NCF Nation: Pittsburgh Panthers

Troy AikmanUSA TODAY SportsTroy Aikman played under Barry Switzer in Oklahoma before enrolling at UCLA.
Have you logged on Twitter today? Turned on the TV? Went to the grocery store or picked up your child from the babysitter? Then chances are you know the King has returned.

LeBron James is going back to Cleveland.



That has us at CFB Nation thinking: Which college football players originally left home only to transfer back to put together a successful career? So we racked our brains and came up with a handful of the most successful transfers from the last 25 years of college football. The condition, obviously, is the transfer had to be made back to a school in their native state or at least within 100 miles, give or take a few.

If LeBron ever asks, they can all attest that there truly is no place like (playing at) home.

QB Troy Aikman, UCLA (by way of Oklahoma)

The California native left the Golden State and played his high school football in Oklahoma before enrolling with nearby perennial power Oklahoma, led by legendary coach Barry Switzer. Aikman was promised the Sooners' offense would be more passer-friendly, but when Aikman broke an ankle Switzer went back to the wishbone offense. The Sooners went on to win the national championship under the direction of a freshman quarterback, essentially closing the door on Aikman's Oklahoma career. The Covina, California, product returned to the state and enrolled at UCLA. In his first season with the Bruins, Aikman was awarded with the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year. He led UCLA to consecutive 10-win seasons and finished third in the Heisman balloting in 1988. He was the No. 1 overall pick of the 1989 draft and is a three-time Super Bowl champion.

 Joe FlaccoMarvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsJoe Flacco transferred to Delaware to play near his hometown in southern New Jersey.
QB Joe Flacco, Delaware (by way of Pittsburgh)

Technically Flacco did not return to his home state of New Jersey. However, Delaware's campus is less than an hour from Flacco's South Jersey home, making it a closer option than in-state Rutgers, the only FBS program in the state. Flacco played sparingly his first two seasons at Pitt before transferring to FCS powerhouse Delaware. He took the Blue Hens to the FCS national championship and his name is littered throughout the school's record book. He was taken in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft and has a Super Bowl ring and Super Bowl MVP award in his trophy room.

QB Scott Frost, Nebraska (by way of Stanford)

Rarely does an elite prep player from Nebraska leave the state, especially during the Cornhuskers' glory years under Tom Osborne. That's what Frost did, though, spending two seasons at Stanford before returning to the nation's heartland. In his first season, he was named the Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year. As a senior, he led Nebraska to an undefeated record and a share of the national championship. He was the first quarterback in school history to rush and pass for 1,000 yards in the same season.

QB Ryan Mallett, Arkansas (by way of Michigan)

The second-ranked quarterback in the Class of 2007, Mallett signed with then-Michigan coach Lloyd Carr as the heir apparent to senior Chad Henne. However, spread-option coach Rich Rodriguez replaced Carr at season's end, prompting the traditional pocket passer Mallett to transfer. The Batesville, Arkansas, native moved home to play for the Razorbacks and Bobby Petrino, and he had two exceptional seasons. A two-time All-SEC second-team selection, Mallett threw for more than 3,600 yards in both of his seasons in Fayetteville and led the Razorbacks to the Sugar Bowl in 2010. He finished seventh in Heisman voting that season.

WR Randy Moss, Marshall (by way of Notre Dame and Florida State)

Transferring was not entirely up to Moss, whose own transgressions cost him the opportunity to play at his dream school, Notre Dame, and under coach Bobby Bowden, who told Sports Illustrated in 1997 Moss was just as gifted as Deion Sanders. Notre Dame denied his enrollment for his role in a fight, and Florida State removed him from the football team after he tested positive for marijuana, violating his probation. Moss transferred to Marshall, which at the time was a Division I-AA school, allowing him to play immediately. In two seasons, he accumulated 174 receptions, 3,529 yards and 55 total touchdowns. He was taken in the first round of the 1998 NFL draft and is considered one of the greatest receivers in league history.

Cameron NewtonChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesGeorgia native Cam Newton won a Heisman Trophy after transferring to Auburn.
QB Cam Newton, Auburn (by way of Florida and Blinn College)

Much like Moss, Newton's transfer issues were self-inflicted. Urban Meyer removed Newton from the Gators' roster following charges of felony burglary, larceny and obstructing justice stemming from an incident in which he stole another student's laptop. He enrolled at Blinn College (Texas) and led the program to the junior college national championship. The following season, Newton was the starting quarterback at Auburn and won a second consecutive personal national title, leading the Tigers to an undefeated season and BCS trophy. He won the Heisman Trophy in the weeks leading up to the BCS national championship. He declared for the NFL draft in the days following the national title and went No. 1 overall to the Carolina Panthers. He was the 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year and is a two-time Pro Bowler.

Honorable mention: Urban Meyer, Ohio State (by way of Bowling Green, Utah and Florida)

So he isn't a player and technically never transferred, but it certainly has a transfer feel to it. He left Florida after the 2010 season, sat out 2011 and then was named Ohio State's coach before the 2012 campaign. An Ohio native, Meyer's first college coaching job was as a graduate assistant at Ohio State. Even as the coach at other programs, he always spoke fondly of former coaches Woody Hayes and Earle Bruce, who hired Meyer away from a Cincinnati high school.

 

This week ESPN.com spent time looking at the future of college football, so here are a few players returning home -- not all are eligible in 2014 -- who could be the next impact transfers.

QB Jacob Coker, Alabama (by way of Florida State)

Coker is immediately eligible and is the favorite to be the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback for the opener. He left Florida State after the 2013 season after losing out on the job to Jameis Winston.

QB Brandon Connette, Fresno State (by way of Duke)

The change-of-pace and red zone quarterback for the Blue Devils' run to the ACC championship, Connette left for Fresno State to be closer to his ailing mother.

QB Tyler Murphy, Boston College (by way of Florida)

Murphy is from Connecticut, but there aren't many FBS programs up in New England, and Boston is only 100 miles from Murphy's hometown. The BC coaches believe Murphy is a better player than he showed at Florida and can help Steve Addazio take the program to the next level.

LB Mike Mitchell, Texas Tech (by way of Ohio State)

A blue-chip prospect in the 2013 class, Ohio State was considered the long-time favorite for the athletic product. He signed with the Buckeyes but only lasted one season before transferring to Texas Tech, which was not a finalist during Mitchell's recruitment.

DT Eddie Vanderdoes, UCLA (by way of Notre Dame)

This situation got a little ugly last summer. Vanderdoes was the center of a signing day controversy as Notre Dame listed him on their list of signees before Vanderdoes publicly committed at his announcement later in the day. Before ever playing a down for Notre Dame, Vanderdoes decided he wanted to enroll at UCLA, but Notre Dame would not grant him a release. He petitioned the NCAA and was able to play at UCLA this past fall.

The ACC's nice guys

July, 11, 2014
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College football fans sure find easy targets to wear the black hat. Whether it's a coach bouncing from school to school, a recruit flipping to a rival or someone who just can't avoid making headlines, there remains no shortage of villains in this sport.

That doesn't mean it's without guys worth rooting for, though. Here, we give you five ACC guys whom even rival fans have to appreciate for what they do on Saturdays and beyond.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Rodriguez
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtWR Daniel Rodriguez walked on at Clemson after serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Daniel Rodriguez, Clemson. The Tigers receiver served roughly 18 months in Iraq and one year in Afghanistan. He served in the Army from 2006-10. He earned a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star Medal With Valor Device. Just watch this "College GameDay" feature on him. One of the better moments all of last season was Rodriguez scoring a 2-yard touchdown against The Citadel on Military Appreciation Day. He enters his senior year with 10 career catches for 30 yards and five punt returns for 31 yards. You don't see stories like Rodriguez's every day, and he certainly helps put the term "hero" in perspective.

