NCF Nation: North Carolina Tar Heels
There was a transition period at Tennessee during which Clawson went to the same church as the family of current Duke coach David Cutcliffe. He’d speak with Cutcliffe occasionally, and he also knows NC State coach Dave Doeren from their time together at Mid-American Conference meetings.
Now Clawson is getting to know them all as opponents -- and he has some catching up to do.
Cutcliffe is heading into his seventh season at Duke. He's by far the veteran of the ACC’s North Carolina coaches, and it’s beginning to show in the win-loss column. Duke, which is coming off a school-record 10-win season and an appearance in the ACC title game, is now the team to beat in the state. The balance of power has shifted, as the Blue Devils are 5-0 against their in-state ACC opponents in the past two seasons, having defeated both Wake Forest and North Carolina twice, and crossover opponent NC State in 2013. With 17 starters returning, Duke should be a favorite to win the Coastal Division -- a long leap from being picked to finish last in 2013.
“We know a lot of people, and a lot of young prospects know a lot about us,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re very comfortable we’re here. At first when we came in, people wondered why we were here. Not only did they wonder if we were going to be able to get this done, they thought, ‘Well, as soon as they start showing better, they’re going to be gone.’ None of that has happened. I think that’s opened a lot of people’s eyes, honestly.”
Clawson replaced Jim Grobe and inherits a program that has had five consecutive losing seasons, including last year’s 4-8 finish. He had to piece together his first recruiting class on a shortened calendar, but said that he can draw inspiration from what Cutcliffe has managed to do at Duke.
“I think we’re similar schools with similar institutional missions, but you look nationally at the schools that are like us -- Stanford, Vanderbilt, Northwestern -- those are all schools that have had success on the football field and institutionally they’re very similar to us,” Clawson said. “You can certainly win. Jim Grobe proved that. Certainly it’s our job to get back to that level.”
Fedora has gotten measurably closer in his first two seasons, with back-to-back winning records in spite of taking over a program that was plagued by a two-year NCAA investigation.
In fact, the rivalry game between UNC and Duke now carries more weight than just bragging rights. Last year, Duke’s victory over North Carolina ensured the Blue Devils their first appearance in the ACC title game. This fall, it could determine the division winner. It’s quite a reversal of roles for two “basketball schools.”
“It’s something we embrace, that our basketball team has helped build the national brand we have,” Fedora said. “That enables us to walk into any school, any home, and those people immediately know who the University of North Carolina is. We embrace that. Coach [Roy] Williams is just an awesome guy and such a great sport about our program. We’re trying to raise the level of the success of the football program, and eventually we’ll get there.”
“It’s very competitive, and you have all of the SEC schools who come up here as well,” Doeren said of recruiting against his in-state peers. “North Carolina football is very strong. It’s very diverse, a lot of good players who play at every position group, so we have a battle with Clemson on every kid, it seems like as well. Tennessee is strong here. There’s always competition for these guys, and I’m sure there will continue to be. That’s just how it is. But being one of the larger in-state schools, we have a lot of alumni in this state, there’s a lot of kids who grow up Wolfpack fans, and there’s a lot of areas in this state that are very red. We try to maximize those connections and networks that are out there to help us.”
Duke arguably had its best recruiting class since Cutcliffe was hired, but the Blue Devils only added three players from within the state.
“We would’ve liked to have more,” Cutcliffe said. “We got beat on some, but we got the ones we wanted. We’re going to start everything in-state, always. We’re going to know a lot about our state. We know it’s going to be competitive, and you throw East Carolina in there, you’ve got another school, and Appalachian State is playing at the FBS level, and you’ve got Clemson that comes and recruits it as an in-state area. It’s a war in here, but I like that. That gets your juices flowing. It lets you, as a coach, compete.”
These days, Cutcliffe is winning more than just the state.
Breaking down the spring in the ACC Coastal division:
Spring practice over
What we learned:
- Momentum rolls on. It's hard to believe the Blue Devils are already done with spring ball, but coach David Cutcliffe opted to open practice in February to capitalize on the momentum that was created last season. After the spring game ended Saturday, he praised the way his players handled the practices. There was a great deal of retention and not a lot of re-teaching, so coaches were able to get much more out of their players this spring.
- Max McCaffrey emerges. Jamison Crowder had a spectacular 2013 season, but it was essentially him and then everybody else in the receiver group. That may not be the case this season. McCaffrey earned praise from coaches and teammates for the way he improved during the spring. Offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery said McCaffrey made as many plays as anybody else on the offense this spring.
- Stepping up on the line. The Blue Devils lost three starters on their defensive line -- both ends in Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx, and defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento. But it appears as if the players behind them are ready to step up and make a seamless transition. Defensive ends Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo and Dezmond Johnson each had two sacks in the spring game. Kyler Brown also made the switch from linebacker to defensive end and had a sack in the spring game as well.
Spring start: March 24
Spring game: April 18
What to watch:
- Justin Thomas takes over. After Vad Lee announced his transfer from Georgia Tech, the quarterback reigns fell to Thomas, who played in 10 games this season. The Jackets had their share of highs and lows under Lee, but what the staff is going to be looking for first and foremost is Thomas’ ability to hold on to the football. Georgia Tech had 24 giveaways and ranked No. 12 in the ACC in turnover margin.
- Defensive line questions. The Jackets lose three starters on the defensive line, including All-ACC defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu -- who had 22.5 sacks over the last two seasons. Who will step up and fill that type of production? The most experienced backups returning are sophomores Tyler Stargel and Patrick Gamble. Also, Travin Henry will get a look at defensive end after playing wide receiver last season.
- Offensive line questions. Georgia Tech also loses three starters on the offensive line -- tackles Ray Beno and Will Jackson and center Jay Finch. The trio combined to start 117 games in their careers, so there is no doubt this is going to be a much less experienced unit in 2014. The good news is All-ACC guard Shaq Mason returns to help anchor the new-look line.
Spring start: Started March 1
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Quarterback derby. Stephen Morris is gone, but the Canes do have at least one experienced quarterback on the roster in Ryan Williams, a Memphis transfer who has served as Morris’ backup the last two seasons. As a true freshman with the Tigers, Williams started 10 games -- all the way back in 2010. Challenging Williams is redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen, who had a bit of a rocky first year in Miami, along with Gray Crow.
- Defensive improvements. Perhaps more than what happens at quarterback, Miami must see improvements out of its defense this season. Embattled defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio kept his job but the status quo cannot persist. Every single area of the defense must be upgraded. Ranking No. 13 in the ACC in total defense just can’t happen again.
- Defensive improvements, Part II. To try and help the secondary, Miami already moved Dallas Crawford over to safety, where the Canes could use the help. But Miami must be stronger on the defensive front. The Canes only had 12 sacks in eight conference games. By comparison, BC led the way with 25 sacks in conference games. This is a big opportunity for guys like Al-Quadin Muhammad, Tyriq McCord and Ufomba Kamalu to really step up.
Spring start: Started March 5
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- The quarterbacks. Marquise Williams took over as the starter when Bryn Renner was gone for the season and ended up helping the Tar Heels make a bowl game after a 1-5 start. But coach Larry Fedora said the competition is open this spring. Look for Mitch Trubisky and Kanler Coker to give Williams a major push.
- Defensive line questions. Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson are both gone, leaving big holes in the North Carolina front. Martin ended up notching 21.5 tackles for loss to rank No. 3 in the ACC. So who are the next guys up? At end, Junior Gnonkonde and Jessie Rogers are the top two contenders, while Shawn Underwood, Devonte Brown and Justin Thomason will compete for one of the tackle spots.
