ACC: Clemson Tigers

The most aggressive offense in the ACC in 2014 was Clemson, which might not have been a surprise in 2012 or 2013, but in a year in which there were so many personnel issues for the Tigers’ offense, it’s a bit shocking.

Clemson threw deep (20-plus yards) on 7.46 percent of its total plays, well above the league average of 5.93 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And that was probably not the best idea either, because while Clemson went deep more often than anyone else, the Tigers also averaged the second-fewest yards-per-attempt on those throws (trailing only Syracuse) and nearly 10 yards per attempt less than what Tajh Boyd mustered last year for Clemson. That’s not exactly a recipe for offensive success.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtDeshaun Watson completed nearly 50 percent of his deep balls in 2014 with seven touchdowns and just one interception.
But, of course, personnel had a lot to do with that, and it only goes to show how much a healthy Deshaun Watson affects Clemson’s overall offensive success, because those aggregate numbers hardly tell the whole story.

Watson completed nearly 50 percent of his deep balls in 2014 with seven touchdowns and just one interception. He averaged 15.9 yards per attempt, which would’ve been tops in the ACC if he’d been the only quarterback throwing for the Tigers in 2014. But he wasn’t.

Cole Stoudt and Nick Schuessler completed just 15 percent of their deep balls this season with one TD, two interceptions and a woeful 5.2 yards-per-attempt average. To put that in perspective, if they’d been the only quarterbacks throwing for Clemson this year, the Tigers would’ve been dead last in the league in YPA by nearly four full yards.

That’s just one of the interesting facts we find when we dig into the ACC’s deep-ball numbers for 2014.

A few more, with deep-ball stats courtesy ESPN Stats & Info:

  • No team was worse on the deep ball in the ACC than Syracuse. This is no surprise. The Orange completed just 27.8 percent of its deep balls (worst in the ACC), averaged 9.2 yards per attempt (again, worst), had just two touchdowns (13th) and five interceptions (t-12th). That’s down a bit from last year, but the Orange have struggled on those throws ever since Ryan Nassib left.
  • Perhaps the most improved team on the deep ball this year was Virginia. Last season, the Hoos were just 7-of-50 on throws of 20 yards or more. This year, they more than doubled their deep-ball yards, completion percentage and TD throws.
  • North Carolina had one of the ACC’s most potent offenses, but it wasn’t because of the deep ball. This is one of the reasons Larry Fedora was so high on Mitch Trubisky, but the numbers didn’t back up that confidence. Overall, UNC’s completion percentage of 28 percent on deep balls was third-worst in the league and its 9.93 YPA was fourth worst, but Marquise Williams was far better than his counterpart. Williams wasn’t great (28 percent completions, 12.2 YPA) but Trubisky really struggled (3-of-15 for 100 yards with a pick).
  • Only Wake Forest went deep less often than Pittsburgh (4.28 percent of total plays), which seems a bit odd considering that the Panthers could’ve used play-action well (given the strong running game) and they actually had the highest completion percentage of any ACC team on throws of 20-plus yards (44.4 percent).
  • Florida State was far less successful on the deep ball this year than last, with its completion percentage down (48.8 in 2013 to 35.7 in 2014) and TDs way off (16 last year, nine this). But FSU also threw five fewer interceptions on deep throws this year, and when it did get a completion, it’s YPC was actually improved (40 YPA this year, 32 YPA last year).
  • No team was better on the deep ball than Miami in 2014. Brad Kaaya proved to be an excellent downfield thrower, matched with a good running game and speed at receiver. For the year, Miami completed 41.3 percent of its deep balls (second in ACC), averaged 14.6 yards per attempt (first) and had nine touchdowns on those throws (tied for first). It’s worth noting though that just 12 percent of Miami’s passes in 2014 were 20 yards or more, the third fewest in the league.
  • No team gained a higher percentage of its total offense in 2014 via the deep ball than Louisville (15.9 percent), which is interesting given that DeVante Parker missed seven games and Bobby Petrino cycled through three different quarterbacks. Overall, Louisville’s deep-ball numbers were virtually the same as 2013, in spite of losing its star receiver for more than half the year and a first-round draft pick at quarterback. That’s a real credit to the work Petrino did this season.
  • Not surprisingly, Georgia Tech and Boston College had the highest percentage of their pass attempts be deep balls. Next up though? NC State (17 percent).
  • Virginia Tech wasn’t great on the deep ball (10.5 YPA, four TDs, four INTs), but it was a necessary part of the Hokies’ offense. For the year, 74.1 percent of Tech’s plays of 20-plus yards came on throws of 20-plus yards -- meaning if the Hokies didn’t look deep, they rarely had a shot at a big play. The league average on that stat was 45.6 percent, meaning the rest of the ACC got more than half of its big plays from plays that weren’t deep balls. Virtually all of Virginia Tech’s big-play threat relied on the arm of Michael Brewer. That speaks volumes about the Hokies’ season.
Russell Athletic Bowl: Clemson (9-3) vs. Oklahoma (8-4)

Dec. 29, 5:30 p.m., Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla. (ESPN)

Key matchup: Wayne Gallman vs. Sooners’ D

Why it matters: There were two different Clemson offenses this year -- the one with Deshaun Watson and the one without him. In the Tigers’ bowl game, they’ll be without the freshman sensation, and that’s bad news for the offense. Cole Stoudt struggled badly down the stretch, and as good as Clemson’s D has been all year, it’ll be tough to beat Oklahoma without finding the end zone on offense. That means the onus is likely going to be on Gallman and the Tigers’ running game to keep some balance, take the pressure off Stoudt, convert short-yardage plays and chew up some clock. That hadn’t been an overly successful game plan for much of the season, but Gallman finished the year strong, topping 100 yards in three of his final five games, including a 27-carry, 191-yard performance in the regular-season finale against South Carolina.

