NCF Nation: Vic Beasley

The preseason All-ACC team was released Wednesday, and naturally quarterback Jameis Winston led the way with the most votes. There were not too many surprises, beginning with Florida State players littered throughout the list of 26 names.

Here is the 2014 preseason All-ACC team, as voted on by the media at the ACC Kickoff:

 
 
 

Thoughts: While the ACC had the second-most NFL draft picks in May, there is significant talent returning to the conference for the 2014 season. Of the 26 players, 21 were named to one of the three All-ACC teams at the end of last season. That doesn’t include Parker, who will play his first season in the ACC this coming season. Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and the leading vote getter (although not a unanimous one), and Beasley, who received the second-most votes, are two of the three returning consensus All-Americans from the 2013 season.

Few conferences would be able to rival that offense with Winston throwing to 1,000-yard receivers Crowder and Greene and a 6-foot-3 target in Parker. O’Leary is one of the best tight ends in the country. There was a seemingly close battle at running back behind Duke Johnson, Williams got the nod over Virginia running back Kevin Parks, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season.

Defensively, that is one talented line. Beasley received the second-most votes for the preseason player of the year, and Edwards was the No. 1 high school recruit in the 2012 class. Maddy and Jarrett are two of the best defensive tackles in the country.

Duke has the second-most players on the team, which speaks to the program David Cutcliffe is building in Durham. The Blue Devils were not picked to win the ACC Coastal despite winning it last season and returning quarterback Anthony Boone. There is a constituency out there that still doesn’t believe Duke is the real deal and is bound for a letdown, but the media believes there is talent throughout the roster; the Blue Devils have a player at receiver, offensive line, linebacker and the secondary. Miami, which was picked to win the division, has two players on the list.

Even as Duke had four players, the Seminoles still had nine, only further signifying the gap between Florida State and the rest of the conference, although the league is undoubtedly improving. That list does not include Ronald Darby or Jalen Ramsey, two players who will almost certainly be on an All-ACC team by the end of the season. It is no surprise Florida State was ranked as having the most talent on its 2014 roster two weeks ago in ESPN.com's future power rankings.
videoGREENSBORO, N.C. -- The 2014 ACC Kickoff is in the books, and while the preseason hype rarely translates well to the games on the field, there were still a few notable take-aways from the festivities at the Grandover Resort. Here are five things we learned from this year's media days.

1. The College Football Playoff is on everyone's mind.

Florida State Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher led the charge for the ACC in Greensboro, touting the accomplishments of the conference last year, including the Heisman winner, a national title and an Orange Bowl winner, a slew of NFL draft picks and 11 bowl invitations. Fisher and others continued to refer to the ACC as "the No. 1 football conference" in the country.

That, of course, may not sit so well with the SEC, but it was actually a Big 12 coach that landed the first blows after Fisher referred to the conference's lack of a championship game as "ridiculous."

Baylor's Art Briles fired back, saying "Jimbo Fisher needs to worry about the ACC" rather than tell the Big 12 how to conduct business.

Of course, it was clear that the ACC was exactly what Fisher and others were worried about as the politicking to ensure the conference has at least one representative in the first College Football Playoff is already underway. There are five power conferences and just four playoff spots, so someone's going to be left out, and Fisher has no interest in watching the games from home.

2. Jameis Winston isn't shying from the spotlight.

Jameis Winston was the star of the ACC Kickoff, arriving to a horde of media members eagerly awaiting something controversial. Instead, Winston (mostly) said all the right things, talking up his team and the league, offering jokes when possible and, most notably, admitting he had plenty of maturing to do in light of the off-field incidents that have dogged his career thus far.

Winston said he understood the spotlight he would be living in this year, adding that he had to "live up to the hype," and if he didn't, "it would be chaos."

Of course, Winston has made a habit out of sounding good -- and confident -- in front of the cameras, but the spotlight will stick with him well beyond his time in Greensboro.

Oh, and speaking of Winston's future: He notably declined to comment on his father's promises that the Heisman winner would be playing two more seasons at FSU. Instead, Winston said he "couldn't predict the future." In other words, don't cross him off your 2015 mock drafts just yet.

3. No one knows what will happen in the Coastal Division.

It's not that the media has a particularly successful track record of picking winners at ACC Kickoff, but this year's preseason poll was particularly telling about the depth of quality -- or, perhaps, litany of weaknesses -- in the Coastal Division.

The Miami Hurricanes came away as the overall favorite among the voting media, but the team finished with the third-most first-place votes in the division. Duke, last year's winner, had the most first-place votes and was second overall. North Carolina ranked fourth, but had the second-most first-place votes. In all, six of the seven teams in the conference had at least one first-place vote. Only Virginia missed out, which given the utter ridiculousness of it all, probably means the Hoos will be playing the Atlantic winner in Charlotte this December.

4. Miami has quarterback concerns.

There's still optimism Ryan Williams will be back at some point, but there's no certainties on when that might happen -- if it happens at all. That leaves the Hurricanes with a vacancy at the most important position on the field, and it also likely means a void in leadership, too.

"Ryan Williams is still the leader," tailback Duke Johnson said, "Kevin Olsen is just a quarterback."

Coach Al Golden mirrored those comments, saying Olsen -- the freshman -- still had to mature as a player and earn the respect of his teammates. Transfer Jake Heaps is now in the mix, too, but he's going to be learning on the fly.

In the end, the quarterback concerns weren't enough to keep the media from tabbing Miami as the Coastal favorite, and Johnson can at least agree with that.

"They might not have the strongest arm or be the fastest or the most accurate," Johnson said, "but when you have the receivers we do and the offensive line we do, it becomes pretty simple."

5. No one's handing the Atlantic to FSU.

Syracuse Orange coach Scott Shafer said he first understood how good Florida State was during pregame warm-ups last year. He pointed out a few players who were far bigger than anyone on his team, only to learn the FSU behemoths were redshirting.

But even with the knowledge that his Orange are facing an uphill battle, Shafer wasn't admitting defeat before the games are played in 2014.

"The great thing about football is that the ball is oblong and does funny things and on any given Saturday you have an opportunity to steal a game," Shafer said.

Syracuse would need a big upset, but Clemson and Louisville think they've got good chances to win the Atlantic. Tigers defensive end Vic Beasley was particularly vocal about this year's matchup against the Seminoles with Clemson's formidable defensive front leading the way. Dabo Swinney has never backed off his comments that his team wasn't far behind FSU last year, and he's encouraged that a new-look offense, led by quarterback Cole Stoudt, can upset the Seminoles in 2014.

Of course, we're still a long way from that finish line, so for now, it's all just talk.
video Jameis Winston stole the show at Florida State’s media day a year ago as the charismatic freshman quarterback and instant media darling. He is the show Sunday in Greensboro, North Carolina, where the ACC media days begin with Winston talking to reporters first.

It will be the first time Winston will meet with the media since the end of spring practice April 12, but there’s been no shortage of headlines featuring Winston’s name, as he was cited for shoplifting seafood and did not testify at the school disciplinary hearings for teammates Chris Casher and Ronald Darby.

