NCF Nation: Anthony Boone

Last week, ESPN surveyed 97 FBS coaches to find out which of their peers was the most underrated. It was little surprise that Duke’s David Cutcliffe topped the list. Take an annual doormat and turn it into a division champ and a coach gets plenty of credit, and Cutcliffe’s success in the one-time quagmire that was Duke football has secured his status as one of the sport’s best. Paradoxically, he’s now properly rated because, for so long, he’d been so underrated.

If only the same could be said for his quarterback.

If Cutcliffe built the winner at Duke, Anthony Boone has been its caretaker. In 16 career starts, Boone has won 14 games. Think about that. He’s 14-2 as a starting QB at Duke, a place where all other quarterbacks in the past decade compiled a record of 23-75.

And yet, when the preseason watch lists emerged last month, in a conference in which Jameis Winston was the only other established quarterback, Boone was largely an afterthought.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Boone
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDuke's Anthony Boone doesn't have spectacular statistics, but he's proven that he knows how to win at a program that's not known for its success historically.
“I don’t pay attention to that stuff,” Boone said. “If I did, last year they said we’d win five or six games and we won 10. It’s all predictions, but what matters is who produces on Saturdays.”

Boone’s Saturdays have been a mixed bag, by his own admission.

At his best, Boone was outstanding last season, including throwing for 427 yards and three touchdowns in a shootout with Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. At his worst, even Boone understands the victory in the ledger was in spite of his effort, not because of it.

“I care whether my team wins or loses on Saturday, and that may or may not be because of me,” Boone said. “If you look back at Virginia Tech [last season], my defense really helped me. It’s not just the quarterback.”

Against Virginia Tech, Boone completed just seven passes and threw four interceptions, but Duke eked out a 13-10 win. Boone was coming off a collarbone injury that sidelined him for three weeks early in the season. It took a while to get a feel for the offense when he returned, but the midseason nadir — 51 percent completions, seven interceptions, no touchdowns in three games against the Hokies, UNC and Miami — still resulted in three Duke victories.

That stretch seems to define Boone in a way. Why credit the QB when it was his supporting cast that carried the team for so long?

Heck, Boone might not have even been the most appreciated quarterback on his own roster. Brandon Connette played the understudy role to perfection a year ago, subbing in during red-zone chances and proving to be a valuable weapon in high-profile moments. Connette would crash into the end zone for a touchdown and Boone would rush from the sideline to celebrate his backup’s moment of triumph.

“He doesn’t really get the credit he deserves but he doesn’t care about that as long as we’re winning games,” receiver Jamison Crowder said.

But here’s more context: Set aside Boone’s brutal three-game stretch midseason, and his numbers warrant acclaim. He’s completed 64 percent of his throws. He’s averaged 7 yards per pass. He’s thrown 26 touchdowns to just seven interceptions, running for six more scores.

He’s not Winston, but like his ACC counterpart, Boone was a baseball star in high school and plays with an underrated athleticism. He doesn’t have the frame of Peyton or Eli Manning, Cutcliffe’s prized pupils from his earlier days in coaching, but his arm might be every bit as strong. And, of course, he’s smart. That’s the one given at Duke, that a QB has the wits to play, and Boone’s ability to read defenses continues to astound his teammates.

Boone’s good, but few outside his own locker room seem to notice.

“He’s not as tall, but he’s more athletic, he can run, he’s fierce,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s got as strong an arm as anyone we’ve had. And what Anthony does is, he wins. He finds ways to win football games.”

Boone gets another chance to win Saturday in Miami. It’s a typical Duke game, really. The Blue Devils are 4-0, but they’re still unranked in the AP poll. They’re the defending division champs, having beaten the Hurricanes by 18 points just a year ago, yet Miami is favored by a touchdown. Even in a battle of quarterbacks, Miami’s highly recruited true freshman Brad Kaaya seems to be the far more interesting story.

Boone doesn’t care. At Duke, being underrated is half the fun, and Boone is underrated even by Duke’s standards. Boone’s legacy with the Blue Devils is already secure where it matters most, and the rest is just window dressing, anyway.

“Everybody likes to have 1,000 people pat them on the back, but at the end of the day, I have my team and my fan base and my family and friends,” Boone said. “If I don’t get the recognition, that’s fine. I go out to help my team win, whether people think I can or not. I have my team, and that’s all the belief I need.”

ACC viewer's guide: Week 4

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
8:00
AM ET
The best day of the week is finally here. Is the best league game of the year here as well? Probably. Here's a primer on all of the action throughout the day. Be sure to follow along on Twitter with all of the hashtags below.

Noon

Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech, ESPN, #GTvsVT: The Yellow Jackets have gotten to 3-0 in the most wayward of fashions. The Hokies are coming off a home loss to East Carolina, one week after upsetting a top-10 Ohio State team on the road. Could their trouble be on defense? Brandon Facyson has been playing hurt all season, sure, but Virginia Tech has surrendered 22 plays of 20 yards or more this season, fourth-most in the nation and half its total from last season (44). The big-play threat might not exactly be there with Georgia Tech, but as Jared Shanker noted this week, the visitors do bring with them a knack for converting third downs. Virginia Tech has won the past four games in this matchup.

Iowa at Pittsburgh, ESPNU, #IOWAvsPITT: Third-year Panthers coach Paul Chryst hosts a familiar foe this weekend, as he faced the Hawkeyes six times while he was offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, going 3-3. Pitt is looking for its first 4-0 start since 2000, and it will likely turn to the nation's leading rusher, James Conner, to try to get there, despite Iowa's stingy run defense (No. 7 nationally). Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, by the way, will experience a homecoming of sorts, as he went to Upper St. Clair High in Pittsburgh.

12:30 p.m.

Maryland at Syracuse, 12:30, ESPN3, #MDvsCUSE: The Terrapins are in their first year away from the "basketball" conference that is the ACC, as coach Randy Edsall said this summer, and the Big Ten newcomers will look to avenge last year's 20-3 home loss to the Orange, which came without receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. Syracuse, meanwhile, looked like a new team in last week's 40-3 win at Central Michigan, as it came off a bye and had quarterback Terrel Hunt back running the show on offense. Syracuse is looking to get to 3-0 for the first time since 1991, which would provide a big boost to a team that will embark on a difficult three-week stretch against Notre Dame, Louisville and Florida State.