Who wins: While Oklahoma is getting healthy on offense, Clemson will finish up the year with Stoudt at quarterback, and that’s a major concern. Against Power 5 opponents this season, Stoudt had just four touchdowns with nine interceptions and averaged a woeful 5.5 yards per attempt. Given his shaky finish to the season and the coaching turnover with Chad Morris leaving, it’s hard to envision Clemson staking the game on Stoudt, so Oklahoma figures to be keyed in on Gallman and the ground game. Linebacker Eric Striker leads a Sooners D that ranked eighth nationally, allowing just 110 yards per game against FBS foes this year, so they’re more than capable of slowing Clemson’s ground attack, and while Gallman finished strong, the Tigers’ running backs averaged just 4.26 yards per rush against Power 5 foes this year -- 52nd out of 65 Power 5 teams. Perhaps Vic Beasley & Co. can create a couple turnovers on defense to swing the game, but if it comes down to Clemson’s O carrying the day, the formula is a little tough to envision.

Prediction: Oklahoma 21, Clemson 17.

ACC morning links

December, 17, 2014
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The public and awkward tango Paul Chryst, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh have been dancing -- made all the more uncomfortable after the music stopped playing last week and left them in the middle of the circle -- looks to be over.

Chryst appears set to be named as the Badgers’ next coach, according to Benjamin Worgull of BadgerNation.com.

The Madison, Wisconsin, native and former Badgers player and assistant was the focus of Badgers athletic director Barry Alvarez’s search and was identified as the likely successor to Gary Andersen a week ago. However, Wisconsin state law prevents Alvarez from making a hire until Wednesday, which left Chryst and Pittsburgh in limbo for the last few days.

Considering how the situation has played out, Chryst leaving for Wisconsin is best for all parties. His desire was to go to Wisconsin, and, with all of his ties to the university, it’s hard to blame Chryst for wanting to return. Chryst seemed to handle the situation with class, fulfilling his duties as Pitt’s coach as best he could, conducting bowl practices and recruiting visits. Reports suggest Chryst was upfront with administration and his players over the last few days about his interest in the Wisconsin job.

Pitt was in a tough situation, too, knowing it needed a resolution but also aware it would be unwise to unload Chryst financially. There is no concrete figure being reported, but it is likely Chryst has a buyout that will be owed to Pitt now that it’s only a matter of some red tape before becoming Wisconsin coach.

The Panthers were 19-19 under Chryst and underachieved in 2014, but he laid a foundation during his three years. Offensively, the new staff will inherit running back James Conner and receiver Tyler Boyd, who are two of the best players at their position in the country. Both were named to the ESPN.com All-ACC team last week. The offensive line will also return three starters that average 6-foot-5 and 313 pounds.

Colleague Travis Haney offered up a few names that Pitt AD Steve Pedersen could call upon for an interview, and Pedersen has been proactive despite Chryst still not officially being named Wisconsin’s coach. Sam Werner of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports Pitt has contacted former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano.

Hopefully, the new Pitt coach can hit the ground running and bring some stability to a program that has had a revolving door at coach since the end of the 2010 season. With the right hire, Pitt can possibly make a run at the Coastal Division crown in 2015 as the schedule is far from daunting. The Panthers avoid Florida State and Clemson, instead getting Syracuse and Virginia (and Louisville) from the Atlantic. Syracuse and Virginia failed to reach bowl eligibility this fall.

Here’s a few more links for your Wednesday.

Play that changed the ACC race

December, 16, 2014
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It was the scene every Florida State fan feared. Sean Maguire, still in the game in the fourth quarter because of a second suspension handed down to Jameis Winston less than a day before the game, was walking off the field having seemingly cost the Seminoles a chance at consecutive national titles.

With a little more than two minutes left in a tied game, Maguire threw an interception on the Seminoles' side of the field. Clemson began what it hoped would be the game's final drive at the FSU 26-yard line with 2:14 remaining. A win would give the Tigers a vise grip on the Atlantic Division title.

The Seminoles still had all three timeouts, though, and Clemson kicker Ammon Lakip missed field goals of 23 and 40 yards earlier in the game. The Tigers couldn’t just sit on the ball and hand it off to Lakip for an easy go-ahead kick. So the Tigers ran quarterback Deshaun Watson on first down before handing the ball to C.J. Davidson on second-and-short.

The offensive line paved a nice hole for Davidson, who looked as if he might be able to take the ball the final 18 yards. However, Seminoles defensive tackle Eddie Goldman got his big left paw on Davidson and the football and ripped the ball loose as he took Davidson to the ground. Nate Andrews was there to dive on the ball and push the game to a fifth quarter.

video

The play, pure and simple, is the epitome of “Clemsoning.” In about a five-second span, that play sums up all that "Clemsoning" is and is potentially the defining "Clemsoning" moment considering it happened in a game with so many Tigers miscues that it generated this headline from The Washington Post.

Despite all the missed field goals and bad snaps, the Tigers were in the red zone with time winding down. Any score would have given Clemson the lead and forced the Seminoles to drive the field with Winston relegated to the sideline in jeans and a baseball cap. For Clemson fans, it might have been a satisfactory resolution for what happened in Death Valley in 2013.

If the remaining results of the 2014 ACC schedule held, the Seminoles would have been shut out of the conference championship game and the playoff. Clemson would possibly be playing in its third Orange Bowl in the last four seasons.

Instead, Florida State kept winning games in similar fashion and is on the cusp of having a 30-game winning streak.
Clemson made the right decision to have quarterback Deshaun Watson have surgery to repair his torn ACL, forcing him to miss the bowl game.