It surprised some to see Florida State was bringing Winston to media days considering the intense scrutiny he’s faced over the last nine months. There won't be the same ability for Florida State to control the questions thrown Winston’s way at media days in front of a national group of reporters, many of whom have written columns in the last year criticizing Winston and Florida State’s handling of his off-field incidents.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesAll eyes will be on Jameis Winston as ACC media days kick off on Sunday.
How will Winston respond when peppered with questions about crab legs or his rumored no-show at the hearings for Casher and Darby? (Winston’s lawyer, Tim Jansen, told ESPN.com in May that Winston was not required to attend.) Auburn came under fire last week for leaving quarterback Nick Marshall at home following a marijuana citation, electing to allow Marshall to avoid the prodding questions from SEC media. Critics wanted to see maturity out of Marshall in front of reporters, and they will be looking for the same from Winston.

Every sentence and every gesture Winston makes will be analyzed Sunday. And unlike this time last year, Winston has earned the spotlight with his dazzling play on the field and puzzling decisions off it.

While Winston is the story of media days this week, here a few other players certain to draw significant attention:

RB Duke Johnson, Miami: The Hurricanes’ workhorse last season suffered a season-ending ankle injury against Florida State. With a questionable quarterback situation, Miami’s offense might only go as far as Johnson takes it.

WR Tyler Boyd, Pittsburgh: If not for Winston, Boyd might have been the ACC’s top rookie in 2013. An explosive playmaker, Boyd will be relied upon heavily this season with Devin Street off to the NFL. Boyd is one of the better quotes, too.

DE Vic Beasley, Clemson: The Tigers are looking to dethrone the Seminoles in the Atlantic Division, and their chances might rest on the Clemson defense, which could be among the nation’s best.

WR DeVante Parker, Louisville: Parker is poised for huge numbers in Bobby Petrino’s offense. If Petrino can upset the balance of power in the ACC at all this season, Parker will be a major reason.

Player list for ACC media days

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
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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.
Setting up spring in the ACC Atlantic.

Boston College

Spring start: March 12

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Big shoes to fill: Steve Addazio helped BC make huge strides in 2013, but the task of keeping the momentum going gets much harder without star running back and Heisman finalist Andre Williams, who rushed for an NCAA-best 2,177 yards and 18 touchdowns. Tyler Rouse and Myles Willis will attempt to fill the vacancy this spring, and both have potential. Willis averaged nearly 6 yards per carry as Williams’ primary backup last year. The real intrigue might wait until fall, however, when four freshmen running backs arrive on campus.
  • Murphy makes the move: It’s an open competition at quarterback after Chase Rettig’s departure, but there’s no question the most intriguing player in the race is Florida transfer Tyler Murphy. The fifth-year senior worked with Addazio at Florida, and he’ll open the spring competing with redshirt freshman James Walsh and early enrollee Darius Wade. That’s a deep enough bench that BC didn’t worry about moving Josh Bordner, last year’s backup, to tight end. With both of last year’s starting tackles gone, too, Murphy’s experience could be even more important in determining the outcome of the QB battle.
  • Restocking the LBs: Even at its low points in recent years, Boston College managed to churn out plenty of talented linebackers, but the position gets a massive overhaul this year. First-team All-ACC star Kevin Pierre-Louis (108 tackles in 2013) is gone, as is Steele Divitto (112 tackles). That leaves junior Steven Daniels (88 tackles, 5 sacks) as the lone returning starter. Josh Keyes adds some experience, but it’ll be a group in transition this spring.
Clemson

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Replacing Boyd: The talk of Clemson’s spring camp will no doubt surround the quarterbacks, as senior Cole Stoudt, sophomore Chad Kelly and early enrollee Deshaun Watson vie for the job. Stoudt’s experience makes him the early favorite, but it’s Watson, a dual-threat QB with immense talent, who could steal the show. Coach Dabo Swinney has already lauded Watson as perhaps the most talented quarterback Clemson has signed, so all eyes will be on the freshman to see if he can back up all that hype with a strong spring.
  • Skill-position shuffling: If the QB battle is the headliner, there are plenty of significant sideshows on offense this spring. Clemson waved goodbye to receivers Sammy Watkins (1,464 yards, 12 TDs) and Martavis Bryant (828 yards, 7 TDs) and tailback Roderick McDowell (1,025 yards, 5 TDs). That means a massive overhaul on offense, where there’s no clear-cut bell cow at running back (Zac Brooks and D.J. Howard return as potential options) and the receiving corps will be looking for some new top targets.
  • Dominance up front: On offense for Clemson, there’s plenty of concern for what the Tigers lost. On defense, however, the excitement is all about what they’re bringing back. Clemson’s defensive line, in particular, could be one of the nation’s best. When All-American Vic Beasley announced his return for his senior season, the Tigers knew they could have something special. Add sophomore lineman Shaq Lawson and senior Stephone Anthony at linebacker and Clemson has all the makings of a dominant pass rush.
Florida State

Spring start: March 19

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • The running backs: After leading FSU in rushing three straight years, Devonta Freeman is gone. So, too, is James Wilder Jr. But the Seminoles enter spring with a quartet of intriguing options to replace their departed stars, led by Karlos Williams (730 yards, 11 TDs in 2013) and Dalvin Cook (No. 21 on the 2013 ESPN300). Mario Pender, who missed last year with academic issues, also figures to be in the mix.
  • The defensive front: There are a wealth of question marks here, both in terms of personnel and scheme. With Timmy Jernigan, Telvin Smith and Christian Jones gone, there are plenty of jobs up for grabs. The development of Mario Edwards Jr., Eddie Goldman and Terrance Smith will be key, but with Charles Kelly taking over the defense, it’s also still a bit unclear how much the scheme will deviate from what Jeremy Pruitt ran with so much success in 2013.
  • Jameis Winston’s swing: A year ago, the big question was who would win the QB battle. Now, Winston’s got a Heisman Trophy and will be a favorite to win it again in 2014. So the intrigue surrounding the FSU star QB is more on the baseball field, where once again, he’ll be splitting time this spring. Perhaps the bigger question is how the rest of the QB depth chart shakes out, with Sean Maguire the elder statesman and John Franklin III looking to make his move.
Louisville

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:
  • Bobby’s back: After a seven-year hiatus that included an abrupt departure from the Atlanta Falcons and a damaging scandal at Arkansas, Bobby Petrino is back in charge at Louisville insisting he’s a changed man. Fans will be watching closely to see if he has changed his stripes away from the field, but also whether he can rekindle the same offensive fireworks he delivered in his first stint with the Cardinals.
  • Replacing Bridgewater: It’s an open QB battle, and for Petrino, it’s among the first chances he’ll have to see the players vying to replace departed star Teddy Bridgewater in action. Sophomore Will Gardner is perhaps the favorite, but he has just 12 career pass attempts. Redshirt freshman Kyle Bolin is close behind, while Reggie Bonnafon is set to arrive in the fall.
  • New look on D: Louisville finished the 2013 season ranked second nationally in scoring defense, trailing only national champion Florida State. But this spring, things will look a bit different for the Cardinals, as Todd Grantham takes over as the new defensive coordinator after being lured from Georgia. Grantham figures to bring a 3-4 scheme to Louisville, which will certainly shake things up a bit. Defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin missing the spring with a shoulder injury only clouds the situation further.
NC State