Tulane at Duke, ESPN3, #TULNvsDUKE: Has there been a more overlooked team than Duke recently? All the Blue Devils have done is take care of business, coming off a 10-win, division-title season and starting 3-0 this season in methodical fashion (albeit against bad competition). In any event, the unranked Blue Devils close their nonconference slate against American Athletic Conference newcomer Tulane, which is no stranger to the ACC this season, having lost to Georgia Tech two weeks ago. Here's one interesting stat surrounding Duke quarterback Anthony Boone, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information: The Blue Devils have lost yardage on just three percent of Boone's snaps, the lowest percentage of any Power Five quarterback with at least 150 plays.

[+] EnlargeTyler Murphy
Winslow Townson/Getty ImagesTyler Murphy and Boston College hope to avoid a letdown after their upset of USC when they face FCS Maine on Saturday.
1 p.m.

Maine at Boston College, ESPN3, #MEvsBC: It's all about avoiding a letdown this week in Chestnut Hill, where the Eagles produced one of the young season's greatest upsets last weekend against USC. The Black Bears should hardly pose a huge challenge to BC, which, with Tyler Murphy under center, has been able to stretch the field much more than last season, even if the run game is still its bread and butter. Murphy leads all quarterbacks in rushing yards this season with 401, 40 more yards than he has tallied passing the ball (361).

3:30 p.m.

Louisville at FIU, Fox Sports 1: The Cardinals are looking to rebound from their first defeat of the second Bobby Petrino era, while the Golden Panthers welcome their second straight ACC foe to Miami. FIU gave Pitt a handful last week before the Panthers pulled away, but Louisville will probably not be so kind coming off the loss at Virginia. Louisville beat FIU 72-0 a year ago, and while there are plenty of new faces, quarterback Will Gardner will try to bounce back after getting pulled a week ago. His offensive line will look to get its act together as well.

Virginia at No. 21 BYU, ESPN, #UVAvsBYU: Speaking of the Cavaliers, they should serve as one of the toughest tests the Cougars face all season, as the home team has the best chance of anyone in the nation at running the regular-season table (21.7 percent, per ESPN's FPI). We'll see just how good this Virginia defense really is after strong showings through the first three weeks, as BYU quarterback Taysom Hill and his home field will be a handful to handle. Virginia beat BYU last year in the season opener, one of just two games it won all season.

Army at Wake Forest, ESPN3, #ARMYvsWAKE: The Demon Deacons' defense has actually been pretty good through three games despite a 1-2 record. And while the offense showed signs of life late in last week's loss at Utah State, it cannot afford to give away points, and it would help to develop some form of a ground game. The Black Knights were shut out last week at Stanford. They also boast, at this point, the nation's slowest offense at 31.1 seconds per play, according to data from ESPN Stats & Info.

North Carolina at East Carolina, ESPNU, #UNCvsECU: The Pirates came awfully close to beating a South Carolina team that is probably better than we initially gave it credit for, and they went into Blacksburg, Virginia, last week and took down the Hokies. Now they get the Tar Heels in a rematch of last year's 55-31 ECU rout in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels have looked underwhelming through two games, and they will be without starting guard Landon Turner. But their offense is still capable of putting plenty of points on the board, and this is a team that certainly has not forgotten about the way it was embarrassed by the Pirates last season. A shootout between Marquise Williams and Shane Carden could be on the horizon. And given UNC's upcoming slate -- at Clemson, Virginia Tech, at Notre Dame -- it better hope it can keep up this time around before league play starts. One thing to keep in mind: With Brian Walker's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown two weeks ago at San Diego State, UNC now has 10 non-offensive touchdowns since last season, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That is tied with North Texas for the second-best mark in the nation during that span, trailing only Florida State's 11.

6 p.m.

Presbyterian at NC State, ESPN3, #PREvsNCSU: The Wolfpack's laughable nonconference slate concludes, and a win here would make them 4-0 after a disappointing 3-9 mark last season. Still, it should do wonders for a young team looking to go bowling in Dave Doeren's second year at the helm, especially if it can replicate its dominant performance from last week at USF. Like its rival in Chapel Hill, NC State needs to do itself a favor, with back-to-back games against FSU and Clemson awaiting in the next two weeks to open conference play. As David Hale notes, quarterback Jacoby Brissett has been invaluable so far for the Pack, leading the ACC in touchdowns and yards and second only to Georgia Tech's Justin Thomas in passer rating.

8 p.m.

Miami at No. 24 Nebraska, ESPN2, #MIAvsNEB: Andrea Adelson and Mitch Sherman did a wonderful job recapping some of the great matchups between these old rivals. What might be the difference at Memorial Stadium, however, is the ground game. Duke Johnson has rushed for at least 90 yards in each of his past five games dating back to last season, while Ameer Abdullah has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in 12 of his past 14 games and has tallied more than 100 yards from scrimmage in 16 straight games, the longest active streak in the nation. The ACC is 6-3 against the Cornhuskers in the past nine meetings, though the Hurricanes are just 1-6 in their past seven games against AP-ranked teams, with an average point margin of minus-22.4.

8 p.m.

No. 22 Clemson at No. 1 Florida State, ABC, #CLEMvsFSU: Here's the matchup we've all been waiting for, but it won't include Jameis Winston. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner will sit out the entire game, the school announced late Friday, after reportedly making profane remarks in public. It will be Sean Maguire's turn to run the show. Maguire has not started a game since Nov. 12, 2011, his senior year at Seton Hall Prep (New Jersey). Coach Jimbo Fisher is 3-1 against Clemson since arriving in Tallahassee, but the lower-ranked team has won two of the past three meetings. The Tigers, meanwhile, are 0-4 all time against AP No. 1 teams, with the last such game coming in the 1999 "Bowden Bowl I" against FSU, a 17-14 Seminoles win. Coming into this contest, ESPN's FPI ranks Clemson 19th, FSU 2nd, and it gives the Seminoles a 77 percent chance to win.

ACC viewer's guide: Week 3

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
8:00
AM ET
It's Saturday, and we're here to catch you up on all that you should be watching throughout the day as 11 ACC teams take the field. Use the hashtags below to follow each game on Twitter. All times are ET.

