ACC football finally made its mark in 2013, a year highlighted by Florida State’s dominating regular season and thrilling win over Auburn to claim the national championship. But the season was also marked by Clemson knocking off Ohio State in the Orange Bowl, the feel-good story of Duke, and solid bowl performances from North Carolina, Syracuse and Pitt.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
Even the biggest postseason disappointment, Miami, was cancelled out by the fact the Hurricanes got crushed by Louisville—who arrives in the ACC this season.
The league now looks to build off the momentum, with Florida State the favorite to repeat as national champs, high hopes elsewhere and Notre Dame now appearing on the schedules of ACC schools as its partnership (though not membership) begins in 2014.
Our ACC football preview will break the conference down by tiers…
THE FRONTRUNNER & THE CHALLENGER
Florida State might be head-and-shoulders above the league, but Clemson at least has the honor of being head-and-shoulders above everybody else. These two teams are on the same side of the league and their September 20 game in Tallahassee will all but determine the Atlantic Division champ and anoint the conference favorite.
The Seminoles bring back thirteen starters, evenly distributed throughout their lineup, and of course they have Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston back for his sophomore season.
There’s no football-related reason to pick against FSU, but there are some intangibles working against them. Winston can’t seem to keep himself out of trouble, whether it’s something as serious as sexual assault or as trivial as walking out of the cafeteria with unpaid for crabs. It adds up to distractions in an environment where head coach Jimbo Fischer already has to worry about keeping his team focused and ready for everyone’s best shot.
It’s worth noting that even the Alabama teams that won three national titles in four years only went undefeated once. In this age of greater parity and more games, the 14-0 that Florida State pulled off last year is far from easy, even if they’ll be the favorite in each game individually.
Fortunately for the Seminoles, so long as they beat Clemson, they’ll likely be in Charlotte for the ACC Championship Game and be in position for a berth in the four-team College Football Playoff even if there’s a stumble somewhere else on the schedule.
Clemson’s win over Ohio State was a breakthrough win for a program that’s been consistently successful under Dabo Swinney, but needed a high-impact national moment. Tajh Boyd is no longer at quarterback, but this could be a different kind of Clemson team.
This year’s Tigers have experience back on defense and on the offensive line. Boyd’s passing and a wide-open offense have won the team some shootouts, including the Orange Bowl. While a year’s experience isn’t going to turn a soft unit into the Seattle Seahawks, it does have the potential to at least make Clemson physically tougher.
A WILD COASTAL DIVISION
There are seven teams on each side of the ACC. If the Atlantic provides the excellence, then the Coastal provides the excitement, with six of the seven teams having a legitimate chance and making it to Charlotte.
Duke: The Blue Devils were the nice story who won the division last year and then nearly upset Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl before Johnny Manziel pulled one last rabbit out of his hat for college football fans. Anthony Boone is back at quarterback, he’s got a great playmaker in Jamison Crowder to throw to, and there’s a veteran secondary on defense.
Theoretically, I can see Duke winning it again. But in practice, is this really a program that’s good enough to win consecutive division titles, when the luck factor can turn for the worse and opponents don’t overlook you? Duke could be just as good, but still not replicate last year’s 10-2 run through the regular season.
North Carolina: UNC is a slight betting favorite to win the Coastal this season. Larry Fedora is in his third year in Chapel Hill, has already won 16 games in two seasons and he’s got a terrific dual threat quarterback in Marquise Williams and six starters back on defense, two on each tier.
The key question—does three starters back on the offensive line mean this unit will be good? Or does the fact two of the returnees are sophomores, along with a new freshman starting, mean the O-Line will still be too young.
Miami & Virginia Tech: For the better part of a decade, these two programs have played big games in the Coastal Division, and each are tied in the eyes of Las Vegas. Both are 12-1 shots to win the ACC title, narrowly behind North Carolina’s 10-1.
The Virginia Tech offense has a significant rebuild ahead, with quarterback Logan Thomas back. Although Thomas seemed to be fighting a one-man crusade so frequently, that perhaps a rebuild is the best thing anyway. The Hokie secondary is going to be very good, and Frank Beamer, along with defensive coordinator Bud Foster always get something going on the front seven.