That matchup against Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando, Florida, this month is one Watson can afford to miss, even if it means handicapping the offense for one more game.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsClemson's Deshaun Watson will have about eight months in recovery time following ACL surgery before fall practice begins.
Because the most important contests loom ahead, with a promising 2015 season awaiting.

As coach Dabo Swinney explained, the earlier surgery date means Watson gains nearly one month in recovery and rehab time.

"Those 3 1/2 weeks will be critical in the back end," Swinney said in a recent interview. "We want to get him back for our summer skills and drills. We really need him to lead the squad through the summer. We want to do everything we can to get him back, and we feel pretty good we can meet that timeline so he can be ready to go before we start camp in the fall."

Watson will have about eight months in recovery time before the heart of fall practice begins. Swinney noted that two players who tore ACLs last spring, tight end Sam Cooper and former quarterback Chad Kelly, had their recoveries fast-tracked. Cooper had recovered just four months after his knee injury. He would have played in the opener against Georgia, but he broke his leg during pregame warm-ups.

Though it is hard to avoid comparisons, Clemson cannot afford to rush Watson and risk having him come back too early, because he means so much to the offense. That was plain to see this past season, when the Tigers looked like a hyper-charged version of itself with Watson behind center.

But Watson could not find a way to stay healthy as a true freshman, leading some to wonder whether he is injury-prone so early in his career. In the spring, he broke his collarbone and missed the spring game. After waiting his turn, Watson finally got the starting nod against North Carolina. Two games later, he broke his finger against Louisville.

When he returned a month later against Georgia Tech, he injured his knee on what looked like a routine run. Watson was able to play the season finale against South Carolina and lead a victory on the partially torn ligament. Because he played in that game, Swinney initially said Watson would be able to play in the bowl game.

But the timing did not make much sense for that to happen.

In the end, this turned out to be the first time Swinney has had his starting quarterback miss time because of injury.

"Sometimes you have some crazy things like that," Swinney said. "It’s just the game. You can’t play this game worried about that kind of stuff. Sometimes, you have some freak things. Had he hurt his finger on the left hand he would have never missed a snap. Or had he not been a quarterback, he wouldn’t have missed a snap, but because he was a quarterback, he really needed to throw the ball. It really wasn’t a big injury, it was just something he couldn’t do his job with.

"He’s never really been hurt his whole career. Sometimes you have some spells like that, but adversity builds a little character and toughness and makes you appreciate the opportunities when you are healthy. He’ll bounce back and be better than ever."

Top sleeper commits: ACC 

December, 15, 2014
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Five-star and ESPN 300 prospects create the most buzz, but with more than a hundred FBS programs competing for talent, it takes more than just those top-rated prospects and rosters are built with mainly prospects that enter college with little fanfare, but their development and contributions are key to a program’s success. Every year we see prospects who flew under the radar, but developed into some of their conference's top players.

Throughout our evaluations we come across many players who show promise and based of their upside for development or scheme fit are great additions.

Here are five unheralded commitments in the ACC worth keeping an eye on.

OG Wyatt Knopfke, Boston College
While Knopfke is an ESPN 300 player, he’s not as well-known as other interior linemen in the rankings. The big man out of Florida is a physical, strong player with the tools to be a good well-rounded player. And while listed at guard, he could be a candidate to develop at center as well. With an Eagles line that was loaded with seniors this season, head Coach Steve Addazio, an O-line coach himself, has a player who can develop into a key contributor in Knopfke.

DE LaSamuel Davis, Clemson
Four-star prospects like OT Zach Giella and athlete Van Smith are talented prospects and still rated highly, but they could be overlooked in a Tigers’ class that features double-digit ESPN 300 prospects. Another prospect in that group is Davis who notched over 100 tackles and 16 sacks this season. A rangy defender with wiry strength, he can use his hands well, flashes a good first-step and displays the tools to at least develop into a productive edge rusher. He needs to work to fill out his frame and be more consistent with his motor, but among this great collection of talent, Davis could emerge in time as a productive defensive contributor.

ACC's 2015 Heisman hopefuls

December, 15, 2014
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Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy on Saturday, and while the ACC had plenty of impressive performances in 2014, Jameis Winston was the lone representative from the conference to finish in the top 10 in voting.

That could certainly change in 2015, when the ACC has several emerging stars who could contend for the award. Here’s a quick look at the league’s top challengers for the 2015 Heisman Trophy.

(Note: We’re assuming that Winston and Miami’s Duke Johnson won’t return for 2015, but if either does come back, he would immediately jump to the top of our rankings.)

1. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson

If he had stayed healthy all season, Watson might have been a contender for the award as a true freshman. Assuming he can stay on the field in 2015, he looks poised to be the biggest playmaker in the conference for an offense in which he will be surrounded by young talent.

2. Miami QB Brad Kaaya

Kaaya had his ups and downs as a true freshman in 2014, but he showed plenty of poise and was arguably the ACC’s top deep-ball threat. Miami’s offense has plenty of skill-position talent, but Kaaya will need the Hurricanes to finish better than 6-6 if he wants a crack at the Heisman.

3. Florida State RB Dalvin Cook

There will be plenty of enthusiasm surrounding Cook’s sophomore campaign in 2015, and if Florida State makes another run at the playoff, he would likely be in the Heisman conversation. The problem for Cook is that he will likely be starring on an offense forced to replace its top receiver, top tight end, four starting linemen and Heisman-winning quarterback.

