5 Schools Most Responsible for Keeping the ACC on the Upswing
2013 was a banner year for ACC football. The league expanded its East Coast footprint with a pair of additions in Pitt and Syracuse, replaced departing Maryland with an upgrade in the American Athletic Conference’s best team in Louisville and also had a huge breakthrough in on-field play.
Florida State won a thrilling BCS national title game over Auburn to give the ACC its first national title since 2000, when the Seminoles beat Virginia Tech.
And the Seminoles’ ACC Atlantic Division mate Clemson capped its second consecutive 11-win season with an Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State for the Tigers’ first BCS bowl win.
With two BCS bowl wins, the ACC matched its total from the previous 12 seasons combined.
Three years ago, the league was a prime candidate to be torn apart in the realignment frenzy, with speculation about members going to the Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC. In the end, Maryland was the only loss, and as college football enters the playoff era, the ACC is firmly positioned as one of the nation’s power-five conferences, thanks to a league-wide grant of rights that preserved stability.
But as the league solidifies its position among the nation’s best, it can’t afford a step back. Florida State and Clemson’s emergence, along with a scheduling alliance with Notre Dame that will put five ACC teams on the Fighting Irish’s schedule each season, will help assure its staying power.
Here are five schools that will carry that burden.
Four years ago, the Tigers were a very average ACC team. A 6-7 record in Dabo Swinney’s second season led him to clean house on his offensive staff, bringing in Chad Morris and his hurry-up, no-huddle style offense.
As Morris begins his fourth season, the experiment can only be categorized as an unqualified success. Clemson has won at least 10 games in three consecutive seasons for the first time since 1987 to 1990 and won 11 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in program history.
Clemson has been ranked in the top 15 of the final BCS poll in each of the last three seasons, joining Alabama, Oregon, Stanford, Oklahoma and South Carolina as the only programs that can make that claim. The Tigers are one of just five schools nationally to average 40 points and 500 yards per game in each of the last two seasons.
2014 brings a challenge. Can Clemson reload after losing NFL first-round pick Sammy Watkins, talented receiver Martavis Bryant, quarterback Tajh Boyd (the ACC’s all-time leader in touchdown passes and No. 2 all-time in passing yardage) and 1,000-yard rusher Roderick McDowell?
Senior Cole Stoudt (who completed 79.7 percent of his passes last fall as Boyd’s backup) will step in as the starting quarterback, but the biggest question is at receiver. Can senior Adam Humphries, junior Charone Peake (recovering from a torn ACL), talented sophomore Mike Williams and freshmen Demarre Kitt, Kyrin Priester and Artavis Scott help approximate the departed production?
Clemson’s defense is improving and should be even better this season, as the Tigers return their entire two-deep from a nasty defensive line that is led by returning All-American Vic Beasley, a senior defensive end.
2014 won’t be easy, especially with road trips to Georgia and Florida State looming in the first three games. But the Tigers need to carry their weight to keep the ACC flag flying high.
2013 wasn’t supposed to be Florida State’s year. The Seminoles had recruited well, but with a freshman quarterback and a key Atlantic Division road game at Clemson (where FSU had not won since 2001), perhaps 2014 would be the year that Jimbo Fisher’s bunch put it all together and challenged for a national title. A No. 11 ranking in The Associated Press preseason poll reflected those thoughts.
How wrong we all were. That “freshman quarterback” was Jameis Winston, who solidified the job in preseason practice and turned into a force of nature, becoming the second freshman in as many years (following Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel) to win the Heisman Trophy.
Winston threw for 4,057 yards with 40 touchdowns against 10 interceptions and led a high-powered offense.
There are questions following the departures of first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin (who caught the game-winning touchdown in the national title game and had 54 receptions for 1,011 yards and 15 scores), Kenny Shaw (54 receptions, 933 yards, six scores), 1,000-yard rusher Devonta Freeman and No. 3 rusher James Wilder Jr.
Senior Christian Green (6’2”, 200 lbs) has speed and strength and is an option to replace Benjamin, as is sophomore Isaiah Jones (6’4”, 200 lbs). Both are largely unknown quantities. Rashad Greene, who led the Seminoles with 76 receptions for 1,128 yards and nine scores, does return.
Senior Jared "Scooter" Haggins (6’0”, 193 lbs), sophomore Kermit Whitfield (5’7”, 178 lbs) and sophomore Bobo Wilson (5’9”, 177 lbs) are battling to replace Shaw in the starting lineup.
But Florida State has recruited exceedingly well. In 2014, 5-star wideout Ermon Lane (rated as the nation’s No. 24 overall recruit by 247Sports), 4-star Travis Rudolph (rated as the nation’s No. 6 wideout) and 4-star Javon Harrison (rated as the No. 16 athlete) will all join the mix, as will 5-star tailback Dalvin Cook.
And coaches are high on returning rising senior tailback Karlos Williams, who had 730 yards and 11 touchdowns last fall.
Defensively, FSU must replace free safety Terrence Brooks (a third-round pick of the Ravens), defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (a second-round pick of Ravens), safety Lamarcus Joyner (a second-round pick of the Rams) and linebacker Telvin Smith (a fifth-round pick of the Jaguars).
Joyner will be replaced by rising sophomore Jalen Ramsey, while P.J. Williams, the national title game’s defensive MVP, figures to play an increased role in the secondary as well.
Florida State could have growing pains early, but the Seminoles must adjust quickly.
“I think it’s just the ability to have hunger again and understand that they have to have the chip on their shoulder and they have to stay aggressive and keep refining the things we did well and continue to do them and gradually tweak the things that we didn't do well,” Fisher said on a recent ACC teleconference.
