NCF Nation: Atlantic Division

ACC race update: Week 12

November, 13, 2013
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The ACC’s Coastal Division race has never lacked drama in November, and yet somehow the result always seems to be the same: Virginia Tech or Georgia Tech are usually the last teams standing.

This year isn’t much different.

None of the four teams remaining with two losses –- Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Duke and Miami –- control their destinies. Each team needs somebody else to lose in order to get to Charlotte. One thing we do know: The Coastal Division winner will be playing Florida State, which has already locked up its spot in the ACC title game, but can win the Atlantic Division title outright with a win over Syracuse. A win by Florida State would give the program its eighth unbeaten ACC regular season since joining the league in 1992, but the first since 2000.

A win by Georgia Tech over Clemson on Thursday night would give the Jackets a 6-2 league record and no worse than a share of the Coastal Division title. Georgia Tech, which lost to both Miami and Virginia Tech, would need to avoid ties with both of those teams.

The only possible Coastal Division-clinching scenario this week would be if Georgia Tech beats Clemson AND Virginia Tech AND Miami both lose. That would send the Jackets to Charlotte.

Here’s exactly what your team needs to get to Charlotte:

What Duke needs: Win out and have somebody beat Georgia Tech

What Miami needs: Win out and have somebody beat Virginia Tech

What Georgia Tech needs: Beat Clemson and have Miami AND Virginia Tech lose

What Virginia Tech needs: Win out and have somebody beat Duke

The latter seems the most likely. At this point, we have the Hokies in Charlotte.

ACC race update: Week 11

November, 6, 2013
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The race in the Atlantic is all but over. The Coastal is a different matter, as four teams remain in serious contention.

ATLANTIC DIVISION
  • Florida State (8-0, 6-0) clinches a berth in the ACC championship game with a win against Wake Forest on Saturday. Wins against Wake Forest and Syracuse next week give the Seminoles the outright Atlantic Division title.
  • Clemson (8-1, 6-1) can make the ACC championship game with a win against Georgia Tech on Nov. 14 and Florida State losses its final two ACC games. OR Clemson can win the Atlantic with a loss to Georgia Tech should Syracuse win out and FSU drop its games against Wake Forest and Syracuse. Under this scenario, Clemson, Syracuse and FSU would end up in a three-way tie in the Atlantic, each 1-1 against the other two teams. The next tiebreaker is divisional record. Syracuse and Clemson would be 5-1 in the division (Syracuse lost to Clemson, Clemson lost to FSU) while the Seminoles would be 4-2 (losses to Wake and Syracuse). This would then revert to the two-team procedure, in which Clemson beat the Orange head-to-head.
COASTAL DIVISION
  • Miami (7-1, 3-1) remains in control of the race to the ACC championship. If the Hurricanes win all four of their remaining games -- Virginia Tech, at Duke, Virginia at Pittsburgh -- they are in. The Canes' next two games, against Virginia Tech and Duke, could potentially serve as Coastal Division elimination games.
  • Virginia Tech (6-3, 5-2), on a two-game losing streak, will stay in the race for the division crown with a win against the Hurricanes. If the Hokies win out, they need Duke to lose at least once more because the Hokies would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker. OR Virginia Tech can win the Coastal if it wins out and finishes in a three-way tie with Duke and Georgia Tech. The teams would be 1-1 against each other and the tiebreaker would go to divisional records. The Hokies would be 5-1 in the Coastal (loss to Duke), while Georgia Tech and Duke would both be 4-2 (GT losses to VT and Miami, Duke losses to GT and Pittsburgh).
  • Georgia Tech (6-3, 5-2) and Duke (6-2, 2-2) also have two conference losses each. Duke can win the Coastal with wins in its final four games -- NC State, Miami, at Wake Forest, at North Carolina -- AND a Georgia Tech loss to Clemson. The Jackets need help to make a return trip to Charlotte. They have to beat Clemson next week, then avoid tie-breaking scenarios with Miami and Virginia Tech -- the teams responsible for their losses this season.

ACC race update: Week 10

October, 30, 2013
10/30/13
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Now that we are down to the final month of the regular season, it is time to begin our weekly look at the conference race in both divisions. We are going to keep this as simple as possible, focused on the teams with the best chances today of winning their respective divisions.

ATLANTIC DIVISION
Florida State is in the driver's seat. In fact, the Noles could clinch as early as Saturday. For that to happen, Florida State needs to beat Miami; Wake Forest needs to beat Syracuse; and Virginia needs to beat Clemson. If all that happens, Florida State would be guaranteed no worse than a tie with Clemson. Because of the head-to-head win, the Noles would clinch the Atlantic Division berth in the ACC championship game.

Clemson is the only team in the Atlantic with one loss, but it needs to help to get back to the ACC title game. The Tigers need to win out in league play and have Florida State lose two conference games.

COASTAL DIVISION
Miami is the only team unbeaten in conference play in the division at 3-0, so the Hurricanes are in control. Even if Miami loses to Florida State, the Canes would make the ACC title game if they win their remaining conference games.

Virginia Tech is next, with one conference loss (3-1). The Hokies go to the ACC title game if they win out. Indeed, the Coastal might very well be decided next weekend in Miami when the Canes and Hokies play.

Georgia Tech, Duke and Pitt each have two conference losses. Of the three, Duke has the least convoluted scenario to get into the ACC title game. Duke needs to win out -- that means a victory over Miami -- and then have Virginia Tech and the Canes finish with at least two conference losses. If Duke, Miami and Virginia Tech finish in a three-way tie with two conference losses apiece, Duke goes because it has the head-to-head wins over the Canes and Hokies. Pitt already lost to Virginia Tech and has Miami to close the regular season, so the Panthers are still alive but need to win out and then get some help. Georgia Tech is at the biggest disadvantage of the three because it lost head-to-head against Miami and Virginia Tech.
Yes, Florida State is that good.

After Saturday’s 51-14 dismantling of Clemson, the question now is not whether FSU is the best team in the ACC, the debate is over whether it’s the best team in the country.

Saturday’s win in Death Valley was less of an indictment on Clemson and more of a statement about Florida State as a program under coach Jimbo Fisher. Clemson is a top 10 team and the mighty Seminoles blew past them at warp speed. On the road. With a redshirt freshman quarterback.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicWhile everyone debates if the Seminoles are the nation's best team, Jimbo Fisher has kept FSU focused on playing one game at a time.
In four quarters on Saturday, the gap between Florida State and the rest of the conference grew as long as the ride from Tallahassee to Chestnut Hill.

Florida State replaced six assistants this offseason. The Noles lost 11 draft picks, including every starter on the defensive line, and their starting quarterback. And yet somehow, they’re even better.