[+] EnlargeJames Conner, Detrick Bonner
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsPitt running back James Conner rushed for a school-record 24 touchdowns in 2014.
4. Pittsburgh RB James Conner

Few players in the country carried a heavier share of their team’s offensive load in 2014 than Conner did for Pitt. While he was a bit overshadowed by the Big Ten's top running backs, his 1,675 yards and 24 rushing TDs would have had him in the Heisman Trophy discussion most seasons. He could certainly match or exceed those numbers next year.

5. Georgia Tech QB Justin Thomas

In his first year running Paul Johnson’s offense, Thomas was exceptional, but as the Georgia Tech coach was quick to point out, this could be just the tip of the iceberg. With a year of experience and wider latitude in directing the offense in 2015, Thomas could easily emerge as one of the country’s most explosive offensive threats.

6. North Carolina QB Marquise Williams

Williams’ numbers in 2014 were exceptional, but he was largely overshadowed by UNC’s rocky season defensively. If the Tar Heels can finally emerge into a Coastal contender with Williams leading a high-powered offensive attack, he could emerge as one of the nation’s biggest dual threats at quarterback. His numbers this year were already similar to Dak Prescott, so perhaps 2015 will be Williams’ chance to spend the season getting the Heisman hype.

7. Pittsburgh WR Tyler Boyd

It’s tough for wide receivers to push their way into the Heisman campaign, but Boyd’s numbers in 2014 were exceptional. Whether he can turn in a 2015 season similar to what Alabama’s Amari Cooper did this year depends greatly on whether there is a new coaching regime at Pitt and the progress of Panthers QB Chad Voytik. But Boyd’s talent as a receiver and on special teams certainly will be worth monitoring.

8. Miami RB Joseph Yearby

He played second fiddle to Johnson this year, but it’s easy to see why Miami fans are so excited about the future for Yearby. As a true freshman, he averaged 6.1 yards per carry and 600 yards of total offense. With a starter’s share of the offense next season, Yearby could emerge into an all-purpose star for the Hurricanes.

[+] EnlargeRonald Darby, Jalen Ramsey
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsJalen Ramsey (8) will be a leader on a Florida State defense that might have a little more on its shoulders in 2015.
9. Florida State DB Jalen Ramsey

Defensive players aren’t usually in the Heisman conversation, but with so much turnover expected on FSU’s offense in 2015, it will be up to Ramsey and the defense to keep the Seminoles afloat. Ramsey is already one of the nation’s top defensive backs, and in his third year as a starter, he could easily take the next step into the Heisman Trophy conversation with a few big plays at crucial times -- much as Notre Dame’s Manti Te'o did in 2012.

10. Duke RB Shaun Wilson

Here’s an under-the-radar player to watch as a potential Heisman hopeful in 2015. Wilson wasn’t Duke’s starter this season, but as a true freshman he still led the Blue Devils in rushing (590 yards) and was second in TDs (5) while finishing sixth in the nation in yards per rush (8.0). He could secure the starting job next year on an offense that could be more run-heavy, giving Wilson a chance to rack up huge numbers as one of the league’s most explosive runners.

Others to watch: Boston College RB Jon Hilliman, Louisville RB Brandon Radcliff, NC State QB Jacoby Brissett, Virginia RB Taquan Mizzell

ACC morning links: Miami goes young

December, 15, 2014
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It’s not exactly a great time to be a Miami fan right now. The 6-6 finish for a team with loads of talent was disappointing, to say the least. Saturday’s broadcast of “The U Part 2” only underscored how far Miami is from its glory years. Duke Johnson and Denzel Perryman, the heart and soul of the current Canes’ roster, both figure to be gone after the bowl game.

So what’s left to boost the optimism around Coral Gables?

Well, according to the Sun-Sentinel, Al Golden is giving plenty of practice reps to the young players in preparation for Miami’s Duck Commander Independence Bowl date with South Carolina, and that’s probably a good step in the right direction.

There will be plenty of turnover at Miami after the season, and as much as Johnson says he’s still undecided on the NFL, it certainly feels like these practices are the beginning of the Canes turning the page.

"It was very important to us," freshman tailback Joseph Yearby told the Sun-Sentinel. "The veteran guys were sitting back, watching and coaching us so the younger guys could get their feet wet and be prepared for next year."

And for a 6-6 team that wrapped up the year with some serious questions about its motivation, that’s a good attitude to have.

If Johnson does depart, Miami will lose its top rusher, leading receiver (Phillip Dorsett), star tight end (Clive Walford), top tackler (Perryman) and leader in sacks (Thurston Armbrister). But Yearby and Gus Edwards, Jermaine Grace and Braxton Berrios, Stacy Coley and Brad Kaaya all will be back, giving an injection of new blood to a program that is probably much better off looking to the future than the past right now.

A few more links:

All-ACC team's toughest omissions

December, 12, 2014
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ESPN released its All-ACC team today, and though we certainly won’t expect much sympathy, it’s worth mentioning that putting those lists together is no easy task. This year, in particular, there were so many strong performances around the ACC that narrowing down the top guards, linebackers, defensive ends -- even the quarterback -- was an arduous task destined to leave some deserving players off the final list.

But since we don’t want to ignore those near-misses entirely, here is a quick look at some of the toughest decisions we had to make for this year’s All-ACC team.

Quarterback: The bottom line is that there is no better player in the conference than Jameis Winston when he’s on, but unlike last season, he had his share of struggles, too. Meanwhile, Marquise Williams emerged as a tremendous dual threat for UNC, helping to overcome a lot of the Tar Heels’ defensive struggles with some huge performances on offense, and Justin Thomas injected new life into Paul Johnson’s old option offense at Georgia Tech. Both Thomas and Williams were deserving candidates for first team — and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson would have been, too, if he had stayed healthy all season. Overall, it was a stellar year for quarterback play in the ACC.