Laken Tomlinson, Duke. Tomlinson arrived in Chicago from Jamaica at the age of 10, with little knowledge of the game of football. His recruitment and background is very similar to that of "The Blind Side," with Tomlinson ultimately committing to David Cutcliffe and a then-rebuilding Blue Devils program. He took part in a service trip two years ago in Ethiopia to help construct freshwater wells for local communities. He's blossomed into a pretty good offensive guard, too, earning All-ACC honors during Duke's run to the Coastal Division crown last season.

Kevin Haplea, Florida State. You're out for the season with a torn ACL. So what do you do? If you're Haplea, you help start a charity chapter at your new school. The Penn State transfer founded the Seminoles' chapter of Uplifting Athletes, which, coincidentally, holds its first event, "Lift for Life," today. The fundraising effort raises awareness and research money for rare diseases, with FSU's chapter championing Fanconi anemia, which is the disease that coach Jimbo Fisher's son, Ethan, was diagnosed with. A redshirt senior, Haplea could see his role expand this year, complementing Nick O'Leary in FSU's two-tight-end sets.

Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville. With both of his parents in jail, Mauldin bounced between different foster families before one of his foster mothers introduced him to football in high school. He's excelled since, registering 9.5 sacks last season and earning second-team all-league honors from the American Athletic Conference. Mauldin does no shortage of community work as well.

David Durham, Pitt. The starting defensive end has done no shortage of work around his new community since transferring from Ohio State prior to the 2012 season. Durham has hosted youth football clinics, wrapped and delivered Christmas gifts to families in need, volunteered with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and, most recently, was part of a group of Pitt players who visited an orphanage in Haiti in May for a weeklong mission trip. Durham was the Panthers defense's winner of the Ed Conway Award this spring, which goes to the most improved player.

Player list for ACC media days

July, 10, 2014
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The 2014 college football season is inching ever so closer, with ACC media days set to take place in less than two weeks.

The league released its list of players who will be attending the July 20-21 event at The Grandover Resort in Greensboro, North Carolina. Here they are:

BOSTON COLLEGE
C Andy Gallik, R-Sr.
DB Dominique Williams, R-Sr.

CLEMSON
QB Cole Stoudt, Sr.
DE Vic Beasley, R-Sr.

DUKE
OG Laken Tomlinson, R-Sr.
LB Kelby Brown, R-Sr.

FLORIDA STATE
QB Jameis Winston, R-So.
CB P.J. Williams, Jr.

GEORGIA TECH
OG Shaquille Mason, Sr.
LB Quayshawn Nealy, R-Sr.

LOUISVILLE
WR DeVante Parker, Sr.
DE Lorenzo Mauldin, Sr.

MIAMI
RB Duke Johnson, Jr.
LB Denzel Perryman, Sr.

NORTH CAROLINA
QB Marquise Williams, Jr.
LB Norkeithus Otis, Sr.

NC STATE
RB Tony Creecy, R-Sr.
DE Art Norman, R-Sr.

PITT
WR Tyler Boyd, So.
DB Ray Vinopal, R-Sr.

SYRACUSE
OT Sean Hickey, Sr.
LB Cameron Lynch, Sr.

VIRGINIA
RB Kevin Parks, Sr.
SS Anthony Harris, Sr.

VIRGINIA TECH
WR Willie Byrn, R-Sr.
DT Luther Maddy, DT

WAKE FOREST
FB Jordan Garside, R-Sr.
CB Kevin Johnson, R-Sr.
Do you need a sign college football is close but still just a little too far away? The first preseason award watch lists were released Monday, a list of more than 70 players that could be the best in the country by season’s end.

It doesn’t matter if you have started only three games in your career and haven’t played a down since November 2012 -- there is a spot for you on the list.

That said, it’s college football and as ridiculous as these often are, I admit I enjoy looking at them. The watch lists for the Maxwell Award, given to the college player of the year, and Bednarik Award, given to the top defensive player, were released Monday. As the season progresses, the list will be pared down before a winner is announced in December.

Here is a look at the ACC players to make the cut and some justification for each player being on the list.

Maxwell Award

WR Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh: As a freshman last fall, Boyd was as good of a receiver as there was in the ACC. As the Panthers’ No. 1 receiver heading into the 2014 season, Boyd could put up monster numbers and follow in the footsteps of Pitt great Larry Fitzgerald.

[+] EnlargeJames Connor
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJames Conner set a Pitt record with 229 yards in the Panthers' bowl win over Bowling Green.
QB Jacoby Brissett, NC State: This is not a knock on Brissett, but his inclusion is certainly puzzling considering he sat out all of 2013 after transferring from Florida, where he saw limited time as a starter and backup. However, the Wolfpack staff is high on Brissett leading the program’s turnaround, and Brissett was a blue-chip high school recruit.

WR Stacy Coley, Miami: Much like Boyd, Coley had a strong freshman season and is poised for a breakout sophomore campaign. One of the country’s elite recruits in 2013, Coley could make a national name for himself if he can build a connection with Miami’s quarterbacks, which have struggled with inconsistency and injury.

RB James Conner, Pitt: It’s almost unfair Conner was limited to just the Maxwell watch list Monday considering he is a two-way standout for the Panthers. Conner is already a huge fan favorite in the Steel City for his bruising and relentless running style, and he broke Tony Dorsett’s school bowl-game rushing record in December.

WR Jamison Crowder, Duke: Any time you catch more than 100 passes for more than 1,300 yards, you deserve to be on this list.

RB Duke Johnson, Miami: Johnson’s inclusion here is a credit to how dominant he was before the injury against Florida State and how woeful Miami looked after. If he can stay healthy, Johnson has the potential to be an elite back nationally.

WR DeVante Parker, Louisville: As the Cardinals’ leading returning receiver and now in Bobby Petrino’s offense, Parker should light up stat sheets this coming season.

WR Rashad Greene, Florida State: There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Seminoles’ receivers, but none of it includes Greene, who led the Noles in receiving in 2013. With Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw in the NFL, Greene will be looked upon to bail out Jameis Winston this fall.

QB Jameis Winston, Florida State: Speaking of Winston, the Maxwell is about the only thing he did not win last season. Another spectacular season and it will be hard to ignore him again.

RB Karlos Williams, Florida State: Similar to Brissett, this is a bit of a projection pick, although Williams has done significantly more than Brissett. Williams was the third-string running back in 2013, but with his five-star talent base coupled with a senior-laden offensive line and Williams could set records in his final season in Tallahassee.

Reaction: While Brissett is obviously a surprise, overall it is hard to argue with much of the list. Williams' inclusion might be pushing it a little bit, although he certainly could be one of the best running backs in the country with his blend of size and speed. It's a positive sign for the ACC that several underclassmen are on the list, including special playmakers Boyd, Coley and Conner, who will all be true sophomores this fall. The biggest question is whether Winston will win the award if he performs the way most expect him to as a redshirt sophomore. AJ McCarron won the award last season over Winston, who was a semifinalist along with Johnny Manziel. Winston's off-the-field issues might have played a role, so it would be interesting to see if the Maxwell Award will continue to take those incidents into account.



Bednarik Award

LB Stephone Anthony, Clemson: A third-team All-ACC selection last season, Anthony was brilliant in the Orange Bowl win against Ohio State with 11 tackles and an interception.

DE Vic Beasley, Clemson: A semifinalist for the award last season, Beasley is a disruptive force in opponents’ backfields. If he can show a little more consistency, he might win the award in 2014.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesClemson's Vic Beasley is among the favorites to repeat as a finalist for this season's Bednarik Award.
LB Kelby Brown, Duke: The Blue Devils under David Cutcliffe are most known for offense, but Brown is a stout defender and one of the conference’s best. He will make a run at 100 tackles for a second straight season this fall.

DB Jeremy Cash, Duke: Cash was an instant impact player for the Blue Devils a season ago following a transfer from Ohio State. With another year in the system, Cash is poised for a huge season.

DL Mario Edwards, Florida State: The former No. 1 recruit nationally was dominant in the national championship. Edwards is now the leader of the defensive line and has just as good a chance as any to win the Bednarik.