Noon

East Carolina at No. 17 Virginia Tech, ESPN, #ECUvsVT: The Hokies are riding high after notching the upset at Ohio State last week. But the Pirates can help bring them back to earth if they aren't careful. ECU itself is amid a tough three-game stretch against South Carolina, Virginia Tech and North Carolina, and its offense, led by the dangerous Shane Carden under center, is certainly capable of testing the home team's D. If that's not enough to have the Hokies ready, these teams' past two meetings should: Narrow Virginia Tech wins in 2013 (15-10) and 2011 (17-10).

Georgia Southern at Georgia Tech, ESPN3, #GASOvsGT: Can the Eagles notch a signature road win over a Power 5 team for the second year in a row? A year after winning at Florida, they came awfully close in Week 1, falling at NC State by one after leading throughout. Now the FBS newcomers travel to face former head coach Paul Johnson and in-state neighbor Georgia Tech. Georgia Southern is coming off an 83-9 win over Savannah State last week, while the Yellow Jackets are still trying to get on-track offensively after a three-turnover performance in a win last week at Tulane.

Pitt at FIU, Fox Sports 1: Stat-watching might be a priority in this lackluster contest. Panthers running back James Conner enters with 50 carries, 367 yards and five touchdowns to his name through two weeks. Can he play himself further into early-season Heisman discussions? His coach, Paul Chryst, has not ruled out the chance that Conner still lines up at defensive end at some point this season. Still, given the workhorse he has been -- and will need to be if Pitt is to contend for the Coastal -- this might be a good chance to limit his workload in the heat and let Chad Voytik grow as a passer. Also worth keeping an eye on is the man snapping Voytik the ball, as center Artie Rowell is lost for the year after an ACL tear last week. Gabe Roberts and Alex Officer could both see action there in place of Rowell.

Syracuse at Central Michigan, ESPNEWS, #CUSEvsCMU: This game sure looks a lot more interesting than it did two weeks ago, no? The Orange have not even played a half this season with Terrel Hunt under center, as the starter was ejected from the opener after throwing a punch at a Villanova player. The offense struggled immensely without Hunt, needing two overtimes to hold off the FCS Wildcats. The Chippewas, meanwhile, ran Purdue out of their own building last week in West Lafayette, Indiana. Syracuse hopes to have gathered itself during its bye last week and unveil the faster-paced offense it had hoped to run this season.

12:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeDominique Brown
Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportsThe Cardinals should provide Virginia with an early-season measuring stick of where the team stands.
No. 21 Louisville at Virginia, ESPN3, #LOUvsUVA: We should have a much better answer after this game as to just how improved Virginia really is this season. The Cardinals present a great early-season league test in Charlottesville, and Bobby Petrino's offense going up against the Cavaliers' stout defense in Louisville's first-ever ACC road game will be fascinating to watch. But can the Hoos avoid offensive miscues? That is what cost them a chance to upset UCLA in Week 1, and there is still some uncertainty at quarterback, where Matt Johns has looked better than Greyson Lambert through two games.

3:30 p.m.

Arkansas State at Miami, ESPNU, #ARSTvsMIA: Now would be a good time to see what Brad Kaaya is capable of doing, what with a game at Nebraska next week and a pair of league games after. The true freshman quarterback hasn't been bad through two games, but he hasn't really been asked to do too much, either. If the Hurricanes want to contend for the Coastal crown this season, they'll need more production out of him, and better to throw him to the (Red) Wolves of Arkansas State now than the Blackshirts of Nebraska next week under the lights.

NC State at USF, CBS Sports Network: USF forced six turnovers last week against Maryland but still could not pull out the win. Jacoby Brissett has played well through two games, but the ground game has been every bit as instrumental so far, averaging 207.5 yards per contest. Still, the Wolfpack need to start faster after falling behind at home to Georgia Southern and Old Dominion before mounting comeback wins. A 3-0 start for coach Dave Doeren after a 3-9 debut season would be absolutely huge, and it would make a bowl berth a real possibility for the Pack.

Kansas at Duke, ESPN3, #KUvsDUKE: The Jayhawks are undefeated. And Charlie Weis was set to be David Cutcliffe's boss nearly a decade ago. And Duke clearly needs to get off to a better start than it did last week at Troy after falling behind by 11 early. Still, the Blue Devils have a very balanced attack that will test Kansas far more than Southeast Missouri State did last week. And quarterback Anthony Boone has looked very, very good through two games. Expect more of the same against Kansas.

7 p.m.

Wake Forest at Utah State, CBS Sports Network: Dave Clawson did some house-cleaning this week, kicking running back Dominique Gibson and center Cody Preble off the team for a violation of team rules, in addition to suspending reserve quarterback Kevin Sousa. Clawson is coming off his first win as the Demon Deacons' head coach, but the Aggies will provide a much stiffer test than Gardner-Webb did last week. True freshman signal-caller John Wolford got much better protection last week (two sacks) than he did in a season-opening loss at Louisiana-Monroe (five), but he has to improve his decision-making after throwing three picks last week.

8 p.m.

No. 9 USC at Boston College, ESPN, #USCvsBC: USC has been among the country's most impressive teams through two weeks. BC hopes it is catching the Trojans at the right time. Steve Sarkisian's squad travels cross-country after an upset win at Stanford to face an Eagles team coming off a home loss to Pitt. Still, it's worth pointing out just how well Steve Addazio got BC to play last year against heavy favorites Clemson and Florida State, with the latter contest proving to be the Seminoles' biggest test before the national title game. Also, kudos to BC for its attire for this contest, as it honors Sept. 11 hero and lacrosse alum Welles Crowther.

Jamison Crowder aims to finish with bang

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
12:00
PM ET
Jamison Crowder is 5-foot-9, and though he has accumulated all types of impressive numbers in his career, it is that stat that seems to define him the most.

He is small. He gets it. Look around the league at bigger receivers, and he expects to fly beneath the radar. In fact, Crowder kind of likes it. He sneaks up on people, no matter how much they should have seen him coming.

"It’s nothing new to me," Crowder said. "All my life, at every level, I’ve always had to prove myself. Then people saw I could really play."