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Brissett takes the reins: The sting of last year’s winless ACC season was barely in the rearview mirror before coach Dave Doeren named Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett his new starting quarterback. Brissett spent last year on the sideline, but apparently Doeren saw enough during practice to comfortably wave goodbye to Pete Thomas, who announced his transfer. There will be ample spotlight on Brissett this spring as he tries to revive the underperforming NC State passing game.
  • The new faces: If 2013 was about cleaning house, this spring begins the far more difficult project of rebuilding. For NC State, that means plenty of new faces, including a whopping seven early enrollees headlined by safety Germain Pratt. While there are ample holes for Doeren to fill in Year 2, these incoming freshmen could certainly push for starting jobs and bring an influx of depth that the Wolfpack sorely missed last year.
  • Shoring up the lines: NC State’s 2014 signing class included 11 offensive and defensive linemen, and that’s just the start of the overhaul at the line of scrimmage. Last season, the Wolfpack allowed the second most sacks in the ACC (35) on offense while its defensive front recorded the fewest sacks in the conference (20). That’s a formula for disaster, and Doeren understands NC State must get much better in the trenches. Brissett’s arrival at QB could help, but the bottom line is NC State needs to see improvement on both sides of the line, and it needs to start this spring.
Syracuse

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Hunt’s next step: 2013 was a roller coaster season for Terrel Hunt. He lost the QB battle in fall camp, stepped in as starter after two weeks and was dominant, struggled badly through the midsection of the season, then closed strong with back-to-back come-from-behind wins. Now that he has experience, it will be interesting this spring to see how much he’s progressed. The talent is there, and spring practice should give Hunt a chance to refine it a bit more.
  • The defensive front: Syracuse finished its first ACC season ranked fourth in rushing defense and third in sacks despite myriad personnel issues entering the year, but more questions remain as the Orange look toward 2014. With star lineman Jay Bromley and veteran linebacker Marquis Spruill gone, the Orange are looking to fill sizable holes. Robert Welsh figures to be the anchor of the Syracuse pass rush, and the Orange could benefit from the return of Donnie Simmons, who missed 2013 with a knee injury.
  • Secondary concerns: Syracuse got a chance to learn what life was like without top cover corner Keon Lyn after the senior fractured his kneecap late last year, but while Brandon Reddish did an admirable job as his replacement, a whole new set of questions crops up in the secondary this spring. Syracuse figures to have openings at both corner and safety, and while Julian Whigham, Darius Kelly and Ritchy Desir offer options, there’s a lot to be decided on the practice field this spring.
Wake Forest

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Clawson’s early impact: It’s been 14 years since Wake Forest opened a spring camp with someone other than Jim Grobe calling the shots, so there’s no question this will be an intriguing few weeks in Winston-Salem. Dave Clawson takes over after leading Bowling Green to a MAC championship, and he inherits a major rebuilding job. First up for the coach will likely be creating an offensive identity -- something Grobe couldn’t do in 2013.
  • Identifying some offense: If 2013 was an offensive slog for Wake Forest, 2014 threatens to be much, much worse. As bad as things got at times last year, the Deacons at least had veterans to rely on. This season, Wake’s leading passer (Tanner Price), rusher (Josh Harris), receiver (Michael Campanaro) and top tight end (Spencer Bishop) are all gone. On the plus side, plenty of younger players saw action in 2013. The job this spring is to figure out who can take a big step forward entering the 2014 campaign.
  • The defensive scheme: Wake appears to be moving away from the 3-4 that was a hallmark of recent seasons, as new coordinator Mike Elko tries to maximize the talent remaining on the roster. Without veteran lineman Nikita Whitlock, Wake’s defensive front will have a far different look in 2014, and this spring will largely be about Elko identifying playmakers and tweaking his system to fit their skill sets.

ACC all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
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Bowl season was kind to the ACC in a few games (Florida State and Clemson won BCS games), not-so-kind in a few others (Miami, Virginia Tech, we're looking at you) and at least one was a little of both (can we get Texas A&M and Duke every year?). But now that it's all over, we're honoring the best individual performances in the ACC with our all-bowl team.

OFFENSE

QB: Tajh Boyd, Clemson: The big stage hadn't been kind to Boyd through most of 2013, but on the first day of 2014, he was exceptional. Boyd accounted for 505 yards and six touchdowns in a Discover Orange Bowl win over Ohio State, giving the ACC two BCS bowl game victors.

RB: James Conner, Pittsburgh: The freshman tailback carried 26 times against Bowling Green, blowing past Tony Dorsett for the Pitt bowl game record with 229 yards on the ground. For good measure, Conner chipped in on the defensive line for a few snaps, too.

RB: Devonta Freeman, Florida State: It wasn't the most spectacular performance of bowl season -- Freeman wasn't even the best running back on the field in the BCS title game -- but his hard running early kept FSU from falling too far behind, and his final tally -- 11 carries for 73 yards and a TD -- helped Freeman become the first FSU running back since Warrick Dunn to top 1,000 yards on the season.

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesOhio State wasn't able to catch Sammy Watkins, as the Clemson WR set multiple Orange Bowl receiving records.
WR: Sammy Watkins, Clemson: Watkins made his last game in a Clemson uniform one to remember, catching an Orange Bowl record 16 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns despite battling an injury for half the game.

WR: Jamison Crowder, Duke: Ho-hum, another 12 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown for Crowder, who turned in one last stellar performance to cap an exceptional season for the Blue Devils.

WR: Rashad Greene, Florida State: The Seminoles' dramatic comeback against Auburn in the BCS championship game wouldn't have been possible without Greene's big day. He was the only FSU receiver with positive yardage in the first half of the game, and his 49-yard reception -- he dodged two tacklers and picked up most of that yardage after the catch -- was the key play on FSU's dramatic last-minute, game-winning drive.

TE: Braxton Deaver, Duke: The junior had six catches for 116 yards, including three grabs that went for 25 yards or more and five that went for first downs.

OL: Dorian Johnson, Pitt: The Panthers simply overwhelmed Bowling Green's defensive front in the Little Caesars Bowl, racking up 487 yards of offense, including 255 on the ground. (Ed. note: We mistakenly included Matt Rotherham here in an initial post. Johnson slid from tackle to guard for the game, replacing Rotherham, and the Pitt line didn't miss a beat. We apologize for the error.)

OL: Jon Heck, North Carolina: Cincinnati entered the Belk Bowl second in the AAC in sacks with 35, but the Bearcats couldn't get to UNC QB Marquise Williams, as the Tar Heels' offense racked up 39 points -- the second-most Cincinnati gave up all season.

OL: Laken Tomlinson, Duke: The Blue Devils racked up 661 yards of total offense and 29 first downs against Texas A&M, with the offensive line -- led by Tomlinson -- paving the way for a 300-yard passer and a 100-yard rusher.

OL: Tre' Jackson, Florida State: Yes, the Seminoles' line allowed four sacks in the game, but Jackson and Co. also helped FSU run for more yards per carry (4.8) than the vaunted Auburn ground game and provided Jameis Winston with plenty of time to throw on a dramatic game-winning drive in the final minute.

C: Macky MacPherson, Syracuse: The Orange rushed for 208 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner with 1:14 left, to knock off Minnesota in the Texas Bowl. The physically dominant performance on the line was a fitting conclusion to MacPherson's Syracuse career.

