1. Jameis Winston will post better numbers -- but won’t win the Heisman.
Much has been made of the depletion of Winston’s receiving corps, but losing Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw won’t spell doom for the Florida State QB. In fact, Winston struggled at times last year when getting too greedy down the field, and a renewed emphasis on a shorter passing game could up his numbers. When throwing to RBs or TEs last year, Winston completed 79 percent of his throws and averaged 11.6 yards per attempt, with 11 of his 86 passes going for touchdowns. Add the likelihood he’ll play more fourth quarters this season, and his numbers could well go up in 2014 -- but, of course, winning back-to-back Heisman Trophies is no easy task, and neither Winston nor coach Jimbo Fisher has ever shown much interest in chasing individual awards.
It’s telling that what could’ve been one of the most discussed QB vacancies in the conference was actually among the least interesting this offseason. Coach Bobby Petrino waited until Sunday to make it official, but Gardner was the obvious choice since the spring. Then there’s this: In nine years as a head coach, Petrino’s starting QBs have averaged 63 percent completions, 8.8 yards per attempt, 21 TDs and 8 interceptions -- stats that would’ve rivaled any QB in the league last year, save Winston and Tajh Boyd.
3. Virginia Tech wins 10 again.
The Hokies won at least 10 games in each of their first eight seasons in the ACC, but that streak ended in 2012 and the team is just 10-10 against Power Five conference foes in the past two years. But coach Frank Beamer is giving his young talent a chance to shine, the Week 2 date with Ohio State suddenly looks a lot more winnable and the rest of the schedule shapes up nicely for the Hokies. The offense needs to get a lot better to be a legit College Football Playoff contender, but Virginia Tech will at least be in the conversation.
4. Virginia goes bowling.
The schedule makes this a tough sell. Ten of Virginia’s 12 opponents played in a bowl game last year, and there may not be a single easy win on the slate. But there’s talent in Charlottesville, including 19 four- or five-star recruits inked in the past four years. That’s more than Louisville (16) and just one fewer than Virginia Tech (20). That talent has to translate to wins eventually, right? It’ll take some upsets, but the Hoos will get to six wins.
5. Clemson is a running team.
With Boyd and Sammy Watkins stealing the bulk of the headlines the past three years, Clemson’s passing game got a lot of credit for the team’s success. But the Tigers actually ranked in the top three in the ACC in rushing attempts in each of those three seasons. Now with a new QB and significant turnover at receiver, the passing game is a question, but Dabo Swinney loves his tailbacks. Don’t be surprised if freshman Wayne Gallman tops 1,000 yards -- something a Clemson tailback has done each of the past three seasons.
6. Young runners make a big impact.
Gallman won’t be the only rookie runner to make noise in 2014. The ACC has some impressive veterans in Duke Johnson, Karlos Williams, Kevin Parks and Dominique Brown, but there are plenty of fresh faces eager to make an impact, too. Virginia Tech’s Marshawn Williams, North Carolina’s Elijah Hood and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook could join Gallman as freshman sensations, while sophomores like T.J. Logan, James Conner, Myles Willis, Matt Dayes and Taquan Mizzell could all have big seasons, too.
7. Stacy Coley catches a TD from three different QBs.
If there was a more settled QB situation at Miami, Coley might be a niche pick for Heisman honors as one of the game’s most explosive players. Unfortunately, it could be a revolving door at QB for the Canes. Freshman Brad Kaaya gets first crack, and the hope is that Ryan Williams will return from an ACL injury sooner than later. Don’t be surprised if Jake Heaps or Kevin Olsen gets a shot to start at some point, too. Coley will make them all look better, but he’d benefit from some stability at QB.
8. Jamison Crowder sets the standard.
Crowder had 30 more targets last season than any other ACC receiver, and now Duke is without its second-best pass-catcher in Braxton Deaver. That makes Crowder an even more integral part of the Blue Devils’ passing game, and it means he should cruise past former teammate Conner Vernon’s ACC record for receiving yards. Crowder is just 1,152 yards short entering the season.