[+] EnlargeJamison Crowder
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeDuke's Jamison Crowder had 1,360 receiving yards last season, second only to Clemson standout Sammy Watkins in the ACC.
Perhaps no player is more emblematic of the team he plays for than Crowder. He has made enormous strides in the past three years, but he wants more. Respect has been hard to earn, and the doubters continue to shrug off his success. He is not the biggest or flashiest receiver in the country, but he works harder and worries more about the details than almost anyone else. He is Duke in a nutshell.

Crowder has a resume worthy of being an All-American, but the name on the front of the jersey means he will always be a bit overlooked.

"It comes down to, we’re Duke," quarterback Anthony Boone said. "We had a great year, but people still tend to not believe what we’re really accomplishing over here. Which is fine. We don’t worry about that too much. But it’s one of those things where he’s a great player and the more publicity and exposure we get as a team, the more people will see how talented Jamison Crowder really is."

The doubters actually make life a little easier for Crowder. The criticism fuels him, the nitpicking forces him to focus on the little things, and the lack of respect -- well, he’s got a way of earning that pretty quickly. Last year, no one in the ACC racked up more plays of 50 yards or more than Crowder’s seven.

"It’s dangerous," said Duke cornerback Bryon Fields. "Jamison is slept on. That’s why you see him getting those 80-yard touchdowns, because guys don’t respect his speed, and before they know it, he’s by them."

If people wanted to understand how good he was, the evidence of Crowder’s prowess is everywhere.

In the past two seasons, only six other wideouts in the country have tallied more receiving yards. Crowder is the only receiver from a Power 5 conference team that has a shot at a third straight 1,000-yard season.

Crowder racked up 1,360 yards receiving last season, second only to Clemson’s Sammy Watkins -- the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft -- in the ACC. If he were to repeat those numbers again in 2014, Crowder would shatter the conference’s career mark for receiving yards, a record currently held by his former teammate Connor Vernon.

Crowder has scored 19 times in the past two seasons. No returning ACC player has scored more. He has topped 1,200 all-purpose yards in two straight seasons, a feat matched only by Miami star Duke Johnson.

Yet, Crowder knows he needs to do more if he wants to be recognized among the best players in the country.

"I want to be a perfectionist," he said. "I think I run pretty good routes, but when I see videos of NFL players and how detailed their routes are, how the timing is, that’s something I really worked on in the summer so that if I do get a chance at the next level, I’ll go in looking like a pro."

After a dominant season in 2013 as a junior, Crowder said the notion of bolting for the NFL never crossed his mind. He didn’t submit paperwork to the NFL advisory committee and he never spoke about a decision with coach David Cutcliffe. It was simply assumed he would be back because he -- and Duke -- had more work to do.

But the NFL is on Crowder’s mind. For all the stats he has accumulated in the past two seasons, there is still that matter of his height that will dog him with scouts at the next level. The only way he can fight back is by continuing to produce.

"My status as far as the league, there’s still a lot unsure because of my size," Crowder said. "You hear a lot of people telling you, 'oh you’re going to make it,' but those same people aren’t the ones making the decisions on whether I’m playing on Sundays. The only thing I can work on is me, and I’m staying hungry and continuing to work."

If Crowder repeats his 2013 campaign this season, there will be little room left for doubt. Perhaps no player in the ACC is as crucial to his team’s success as Crowder, and after two straight seasons of success, it’s going to be tough to sneak up on anyone this time around.

Last season, Duke quarterbacks targeted Crowder 174 times -- 30 more than the next closest receiver in the ACC (Watkins) and second only to Fresno State’s Devante Adams nationally. If Crowder was the centerpiece of the Blue Devils' offense a year ago, his role might actually grow this season.

Quarterback Brandon Connette transferred this spring and tailback Jela Duncan, the team’s leader in carries, is out because of academic concerns, putting a major dent in Duke’s ground game. Tight end Braxton Deaver, last season's No. 2 receiver, will miss the season with a knee injury. Add it all up, and Crowder accounts for 40 percent of the team’s returning yards from scrimmage from a year ago.

Crowder will demand attention in 2014, but Boone isn’t worried.

"He knows how to get open," the quarterback said. "He has that mentality where he doesn’t think anybody can cover him."

So far, nobody has, which comes as no surprise to the people around Crowder. He has had to work harder to gain respect, and that fits perfectly with how he approaches the game.

But the job gets bigger as his Duke career draws to a close, and that, too, fits perfectly with how Crowder likes to prepare. There will always be doubters, always be bigger challenges. That is half the fun.

"I’m always confident in my game and I feel like I’m blessed with my ability to go play on any level," Crowder said. "But there are things I want to get better at, and I want to work on those things so people can see I’m a big-time player and one of the best receivers in the country."

Duke Blue Devils season preview

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
10:30
AM ET
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Duke Blue Devils, the defending Coastal Division champs.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Boone
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Boone playing with a chip on his shoulder could be good for Duke's ACC Coastal Division title hopes.
Key returners: QB Anthony Boone (64 percent completions, 13 touchdowns), RB Josh Snead (670 yards, 2 touchdowns), WR Jamison Crowder (108 catches, 1,360 yards, 8 touchdowns), TE Braxton Deaver (46 catches, 600 yards, 4 touchdowns), LB David Helton (133 tackles), S Jeremy Cash (121 tackles), LB Kelby Brown (114 tackles), CB Breon Borders (4 interceptions)

Key losses: QB Brandon Connette (27 touchdowns), RB Jela Duncan (573 yards, 11 touchdowns), LG Dave Harding, CB Ross Cockrell (3 interceptions, 16 passes defended), DE Kenny Anunike (13.5 tackles for a loss, 6 sacks), DE Justin Foxx (4 sacks)

Most important games: Sept. 27 at Miami, Nov. 1 at Pitt, Nov. 15 versus Virginia Tech, Nov. 20 versus North Carolina

Projected win percentage: .645

Vegas over/under: 8.5 wins

Instant impact newcomers: As freshman backups in 2013, corners DeVon Edwards, Breon Borders and Bryon Fields combined for seven interceptions and broke up 20 passes. All three are projected starters this season. Redshirt freshman Quay Mann could see time in the secondary this season, too. Redshirt sophomore Thomas Sirk has never seen game action but figures to play a big role taking over for departed quarterback Brandon Connette, who was a key figure in the red zone last year.

