ACC: Clemson Tigers
So, after a week of games, here are our ACC bowl projections:
College Football Playoff: Florida State
Orange Bowl : Louisville
Russell Athletic Bowl: Virginia Tech
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Clemson
Belk Bowl: North Carolina
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Pitt
New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Notre Dame
Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman: Duke
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: Miami
Quick Lane Bowl: Boston College
BITCOIN St. Petersburg Bowl: Georgia Tech
“Every goal that we have is still in front of us,” Swinney said after the game. “We’re 0-1, and we have a long way to go. The season starts tomorrow. That’s the mentality that we have.”
But of course, the season started Saturday, and it started with a loss, no matter how Swinney wants to frame it.
Swinney is an optimist. It’s his nature. It’s how he shrugged off a thumping by Florida State last season by explaining that the lopsided score wasn’t indicative of the true talent difference between the two teams. It’s how he made peace with yet another loss to South Carolina last season, selling the notion that Clemson was the better team, undone by just a few too many turnovers.
And so Swinney was back to work Sunday, 11 games still left on the schedule and a litany of “what if” moments already in his rearview mirror.
If Clemson could’ve just tackled better, Gurley might not have run for 198 yards and three touchdowns, utterly embarrassing the Tigers’ defense for the second straight season.
“Todd Gurley was the best player on the field, and it wasn’t close,” Swinney said. “He’s a special player.”
It was Gurley who returned a kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown to even the score at 21, and if Clemson could’ve brought him down before he reached the end zone, things might’ve been different.
All offseason, Swinney lamented the kicking game as his biggest concern, even with the losses of Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, and of course, Ammon Lakip missed his lone field goal try that could’ve sent the Tigers to halftime with a lead. If only there hadn’t been so many dropped passes, so many mental errors in that first half, maybe that missed kick wouldn’t have loomed so large, anyway.
Clemson’s average starting field position in the second half was its own 17, and Swinney said the offense became too conservative while pinned deep in its own territory. If only that field position had been better, perhaps there wouldn’t be lingering questions today about Cole Stoudt and an offense that looked sharp early but disappeared late, mustering a woeful 15 yards and just one first down in the second half.
It’s Week 1, after all, and the “what ifs” are as meaningful a statistic as anything. But no matter what happens in the next 11 games, Week 1 did matter for Clemson and for the conference.
Yes, Gurley is a special player, but Clemson will face more of them, starting with Jameis Winston on Sept. 20. That the Tigers knew just what to expect from Gurley and still were incapable of slowing him down isn’t an aberration.
Yes, a few plays swung the game, but that’s how it goes against great teams -- and indeed, Georgia may be a great team. In fact, the Bulldogs will move forward with eyes on the College Football Playoff, and even if Clemson manages to upend Florida State later this month, it may find itself on the outside looking in thanks to those few bad plays between the hedges.
Yes, the field position was a problem. Adversity strikes in every game, but a team is measured not by the size of the obstacle but by its response. Clemson had none. For the second straight year, a Pruitt-coached defense appeared to have all the answers for the Tigers' up-tempo scheme.
Swinney said he’s learned more about his team from those rocky 60 minutes than he might've expected to learn in four weeks of a normal season, but there are still so many questions.
The offense had its moments, but Clemson had nine three-and-outs, and 12 of its 15 drives lasted six plays or fewer. That vaunted defensive line recorded just a single sack, while Georgia ran for 328 yards -- the most the Tigers’ defense has surrendered to a non-option team since Swinney took over as coach. Whether Stoudt’s line -- 16-of-29 for 144 yards and an INT -- was indicative of poor performance or too many drops by his receivers is of little consequence. Clemson needs to improve in both areas. Deshaun Watson looked impressive on one drive, perplexed on another, and the impact the freshman will make this week remains frustratingly unclear.
And then, of course, there’s the biggest question: What does it all mean for the ACC?
Fair or not, Clemson bore the weight of this new system, in which each team is evaluated within the context of its conference. A win over Georgia would've meant credibility for the endlessly discredited ACC. The loss removes perhaps the biggest safety net the conference might've had on what promises to be a razor-thin line it must walk for the next three months.
Florida State looked flawed against an unranked Oklahoma State team. NC State, Syracuse, Georgia Tech and North Carolina all struggled, to some degree, against FCS-level competition. And Clemson lost by 24 points to Georgia in a game that probably was far closer than the score indicated. The problem, however, is that no one knows whether the playoff selection committee will remember how close the Tigers came when it’s time to make a decision on who’s in and who’s out.
A lot can happen in the next 11 games, and Swinney is right to focus on what’s ahead. But the path to the playoff grew more narrow with Saturday’s loss, and for all the data Swinney accumulated and for all the film there is to study, there’s really only one thing that’s certain.
“All we know about our football team right now,” Swinney said, “is we’re not going to win them all.”
With that said, there are only 12 games on each team’s schedule, and each school can’t afford to throw a week away. So here are some things the ACC blog thinks we learned through the season’s first few days.