Offensive guard: The problem with debating the merits of offensive linemen is that there aren’t many stats to use to break a tie, and when it came to our top three choices at guard -- Laken Tomlinson, Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson -- there was ample debate. In the end, we went with the first two, but Jackson’s contributions -- particularly with the revolving door at center for FSU this season -- shouldn’t go unnoticed. He might have been the Seminoles’ best offensive lineman.

Tight end: In the end, numbers set Clive Walford apart here. He led all ACC tight ends in yards, touchdowns, first downs, yards-per-catch and receptions per game while working with a true freshman quarterback. Still, it’s hard to ignore Nick O'Leary’s fine season (plus bonus points for taking on a bus and winning). Bucky Hodges, Gerald Christian, David Grinnage and Cam Serigne all had fine seasons as well.

Defensive end: OK, we cheated here. Vic Beasley was the obvious choice, but for the opposite side of the line, the debate between Dadi Nicolas and Mario Edwards Jr. was intense, with viable arguments made for both players. Edwards was a crucial cog on FSU’s defense, one of the most dynamic mixes of size and speed in college football. Nicolas was a force throughout the season and stepped up when interior lineman Luther Maddy went down with an injury. In the end, we followed the playoff selection committee’s precedent and avoided the tough question altogether by making our defense a 3-4 unit instead. Sorry, Dadi and Mario -- but now you know how Baylor and TCU feel.

Linebacker: There probably isn’t a more stacked position in the ACC than linebacker. Denzel Perryman and Stephone Anthony were exceptional. David Helton led the ACC in tackles. Lorenzo Mauldin was the most dynamic pass-rusher on Louisville’s stout defense. They all made the cut, but it meant a host of deserving options were left out, including BC’s Josh Keyes, Virginia’s Max Valles and Henry Coley, Syracuse’s Cameron Lynch and Georgia Tech’s Paul Davis.

ESPN.com's All-ACC team

December, 12, 2014
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Presenting the 2014 ESPN.com All-ACC team:

Offense

WR Rashad Greene, Florida State: Whenever FSU was in trouble, Greene was there to save the day. He made big catch after big catch, took big hit after big hit, and ended the season with 93 catches for 1,306 yards, helping him break both FSU's records for receptions and receiving yards.

WR DeVante Parker, Louisville: The senior caught 35 passes for 735 yards and five touchdowns, the latter two numbers among the top 10 in the ACC. Oh, did we mention he missed the first seven games?

TE Clive Walford, Miami: Was there a more complete tight end in the country? The numbers say there might not be: 44 catches (third nationally), 676 yards (third), 7 TDs (third nationally). Walford did this all with a true freshman QB, too.

OT Cameron Erving, Florida State: Erving repeated as the ACC's blocking trophy winner, moving from left tackle to center in Game No. 10 this season and staying there, further showing his value to a unit that had dealt with interior injuries but came on strong late to help running back Dalvin Cook bloom into one of the country's finest freshmen.

OT T.J. Clemmings, Pittsburgh: Clemmings ought to get at least a piece of James Conner's player of the year trophy. The converted defensive end was among the nation's most improved players, starting every game for the second season in a row while using his athleticism to ace a position switch he had resisted earlier in his career.

C Andy Gallik, Boston College: BC lost a Heisman finalist at running back and actually improved its rushing totals this season. A dual-threat QB explains part of that, but so, too, does a powerful offensive line, led by Gallik in the middle, who helped pave the way for the league's No. 2 rushing attack.

OG Shaquille Mason, Georgia Tech: The only ACC team that rushed for more than BC? The only one that kept its QB unscathed more than Duke? The Yellow Jackets are the answer to both, with Mason captaining an oft-overlooked unit that was absolutely integral to the program's resurgence this season while running its famed triple-option attack.

OG Laken Tomlinson, Duke: The future pro turned in his best season yet, helping a Blue Devils offensive line that anchored a balanced offensive attack and kept QB Anthony Boone upright all season long, as Duke surrendered just 13 sacks, tied for 11th-best nationally.

QB Jameis Winston, Florida State: The reigning Heisman winner was not as sharp as last season, but he once again put up big numbers (3,559 yards, 24 TDs) while leading FSU to another perfect mark. Winston is 26-0 for his career as a starter. You simply cannot beat that.

RB James Conner, Pitt: The ACC player of the year rewrote the Pitt record books -- no easy feat for a place that boasts names like Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin and LeSean McCoy. Conner rushed for 1,675 yards and 24 TDs, responding to each defense's best shot game after game.

RB Duke Johnson, Miami: Like Conner, Johnson set himself above his peers at a program that has produced plenty of great running backs. Coming off an injury-shortened 2013 season, the junior ran for 1,520 yards and 13 TDs, becoming Miami's all-time leading rusher and its career leader in all-purpose yards.

Defense

DE Vic Beasley, Clemson: The ACC's defensive player of the year has seen his decision to return for his senior season pay off, as Beasley led the ACC in sacks (11) and tackles for loss (18.5) while making Clemson's defense the top-ranked unit nationally.

DT Eddie Goldman, Florida State: Who can forget Goldman forcing a Clemson fumble late to keep FSU's perfect season alive? The junior was in the right place at the right time often, a versatile threat who moved back inside this season after playing end. He dominated the line of scrimmage, and one just needs to look at how FSU fared without Goldman -- giving up 331 rushing yards to Georgia Tech as he went down early -- to see his value.

DT Grady Jarrett, Clemson: Ends might get all the stats and glory, but Jarrett's impact on offenses might have been as big as Beasley's, as he helped form arguably the top defensive line in the country. Jarrett had 6.5 TFLs and 11 QB hurries, freeing up those around him and making running the ball next to impossible down the stretch for opponents.