Florida State, which is ranked No. 2 in the latest BCS standings, should finish the season undefeated – and that includes a potential matchup against Virginia Tech or Miami in the ACC championship game.

Anyone who thinks NC State has a prayer at pulling off what it did a year ago in Raleigh on Saturday forgot to turn the calendar to 2013. The Wolfpack is a beleaguered bunch that is banking on the return of quarterback Brandon Mitchell to get it to a bowl game. They can get there, but they won’t get any closer to it on Saturday. Former coach Bobby Bowden will be planting the spear before the game. The school is expecting up to 300 former players to be in attendance. And after what happened last year? There’s no way this group is going to let it happen again -- especially on their home turf with so many former Noles watching.

If you thought what happened in Death Valley was ugly, you might just have to look away on Saturday.

NC State is merely a formality standing between FSU and rival Miami. The Canes will be the toughest opponent remaining on the schedule -- and that includes a trip to the Swamp. Florida has fallen out of the rankings, and they’re not the same team they were when Miami knocked them off in Week 2. Miami’s ability to run the ball and its sheer determination in a storied rivalry could make the game interesting. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Canes won -- but they shouldn’t, not based on what we’ve seen so far: i.e. Miami turnovers and FSU’s deep roster.

Jameis Winston is the best quarterback in the ACC. He has arguably the best receiving corps in the country. And yet the Noles’ defense was the story of the game at Clemson. Granted, part of Clemson’s letdown can be attributed to the fact that quarterback Tajh Boyd, determined to leave a legacy and win a national title, tried to do too much. The bottom line, though, was that Florida State had the better team. The Noles dominated up front on both sides of the ball against Clemson, creating pressure to allow their players in the secondary to snag the interceptions. The coaches did an excellent job of preparing the players and keeping them focused through what was easily the most anticipated matchup since 2005.

“This game was blown off the charts,” Winston said. “Everybody was like, ‘Oh my god,’ and then, ‘We’re three-point favorites.’ We’re not going to let nothing like that affect us. We’re a great football team and we’re here to play football. We’re not here to do all the partying, all the rah-rah stuff and celebrate for being a great team. We have to play every game one game at a time.”

Asked after the game -- twice -- if he thought he was coaching the No. 1 team in the country, Fisher wouldn’t bite, but he did say he’s “not scared to play anyone.”

“I think we have a heckuva team,” he said. “I’m not doubting our team or anything. We’ve got a lot of ball to play. If we keep taking care of business, the country will see, and we’ll get to where we’ve gotta go.”

At No. 2, they’re already as close as they need to be. It’s just a matter of staying there, and nobody else in the ACC has looked good enough to change that.

ACC Power Rankings: Week 8

October, 21, 2013
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There was a definite shake-up in the ACC hierarchy this weekend, as No. 5-ranked Florida State went to Death Valley and humbled No. 3-ranked Clemson 51-14 on Saturday night. The Seminoles, led by their unflappable 19-year-old quarterback, Jameis Winston, dominated the Tigers from start to finish. For the first time this season, the ACC has a new No. 1:

1. Florida State (6-0, 4-0 ACC, last week: 2): The defense was the storyline, as the Seminoles flustered veteran quarterback Tajh Boyd into what was easily the worst outing of his career. He threw two picks and just one touchdown and completed only 46 percent of his passes. Florida State converted two turnovers into touchdowns early and never looked back. The Noles host NC State this weekend, but this Florida State team is light years better than the one that was upset by the Wolfpack a season ago. There’s not even a hint of an upset brewing in Tallahassee.

2. Miami (6-0, 2-0, LW: 3): The Hurricanes didn’t look like a top-10 team on Thursday night in Chapel Hill, N.C., where they needed a game-winning touchdown from backup running back Dallas Crawford with 16 seconds left to beat a North Carolina team that has now sunk to 1-5. Miami quarterback Stephen Morris threw four interceptions and the Canes lost two of their top playmakers -- receiver Phillip Dorsett and running back Duke Johnson -- to injuries. Miami found a way to win, though, and only Wake Forest stands between the Canes and their showdown with the rival Noles in two weeks. Expect both to be undefeated for that game.

3. Clemson (6-1, 4-1, LW: 1) : If Clemson had lost to FSU in a close, hard-fought game, it wouldn’t have taken so much criticism, but because the Tigers lost so convincingly, it’s clear the gap between Florida State and Clemson was as wide as the lopsided score indicated. Clemson’s chances at a national title were devastated, along with Boyd’s Heisman Trophy hopes, all in four quarters. The spotlight has shifted to Florida State while the Tigers try to regroup on Saturday at Maryland.

4. Virginia Tech (6-1, 3-0, LW: 4): The Hokies had a bye week to prepare for Duke on Saturday, but they have quietly continued to work their way up the conference standings this fall. Quarterback Logan Thomas has made significant strides and cut down on his interceptions, and the defense continues to look like one of the best in the country. The matchup in Miami should determine the Coastal division winner this fall, and if the Canes continue to turn it over at this disconcerting rate, it’s the Hokies’ title to lose.

5. Georgia Tech (4-3, 3-2, LW: 11): The Yellow Jackets played as if they had something to prove on Saturday, ending a three-game losing streak with a complete pummeling of Syracuse. Georgia Tech scored seven rushing touchdowns in a 56-0 rout of the Orange. It was the program’s biggest margin of victory in an ACC game. The Jackets need to win three of their next five to become bowl eligible, and a road trip to struggling Virginia is up next.

6. Pittsburgh (4-2, 2-2, LW: 6): It wasn’t exactly a flawless performance in a 35-24 win against Old Dominion, but the Panthers took care of business, and their only two losses are to Florida State and Virginia Tech, two of the top teams in the ACC right now. The Panthers got what they needed from Isaac Bennett, who ran for a career-high 240 yards and three touchdowns. They’re going to have to sharpen their game, though, for back-to-back road trips to Navy and Georgia Tech.

7. Duke (5-2, 1-2, LW: 7): The Blue Devils didn’t quit on the road, and they’re just one win away from bowl eligibility for the second straight season under coach David Cutcliffe. Duke overcame a 22-0 deficit at Virginia to scrape its way back to a 35-22 win. It was a remarkable comeback by Duke and an utter meltdown by the Hoos. Duke has now won three straight heading into Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech.

8. Wake Forest (4-3, 2-2, LW: 10): The Deacs have hit their stride offensively, and receiver Michael Campanaro continues to be the face of the team. Wake’s defense, though, was a highlight in the its win over Maryland, and the team has helped keep its bowl hopes alive. Wake Forest will face a tough test this week, as it has to travel to undefeated Miami.