“And I think that's been the key. To me it's all about we have worked, we have talent, we will adjust and we may be a different team in several ways because our players may be different. But I think the critical thing which I've been very pleased with is their attitude and work ethic.”
As the team that ended the SEC’s seven-year BCS national title streak, Florida State has become the ACC’s flagship program. Expect more of the same this fall. The Seminoles are No. 1 in Bleacher Report's preseason spring top-25 rankings.
While ACC charter member Maryland stunned many by bolting to the Big Ten, the ACC quickly moved to upgrade the Terrapins’ spot by grabbing Louisville from the Big East/American Athletic Conference. The Cardinals were one of college football’s best teams over the last three seasons, rolling up a 23-3 record that included a Sugar Bowl rout of SEC power Florida.
Still, there was a sense that Charlie Strong struck while the iron was hot in jumping to Texas to replace Mack Brown.
Louisville suffered several key losses from 2013’s 12-1 team, including three NFL first-round draft picks. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater declared for the draft following his junior season. Last fall, he threw for 3,970 yards with 31 touchdowns and four interceptions, completing 71 percent of his passes.
The Cardinals boasted the nation’s No. 1 overall total defense and No. 2 scoring defense last fall but return only four starters from that group. Hard-hitting safety Calvin Pryor was selected No. 18 overall by the New York Jets, and linebacker Marcus Smith (the AAC’s Defensive Player of the Year) was the No. 26 overall selection of the Philadelphia Eagles. Louisville’s leading tackler, linebacker Preston Brown, was a third-round pick of the Buffalo Bills.
New defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, lured from Georgia by a $1 million annual salary, is shifting Louisville from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme, and he’ll have his hands full against Clemson and Florida State’s high-powered offenses in the Atlantic Division.
New starting quarterback Will Gardner, who stands 6’5”, 230 pounds, has excellent mobility and a big arm, but he’ll have to adjust quickly to his new responsibility. He will have talented targets, most notably wideout DeVante Parker (55 receptions, 885 yards, 12 touchdowns in 2013), but new coach Bobby Petrino must prove he can recruit with the likes of Clemson and Florida State to keep the Cardinals relevant in their new home and elevate the ACC as a whole in the process.
“It’s time to go to the next level, and going into the ACC and the challenge that that presents with the schedule and in recruiting, it's exciting for all of us,” Petrino said on the ACC spring teleconference. “It's an exciting time for the city of Louisville and all our fans, and it presents a great challenge.”
When Miami joined the ACC in 2004, the idea was simple: Put the Hurricanes in the Coastal Division and Florida State in the Atlantic and have the two rivals battle it out twice per year—once in their regular-season crossover meeting and then again in the ACC title game.
As Miami marks its 10-year ACC anniversary, it hasn’t happened that way. In fact, Miami has yet to play in the ACC title game. The Hurricanes were eligible in 2012 but turned down the opportunity as part of a self-imposed bowl ban connected to the Nevin Shapiro scandal.
Miami banned itself from postseason play for three seasons and ultimately received a probation that stripped nine scholarships over three seasons.
Last fall the Hurricanes started 7-0 entering a top-10 matchup at Florida State, but the season went downhill from there. Star tailback Duke Johnson broke his ankle in a 41-14 defeat, and Miami finished 2-4, including a 36-9 Russell Athletic Bowl whipping at Louisville’s hands.
This spring, Miami’s luck got no better, as senior quarterback and expected starter Ryan Williams suffered a torn ACL. However, he is rehabbing intensely and hopes to be back by September.
Al Golden’s staff is recruiting well. The Hurricanes are currently No. 10 nationally in 247Sports’ 2015 national team recruiting rankings, and there is a sense that the best is yet to come in Coral Gables.
Whether it happens this fall remains an open question, but the ACC clearly needs Miami to be at its best to continue its national emergence.
Remember when Virginia Tech was the 800-pound gorilla of the ACC? When winning in Blacksburg was a rarity to be savored and something special?
Boy, those days seem long ago, don’t they?
From 2004 to 2011, Virginia Tech strung together eight consecutive 10-win seasons, winning four ACC titles.
Over the last two seasons, the Hokies are just 15-11.
Following the 2012 season, Frank Beamer, the longest-tenured head coach in the FBS ranks, retooled his offensive coaching staff, bringing in former Auburn offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. Even with talented quarterback Logan Thomas under center, the offense wasn’t a striking success last fall, averaging 22.5 points per game, No. 99 in the FBS.
Virginia Tech needs consistent quarterback play to improve that mark but enters fall with a muddled quarterback race. Neither sophomore Brenden Motley nor fifth-year senior Mark Leal distinguished himself this spring, and Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer and true freshman Chris Durkin will join the race this fall. Beamer said on the ACC spring teleconference that quarterback was the “critical” question of fall camp.
With Bud Foster on board, Tech will consistently have one of the nation’s best defenses. A year ago, the Hokies allowed an average of 19.2 points per game, No. 11 nationally.
However, the Hokies must recruit better to rejoin the ACC’s elite. While Clemson, Florida State and Miami are all in the top 10 nationally in 247Sports’ 2015 recruiting rankings, Tech is lagging at No. 51. The 2014 class ranked No. 27 nationally.
For the ACC to move forward nationally, a strong Virginia Tech program in the Coastal Division is a must. The onus is on Beamer to improve the Hokies’ fortunes and restore the old glory to Lane Stadium.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
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