DEFENSE

DE: Mario Edwards Jr., FSU: Edwards had one sack and three tackles for loss among his six total tackles for a Seminoles front that turned it up a notch in the second half, allowing the offense to catch up and ultimately escape with the win.

DT: Andre Monroe, Maryland: The Terrapins' finale as an ACC member ended on a sour note with a 31-20 loss to Marshall in the Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman. Monroe tied for a game-high with 10 total tackles, three of which went for a loss, one of which was a sack. Monroe added a quarterback hurry as well.

DT: Aaron Donald, Pitt: With one more game to go in a historic season, Donald did not disappoint. The senior closed out his career with two tackles for loss, including one sack, to go with a pass break-up in the Panthers' 30-27 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl win over Bowling Green. Donald's sack came on second down of the Falcons' final drive, all but sealing the win.

DE: Vic Beasley, Clemson: Beasley was part of a Tigers front that made life extremely difficult for Braxton Miller and the rest of the Ohio State backfield. Beasley recorded four tackles for loss and a sack among his five total tackles, and in the end Clemson's defense proved to be the difference in a shootout win.

LB: Norkeithus Otis, UNC: The Tar Heels capped their strong second half with a bang, routing Cincinnati 39-17 in the Belk Bowl to make them 6-1 over their last seven games. Otis tallied seven total tackles -- two for loss and one sack among them -- to go with two quarterback hurries.

LB: Jack Tyler, Virginia Tech: UCLA proved to be too much for the Hokies in a 42-12 win in the Hyundai Sun Bowl, but Tyler played well, totaling seven tackles, including half of a sack, to go with one pass break-up and one quarterback hurry.

[+] EnlargeP.J. Williams
AP Photo/Gregory BullP.J. Williams' interception was the big break Florida State needed to create in its come-from-behind victory over Auburn in the BCS title game.
LB: Cameron Lynch, Syracuse: The Orange finished a successful first season in the ACC by topping Minnesota 21-17 in the Texas Bowl. Lynch, a junior, tied for a team-high with eight stops, with most of his big plays coming behind the line of scrimmage. He had two tackles for loss, one sack and a forced fumble to help Syracuse go 7-4 after an 0-2 start in coach Scott Shafer's first year.

DB: P.J. Williams, FSU: The defensive MVP from the Vizio BCS National Championship came up huge when it mattered most, picking off Auburn's Nick Marshall early in the fourth quarter to set up a touchdown that cut the Tigers' lead to one. Williams finished with seven total tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss.

DB: Jemea Thomas, Georgia Tech: Thomas ended his college career with a bang, totaling a game-high 15 tackles. Three of those stops were behind the line of scrimmage, including one sack.

DB: D.J. White, GT: The Yellow Jackets get two more years of White, a future that looked all the brighter in the 25-17 loss to Ole Miss in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. White finished with 13 total tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception and three pass break-ups.

DB: Bryce Jones, Boston College: The Eagles' turnaround campaign under Steve Addazio ended on a down note, falling to Arizona 42-19 in the AdvoCare V100 Bowl, but Jones was a bright spot, with the sophomore notching a team-high 12 tackles, including one for loss.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Chris Blewitt, Pitt: Blewitt went 3-for-4 for the Panthers in Detroit, connecting from 25, 28 and, most important, 39 yards with the game-winning kick with 1:17 left in Pitt's 30-27 win.

P: Tommy Hibbard, UNC: Hibbard was phenomenal for the Tar Heels, punting four times for an average of 44.2 yards per boot. He pinned Cincinnati inside its own 20 three different times, and he had a long of 59 yards in the win.

KR: Levonte Whitfield, FSU: At the time, Whitfield's 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown seemed as if it would go down as one of the greatest returns in BCS championship game history. The touchdown gave Florida State a 27-24 lead with 4:31 to play -- but the lead would change twice more before it was over. Whitfield finished the game with 172 return yards.

PR: Ryan Switzer, UNC: The Tar Heels had a huge day on special teams in a Belk Bowl win over Cincinnati, with Switzer -- an All-American -- leading the way, returning his fifth punt of the season for a touchdown.

No. 12 Clemson takes on No. 7 Ohio State in the Discover Orange Bowl on Friday. Here is a look at 10 reasons the Tigers could beat the Buckeyes.

1. Receiver advantage. Clemson seems to have a clear matchup edge with its receivers, and that could translate into big plays in the pass game. Sammy Watkins has had a terrific season, and he needs nine receptions to break the school career record and two receiving touchdowns to tie the school career record. He has reached 100 yards receiving in seven of 12 games this season and is going to be difficult to stop. Martavis Bryant, at 6-foot-5, gives the Tigers another big-play target. Ohio State has allowed 755 yards passing in its past two games.

2. Ohio State D in flux. Given all the issues the Ohio State defense has had, it is easy to believe the Tigers are in line to take advantage. Defensive end Noah Spence has been suspended for the game, leaving the Buckeyes without their best pass-rusher. Cornerback Bradley Roby is unlikely to play, and there is the possibility three new starters could be in the secondary against the high-powered Tigers.

[+] EnlargeBoyd
AP Photo/Richard ShiroClemson will need QB Tajh Boyd to be at his best against Ohio State.
3. Tajh's time. Tajh Boyd has had one of the best careers in Clemson history, but he did not play his best in losses to Florida State or South Carolina this season, so you have to think he will be extra motivated to finish his career with a win in the Orange Bowl. Boyd is fully capable of winning big games, as he showed against Georgia and LSU. Big-play Boyd needs to show up.

4. Vic Beasley. One of the more intriguing matchups in the game pits Clemson pass-rusher Beasley against All-Big Ten tackle Jake Mewhort. Beasley is tied for third in the nation with 12 sacks, and Mewhort said this week that Beasley presents a "unique challenge." Beasley is built differently from the pass-rushers Mewhort has faced in the Big Ten, using a blend of speed and athleticism to get after the quarterback. If he can disrupt Braxton Miller, Clemson will improve its chances of winning.

5. TFLs. One area where the Tigers have succeeded this season is in tackles for loss. Clemson has 112, which leads the nation, and needs seven more to tie the school record. Clemson must get into the backfield to try to limit the big plays Miller and running back Carlos Hyde can make.

6. Limited Ohio State pass rush? We have seen Boyd get flustered into making mistakes when he is under heavy pressure. But the Buckeyes' pass rush could be severely limited without Spence, who leads the team with eight sacks. Without Spence, more will be placed on the shoulders of freshman Joey Bosa, who has 6.5 sacks on the season.

7. Big plays. Tag this to go along with reasons 1-3. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Boyd leads all AQ quarterbacks in completion percentage on throws of 20 yards or longer (55.9 percent) and has 14 touchdowns and two interceptions on such throws. Since 2011, Watkins has scored 17 touchdowns of 30 yards or more, tied for second most in FBS in that span.

8. Andre Williams effect. Clemson players said Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde reminds them of Boston College back Andre Williams, who won the Doak Walker Award and rushed for 2,000 yards. But the Tigers held Williams to 70 yards rushing -- one of his lowest outputs of the season -- giving them a boost of confidence going into the game.

9. No turnovers. Coach Dabo Swinney has been preaching for a month now -- no more turnovers. In losses to Florida State and South Carolina, Clemson turned the ball over a total of 10 times. Surely the message has sunk in by now.