9. Maryland (5-2, 1-2, LW: 5): Not only do the Terps seem to have a quarterback controversy between starter C.J. Brown and backup Caleb Rowe, but they’ve also got injuries to two of their top receivers in Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. Brown was benched in the loss to Wake Forest and replaced by Rowe, but neither of them could overcome a gritty performance by the Deacs’ veteran defense. What once seemed like a guaranteed return to the postseason has now become a shrinking window with no margin for error.

10. Boston College (3-3, 1-2, LW: 9): The Eagles have lost three of their past four but have developed a reputation as one of the toughest teams in the ACC nonetheless. Two of those losses have come to Atlantic division leaders FSU and Clemson. The Eagles had a bye week to prepare for their road trip to North Carolina, and, considering how poorly UNC has played this season, the Eagles have a good shot at their second league win.

11. Syracuse (3-4, 1-2, LW: 8): It’s been an unpleasant introduction into the ACC for the Orange, to say the least. Georgia Tech put on a clinic against Cuse on Saturday, and the defense went into shutdown mode. Terrel Hunt has struggled, completing 43.1 percent of his passes against league opponents. The Orange have a much-needed bye week before facing Wake Forest on Nov. 2.

12. NC State (3-3, 0-3, LW: 12): Like BC, the Pack has lost three of its past four. The difference is that NC State is still winless in conference play under first-year coach Dave Doeren. Starting quarterback Brandon Mitchell is expected to return for Saturday’s game at Florida State, his first time playing since he broke a bone in his left foot in the season opener.

13. North Carolina (1-5, 0-3, LW: 13): The Tar Heels got their best defensive performance of the season on Thursday night against Miami, and tight end Eric Ebron put on quite an audition for the NFL scouts in attendance, but the Tar Heels couldn’t stop the run and are now off to their worst start since 2006. UNC has lost four straight and will try to rebound on Saturday at home against BC.

14. Virginia (2-5, 0-3, LW: 14): After squandering a 22-point lead at home against Duke on Saturday, Mike London’s career is seemingly hanging by a thread. Whether the Hoos can win another game is a legitimate question, and, despite the administration’s continued support for London, there doesn’t seem to be any way he could survive a 2-10 season.

FSU vs. Clemson: Who wins?

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
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No. 3 Clemson and No. 5 Florida State will have fans divided all over the country this week as to which team is actually going to win this game. We’re here to help. ACC reporters David Hale and Heather Dinich each came up with three good reasons each team can pull off the win. Check them out, and then cast your vote as to who will finish Saturday atop the Atlantic Division standings.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesTajh Boyd's experience and leadership will go a long way against FSU.
WHY CLEMSON WILL WIN:

1. Tajh Boyd. The story of the game and the most intriguing matchup will between the quarterbacks, Boyd and Jameis Winston. They both have had fantastic seasons so far, and are both winners, but Boyd has the edge in experience, and that will be the difference in the game. He’s beaten Georgia. He’s beaten LSU. He’s experienced the pangs of losing and matured from the setbacks. He is also a senior in his last chance to win a national title. Winston hasn’t gotten that far and hasn’t faced a lot of adversity. His biggest spotlight on the national stage was in the season opener at Pitt. Boyd has already played in front of a nationally televised GameDay crowd -- and won. Overall, Winston’s numbers have actually been slightly better, but Boyd’s intangibles and experience will outweigh the stats.

2. Defensive improvement. This isn’t the same defense that allowed FSU 49 points and 667 total yards last year. Clemson’s defensive progress has been the missing link in the Tigers’ hopes for a national title. Defensive end Vic Beasley leads the nation in sacks, and the Tigers are good enough to pressure Winston into some mistakes. Clemson’s defense has now held five straight opponents to 14 points or less and is 10th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 16.2 points per game. Clemson, which has built its success on Chad Morris’ offense, actually has a higher national ranking in scoring defense than scoring offense (17th, 40.8) right now. Clemson opponents have converted just .237 on third down, best in the nation. It is even better in ACC games as opponents have converted just 11 of 65 opportunities, just 17 percent. The Tigers also rank fourth in the nation in red zone defense, first in the nation in sacks, first in tackles for loss per game, and 12th in forcing turnovers.

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3. The 12th Man. It ain’t easy to win in Death Valley. The home field advantage cannot be overlooked in this game. In 10 of the past 11 years, the home team has won in this series. Clemson has won five in a row against FSU in Memorial Stadium with the Noles last win coming in 2001. No freshman quarterback has won in Death Valley since former Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor in 2007. Boyd, meanwhile, is 17-1 as a starter at home. This is a nationally televised night game, the GameDay crew will be there, and Clemson has experienced it all just eight weeks ago against Georgia. If Death Valley is anything like the scene it was on the opening week, the crowd alone is worth a few points.

-- Heather Dinich

WHY FLORDIA STATE WILL WIN:

1. Jameis Winston. The quarterbacks are obviously going to get most of the attention heading into this game, and Clemson has the guy with the better credentials so far. But through five career starts, Winston has exceeded every expectation, so it's certainly possible he'll deliver his best performance yet on the biggest stage. In his three ACC games so far, he's thrown for at least 300 yards and four touchdowns in each, and his 91.0 adjusted QBR ranks fifth nationally -- 36 spots ahead of Tajh Boyd. Winston is coming off his best game (393 yards, 5 touchdowns) and has had an extra week to prepare for Clemson's D. For a quarterback with a remarkably flat learning curve, that could be a recipe for another big game this week.

[+] EnlargeJalen Ramsey
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesHow Jalen Ramsey and the Noles secondary matches up with Sammy Watkins and Co. will be a key matchup for FSU-Clemson.
2. The running game. There's no questioning the playmaking ability of Clemson's defensive line, with the Tigers leading the nation in tackles for loss. But it's also worth noting that on runs that cross the line of scrimmage, Clemson is allowing 6.6 yards per carry this year. In fairness, Clemson's competition -- Todd Gurley (UGA), Jerome Smith (Syracuse) -- have certainly had a lot to do with those numbers, but Florida State has a trio of tailbacks capable of big games, too. Last year, FSU averaged 7.2 yards per rush and scored five times on the ground and Devonta Freeman, James Wilder Jr. and Karlos Williams will be looking for a repeat performance in Death Valley.

