com Freshman All-American for his impressive debut season.

[+] EnlargeQuin Blanding
AP Photo/Steve HelberVirginia freshman safety Quin Blanding says it's an honor to receive the ACC's Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
I recently had a chance to catch up with Blanding to ask about his first season. Here is a little of what he had to say:

High expectations came in with you at UVa. How were you able to live up to them as a freshman?
Blanding: The way my mindset was, I knew in the offseason after my senior season I had to work hard and come out here and play my game. I knew coming into college, I had to make a name for myself early on in my first year. I know a lot of people had a whole bunch of hype on me and probably didn't think I was going to be where I was, but I just knew I had to go out there and play my game and do what I do best.

Did that put pressure on you to perform?
Blanding: I don't think it put as much pressure on me. It made me work harder than I normally did. It kept pushing me to get better every day to go out there every day and compete. I just wanted to be the best on the field.

What did the hard work you put in entail?
Blanding: No days off. It's literally no days off. After practice you have to lift, you have meetings, after classes you come back for extra meetings. It's always a grind no matter what you're doing.

What was the biggest surprise once you started playing?
Blanding: That you're not the biggest one. In high school, I was always the biggest one playing but now everybody is the same size as me or bigger.

Did you expect to win ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year honors?
Blanding: I knew coming in I wanted to make a name for myself and wherever my talent got me, that's where I was going to land. I just wanted to make my name known and people to start talking about me, and it's an honor to get this award.

How about getting over 100 tackles? Did you set any goal to get that many?
Blanding: I didn't expect that, but I just had to make plays when I had to make plays.

Recently, the administration announced coach Mike London would be back for another season. How do you feel about that?
Blanding: It felt really good to hear that he's coming back. He's a great guy and all our coaches are great people, and we're all behind them and we all believe. We're coming to make a change.

How big a role did he play in your decision to come to UVa?
Blanding: He was a big part. The main reason I came was because of the family atmosphere. He was a big part because he's a realistic coach with you. He's not going to sell you a dream and tell you all this. He's going to tell you if you work hard, you're going to play. If we all work hard we'll play for the ACC. If we all work hard we'll play for a bowl game. We kept working hard and playing our game. He believes in us and we believe in him.

You guys came so close to going to a bowl game, but ended the season with a heartbreaking loss to Virginia Tech. Can that be used as motivation headed into the offseason?
Blanding: There's nothing like coming off a tough loss especially to our rival Tech, so it put fuel to the fire. That loss is going to stay with me forever. Any loss is going to stay with me forever especially now that I'm in college. High school losses still matter to me. It's a loss so you will never forget a loss, but the next time you just can't lose.

All-ACC team, coaches' awards unveiled

December, 10, 2014
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The ACC coaches' awards and all-conference teams looked a lot like the media's version from last week, as Pitt running back James Conner led the way by winning offensive and overall player of the year honors.

Likewise, Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley one again took home defensive player of the year honors, while Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya was named both overall and offensive rookie of the year. Virginia safety Quin Blanding was again named defensive rookie of the year.

Coach of the year? That would be Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson, who received 10 of the 14 votes from his peers.

Defending national champion Florida State led the way in all-league teams, tallying 18 players across the three teams.

The team with the second-most? Virginia, surprisingly enough, as the Cavaliers landed nine players on the all-league teams despite finishing with a 5-7 record.

First-team

WR: Rashad Greene (FSU)
WR: Jamison Crowder (Duke)
WR: Tyler Boyd (Pitt)
TE: Nick O’Leary (FSU)
T: Cameron Erving (FSU)
T: T.J. Clemmings (Pitt)
G: Laken Tomlinson (Duke)
G: Tre' Jackson (FSU)
C: Shane McDermott (Miami)
QB: Jameis Winston (FSU)
RB: James Conner (Pitt)
RB: Duke Johnson (Miami)
K: Roberto Aguayo (FSU)
SP: Jamison Crowder (Duke)

DE: Vic Beasley (Clemson)
DE: Mario Edwards Jr. (FSU)
DT: Grady Jarrett (Clemson)
DT: Eddie Goldman (FSU)
LB: Denzel Perryman (Miami)
LB: Stephone Anthony (Clemson)
LB: Lorenzo Mauldin (Louisville)
CB: Kendall Fuller (Virginia Tech)
CB: Garry Peters (Clemson)
S: Gerod Holliman (Louisville)
S: Jalen Ramsey (FSU)
P: Wil Baumann (NC State)


To see the full roster, click here.