10. Chick-fil-A Bowl. The 2012 Orange Bowl performance against West Virginia has been brought up every single day in South Florida, but Clemson believes its win over LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl last season is more indicative of what it can do on a big stage in the bowl game. Being able to win a game like that, against a top school from the SEC, has given this team the confidence to know it can do it again Friday against Ohio State.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – With two star quarterbacks leading two high-powered offenses headed into the Discover Orange Bowl, some expect a shootout Friday night.

Wait.

Shhhh.

Don’t say that in front of Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Shootouts are as unwanted as mosquitoes in summer, and Venables got a little feisty during a press conference when asked about the prospect of getting involved in a scoring free for all to close the season.

“I don't like that one bit,” Venables said. “It doesn't matter if it's Ohio State, if it's the Pittsburgh Steelers, it doesn't matter. Your job on defense is to stop people.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Jerome Davis/Icon SMIClemson's offense gets most of the press, but its defense, led by DE Vic Beasley, hasn't been too shabby either.
“Everybody wants to say it's a shootout. You take offense to that. We know we have a great challenge on Friday night, but we're not playing it on defense like let's just get one more stop than them. That's not how we operate, no matter who we're playing.”

After linebacker Spencer Shuey got off the podium, he joked, “I felt like we were at practice for a second.”

You understand why defensive coaches get, well, defensive, at the suggestion. As defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said, “I know we're a lot better than people give us credit for. It's in the numbers. People see Clemson as a high-powered offensive team and they just want to outscore everybody, but we've done our part. We're just trying to get better.”

There is little doubt Clemson has gotten better since the last time it played in Miami, the scene of a 70-33 debacle to close the 2011 season that led to the firing of defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. Clemson shelled out top dollar to hire Venables from Oklahoma, hoping his disciplined, aggressive style would bring respectability and then dominance.

The transformation is not complete, but steps have been made this season. Clemson ranks No. 22 in the nation in total defense, 55 spots higher than the 2011 season; No. 17 in scoring defense, 64 spots higher than 2011; and No. 8 in third-down conversion defense, 65 spots higher than 2011.

In addition, Clemson ranks No. 2 in the nation in three-and-outs and leads the nation with 112 tackles for loss. Clemson needs eight more to set the new single-season school record.

“From the player aspect, the maturity level has grown tremendously,” Shuey said. “Coach Venables has brought an unbelievable amount of trust to us and to be able to trust each other and prepare every day with what it takes. I feel like it's a different team.”

Defensive end Vic Beasley has been the standout, racking up 19 tackles for loss and 12 sacks, finding his spot on several All-America teams. He received a second-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board and is still pondering whether he will leave school early or turn pro.

His coaches believe he could use an extra year in school to grow bigger, stronger and more dominant than he is now. One of the most intriguing matchups in the game features Beasley against Ohio State All-America tackle Jack Mewhort, who said Beasley is “more unique” than any defensive end he has faced in the Big Ten.

“He can run around you, or if he chooses to, he can take it right to you or take an inside move. He's got a three-way go,” Mewhort said. “He's got a good motor. He's very good with his hands.

“If you're not prepared for him, he'll get the best of you. So that's what I'm working on right now, just on his inside move, right through me, and going around me. If I can prepare for those three moves, I should be all right.”

The Clemson defense has faced tough quarterbacks throughout the entire season, from Aaron Murray to Jameis Winston to Connor Shaw, with mixed results. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller presents a tough challenge because he is so dynamic. Jarrett said Miller is “probably the fastest quarterback I’ve ever seen.”

His unique abilities will put stress on the entire Clemson defense to limit big plays. Running back Carlos Hyde gives the Ohio State offense even more firepower, and probably finds himself on Clemson bulletin boards this morning after declaring he wanted to set the Orange Bowl rushing record during interviews Tuesday.

Just add Hyde's quote to the pile that has contributed to the motivation the Clemson defense has used all season. Perhaps a different s-word -- a shutdown performance -- will get them some of the respect they believe they deserve.
Don’t say that in front of Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Shootouts are as unwanted as mosquitoes in summer, and Venables got a little feisty during a press conference when asked about the prospect of getting involved in a scoring free for all to close the season.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Jerome Davis/Icon SMIClemson's offense gets most of the press, but its defense, led by DE Vic Beasley, hasn't been too shabby either.
“I don't like that one bit,” Venables said. “It doesn't matter if it's Ohio State, if it's the Pittsburgh Steelers, it doesn't matter. Your job on defense is to stop people.

“Everybody wants to say it's a shootout. You take offense to that. We know we have a great challenge on Friday night, but we're not playing it on defense like let's just get one more stop than them. That's not how we operate, no matter who we're playing.”

After linebacker Spencer Shuey got off the podium, he joked, “I felt like we were at practice for a second.”

You understand why defensive coaches get, well, defensive, at the suggestion. As defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said, “I know we're a lot better than people give us credit for. It's in the numbers. People see Clemson as a high-powered offensive team and they just want to outscore everybody, but we've done our part. We're just trying to get better.”

There is little doubt Clemson has gotten better since the last time it played in Miami, the scene of a 70-33 debacle to close the 2011 season that led to the firing of defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. Clemson shelled out top dollar to hire Venables from Oklahoma, hoping his disciplined, aggressive style would bring respectability and then dominance.

The transformation is not complete, but steps have been made this season. Clemson ranks No. 22 in the nation in total defense, 55 spots higher than the 2011 season; No. 17 in scoring defense, 64 spots higher than 2011; and No. 8 in third-down conversion defense, 65 spots higher than 2011.

In addition, Clemson ranks No. 2 in the nation in three-and-outs and leads the nation with 112 tackles for loss. Clemson needs eight more to set the new single-season school record.

“From the player aspect, the maturity level has grown tremendously,” Shuey said. “Coach Venables has brought an unbelievable amount of trust to us and to be able to trust each other and prepare every day with what it takes. I feel like it's a different team.”

Defensive end Vic Beasley has been the standout, racking up 19 tackles for loss and 12 sacks, finding his spot on several All-America teams. He received a second-round grade from the NFL draft advisory board and is still pondering whether he will leave school early or turn pro.

His coaches believe he could use an extra year in school to grow bigger, stronger and more dominant than he is now. One of the most intriguing matchups in the game features Beasley against Ohio State All-America tackle Jack Mewhort, who said Beasley is “more unique” than any defensive end he has faced in the Big Ten.

“He can run around you, or if he chooses to, he can take it right to you or take an inside move. He's got a three-way go,” Mewhort said. “He's got a good motor. He's very good with his hands.

“If you're not prepared for him, he'll get the best of you. So that's what I'm working on right now, just on his inside move, right through me, and going around me. If I can prepare for those three moves, I should be all right.”

The Clemson defense has faced tough quarterbacks throughout the entire season, from Aaron Murray to Jameis Winston to Connor Shaw, with mixed results. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller presents a tough challenge because he is so dynamic. Jarrett said Miller is “probably the fastest quarterback I’ve ever seen.”

His unique abilities will put stress on the entire Clemson defense to limit big plays. Running back Carlos Hyde gives the Ohio State offense even more firepower, and probably finds himself on Clemson bulletin boards this morning after declaring he wanted to set the Orange Bowl rushing record during interviews Tuesday.