- Replacing Ebron. Eric Ebron was dynamic at tight end for the Tar Heels last season, leading the team with 62 receptions for 973 yards, while adding three touchdowns. Will the Tar Heels be able to replace that type of production with just one player? Jack Tabb would be next in line among the tight ends, but this is a huge opportunity for the North Carolina receiving group as well. We saw plenty of promise out of young guys like Bug Howard, T.J. Thorpe and Ryan Switzer.
Spring start: March 16
Spring game: No spring game. Last day of practice April 13
What to watch:
- The quarterbacks. Chad Voytik played really well in relief of an injured Tom Savage in the bowl game, but coach Paul Chryst said the competition to win the starting job is open headed into the spring. At this point, Voytik and Trey Anderson are the only scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. So you can bet the biggest goal of all is to keep them both healthy.
- Replacing Aaron Donald. One of the biggest surprises in all of college football this past season was the emergence and utter dominance of Donald at defensive tackle. Donald swept every major defensive award after notching 28.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, 16 quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles. Darryl Render is the next man up.
- Complementary receiver. Devin Street is gone, leaving Tyler Boyd as the only standout receiver on the roster. Not only do the Panthers have to develop a consistent No. 2 receiver, they also have to develop some depth. Watch for Manasseh Garner, a former H-back who moved to receiver late last season when Street got hurt. He is more physical than Boyd, and has some extended playing experience.
Spring start: Started March 1
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- The quarterbacks. David Watford is not guaranteed to win his starting job back after last season, when he threw eight touchdown passes to 15 interceptions. Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns are also in the mix and reps with the first team will be split. In fact, Lambert got the first-team reps when the Hoos opened spring ball last weekend.
- Andrew Brown. The highly-touted freshman will have every opportunity to win a starting job at defensive tackle, and it all starts in spring ball. The No. 3-ranked player in the ESPN 300 comes in with tons of hype; now can he translate that into on-field success? He, Donte Wilkins and Chris Brathwaite will be competing to start next to David Dean.
- Mr. McGee. Jake McGee was the best player the Hoos had among the group of tight ends and receivers a year ago, leading the team with 43 catches for 395 yards. This spring, McGee has now moved over to receiver so the Hoos can take advantage of his athletic ability. Plus, Virginia is lacking playmakers at the position, so we’ll see how much this move benefits both McGee and the offense.
Spring start: March 27
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
- Quarterback. Mark Leal heads into the spring with a leg up in the quarterback competition but make no mistake, there is no set starter. He will get competition from freshmen Andrew Ford and Brenden Motley in the spring, with freshman Chris Durkin and Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer arriving in summer. This competition will likely drag on into the fall.
- Front seven. The Hokies are losing five terrific players up front, including ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins, and linebacker Jack Tyler, who racked up 100 tackles in back-to-back seasons. There is no doubt a major priority this spring is finding their replacements and building depth along the line and at linebacker. Who will step up as the leader of this group with Tyler gone?
- Skill players. This has been an ongoing theme over the last two seasons and will continue to be a theme until the Hokies have consistently good players at running back and receiver. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler is excited about the return of tight end Ryan Malleck, and his entire tight end group for that matter. A healthy Malleck and improvement from Kalvin Cline means the Hokies could simultaneously improve their run and pass game.
None of them has ever started a game.
“This is probably the most slim it’s been since I’ve been here,” said Leal, a fifth-year senior. “We’ve always had at least five or six guys, but right now it’s only three.”
As spring practices begin throughout the conference, the ACC kicks off its 2014 season with a complete overhaul at the quarterback position. It was only a year ago that Florida State’s Jameis Winston was an unproven rookie who had yet to start a game. Now, the 20-year-old reigning Heisman Trophy winner is the veteran of the league, as nine of the 14 schools will have a first-year starting quarterback, and the competition is open at 11 programs. Florida State, Duke and NC State are the only programs that have definitively named starters, and even NC State doesn’t know what to expect out of first-year starter and Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett.
Brissett, though, knows what’s expected.
“Go make sure it was earned,” he said, “not given.”
Count on that to be a trend in the conference this spring.
Clemson, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest are all starting from scratch, without any starting experience at the quarterback position. Some of the league’s most recognizable names have to be replaced, including Tajh Boyd, Logan Thomas and Teddy Bridgewater. Coaches at North Carolina, Syracuse and Virginia have deemed their competitions open, in spite of experienced starters returning.
“I looked at that and was kind of surprised,” said Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas, the frontrunner to take over the job after Vad Lee’s decision to transfer. “It should even the playing field out a little bit, but at the same time, we all have to go through our parts.”
Not to mention spring and summer auditions.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said it’s likely the competition between Chad Kelly, Cole Stoudt and Deshaun Watson will extend beyond this spring -- and possibly into the season.
“Going in, Cole starts out as No. 1 simply because of where we finished the season -- basically by default, if you will,” Swinney said. “He’s the senior. It’s basically his to lose going in, but it’s incredibly close. You’re talking about -- in my opinion -- three guys who are going to play in the NFL. I believe with all my heart that Cole Stoudt is going to play in the NFL. And the same thing with Chad Kelly, and the same thing with Deshaun Watson, if they stay healthy. So you’ve got three NFL players competing to be the guy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people say, well, if you don’t have one quarterback then you have none. But that’s not the case here.”
It could be the case elsewhere, though.
Virginia Tech (Michael Brewer), Boston College (Tyler Murphy), Miami (Ryan Williams) and NC State (Brissett) are all hoping that transfers can give the position an immediate boost, but former Texas Tech quarterback Brewer won’t join the Hokies until this summer. While none of them has started a game at their current schools, all but Brewer have started at least three games at their previous programs.
Williams started 10 games while he was at Memphis, and he’s the leading candidate to replace Stephen Morris, but “it is wide open,” according to offensive coordinator James Coley. And Williams knows it.
"You have to earn it, you have to earn everything,” Williams told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “I don't want anything given to me. If it's given to me, I didn't work hard enough.”
Brissett started three games at Florida, and Murphy started six games for the Gators after starter Jeff Driskel was lost for the season. Murphy went 2-4 with 1,216 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions before missing the final three games of the season with a shoulder injury.
Nothing is guaranteed in Chestnut Hill this spring, either, as the Eagles also have Darius Wade, a true freshman who enrolled early, and James Walsh, who will be a redshirt freshman.
All eyes will be on Louisville’s quarterback competition, as the Cardinals enter their first season in the ACC without Bridgewater, who left early to enter the NFL draft. Will Gardner and Kyle Bolin will be the top two candidates this spring, and they’ll be joined by incoming freshman Reggie Bonnafon this summer.
“It’s wide open,” first-year coach Bobby Petrino said. “We’ll go through spring and see who comes out 1-2-3 and then obviously we’ll give Reggie an opportunity in the fall to compete with those guys.”
With the addition of Louisville, the ACC enters this season perceived by many to be the strongest it has ever been.
Now it just needs to find a few quarterbacks to help prove it.
You can check out all the final results here. Rather than fill a post with endless numbers and 40-yard dash times, we thought it would be fun to give you a glimpse of the combine experience through the players' eyes. Here is a look at selected tweets from ACC players during their time in Indianapolis.