Among the biggest differences between the coaches' and media's voting: Boston College center Andy Gallik was relegated to the second team this time around, with Miami's Shane McDermott taking the top spot on the coaches' team. McDermott received only honorable mention status from the media last week. Louisville linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin was also a first-team newcomer, replacing Duke's David Helton, who made the media's first-team and who took home some pretty impressive hardware of his own Tuesday night in New York. Clemson cornerback Garry Peters was also a first-team addition, leaping the media's selection of FSU's P.J. Williams.

Louisville receiver DeVante Parker made the coaches' second-team after playing in just five games. Parker had made the media's third-team. The coaches flipped the media's second- and third-team quarterbacks, putting Georgia Tech's Justin Thomas on the second-team and North Carolina's Marquise Williams on the third-team.

The coaches' third-team ended up containing five linebackers, as four tied in the voting, as well as two cornerbacks and two punters.

To see the media's All-ACC picks from last week, click here.
Georgia Tech's resurgent year continued Tuesday, as head coach Paul Johnson was voted ACC coach of the year by the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association.

Joining Johnson as big winners Tuesday were Miami's Brad Kaaya and Virginia's Quin Blanding, who were named ACC offensive and defensive rookie of the year, respectively. Kaaya also took overall ACC rookie of the year honors.

"I accept this award on behalf of our football program -- assistant coaches, players, staff, and everyone involved," Johnson said in a release. "As everyone knows, this is not a one-person award. I appreciate the honor."

Johnson coached the Yellow Jackets to a 10-2 record, as they will face undefeated and defending national champion Florida State this Saturday in the ACC title game. Johnson has now won this award three different times.

Kaaya took top rookie honors after leading the league in touchdown passes (25) while finishing second in passing yards (2,962). The Miami signal caller thew for the fourth-most passing yards by a freshman in ACC history.

Blanding finished the season second in the ACC and 12th nationally in tackles (123). The safety's tackle mark set a Virginia freshman record for stops in a season.

Blog debate: Who is ACC Coach of the Year?

December, 1, 2014
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The ACC regular season is in the books and award time is upon us. The conference has already announced its All-ACC team and plans to release its winners for ACC Coach of the Year, Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and others throughout the week. In advance of those announcements, we at the ACC blog decided to give you a look at who we think deserves each honor.

Monday we'll debate coach and rookies of the year. Check back Tuesday for our choices for offensive and defensive players of the year.

SportsNation

Who should be ACC Coach of the Year?

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    36%
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    57%
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    7%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,903)

Paul Johnson: Georgia Tech was picked to finish fifth in the Coastal Division in the ACC preseason media poll, and there were many in Atlanta growing restless over a string of recent mediocre seasons on The Flats. But Johnson proved once again his triple-option offense works when he has a quarterback who can effectively run it. Justin Thomas has been a steadying force behind center, as Georgia Tech ranks No. 3 in the country in rushing, No. 3 in time of possession and No. 1 in third-down conversions. Meanwhile, the defense has become one of the most opportunistic groups in the nation. Its 123 points off turnovers ranks No. 4 in FBS. Simply put, Georgia Tech has been a revelation this season, and Johnson deserves much of the credit. The Jackets have won 10 games for the first time since 2009 and beat rivals Clemson and Georgia in the same season for the first time since 2008. Johnson should be the slam-dunk choice to win this award. -- Andrea Adelson