9. Tyler Murphy and Jacoby Brissett look good.
Boston College and NC State will both be starting QBs who transferred from Florida, and both have a chance to put up solid numbers. In fact, we're predicting both Murphy and Brissett post better stats this season than Jeff Driskel, the man who kept them both on the bench in Gainesville.
10. The Coastal champ will be ...
Is there really any answer here that would feel remotely safe? Heck, Georgia Tech could win the division or miss out on a bowl game. Anything seems possible. But since it’s prediction time, we’ll ante up, just so you can remind us how wrong we were in December. So, let’s say ... Virginia Tech.
What if I told you the ACC was ranked fifth?
Not surprising in the least.
At this point, it is hard to see the ranking as a huge slap at the league, considering the ACC also was ranked fifth in the final 2013 conference power rankings with a national championship and Orange Bowl win to brag about. The ranking speaks to the state of the entire conference, which we all can agree needs to upgrade its product behind the Noles and Tigers.
The key difference between last season and this season, though, is the College Football Playoff. And conference ranking could come into play when the selection committee begins its evaluations. Because strength of schedule will matter. As our friends at Stats & Info point out in their post:
Among Power Five conferences, the ACC is considered the weakest by both the AP Poll and FPI. That means that if the top four conferences place a team in the playoff, it would leave the ACC on the outside looking in. Yet, there is a lot more that goes into those decisions, including the fact that the ACC has the clear No. 1 team in the country. Florida State received 57 of 60 first place votes in the AP Poll and has by far the best chance (39 percent) to finish the season undefeated according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.
However, what if Florida State loses a conference game? Does the relative strength of the ACC come into play?
All fun questions to ponder before the season begins.
Let's take a tour around the rest of the ACC as the games quickly approach:
- Boston College may use its running backs out of the backfield more than it did a year ago.
- Clemson has studied tape from its game against Florida State last year for clues on how Jeremy Pruitt will run the Georgia defense.
- Duke football has come so far, what if it takes a step back?
- More fun predictions! Stewart Mandel at FoxSports has Florida State in the playoff and Clemson facing Alabama in the Discover Orange Bowl.
- Louisville running back Michael Dyer remains doubtful for the opener against Miami.
- Ryan Williams and Jake Heaps talk about Brad Kaaya winning the Miami quarterback job.
- Joe Giglio has a great read on NC State quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who has high expectations for himself headed into the season.
- Is North Carolina going to be the Coastal champ? One columnist says yes.
- Apparently, Larry Fedora takes pleasure in tormenting people.
- Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer compared freshman receiver Isaiah Ford to Antonio Freeman.
- Could Kevin Johnson and Merrill Noel be Wake Forest's best cornerbacks ... ever?
That system is the College Football Power Index (FPI). Introduced last year, the method has been improved to account for all of the above information because, well, those things matter. You as a fan know it, and the numbers support it.
It also says the surprising -- such as Marshall having the second-best chance of going undefeated this year, thanks to the easiest schedule in college football. If Marshall climbs the polls this year, remember that pretty much any average team would have a similar chance to go undefeated against the Thundering Herd’s slate. FPI ranks them 54th, roughly average across FBS teams, but this means that an average team would have a pretty good chance to go undefeated against that schedule. Only a road game against Old Dominion does the Thundering Herd have less than a 60 percent chance of winning. If they go undefeated, the College Football Playoff selection committee shouldn’t look at them seriously if it values a team’s strength of schedule.
FPI captures a lot but might not capture everything. Last year, Michigan State fans hated FPI because it never saw the Spartans as a top-five or even a top-10 team. The reason was an offense that got into the end zone a total of three times against weak teams Purdue, Western Michigan and South Florida. FPI kept predicting Michigan State to lose or to at least not cover the spread. And FPI kept being wrong.