Enjoyed my time in Indy felt a lot of things went well and got some great feedback, gotta keep on climbing and improving thanks for the love— Tajh Boyd (@TajhB10) February 24, 2014
I can't even explain this feeling right now. My feet hurt but I'm glowing right now. So proud of the RB's man. God is good all the time— Andre Williams (@drewill44) February 24, 2014
Blessed with the opportunity to be here http://t.co/xOi87VLoAr— IG:Heartbreak_uno4 (@Heartbreak_mea) February 22, 2014
I would say that was a good day. 4.42 40 yard dash, 38 inch vertical jump and 9 feet 11 inches broad jump ;)— Terrence Brooks (@_Showtime31) February 25, 2014
Here's our lineup, starting with the most difficult (*denotes FCS opponents):
FLORIDA STATE: Oklahoma State (10-3), *The Citadel (5-7), Notre Dame (9-4), Florida (4-8)
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: 56.0
- Toughest opponent: Notre Dame
- Weakest opponent: The Citadel
- 2013 bowl teams: 2
- Quick take: This schedule is more difficult than it was a year ago, when the Noles won the national title. Oklahoma State is a neutral site game in Arlington, Texas, but the Cowboys might not even be a preseason Top 25 team, and Florida still has something to prove. Having three games against quality opponents puts this one at the top and none of the other nonconference schedules are as tough. Still, the Noles should go 4-0 against these guys, with a home win over the Irish.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: 54.9
- Toughest opponent: South Carolina
- Weakest opponent: Georgia State
- 2013 bowl teams: 2
- Quick take: Playing Georgia and South Carolina again makes this one of the ACC's most difficult nonconference schedules, especially starting the season on the road against Georgia with a new quarterback. And will Clemson fans ever forgive Dabo Swinney if he loses to South Carolina at home, this time for a sixth straight loss against the in-state rivals?
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: .686
- Toughest opponent: Notre Dame
- Weakest opponent: Liberty
- 2012 bowl teams: 3
- Quick take: The Tar Heels have a big challenge ahead of them in nonconference play. Nobody needs to be reminded that East Carolina beat this team in Chapel Hill a year ago; traveling to South Bend is always a difficult proposition and Notre Dame figures to be good once again; and San Diego State finished second in its division in the Mountain West last year. Sweeping nonconference is possible, but is it probable? Going 3-1 is most likely.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: .588
- Toughest opponent: Ohio State
- Weakest opponent: Western Michigan
- 2013 bowl teams: 2
- Quick take: The Hokies have two difficult nonconference games against Ohio State and East Carolina and a tricky FCS opponent in William & Mary, which has thrown its share of scares into teams over the last four seasons (including an upset of UVa in 2009). They barely survived the Pirates last year, and that game has a tricky placement on the schedule -- the week after the game at Columbus and the week before a big ACC opener against Georgia Tech. Virginia Tech should go 3-1 but a victory over East Carolina cannot be considered automatic.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: .569
- Toughest opponent: Nebraska
- Weakest opponent: Florida A&M
- 2013 bowl teams: 3
- Quick take: Miami has another daunting nonconference schedule this year. Traveling to Lincoln, Neb., will be difficult, while Arkansas State and Cincinnati have been bowl teams for years now. Arkansas State presents a high-powered spread offense that is always difficult to defend, and new coach Blake Anderson has a familiarity with the Canes from his days as North Carolina offensive coordinator. Cincinnati got blown out in the bowl game, but the Bearcats are not going to be a cakewalk. It would be unrealistic to expect a sweep of all these games. Going 3-1 would be a big win.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: .560
- Toughest opponent: UCLA
- Weakest opponent: Richmond
- 2013 bowl teams: 2
- Quick take: The Hoos do not have an easy go of it in nonconference play once again. Though we have Richmond as the weakest opponent, the Spiders have played tough against FBS competition. Last year, they nearly upset NC State and back in 2011, they beat Duke. The BYU game is in Provo, Utah, this year and comes the week after playing Louisville. Kent State is not a gimme, either, the Golden Flashes won 11 games in 2012. Still, going 2-2 has to be the worst case scenario here.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: 57.1
- Toughest opponent: Notre Dame
- Weakest opponent: Villanova
- 2013 bowl teams: 2
- Quick take: The matchup against Maryland will be interesting because it will be the Terps' first season in the Big Ten, and Maryland will be looking to avenge last year's home Atlantic Division loss to the Orange. Maryland will be a much better team than last year, though, and Notre Dame should be a Top 25 preseason team. Overall, Cuse fans should expect a 2-2 finish, if not 3-1 with the lone loss to Notre Dame.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: 54.7
- Toughest opponent: USC
- Weakest opponent: UMass
- 2013 bowl teams: 2
- Quick take: This is a tricky schedule, but three of the games are at home. Obviously USC will be a tough task, and Colorado State proved it's no pushover in its bowl game. The Eagles should expect at least a 2-2 finish.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: .563
- Toughest opponent: Georgia
- Weakest opponent: Wofford
- 2013 bowl teams: 2
- Quick take: This nonconference schedule is more manageable than it was a year ago, when BYU was on the slate in addition to Georgia. Though Tulane is improved and that game is on the road, the Jackets should be able to go 3-1 at worst against the teams they will face in 2014.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: 36.7
- Toughest opponent: at Notre Dame
- Weakest opponent: FIU
- 2013 bowl teams: 1
- Quick take: This is a schedule Louisville should cruise through, with the exception of the road trip to Notre Dame. Last year, Louisville beat FIU 72-0, and beat Kentucky on the road. It's definitely a good setup for a team trying to break it a new coaching staff and quarterback.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: 50.0
- Toughest opponent: Utah State
- Weakest opponent: Army
- 2013 bowl teams: 1
- Quick take: This is a very kind schedule for first-year coach Dave Clawson, and one that on paper, an ACC program should theoretically bulldoze. Don't forget, though, that the Deacs lost to Louisiana-Monroe last year. Nothing is a given for this team in transition.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: .429
- Toughest opponent: Iowa
- Weakest opponent: Delaware
- 2013 bowl teams: 1
- Quick take: The Panthers have a much easier nonconference schedule, now that Notre Dame is no longer on the slate every year. Iowa is a solid team, but that game at home should be very winnable for the Panthers. FIU was abysmal a season ago, while Akron has made some strides under coach Terry Bowden. Still, Pitt has a realistic shot at going unbeaten in nonconference play for the first time since it began playing a conference schedule in 1993.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: .367
- Toughest opponent: Tulane
- Weakest opponent: Elon
- 2013 bowl teams: 1
- Quick take: Duke has one of the easiest nonconference schedules in the league, setting up the Blue Devils to go unbeaten in nonconference play for the second straight year. In fact, you could make the case that the nonconference schedule this year is easier than it was a year ago, even with a power five opponent in Kansas on the slate. Tulane is much improved, but anything other than 4-0 with this schedule would be a disappointment.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: 43.4
- Toughest opponent: At South Florida
- Weakest opponent: Presbyterian
- 2013 bowl teams: 0
- Quick take: Dave Doeren should be 4-0 heading into the Florida State game on Sept. 27. If a road trip to a 2-10 program is going to be his toughest challenge of the nonconference season, there's no reason the Wolfpack shouldn't exceed last year's win total in the nonconference schedule alone. Rival UNC beat ODU 80-20.
The ACC has lost 10 players who have decided to forgo their final seasons of eligibility and enter the NFL draft. It’s not a mass exodus, but their departures definitely leave some holes. Florida State is losing some talent, but Clemson arguably has the biggest shoes to fill, as the Tigers are losing their top two receivers from 2013, including All-American Sammy Watkins. With spring football around the corner, there will be plenty of competition throughout the league, but based on what we know now, here is the best guess at who the replacements will be for each of the ACC’s early entrees:
Leaving: Florida State WR Kelvin Benjamin
Leaving: North Carolina C Russell Bodine
The replacement: Lucas Crowley. As a freshman, Crowley made his collegiate debut against rival NC State. He played 11 snaps and graded out at 90 percent. An encouraging sign for UNC fans should be Crowley’s performance against Pitt, where he played a respectable game opposite All-American defensive tackle Aaron Donald. He played 66 snaps at center in that game and had five knockdowns.
Leaving: Clemson DB Bashaud Breeland
The replacement: Garry Peters. He was one of Clemson’s rising stars at cornerback in 2012, but an injury last season set him back. He still played in 10 games and enters this fall with 54 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, one interception, 12 pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 33 games (five starts) in his career.