DB Anthony Harris, Virginia: An All-ACC selection as a junior, Harris will be looked upon to lead the turnaround for the Cavs on defense. It is a talented unit, and Harris, a team captain this fall, might be the best.

DE Eli Harold, Virginia: Last season he finished sixth in the ACC with 15 tackles for loss, an impressive number. He could see his numbers improve drastically with five-star Andrew Brown now at defensive tackle.

DB Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech: An impact performer as a freshman and a second-team All-ACC selection, Fuller is set to be the next great defensive back at Virginia Tech.

DT Grady Jarrett, Clemson: With Beasley constantly seeing double teams, this opens up the door for Jarrett to be an interior force for the Tigers’ defensive line, which is arguably the country’s best.

DT Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech: He helped make a name for himself against Alabama at the beginning of the season, and his strong play continued throughout the year.

LB Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville: It will be interesting to see how he fares without defensive guru Charlie Strong, but is as talented as they come.

DE/LB Norkeithus Otis, North Carolina: Otis is another player poised to possibly gain national recognition and it begins with his inclusion on this list. He had a very strong junior season with 6.5 sacks.

LB Denzel Perryman, Miami: One of the few bright spots on Miami’s defense last season, Perryman is the unquestioned leader of the Hurricanes’ defenses. He could put up a huge number of tackles this fall.

CB P.J. Williams, Florida State: Williams was one of FSU’s best players this spring, and he might be the country’s best cornerback. His stiffest competition could come from the opposite side of the field in teammate Ronald Darby, who surprisingly did not make the list.

Reaction: It was surprising Darby's name was not included on the list despite missing the spring. He could be the first cornerback taken in the NFL draft next year. The ACC is home to some of the country's best defensive backs with Williams, Fuller and Harris. Beasley is certainly one of the favorites coming into the season, but he was shut down by Florida State last season and will need to rebound against the Seminoles to make a push for the Bednarik as a senior. His sack numbers should be impressive once again, and if he can perform on the big stages, it might be the little extra that wins him the award this season. FSU's Edwards could be the best defensive lineman in the ACC and the country if he plays like he did against Auburn all season. What could hurt Edwards is he will not always be in a position to pile up sacks and tackles even when he is dominating opposing offensive linemen.
Duke has become one of the favorites to repeat as Coastal Division champions for several reasons.

Here is one of the biggest: Duke is the only team in the ACC to return its leading passer, rusher and receiver from a year ago. The Blue Devils return their top two leading tacklers, too.

[+] EnlargeJamison Crowder
Ellen Ozier/USA TODAY SportsDuke returns 72 percent of its offense, including leading receiver Jamison Crowder.
In all, Duke returns 72 percent of its offense. Only Virginia returns more in the ACC, though the Hoos are changing quarterbacks and only produced two wins with virtually the same players a season ago. Plus, their offense took a hit in the offseason when leading receiver Jake McGee decided to transfer.

What should give Duke an edge is the veteran experience and leadership it will have with returning quarterback Anthony Boone, receiver Jamison Crowder and rusher Josh Snead -- all seniors. Crowder is the headliner of the group, after catching an ACC-record 108 passes a year ago for 1,360 yards. He needs just 1,153 yards to set the school and ACC career receiving yards record.

Snead will once again split carries in the backfield -- the way Duke has done in recent history -- though some depth does have to be developed at the position. Boone will share some of the load at quarterback as well, but there will be much more placed on his shoulders with the departure of Brandon Connette.

That is where the Blue Devils lose the largest percentage of their offense -- 25 percent out of the 28 percent that is gone. Losing Connette means losing 14 of the team's 28 rushing touchdowns from a year ago, along with 1,212 passing yards and perhaps the most reliable backup quarterback in America. Thomas Sirk is expected to contribute, but it is too early to say what exactly his role will be once the season begins.

Still, Duke is the only team in the league with its offensive nucleus intact, an offense that -- by the way -- ranked No. 3 in the ACC. Florida State nearly does with Jameis Winston and Rashad Greene back. Though the Seminoles lose leading rusher Devonta Freeman, they believe Karlos Williams will be able to step right in and fill those shoes. Several other teams return two among their top passers, rushers or receivers: Pitt (RB James Conner, WR Tyler Boyd), Syracuse (QB Terrel Hunt, WR Ashton Broyld), Virginia Tech (RB Trey Edmunds, WR Willie Byrn) and Louisville (RB Dominique Brown, WR DeVante Parker).

Of these teams, only Syracuse returns 70 percent or more of its offense. Still not quite as much as Duke.

Position U: Wide receivers

June, 17, 2014
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Who really deserves to claim the title of "Wide Receiver U" for the 2000s?


1. USC (134 points)


USC has been amazingly successful at producing pro wide receivers, as a whopping 11 former Trojans have been selected in the NFL draft since 2001. Mike Williams, a 2003 All-American, is the only first-round pick in the bunch, but look over the list: Dwayne Jarrett, Robert Woods, 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner and All-American Marqise Lee. Some supreme pass-catching talent has come through L.A. since the turn of the century.

Award winners: Marqise Lee, Biletnikoff (2012).
Consensus All-Americans: Mike Williams (2003), Dwayne Jarrett (2005, 2006), Robert Woods (2011), Marqise Lee (2012).
First-team all-conference: Mike Williams (2003), Dwayne Jarrett (2005, 2006), Steve Smith (2006), Damian Williams (2009), Robert Woods (2011), Marqise Lee (2012).
NFL first-round draft picks: Mike Williams (2005).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Keary Colbert (Round 2, 2004), Steve Smith (Round 2, 2007), Dwayne Jarrett (Round 2, 2007), Patrick Turner (Round 3, 2009), Damian Williams (Round 3, 2010), Robert Woods (Round 2, 2013), Marqise Lee (Round 2, 2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Kareem Kelly (Round 6, 2003), Ronald Johnson (Round 6, 2011), David Ausberry (Round 7, 2011),


2. LSU (124 points)


LSU hasn't accumulated as many All-America receivers as USC, but you won’t find a school that has done a better job of turning out pro wideouts. The Tigers have sent 14 receivers to the NFL through the draft since 2000, including four first-round picks (Michael Clayton, Dwayne Bowe, Craig Davis and new New York Giants WR Odell Beckham). LSU’s national reputation is largely that of a defense-first program -- for good reason -- but the Tigers quietly have turned out a lot of NFL-caliber wideouts.

Award winners: Josh Reed, Biletnikoff (2001); Odell Beckham, Hornung (2013).
Consensus All-Americans: Josh Reed (2001).
First-team all-conference: Josh Reed (2000, 2001), Michael Clayton (2003), Dwayne Bowe (2006), Rueben Randle (2011).
NFL first-round draft picks: Michael Clayton (2004), Dwayne Bowe (2007), Craig Davis (2007), Odell Beckham (2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Josh Reed (Round 2, 2002), Devery Henderson (Round 2, 2004), Skyler Green (Round 4, 2006), Early Doucet (Round 3, 2008), Brandon LaFell (Round 3, 2010), Rueben Randle (Round 2, 2012), Jarvis Landry (Round 2, 2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Bennie Brazell (Round 7, 2006), Demetrius Byrd (Round 7, 2009), James Wright (Round 7, 2014).


3. Pittsburgh (120 points)


The level of competition for Pittsburgh increased when it joined the ACC, so it will be interesting to see whether the Panthers keep churning out all-conference receivers the way they did in the Big East. That will be a tall order. But guys such as early-2000s stars Larry Fitzgerald and Antonio Bryant would have been All-Americans no matter where they played.