But we improved FPI this year, and it now predicts games at about 75 percent over 10 years (and does better with last year’s Michigan State team). Because it predicts games well, it can simulate every game for every FBS team for the entire season and produce these kinds of prognostications for 2014.
- Oregon has the third-best chance of going undefeated at 6 percent. That’s not very likely, so don’t get mad at FPI if it doesn’t happen.
- Realistically, there will be only one undefeated team through this season’s conference championships.
- Auburn has a better FPI rank than South Carolina, but South Carolina’s chances to win the SEC are higher than Auburn’s. This is because Auburn’s schedule is quite a bit harder, playing seven teams in the FPI top 25 (four on the road) compared with South Carolina’s five (two on the road).
- The four most difficult schedules in the country are in the Pac-12. Every Pac-12 team has a schedule rated in the top 40. Five Pac-12 teams play only one team with an FPI under zero, where an FPI of zero represents a team that is exactly average. No other team in any other conference plays fewer than two games like this. Pac-12 teams don’t schedule easy games.
- UCLA has the most difficult schedule and, as a result, projects to lose three games despite being the fourth-best team in FPI. They’re projected to be so high in FPI because they return 17 starters from what was a very good team last year.
- The loss of Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller lowered the Buckeyes’ FPI rank from sixth to 12th. It likely adds a projected loss to their record and lowers their chances to win the Big Ten from about 40 percent to about 30 percent. That 30 percent chance, though, still leaves them as the favorite in FPI’s eyes.
FPI doesn’t account for any specific strength that the Spartans coaching staff has for rebuilding the defense, so it could be wrong. FPI doesn’t account for Connor Cook being some analysts’ favorite dark horse quarterback, so it could be wrong. But FPI has seen a lot of seasons, a lot of coaching staffs, a lot of quarterbacks, and it’s learned to ignore the hype. So, yes, FPI hedges its bets and says the Spartans have about a 1 in 9 chance to win the Big Ten.
It’s not ruling it out. And it might change its mind if the Spartans start the season destroying teams. Just like on-air analysts, FPI is allowed to incorporate new information.
One thing FPI won’t be particularly good at, though, is identifying which teams should be in the Playoff. This is because we, the fans, and the College Football Playoff selection committee don’t know what we want in the Playoff. The polls and the committee will reflect something different than who will win the next game. Polls often reflect a season résumé, including accomplishments such as a conference championship, a win-loss record in combination with a strength of schedule (something we put into a metric called “Strength of Record”), as well as in-game dominance.
FPI is about looking forward. As a result, it’s perfect for this time of year.
Factor in national implications -- it was a season opener in August against and part of a 42-0 rolling of the unranked Jayhawks -- and it pales in comparison to the 1979 Sugar Bowl.
"We had to meet them about three-fourths of the way and drag them off the field," Andrews said. Ken Alexander, Derrick Brooks and Corey Sawyer, who combined for the final fourth-down stop, laid on the blistering AstroTurf unable to get up as the referee signaled in Florida State's direction. "They didn't have anything left."
That was the season opener of the 1993 season, Florida State playing Kansas, which finished the prior season ranked in the top 25, at the Meadowlands, a national venue. The drive eclipsed 20 total plays, and Florida State committed four penalties inside the 10. While the Seminoles would win by six touchdowns, it was that particular drive that came at the end of the half when the Jayhawks were within two scores. Florida State held a dozen times in the shadow of its own goal post, then marched down the field with a 99-yard touchdown drive to put the game out of reach.
"That made our football team right there," Andrews said.
A season-opening game against a major-conference opponent on a national stage has the potential to alter the trajectory of a season, Andrews said. On Saturday, No. 1 Florida State travels to the state of Texas for the Cowboys Classic against Oklahoma State in AT&T Stadium. It's a prime-time game, and one "College GameDay" will be at.
Much like Kansas, Oklahoma State finished the previous season ranked, although pollsters are not quite as high on the Cowboys in 2014 as they overhaul their starting lineup. Regardless of the strength of the opposition, a nationally relevant opponent on the road or at a neutral site to begin the season can effect the next four months. Florida State, which is using the hashtag #DallasToDallas to define its title defense aspirations, hopes the Aug. 30 game will do just that this fall.