The good news is this is an early wake-up call for Florida State, and they still escaped with a win. Though they are considered likely two-touchdown favorites for every game this season, this game probably humbled Florida State a little after the public inflated their egos the past eight months.
2. Clemson’s defense is better, except when it’s against the best:
The Tigers’ defense improved drastically the past season, and Dabo Swinney and Brent Venables deserve credit for that. However, the Tigers allowed 38 points in their toughest games a season ago, and once again a quality offense shredded the unit. Georgia hung 45 on Clemson behind nearly 200 rushing yards from Todd Gurley, who might be the ridiculous early Heisman favorite now, thanks to the Tigers. Gurley averaged more than 13 yards per carry, and on top of it he had an easy 100-yard kickoff return score. All offseason the Tigers’ defense was hyped as possibly the conference’s best as it returns stars along the defensive front, the biggest being Vic Beasley. But the front seven wore down in the second half, and now the Tigers are left questioning whether they deserved the preseason attention.
3. It’s probably a good idea to shelve the perception talk for the time being:
ACC commissioner John Swofford and league coaches must have spent the offseason bench pressing the large stack of papers listing the conference’s 2013 accomplishments because they walked into ACC media days with their collective chest puffed out about the ACC playing second fiddle to nobody. Well, Wake Forest lost to Louisiana-Monroe and failed to eclipse 100 total yards. Syracuse nearly lost to FCS Villanova, North Carolina and Georgia Tech both trailed FCS schools, and NC State needed a touchdown with a little more than 90 seconds left for the win. Clemson looked good in the first half, but the defensive front seven was shredded by the UGA rush game and couldn’t tackle in the second half. Florida State even looked human, but at least the Seminoles pulled out the win. The rest of the league needed to show some progress, but the cupcake scares were all too familiar for ACC advocates.
4. Give a lot of credit to the Virginia defense: All afternoon the Cavaliers’ defense was brilliant against No. 7 UCLA. Despite continuously being put in bad situations, the defense bailed out Virginia, and the Cavs nearly pulled off the upset. We all knew Virginia had the potential to be really good on defense, but it showed it Saturday by holding UCLA to fewer than five yards per play and creating a couple of turnovers. Starter Greyson Lambert did not last long, but Virginia might have found its quarterback of the future in Matt Johns. Unfortunately for Virginia, there were too many mistakes. UCLA returned three turnovers for touchdowns, and the play calling was questionable late in the game. Mike London’s conservative approach might have cost Virginia the win.
5. Pittsburgh’s James Conner wants to join the Heisman discussion:
In Year 3, Paul Chryst has Pitt looking like Wisconsin, at least in box scores. The Panthers rushed 56 times for 409 yards and seven touchdowns. Pitt threw a total of 14 passes in the 62-0 drubbing. Sure it was against FCS Delaware, but there were no gimme games for Pitt during Chryst’s first two seasons. Youngstown State defeated Pitt in the 2012 opener, and there were many more close calls over the past two seasons. The Panthers were a popular dark horse pick in the Coastal Division, and they did nothing to suggest they don’t belong in the conversation. They are going to ride Conner, who ran for 153 yards and four touchdowns on only 14 carries. The bad news is sophomore receiver Tyler Boyd dislocated a finger and could miss the Friday night game against Boston College.
6. Deshaun Watson is going to push for more playing time: The No. 1 quarterback in the 2014 class did not look like a freshman on his first collegiate drive. He showed great poise on his first throw, which nearly went for a long touchdown. On his next two plays, the Clemson backup threw beautiful passes, with the second going for a touchdown. Stoudt played well in the first half, but the Clemson offense could not get much of anything going in the second half. Watson only attempted four throws, but the Tigers have South Carolina State and then a bye before Florida State. Could we see more of Watson when Clemson travels to Tallahassee?
You can’t keep the monster in his cage
It looked like Todd Gurley wasn’t going to get a chance to run free. Halfway through the first half, Georgia’s star tailback had only four carries. Then he decided to take matters into his own hands. On special teams, he fielded the kickoff and found daylight. Splitting the middle of the field, he sprinted 100 yards for the touchdown. It wasn’t fair. A guy that big isn’t supposed to run that fast. The 226-pound junior couldn’t be caught as he ran 100-plus yards without being touched. It was one of those Heisman Trophy-type moments. All that was missing was the stiff-arm pose.
Georgia runs it down Clemson’s throat
Georgia telegraphed what it was doing. The Bulldogs were running the football, no matter what. And Clemson couldn’t do a darn thing to stop it. Gurley carried for two, then 38 yards to start the drive. Sony Michel then came in and went for six yards. Hutson Mason got in on the action, picking up a yard of his own. Michel then came back and showed off his wheels and reeled off a 17-yard gain. Gurley, now facing a gassed defense, took care of the rest. With the front seven overloaded to his right, he took the pitch that direction, cut back and caught Clemson sleeping. He found daylight in the middle of the field, made a safety miss and went 18 yards to pay dirt. The touchdown pulled Georgia ahead by two scores. But more importantly, it proved Clemson didn’t have an answer for a determined Bulldogs offense.