Award winners: Antonio Bryant, Biletnikoff (2000); Larry Fitzgerald, Walter Camp (2003), Biletnikoff (2003).
Consensus All-Americans: Antonio Bryant (2000), Larry Fitzgerald (2003).
First-team all-conference: Antonio Bryant (2000, 2001), Larry Fitzgerald (2002, 2003), Greg Lee (2005), Derek Kinder (2006), Jonathan Baldwin (2009, 2010).
NFL first-round draft picks: Larry Fitzgerald (2004), Jonathan Baldwin (2011).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Antonio Bryant (Round 2, 2002).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Derek Kinder (Round 7, 2009), Dorin Dickerson (Round 7, 2010), Devin Street, Round 5, 2014).


4. Oklahoma State (112 points)


Off-the-field issues have marred the NFL careers -- and in some cases, the college careers –- of some of Oklahoma State’s most renowned wideouts. But one thing that absolutely isn’t in question is their ability. The Cowboys have featured some of the most ridiculously talented receivers in college football in the last 14 seasons, most notably Dez Bryant and Justin Blackmon.

Award winners: Justin Blackmon, Biletnikoff (2010, 2011).
Consensus All-Americans: Rashaun Woods (2002), Dez Bryant (2008), Justin Blackmon (2010, 2011).
First-team all-conference: Rashaun Woods (2002, 2003), Adarius Bowman (2006), Dez Bryant (2008), Justin Blackmon (2011, 2011).
NFL first-round draft picks: Rashaun Woods (2004), Dez Bryant (2010), Justin Blackmon (2012).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: None.
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: None.


5. Michigan (96 points)


There was a time when Michigan would have ranked higher on this list -– maybe even at No. 1 -– but the Wolverines haven’t produced great wideouts in recent seasons the way they did in the early 2000s. David Terrell and Braylon Edwards dominated Big Ten games back in the day, but Michigan hasn’t had a first-team all-conference wideout since Mario Manningham went back-to-back in 2006 and 2007.

Award winners: Braylon Edwards, Biletnikoff (2004).
Consensus All-Americans: Braylon Edwards (2004).
First-team all-conference: David Terrell (2000), Marquise Walker (2001), Braylon Edwards (2003, 2004), Jason Avant (2005), Mario Manningham (2006, 2007).
NFL first-round draft picks: David Terrell (2001), Braylon Edwards (2005).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Marquise Walker (Round 3, 2002), Jason Avant (Round 4, 2006), Mario Manningham (Round 3, 2008).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Steve Breaston (Round 5, 2007), Adrian Arrington (Round 7, 2008), Junior Hemingway (Round 7, 2012), Jeremy Gallon (Round 7, 2014).


6. Oregon State (92 points)


This one might surprise folks outside of Pac-12 country, but look down the list. A couple of Biletnikoff Award winners -– including 2014 NFL first-round pick Brandin Cooks, who posted video game numbers (128 catches, 1,730 yards, 16 TDs) last season. And don’t forget their team at the turn of the century that featured future NFL teammates Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh at wideout. That duo had to create a matchup problem or two for college defensive coordinators.

Award winners: Mike Hass, Biletnikoff (2005); Brandin Cooks, Biletnikoff (2013).
Consensus All-Americans: Brandin Cooks (2013).
First-team all-conference: James Newson (2003), Mike Hass (2004, 2005), Sammie Stroughter (2008), James Rodgers (2009), Markus Wheaton (2012), Brandin Cooks (2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Brandin Cooks (2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Chad Johnson (Round 2, 2001), Markus Wheaton (Round 3, 2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: T.J. Houshmandzadeh (Round 7, 2001), Mike Hass (Round 6, 2006), Sammie Stroughter (Round 7, 2009).


T-7. Clemson (82 points)


It’s not unusual for Clemson to have dynamic offensive talent, but a recent surge at wideout helped the Tigers jump to this spot. Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins ensured that Clemson had a receiver represented on the All-ACC first team in each of the past three seasons, and both players went on to become first-round draft picks.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: None.
First-team all-conference: Airese Currie (2004), Chansi Stuckey (2005, 2006), Aaron Kelly (2007), Sammy Watkins (2011, 2013), DeAndre Hopkins (2012).
NFL first-round draft picks: Rod Gardner (2001), DeAndre Hopkins (2013), Sammy Watkins (2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Derrick Hamilton (Round 3, 2004), Jacoby Ford (Round 4, 2010), Martavis Bryant (Round 4, 2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Airese Curry (Round 5, 2005), Chansi Stuckey (Round 7, 2007).


T-7. Oklahoma (82 points)


Rarely spectacular but always highly productive, Oklahoma has built a solid tradition at receiver under Bob Stoops. Check out the list of 11 wideouts who have been drafted since 2001 -– just one first-round pick (Mark Clayton in 2005), but a big group went in the early rounds because the Sooners keep signing players like Ryan Broyles and Mark Bradley, who develop into dangerous pass-catchers in the Oklahoma offense.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: Ryan Broyles (2010, 2011).
First-team all-conference: Mark Clayton (2003, 2004), Ryan Broyles (2010, 2011).
NFL first-round draft picks: Mark Clayton (2005).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Brandon Jones (Round 3, 2005), Mark Bradley (Round 2, 2005), Travis Wilson (Round 3, 2006), Malcolm Kelly (Round 2, 2008), Juaquin Iglesias (Round 3, 2009), Ryan Broyles (Round 2, 2012), Jalen Saunders (Round 4, 2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Manuel Johnson (Round 7, 2009), Kenny Stills (Round 5, 2013), Justin Brown (Round 6, 2013).


9. Texas Tech (80 points)


There was a time when the Mike Leach-led Texas Tech passing game ranked among the most exciting in the game. Michael Crabtree was the centerpiece of that attack, winning a pair of Biletnikoff Awards before becoming a first-round pick. Perhaps Kliff Kingsbury will revive some of the excitement from the old days under his mentor, but the Red Raiders haven’t had an all-conference receiver since Crabtree in 2008.

Award winners: Michael Crabtree, Biletnikoff (2007, 2008).
Consensus All-Americans: Michael Crabtree (2007, 2008).
First-team all-conference: Jarrett Hicks (2005), Joel Filani (2005, 2006), Michael Crabtree (2007, 2008).
NFL first-round draft picks: Michael Crabtree (2009).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Carlos Francis (Round 4, 2004).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Joel Filani (Round 6, 2007).


10. Ohio State (76 points)


Four first-round draft picks -– Michael Jenkins, Santonio Holmes, Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez –- and a total of 11 drafted receivers helped Ohio State crack the top 10 despite not having any national award winners or All-Americans. As one of the most successful college programs of the 2000s, the Buckeyes are a fixture in these positional rankings, so it’s no surprise they made the top 10 here.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: None.
First-team all-conference: Santonio Holmes (2005), Ted Ginn Jr. (2006), Anthony Gonzalez (2006), Dane Sanzenbacher (2010).
NFL first-round draft picks: Michael Jenkins (2004), Santonio Holmes (2006), Ted Ginn Jr. (2007), Anthony Gonzalez (2007).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Brian Robiskie (Round 2, 2009), Brian Hartline (Round 4, 2009), DeVier Posey (Round 3, 2012).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Ken-Yon Rambo (Round 7, 2001), Reggie Germany (Round 7, 2001), Drew Carter (Round 5, 2004), Roy Hall (Round 5, 2007)

Rest of "Wide Receiver U" rankings
72 – Louisville; 70 – Georgia Tech; 66 – Florida, Florida State; 64 – Miami; 60 – Texas A&M; 56 – Georgia; 54 – Texas; 52 – West Virginia; 50 – Michigan State, Notre Dame, Wisconsin; 48 – Baylor; 46 – Kansas State; 44 – Penn State, South Carolina, Tennessee; 40 – Purdue; 38 – Missouri, Rutgers; 36 – California; 34 – Arizona, Indiana, N.C. State, UCLA; 32 – Vanderbilt, Washington; 30 – Illinois, Oregon; 28 – Arizona State, Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia Tech; 26 – Minnesota, Utah, Wake Forest; 24 – BYU, TCU; 22 – Alabama, Washington State; 20 – Maryland, Ole Miss; 18 – Colorado, Duke, Iowa, Virginia; 14 – Kentucky, Syracuse; 12 – Auburn, Kansas; 10 – Northwestern; 8 – Stanford; 6 – Iowa State, Nebraska; 0 – Boston College, Mississippi State
Late last week, the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas released its opening point spreads for 200 games in the upcoming season, and it was hardly a surprise that the casino’s oddsmakers have Florida State pegged as a favorite in all eight regular-season games in which they have set a line.