Leaving: Clemson WR Martavis Bryant
The replacement: Mike Williams. The true freshman played in all 13 games and started three, finishing 2013 with 20 catches for 316 yards and three touchdowns. His first career start came against Wake Forest, and Williams had a 14-yard touchdown. As a prep, he was rated the No. 3 player in South Carolina by ESPN.com. Williams has a lot of potential, and the Tigers will need him to reach it quickly.
Leaving: North Carolina TE Eric Ebron
The replacement: Jack Tabb. He played in 10 games at tight end and on special teams, and he also saw some time at linebacker. He finished with six catches for 116 yards and 10 tackles. UNC also signed two tight ends in the 2014 class, including one, Brandon Fritts, who enrolled in January. The other, Avery Edwards, is regarded as the top TE in North Carolina.
Leaving: Florida State RB Devonta Freeman
The replacement: Ryan Green. He played in all 12 games (no starts), and finished with 163 yards and one touchdown on 33 carries. He showed some explosiveness in his limited playing time, as six of his carries went for 10 yards or more. His blocking and ability to take advantage of open holes still need to improve.
Leaving: Florida State DT Timmy Jernigan
The replacement: Nile Lawrence-Stample. He played in 13 games and started six alongside Jernigan at defensive tackle. He finished the season with 15 tackles, including 1.5 for loss. He also had two quarterback hurries. He made his first career start against Pitt and had a season-high three tackles against both Boston College and Maryland. He had one tackle in the national championship game.
Leaving: Syracuse RB Jerome Smith
The replacement: Prince-Tyson Gulley. He was granted a fifth season of eligibility and as of now is expected to play this fall. Gulley qualified for a medical hardship waiver because he broke his collarbone in 2011 and played just four games. He was third on the team in rushing in 2013 and finished with 456 yards and four touchdowns on 83 carries. He also had 15 catches and one receiving touchdown.
Leaving: Clemson WR Sammy Watkins
The replacement: Charone Peake. Watkins was one of a kind, and his record-setting production nearly impossible to duplicate, but Peake is the next man up. He was the Tigers’ second-leading receiver before he tore his ACL during a simple non-contact drill in practice on Sept. 10. Prior to the injury, Peake had eight catches for 84 yards and a touchdown, second only to Watkins in both receptions and yards. In 2012, Peake had 25 receptions for 172 yards and two scores.
Leaving: Florida State RB James Wilder Jr.
The replacement: Karlos Williams. He moved from safety to tailback in Week 2 and finished his first season at the position with 91 carries for 730 yards. His 8.02 yards-per-carry average was sixth in the nation. His 11 rushing touchdowns tied for seventh in the ACC. No running back from an automatic-qualifier conference school scored more routinely than Williams, who scored once every 8.3 carries.
1. Florida State (14-0, 8-0 ACC; Previous ranking: No. 1): The Noles’ 34-31 win over No. 2 Auburn in the VIZIO BCS National Championship was one of the most thrilling of the 16-year BCS era, which came to an end with FSU on top once again. Trailing by four with 79 seconds left, Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston orchestrated the game-winning drive and helped snap the SEC’s streak of seven straight national titles.
2. Clemson (11-2, 7-1; PR: No. 2): The Tigers’ thrilling 40-35 win over Ohio State in the Discover Orange Bowl gave the ACC a 2-0 record in BCS bowls, and Clemson finished with an 11-win season for the second straight year. Clemson became the only team in the nation to beat a top-10 team in a bowl game in each of the past two seasons.
3. Duke (10-4, 6-2; PR: No. 3): Duke gave Texas A&M everything it had in the Chick-fil-A Bowl before losing 52-48 to the Aggies and Johnny Manziel. The Blue Devils represented the ACC well, taking a 41-31 lead into the fourth quarter, but are still looking for their first bowl win since 1961.
4. North Carolina (7-6, 4-4; PR: No. 7): The Tar Heels made a jump in the ranking thanks to their convincing 39-17 win over Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. Ryan Switzer returned a punt 86 yards for a touchdown to help the Heels win their first Belk Bowl in four tries. It was his fifth punt return for a touchdown this season, tying an NCAA record.
5. Virginia Tech (8-5, 5-3; PR: No. 4): This is where the rankings started to get particularly difficult, as the Hokies, Miami and Georgia Tech all lost their respective bowl games. We gave the nod to Virginia Tech, though, in spite of the 42-12 drubbing by UCLA because it was a respectable game until quarterback Logan Thomas was injured early in the second quarter.
6. Miami (9-4, 5-3; PR: No. 5): The Canes had no excuse for another porous defensive performance, this time in a 36-9 loss to incoming ACC member Louisville and standout quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Miami’s offense, meanwhile, was equally inept. The Canes were 0-for-11 on third downs in what was the final game for quarterback Stephen Morris.
7. Georgia Tech (7-6, 5-3; PR: No. 6): The Jackets ended the season with back-to-back losses to SEC opponents, including the 25-17 loss to Ole Miss. An interception in the final minute sealed the Rebels’ win, and Georgia Tech has now lost eight of nine bowls.
8. Pittsburgh (7-6, 3-5; PR: No. 11). The Panthers posted their first winning season since 2010, thanks in large part to the highly decorated Aaron Donald. The defensive tackle won every major defensive award he was nominated for after setting up camp in offensive backfields. Pitt was largely inconsistent for most of the season, but the Panthers did notch wins over Duke, Notre Dame and MAC champions Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Bowl.
9. Syracuse (7-6, 4-4; PR: No. 8). Give the Orange credit for the way they closed their first ACC season; consecutive last-second wins allowed them to finish above .500, a major victory considering the conference transition and new coaching staff. There were some ugly blowout losses, but Syracuse kept plugging away. Terrel Hunt showed major strides at the end of the year.
10. Boston College (7-6, 4-4; PR: No. 9). Not many expected the Eagles to make a bowl game or finish with a winning record. But maybe even more unbelievable was watching Andre Williams rush for 2,177 yards and finish fourth in Heisman voting. The Eagles had a wonderful turnaround season, but their bowl performance drops them here among the 7-6 teams.
11. Maryland (7-6, 3-5; PR: No. 10). On the plus side, the Terps made it to a bowl game and had a winning record for the first time under Randy Edsall, even without Stefon Diggs. On the minus side, they lost to Marshall in the bowl game. By double digits. Maryland only beat one ACC team with a winning record all season as injuries piled up once again. Good luck in the Big Ten!
12. Wake Forest (4-8, 2-6; PR: No. 12). Given all the returning seniors, coach Jim Grobe thought he had a bowl team on his hands. But offensive issues plagued this team once again, and were magnified when Michael Campanaro got hurt in November and missed the rest of the season. Grobe resigned in December after 13 years in charge.
13. NC State (3-9, 0-8; PR: No. 13). Safe to say Year 1 did not go the way anybody planned in Raleigh, the first winless ACC season since 1959. Injuries piled up, but quarterback problems were the biggest issue that could not be overcome. Dave Doeren hopes transfer Jacoby Brissett is the answer in 2014.
14. Virginia (2-10, 0-8; PR No. 14). Mike London has now posted consecutive losing seasons, turning up the heat in Charlottesville. The revamped staff remains largely in place, so the expectation is to see much improvement with another year in the scheme and contributions from some of the freshmen in the top 25 recruiting class London is projected to sign.
QB: Chris Weinke, Florida State: Weinke led the Seminoles to three straight national championship games as he complied a 32-3 record at Florida State as the starting quarterback. During his Heisman-winning season, Weinke led the nation in passing with 4,167 yards during the regular season -- an average of 347.3 yards per game.
RB: C.J. Spiller, Clemson: Spiller accounted for an ACC-record 191.4 yards per game and scored a touchdown in every game. Over his four-year career, he racked up more than 3,000 yards rushing, 2,000 yards in kickoff returns, 1,000 yards receiving and 500 yards in punt returns.