Biggest question mark: Can the defense take a step forward? The unit made big plays last season and there’s plenty of talent returning. But this was still a defense that ranked 12th overall in the ACC, allowing 418 yards per game, and a unit that coughed up 30 or more points five times -- including a combined 97 points in its final two games against FSU and Texas A&M. With turnover on the defensive line and youth in the secondary, Duke needs to prove it's ready to take the next step on that side of the ball.

Number to know: 174. That’s the number of times Crowder was targeted in 2013, by far the most among any ACC receiver (the next closest was Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, who was targeted 134 times). Crowder’s targets accounted for a whopping 37 percent of all of Duke’s passing attempts. He is one of only three receivers nationally (and the lone representative from a Power Five conference) to have a chance at a third straight 1,000-yard receiving season in 2014.

They said it: "The biggest danger is in changing who we've been. We are a good program because we have great habits. What we want to become is a great program with great habits. We're still a work in progress." -- Duke coach David Cutcliffe
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- We can all agree just about every team in the cluttered Coastal Division has a chance to win it.

Yet, it was still a surprise to see Miami selected as the media’s preseason choice to play in its first ACC championship game. Sure, the Canes have a shot just like the other five teams that earned first-place votes, but it is hard to see how they have the best shot to make it to Charlotte.

Duke is my choice to finish first. Here is why I believe the Blue Devils have more of an edge than Miami headed into the season.

1. Quarterback. Duke is one of three teams in the league to return its starting quarterback. Senior Anthony Boone showed tremendous growth through 2013, and has used his fourth-quarter performance in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl as an opportunity to grow and learn, too. Coach David Cutcliffe says Boone has taken on much more leadership, responsibility and accountability. He should, especially with Brandon Connette out of the mix.

SportsNation

Will Miami win the Coastal Division?

  •  
    30%
  •  
    70%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,622)

Miami, meanwhile, has no answers at quarterback -- not until Ryan Williams returns from a torn ACL. Kevin Olsen or Jake Heaps will have to pilot the Canes until then and there are major question marks around both. You don't need to read much into these comments from Johnson to wonder: Has Olsen matured? Can Heaps live up to the hype that trailed him out of high school? And even when Williams does return, he is no sure thing. He’s only taken a handful of snaps in mop-up duty at Miami and just two against Top 25 competition (garbage time in a blowout to Kansas State). Duke Johnson is one of the best players in the country, but Miami needs an effective quarterback to help him out. We don’t know yet whether he does.

2. Schedule. Miami plays one of the toughest schedules in the ACC. The Hurricanes get both Florida State and Louisville out of the Atlantic, and then have to play at Virginia Tech on a Thursday night. No other bona fide Coastal contender has to face that trifecta. Miami will definitively be without Williams for the opener at Louisville, a team that destroyed the Canes in the Russell Athletic Bowl in December. Louisville has a radically different look, but the Cards already are favored to win. Duke, meanwhile, avoids Florida State, Clemson Tigers and Louisville, playing Syracuse Orange and Wake Forest from the Atlantic. In addition, the Blue Devils get Virginia Tech and North Carolina at home. It seems pretty clear Duke has the schedule advantage.

3. Defense. The truth is, neither defense was stellar last season. Miami and Duke ranked toward the bottom in the ACC in just about every major defensive category. But no coordinator is under fire more than Mark D'Onofrio at Miami. There is a level of play people have come to expect from the Miami defense, and nobody has seen it in years. Al Golden has talked up his group headed into this season, but acknowledges the defensive line needs to transform itself into a dominating group. For Miami to make the jump to a championship, it needs a vastly improved group. I’m just not sure the Canes will field a dominating defense this year.

Certainly, Miami has the talent to make it to the title game. The Canes had early momentum last year before they fell back, mostly because Johnson was hurt. A healthy Johnson gives Miami an opportunity to win all its games. But remember, even when Johnson was healthy last season Miami was living on the edge, needing fourth-quarter comebacks against Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, North Carolina and Wake Forest.

The bottom line is this: There are far too many questions to overlook to believe in Miami as the preseason Coastal favorites.

Agree? Disagree? Vote in our poll and drop me a line in the mailbag with your thoughts. Best comments go up Friday.
In three years at Duke, Jamison Crowder has blossomed into one of the ACC’s best receivers, while helping the Blue Devils’ offense become one of the most feared in the conference. As Crowder prepares for what could be his third straight 1,000-yard season, we caught up with the Duke senior for his thoughts on what awaits in 2014.

You came to Duke when the program was a perennial loser, and you’ve seen it grow exponentially since your arrival. Did you envision this type of success from the beginning?

Jamison Crowder: As any recruit going to a new place, you have second thoughts about certain things. But I had confidence in what Coach [David] Cutcliffe pitched at me. We had guys coming in and some young guys already here that had good talent. Coach Cut said in the next few years, we’d be a program on the rise, and that was the mindset I had coming in. Now, that’s what’s happening. My career has escalated as well as the program, and right now, I couldn’t have made a better choice.

[+] EnlargeJamison Crowder
Ellen Ozier/USA TODAY SportsReceiver Jamison Crowder is looking to help Duke win a second straight ACC Coastal Division title.
How do you think people’s perceptions of Duke have changed since you’ve been here? And what did losing those last two games against Florida State and Texas A&M last season mean for where the program is?

JC: People saw we were for real, but for a lot of people, we still have a lot to prove. And for ourselves. We had a team meeting yesterday, and one of the things we talked about, obviously our program is headed in the right direction, but at the end of the year, both years, we didn’t win bowl games. We made it to the ACC championship and that was a good marker, but we failed to win. I think everybody on the team has that determination to continue the success, but now, win the championship games and bowl games. From the outside, I think we still have a lot to prove. A lot of people still think last year was a fluke, but I think we’re going to be pretty good again this year.

You’re back, Anthony Boone is back, Braxton Deaver, Josh Snead, several key linemen — can this year’s offense be even better than last season?