What did catch a few people by surprise is just how dominant Vegas expects the Seminoles, who have a few holes to fill on defense and at the offensive skill positions, to be in 2014. Florida State is initially favored by double digits in each game. Contests against The Citadel, Wake Forest, Boston College and Virginia were not released.

[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsLas Vegas is expecting a second dominant season from Jimbo Fisher's Seminoles.
Vegas expects Florida State to blow out division rival Clemson again, favoring the Seminoles by 17 points over the Tigers on Sept. 20. Considering how last season’s game in Death Valley went, a 17-point loss in Tallahassee might not seem all that bad for a Clemson team that's rebuilding its offense.

Florida State was also a 17-point favorite against Oklahoma State in a neutral-site game, at Louisville and against rival Florida. They opened as a 24-point favorite against Notre Dame. The Seminoles are a 14.5-point favorite at Miami, which is looking for revenge after being trounced 41-14 last season.

Elsewhere in the ACC, Clemson is a nine-point road underdog to Georgia in a rematch of last season’s opener. Following the September game against Florida State, the Tigers are favored in each listed game until hosting South Carolina, which is a three-point road favorite. Vegas expects a close game between the Tigers and visiting North Carolina, listing Clemson as a four-point favorite in that Sept. 27 game.

Louisville is welcomed to the ACC with a Labor Day primetime game against Miami, and Vegas is calling that one a pick ’em.

The Golden Nugget is not confident that Virginia Tech will have a bounce-back season. Ohio State is an 18-point favorite for the Hokies’ Week 2 trip to Columbus, Ohio, and surprisingly, the Tar Heels are a double-digit home favorite against the Hokies. Virginia Tech is only a one-point favorite at home against Miami.

Speaking of the Hurricanes, Vegas expects a close one when they travel to Nebraska. Miami is a three-point underdog in their Sept. 20 game. Miami is a one-point favorite against North Carolina, which could be a division-defining game to begin November.

Other notable spreads:

  • North Carolina is a three-point road favorite over Duke and 20-point favorite over NC State.
  • Georgia Tech isn’t projected to break its losing streak to in-state rival Georgia. The Yellow Jackets are initially set as a 14-point underdog.
  • NC State is at least a 20-point underdog in the three games with a spread.
  • Syracuse is a 5.5-point underdog to Notre Dame at the Meadowlands.
  • Virginia has two interesting nonconference games and is a heavy underdog in both. UCLA is a 21.5-point road favorite and BYU, a team Virginia beat last season, is a 17-point home favorite.
Florida coach Will Muschamp made big headlines during Day 1 of the SEC meetings when he said he would rather not play FCS opponents anymore.

Alabama coach Nick Saban agreed, sparking renewed debate about the place of FCS games in major college football, especially when strength of schedule will mean more in the playoff era.

But during the ACC spring meetings last month, there was no such debate. The ACC remains firm in its desire to play FCS opponents. There are a few reasons why. First, scheduling nonconference games has become more challenging than ever. Sometimes, an FCS team is needed to fill out the schedule. Second, there are many FCS teams in the South that are in close geographic proximity to ACC teams, and they always benefit greatly when they are scheduled to play.

These are not the most appealing games. Sometimes, upsets happen, which is probably why Muschamp does not want to go the FCS route anymore. But from the ACC perspective, the FCS games are not going anywhere anytime soon.

All 14 ACC teams have FCS teams on the schedule for 2014. Seven are in the same state as their ACC opponent. Nearly all the rest are located in bordering states. Miami, for one, plays Florida A&M this season and also has played in-state Bethune-Cookman in the past.

"Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman are great games for us," Miami athletic director Blake James said during the ACC meetings. "Those are schools within the state, there’s a real benefit for them to be able to come down and have games in Miami where they have alumni. It’s a benefit for us. As of right now I would see us still scheduling Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman and those types of schools. Those are the ones we have historically played and those are relationships we’d like to be able to continue."

Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich, who also serves on the College Football Playoff committee, was asked how teams with FCS opponents on the schedule would be judged when it came time to make decisions. The Tigers, for example, have South Carolina State on the schedule this season and for 2016 and a game with Wofford set for 2015.

"You’re going to have to look at what FCS teams you play, if any, because there are some FCS teams that are more difficult to play than the lower-ranked Division I teams," Radakovich said. "It comes into the totality of the schedule."

Until further notice, the totality of the ACC schedule will include an FCS opponent.
The biggest news to come from last week’s ACC league meetings was a decision on future conference scheduling. With expansion, there was a push to move to a nine-game conference slate, along with the potential to switch up the conference title game format. For now, however, things are going to stay more or less the same.

What has changed in terms of scheduling is a rule that will require all teams to play at least one nonconference game against a team from a Power 5 conference (Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC). While that won’t affect the four ACC teams with annual rivalry games against the SEC (FSU, Clemson, Louisville and Georgia Tech), it will force some others to up the ante on future scheduling.

[+] EnlargeACC logo
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesThe ACC has not performed well in regular-season, nonconference games against Power 5 teams since 2009. The combined record of the 11 current ACC members who have been a part of the conference since then is 22-51.
(Note: For a more detailed look at scheduling of Power 5 nonconference foes in the next few years, BC Interruption has a detailed list.)

Rather than look ahead, however, we decided to take a look back at how the ACC has fared against Power 5 competition in recent years.

As colleague Andrea Adelson pointed out, the 2013 nonconference slate in the ACC was one of the toughest in the nation, and the 2014 schedule projects to be similarly daunting.
“The ACC played one of the most challenging nonconference schedules in the country a season ago, featuring games against Georgia, USC, Florida, Northwestern, Penn State, Alabama, South Carolina, BYU and Oregon.

This year, Oklahoma State, Georgia, Ohio State, Nebraska, UCLA, USC and Iowa are on the nonconference schedule, in addition to the standard SEC rivalry games for Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Louisville.”

But while the ACC played a fair number of tough nonconference games, it didn’t exactly perform particularly well in them.

In fact, going back five years to the 2009 season, the numbers are pretty bleak.

The 11 current ACC members who have been a part of the conference since 2009 have played a total of 73 regular-season, nonconference games against Power 5 teams. Their combined record is a dismal 22-51 (.301).

Here’s how bad it actually is:

• Three of those 22 wins actually came against Pitt, Syracuse and Louisville when those programs were not part of the ACC.

• Seven more wins came against Vandy, Kansas, Rutgers and Indiana — hardly traditional powers despite their conference affiliations.

• No ACC team has a winning record in nonconference, regular-season games against Power 5 teams during that span. The team that has performed the best during that stretch is North Carolina, which is 3-3.

• The most impressive nonconference, regular-season wins over Power 5 teams for the ACC in the last five years amounts to a short list: Clemson over Georgia (2013), Miami over Florida (2013), Clemson over Auburn (2011), FSU over Florida (2010), Miami over Oklahoma (2009) and Virginia Tech over Nebraska (2009).

The failures against Power 5 teams are league-wide, but the spread is a bit one-sided. Since 2009, there are a few teams that have distinctly avoiding playing nonconference, regular-season games against Power 5 teams. The full list is in a chart on the right.

What’s worse, four of those six games played by NC State and Virginia Tech came in 2009, meaning those two programs have each played just one regular-season, nonconference game against a Power 5 team in the last four years. (Virginia Tech played Alabama last season, while NC State played Tennessee in 2012.)

Of course, conference games are also played against Power 5 foes, and the ACC has won its share of bowl games against teams from major conferences as well. With that in mind, here are the league’s standings since 2009 based on all games against teams currently in a Power 5 conference (plus Notre Dame).