Just add Hyde's quote to the pile that has contributed to the motivation the Clemson defense has used all season. Perhaps a different s-word -- a shutdown performance -- will get them some of the respect they believe they deserve.

ESPN.com's All-ACC team

December, 16, 2013
12/16/13
9:00
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Florida State’s undefeated season is reflected in the Seminoles’ 10 all-conference selections by ESPN.com. Quarterback Jameis Winston was the highlight of the group, along with Boston College running back Andre Williams, who was also a Heisman candidate this year. This list differs just slightly from the choices of the coaches and writers, with the toughest decisions coming on defense.

Offense
Defense
Special Teams

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- There were plenty of leaders who spoke up in the locker room before Florida State's resounding 51-14 win over Clemson on Saturday, but it was, unsurprisingly, Jameis Winston whom the cameras captured for posterity.

At this point, the Seminoles have come to expect Winston to hog a bit of the spotlight.

"They happened to show Jameis, but we love it," linebacker Telvin Smith said. "Put the camera on him and keep it going. If he can embrace it, we can, too."

It's a sign of the stature Winston has achieved inside Florida State's locker room. Six games ago, he was a redshirt freshman. Now, he's a savvy veteran who can command a locker room and gobble up the national spotlight without teammates batting an eye.

But Winston hasn't grabbed the leadership mantle by making pregame speeches. He's done it by proving he's a veteran on the field.

In the two weeks leading up to Saturday's showdown in Death Valley, Winston heard his share of talk about Clemson's vaunted defensive front. The Tigers led the nation in sacks per game, and Vic Beasley was going to be tough to block.

As usual, Winston wasn't worried.

"Everyone was saying how they lead the nation in sacks, but I always feel like if someone sacks me, it's my fault," Winston said. "My offensive line is tremendous."

That was Winston's message to his troops before the game, when the lone talking point was simple: Do your jobs, Winston told his linemen, and Clemson won't have a chance.

Sure enough, the Tigers brought the pressure, and Winston made them pay. For the game, he finished with 293 yards against the blitz, the most by any quarterback in the past three years, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Florida State responded again and again to Clemson's aggressive style by holding blocks just long enough for Winston to get off a quick pass to an open receiver, who then tacked on more yards after the catch.

The formula simply asked the line to block and the receivers to be in the right spot, and Winston took care of the rest.

"He's just a really smart guy," said left tackle Cameron Erving, who helped hold Beasley to just two tackles -- and no sacks -- in Saturday's win. "He's a film junky, a football junky. He knows what he's doing. He knows what's coming before they do it. He reads defenses as well as the veterans."

It has been Winston's calling card thus far, Jimbo Fisher said. When the defense makes its move, it can be a disaster or a celebration. Winston has routinely enjoyed the latter.

On the practice field and even in the huddle, Winston will goof around with teammates and crack jokes. But when he steps to the line and surveys a defense, he does it with such unique precision that even his veteran teammates are in awe.

"You know what's crazy? He knows football like a veteran. Sometimes he sees things I don't," fifth-year senior Bryan Stork said. "He's reading coverages, knows what's coming from the blitz, and I'm like, 'OK.' "

Even amid the deafening roar of the Clemson crowd, Winston was in complete control. He'd read the defense, communicate to his line, make sure his receivers knew the call, and almost without exception, the whole plan came together seamlessly.

For the season, Winston is completing 71 percent of his throws against the blitz, including nine touchdowns and just three sacks. In each of his last two games, he has completed eight first-down throws in the face of a blitz.

Put Winston in a position of pressure, and he thrives. On third downs this season, when the offense needs at least 10 yards to convert, Winston is a perfect 10-of-10 throwing. Nine of those throws have gone for first downs. No other quarterback in the country is converting more than half his throws in those situations.

[+] EnlargeFlorida State's Jameis Winston against Clemson
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJameis Winston stood tall in the face of Clemson's pressure and picked the Tigers' defense apart.
On the high-pressure final drive of the half, Winston has been magical. He has completed 18-of-22 throws for 333 yards and four touchdowns. Florida State has scored on all six of the drives.

"His ability to process information is tremendous, and it allows us to get the ball out," Fisher said.

The numbers are astonishing, but Florida State's players aren't amazed. It's Winston doing his job, Erving said, and the rest of the team has followed suit.

"It shows his maturity," Smith said. "He just has total confidence in his line and himself, and he produces."

After Saturday, Winston's ability and maturity are no longer a question. He has proven he can handle the biggest stage.

Instead, a new challenge arises. Florida State is in position to make a run at a national title. Winston is a household name and a top contender for the Heisman. Through six games, he has been a master at turning chaos into precision, potential disaster into the sublime. Now that everything is going Florida State's way, he'll need to manage success just as flawlessly.

From what he has seen so far, Fisher isn't worried.

"He keeps a great head on his shoulders, keeps learning," Fisher said, "and he prioritizes extremely well."

Death Valley is their fortress. And come Saturday night, Clemson players know they must use their home field to their great advantage.

That is simply how it works at Memorial Stadium.

Flash back to the opener against top-five opponent Georgia, with all the noise, the overstuffed grandstands, the goose-bump-raising run down The Hill with Dabo Swinney memorably showing off his 4.4 40 skills. Clemson won 38-35 thanks to an assist from its manic crowd.

Georgia offensive lineman Chris Burnette, a fifth-year senior used to his fair share of ear-popping SEC stadiums, admitted, “Clemson was one of the more electric games and stadiums and atmospheres that I've been in since I've been playing.”

Clemson's Death Valley
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesClemson fans aim to break a record for the loudest crowd roar at a stadium.
Everybody at Clemson expects a more electric atmosphere against No. 6 Florida State, given the higher stakes on the line. Both teams not only want to keep their national championship hopes alive, but the winner here gets the upper hand in the race to the ACC title game.

To that end, the Clemson athletic department announced this week that it wants to break the Guinness World Record for loudest crowd roar at a sports stadium on the first defensive snap of the game. The current record -- 137.5 decibels -- was set just last week at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City during a Chiefs game.

Florida State practiced all week with noise piped in, standard procedure when it hits the road. But Clemson is not Pitt, nor is it Boston College. Clemson is a place where noise truly does become a factor.

The Seminoles have not won at Clemson since 2001, but they are not alone in their Death Valley struggles. Swinney is 18-2 in ACC home games (.900), the highest winning percentage in league history. He recently moved ahead of former Clemson coach Ken Hatfield, who had a 12-1-1 record at home against league foes from 1990 to '93. Bobby Bowden is third on the all-time list for home winning percentage at .861, with a 62-10 record in home ACC games at Florida State.

“Playing here in Death Valley, we’re trying not to ever lose a game,” defensive end Vic Beasley said. “It’s a great atmosphere; the fans support us and it’s a great place to play. When we come out here, we don’t want anybody to invade our territory.”

South Carolina was the last team to do the invading, winning last year in Death Valley. But you have to go back to 2010 to find the last ACC team to win in Death Valley: Miami, 30-21. The Hurricanes went into the game as the higher-ranked team and did not let the surroundings intimidate them.

“It’s not intimidating because once you’re on the field, you eliminate all the distractions in the stands,” said Miami receiver Allen Hurns, who played special teams as a freshman in that game. “You have to focus on what you have to get accomplished.”