Jimbo Fisher: This award tends to be given to the coach who piloted the league’s biggest turnaround, but if the award is for who did the best job coaching, it’s hard to deny Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher. Although FSU matched its undefeated preseason expectation, that shouldn’t exclude Fisher from the award. The Seminoles played 11 Power 5 opponents, including a season opener at a neutral site. Sure, the wins were not always impressive, but the Seminoles received every team’s best effort. All you have to do is look at how NC State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma State played against Florida State compared to the rest of their schedule. The Seminoles have played with a pressure no other team has dealt with, too, as they were expected to not just win every game but blow every opponent out despite significant attrition to the NFL from last season's team. Fisher had to rebuild a defense that lost five NFL players and its coordinator. And maybe the biggest testament to the coaching job Fisher has done is the way Florida State has played in second halves. Florida State has adjusted better than any team and never panics. Fisher is as worthy as Johnson, even if it means he didn’t reach the lofty expectations placed on his team in the preseason. -- Jared Shanker

Brad Kaaya: Think back to the quarterback situation at Miami this summer. Stephen Morris was gone. Ryan Williams tore his ACL. Jake Heaps had transferred in but hardly looked impressive. Kevin Olson was in trouble constantly. It was chaos until Kaaya stepped up and won the starting job. He was thrown to the wolves early against Louisville, but he was resilient. And with each passing game, he appeared to get better and better. For the season, Kaaya led the ACC in yards per attempt (8.6), touchdowns (25), passer rating (148.2) and completions of 30 yards or more (22). And he did all that without last year’s star receiver, Stacy Coley, contributing much of anything. The Hurricanes’ offseason will have plenty of big questions yet again in 2015, but thanks to Kaaya’s emergence, quarterback certainly won’t be one of them. -- David Hale

Deshaun Watson: Maybe we shouldn't be glorifying a freshman for playing on a torn ACL, even if it would appear to be relatively harmless in the grand scheme of things. Regardless, it is pretty telling that Clemson went with Watson in that condition against South Carolina, and even more telling that he was flat-out dominant without many hints of discomfort. The QB has been sensational every time he's been on the field, overcoming a spring shoulder injury, a midseason finger injury and now knee injuries to lead Clemson to a 9-3 record during a so-called "rebuilding" year. And that record would at the very least be 10-2, maybe even 11-1, had he started every game from the beginning. (That lone loss being a rout at Georgia Tech last month, when he was knocked out early.) Watson's missed time meant he did not qualify for a Total QBR rating, but among unqualified quarterbacks -- including guys who made brief appearances and have, ahem, "perfect" stats -- Watson finished No. 8. He completed nearly 68 percent of his passes for 1,466 yards, 14 TDs and just two picks. He added 200 rushing yards and five TDs on the ground. Watson snapped Clemson's five-game losing streak to the Gamecocks, and he's just getting started. -- Matt Fortuna

Quin Blanding: There are a handful of other freshmen who turned in fine performances on defense this season, but none came close to the impact Blanding made at Virginia. The five-star recruit was one of the most heralded signings in recent UVA history, and he backed up the hype with a tremendous debut season. Blanding finished the regular season second in the ACC in tackles with 123 and 12th in the league with nine passes defended. Those would be impressive enough numbers for any player, but what makes Blanding truly stand out is this: Of the top 100 tacklers in the nation, he’s one of just two true freshmen. -- David Hale

By the numbers: Week 13 recap

November, 24, 2014
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A tour of some intriguing statistical performances from Week 13 in the ACC.

FSU’s hangover effect

Florida State fans have been quick to point to the number of well-rested teams getting their shot at the Seminoles this season as an explanation for some of FSU’s struggles. Indeed, four opponents faced FSU the week after byes and another had an FCS foe the week before (and that doesn’t include the season opener or this week’s game against Florida). In other words, seven of FSU’s 12 opponents would have had an extra week to focus on getting ready for the Seminoles.

But in addition to what came before the FSU game, what came after is interesting, too. Here’s a rundown of how FSU’s opponents fared the week after playing the Seminoles.

Oklahoma State: FCS opponent
Clemson: Beat North Carolina 50-35
NC State: Lost to Clemson 41-0
Wake Forest: Bye week
Syracuse: Fell behind Wake 7-0 but rebounded for 30-7 win
Notre Dame: Trailed Navy 31-28 entering fourth quarter before winning 49-39
Louisville: Trailed Boston College 13-3 before winning 38-19
Virginia: Bye week
Miami: Lost to Virginia 30-13

So of Florida State's six opponents to play an FBS team the following week, all but Clemson started sluggish, and two lost outright. Is that the hangover effect of teams giving FSU their best shot and coming up empty? It’s certainly not proof, but it’s worth consideration.