RB: Andre Williams, Boston College: He recorded an ACC-record 2,102 rushing yards on 329 carries in 2013, marking the ninth-best rushing season in the history of college football. He finished the regular season ranked first among all FBS running backs in the country in rushing yards per game (175.2) and broke Boston College's single-season rushing record formerly held by Mike Cloud (1,726, 1998) in 10 games.
WR: Sammy Watkins, Clemson: In just three years, Watkins set 23 school records, including receptions and reception yards for a game, season and career. Watkins finished his career with 240 receptions for 3,391 yards and 27 touchdowns. He finished his career with 5,129 all-purpose yards, second in Clemson history to Spiller’s 7,588.
WR: Calvin Johnson, Georgia Tech: The two-time All-America wide receiver and Biletnikoff Award winner set school records with 2,927 yards receiving and 28 touchdown receptions. He caught 178 passes to rank second in Tech history in career receptions. He finished with a career average of 16.4 yards per catch and had a school-record 13 100-yard games.
TE: Vernon Davis, Maryland: Davis was a consensus All-American in 2005, first-team all-ACC selection, and finalist for the Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end. He started every game, leading the team with 51 receptions and the conference with 871 receiving yards (17.1 average). He was also one of the top blockers at his position.
OL: Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina: He was a consensus All-American as a senior in 2012 and a finalist for the Outland Trophy. During his senior season, as the lead blocker for Giovani Bernard, Cooper won the ACC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy and was first-team all-conference.
OL -- Rodney Hudson, FSU: The four-year starter capped off his career as the most decorated offensive lineman in Atlantic Coast Conference history, earning consensus first-team All-American honors. He played 904 snaps as a senior in 2010 and led the team with 48 knockdown blocks while being penalized just once.
OL -- D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Virginia: He finished his Virginia career as the most decorated offensive lineman in school history. He was named a first-team All-American as a senior in 2005 and was an All-ACC pick as both a junior and senior. He started all 49 games in which he played, the most by an offensive lineman in school history. His 49 career starts are the second most by an offensive lineman in ACC history and a figure topped by only 13 offensive linemen in FBS history at the time his career ended.
C -- Jake Grove, Virginia Tech: He was a unanimous All-American, winner of the Rimington Trophy, and a second-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders in 2004. He moved to center, where he flourished as a junior and senior, and had his jersey retired in 2006.
OL -- Alex Barron, Florida State: He was the only Seminoles offensive lineman in school history to earn two-time consensus All-America honors and have his locker sealed. He started 24 of 25 games at tackle over the final two seasons of his career in 2004 and 2005. He was regarded as the nation’s top pass-blocker as a junior and senior.
DL -- Julius Peppers, North Carolina: Peppers was an absolute beast for the Tar Heels, winning the Lombardi and Bednarik awards in 2001, along with unanimous All-America honors. In three years, he compiled 30.5 sacks (including 15 in 2000).
DL -- Mario Williams, NC State: Williams was a force throughout his entire career, but most especially his junior season, when he set single-season school records with 14.5 sacks and 27.5 tackles for loss en route to All-ACC honors. He became the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft in 2006.
DL -- Da'Quan Bowers, Clemson: Bowers set the Clemson record with 15.5 sacks in 2010, ranking No. 6 on the ACC single-season list. He won the Nagurski Trophy as the top defensive player in the nation that season, along with the Ted Hendricks Defensive End of the Year award, ACC Defensive Player of the Year and unanimous All-America honors.
LB -- Luke Kuechly, Boston College: Kuechly left Boston College ranking No. 2 in NCAA history in career total tackles (532). He recorded at least 10 tackles in 34 of 38 career games and was a three-time All-ACC and All-America selection. In 2011, he won the Butkus, Lombardi and Nagurski awards and was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
LB -- E.J. Henderson, Maryland: Henderson was an All-American in 2001 and 2002, setting a single-season school record with 26 tackles for loss in 2001, winning the ACC Player of the Year honor that season. He was selected ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2002 and also won the Bednarik and Butkus awards.
LB -- Aaron Curry, Wake Forest: Curry started virtually every game of his career. He returned three interceptions for touchdowns in 2007 and added 105 tackles in 2008, earning him the Butkus Award and first-team All-ACC status.
CB -- Alphonso Smith, Wake Forest: Smith is one of the most decorated players in school history, earning first-team All-America honors in 2008. Smith finished his career with a school-record 61 passes defended and an ACC-record 21 interceptions and was an All-ACC selection in 2007 and 2008.
CB -- Jimmy Williams, Virginia Tech: Williams was a two-time All-ACC selection in 2004 and 2005. In 2004, he led the ACC with five interceptions and 19 passes defended. He was a consensus All-American in 2005.
S -- Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State: Joyner had an outstanding career as both a safety and cornerback, becoming an All-ACC selection at both positions. Joyner was a finalist for the Thorpe Award in 2013 and a unanimous All-American.
S -- Antrel Rolle, Miami: Like Donald, Rolle spent only one season playing in the ACC, but it was an incredible one. Rolle was a unanimous All-American and became the eighth overall pick in the 2005 draft.
PK -- Sebastian Janikowski, Florida State: Janikowski won the Lou Groza Award twice (1998, 1999) and remains the ACC leader in career scoring for field goal kickers with 1.94 field goals per game.
P -- Ryan Plackemeier, Wake Forest: Plackemeier was a three-time All-ACC selection from 2003 to 2005 and ranks No. 2 in league history with his 45.26-yard average. He won the Ray Guy Award in 2005 and was a consensus All-American.
RS -- Spiller: One of the best return men of all time, Spiller set an ACC single-season record with four kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2009. He led the league in all-purpose yards in 2008 and 2009 and holds the ACC career mark in the category.
Best game, II: Clemson 40, Ohio State 35. In the second-best win for the ACC, the Tigers also needed a second-half comeback to beat Ohio State in the Discover Orange Bowl, but got the school’s first BCS win thanks to the talented tandem of Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins. Boyd had 505 yards of total offense and threw the game-winning score to tight end Stanton Seckinger with 6:16 remaining for the final margin.
Best wheels: Kermit Whitfield. The nation got the true definition of "track speed" when Whitfield returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score in the national championship game. It only took 11 seconds in real time for Whitfield to go from end zone to end zone, his jaw-dropping speed on full display. This set off a debate on Twitter about who would win a race between Whitfield and former Florida State receiver Marvin Bracy, who left the team to concentrate on his track career. The two are cousins. No surprise, they each claim victory.
Best impersonation of Tony Dorsett: James Conner. Pitt struggled all season to get its run game going, so watching the Little Caesars Bowl unfold you could not help but wonder, 'Where was this all year!' Conner broke the school bowl rushing record held by Tony Dorsett, running for 229 yards -- tied for the highest total among all players during bowl season. He averaged a whopping 8.8 yards per carry, and also got some reps on defense, too.
Best individual performance: Sammy Watkins. Boyd may have had 505 total yards, but it was Watkins who was the best player on the field in the Orange Bowl. He set a school and Orange Bowl record with 227 yards receiving -- tops among all players during bowl season. Ohio State's overmatched defensive backs were helpless to stop him. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Watkins gained 202 yards after the catch, eclipsing his previous career high of 137 yards after catch against Auburn in 2011.
Best play call: Florida State's fake punt. Jimbo Fisher was largely outcoached in the first half of the national championship game, but he made the call of his career late in the second quarter, with the Seminoles trailing 21-3. On fourth-and-4 at their own 40-yard line, Fisher had Karlos Williams take the ball on a reverse from the up man. Williams turned the corner and got the first down. The Seminoles ended up scoring a much-needed touchdown on the drive, one of the key turning points in their comeback win. Fisher explained the decision behind the call quite simply: he did it in an effort to spark his team and avoid a blowout.