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston also tried to downplay the advantages the Tigers have playing at home, saying, “All the noise stuff, the way we communicate on the field and the way we do things, I don’t really think that’s going to be a big factor. From the momentum standpoint, if the crowd gets into it and their players start getting amped up, that will probably be a big factor in the game, but the noise I don’t think has nothing to do with our offense.”

Winston has never experienced Death Valley, nor an atmosphere anywhere close to the one he will be a part of Saturday, so he can only assume what awaits him and his teammates.

His counterpart, Tajh Boyd, already knows.

“Clemson is different from any stadium I’ve ever played at because the fans truly are a factor,” Boyd said. “A lot of teams like to call their field the 12th man and this and that, but Clemson really does have an influence. If you look at that redshirt sophomore year, when we won those three games in a row -- Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech -- the Auburn game, I really, truly believe the interception came because it was so loud. It was crazy. The defense feeds off of that. The offense feeds off of that. It’s a ridiculous place to play in.

“The Florida State game [in 2011], whoever sacked Clint Trickett that year, the place just went into an uproar. Same way with the Georgia game this year. It’s live every game, but you get one of those real huge teams coming in here and it’s a ridiculous place to play at.”

For the record, it was Rennie Moore who had the key sack on Trickett on fourth down late in the game, with the Seminoles trying to drive for the winning score.

There was plenty to play for in that game. Both teams were in the Top 25, with ACC title hopes hanging in the balance. This game, though, means so much more. It just might be the best home atmosphere any Clemson player has experienced.

“Our fans, the environment they create, it's very, very loud, and then we've got good players that have really bought into taking a lot of pride in playing here at home,” Swinney said. “If you’re going to be a consistent program, you have to be consistent at home. Our guys have done a great job of that over the last few years.”

Indeed, home-field advantage could be the difference in the game.

University of Georgia reporter David Ching and ACC reporter Heather Dinich contributed to this report.

Clemson defense makes its own name

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
11:00
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CLEMSON, S.C. -- There is a new celebrity walking around the Clemson campus. His name is not Tajh or Sammy, though.

His name is Vic.

Racking up sack after sack on a much improved defense has made defensive end Vic Beasley one of the most recognizable players around town, earning hellos and handshakes at a clip that has surprised Beasley.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Jerome Davis/Icon SMIDE Vic Beasley bypassed the NFL draft this year to return to Clemson to get his degree and improve his draft stock.
Indeed, the biggest development in this Clemson season to date has been the way the defense has ripped headlines away from the high-powered offense and made its own name. Simply put, the Tigers D cannot be called the weak link any longer.

Not when you consider what has happened through the first six games of the season:
  • Beasley leads the nation in sacks with nine and was the only Clemson player on the ESPN.com midseason All-American team. That’s right. The lone Clemson rep came from its defense.
  • The defense has held five consecutive opponents to 14 points or fewer, the first time that has happened since 1989.
  • Clemson ranks No. 10 in the nation in scoring defense, higher than its scoring offense (No. 17). The last time Clemson finished a season in the top 10 in the nation in scoring defense was 2007.
  • The Tigers rank in the top 25 in 13 statistical defensive categories.

“We came in with a big chip on our shoulder,” Beasley said. “A lot of people were doubting us and said we weren’t going to be the strength of this team, but I feel like we’ve become the strength of the team. No knock on our offense. I want our offense to be great too, but I feel like we’re making a statement to be the best in the country.”

In January 2012, coach Dabo Swinney fired Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator after a miserable 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. A performance like that would never happen again, not under his watch. Clemson had no problem playing top dollar for its assistants, and Swinney wasted no time targeting Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

In 13 seasons with the Sooners, Venables had his group ranked in the top 20 in total defense eight times. When he looked at what he would have to work with at Clemson, he knew he could mold this group into an elite unit. Almost presciently, Venables said in the spring, “I wouldn’t have come if I didn’t feel this was a place you could win every game and recruit the best players in the country.”

He talked at length about what makes a good defense, saying the best teams he has ever been associated with were player driven, bonded with a unique chemistry, a special focus and a willingness to work.

This Clemson group has all those qualities. Last week, Venables discussed the brotherhood that has developed among his players, how hard they are working and how his players just love to play. Period.

“There’s a freshness about that. It’s not like it’s pulling teeth to go to practice,” Venables said. “Guys practice well; they’re around the office a lot on their own. They’re a prideful group. We don’t spend a lot of time perpetuating anything that’s negative. Whether you start over every week, or every day or every year, to me I’m not big at living in the past, good or bad. We’ve got a group of guys that are easy to inspire, that they like to play and they respect each other. They’re high effort kind of guys.”

Seeking a new identity as a strength on the team has been a source of motivation and inspiration. Every player on this Clemson defense knows what was said after the Orange Bowl, a game that lingers still today. Like their coach, they never want to go through that again.

They rededicated themselves in the offseason, intent on becoming a more physical team that would never be outworked. So far, Clemson has demonstrated that physicality. Its front seven has done a terrific job, thanks to improved depth and the play of Beasley and fellow end Corey Crawford.

Venables said nobody has improved more than Crawford and linebacker Stephone Anthony, now starting in the middle. He described them both as playing on a different planet. The secondary has also made strides from a year ago, thanks to contributions from several freshmen and a group of veterans that has been able to stay healthy.

What’s more, these players are now in Year 2 under Venables, so improvement was expected. You can see that when comparing the defensive stats over the first six weeks of last season to the first six weeks of this season. Clemson is giving up an average of 11 fewer points and 110 fewer yards per game.

“Last year at this time, we were very inconsistent from an execution standpoint and just doing all the little things that we needed to do,” Swinney said. “But that's been the biggest improvement. Guys are where they are supposed to be and have a good feel playing with high energy, and we are just much more experienced on that side of the ball than we've been in a while.”

It has not all been perfect for Clemson. The Tigers gave up more than 200 yards rushing to Georgia and more than 300 yards rushing to Syracuse. They have given up too many big plays -- 26 for 20 or more yards (15 pass, 11 run). They are still thin on depth at linebacker and in the secondary.

But they are better. The goal is to keep on this upward trend. This is only a start.

“We feel like we’ve earned some respect over the course of these last couple of weeks,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “We know we’re not perfect and we’ve got a lot more work to do. We’re playing pretty good, but we can be a lot better. We’re working to be the best we can be.”

Then more recognition is sure to follow.

ACC predictions: Week 8

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
9:00
AM ET
AA missed on her upset pick last week, and both of us missed the Syracuse upset over NC State. Heather won the week, going 5-1, and now we are tied 50-9 overall.

Let's see what Week 8 has in store.