Marquise the magician

[+] EnlargeMarquise Williams
Gerry Broome/Associated PressNorth Carolina's Marquise Williams is one of two quarterbacks in the country with at least 2,500 passing yards, 700 rushing yards, 20 passing touchdowns and 10 rushing touchdowns.
It’s largely flown beneath the radar because North Carolina’s defense faltered so badly in the early going, but Tar Heels QB Marquise Williams has emerged as one of the top players in the conference, if not the country.

Williams’ 33 touchdowns this season are the seventh-most by any player in the country, trailing only Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Ohio State's J.T. Barrett, Notre Dame's Everett Golson and Mississippi State's Dak Prescott among Power 5 QBs.

Williams and Prescott are the only quarterbacks in the nation with at least 2,500 passing yards, 700 rushing yards, 20 passing TDs and 10 rushing TDs. In fact, in the last decade, only seven other Power 5 quarterbacks have done that: Vince Young, Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, James Franklin, Taylor Martinez, Brett Hundley and Johnny Manziel.

And since Williams stopped splitting reps with Mitch Trubisky at the end of September, he’s thrown 12 touchdowns, four interceptions, completed 63 percent of his throws and rushed for 10 more scores. His adjusted QBR of 78.9 is 10th-best among Power 5 quarterbacks during that span.

Ramsey’s all-purpose D

Florida State defensive back Jalen Ramsey had another exceptional game against Boston College, racking up eight tackles, 1.5 for a loss and a sack. Ramsey now has 68 tackles, 9.5 for a loss and 11 passes defended this year.

The 9.5 tackles for loss are tied for the third-most by a defensive back in the nation, and only USC’s Su’a Cravens also has at least 10 passes defended to go with the TFLs.

Hat tip to the kids

Four true freshmen started in the penultimate week of the regular season, and Reggie Bonnafon and John Wolford both came away with wins. But the youth movement has been rampant in the league all year.

Here’s a strange coincidence: Senior QBs have thrown 1,018 passes in the ACC this year. True freshman QBs have thrown 1,017. So, since they’ve thrown virtually the exact same amount of passes, who’s doing better?

No question the edge goes to the kids, which should certainly bode well for the future of offenses in the conference.

Changes coming in Blacksburg?

After a disastrous, 6-3 loss to Wake Forest, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer admitted the QB position would be evaluated moving forward. Here’s why: Michael Brewer completed just 15 of 28 passes for 126 yards and an interception in the loss to Wake Forest. His QBR for the game was just 6.0 — the fourth-lowest by a starting QB in the ACC this season.

Since beating North Carolina on Oct. 4, Brewer’s Adjusted QBR is 29.8, the lowest of any ACC quarterback with at least 50 pass attempts.

Of course, if changes are in store, Beamer’s position could be under review, too. The Hokies are just 17-17 against FBS teams since the start of 2012, and six of those games required overtime. In regulation, Virginia Tech is just 13-15-2, and it has just four wins by two touchdowns or more against Power 5 foes.