Miami was poised to win this division last year until a November collapse. The Hurricanes are going to run the ball very well, with Duke Johnson running behind a good offensive line. The defense looks decent up front and strong in the secondary. There’s uncertainty at quarterback, but after the up-and-down career of Stephen Morris, that’s not a bad thing.
The biggest uncertainty is with this program. When the Hurricanes joined the ACC along with the Hokies in 2004, it would have seemed unthinkable that Miami would never even play in the conference championship game. But that’s where we’re at ten years later. Can the ‘Canes finally find a way to start winning their biggest games?
Georgia Tech: Since their ACC championship of 2009, the Yellow Jackets have been in a rut of being an above-average bowl team, but not a lot more. They’re still running the triple option under the leadership of Paul Johnson, and there’s nothing in the returning personnel that suggests a change from the last few years—for better or for worse.
Pitt: The Panthers would kill to be in the rut Georgia Tech is. Pitt is locked in on .500, be it under current head coach Paul Chryst, or his predecessors. But the Panthers stepped up and beat Notre Dame a year ago, and they also won a bowl game against a good Bowling Green team. There’s experience throughout the lineup and if Chryst can replace quarterback Tom Savage, the Panthers will improve. And while Savage was drafted into the NFL by the Houston Texans, it’s not like he ever reminded anyone on campus of Dan Marino to begin with.
ATLANTIC DIVISION BOWL HOPEFULS
If either of these teams were on the other side of the conference, they could aspire to at least winning a division. In the Atlantic, they’ll have to settle for aiming at a solid bowl season…
Louisville: I could be underrating the Cardinals. Las Vegas certainly things so—Louisville is rated even with Clemson as a challenger to Florida State, thanks to the hiring of Bobby Petrino. I think that’s a stretch—Charlie Strong was an excellent head coach before leaving for Texas and Teddy Bridgewater is not going to be easily replaced at quarterback.
There’s still a veteran offensive line, a running game led by Dominique Brown, and a great receiver in Devante Parker. But there’s defensive problems and a quarterback has to be found. Louisville can still be good—as in eight-win kind of good—and if everything breaks right, they could knock off Clemson. But unlike the Tigers, the Cardinals cannot aspire to even a puncher’s chance at edging out Florida State.
Syracuse: A bowl upset of Minnesota brings the Orangemen and second-year coach Steve Shafer into 2014 with a lot of positive momentum. I like this team a lot—they’re experienced in both lines, and Terrell Hunt is a quarterback who runs like a truck. Just building on that will make Syracuse a pretty good team. If Hunt’s passing develops, they can think bigger things.
Six wins and a bowl game would be a huge victory for any of these teams….
Boston College: I feel bad about putting BC in this group. Head coach Steve Addazio did a terrific job, lifting from the Eagles from 2-10 to 7-5 a year ago, and running back Andre Williams finished second in the Heisman voting. But there’s a huge rebuilding job this year. Addazio will get everything back on track in Chestnut Hill for 2015.
N.C. State: Oddsmakers like the Wolfpack the best in this group of four longshots. Head coach Dave Doeren has to be wondering why he left Northern Illinois so quickly, prior to their Orange Bowl game in 2012 and before waiting to see what other offers would lineup. N.C. State went winless in the ACC this year and while they won’t be that bad this year, I don’t see it getting a whole lot better.
Wake Forest: Another head coach who won a MAC title now comes to the ACC for a reclamation project. Dave Clawson led Bowling Green to a conference championship and now inherits a program that had lost momentum under Jim Grobe. The Deacons have been soft up front in recent years, and Clawson’s first priority will have to rebuilding both sides of the trenches.
Virginia: Mike London is on a serious hot seat and there’s talk he may not even survive the season. If the negative momentum overwhelms the program, London won’t be able to stop it. But if he keeps the attention of his kids, UVA has the makings of a good defense and a good running game with Kevin Parks. It’s reasonable that can get six wins, a bowl and maybe another year for the embattled head coach.
I don’t see a lot of point in swimming against the tide when it comes to the ACC title. Florida State is going to win it again and it’s not going to be all that close. I have no doubt about picking North Carolina to come out of the Coastal. I love the job Fedora is doing, love Williams at quarterback and love the way they finished the season in 2013.