"The better it is for us to play on those kinds of stages," Fisher said.
Andrews served as Bobby Bowden's defensive coordinator for 27 seasons, and the two were never shy to play a national championship-caliber opponent to begin the season. From 1988-98, Florida State opened its season with a ranked opponent away from the confines of Doak Campbell Stadium on four occasions. Eleven times from 1988-03 the Seminoles began the season with a road or neutral-site opponent.
Bowden said the prospects of an opener with national implications sets the tone for offseason workouts and preseason camp. There is an added motivation for players and coaches alike when the opponent isn't an FCS cupcake.
"The thing about opening against a good team is it makes your boys get ready faster," Bowden said. "If you play a smaller division or someone you're favored by 25 points against, you're careful you won't have a letdown. But when you play a big one, they're usually ready to play."
Andre Wadsworth was a senior defensive lineman for Florida State in 1997 when the Seminoles opened at USC in The Coliseum. Wadsworth said the team began the season with an added focus on executing its offense and defense as it knew any self-inflicted wounds against a team the caliber of Southern Cal could derail a potential national championship season before it truly began. Florida State defeated USC, and the Seminoles would win their next 10 games before a three-point loss to Florida in the finale that ended a perfect season and hopes of a national title.
"The thing is to define yourself as early as possible as a team," Wadsworth said.
Fisher, in his fifth season at Florida State after replacing Bowden, said entering camp that the game against an Oklahoma State program that has averaged 10 wins since 2010 had the Seminoles focused and practicing at peak performance throughout preseason two-a-days. Fisher said he embraces the challenge, and the rest of team is itching to arrive at "Jerry World" and play on the biggest of big screens -- one that stretches 60 yards.
"That game is going to be electric," quarterback Jameis Winston said. "Florida State, we love to be in big games with millions of people watching us. That's what's fun, that's what football is for.
Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller missing the season could hit the school, retailers and Nike in the wallet.
Only four players in all of college football are more merchandised than Miller, according to jersey options matched to the most marketable players that are being sold on official school website stores.
Oregon is selling 25 different jerseys, counting colors and sizes, of No. 8, quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Michigan offers 17 different versions, in blue and white, in infant, youth, toddler, women's and men's cut, of No. 98, worn by its quarterback Devin Gardner.
Notre Dame has 15 different jerseys of its quarterback Everett Golson, who wears No. 5.
The University of Alabama website features 10 different jersey choices of No. 4, the same number worn by its star running back T.J. Yeldon.
Ohio State's official store is selling seven versions of Miller's No. 5.
That's even more jersey options (six) than Florida State fans have of No. 5 to choose from, the number worn by Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.
The NCAA and its schools have long contended that numbers don't necessarily correspond to current players, but common sense, as proven by all the cases above, suggests otherwise.
While players one day might be able to realize a percentage of the business from their jersey sales, the recent O'Bannon ruling did not include commentary on this area.
It's not known how many No. 5 Ohio State jerseys have been produced for this season, but Miller's absence will be the biggest hit to the college jersey marketplace in two years. In August 2012, LSU safety Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed from the team weeks before Baton Rouge retailers got their shipment of No. 7 jerseys. The number is finally fashionable again thanks to it being given to Leonard Fournette, the nation's top running back recruit.
Virginia Tech announced Saturday that Michael Brewer, a transfer from Texas Tech, would get the starting nod.
On Sunday, Miami followed up with the news that true freshman Brad Kaaya will be its starter when it opens the season against Louisville.
There are only five QBs in the ACC who threw more than 100 passes in the league in 2013 returning for this season, and three of them are in the Coastal. But two of those three -- David Watford at UVA and Marquise Williams at UNC -- aren't guaranteed a starting job when the season opens. In fact, Watford is out as Virginia's starter with Greyson Lambert penciled in atop the depth chart, and Tar Heels' coach Larry Fedora said he won't announce a decision between Williams and Mitch Trubisky until North Carolina kicks off its opener.