JC: We’ve got a lot of experience coming back. We’ve lost a few linemen and one of our running backs, but we have a lot of playmakers coming back. We have a pretty good running back in Shaquille Powell that is going to come on the scene a lot this year. Coach Mo [Scottie Montgomery] is a guy that’s fired up and puts players in the right position to make plays. Expectations are high. Last year, we left a lot of plays on the field. That’s in the back of our minds. We don’t want to leave any plays behind.

Is it fair to compare expectations for QB Thomas Sirk to what Brandon Connette did last year? Can he handle that role?

JC: Sirk is — Brandon had a little more of a built frame, but Sirk is taller and I think he’ll come in a lot on the goal line to run the wildcat. Sirk is very athletic and he can come in and fill that role. One thing he has to work on is in the open field, but I think he can overall come in and do what Brandon did, if not better, on the goal line and in short-yardage situations.

You had a very young secondary last year, including a lot of playing time for freshmen. Have you seen that group improve over the spring and summer?

JC: Most definitely. Those guys have a good work ethic. I lift with Bryon Fields and Quay Mann. Those guys have been working. Last year, they were thrown in the fire. They handled it well. They gave up some big plays, but they made some big plays. For a freshman to come in, that’s a difficult task, and they did real well last year. And this year, you can see they’re more comfortable and bigger and stronger and faster.

What do you need to accomplish this year to convince people at the next level that you’re a legit prospect?

JC: I just have to have another good season. My status, as far as the league, is still unsure because of my size or because I’m not the fastest. So I just want to have another good season, not get complacent. You hear a lot of people telling you you’re going to make it, but those same people are the ones making the decision whether I’m playing on Sundays. Only thing I can work on is me, and I’m staying hungry and continuing to work. I want to go out and make plays, score touchdowns and definitely have a better year as a returner this year. Last year I had two returns [for touchdowns], but I feel like I left two or three on the field.

You mentioned special teams, and the ACC has some very talented return men, including your own teammate, DeVon Edwards. Do you compare your game to any of those guys? Is there anyone who you particularly like to watch play?

JC: Most definitely, DeVon. It’s fun to have teammates that make the game easier. I’ve realized that scoring on special teams takes a load off the offense. That one play is a whole possession. DeVon and me, we joke that I’m going to have more. Last year, we both had two. So this year I said I’m going to have more returns, and he says, ‘You’re crazy.’ But you’ve got to go out there and perform. Aside from my teammate, I like [North Carolina's] Ryan Switzer. I’ve watched a few highlights on YouTube, and I like his game.

What would a third straight 1,000-yard season mean for you?

JC: It’s great to get 1,000 yards in two years. But I want to be able to play at the next level, and the numbers hold some weight, but if you’re not performing at the highest level it doesn’t mean anything. The numbers are great, it shows I’m working, but I can do better and I know I’m going to have to do better to have a chance to play at the next level. And as long as we’re winning ballgames, that’s the main thing.

Is this the most talented Duke team since you’ve been here?

JC: Most definitely. We lost a few guys, but we have a lot of talent — raw talent. We’re getting better. We’re adding talent on talent. We’ve got a lot of confidence and talent that Duke hasn’t had in recent years. Now we’ve just got to get ready to play.
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.
David Cutcliffe earned plenty of praise for the job he did revitalizing Duke in 2012, but even the most optimistic Blue Devils fans had to be surprised by the leap their team took in 2013 — winning 10 games and playing for a conference title. So, how did they do it?

Obviously Cutcliffe’s efforts installing an offseason program, improving recruiting and installing his system have worked wonders in Durham, but dig into the numbers and there were a few key areas that proved crucial to Duke’s run in 2013 and could make the difference once again as the Blue Devils try to defend their Coastal Division title this fall.

Strong offensive line play

[+] Enlarge Laken Tomlinson
Jeremy McKnight/Icon SMIDespite some personnel losses, Duke's offensive line, led by the experience of Laken Tomlinson, can be successful again in 2014.
Last season: It’s no secret that strong play in the trenches can cover a lot of other blemishes, and Duke’s offensive line was exceptional in 2013. The Blue Devils mustered 29 dropbacks per sack, the 10th-best mark in the country and by far the best in the ACC (Miami was next at 23.5). Duke also averaged 4.6 yards per carry (up nearly a yard from 2012) and had 28 rushing TDs (10 more than the previous season).

2014 outlook: Last season’s success shouldn’t have been a shocker. Duke returned the third-most experienced line in the country for 2013 (113 career starts), which translated to a unit that gelled quickly. Now, Duke must replace its two most veteran starters in Dave Harding and Perry Simmons, but the Blue Devils still have plenty of experience on the line. Still, Duke’s line isn’t exactly green. Laken Tomlinson (39 career starts), Matt Skura and Takoby Cofield are all seniors, while Lucas Patrick and Sam Marshall are juniors with ample game experience. With another year in Cutcliffe’s strength and conditioning program, the 2014 line could be every bit as good as 2013's.

A workhorse on offense

Last season: No receiver in the country was more relied upon more than Duke’s Jamison Crowder. Blue Devils QBs threw the ball 472 times in 2013, with Crowder the target on a whopping 174 of them (37 percent). Crowder hauled in 62 percent of the balls thrown his way and was exceptional on both short passes and as a deep threat. Most importantly, however, he was consistently good. The only game in which Crowder finished with fewer than five catches was the win over Virginia Tech.

2014 outlook: The case can be made that Crowder won’t be a secret in his senior campaign, but ACC defenses had to have known what was in store last fall, too. In the past two seasons, with three different starting QBs throwing to him, Crowder has racked up 184 catches, 2,434 yards and 16 touchdowns. He’ll be among the best in the country -- and an ideal security blanket on offense -- once again in 2014.

Dynamic QB play

Last season: Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette combined for nearly 4,000 yards of offense (551 rushing, 3,472 passing) with 45 total touchdowns. As a point of comparison, Heisman winner Jameis Winston had 4,276 yards of offense and 44 total touchdowns. And thanks to the threat Connette posed with his legs, Duke was among the most successful teams in the country in the red zone, scoring TDs on 40 of 58 trips and 27 percent of its red-zone rushing attempts.