3. The secondary. Boyd and Sammy Watkins are as good a playmaking duo as there is in the ACC, and Florida State's defenders don't try to hide their admiration for Clemson's stars. But while Boyd and Watkins are off to an excellent start this year, they haven't played a defense quite as good as Florida State's either. The Seminoles held Watkins to just 24 receiving yards and Boyd to his second-lowest QBR of the season in last year's win. So far in 2013, FSU's secondary is allowing just 149 passing yards per game (fifth fewest in the country), and opponents are converting just 22 percent of third-down throws (ninth nationally).

-- David Hale

Let The Game begin

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
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The Game has changed -- and it’s even better.

This year, the best game in the ACC will feature two top-five teams instead of two top-10 teams.

On Saturday, No. 3 Clemson will host No. 5 Florida State in what will be a season-defining game in the Atlantic Division. In each of the past four seasons, the winner of The Game has gone on to play in the ACC championship, but for the second straight year, the stakes are even higher. Both teams are legitimate contenders for the national title, and on Sunday, the first BCS standings will be released. Both teams have Heisman hopeful quarterbacks, and the competition between veteran signal-caller Tajh Boyd and FSU rookie Jameis Winston is as compelling as any matchup in the country right now.

The simultaneous ascension of Florida State and Clemson in recent years has reached a pinnacle this fall, as both teams have avoided the pitfalls that have plagued them for so long and stayed the course on the field and in the rankings. What makes The Game so special, though, is that it has been further legitimized by the consistency of both programs. Saturday will mark the first time the ACC has had two top-10 teams play each other in back-to-back seasons. Last year, Florida State was No. 4 and Clemson was No. 10.

“It’s gotten really big,” Boyd said. “That’s the way essentially it’s supposed to be, championship runs for Florida State and Clemson every year. I think that’s what it was intended for. No disrespecting the other schools, but it’s just kind of the way things are working, especially in the latter years.”

With all due respect to the “other schools,” every other game on the ACC schedule to this point has merely been an appetizer.

Fans have come to know the date (Oct. 19) as well as Dec. 25. As soon as the ACC schedule was released this past February, talk began of the potential for both teams to be undefeated on Saturday. The sheer magnitude of The Game has made it the ACC's version of LSU-Alabama. It’s even arguably more intriguing than the ACC’s conference championship game. And it will capture the country’s attention on Saturday as ESPN’s "College GameDay" crew returns to Death Valley for the second time in the first eight weeks of the season -- a first even for ESPN.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsClemson QB Tajh Boyd expected the matchup with Florida State to have big implications.
Ironically, the toughest opponent both Florida State and Clemson have played so far has been Boston College -- a two-win team a year ago that has found some spunk under first-year coach Steve Addazio. The Eagles pushed both FSU and Clemson to the brink in their respective games before reality set in in the second half.

Even Addazio is looking forward to The Game.

"They both have great talent on their teams and they are very explosive and fast,” he said. “It will be one of the better games of the year. They both have really good defenses and both have two really good quarterbacks. Plain and simple, they are both really good football teams."

Only one of them, though, can ascend from good to great.

"We've been waiting for this for a while,” said Clemson receiver Adam Humphries. “We understand the repercussions and what's on the line. We'll be ready."

In order to truly understand the sheer magnitude of The Game, consider that it’s only the fourth time in ACC history -- and the first time since Nov. 5, 2005 -- that the conference has had two top-five teams face each other.

“That's why you come to Florida State, to be in those games, to be in those positions,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “You've got other common opponents which are in the league; Clemson is doing a tremendous job, Miami is doing a great job, Virginia Tech. All these teams are all doing a great job, so it's a great league. But that's why you play in college football, and that's what you want to do as a player to get in these games that matter. We're very blessed to be there and to have a great opponent like Clemson.”

Boyd got a chance to know Florida State senior cornerback Lamarcus Joyner this past summer at the ACC Football Kickoff in Greensboro, N.C.

Boyd said he might give his new friend a call this week.

“He’s a funny guy,” Boyd said. “I love talking trash, don’t get me wrong, but it’s more fun to actually know who you’re talking trash to.”

Let The Game begin.

ACC midseason report

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
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The ACC has arrived.

At the halfway point of the season, the once-beleaguered conference now has top 10 teams in No. 3 Clemson, No. 5 Florida State and No. 10 Miami. It has Heisman candidates in Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd and Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. It has four ranked teams, including No. 19 Virginia Tech. It has wins over Florida and Georgia. And it’s the No. 3 conference in the country, trailing only the SEC and the Pac-12.

Doesn’t matter that Virginia can’t score in the red zone, Syracuse can’t find a consistent quarterback and Georgia Tech has lost three in a row. All of the blemishes and imperfections of the others can be overlooked when there are two striking beauties walking down the runway first. With not one but two legitimate national title contenders, and the resurgence of Virginia Tech and Miami in the Coastal Division, the ACC’s premier programs have helped elevate the league’s perception through the first half of the season.

[+] EnlargeRoderick McDowell
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsRoderick McDowell and Clemson announced the ACC's presence in the season opener with a win over SEC power Georgia.
Even Boston College, a program that has won just six games in the past two seasons, has earned respect under first-year coach Steve Addazio. Nobody has played Atlantic Division heavyweights FSU and Clemson tougher than the Eagles, who have adopted their new coach’s blue-collar work ethic and passion. The Eagles have proven to be a fundamentally sound, well-coached team intent on running the ball first, and Clemson was lucky to escape with a win on Saturday night.

Much like Boston College, Maryland has already surpassed last year’s win total with its 5-1 record. Even with starting quarterback C.J. Brown sidelined with a concussion on Saturday, the Terps found a way to beat Virginia and come within one win of bowl eligibility. Virginia Tech, which needed a win over rival Virginia last year in the regular-season finale to become bowl eligible, has already reached that milestone with Saturday’s win against Pitt. Much improved from a year ago, and with one of the premier defenses in the country, the Hokies are now bowl eligible for the 21st consecutive year. Quarterback Logan Thomas continues to improve each week, and the players around him have gotten noticeably better. The Hokies are starting to hit their stride offensively just when it matters most.

The ACC enters the second half of the season with three unbeaten teams remaining in Clemson, Florida State and Miami, and four teams (Virginia Tech is the other) undefeated in league play.

Of course, it hasn’t all been Heisman happy.

League newcomers Pitt and Syracuse already have played themselves into irrelevance in their respective division races. Virginia coach Mike London’s seat is starting to sizzle. And Tobacco Road is ready for basketball season.

North Carolina, Duke and NC State are a combined 0-7 in league play. Wake Forest, with its lone ACC win coming against the Wolfpack, has underachieved and spent the first half of the season trying to find an identity on offense. UNC, meanwhile, has to win five of the final seven games just to get to a bowl game, and it doesn’t look good.