LB David Helton, Duke: The senior led the ACC in tackles (125) and ranked 11th nationally. Helton helped Duke overcome the preseason loss of linebacker Kelby Brown and led a unit that continued its ascension under coordinator Jim Knowles, finishing fifth in the ACC in scoring average (20.6 ppg), and 20th nationally.

LB Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville: A step-up in competition for Mauldin and the Cardinals meant even better results, as the hybrid notched a career-best 45 tackles and led the team in tackles for loss (13), while notching 6.5 sacks. Louisville's defense was one of the most surprising units in the country this season in its first year under coordinator Todd Grantham, ranking No. 6 nationally.

LB Stephone Anthony, Clemson: The leading tackler (73) on the nation's top defense, Anthony impacted games in a number of ways for the Tigers, making 9.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage while forcing two fumbles and picking off one pass.

LB Denzel Perryman, Miami: The senior led the Hurricanes in virtually ever major category: Tackles (102), TFLs (8.5) and forced fumbles (3) among them. He validated his decision to return after last season, recording yet another 100-tackle season and making his case as perhaps the top linebacker in the ACC.

S Gerod Holliman, Louisville: Fourteen interceptions. Fourteen! What more needs to be said? Holliman broke the ACC record and tied the NCAA mark. He had four multi-pick games, including a three-pick performance at BC. And he did this all after transitioning from corner to safety under Grantham's tutelage.

S Jalen Ramsey, Florida State: The sophomore made big play after big play, giving FSU's D an edge at the star position. He clinched the Miami game with a late pick and had two on the season to go with two forced fumbles, 11 break-ups, 13 passes defended and 9.5 TFLs. He blocked a kick, too.

CB Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech: The last in line of the storied Fuller family to come through Blacksburg, the sophomore showed plenty of the same NFL promise that has guided his older brothers. One of only a handful of Hokies to start every game, Fuller finished second in the ACC in passes defended (15), recorded 4.5 TFLs and recovered one fumble.

CB Garry Peters, Clemson: As overlooked as one can be on a defense loaded with stars, Peters quietly executed his job to a T, picking off one pass, breaking up 11 and defending 12. He forced a fumble and managed eight TFLs as well on a pass defense that ranked No. 3 nationally.

Special teams

K Roberto Aguayo, Florida State: Just another year at the office for Aguayo: 25-of-27 on field-goal attempts, perfect on extra points and a number of crucial kicks, which wasn't always required last year when he first stepped into the national spotlight. Aguayo is a whopping 46-of-49 for his career on field-goal attempts.

P Will Monday, Duke: Monday averaged 43.4 yards per punt, with 12 of his boots going for 50 or more yards. Eight of his punts were touchbacks, 19 were fair caught and 17 were inside the 20-yard line.

KR DeVon Edwards, Duke: Edwards averaged 25.4 yards per kick return, including a 99-yard touchdown in a high-scoring affair at Pitt, which the Blue Devils ended up winning in OT.

AP Tyler Boyd, Pitt: Boyd was a jack-of-all trades for Pitt, catching 69 passes for 1,149 yards and eight touchdowns. He was also the ACC's top punt returner, averaging 10.8 yards per return, which ranked 15th nationally.

ACC morning links

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
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Thursday brought news on two ACC quarterbacks, as former Miami signal-caller Kevin Olsen announced that he has found a new home while Syracuse's Mitch Kimble said that he is seeking a transfer.

Olsen, who posted the news on Instagram, will be hoping for a fresh start at Towson after a brief Hurricanes tenure that went about as poorly it possibly could have. The former four-star recruit and brother of ex-Miami star TE Greg Olsen had several run-ins with the law and eventually left school this past September. He would be eligible to play for the FCS Tigers in 2015. Here's hoping he is able to turn things around off the field and resurrect his promising career.

Kimble, meanwhile, will likely be taking the FCS route as well. The redshirt freshman told Syracuse.com's Nate Mink that Illinois State, Eastern Illinois and Western Illinois are among the schools he is considering. Kimble had entered the season as the Orange's No. 4 signal-caller and saw limited time with the rest of the reserves after Terrel Hunt went down for the season in October.

Kimble is a Jerseyville, Illinois, native, which would help explain some of the programs he is looking at.

Here are the rest of your ACC links:

ACC morning links

December, 11, 2014
Dec 11
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USA Today released a comprehensive list of college football assistant coaches' salaries Wednesday, and there is a name familiar to readers of this space at the top.

Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster took home more than any other assistant across the country this past year, clearing a total of $1,369,500. He is not alone near the summit, as three of the nation's six highest-paid assistants come from the ACC: Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris -- who was hired as SMU's head coach last week -- is No. 5 ($1.3 million), while Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is No. 6 ($975,000).

Foster's ranking this year comes with some fine print: The longtime Hokies defensive coordinator will receive an $800,000 longevity payment for four-plus years of service if he remains in his position through Dec. 31, according to the paper.

It's important to note that most of this information comes from public records request, which private schools don't have to abide by. So you won't see any numbers from the staffs of Boston College, Duke, Miami, Syracuse or Wake Forest. The same goes for Pitt, which is covered under state law exempting it from releasing such information.

Another way of looking at this may be through the salary pool programs afford their assistant coaches.