Thursday night

No. 10 Miami (5-0, 1-0) at North Carolina (1-4, 0-2), 7:30 p.m., ESPN. #MIAvsUNC. The Tar Heels host just the second Thursday night home game in school history, desperately hoping to turn around their season. They face a tall task against the surging Hurricanes, who are making their first trip outside the state of Florida this season. North Carolina has won four of the past six meetings, including an 18-14 victory last season. Quarterback Bryn Renner is expected back in the starting lineup, but the big question is whether this Tar Heels squad will find its running game against a much-improved Miami D that's ranked No. 12 in the nation in total defense. Miami should be able to put up some points on a shaky North Carolina D. It is just hard to imagine the Tar Heels being able to keep up. AA picks: Miami 35, North Carolina 21

HD picks: Miami 38, North Carolina 24

Saturday

Syracuse (3-3, 1-1) at Georgia Tech (3-3, 2-2), 12:30 p.m., ESPN3. #CUSEvsGT. This game most certainly has bowl implications for both teams as the second half of the season gets underway. The Orange have momentum on their side after a big road win over NC State last week, while the Jackets have dropped three straight. But those three losses have come against teams with a combined 15-3 mark. This is going to be a ground-and-pound type of game, and Georgia Tech gets the edge based on the scheme. Syracuse has put up monster rushing numbers in the past two games, but the Tech defense has allowed just five running plays of 20 yards or more this season and is in the top 25 in rush defense. So is Syracuse's defense, but I think the Jackets' run offense will be able to make more plays. AA pick: Georgia Tech 28, Syracuse 23.

HD pick: Syracuse 31, Georgia Tech 28: The Orange will win because of their ability to run the ball and control the clock -- the most effective defense there is against Paul Johnson’s spread-option offense. In a game that will feature two struggling quarterbacks in Vad Lee and Terrel Hunt, Cuse’s ground game will be the difference. Syracuse has rushed for more than 300 yards in each of the past two games and will continue that success on the road.

Maryland (5-1, 1-1) at Wake Forest (3-3, 1-2), 3:30 p.m, ESPNU. #MDvsWAKE. Quarterback C.J. Brown is back in the starting lineup -- great news for Maryland, which is trying to become bowl eligible. But injuries have started to take a toll on the defense. The Terps already lost starting cornerback Dexter McDougle for the season and now starting linebacker Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, who was playing very well before he got hurt last week. Maryland gave up more than 500 yards to Virginia Saturday, a team with no playmakers. While the Wake offense has been shaky at times, we saw much improvement last time out against NC State. Wake Forest has won three straight in the series at home. AA likes the Deacons in an upset: Wake Forest 24, Maryland 23.

HD pick: Maryland 28, Wake Forest 21 -- Brown's return to the lineup after missing last week with a concussion will be the difference in the game. The Terps’ ability to run the option and Brown’s skills as a dual-threat quarterback will make life difficult for the Deacs. Wake Forest has one of the ACC’s best receivers in Michael Campanaro, but Brown has more playmakers around him. The Terps will become bowl eligible for the first time under Randy Edsall -- and they’ll get it done in Winston-Salem.

Duke (4-2, 0-2) at Virginia (2-4, 0-2), ESPN3. #DUKEvsUVA. Duke has won four of the past five in the series and got a major boost when Anthony Boone returned to the starting lineup last week, earning ACC weekly honors. Boone made his first career start against the Hoos in 2012 and had four touchdown passes. Virginia, meanwhile, has looked a little better on offense the past few weeks, but it has not been able to get into the win column since Sept. 21. The defense has been inconsistent as well. Boone makes the difference in this game for the Blue Devils. AA picks: Duke 35, Virginia 28

HD picks: Duke 28, Virginia 24

Old Dominion (4-2) at Pitt (3-2), 7 p.m., ESPN3. #ODUvsPITT. The Panthers get a break from ACC play against Old Dominion, which lost to Maryland earlier this season 47-10. Pitt has worked on shoring up the offensive line and establishing the run game at practice this week. Believe it or not, it is the defense that has played more consistently the past several weeks. The Panthers really do need to get their run game going to help take some pressure off Tom Savage. AA picks: Pitt 40, Old Dominion 3

HD picks: Pitt 48, Old Dominion 7

No. 5 Florida State (5-0, 3-0) at No. 3 Clemson (6-0, 4-0), 8 p.m., ABC. #FSUvsCLEM. One of the biggest games in ACC history is nearly here, putting the spotlight squarely on the conference at the midway point of the season. We don't think either team will disappoint. The big story everybody has focused on pits Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, but really, we should be talking about how each will fare against the best defenses they have seen to date. It may all come down to how they both handle pressure. Winston has been slightly better than Boyd in this respect, completing 69.6 percent of his passes when teams bring five or more pass-rushers. Boyd is completing just 57 percent of his passes in similar situations, and both his interceptions this season have come against the blitz, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But Winston has not seen a pass rush as good as the one Clemson has this season, nor anybody as talented as end Vic Beasley. Boyd, meanwhile, has been in these big-game situations before, so he gets a slight edge. Home-field advantage also gives the Tigers a big edge in the intangibles department. AA picks: Clemson 31, Florida State 30

HD picks: Clemson 35, Florida State 31
Now that we are midway through the season, it is time to take a look at our preseason Top 25 player countdown and do some reranking based on performance to date in 2013. You can see that our top 10 looks different than it did in August. We made this list based on how these players have played and the impact they have had on their team, in the league, and nationally, too.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesTajh Boyd has been sublime through the first half of the season, with 15 TDs and just two interceptions.
1. QB Tajh Boyd, Clemson. Previous ranking: No. 1. Boyd leads the ACC in total offense (328.3 YPG) and passing yards per game (297.2 YPG), and has 15 TD passes and just two interceptions. He is No. 2 in the ESPN.com Heisman Watch.

2. QB Jameis Winston, Florida State. Previous ranking: Not ranked. Winston has been terrific in his first collegiate season, ranking just behind Boyd in total offense (315.2 YPG) and passing yards (288.2) while ranking No. 4 in the nation in adjusted QBR. He is No. 4 in the ESPN.com Heisman Watch.

3. DT Aaron Donald, Pitt. Previous ranking: No. 10. Donald has been outstanding for the Panthers this season, leading the country in both sacks per game (1.60 average) and tackles for loss per game (2.40 average). He has at least one sack in each game this year.

4. DE Vic Beasley, Clemson. Previous ranking: Not ranked. Beasley has nine total sacks and 12 tackles for loss, ranking just behind Donald with an average of 1.5 sacks per game and 2 tackles for loss per game. Beasley's development as an every-down player has helped Clemson improve defensively this season.

5. RB Andre Williams, Boston College. Previous ranking: Not ranked. Williams has been the biggest surprise this season, as he leads the ACC with an average of 139.7 yards per game. That average ranks him No. 6 in the nation.

6. RB Duke Johnson, Miami. Previous ranking: No. 3. Johnson is the only other back in the ACC averaging more than 100 yards per game, as he ranks right behind Williams (114.4 YPG). He leads the ACC in all-purpose yards (190.8 YPG).

7. CB Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech. Previous ranking: Not ranked. Fuller leads the ACC and ranks in the top 10 nationally in passes defended with 1.7 per game. His leadership in the secondary cannot be underestimated.

8. QB C.J. Brown, Maryland. Previous ranking: Not ranked. Brown missed last week with a concussion but has been outstanding in his return from a torn ACL. He ranks No. 3 in the ACC in total offense (282.2 YPG) and his ability to run has made him an even bigger threat.

9. WR Michael Campanaro, Wake Forest. Previous ranking: No. 13. Campanaro has been one of the best receivers in this league for a while, and this season is no different. On a mediocre Wake Forest offense, he leads the ACC in receptions per game (8.8) and receiving yards per game (116.4).

10. WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson. Previous ranking: No. 2. Watkins has gotten off to a much better start this season than last, with 36 catches for 582 yards and four touchdowns, on pace for a 1,000-yard season.

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