Extra points

  • Pitt’s Tyler Boyd accounted for 126 of the Panthers’ 189 receiving yards Saturday, but that’s no surprise. For the season, Boyd is responsible for 52.3 percent of Pitt’s receiving yards — by far the highest percentage for any player in the country. Next up is Alabama’s Amari Cooper, who has 43.8 percent of the Tide’s receiving yards.
  • Virginia’s Quin Blanding had seven tackles and an interception in the victory over Miami, and he is second behind Duke’s David Helton in tackles in the ACC. More impressive, though: Of the top 100 tacklers in the nation this year, Blanding is the only freshman.
  • Louisville’s Brandon Radcliff has had four games with more than 95 rushing yards this season, and four games with less than 10. He gained 136 yards on 17 carries Saturday.
  • Duke Johnson could have set Miami’s all-time rushing record with 122 yards on the ground Saturday. Instead, he finished with just 88 — snapping a streak of 12 consecutive games with at least 90 rushing yards. He did have an additional 44 receiving yards, giving him 132 total scrimmage yards — his ninth straight game topping the century mark.
  • Wake Forest was the first team since 2012 to win a game when scoring six points or fewer (BYU beat Utah State 6-3) and the Deacons are just the fifth Power 5 team in the last decade to win a game with just six points scored. UTSA is the only other team this season to win a game in which it didn’t score a touchdown.
  • There were 13 field goals missed by ACC kickers in Week 13, and one more missed in an ACC game. That last one was by Notre Dame’s Kyle Brindza against Louisville, which cost the Irish the game. For the season, ACC kickers were connecting at a 78.2-percent clip. In Week 13, they made just 51.9 percent of their field-goal tries.
  • Defensive lineman Ron Thompson scored a rushing TD for Syracuse on Saturday — just the 11th rushing score of the year for the Orange, which rank 106th nationally in that category. But no running back has scored on the ground for Syracuse against an FBS team since Jerome Smith in last year’s bowl game.
  • Clemson’s Tyshon Dye missed all of last season and the first seven games of this year with injuries. Entering Saturday, he had just five career carries. Against Georgia State, however, he ran 20 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- North Carolina coach Larry Fedora had the right idea when he described the final five minutes against Virginia as wild and hectic.

Other adjectives that work: Improbable. Crazy. Insane. Head-scratching ...

You get the idea.

What went down Saturday was a microcosm of the way both North Carolina and Virginia have played recently: The Tar Heels are the team that won't go away; the Hoos are the team that cannot get out of their own way.

So it came to be that North Carolina came back to beat Virginia 28-27 to stay alive in the Coastal Division race. The game turned on four plays in the final 5:09, plays that are probably going to keep coach Mike London up tonight.

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Play No. 1: Virginia had a 26-21 lead and began marching down the field, all the way down to the North Carolina 32. On second down, Virginia quarterback Greyson Lambert went back for a screen pass to Kevin Parks. Defensive tackle Nazair Jones read the play and leaped off the ground, snagging the interception. North Carolina took over at the Virginia 38 with a chance to win.

"I should have just done something different with the ball, thrown it in the dirt or something," Lambert said. "I thought that would have been a statement drive for us and a play here or there can always change that. We've got -- especially me -- to do a better job of executing."

Fedora said: "I was looking somewhere else at the time until everybody started yelling, and I saw him running and I saw the screen setting up and I mean he's 6-foot-5 and he's 290 pounds and he's mobile. That was big. Screens is a big part of what they've done on the past and our guys worked hard on it so it was good to see them execute that from their work in practice."

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Play No. 2: North Carolina got down to the Virginia 11 after Marquise Williams threw a 27-yard pass to Ryan Switzer. On second down, Eli Harold tackled Williams to the turf. Williams' helmet popped off, sending backup Mitch Tribusky into the game.

Fedora considered calling a timeout, but decided to roll with it. Trubisky calmly delivered a 16-yard touchdown pass to a wide open T.J. Thorpe, pulling the Tar Heels ahead 28-27.

"I'm happy with what we've been doing with Mitch," Fedora said. I know a lot of people think we're idiots but it paid off for him in that situation. He was calm, he knew what he was running and he executed the play. He never blinked."

Trubisky said: "I saw his helmet come off and just knew I had to be ready. It was such short notice that I didn't have time to think about it."

Virginia safety Anthony Harris said, "It's tough to give up a play like that right in the middle of the end zone and give them the lead on that play."

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Play No. 3: Fedora had a choice to make. With 4:05 remaining, he could kick to Virginia and hope his much-maligned defense would come through. Or ...

Assistant coach Ron West asked Fedora whether he wanted to go for an onside kick.

"Throughout the game, they were saying, 'Look, it's there, and then they said it again, and I said you know what? It's the right time to do it," Fedora said.

Kicker Nick Weiler, who missed two field goals in the game, lined up.

"We executed it in practice every time, so the coaches were confident in it," he said. "We had the look and we knew we had to make a game-changing play on special teams."

The signal went up, Virginia was unprepared, and Mack Hollins recovered the ball.

"Nick kicked a real good ball," Hollins said. "They were backing up while we were keeping it onside so by the time they turned around, they had no chance."

Virginia safety Quin Blanding said, "For them to cover it, it blew my mind."