That’s not what the rest of the nation is watching, though, and that’s why the ACC is sitting pretty through the first half of the season.

Offensive MVP: Clemson QB Tajh Boyd -- He recently became the program’s all-time leader in passing yards with 9,836. He is second in total offense in ACC history. He has won 27 games as Clemson’s starter, and he’s the ACC’s best hope at a Heisman Trophy winner this year. Boyd’s leadership is one of the biggest reasons Clemson is ranked No. 3 in the country and in contention for a national title.

Defensive MVP: Clemson DE Vic Beasley -- The redshirt junior has emerged as one of the top pass-rushers in the country this fall. He’s No. 2 in the country in sacks at 1.5 per game, and he’s tied for fourth in the country in tackles for loss with two per game and 12 total.

[+] EnlargeSteve Addazio
AP Photo/Mary SchwalmFirst-year coach Steve Addazio has Boston College playing at a higher level than any preseason prognostication.
Biggest surprise: Boston College -- After winning just two games a year ago, expectations were tempered for the Eagles, who are under the direction of first-year coach Steve Addazio. The Eagles have already surpassed last year’s two-win total, though, and have played with an intensity in every game that has exceeded the expectations of most.

Biggest disappointment: North Carolina -- The Tar Heels won eight games last year, but this season they might not even get to a bowl game under Larry Fedora. The offense and the defense have looked atrocious, and UNC has lost three in a row heading into Thursday night’s game against Miami. Despite losing Giovani Bernard and Jonathan Cooper, Fedora said this year’s offense could be better, but it only has gotten worse.

Newcomer of the year: FSU QB Jameis Winston -- He arguably has been the most exciting redshirt freshman in the country this year. He has gone from being Florida State’s biggest question to its biggest asset. He’s No. 2 in the country in passing efficiency, and he’s No. 4 in the country with a QBR of 91.3 In his first season as a starter, he’s already in the Heisman mix.

Best coach: Miami’s Al Golden -- He beat Florida. He has the Canes at 5-0 and ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 2009. Oh, and the program still hasn’t heard if it will face further sanctions from the NCAA. Golden has kept his team focused and winning, and brought the Canes back to relevance in the national picture.

Best game: Clemson 38, Georgia 35. This was the game that changed the entire perception of the ACC and legitimized Clemson’s hopes at a national title. Finally, the ACC had the upper hand against the SEC on the big stage in a season opener. Not only was it a win for the ACC, but the seesaw game lived up to all of the preseason hype and was an instant classic.

ACC Power Rankings: Week 6

October, 7, 2013
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There were a few tweaks to the lineup this week. And congrats to Wake Forest, you got a promotion:

1. Clemson (5-0, 3-0 ACC; LW: No. 1): The Tigers had no trouble playing in the Dome at Syracuse, as quarterback Tajh Boyd had another Heisman-worthy performance, throwing for 455 yards and five touchdowns in just three quarters of a 49-14 win at Syracuse. Clemson faces a relentless Boston College team at home this week before the Oct. 19 showdown against Florida State.

2. Florida State (5-0, 3-0; LW: No. 2): The Seminoles’ defense was called into question this past week and it answered with a resounding 63-0 shutout of the Terps. It was a dominating performance in all facets of the game, and just what the Noles needed heading into their bye week as they begin preparing for Clemson.

3. Miami (5-0, 1-0; LW: No. 3): The Canes continue to find a way to win, and have established themselves as the team to beat in the Coastal Division. Miami’s 45-30 win over Georgia Tech sets the stage for a season-defining game against Virginia Tech on Nov. 9, but a Thursday night game against the struggling Tar Heels looms first. The Canes are on a bye this week.

4. Virginia Tech (5-1, 2-0; LW: No. 5): The Hokies have now had two straight games in which quarterback Logan Thomas looked much-improved from a season ago, and it has made a difference. Virginia Tech's 27-17 win over North Carolina put the program back in the top 25 as it prepares to host Pitt his weekend.

5. Pitt (3-1, 2-1; LW: No. 6): The Panthers are coming off a bye week, but they’ve won three straight, including back-to-back conference games against Duke and Virginia. This will be their first road trip against a top-25 opponent, and while they’ve won the past four games in the series against Virginia Tech, they’re the ones with something to prove in Blacksburg.

6. Maryland (4-1, 0-1; LW: No. 4): The Terps came crashing back to reality with their humbling loss in Tallahassee, and they lost starting quarterback C.J. Brown to a concussion in the process. Things couldn’t have gone much worse for Maryland, but the schedule is conducive to a rebound if Maryland doesn’t let the Noles beat them twice. The Terps will face Virginia at home this weekend.

7. Georgia Tech (3-2, 2-2; LW: No. 7): The Yellow Jackets started the season strong, but back-to-back Coastal Division losses to Virginia Tech and Miami have them on the outside looking in at the Coastal Division race. It’s not going to get any easier with a road trip to BYU this week, and starting quarterback Vad Lee has been inconsistent and turnover-prone.

8. NC State (3-2, 0-2; LW: No. 8): The Pack just can’t seem to shake the curse of Winston-Salem, as NC State lost to Wake Forest for the sixth straight time on the road. It has been 12 years since NC State won at Wake Forest, and two turnovers contributed to it this season. The Pack returns home to host Syracuse this weekend.

9. Boston College (3-2, 1-1; LW: No. 9): Running back Andre Williams ran for 263 yards and five touchdowns in a 48-27 win over Army. The Eagles just don’t quit, and their ability to continuously run the ball through Williams has been their identity. They’re going to need more than that, though, to pull off the upset of No. 3-ranked Clemson this weekend in Death Valley.

10. Duke (3-2, 0-2; LW: No. 11): The Blue Devils had a bye this week and are trying to string together back-to-back wins with another against Navy on Saturday. Having played Georgia Tech about a month ago should help the defense, considering they run similar option offenses.

11. Wake Forest (3-3, 1-2; LW: No. 14): The Deacs finally got their offense going in a 28-13 win over NC State, thanks to quarterback Tanner Price and standout receiver Michael Campanaro. A little home-field advantage over the Pack never hurts, either. It was a big win that helped keep the Deacs’ bowl hopes alive. They’ve got a bye week to continue to get better before hosting Maryland.

12. Syracuse (2-3, 0-1; LW: No. 10): The Orange had no answer for Tajh Boyd & Co., and they missed out on their own opportunities with mistakes like dropped passes, four turnovers and an inability to convert on third down. It wasn’t the introduction to the ACC Syracuse was hoping for, but the Orange has a chance to rebound this weekend at NC State.