2014 outlook: Boone has another year of experience under his belt and is the ACC’s second-most veteran QB, but Connette’s transfer to Fresno State is a big blow. Only Navy’s Keenan Reynolds and Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch had more rushing TDs among quarterbacks last year than Connette, and they did so with nearly three times as many attempts. No player in the country with at least 30 red-zone rushing attempts scored at a higher rate than Connette in 2013 (42 percent), and while the Blue Devils are high on Thomas Sirk as Boone’s new backup, those are some enormous shoes to fill.

A playmaking defense

Last season: The easy knock on Duke last season was its defense. After all, twice Duke topped 48 points and still lost (Pitt, Texas A&M). Overall, the Blue Devils’ D ranked 82nd nationally, and it allowed nearly 8 yards per play in four losses. But the great equalizer were the big plays. Duke’s D recorded 26 takeaways (tied for 26th nationally) and 18 interceptions (tied for 13th nationally). The capacity for big plays helped offset too many bad ones defensively.

2014 outlook: The Blue Devils could be in for some rough patches on D again this fall. The secondary features four sophomores likely to see extensive playing time, while the defensive front gets a significant makeover from last season. Still, 14 of the 18 INTs from last season return, and DeVon Edwards, Breon Borders and Bryon Fields have the talent to blossom quickly.

Scoring on D, special teams

Last season: Thanks to Edwards and Crowder, Duke scored six non-offensive touchdowns last season, tied for the eighth-most nationally. The 16 teams that had at least six non-offensive touchdowns were a combined 130-66 (.653) in 2013, with eight of them winning at least 10 games (including both teams that played for the national title).

2014 outlook: Big plays on D and special teams can be maddeningly inconsistent. When they happen, they can be game-changers, but they’re notoriously tough to predict. Still, Duke returns athleticism in the return game and in the secondary, which should open up options, and if the Blue Devils’ offense can force opponents into shootouts, the D will have its chances to take a few more INTs to the house.


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.

Best and worst of ACC bowl season

January, 10, 2014
Jan 10
10:00
AM ET
The ACC had a record 11 teams make bowl games. Did you have a hard time keeping them all straight? We got you covered, with a look back at the best and worst of bowl season in the ACC.

[+] EnlargeLevonte Whitfield
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsKermit Whitfield's 100-yard kickoff return was one of two big special teams plays for Florida State in the national title game.
Best game: Florida State 34, Auburn 31. The biggest, most important game of the season delivered the best game of the season as the Seminoles won their third national championship with a frantic second-half rally. The final 4:31 provided one highlight after another: Levonte "Kermit" Whitfield's 100-yard kickoff return gave Florida State its first lead; Auburn answered back with Tre Mason's 37-yard run; and then the capper, Heisman winner Jameis Winston delivering the game-winning score to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds remaining. Let the debate rage about whether this game tops USC-Texas as the best BCS national championship game.

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.

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesSammy Watkins shredded Ohio State for an Orange Bowl record 227 receiving yards.
Best comeback performance: Terrel Hunt. Syracuse did not have a great year from its quarterbacks, but give Hunt an A-plus for keeping his head up and finally catching on late in the season. His last-second touchdown pass to Josh Parris to beat Boston College in the regular-season finale got the Orange into the Texas Bowl. He pulled out more heroics against Minnesota in said bowl game. Hunt ran for a 12-yard touchdown with 1:14 remaining to give Syracuse the 21-17 win and finished with 262 yards of total offense, winning MVP honors (along with a 10-gallon hat!).

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.

2 QBs are better than 1 for Duke

December, 6, 2013
12/06/13
9:00
AM ET
There were some schools in the ACC -- such as Virginia and NC State -- that had trouble finding one quarterback this season.

And then there’s Duke -- which legitimately has two.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Boone
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesAnthony Boone has been at his best when it mattered the most.
A two-quarterback system is often scoffed at, rarely works, and is in place only because there’s no star on the roster to single-handedly orchestrate the offense. That’s not the case at Duke, where starter Anthony Boone and his backup, Brandon Connette, are responsible for 40 of Duke’s 47 offensive touchdowns this season.

Somehow, they’ve managed to put team ahead of self and avoid anything resembling a quarterback controversy. Instead, their shared role has become the center of Duke’s offensive identity.

While Florida State quarterback and ACC Player of the Year Jameis Winston has stolen the position’s spotlight this fall, Boone and Connette have worked together to get Duke to the exact same place as the Noles -- Saturday’s ACC championship game.

"The reason why it works is mainly because of the character we have in the quarterback room, the unselfishness is unbelievable," Connette said. "At a lot of schools where you have two quarterbacks who are capable of playing at such a high level, sometimes there can be some animosity in the room, somebody thinks he should be starting over the other one. The great thing about our room is nobody really cares who's starting, who's getting more playing time, things like that. All we really care about is getting the win."

Together they've gotten 10 wins this season -- the most in school history.

Boone and Connette have helped Duke's offense make a seamless transition into the first season without 2012 veteran Sean Renfree. Boone is 10-0 in his career as Duke's starting quarterback, including 9-0 in 2013. Connette has scored three game-winning, fourth-quarter touchdowns this season. Connette has been more of a short-yardage, third-down, goal-line situation quarterback, but the coaching staff clearly isn't afraid of letting him run the offense for a few series. He has earned the nickname "The Phantom" on the team for his ability to play just about any position. Connette said he doesn’t care how he's used -- as long as he sees the field.

"I can do everything," he said. "Obviously I like to be on the field, that’s why I came to Duke. I came to Duke to play. I like being a part of success, so whatever role I have to play for us to be successful is a lot of fun for me. … Last week I got my first catch. To be able to do things like that every single week is just rewarding and a lot of fun for me."

Not to mention the rest of the offense.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Connette
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesBrandon Connette is versatile and willing to accept any role.
With Boone and Connette sharing time, Duke's offense ranks fifth in the ACC in scoring at 33.7 points, is tied for fourth with 24 rushing touchdowns, and fifth with 23 passing touchdowns. Both quarterbacks have thrown for more than 1,000 yards.

"Well, I think they've created roles for each other, and they understand what each guy is going to do," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "… I think now both of them are throwing it and running it pretty equally. So I mean, they're very tough guys to defend, and it gives them two different guys, and each guy is fresh."