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Play No. 4: Williams returned to the field and made some plays by running with the ball -- getting North Carolina down to the Virginia 21 with 1:17 to play. The Tar Heels called a timeout, and elected to set up for a field goal.

Coming off the sideline, Virginia made a critical error. There was confusion among the linemen, and the Hoos ended up with 12 men on the field. The refs saw it and called the penalty.

Game. Over.

"There was an extra guy on the field who should not have been there," London said. "When we make those switches, one guy comes in and one guy comes out. It was not caught or noticed. That is coaching, that is us on the sideline watching what's going on."

Now both teams are 4-4, and 2-2 in Coastal play. This one could be a launching point for the Tar Heels to make a run at a division title; it could also spell doom for the Hoos.
Quin Blanding heard the talk nearly every day.

He was a five-star recruit. He could have played anywhere. But he wanted to play for a team that didn’t win a game in the ACC a year ago, for coaches whose job security was the source of constant rumors.

"I had people every day asking why I was going to Virginia," Blanding said. "But I knew I couldn’t let them distract me from what I wanted to do."

The pitch against Virginia was easy, but Blanding had gotten the behind-the-scenes tutorial on what the Cavaliers were building on defense, and he was intrigued.

[+] EnlargeQuin Blanding
AP Photo/Steve HelberLed by safety Quin Blanding, Virginia's defense has been stellar during the team's surprising start.
The 6-foot-4 safety from Virginia Beach would make the trip to Charlottesville regularly to talk with the players. He grew close with star safety Anthony Harris, and he learned the ropes. He heard the sales pitch for Mike London’s program -- not from the coaches, but from the players who saw a team on the brink of something special.

The knocks against Virginia were easy to ignore, Blanding said. Being a part of a team -- and in particular, a defense -- that was about to take a big step forward was an opportunity too good to pass up.

"That was exactly the message," Blanding said. "Time would tell, and it was our time now."

Last season, Virginia won just two games and was 0-8 in the ACC. That’s a fact, but it’s not something that gets talked about much.

This season, the Hoos (4-2, 2-0) are the only Coastal Division team without an ACC loss. That’s the only fact Virginia is focused on now.

"We know we didn’t perform well last year as a team, but we believed each year is a new year," Harris said. "We worked hard in the offseason to get better as a team so we could go out on Saturdays and show our record last year doesn’t reflect our level of talent."

That level of talent is impressive. Henry Coley and Eli Harold both rank in the top four in the ACC in sacks. David Dean, Max Valles and Daquan Romero have developed into versatile, disruptive forces. And in the back end, Harris has led a veteran group that has tormented opposing quarterbacks, while Blanding has quickly developed into a star. The true freshman currently leads the ACC in tackles, including racking up 28 in his past two games.

"Right away I could tell [Blanding] was a really bright guy and has a lot of knowledge about the game," Harris said of his fellow safety. "Physically, if you look at him, he’s a guy who could come in and contribute. So the big thing was just how fast he could pick up on the defense. With his football IQ, he’s done a very good job on that, and it’s shown in how he gets to the football and makes a lot of plays for us."

The early success in 2014 has been encouraging, but not a surprise.

Whether it was during Blanding’s recruitment or the long offseason following a frustrating season, Virginia’s players understood that the pieces were in place to create a winner, and they talked often about overcoming those small obstacles that had kept the unit from coalescing.

"Each year we bring in a lot of talented guys," Harris said. "Fitting it all together and making it work, for the last few years we hadn’t been able to do it, but we knew it was there."

In a way, that brutal 2013 was exactly what sold Blanding on the program, and it’s exactly what the veterans of the group needed to turn the corner.

"Sometimes it takes a team to really go through something before you can really find out how everybody fits into the puzzle, how to work through certain things," Harris said. "Trying to get over the hump, it’s just one or two plays that’s the difference. Some of the adversity we’ve faced the last few years, we really learned from and we’ve really been able to grow."

On Saturday, Virginia travels to Duke in a game that could put the Cavaliers squarely in the driver’s seat in the Coastal. That is a possibility that sounded absurd to so many outside the program two months ago, but for those who had seen blueprint being drawn, it’s exactly where they expected to be.