Best performance in a loss: Duke. What a heartbreaking end to the season for the Blue Devils, who came oh so close to upsetting Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M. Duke led 38-17 at halftime, perhaps the most stunning result of bowl season to that point and had done a good job containing Manziel. But there was little the Blue Devils could do to stop some of the plays Manziel made late in the game. Anthony Boone did not help matters, either, throwing two costly fourth-quarter interceptions -- including one that was returned for the game-winning touchdown.
Best special teams: North Carolina. It is tough enough to have on return for a score in a game. How about two? The Tar Heels did that in their 39-17 domination of Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl. Ryan Switzer had an 86-yard punt return for a score, giving him an NCAA record five on the season. T.J. Logan also returned a free kick following a safety 78 yards for a touchdown, the first kickoff return for a touchdown in a bowl game in school history. Switzer was named game MVP for his efforts.
Best quote: "We’re the first team from South Carolina to ever win a BCS bowl." -- Clemson coach Dabo Swinney after the 40-35 win over Ohio State, stirring the pot with rival South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier.
Worst stat: 0-11. Miami got embarrassed by Louisville, 36-9, in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Maybe worse than that final score was the 0-fer the Hurricanes posted on third downs.
Worst stat, II: 32.3. The ACC did not have a particularly outstanding defensive showing throughout bowl season. Teams gave up an average of 32.3 points per game. Only two of 11 teams allowed less than 20 points (North Carolina, Syracuse), seven gave up 30 or more and three gave up 40 or more.
Worst bowl game: Russell Athletic Bowl. The Hyundai Sun Bowl had the most lopsided score of ACC bowl season, but the Russell Athletic Bowl is the choice here. This was one of the most anticipated non-BCS games on the schedule, but this was never really a game. Miami looked unmotivated despite waiting two years for a shot at a bowl game and allowed Teddy Bridgewater to throw for 447 yards and three touchdowns.
QB: Tajh Boyd, Clemson: The big stage hadn't been kind to Boyd through most of 2013, but on the first day of 2014, he was exceptional. Boyd accounted for 505 yards and six touchdowns in a Discover Orange Bowl win over Ohio State, giving the ACC two BCS bowl game victors.
RB: James Conner, Pittsburgh: The freshman tailback carried 26 times against Bowling Green, blowing past Tony Dorsett for the Pitt bowl game record with 229 yards on the ground. For good measure, Conner chipped in on the defensive line for a few snaps, too.
RB: Devonta Freeman, Florida State: It wasn't the most spectacular performance of bowl season -- Freeman wasn't even the best running back on the field in the BCS title game -- but his hard running early kept FSU from falling too far behind, and his final tally -- 11 carries for 73 yards and a TD -- helped Freeman become the first FSU running back since Warrick Dunn to top 1,000 yards on the season.
WR: Jamison Crowder, Duke: Ho-hum, another 12 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown for Crowder, who turned in one last stellar performance to cap an exceptional season for the Blue Devils.
WR: Rashad Greene, Florida State: The Seminoles' dramatic comeback against Auburn in the BCS championship game wouldn't have been possible without Greene's big day. He was the only FSU receiver with positive yardage in the first half of the game, and his 49-yard reception -- he dodged two tacklers and picked up most of that yardage after the catch -- was the key play on FSU's dramatic last-minute, game-winning drive.
TE: Braxton Deaver, Duke: The junior had six catches for 116 yards, including three grabs that went for 25 yards or more and five that went for first downs.
OL: Dorian Johnson, Pitt: The Panthers simply overwhelmed Bowling Green's defensive front in the Little Caesars Bowl, racking up 487 yards of offense, including 255 on the ground. (Ed. note: We mistakenly included Matt Rotherham here in an initial post. Johnson slid from tackle to guard for the game, replacing Rotherham, and the Pitt line didn't miss a beat. We apologize for the error.)
OL: Jon Heck, North Carolina: Cincinnati entered the Belk Bowl second in the AAC in sacks with 35, but the Bearcats couldn't get to UNC QB Marquise Williams, as the Tar Heels' offense racked up 39 points -- the second-most Cincinnati gave up all season.
OL: Laken Tomlinson, Duke: The Blue Devils racked up 661 yards of total offense and 29 first downs against Texas A&M, with the offensive line -- led by Tomlinson -- paving the way for a 300-yard passer and a 100-yard rusher.
OL: Tre' Jackson, Florida State: Yes, the Seminoles' line allowed four sacks in the game, but Jackson and Co. also helped FSU run for more yards per carry (4.8) than the vaunted Auburn ground game and provided Jameis Winston with plenty of time to throw on a dramatic game-winning drive in the final minute.
C: Macky MacPherson, Syracuse: The Orange rushed for 208 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner with 1:14 left, to knock off Minnesota in the Texas Bowl. The physically dominant performance on the line was a fitting conclusion to MacPherson's Syracuse career.
DE: Mario Edwards Jr., FSU: Edwards had one sack and three tackles for loss among his six total tackles for a Seminoles front that turned it up a notch in the second half, allowing the offense to catch up and ultimately escape with the win.
DT: Andre Monroe, Maryland: The Terrapins' finale as an ACC member ended on a sour note with a 31-20 loss to Marshall in the Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman. Monroe tied for a game-high with 10 total tackles, three of which went for a loss, one of which was a sack. Monroe added a quarterback hurry as well.
DT: Aaron Donald, Pitt: With one more game to go in a historic season, Donald did not disappoint. The senior closed out his career with two tackles for loss, including one sack, to go with a pass break-up in the Panthers' 30-27 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl win over Bowling Green. Donald's sack came on second down of the Falcons' final drive, all but sealing the win.
DE: Vic Beasley, Clemson: Beasley was part of a Tigers front that made life extremely difficult for Braxton Miller and the rest of the Ohio State backfield. Beasley recorded four tackles for loss and a sack among his five total tackles, and in the end Clemson's defense proved to be the difference in a shootout win.
LB: Norkeithus Otis, UNC: The Tar Heels capped their strong second half with a bang, routing Cincinnati 39-17 in the Belk Bowl to make them 6-1 over their last seven games. Otis tallied seven total tackles -- two for loss and one sack among them -- to go with two quarterback hurries.
LB: Jack Tyler, Virginia Tech: UCLA proved to be too much for the Hokies in a 42-12 win in the Hyundai Sun Bowl, but Tyler played well, totaling seven tackles, including half of a sack, to go with one pass break-up and one quarterback hurry.
DB: P.J. Williams, FSU: The defensive MVP from the Vizio BCS National Championship came up huge when it mattered most, picking off Auburn's Nick Marshall early in the fourth quarter to set up a touchdown that cut the Tigers' lead to one. Williams finished with seven total tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss.
DB: Jemea Thomas, Georgia Tech: Thomas ended his college career with a bang, totaling a game-high 15 tackles. Three of those stops were behind the line of scrimmage, including one sack.
DB: D.J. White, GT: The Yellow Jackets get two more years of White, a future that looked all the brighter in the 25-17 loss to Ole Miss in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. White finished with 13 total tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception and three pass break-ups.
DB: Bryce Jones, Boston College: The Eagles' turnaround campaign under Steve Addazio ended on a down note, falling to Arizona 42-19 in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl, but Jones was a bright spot, with the sophomore notching a team-high 12 tackles, including one for loss.
K: Chris Blewitt, Pitt: Blewitt went 3-for-4 for the Panthers in Detroit, connecting from 25, 28 and, most important, 39 yards with the game-winning kick with 1:17 left in Pitt's 30-27 win.
P: Tommy Hibbard, UNC: Hibbard was phenomenal for the Tar Heels, punting four times for an average of 44.2 yards per boot. He pinned Cincinnati inside its own 20 three different times, and he had a long of 59 yards in the win.