It’s probably no surprise that Florida State, Clemson and Virginia Tech -- the league’s power teams -- have performed the best.

Georgia Tech’s solid 31-24 record might be a nice feather in Paul Johnson’s cap, if not for the five straight losses to UGA.

Miami and North Carolina have played .500 football in big games the last five years, which puts them in the middle of the pack but, of course, is far below the expectations for two programs with the resources to perform much better.

The league’s newcomers -- Syracuse, Pitt and Louisville -- have won a few significant games, but the ACC obviously has higher hopes for all three schools moving forward.

(Note: Losing Maryland certainly isn't hurting the ACC with respect to these numbers. The Terps were a dismal 13-33 (.282) against all Power 5 teams in the last five years and just 1-5 in regular-season, nonconference games against Power 5 foes.)

Overall, however, the win-loss records don’t exactly tell the story of the ACC as a rising power in the national landscape. In fact, the new scheduling strategy is effectively a carbon copy of the one installed by the SEC, but the difference between the performance of the two leagues in those games is actually quite stark.

In the last five years, the 12 continuous SEC programs are 41-24 (.631) in nonconference, regular-season games against Power 5 opponents, winning at more than double the rate of the ACC. While the ACC doesn’t have a single team that has won more than half of its games against Power 5, nonconference teams in the regular season, the SEC has three teams (Alabama, LSU and South Carolina) that are undefeated in such games.

The knock on the SEC, of course, is that its programs have widely shied away from top-notch competition outside the league. While ACC teams have played, on average, 6.6 regular-season, nonconference games against Power 5 foes in the last five years, the SEC has averaged just 5.4.

But that doesn’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things. Scheduling big-name opponents wasn’t really the problem in the first place. Winning more of those games is the big hurdle the conference needs to clear.
The dust has settled after the NFL draft, and it was another solid showing by the ACC. Overall, the league had 42 players selected, the second most in ACC history and the second most by any conference this year (trailing only the SEC’s 48).

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
Elsa/Getty ImagesFormer Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins was the first ACC player selected (No. 4 overall) in the NFL draft.
Four of the first 14 players selected in this year’s draft came from the ACC, led by Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins (No. 4 overall to the Buffalo Bills) and UNC tight end Eric Ebron (No. 10 to the Detroit Lions). Five ACC players were taken in the first round and 10 more were selected in the second and third rounds.

For the second straight year, Florida State led all ACC schools in players drafted. Seven Seminoles were selected throughout the weekend, starting with wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in round 1 by the Carolina Panthers and ending with linebacker Telvin Smith in round 5 by the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the past two years, Florida State has had 18 players drafted by NFL teams.

Of course, it wasn’t just strength at the top for the ACC. All 14 programs had at least one player selected this year, including five apiece from Clemson and North Carolina and four from Boston College.

New addition Louisville, which officially enters the ACC next month, had four players selected this year, including three (Calvin Pryor, Marcus Smith and Teddy Bridgewater) in the first round.

Three ACC quarterbacks were selected, led by Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas (No. 120). Pitt’s Tom Savage (No. 135) and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (No. 213) were also taken.

Duke corner Ross Cockrell was taken with pick No. 109 by the Bills, becoming just the third Blue Devils player drafted since 2001. He was also the highest-selected Duke defensive player since Mike Junkin was taken fifth overall in 1987.

Miami had three players selected over the weekend (Brandon Linder, Pat O'Donnell and Seantrel Henderson), extending its streak of consecutive years with at least one player drafted to 41. Florida State and Virginia extended streaks of their own to 32 years.

Of the ACC underclassmen who declared for this year’s draft, four went undrafted. FSU running back James Wilder Jr. inked a free-agent deal with the Cincinnati Bengals, Syracuse running back Jerome Smith signed with the Atlanta Falcons and NC State defensive lineman Carlos Gray signed with the Green Bay Packers.

Among other notable undrafted free agents in the league, former Miami quarterback Stephen Morris signed with Jacksonville, UNC quarterback Bryn Renner inked a deal with Denver, FSU receiver Kenny Shaw signed with Cleveland, Tar Heels offensive lineman James Hurst signed with the Ravens and former BC quarterback Chase Rettig signed with Green Bay.
The ACC spring meetings are this week, and the league’s championship game is again a hot topic of debate.

With the league expanding to 14 teams, there’s a push to reorganize the schedule and the title game, potentially moving to just a single division, with the teams with the two best records playing for a championship.

Of course, that plan first needs NCAA approval, but before the powers that be get their hooks into the debate, David Hale and Matt Fortuna are discussing the merits of a potential change.

[+] EnlargeRonald Darby
AP Photo/Richard ShiroWould the ACC be better-served with its two best teams meeting in the title game, possibly for a second time in a season?
Fortuna says change is good: Having the two best teams square off in the ACC title game, regardless of division, would be beneficial for several reasons, the obvious one being that college football fans could get one more marquee game to look forward to every year. But look beyond that for a moment and look at the implications that could come from the ACC having the autonomy to determine how its teams qualify for its title game.

If the Atlantic-Coastal matchup requirement was lifted, this could open the door for much more flexibility within the conference as it relates to schedules, as schools might not then be forced to play everyone in their division every year, the way that they do now. They could, if they wished to, scrap divisions altogether. Regardless, an ease on those NCAA restrictions would give ACC players a much better opportunity to face everyone in their conference before they graduate.

As it stands now, if, say, Boston College wants to get payback for its loss at North Carolina this past fall, it will have to wait until 2020 to face the Tar Heels. And the Eagles will not return to Chapel Hill in the next 11 years. Look at league newcomer Louisville, which won't get its first game against Virginia Tech until 2020. So much for young Cardinals players hoping to face a legend in Hokies coach Frank Beamer.

This might be treading into a whole other conversation entirely, but why does the NCAA even have authority to determine how leagues govern their title games, anyway? As we've seen recently, particularly with the SEC sticking with its eight-game league slate, conferences are free to determine their respective league schedules however they wish. It's only right that they get to choose how to determine their league champion, too.

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Of course, the other obvious factor that could come from a new title-game format is league balance. Yes, these things are cyclical -- in every division, in every conference. Still, is newcomer Pitt that much better than newcomer Syracuse, which lost by a single point to the Panthers last year? Probably not, but Pitt is already being touted as a darkhorse ACC title contender next year. The Orange, playing in the same division as Florida State, Clemson and Louisville, might as well be chopped liver. And that's not fair to them, as they are making similar progress in a new league with a young coach but have to navigate a far more difficult path than Pitt to show tangible signs of progress.

The major potential drawback would be a better No. 2 team in the league possibly eliminating the league's regular-season champion from contention for the College Football Playoff. But as Nick Saban said after his third national title at Alabama, you shouldn't back your way into a championship.

As the ACC looks to build off the momentum from Florida State's national title, it would be wise to keep that in mind. Unfortunately, it's not exactly in the league's control.

Hale says the format should stay the same: If you’re making the case for NCAA overreach, I’m on board. I’d love to see the NCAA exert less control over conference decision-making, too. But we’re talking about title-game format, and on that point, the status quo is worth preserving.

Would allowing more flexibility in scheduling improve the regular season? If your idea of improvement is getting that big Boston College-North Carolina rematch, then yes, it might. But look back over the past three years in the ACC and the clear-cut choice for game of the year was Clemson-Florida State. That’s the game that put the ACC in the national spotlight for a week, the game that fans across the country couldn’t wait to see.

[+] EnlargeDavid Cutcliffe
Dannie Walls/Icon SMIDuke made a surprise trip to the ACC championship game in 2013 but was waylaid by FSU.
The reason Clemson-FSU was appointment viewing, however, was that it essentially determined which highly ranked team would get a shot at an ACC title and which one would spend the rest of the year playing catch-up. But what happens if the top two teams play in the league title game instead? All of a sudden, that Clemson-FSU matchup doesn’t mean nearly as much because there’s a good chance they’ll see each other again in December.