Those ACC rankings, with the national ranking in parantheses, are:

1) Clemson $4,448,225 (4th)
2) Virginia Tech $3,583,250 (8th)
3) Florida State $3,386,000 (11th)
4) Louisville $3,225,000 (18th)
5) Virginia $2,908,670 (24th)
6) NC State $2,692,560 (32nd)
7) Georgia Tech $2,233,600 (44th)
8) North Carolina $2,051,667 (53rd)

Here are the rest of your Thursday links:

By the numbers: ACC bowl perception

December, 10, 2014
Dec 10
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There are some legitimate concerns with evaluating a conference based on its bowl performance — uneven matchups, the long wait between games, etc. — but the reality is that a league’s performance in those high-profile events tends to dictate perception. For the ACC, that’s been a problem through the years.

In the last decade, the pecking order in bowl performance has pretty clearly mirrored national perception:

SEC: 55-31 (.640)
Pac-12: 34-28 (.548)
Big 12: 41-36 (.532)
ACC: 36-45 (.444)
Big Ten: 27-47 (.365)

In other words, the SEC is great, the Pac 12 and Big 12 are solid, and the ACC and (especially) the Big Ten are bad. It’s that simple, right?

[+] EnlargeRashad Greene
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State's success has done a lot to change the perception of the ACC nationally, and the Seminoles' matchup against Oregon can do a lot more.
Well, there is some truth to the logic. At the very least, the ACC and Big Ten haven’t done much to change perceptions. And even this year, when the ACC sends 11 teams (plus Notre Dame) to bowl games, less than half the league’s representatives will be favored to win.

But there is a bit more to those numbers than meets the eye.

For one, things are changing for the better. Nine of the ACC’s 36 wins in the past decade came in the last two years, and after going 1-8 against the SEC from 2004 through 2008, the ACC is a far more respectable 6-5 against the big, bad SEC since then.

Secondly, the league has made some shrewd moves in changing the bowl tie-ins, giving the ACC some better postseason matchups. Even with a rather lackluster overall record in the last decade, the ACC only had two ranked teams lose to unranked foes in bowl games, but often the matchups didn’t do the conference any favors.

Again, that’s beginning to change. From 2004 through 2011, the ACC was just 3-13 in matchups of ranked vs. ranked teams, but in the past two seasons, the conference has a more impressive 4-1 record in those games, with the only loss the shootout between Duke and Texas A&M last season.

And if we look at aggregate performance, close losses were clearly the norm. In the last decade’s worth of bowl games, the ACC has been outscored by just 75 points — or roughly a touchdown per season. In five of those 10 seasons, the ACC actually scored more points than its opposition in total, but the league has a winning record in bowl games just twice (2005 and 2012).

Plus, there are some notable outliers in performance. In 2007, 2008 and 2011, the league was woeful, sporting a combined record of 3-14 against Power 5 conference foes in the bowl games. But in the other seven seasons, the ACC actually is 13-14 against the other Power 5 conferences — not great, but certainly not particularly underwhelming.

But, of course, perception remains, so the question is, what does the ACC need to do to begin changing that perception this season?

Start with Florida State. There is no more high-profile game than the Seminoles’ Rose Bowl matchup against Oregon. FSU was dinged all year for playing close games against the ACC — something that wouldn't have been as big an issue in the SEC or Pac-12. It was a direct indictment of the ACC’s prowess, so a solid victory for the Seminoles over a Pac-12 power would, in turn, give some credence to the notion that the conference is a lot deeper than critics assumed.

Secondly, with 11 representatives playing in bowl games, a winning record is a must. During the past decade, the ACC hasn’t won more than five bowl games in a single year, while the SEC has had six or more seven times. So even a 6-5 record for the ACC this season would be real progress.

Third, the league needs to avoid embarrassment. That means no 70-33 scores like Clemson’s Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia in 2011, a game that still stands (unfairly) as a tribute to ACC ineptitude. But the league also has a rather unimpressive 20-17 mark against non-Power 5 foes in the last decade. That’s partially skewed by matchups against teams such as Louisville, West Virginia and Utah — current Power 5 squads — previously playing in leagues that wouldn’t count in that metric, but it also includes Marshall thumping Maryland last year, Cincinnati beating Duke the previous year and Air Force knocking off Georgia Tech in 2010. The ACC has three bowl games this year against non-Power 5 foes, and it really needs to win them all.

And lastly, there’s the SEC. The regular season ended on a particularly upbeat note on that front as the ACC went 4-0 in rivalry games against the SEC, and now it has three more chances to earn victories — though none will come easily. Georgia Tech is an underdog against Mississippi State. Miami has looked lackluster lately, but needs to knock off South Carolina. And Louisville — the league’s newest member — gets a crack at Georgia. Winning at least two of those games — particularly the Orange Bowl against an SEC West foe — would be huge.

So, can the ACC do all of that? And even if it does, will it really matter?

Perceptions don’t change overnight, but every little bit helps, and the ACC has been taking some small steps. A bigger leap this season certainly seems possible.

All-ACC team, coaches' awards unveiled

December, 10, 2014
Dec 10
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The ACC coaches' awards and all-conference teams looked a lot like the media's version from last week, as Pitt running back James Conner led the way by winning offensive and overall player of the year honors.

Likewise, Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley one again took home defensive player of the year honors, while Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya was named both overall and offensive rookie of the year. Virginia safety Quin Blanding was again named defensive rookie of the year.

Coach of the year? That would be Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson, who received 10 of the 14 votes from his peers.

Defending national champion Florida State led the way in all-league teams, tallying 18 players across the three teams.

The team with the second-most? Virginia, surprisingly enough, as the Cavaliers landed nine players on the all-league teams despite finishing with a 5-7 record.