KR: Levonte Whitfield, FSU: At the time, Whitfield's 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown seemed as if it would go down as one of the greatest returns in BCS championship game history. The touchdown gave Florida State a 27-24 lead with 4:31 to play -- but the lead would change twice more before it was over. Whitfield finished the game with 172 return yards.
PR: Ryan Switzer, UNC: The Tar Heels had a huge day on special teams in a Belk Bowl win over Cincinnati, with Switzer -- an All-American -- leading the way, returning his fifth punt of the season for a touchdown.
Here’s a quick preview:
Who to watch: The best player on the field likely will be North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron. The Mackey Award finalist led the team with 55 catches for 895 yards. He already has announced that he will forgo his senior season and enter the 2014 NFL draft, where he’s projected to go in the first round. However, the most intriguing matchup is between the two “replacement” quarterbacks. Each took over at some point this season and led his team to a bowl game. For Cincinnati, Brendon Kay replaced injured Munchie Legaux in Week 2 and became only the fourth quarterback in program history to throw for more than 3,000 yards. The Tar Heels turned to Marquise Williams in early November when starter Bryn Renner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. The dual-threat quarterback won four straight games under center before losing the regular-season finale to Duke.
What to watch: For the second straight year, Cincinnati will essentially play a road game when the team travels to Charlotte for the Belk Bowl. Last year, the Bearcats handled Duke, 48-34, but this year they will face a North Carolina team playing as well as anybody in the country right now. The Tar Heels have won five of their past six games and are just the sixth team since the regular season expanded to 12 games in 2006 to start 1-5 and still reach a bowl game. The question is how North Carolina’s up-tempo, spread-oriented offense will fare against a Cincinnati defense that comes in ninth in the nation in total defense, giving up 313.2 yards per game, and fifth against the run. For the Tar Heels, it should help that offensive coordinator Blake Anderson will still be on the sideline. The second-year assistant coach accepted a head-coaching position with Arkansas State earlier this month but will stay and coach the bowl game.
Why to watch: Although it’s a similar matchup to last year’s Belk Bowl and one that might not grab your attention, it should be an entertaining game. Both offenses have thrived with their new quarterbacks, and both are capable of making explosive plays at any time. It could very well turn into a shootout. There is also motivation on both sides. Cincinnati (9-3) is looking to win its third consecutive bowl game and reach 10 wins for the sixth time in the past seven seasons. Meanwhile, North Carolina is seeking its first bowl victory in its home state. The Tar Heels have lost three previous bowls played in Charlotte.
Prediction: North Carolina 31, Cincinnati 28
The No. 1-ranked Seminoles, destined for the VIZIO BCS National Championship after finishing the season as the only undefeated team in the country, were predicted to play in the shadow of Clemson this season. FSU was picked by the media to finish second in the ACC's Atlantic Division, in large part because the program had to replace its starting quarterback, its entire defensive line, 11 NFL draft picks and six staff assistants.
While Florida State was unstoppable, Duke was simply unbelievable. A school-record 10-win season. Upsets of Miami and Virginia Tech. Back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time in school history. The program's first Coastal Division title, and a spot in the prestigious Chick-fil-A Bowl. Duke finished the regular season on an eight-game winning streak, punctuated by a victory over rival North Carolina for the second straight season.
Duke's 45-7 loss to FSU in the ACC title game wasn't an indictment of the Blue Devils. Rather, it was further evidence that the ACC this year was indeed Florida State "and everybody else."
Nobody else in the conference -- save for Boston College's heroic effort -- even came close to the Noles this fall. They steamrolled Clemson in Death Valley -- early proof that quarterback Jameis Winston was unflappable. They bulldozed in-state rivals Miami and Florida, leaving no doubt which program has ascended to the top in the Sunshine State. And in spite of legal allegations that could have derailed the season, they produced a redshirt freshman Heisman Trophy front-runner.
And then there was the rest of the Atlantic Division.
Wake Forest suffered its fifth consecutive losing season, ending in the unexpected resignation of longtime coach Jim Grobe. NC State, in its first season under coach Dave Doeren, was winless in league play and ravaged by injuries. Maryland's mediocre season ended on a positive note, with the Terps getting to a bowl game for the first time under coach Randy Edsall, but they will leave the ACC still ensnarled in a lawsuit with the conference. Boston College's quick ascension and the jaw-dropping numbers of running back Andre Williams were the surprise of the division in the Eagles' first season under coach Steve Addazio.
For all of the clarity within the Atlantic Division race, there was as much confusion in the Coastal, which once again came down to the final week of the regular season.
Duke, though, left no doubt that it was the best team in the division and earned its title outright. While Clemson's fifth straight loss to South Carolina and Georgia Tech's loss to Georgia in the regular-season finales were disappointments, the ACC this year had two special teams exceed expectations -- and they're not done yet.
Offensive MVP: Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State. Winston was the best player in the country all season, setting FBS and ACC freshman marks with 38 touchdown passes and 3,820 yards. Winston also ranks first in the nation in QBR and passer rating, won the Davey O'Brien Award as the top quarterback in the country, the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award and both ACC Offensive Player of the Year and ACC Player of the Year honors.
Newcomer of the year: Winston. What makes the season he had more impressive is that he is a redshirt freshman and has played in only 13 career games. But Winston has looked like a veteran behind center and is a major reason why the Seminoles are playing in the BCS national championship game.
Biggest surprise: Duke. The Blue Devils were picked to finish last in the Coastal Division but ended up becoming one of the most surprising teams in the nation. Duke won a school-record 10 games, made a first-ever appearance in the ACC title game and is now going to consecutive bowl games for the first time in school history.
Biggest disappointment: NC State. Even though the Wolfpack went through a coaching change and returned a young team, nobody anticipated they would be one of the worst outfits in the ACC. Thanks in part to injuries and inconsistent play at quarterback, NC State went winless in league play for the first time since 1959 and posted its worst record since 2006.
Best nonconference game: Clemson 38, Georgia 35. The marquee opening-weekend matchup did not disappoint as the two top-10 teams battled back and forth throughout the game. The turning point came after Georgia flubbed a chip-shot field goal attempt late in the third quarter that would have tied the game. Instead, the Tigers stretched their lead to 10 before thwarting a late-game rally. Tajh Boyd had one of his best games of the season, scoring five total touchdowns and racking up 312 total yards.
Best ACC game: Duke 27, North Carolina 25. Duke needed to beat hated rival North Carolina on the final day of the regular season to secure a spot in the ACC title game. As expected, this game went down to the wire. The lead changed six times, and Duke rallied in the fourth quarter for the victory. After North Carolina went up 25-24 with 7 minutes, 3 seconds to play, Duke went 66 yards in 11 plays to set up what became the game-winning 27-yard field goal from Ross Martin with 2:22 remaining.
1. Florida State (13-0, 8-0 ACC; LW: No. 1): The Seminoles started slow in the first quarter, but eventually cruised to a 45-7 win over Coastal Division champ Duke. Quarterback Jameis Winston won the game’s MVP award and was named a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. The next challenge for FSU will be stopping Auburn’s run game in the Vizio BCS National Championship.
2. Clemson (10-2, 7-1; LW: No. 2): The Tigers will play Ohio State in the Discover Orange Bowl, not a bad consolation prize for the No. 2 team in the ACC this year. Clemson could use a win to help its fans forget its last appearance in the Orange Bowl as well as a dreadful performance in a fifth straight loss to SEC rival South Carolina.
3. Duke (10-3, 6-2; LW: No. 3): The Blue Devils have nothing to be ashamed of after the loss to Florida State, as they held the Noles scoreless for a quarter and were simply overmatched like every other team on FSU’s schedule. Duke still earned a spot in the prestigious Chick-fil-A Bowl and will have a chance at another marquee win in a matchup against Texas A&M.