"We feel like there are a lot of guys who have matured and grown a lot, and we’re speaking up and setting high expectations for the team," Harris said. "We feel like if we’re all bought in and have the same goal, we’ll be able to get it done."

ACC midseason overview

October, 14, 2014
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It's the midpoint for the ACC, and in a lot of ways, things aren't too much different from a year ago.

Florida State is the league's lone hope for the playoff, and while the Seminoles are riding high at 6-0, plenty of questions remain both on and off the field, starting with this week's showdown against No. 5 Notre Dame.

In the Coastal, things are as wild as ever. Virginia leads the way, but each time a new favorite has emerged, it has faltered a week later.

There have been some big wins -- Virginia Tech over Ohio State, Boston College over USC -- and some major disappointments (we're looking at you, Pitt and North Carolina). Established stars like Duke Johnson and Jameis Winston have looked good, if not Heisman quality, while new arrivals like Jacoby Brissett and Deshaun Watson have turned in some of the season's finest performances.

But if there's much to be said about the ACC's first half in 2014, it's that it will serve as a worthy prologue for most teams only if the latter half of the season develops as planned. So much of what we thought we knew went out the window quickly, and so much of the story of the season is yet to be written. Florida State's playoff hopes remain, but so, too, do some significant hurdles. Clemson's season unraveled with September losses to two top-10 teams, but perhaps Watson can lead the Tigers to a long-awaited win over South Carolina at year's end. Virginia Tech has been up and down, but Frank Beamer has so much young talent developing that the Hokies can be excited about the future. Mike London has gone from the hot seat to potential division favorite if his team can hang on to its early momentum.

In other words, the silver linings haven't always been easy to find this season in the ACC, but, as so often seems to be the case in this league, there's hope that the rest of this year's storylines will be better.

[+] EnlargeRashad Greene
Rob Kinnan/USA Today SportsRashad Greene has amassed almost 700 receiving yards halfway through the season.
Offensive MVP: Florida State receiver Rashad Greene. It's been a rockier start to the season than the defending champions might've hoped, but the one consistent piece throughout the first six games of the year has been Greene. He has 130 more receiving yards than anyone else in the conference. He set the school record for receptions against Syracuse, bringing his career total to 215. He's topped 100 yards in four of his five games against FBS foes despite being the only consistent threat in the Seminoles' passing game. And most importantly, his performances against Oklahoma State, Clemson and NC State were the biggest difference between an FSU team that's scuffling at 3-3 or headed toward the playoff at 6-0.

Defensive MVP: Louisville safety Gerod Holliman. There are plenty of quality candidates for the honor, many of them on Holliman's own defense, but he gets the nod based on the sheer ridiculousness of his seven picks through seven games. A year ago, only one player in the nation had more than seven interceptions for the entire season, but Holliman has continued to rack up the takeaways as his defensive front punishes opposing quarterbacks. Overall, Louisville's defense has been on the field for 93 drives against FBS foes. Fifteen resulted in points. Sixteen resulted in turnovers, including seven that ended up in the hands of Louisville's sophomore safety.

Biggest surprise: Virginia's strong start. When the preseason prognosticators got together, the only Coastal Division team that didn't earn a first-place vote was Virginia. Midway through the season, however, it's the Cavaliers atop the Coastal. Chalk it up to a terrific defense, led by Henry Coley (6 sacks), Eli Harold (5.5 sacks) and freshman Quin Blanding (ACC-leading 61 tackles). Meanwhile, London's crew has navigated a quarterback carousel to find an offense that's developing each week. A team that was once the consensus cellar dweller is the lone Coastal player without a loss in conference play.

Biggest disappointment: North Carolina. The Tar Heels are 2-4, but they've trailed in every game they've played this season. They were torched by ECU in one of the most atrocious defensive performances in recent memory, then were lit up for six touchdown passes by a true freshman making his first career start a week later. A game performance against Notre Dame last week at least offers some optimism that a turnaround similar to 2013 is possible, but it's been another rough start for UNC.