First-team

WR: Rashad Greene (FSU)
WR: Jamison Crowder (Duke)
WR: Tyler Boyd (Pitt)
TE: Nick O’Leary (FSU)
T: Cameron Erving (FSU)
T: T.J. Clemmings (Pitt)
G: Laken Tomlinson (Duke)
G: Tre' Jackson (FSU)
C: Shane McDermott (Miami)
QB: Jameis Winston (FSU)
RB: James Conner (Pitt)
RB: Duke Johnson (Miami)
K: Roberto Aguayo (FSU)
SP: Jamison Crowder (Duke)

DE: Vic Beasley (Clemson)
DE: Mario Edwards Jr. (FSU)
DT: Grady Jarrett (Clemson)
DT: Eddie Goldman (FSU)
LB: Denzel Perryman (Miami)
LB: Stephone Anthony (Clemson)
LB: Lorenzo Mauldin (Louisville)
CB: Kendall Fuller (Virginia Tech)
CB: Garry Peters (Clemson)
S: Gerod Holliman (Louisville)
S: Jalen Ramsey (FSU)
P: Wil Baumann (NC State)


To see the full roster, click here.

Among the biggest differences between the coaches' and media's voting: Boston College center Andy Gallik was relegated to the second team this time around, with Miami's Shane McDermott taking the top spot on the coaches' team. McDermott received only honorable mention status from the media last week. Louisville linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin was also a first-team newcomer, replacing Duke's David Helton, who made the media's first-team and who took home some pretty impressive hardware of his own Tuesday night in New York. Clemson cornerback Garry Peters was also a first-team addition, leaping the media's selection of FSU's P.J. Williams.

Louisville receiver DeVante Parker made the coaches' second-team after playing in just five games. Parker had made the media's third-team. The coaches flipped the media's second- and third-team quarterbacks, putting Georgia Tech's Justin Thomas on the second-team and North Carolina's Marquise Williams on the third-team.

The coaches' third-team ended up containing five linebackers, as four tied in the voting, as well as two cornerbacks and two punters.

To see the media's All-ACC picks from last week, click here.

Ranking the ACC's bowl games

December, 10, 2014
Dec 10
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We finally have our bowl matchups set, but unfortunately we have to wait another few weeks before we get to watch more football. So to fill that void, we’re ranking the bowl games from the most exciting to the least.

1. Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual: Florida State vs. Oregon

The Seminoles could win a lot of respect for the ACC with a win over Oregon here, but what should make this game fun is the showdown between last year’s Heisman winner and the odds-on favorite for this year’s award. It’s only happened three previous times that two Heisman winners faced off.

2. Belk Bowl: Louisville vs. Georgia

What’s not to like about this ACC-SEC showdown? Georgia’s powerful ground game vs. Louisville’s stout defense. Gerod Holliman trying to set the NCAA interceptions record in Hutson Mason's last game. And, of course, Todd Grantham vs. his old team.

3. Capital One Orange Bowl: Georgia Tech vs. Mississippi State

All year, ACC fans had to hear about the big, bad SEC West. Now Georgia Tech gets a chance to prove that all that hype was just bluster by knocking off the upstart Bulldogs. If FSU can land the biggest blow for the ACC this postseason, the Yellow Jackets are a close second on that list.

4. Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Notre Dame vs. LSU

We’re including the Fighting Irish on this list since they grabbed one of the ACC’s slots and have a chance to do some damage to the SEC West. But don’t worry, if they lose, we can pretend they never had anything to do with the ACC in the first place.

5. Hyundai Sun Bowl: Duke vs. Arizona State

Duke has gained plenty of respect during the past three seasons, but a weak nonconference slate has meant there are still some doubters. David Cutcliffe’s crew can do a lot to erase those doubts with a win here. And after the Blue Devils pushed Johnny Manziel to the limit in last year’s bowl game, we’re hoping for a few fireworks this year, too.

6. Russell Athletic Bowl: Clemson vs. Oklahoma

This might be No. 2 on our list if it weren't for all the injuries. Deshaun Watson may undergo knee surgery. Samaje Perine sprained his ankle in Oklahoma’s regular-season finale. Trevor Knight missed the last three games of the season, too. But on the upside, it’ll give us one last look at that terrific Clemson defense, led by departing seniors Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley and Stephone Anthony.

7. Duck Commander Independence Bowl: Miami vs. South Carolina

OK, so two 6-6 teams don’t exactly equal a great matchup, and there’s a real question about how motivated Miami is after the Canes dropped their last three. But this is chance to hear from Steve Spurrier and watch Duke Johnson, so it can’t be that bad, right?

8. Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman: Virginia Tech vs. Cincinnati

This isn’t a matchup with much cache, but it’s a chance to see one of the best young QBs in the country in Gunner Kiel go against one of the best defenses in the country, including Hokies’ superb sophomore corner Kendall Fuller. Add in a couple accomplished coaches in Frank Beamer and Tommy Tuberville and there’s plenty to like about this game.

9. New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Boston College vs. Penn State

We like the matchup, but there are two big problems here. First, it’s two teams from the Northeast, which isn’t going to spark much national love. More importantly, we don’t expect much offense as Penn State ranked second nationally in total defense and BC ranked 12th.

10. Quick Lane Bowl: North Carolina vs. Rutgers

It’s a bowl game in Detroit in late December, so there’s only so much excitement to go around, but we like watching Marquise Williams and Ryan Switzer, and given that UNC and Rutgers ranked 113th and 115th in yards-per-play allowed this season, there should be ample scoring to keep your attention.

11. Bitcoin St. Petersbug Bowl: NC State vs. UCF

We still don’t completely understand how bitcoin works, but we like the idea of Jacoby Brissett returning to his home state to take on the nation’s No. 3 defense.

12. Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl: Pitt vs. Houston

It’s the team none of the ACC bowls wanted vs. a team that fired its head coach, so that’s not an easy sell. But any game with James Conner and Tyler Boyd is one worth watching, so we’ll still be tuning in for this one.

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