4. Virginia Tech (8-4, 5-3; LW: No. 4): The Hokies had a respectable season, but it was still far below their expectations and those of their fans. With losses to Boston College, Duke and Maryland, Virginia Tech’s hopes of returning to the ACC title game were out of its control. The program will get another shot to finish the season on an impressive note, as it will face a tough UCLA team in the Sun Bowl.
5. Miami (9-3, 5-3; LW: No. 5): The Hurricanes were a tough team to judge this year, but they remain a work in progress and drew one of the league’s most interesting bowl matchups, facing Louisville in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Quarterbacks Stephen Morris and Teddy Bridgewater will be the main storyline as the Canes aim for a 10-win season.
6. Georgia Tech (7-5, 5-3; LW: No. 6): The Yellow Jackets squandered a 20-point lead in a loss to rival Georgia, but will get another chance at the SEC when they face Ole Miss in the Music City Bowl. The Rebels’ offense has struggled in the past two games, while Georgia Tech is looking to build on its bowl success after last year’s win over USC snapped a seven-game bowl losing streak.
7. North Carolina (6-6, 4-4; LW: No. 7): The Tar Heels are thrilled at their opportunity to return to a bowl game after serving a one-year postseason ban last year because of NCAA sanctions. They’ll face Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl, a great chance for coach Larry Fedora to showcase the program to in-state recruits. This will be UNC’s fourth appearance in the Belk Bowl, but the program is looking for its first win there.
8. Syracuse (6-6, 4-4; LW: No. 8): The Orange beat Boston College 34-31 in the regular-season finale to become bowl eligible in the first year under coach Scott Shafer, but Syracuse has already struck out twice against the Big Ten and Minnesota is playing well. Generating offense isn’t going to get any easier against the Golden Gophers’ stingy defense.
9. Boston College (7-5, 4-4; LW: No. 9): Despite his injury in the Syracuse game, running back Andre Williams was named a finalist for the prestigious Heisman Trophy. Williams is the second player in school history to travel to New York for the Heisman Trophy announcement, joining former Eagles quarterback Doug Flutie. Williams and the Eagles will get an interesting matchup against Arizona in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl.
10. Maryland (7-5, 3-5; LW: No. 10): The Terps get a virtual home game against Marshall, as they will travel to nearby Annapolis for the Military Bowl -- their final game as members of the ACC before moving to the Big Ten. It’s going to be a good test for Maryland, as Marshall won the C-USA East title and seven of its last eight regular-season games.
11. Pitt (6-6, 3-5; LW: No. 11): Pitt lost four of its final six games and barely snuck past Syracuse to become bowl eligible with just one game remaining. The Panthers will face a successful 10-win Bowling Green team that just won its first MAC championship in 21 years and has the nation’s No. 5 scoring defense at 14.8 points per game. Bowling Green is in transition, however, as coach Dave Clawson is leaving to take the Wake Forest job. Speaking of the Deacs …
12. Wake Forest (4-8, 2-6; LW: No. 12): After five straight losing seasons, coach Jim Grobe has resigned. The Deacs ended the season with five straight losses, and ahead of only NC State in the Atlantic Division standings. On Monday afternoon, the university officially announced Clawson as its next head coach.
13. NC State (3-9, 0-8; LW: No. 13): First-year coach Dave Doeren knew it would be a bumpy ride, but not even he could foresee the amount of injuries to key players that would contribute to a winless record in the ACC. Doeren said there are plenty of positives to look forward to, and the team is ready to move forward with transfer Jacoby Brissett as its new starting quarterback.
14. Virginia (2-10, 0-8; LW: No. 14): Coach Mike London is hitting the recruiting trail hard, as he should after a winless season in ACC play. The quarterback position continues to be an issue, and the staff overhaul that was made last offseason didn’t translate in the win column.
1. VIZIO BCS National championship: No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 2 Auburn (8:30 p.m., Jan. 6, ESPN). This game is at the top of the list for obvious reasons. The ACC finally has a team back in the national championship game, and the opponent is from the SEC. Completely fitting, considering the ACC is measured up against the SEC on a yearly basis. Two big keys to watch -- will Jameis Winston carve up a so-so Auburn defense? And how will the Noles handle the Tigers' ground attack?
3. Russell Athletic Bowl, Miami vs. No. 18 Louisville (6:45 p.m., Dec. 28, ESPN). This ranks as one of the top matchups among all non-BCS games. Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was nearly a Hurricane, but decommitted from the program after Randy Shannon was fired following the 2009 season. Bridgewater has since become one of the top quarterbacks in the nation and could be playing his last game for the Cardinals. Chances are he will have opportunities to make big plays on a mediocre Miami defense.
4. Hyundai Sun Bowl, Virginia Tech vs. No. 17 UCLA (2 p.m., Dec. 31, CBS). This is a huge opportunity for Virginia Tech to shut down one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country in Brett Hundley. This also is a big opportunity for Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas to end his career on a high note and perhaps get NFL scouts to take notice. But the Hokies are going to have to contend with UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr, who has 20 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and five forced fumbles this season.
5. Advocare V100, Arizona vs. Boston College (12:30 p.m., Dec. 31, ESPN). What's not to love about the matchup between Doak Walker finalists Ka'Deem Carey and Andre Williams? Williams, a Heisman finalist, leads the nation with 2,102 yards this season; Carey has 1,716 yards -- and at least 100 yards in every single game he has played in this year.
6. Chick-fil-A Bowl: No. 24 Duke vs. No. 21 Texas A&M (8 p.m., Dec. 31, ESPN). We thought about moving this game a tad higher, but we kept it here because we believe Texas A&M is going to win by double-digits. That's not to take anything away from the way Duke has played this season. It's more a commentary on how good Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans are for the Aggies' offense. Texas A&M does not have a great defense so Duke has to capitalize on each opportunity it gets to put points on the board.
7. Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Ole Miss vs. Georgia Tech (3:15 p.m. Dec. 30, ESPN). This is a chance for the Jackets to try and redeem themselves after losing the regular-season finale to SEC rival Georgia. Ole Miss lost its last two games of the season and couldn’t muster more than 10 points in each game. Georgia Tech doesn’t exactly have a hard time scoring, but it has only won one bowl game in the past eight. Expect the Rebels’ defense to be prepared.
8. Belk Bowl: North Carolina vs. Cincinnati (3:20 p.m. Dec. 28, ESPN). The Tar Heels have lost three straight Belk Bowl games to (former) Big East members Boston College, West Virginia and Pitt. Cincinnati has a strong defense, and won last year’s Belk Bowl against Duke, but the Tar Heels are excited to be playing in Charlotte and back in a bowl after serving a one-year postseason ban.
9. Texas Bowl: Syracuse vs. Minnesota (6 p.m. Dec. 27, ESPN). The Orange haven’t had much luck against the Big Ten this year, starting out 0-2 with losses to Penn State and Northwestern. The bigger problem for Cuse will be Minnesota’s defense, which is No. 27 in the country and holding opponents to 22.3 points per game. Syracuse is barely averaging that (22.8) on its own.
10. Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman: Maryland vs. Marshall (2:30 p.m. Dec. 27, ESPN). The Terps get a home game in nearby Annapolis, but they’ll face a Marshall team that lost to Virginia Tech in three overtimes. Offensively, Marshall is averaging a Conference USA-best 43.0 points per game, the seventh-highest total nationally, and is averaging a league-high 502.3 yards per game of total offense.
11. Little Caesars Bowl: Pitt vs. Bowling Green (6 p.m. Dec. 26, ESPN). Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson is on his way to Wake Forest after leading the program to its first MAC championship in 21 years. The Panthers, who have struggled to protect quarterback Tom Savage all season, will face a defense that ranks No. 5 in the nation at 14.8 points per game. Pitt will counter with the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year, Aaron Donald.