That could mean as many as six of the ACC's 14 opening day starting QBs would never have taken a snap with their respective teams before, and Clemson's Deshaun Watson, who will play but not start, adds more to that mix.
Of course, all these situations are different, and Kaaya certainly has the advantage of talent surrounding him at Miami. Perhaps no school in the conference has a better RB-WR combo than the Hurricanes Stacy Coley and Duke Johnson.
At Virginia Tech, on the other hand, Brewer will open the season with little experience around him. As The Roanoke Times notes, leading rusher Trey Edmunds is currently fourth on the depth chart at tailback (partially due to injury) and the Hokies' top two receivers, Demitri Knowles and Willie Byrn, aren't in the starting lineup either.
In fact, here's a quick look at Virginia Tech's skill position starters on offense:
QB: Brewer: Transfer, no previous ACC experience
RBs: Junior J.C. Coleman and freshman Marshawn Williams were responsible for a total of 84 carries for 284 yards last season (17 percent of the Hokies' total rushing attempts). Another freshman, Shai McKenzie is behind them.
WRs: Sophomore Joshua Stanford and freshman Isaiah Ford grab the starting nods here, again accounting for just a fraction of last year's passing game (16 percent of total receptions).
TE: Junior Ryan Malleck missed all of last season and has 17 career receptions.
I talked with Frank Beamer last week, and he was wildly enthusiastic about the future, raving about the opportunities at tight end, his freshmen receivers and Williams at tailback.
It's a risk, certainly, to start so much youth on a team coming off two down years, but Beamer clearly has decided that winning 10 games with mediocre talent isn't any better than winning eight games with developing talent. And the truth is, with Virginia Tech's schedule, there will be plenty of opportunity for the young pups to gain experience without necessarily costing the Hokies any games anyway.
It's a shrewd decision on Beamer's part, and one worthy of praise. Many coaches in his situation would go worry about the present first and foremost, but he's clearly concerned about Virginia Tech's future. That's a strong sentiment as the 2014 campaign gets set to kick off in a wide open Coastal Division.
A few more links for your morning reading:
- Sports Illustrated looks at the teams best positioned to knock Florida State from its ACC throne.
- Cavalier Insider has a terrific profile of Virginia All-ACC safety Anthony Harris, who might be one of the most under-appreciated stars in the conference.
- The State has a nice profile of new Clemson QB Cole Stoudt, too -- though no matter how much Stoudt warrants some attention, it's hard to overlook future star Deshaun Watson waiting in the wings.
- Attendance is a concern, even after a national championship at Florida State, writes the Orlando Sentinel. That's something USA Today tackled last week, and it's hard not to see this issue being front-and-center when it comes to getting students to stay in their seats.
- BC Interruption does some projecting to figure out the depth chart for the Eagles opener against UMass.
- Bobby Petrino says the pressure is all on him as Louisville preps for 2014, writes The Courier-Journal.
- If you're an FSU fan looking to head to Syracuse for the game this year, tickets go on sale Tuesday. And as someone who has lived in both Syracuse and Tallahassee, I cannot recommend this road trip enough. Especially Dinosaur BBQ.
- And your non-sports link of the day: The zen of casting Bill Murray in your movie, courtesy of Entertainment Weekly.
#AskSportsCenter With Paul Finebaum
12:00 PM ET 7 UCLA Virginia 12:00 PM ET Delaware Pittsburgh 12:30 PM ET Wofford Georgia Tech 12:30 PM ET Georgia Southern North Carolina State 3:00 PM ET Boston College Massachusetts 4:00 PM ET William & Mary Virginia Tech 5:30 PM ET 16 Clemson 12 Georgia 6:00 PM ET Elon Duke 6:00 PM ET Liberty 23 North Carolina 8:00 PM ET 1 Florida State Oklahoma State