13. North Carolina (1-4, 0-2; LW: No. 13): The Tar Heels have fallen far and fast, but we’d still pick ‘em to beat the Hoos right now, in spite of the fact they have the worst record in the ACC. The difference against the Hokies was three turnovers, and while backup quarterback Marquise Williams played a respectable game in place of injured starter Bryn Renner, it was his final pick in the fourth quarter that sealed it for Virginia Tech.

14. Virginia (2-3, 0-1; LW: No. 12): Virginia’s defense had been a highlight, until it allowed Ball State 506 yards. It lost 48-27 on Saturday to a MAC team -- at home. Virginia coach Mike London insisted this offseason that he’s not concerned about his job security, but it’s hard not to wonder if that sentiment has since changed.
Maryland has started 4-0 for the first time since 2001. The Terps are ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since 2010. They’ve outscored their opponents 159-41.

And yet the question remains: Are they for real?

Florida State should help answer that. The Noles are ranked No. 8 in the country and are considered a contender for the national title. They’re No. 4 in the country in scoring offense, and they’ve got one of the most talented young quarterbacks in the county in redshirt freshman Jameis Winston.

And yet the question remains: Are they for real?

[+] EnlargeMaryland celebrates
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyMaryland has had a lot to celebrate so far in a 4-0 start, and now gets its final shot as an ACC member at No. 8 Florida State.
Saturday’s game in Tallahassee will be proving grounds for both teams, in spite of the fact they’re both 4-0. It’s the marquee matchup in the conference this week – the lone game between undefeated teams in the Atlantic Division -- and it should show just how far No. 25 Maryland has come in trying to close the gap with one of the ACC’s premier programs. It should also reveal if Florida State’s sluggish defensive performance at Boston College on Saturday was an anomaly or a deeper-rooted problem that Maryland can continue to expose.

On paper, it looks like the Terps could be exactly the kind of tricky opponent that has tripped up the Noles in the past. Maryland had a bye week to prepare for its first ranked opponent of the season, and Florida State allowed BC 200 rushing yards in a 48-34 victory at Boston College. How much of Maryland’s success, though, is simply a product of the poor competition it has played early, and have any of those teams prepared the Terps for what they’ll face in Tallahassee?

Maryland’s wins have come against Florida International, Old Dominion, Connecticut and West Virginia – teams that are a combined 6-12 this season, including two 0-4 programs in FIU and Connecticut. UConn hit a new low this season with losses to Towson and Buffalo, and on Monday fired coach Paul Pasqualoni. Maryland’s best victory was a 37-0 shutout of West Virginia in Baltimore, and it looks even better now that the Mountaineers just knocked off No. 11 Oklahoma State.

That was Baltimore. This is Tally. Maryland hasn’t beaten Florida State in Doak Campbell Stadium – well, ever. The Noles have won all 11 games there and seven straight in the series. This is only the second time Maryland has even been ranked when playing Florida State. For the Noles to go down, Maryland needs to be every bit as good as it looks right now on paper.

The Noles should and will be favored, but they fell behind 14-0 at Boston College and looked vulnerable. It was a surprising start for an opponent FSU was expected to handle with ease, and it’s only going to get more difficult. The Terps will be Florida State’s first ranked opponent as well. FSU padded its stats against Nevada and Bethune-Cookman and looked unprepared on Saturday for what BC had to dish out. The Eagles are a one-dimensional offense that depends heavily on Andre Williams and the running game. Maryland is not. The Terps have more depth and more playmakers and will be an even bigger challenge for the FSU defense.

Maryland’s offense, which finished the 2012 season dead last in the ACC in total offense, averaging just 284 yards, now ranks second in the ACC at 498.5 yards per game, an improvement of 213.7 yards per game.

There’s no question Maryland is light years better than it was a year ago, when it finished the season with just four wins and a linebacker at quarterback. And there’s no question Florida State is still one of the top two teams in the ACC.

Just how good both of them truly are, though, has yet to be determined.
Here’s the truth: Not a lot was gleaned from ACC media days this year. The headlines were tame (unless your name is Doug Rhoads), and the tweets civil. In the big picture, though, here’s what we came away with after two days at the ACC Football Kickoff in Greensboro, N.C.:

1. Clemson is the undisputed heavyweight -- at least for now. For all of the talk about how the Clemson-Florida State game is going to determine this year’s championship game winner, the votes indicated the Tigers should head into it as the overwhelming favorite. Clemson received 95 votes as this year’s preseason favorite to win the ACC, while Florida State received just 15. You better believe the game will be much closer than that, but Clemson received 102 first-place votes in the Atlantic Division while FSU -- the defending ACC champ -- got 18. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd also received 105 of 120 votes for the ACC’s preseason player of the year. The Tigers are shouldering the same kind of expectations FSU was last year.

2. Miami’s potential is a story again. Al Golden was actually talking about his football team more than the NCAA. How refreshing. In what should be another cluttered Coastal Division race, Miami received 65 first-place votes to win the division. That’s a pretty significant vote of confidence considering the rest of the division should be better than it was a year ago, but nobody returns more starters than the Canes, and they have arguably the best quarterback, so it wasn’t surprising. Never mind that we still don’t know if Miami will even be eligible to win the division, but it’s hard to believe that after two years of self-imposed postseason bans it won’t.

3. The ACC is “stronger than ever.” That was commissioner John Swofford’s message in his forum on Sunday afternoon, and he had plenty of talking points to back it up. Swofford mentioned the partial membership of Notre Dame, the extended partnership with the Orange Bowl, the new and improved bowl lineup, the addition of Louisville and the grant of rights when he spoke about the stability of the conference moving forward. A television network continues to be a possibility, but it is still two to three years away from becoming a reality, if that’s what happens.

4. Virginia Tech is expected to be better. After what was the worst season in 20 years, those within the program are adamant this year will be better, and the media seems to think so, too. The Hokies were picked to finish second in the Coastal Division behind Miami, and embattled quarterback Logan Thomas even got three votes as the ACC’s player of the year. Coach Frank Beamer made sweeping changes to his offensive staff, hiring a new offensive coordinator, new offensive line coach and receivers coach, and Thomas said first-year coordinator Scot Loeffler has already made a difference. Regardless of what happens in the season-opener against Alabama, Virginia Tech is expected to prove last year was an anomaly in the conference race.

5. Pitt and Syracuse blend right in. The coaches and players all seemed to be a good fit in the ACC, getting along well with each other at the ACC Football Kickoff. Their mere presence at media day was a difference, and the overall crowd seemed bigger in part because of their media contingents, but overall their interview sessions were just like everyone else’s, and they joined the crowded no-man’s land in the preseason predictions. Syracuse was picked to finish sixth and Pitt was voted fifth in the Coastal Division.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher isn’t a fan of his players “wearing hats in the building and all that.”