Boone started Duke's first two games but suffered a broken collarbone in Week 2 against Memphis, opening the door for Connette to throw nine passing touchdowns in his three-game stint as the starter. Boone returned against Navy and has directed Duke to six consecutive wins. Boone has been at his best when it has mattered the most. Against Wake Forest and North Carolina, he completed 75 percent of his passes for 530 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.

"That's just a testament to the players around me, the offensive line doing a great job of pass protecting and running the ball and being able to have our two-headed monster with me and Brandon," Boone said. "Just the guys around me really helped me with the success that we're having and that I'm having."

It's not often that two quarterbacks are better than one, but for Duke, this season has been twice as nice.
1. On the ESPNU College Football podcast on Tuesday, I asked Tom Luginbill, our Senior National Recruiting Analyst, to name the head coaches who are the best in the living room, the guys who do the best job of convincing mama to give them her baby. Luginbill went with Dabo Swinney of Clemson, Les Miles of LSU and, in somewhat of a surprise, Jim Mora of UCLA. I say surprise because Swinney and Miles have many years in college football. Mora, an NFL longtimer, has not quite two years.

2. Duke coach David Cutcliffe knows something about teaching quarterbacks. And the essence of teaching is to break down the information into easily understood portions. In discussing his current quarterbacks, Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette, at his press conference this week, Cutcliffe said, “Every play we run at quarterback, the most important thing about the play is that we have possession of the ball when the play ends. Period. You can’t give that lip service.” Everyone understands that.

3. As Saturday night games go, seeing undefeated No. 15 Northern Illinois and its outstanding quarterback, Jordan Lynch, play once-beaten Ball State would be a treat. As a Wednesday night game, it doesn’t get any better. The winner will be the first 10-game winner in the FBS. A victory also will boost the Huskies in their attempt to overtake No. 14 Fresno State in the race for a BCS bid. The Cardinals have gotten to 9-1 by outscoring people. It’s hard to imagine they can do that on the road against an offense led by Lynch.

What we learned in the ACC: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
11/10/13
10:00
AM ET
What did we learn in the ACC in Week 11? Glad you asked.

1. Florida State controls its national championship destiny. The nation watched No. 3 Oregon lose to No. 5 Stanford on Thursday, then saw No. 2 Florida State completely dominate Wake Forest 59-3 Saturday to clinch a spot in the ACC title game. There is little doubt the Seminoles will remain at No. 2 when the BCS standings are released later Sunday. Nor is there any real doubt Florida State is one of the best teams in the country, not after a third win this season by 50 or more points. Florida State has won all nine of its games by double figures and got big-time contributions from its defense and special teams against the Deacs. The Noles ended up with six interceptions -- nearly the same number of Wake Forest pass completions (seven). There are other unbeaten teams lurking, namely Ohio State and Baylor, but Florida State is in control of its championship destiny.

[+] EnlargeVirginia Tech
Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/Getty ImagesVirginia Tech left Miami lying helpless and reinserted itself into the Coastal Division race.
2. The Coastal, however ... up for grabs! If you thought this weekend would provide a much clearer picture in the Coastal, then you do not truly know ACC football. Four teams have two conference losses each -- Miami, Virginia Tech, Duke and Georgia Tech. So start getting yourselves reacquainted with the tiebreaker scenarios that seem to come into play just about every season. The Hokies put themselves back into the thick of the race with a 42-24 win over Miami on a rainy Saturday night, thanks to a mistake-free performance from Logan Thomas and some pretty shoddy special teams play from the Canes. Duke sat on the brink of disaster against NC State, trailing 20-17 with 6:37 to go. The Blue Devils benched starter Anthony Boone after an uneven performance. Brandon Connette delivered the game-winning drive, then DeVon Edwards sealed the win with back-to-back pick-6s. Georgia Tech was off and needs a win over Clemson on Thursday night to keep its hopes alive. The lucky winner to emerge from this muddled mess gets to play Florida State in the ACC championship game.

3. Miami falling back to earth. We all saw the warning signs that Miami was not as good as its ranking when it struggled to beat North Carolina and Wake Forest in back-to-back weeks. Now the Canes are back to reality after consecutive losses to Florida State and Virginia Tech. Miami was able to get away with turnovers early in the season, but the Hokies made them pay for their mistakes. Two early fumbles on special teams led directly to 14 Virginia Tech points, and Miami could never seem to recover. Perhaps most disheartening for Miami -- the loss was the worst defensive performance of the season, against an offense that ranks among the worst in the nation. The Hokies scored more points and gained more yards on the Canes than the Noles did last week. Miami has given up 400 yards or more in four of its last five games. And the run game without Duke Johnson? Miami ended up with 28 yards rushing, its lowest total since gaining 29 against Florida State last year.

4. Breakthrough win for Pitt. It was easy to doubt the Panthers heading into their game against Notre Dame. They entered the contest off back-to-back losses, and their run game was nearly nonexistent. But something about the Irish brings out the best in Pitt, which came oh-so-close to pulling the upset in each of the previous two seasons. Well, the Panthers finally broke through Saturday night, forcing three turnovers and getting inspired play from their offensive line and Tom Savage in a 28-21 win. It certainly helped Pitt's cause that Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt was ejected on a questionable targeting call early in the game, further depleting an injury-riddled group. But Pitt earned this win. The Panthers moved one victory away from bowl eligibility and gave coach Paul Chryst victories over ranked teams in consecutive seasons.

5. Bowl mania. Six teams are already bowl eligible, but the ACC could have as many as 11 by the time the season ends. Four teams have five wins: Maryland, Syracuse, Pitt and Boston College. North Carolina has four wins but has won three straight after a 1-5 start and is now in contention to get to six. How did the ACC get here? Syracuse once again used its power run game in a 20-3 win over Maryland, winning its second straight contest. Boston College also used its power run game to win a tricky contest over New Mexico State. We know what Pitt did Saturday. Interestingly enough, Maryland might have the worst chance of becoming bowl eligible out of this group. While North Carolina is on an upswing, the Terps have lost three straight following a 5-1 start with games remaining against Virginia Tech, Boston College and NC State. There are winnable games in that bunch, but not if Maryland commits four turnovers the way it did against Syracuse. Key injuries on both offense and defense have severely hampered this squad.

SPONSORED HEADLINES