And no, you shouldn’t back into a championship, as the wise Nick Saban said. But after FSU completely dominated Clemson this past season, was there really a need for those two to face off again? And if Clemson managed to sneak by the Seminoles in the title game by a point or two, would that have proven the Tigers deserved the league title instead of FSU? And would it have been worth costing the ACC its shot at a national title?

But beyond the impact that changing the format would have on the league’s marquee regular-season games, the fact is — attendance in Charlotte aside -- the ACC benefits from diversity in its championship game. What Duke was able to do last year was good for both the conference and the Blue Devils’ program, a turning point in the development of a one-time cellar dweller. Competitive balance pushes all programs to up their game. If Clemson and FSU control the league every year, it only dampens enthusiasm everywhere else.

And really, that’s where the real changes need to come. It’s not that we need more of Clemson-FSU (or Louisville, which could certainly throw a monkey wrench into the status quo in the Atlantic). It’s that we need other teams, particularly in the Coastal, to step up their games.

As FSU and Clemson showed last year, what separates the ACC and SEC right now isn’t strength at the top, it’s the depth of quality. While the SEC opens every season with six or seven teams in competition for a conference title, the entire reason we’re having this discussion about the ACC’s championship game is because, too often, the same two teams (in the same division) are the prohibitive favorites.

Sure, Syracuse has a long road to the top this year. But until last year, only Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech had won the Coastal during the championship-game era, then suddenly Duke emerged. (The Atlantic has had four different champs.) In nine years of title games, North Carolina has yet to make an appearance. Miami has yet to make an appearance. In two of Georgia Tech’s three trips, it backed in with mediocre teams.

The solution to the ACC’s problems isn’t jury-rigging its title game. It’s ensuring that its other flagship programs are competing for the title game on an annual basis.


Clemson coach Dabo Swinney didn't want to do it.

When he met with former quarterback Chad Kelly on the Monday following Clemson's spring game, Swinney said his original plan was to suspend Kelly -- not dismiss him from the team entirely -- but the meeting "just didn’t go well."

"There’s just certain things you can’t tolerate, and that’s just the bottom line," Swinney said. "It wasn’t a good meeting. It was a simple decision that was made. He moved on and we moved on."

So did more than half the ACC this spring, to a new era of quarterbacks.

Cole Stoudt’s tenure began swiftly at Clemson, ending what was one of the most intriguing quarterback competitions in the ACC and capping a spring that was filled with quarterback news throughout the conference.

[+] EnlargeKevin Olsen
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsKevin Olsen became Miami's first-string quarterback when Ryan Williams tore his ACL.
At Miami, quarterback Ryan Williams tore his ACL, leaving Kevin Olsen the undisputed starter heading into summer camp.

At Duke, Brandon Connette announced his decision to transfer to the West Coast, leaving Anthony Boone in an unfamiliar role of being the lone leader.

Boston College named Florida transfer Tyler Murphy its starter, Syracuse reaffirmed Terrel Hunt as its starter, Justin Thomas is the main man at Georgia Tech, Will Gardner took the lead at Louisville and Chad Voytik became the obvious choice at Pitt.

What began as a position up for grabs in the ACC is largely no longer a mystery, as many schools determined their starting quarterback this spring, or at least had separation occur -- if not by performance, then by default. While most of the quarterbacks throughout the league are still unproven (six schools don’t have any starting experience returning to the position, and four schools brought in transfers to help), many enter summer camp at least sure of where they stand on the depth chart.

"I had my meeting with the coaches before all that happened, and I felt comfortable with where I was," said Stoudt, who will make his first career start in the season opener at Georgia. "They said I was going to be the guy and everything. I know there were some things that happened, but I'm happy with the situation, and I'm happy I'm the guy going into fall camp, so it's exciting."

Nine of the 14 schools in the ACC will introduce a first-year starting quarterback this fall. Of the 11 teams that entered spring with quarterback competitions, eight found answers -- or at least had an obvious front-runner emerge.

At Miami, Williams had distanced himself from Olsen through his decision-making and accuracy, but the torn ACL meant an instant promotion for Olsen. Still, coach Al Golden said his confidence in the position remains high.

"I think we're not going to change what we do," Golden said. "We need to do a really good job of establishing the running game, keeping it simple, doing what we do best. Getting into more third-and-manageables. We were in way too many third-and-longs last year to possess the ball and convert. Clearly the two young men we have here on campus right now can do it. The two coming in will also have an opportunity to compete."

[+] EnlargeFrank Beamer
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsVirginia Tech coach Frank Beamer is still looking for a starting quarterback to emerge.
The only three schools that didn’t come close to naming a starter this spring were Virginia Tech, Virginia and Wake Forest. It's not a stretch to say that the Hokies' hopes of returning to the ACC title game hinge on having a dependable quarterback emerge, and as one of the premier programs in the Coastal Division, it will continue to be one of the most-watched storylines of the summer. Those within the program have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer and true freshman Chris Durkin. The staff has made it perfectly clear they won’t name a starter until those two are added to the competition this summer.

"The big question really is the quarterback," coach Frank Beamer said. "I think Mark Leal, Brenden Motley and Andrew Ford all have had their moments. Some of it's good; some of it's not as good as you like. I think Michael Brewer coming in, Chris Durkin coming in, will enter into the competition there. We'll see how that ends up. But that's certainly the critical question for our football team right now."

The critical question for the rest of the conference becomes how these new starters will perform when it counts. Now that most of them have earned their starting jobs, there's pressure to keep them.

"I've said that if we were to play tomorrow, [Will Gardner] would run out there as our starter," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. "… There will certainly be competition for it in the fall. He’ll have a chance to go out each day and prove that he's either the better quarterback, or someone passes him by."

More often than not, the ACC's new quarterbacks were able to prove it this spring.
Scottie Montgomery returned to Duke last year from an NFL world where quarterbacks were never, ever hit in practice.

So when his quarterbacks started begging him to go live this spring, his first reaction was, ‘No way!’ He was in protection mode, the way he was as a Steelers assistant. But veterans Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette persisted, and he slowly relented -- only a few times, and with clear instructions to the defense.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston, Jimbo Fisher
AP Photo/Phil SearsFlorida State coach Jimbo Fisher had Jameis Winston go live last spring when he was dueling Jacob Coker for the starting job.
“My initial feel is, ‘Don't ever let anybody get touched, so I have to fight myself at times, because I want to protect these guys and these guys want to compete for jobs,” said Montgomery, the offensive coordinator.

His is a dilemma that many coaches across the league have faced this spring. Do you allow your quarterbacks to get hit in practice to help simulate game situations and foster competition, knowing you have increased their injury risk? Or do you never even broach the subject because the priority should always be to protect the quarterback?

Four ACC teams allowed their quarterbacks to go live at some point during spring practice, more than any other power-five league. Clemson did it for the first time under offensive coordinator Chad Morris, believing he would see more out of the three quarterbacks vying for the starting job. Early enrollee freshman Deshaun Watson ended up getting hurt and missing the spring game.

Florida State allowed its younger quarterbacks to go live this spring. Coach Jimbo Fisher said he did the same last year, when Jameis Winston was a redshirt freshman competing to win the starting job.

“They’ve got to be able to feel things around them and react,” Fisher said. “They get in a false security blanket sometimes.”

Does that cause him extra worry?

“It’s no different than when we run the running backs, and I get nervous in the scrimmages when the backs are running and get tackled,” Fisher said. “Our guys know if they’ve got a kill shot, not to. There’s a certain limit of how we practice with each other. You know those shots that everyone wants to have? We won’t take those on each other even if we’re in a live scrimmage because it’s not productive to the organization. Tough to me is when you’re eyeball to eyeball, not when a guy’s exposed and you can do that.”