That didn’t stop the Noles, though, from instigating Fisher a bit after they won the 2012 ACC title -- the program’s first since 2005.

“They wouldn’t take their ACC championship hats off,” Fisher said. “They’d walk in my office with them knowing I was going to get on them. I didn’t make them take it off, but the point being they haven’t felt that. To win an Orange Bowl, to win a BCS bowl game, you still won the Orange Bowl. How many people in FSU history can say they won the Orange Bowl?”

Not since 1999 had Florida State won a BCS game.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreFSU coach Jimbo Fisher's Seminoles are prepared to remain atop the ACC, but Clemson is hot on their heels.
Memo to the rest of the ACC: Get used it. Florida State’s hat collection is only going to grow -- unless, of course, Clemson has something to say about it.

The Seminoles are starting to recognize what it feels like to be champions again -- and what it takes to get there. Florida State has now won two Atlantic Division titles in three years, and after winning its 13th league title, Florida State trails only one school for the all-time league record: Clemson. This year, the Tigers are expected to be the premier team in the league. Clemson has won at least 10 games in each of the past two seasons, has been to the ACC title game twice, won it once, and won or shared three division titles.

Good luck, Atlantic Division -- that includes you, too, Louisville -- because neither of these programs are going anywhere anytime soon.

Through excellent recruiting over the past few years and some top-notch hires, both Florida State and Clemson are now in position to truly distance themselves from the rest of the conference. While both still have something to prove on the national level, Clemson and Florida State have at least put the pieces in place to conquer their conference and make repeated runs at a national title. Neither Dabo Swinney nor Fisher will be content with a one-and-done season, and that is the key to their long-term plan.

“My goal last year was to sustain success,” Swinney said. “Not have a good year, then an average year. Be a consistent performer. We're trying to be a consistent top-10, top-15 team year in and year out. Because if we can do that, with the resources we have here, our ability to recruit, our scheduling, the opponents we play, sooner or later we'll have an opportunity to really be special. But it takes that consistency in preparation and performance.”

With the resources, facilities and recruiting of both programs, there’s no reason they shouldn’t maintain an elite level on par with SEC opponents. Florida State had 11 players drafted last year, and both are reeling in top-10 recruiting classes on an annual basis. This will be a very telling year for Fisher, though, as he had to replace his top assistant -- former defensive coordinator Mark Stoops -- along with six others on staff, his starting quarterback, and four starters on the defensive line. This year will be proof that the Noles can reload -- both the roster and the coaching staff.

For Clemson, the bigger challenge will be next year, when quarterback Tajh Boyd moves on. The Tigers also have what seems like an inevitable departure of offensive coordinator Chad Morris, a hot commodity in coaching searches who has made it no secret he would like to be a head coach someday.

Like every program in the country, these two will face their share of transition periods, but what will continue to separate them is their ability to recruit. Clemson and Florida State are both bringing more elite athletes than the rest of the conference (and some of their Atlantic Division opponents combined). If either FSU or Clemson is going to trip up down the road, it’s going to be because their opponent played smarter, more disciplined football -- strategies you can expect from the likes of veterans Jim Grobe and Steve Addazio.

Clemson and Florida State can expect the rest of the division’s best shots, but their biggest competition will come from each other. This fall, their matchup could prove to be the most important in the conference race.

Their goal, obviously, is for that to become a regular occurrence. Fisher said winning the program’s first ACC title since 2005 was a major step in becoming a consistent champion.

“When Florida State won that championship in '93, a significant thing everybody does not talk about in my opinion, what happened in '92?” Fisher said. “First ACC championship. First time any of those kids on that team had won a championship. Now you think of yourself as a champion. That’s significant. It’s different when you call yourself a champion, and I think it will hopefully develop us in where we’ve got to go.”

Much like Florida State, Clemson has come to realize the championship hats are earned -- not given away.

“I like the blue-collar workmanlike attitude that they have,” Swinney said. “They understand there's a price to be paid, that it doesn't just happen. This team is starting to show some leadership. A national championship is certainly a goal for us, but there's so much. We can take a glance at that mountaintop every now and then, but that's not the focus. The margin for error is very small when you're trying to be elite.”

And trying to stay there.

“We don't want to be a one-trick wonder here,” Swinney said. “We have to continue to keep a humble work ethic throughout the team and challenge our players, have a ton of discipline and have the type of discipline it takes to be successful. And then mostly creating that attitude and mentality of expectancy. That's probably the biggest change we've had in four years: We don't hope to win here anymore. We expect to win. We're not afraid to talk about being a championship-caliber team and program. That's what we want to be.”

In the ACC, that’s what they are. Everybody else?

Hats off to FSU and Clemson.

ESPN.com's Andrea Adelson contributed to this story.

First-year coaches in the ACC

June, 12, 2013
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The ACC has three new coaches this year: Boston College coach Steve Addazio, Syracuse coach Scott Shafer, and NC State coach Dave Doeren. Each of them faces different challenges at their respective schools, but they also have common obstacles to overcome. Here’s a look at what challenges they have inherited:

Addazio:

Biggest challenge in 2013: Depth. This seems to be a constant problem in recent years at Boston College, and it has hit the running back and wide receiver positions particularly hard in Addazio’s first season. He has spoken about the difficulties the team had this past spring trying to become a tough, physical team while at the same time trying to keep players healthy. He also called the depth at running back “alarming,” as there is no proven back behind Andre Williams. Alex Amidon is a dependable receiver, but the group behind him is thin. There is talent returning on this roster, but it has to stay healthy in order to show improvement in the win column.

Biggest overall challenge: Recruiting. It was a problem under Jeff Jagodzinski. It was average at best under Frank Spaziani. And now Addazio is tasked with replenishing the roster of a program that has won six games in the past two seasons combined. BC also faces the unique challenge of recruiting in a pro sports town to a program that is arguably overshadowed by its own hockey team. The good news is that Addazio’s plan seems to be working, as BC’s current recruiting class was recently ranked at No. 24 by ESPN RecruitingNation. The staff has recruited well in the Mid-Atlantic region, but they’ve got to keep it up.

Doeren:

Biggest challenge in 2013: Finding a quarterback. NC State fans had gotten comfortable in recent years with former quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon, so it’s the first time in a long time that the position is the biggest question mark on the team. Pete Thomas took the majority of the reps this spring with the first team, and Manny Stocker was right behind him, but Brandon Mitchell, a transfer from Arkansas, can play immediately. He will definitely make the competition even more interesting this summer.