Newcomer of the year: Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. The freshman opened the season as Cole Stoudt's backup but won the starting job after a stellar performance against Florida State. He looked poised and precise and ran Chad Morris' offense with ease through the next few games, leading the nation in QBR in the process. But a broken finger suffered against Louisville has doomed Watson to the sidelines for at least the next three to four weeks, meaning a few other newcomers -- Blanding, Miami's Brad Kaaya, Virginia Tech's Isaiah Ford and NC State's Jacoby Brissett (a transfer) -- still have a chance to take this award by year's end.

Best coach: FSU's Jimbo Fisher. He probably doesn't get the credit he deserves because he clearly has the league's most talented team, but through all the trials and tribulations of the past year, Fisher has directed the Seminoles to 22 straight wins. He's kept an even keel for a team replacing a host of departed NFL talent, he's overseen a win against Clemson with his backup quarterback, and he's kept the wolves at bay despite nearly constant controversy.

Best game: Florida State 23, Clemson 17. Winston was suspended, and that would've been enough drama on its own to make this the game of the year so far. But there was so much more. Watson's emergence in a hostile environment was exciting. The resilience of Sean Maguire, Winston's backup, in spite of early struggles was impressive. His touchdown pass to Greene to tie the game late was dramatic. Eddie Goldman's forced fumble to keep Clemson out of the end zone in the final minutes was miraculous. And, of course, Florida State's win in overtime kept the ACC alive for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Best games of the second half: Notre Dame at Florida State this week will be the pinnacle of the ACC's remaining slate, and it likely defines the season for both top-five teams. But beyond that matchup, a few more intriguing battles remain, including the Seminoles' trip to Louisville (Oct. 30), Duke and Virginia Tech in a potential division-defining battle on Nov. 15, and, of course, the annual state championship between Clemson and South Carolina to close out the regular season.

Virginia Cavaliers season preview

August, 19, 2014
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Virginia Cavaliers:

Key returners: RB Kevin Parks, RB Taquan Mizzell, S Anthony Harris, DE Eli Harold, LB Henry Coley

Key losses: TE Jake McGee, OT Morgan Moses, DE Jake Snyder, DT Brent Urban

Most important 2014 games: UCLA, Aug. 30; Miami, Nov. 22; at Virginia Tech, Nov. 28

Projected win percentage: 37 percent

Over/under Vegas odds: 3

[+] EnlargeKevin Parks
AP Photo/Andrew ShurtleffRunning back Kevin Parks is among the few proven performers Virginia returns on offense.
Instant impact newcomers: Defensive tackle Andrew Brown and safety Quin Blanding. There is little doubt that the two highest-rated players in the 2014 signing class will play for the Cavs this season. Brown has had a little setback in dealing with a turf toe injury that has bothered him since the spring. But when he is healthy, he will be a contributor on a defensive line that needs depth at tackle. Blanding has been working with the first-team defense since spring practice opened. By all accounts, he is as good as advertised.

Best-case scenario for 2014: Greyson Lambert brings consistency to the quarterback position, allowing the offense to flourish. The defense improves on the gains it made from a season ago, and the Hoos cut down on penalties and turnovers. Parks turns in another 1,000-yard season, and playmaker receivers emerge to help Virginia pull several upsets, end a long losing streak to rival Virginia Tech, make a bowl and become the surprise team in the ACC.

Worst-case scenario for 2014: Quarterback remains an issue behind Lambert, and the offensive line fails to gain any cohesion. Without any stability up front or behind Lambert, Virginia continues to struggle to move the ball and score points. Defensively, Virginia continues to give up too many big plays. One of the toughest schedules in the ACC does the Cavaliers no favors, and they sink to their third straight losing season.

They said it: "The identity is one of unity. You can talk about, well, how does that happen? Last year, we had four seniors. This year, we have 22. There's a maturation process that takes place when you have teams that are looking for leaders, that are looking for an identity. … The expectations of performing are paramount for us." -- coach Mike London.

Biggest question mark: How much time do we have? Outside of Parks, the entire offense remains a question mark. The offensive line has not been solidified yet; Lambert remains a wild card; and there is no go-to player among the receivers with McGee gone. Virginia is in desperate need of a big-play threat in the receiver group and a quarterback who can limit the mistakes. We still don’t know whether both will come to fruition for this team in 2014.

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