The coaches are not the only ones who wrestle with the idea. NC State quarterback Jacoby Brissett was not live this spring. But when he was competing for the starting job at Florida with Jeff Driskel back in 2012, both were allowed to go live early on in fall practice. The first day they were allowed to take hits, Driskel hurt his shoulder.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail/Mark CrammerClemson freshman Deshaun Watson was injured in practice and missed the spring game.
“There's a right time and wrong time for quarterbacks to be live,” Brissett said. “We haven't done live practices, but in the fall sometimes we will have a live scrimmage on a Saturday. It helps out with the game speed reps.”

For a running quarterback such as Brissett, that helps. Same for the Duke quarterbacks. Georgia Tech has its quarterbacks live during practice for that reason.

Some coaches believe going live helps separate the competition. But Clemson was the only school with an open quarterback competition to allow its quarterbacks to go live during scrimmage situations. North Carolina, for example, has Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky battling to win the starting job, but offensive coordinator Seth Littrell does not believe it is necessary to allow quarterbacks to get hit. “I’ve never done it,” he said.

Virginia Tech also is in the middle of an intense competition, but quarterbacks have been off limits so far this spring. Veteran Mark Leal would have no problem if the coaches changed their minds.

“Honestly, I'd like to be live,” he said. “I think the rest of the quarterbacks would, too, because it gives more of a game feel. If you're not live, sometimes the whistle gets blown early when you don't think you should have been sacked or the play gets messed up because when there's a rush around you, the first thing the coaches want to do is blow the whistle, rather than you continue to play or go through your reads and progressions and finish the play.”

Depth concerns often dictate what coaches do. Pitt only had two scholarship quarterbacks this spring, so there was no way they were going live. Virginia Tech only has three quarterbacks on the roster this spring.

Still, all the protections most coaches take are not enough to keep their quarterbacks injury-free. Miami quarterbacks were off limits this spring, but Ryan Williams tore his ACL during a scrimmage.

It was a noncontact injury.
At this time last year, Texas A&M was the epicenter of college football during spring practice. The Aggies' 2013 spring game drew a record crowd. ESPN televised the game, "Johnny Football" was the face of the sport and it helped swing in-state recruiting momentum from the Longhorns.

It would only make sense that Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin was ready to do it all again this spring.

“No, it’s not for me,” Sumlin said in March. “I’ll be honest with you, you guys know me, that second half [of spring games] goes real quick. I’m ready to get out of there.”

The spring game in many ways goes against the core belief of Sumlin, and really every coach, of using every practice to get better. So the Aggies went without a game this spring, and will do so again in 2015 as Kyle Field's renovations continue.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsOhio State coach Urban Meyer likes the opportunity to get young players, such as redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett, some playing time in a spring game.
Spring games are at somewhat of a crossroads in college football. They’re hardly fighting off extinction as 54 FBS programs held games this past weekend. But the watered-down product is giving coaches reason for pause. The argument against holding the spring game is picking up steam, and coaches are questioning the value in using the final spring practice on a half-speed “dog-and-pony show,” as Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship puts it.

A handful of programs aren't holding spring games this year. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy did not plan a spring game, and Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst believed it wasn’t in the program’s best interest to have one, either.

Both Chryst and Gundy have young rosters. Only Utah State returns fewer starters than the Cowboys. Chryst is still trying to put his stamp on a program that has had more head coaches than winning seasons in the last decade, and he is breaking in a new quarterback. To Chryst and Gundy, it did not make sense to waste a practice day for a haphazard game.

“Truly looking at this from the inside of the program and what this group needs, it was, 'What’s the best use of the 15 opportunities we get in the spring,'” Chryst said. “I felt like we didn’t have a group where we’re going to take just one full day and scrimmage. Bottom line is we wanted to make sure we’re maximizing our opportunities.”

Two coaches not questioning a spring game finale are the leaders of programs with some of the best odds to win the first College Football Playoff. Both Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer are in favor of the model most programs still subscribe to: 14 practices, mix in a few scrimmages and hold a game at the end of camp. Fisher and Meyer believe it’s the only time in the spring to get an accurate read on how players react to a fall Saturday game atmosphere.

“What you get is the people in the stadium, you get pressure, you get outside people watching you get the lights on the scoreboard and [the game] matters,” Fisher told ESPN.com last week. “You get a game environment. It might not be the one in the fall, but it’s as close as you’ll ever get out in this practice field. To get a guy in front of 40,000 people and watch how they play in front of them, to me, I put more value in that.”

However, Meyer acknowledges the issues the modern-day spring game presents. Ohio State star quarterback Braxton Miller was out with an injury, but Joey Bosa, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were healthy scratches. Fisher elected to sit starting running back Karlos Williams, leaving a fullback and a handful of walk-on running backs to carry the spring load Saturday. The sustainability of the spring game could come down to depth, but rosters are thinner with the 85 scholarship limit, and coaches are keeping their proven commodities out of harm’s way.

Fisher To get a guy in front of 40,000 people and watch how they play in front of them, to me, I put more value in that.

-- Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, on the value of spring games
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said the lack of numbers at certain positions causes the few available players to “double dip” and play both sides, opening those few healthy players up to injury. The emphasis on preventing and identifying concussions has grown substantially in the last few years, and Blankenship added that “a lot more guys are missing practice today with concussion-related symptoms, and that’s been consistent across the board with other coaches I talk to.”

Meyer said spring games are often a “great opportunity to get scout-team guys a chance to play,” which in itself can be considered an indictment of the spring game’s inherent value.

“One time at Florida we had only five or six offensive linemen and they had to play both ways,” Meyer said, “but the experience of playing in front of [fans], if you want to have a practice but arrange how the receiver has to be the guy, to be in coverage and catch a pass and hear the crowd, that’s real.”

There are only so many programs that consistently draw 30,000 or more fans for a spring game, though. Those other programs don’t have the benefit of putting their players in a game-day atmosphere when only a few thousand fans fill the bleachers.

Blankenship understands he needs to promote his Tulsa program and bring in as many fans as possible. So last year, they tried a new spring game model. Instead of a traditional game of the roster being split, Blankenship operates on only 50 percent of the field and allows fans to sit on the other side of the 50 to get a more intimate view. The game resembles more of a practice as the team works on situations such as red zone and fourth down instead of keeping score.

A piece of him still wants a sound 15th practice, though.

“I do think [the spring game] is worth it from the fan standpoint,” he said, “but the coach in me would like to have another practice.”

[+] EnlargeVirginia Spring Game
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsThese Virginia students received a better-than-front-row view of the Cavaliers' spring game.
Fans and alumni are maybe the most overlooked part of the equation of whether it is realistic to ditch the spring game. Florida State director of marketing Jason Dennard said it would be nearly impossible to change the Seminoles’ spring game model, which begins with downtown events Friday. The school even receives grant dollars from the local economic development council to fortify the weekend lineup.

“It’s a complete home run,” Dennard said. “After what we’ve built, it’d be hard to scale it down. People have come to expect this to be a big deal. It’s an investment into the future of our program.”

While Pittsburgh has struggled to draw fans for its spring games in recent years, Chryst was still cognizant of the program’s fans when he decided to cancel the spring game. So Chryst met with the marketing department at Pitt and helped introduce a football clinic for young players and offensive and defensive breakdowns of the Panthers’ schemes for the Xs-and-Os fan.

“It was different at first and people said, ‘What, no spring game?’ But when Coach Chryst announced the Field Pass, the response was overwhelming,” said Chris Ferris, associate athletic director for external relations at Pitt.

Could that union of a standard 15th practice with an added day of fan interaction be the union that seals the fate of spring games? Maybe.

“I think it is,” Blankenship said. “We’re much closer to that in our part of the country. I think the tradition of the spring game is something we’re all kind of tied to, but we’re all figuring out there’s a better way.”

Video: ACC Coastal spotlight

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
11:45
AM ET

It’s March, which means we’re one month closer to the start of college football. Spring practice is off and running in the SEC, so Toni Collins and Matt Fortuna took a look at some of the top returning players and storylines in the ACC Coastal division.

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