Biggest overall challenge: Larry Fedora. That might be a slight exaggeration, but the truth is that NC State and UNC arm wrestle every year for state supremacy and the top in-state recruits. Right now, Fedora is obviously a step ahead on the recruiting trail because he has been on the job a year longer. The loss to UNC certainly didn’t help former NC State coach Tom O’Brien, who was fired at season’s end. NC State athletic director Debbie Yow has high expectations for Doeren and his program, and being runner up to North Carolina isn’t one of them.

Shafer:

Biggest challenge in 2013: Replacing big names. Syracuse lost its record-setting quarterback from 2012, its leading tackler, its two leading receivers, and its head coach. The Orange must find a way to replace former quarterback Ryan Nassib, leading receiver Alec Lemon, and former safety Shamarko Thomas, who was the top overall defender on the team. Shafer is taking over for former coach Doug Marrone, but the good news is that Shafer spent the past four seasons as Syracuse’s defensive coordinator, so it made for a smooth transition and he hired a staff that was very familiar with each other. This team, which is also entering its first season in the ACC, will be searching for a new identity and new stars in 2013.

Biggest overall challenge: Staying relevant in the ACC. Syracuse officially joins the ACC on July 1, and if the Orange are going to be a factor in the Atlantic Division, they’re going to have to recruit on par with Florida State and Clemson. Every other team in the division faces this challenge, but as new members, Syracuse has more to prove. The Orange finished last in the Big East standings every year since 2005, with 2010 and 2012 being the lone exceptions. Syracuse is definitely in much better shape than it was in 2005, and appears to be headed in the right direction -- the program has gone to a bowl game in two of the past three seasons and won a share of the Big East title last fall -- but the bar has been raised in the ACC. If Cuse couldn’t win consistently in the Big East, how is the program going to hang in the ACC, in the same division as national title hopefuls FSU and Clemson, and eventually Louisville?
Last week, when Miami started spring practices, I gave you three reasons the Canes would win the Coastal Division this season.

Newsflash: They’ll be playing Clemson in the ACC championship game in Charlotte.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Joshua S. Kelly/US PresswireTajh Boyd returns to lead the Clemson offense after passing for 3,896 yards and 36 TDs last season.
Clemson starts spring practices today, and the Tigers do so with arguably the most challenging nonconference schedule in the ACC, but also the most realistic chance at representing the conference as a national title contender. A win over Georgia in the season opener, and they're legit. Coach Dabo Swinney has found a way to bring some consistency to the program, as Clemson has won or tied for the ACC’s Atlantic Division championship in three of the past four seasons. They can do it again.

Here are three good reasons why the Tigers will win the Atlantic Division in 2013:

1. Quarterback Tajh Boyd and offensive coordinator Chad Morris: Talk about a dynamic duo. The Clemson fan base had to have been ecstatic to learn that both Boyd and Morris would be returning in 2013. Boyd contemplated leaving early for the NFL, and Morris’ name was circulated for several coaching vacancies. Together they make Clemson one of the country’s most productive offenses, as last season the Tigers averaged a school-record 41.0 points and 512.7 yards per game. They’ve got plenty to work with, as seven starters return from an offense that set 101 school records (33 team and 68 individual) in 2012. Is there a school record for how many school records have been set in a season?

2. Year 2 under Brent Venables: One of the biggest criticisms of Clemson in recent years has been its defense, and it is the missing link to Clemson getting over the hump and contending for more than conference titles. Now that Tigers have some experience under Venables, though, the group should be more seasoned and familiar with his expectations and philosophies. Don’t forget this defense held LSU to just 219 yards and nine first downs, and forced eight three-and-outs in the Chick-fil-A Bowl win. When it comes to comparing Clemson to Florida State, the Noles’ defense has undoubtedly been better, but Clemson now has a slight advantage in that the Noles will be going through a learning curve with a new defensive coordinator.

3. Florida State AT Clemson: Maybe this should be No. 1 on the list. In each of the past four seasons, the winner of this game has won the Atlantic Division, and the home team has won all four. FSU has not won at Clemson since 2001. Once again, this game should determine the division winner, as FSU and Clemson should again be league favorites. Home field advantage couldn’t be bigger on Oct. 19 in Death Valley.
Pop quiz: Name the Atlantic Division team that won the 2006 ACC title, played in the Orange Bowl, and then had every single starter on defense from that roster go to the NFL.

If you said Wake Forest, consider yourself a true ACC fan.

Not every defender from that roster was drafted, but every one signed an NFL contract, according to Wake Forest recruiting coordinator Ray McCartney. Nationally, it was one of the best recruiting classes ever, and it is sure to be remembered as one of if not the best classes in Wake Forest history.

[+] EnlargeJim Grobe
Jeremy Brevard/US PRESSWIREJim Grobe's recent recruiting efforts appear to have helped Wake Forest with its overall athleticism.
While the Deacs are unlikely to ever sign such a class again, they have made significant strides over the past two years that could help the program elbow its way back to the top of the Atlantic Division standings. This year’s 25-member recruiting class was the biggest in the Jim Grobe era, and it fulfilled its top priority of enhancing team speed, particularly on defense.

“The two classes we’ve taken this year and a year ago we feel have been solid from top to bottom and are going to help us get back on way to where we want to be, which is a perennial bowl contender, and to compete for the ACC championship,” McCartney said. “It wasn’t too long ago -- the year before last -- that we’re a missed field goal from beating Clemson in Death Valley to win the championship of our division and play Virginia Tech. We can get close, but we’re trying to kick the door down, and we think the last two classes will help that on the way.”

The Deacs signed five outside linebackers -- all of whom were within the 6-foot-6 range, between 215-230 pounds -- long, athletic players who can run, change direction well, are highly competitive and versatile enough to move into different positions up front. The top recruit in the class is four-star outside linebacker Lance Virgile, from Saint Thomas Aquinas High School in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. The staff also upgraded its secondary by finding big corners who can move to safety.

Offensively, the staff was tasked with rebuilding the offensive line, which was ravaged with injuries to four projected starters last year. The Deacs fared well with four signees, including two or three who are talented enough to see significant playing time early. Wake Forest also had to replenish its kicking game, and did that with Mike Weaver, a dual-threat athlete who can punt, kick, and bury the ball in the back of the end zone.

“Something else we’re searching for and I think we’re back on track with is finding kids that absolutely have a great passion for the game of football, that wake up every morning thinking about winning championships and what they can do to get better as an athlete and to help us win,” McCartney said. “Sometimes bigger, faster, stronger is not the only barometer of success.”

It will certainly help, though, that the Deacs have improved in all of those categories over the past two years.

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