And then it happened again
How would you like to face Nick Chubb after Gurley, Keith Marshall and Michel have been pounding the rock all night? How would you like to tackle that 228-pound beast? The true freshman running back couldn’t be corralled by Clemson all night. And when he took the handoff with his team up 10 points, he decided to finish the job, this time showing off his wheels and his strength running through tackles. He shook four Clemson defenders’ grasp, hit the edge and took off. He went 47 yards for the touchdown that put the game away for Georgia.
Gurley isn’t to be outdone
What more can we say? Gurley played like he was trying to win the Heisman Trophy in one game and did a good job of stating his case. Midway through the fourth quarter, you’re not supposed to have the gas to run like this. You’re not supposed to slip a bunch of tackles and go 51 yards that quickly. But Gurley isn’t normal. By the time the night was over, he had 298 total yards and four touchdowns.
No. 7 UCLA at Virginia, ESPN, #UCLAvsUVA: In his career as a head coach, Mike London has won all six of his season openers, but this one is the biggest challenge he has ever faced to start a season. The Bruins come in off a 10-win season with a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Brett Hundley. Perhaps the only edge the Hoos have is the starting time. UCLA makes its first trip to an ACC stadium since 1955 and will kick off at 9 a.m. PT. As London joked during his news conference earlier this week, "I'd like to play 6 o'clock in the morning our time, if possible."
Delaware at Pitt, ESPN3, #DELvsPITT: The Panthers are going for their first win in a season opener since 2011 and have learned not to pencil in wins against FCS opponents. The biggest point of intrigue is how often they plan to use running back James Conner at defensive end. Coach Paul Chryst said Conner will be used only on rushing situations, the way he was in the bowl game. Still, two-way players are always a bit of a novelty, and folks are waiting to see how effective Conner can be at both positions.
Georgia Southern at NC State, ESPN3, #GASOvsNCST: Wolfpack players are well aware of Georgia Southern's stunning win over Florida last season and vow not to let the same happen to them. Though NC State is young, its most experienced unit is on the defensive line -- good news against the triple-option Eagles. There's no doubt coach Dave Doeren believes his program has a chance to start fresh after last year's disappointing 3-9 campaign. This is our first shot to see how quarterback Jacoby Brissett fares managing the NC State offense.
Boston College at UMass, ESPN3, #BCvsUMASS: UMass fans had some fun trolling BC earlier this week, tossing a Minutemen jersey on Doug Flutie's statue outside Alumni Stadium. But BC will actually hit the road in this one, which features the debut of Florida transfer Tyler Murphy at quarterback. The Eagles also will feature a revamped running back and receiving group as they try to make a bowl game for the second straight season.
William & Mary at Virginia Tech, ESPNEWS, #WMvsVT: Quarterback Michael Brewer makes his debut for the Hokies, who are hoping to reclaim their spot atop the Coastal Division this season. Running back and receiver are also two key areas to watch, especially freshmen Isaiah Ford, Marshawn Williams and Shai McKenzie. Trey Edmunds will play but won't start, as he continues to come back from a broken ankle.
Elon at Duke, ESPN3, #ELONvsDUKE: Duke is aiming for its fourth straight win in a season opener as it looks to continue on its momentum from the past two seasons. This is the first of four straight winnable nonconference games, which could have Duke 4-0 before it heads to Miami on Sept. 27 for a crucial Coastal Division showdown against the Hurricanes.
Liberty at No. 23 North Carolina, ESPN3, #LIBvsUNC: The storylines for the Tar Heels have been away from the field, as four players were suspended for this game following a Yahoo! Sports report that alleged a hazing incident between players. Larry Fedora has not publicly named his starting quarterback, but it probably doesn't matter whether Marquise Williams or Mitch Trubisky starts in this one.
No. 1 Florida State at Oklahoma State, ABC, #FSUvsOKST: The Seminoles begin their Dallas-to-Dallas quest against the Cowboys, who return the fewest starters among all Power Five conferences. We all know Jameis Winston returns, but the storyline to watch in this one is who emerges at receiver next to Rashad Greene. A win would give the Seminoles 17 consecutive victories and match the school record set in 1999-2000.
Miami at Louisville, 8 p.m., ESPN, #MIAvsLOU: Miami has been waiting on its chance at revenge since December, when the Cards embarrassed them in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando. Much has changed for both programs since then: Louisville has a new coach and new offensive and defensive schemes; both teams have a new starting quarterback; Miami welcomes the return of running back Duke Johnson. And let's not forget this is the ACC debut for Louisville, as well. One pretty interesting note: Louisville was 22-1 at home under Petrino during his first stint as coach.
Ethan in New York writes: OK. Let's say that at the end of the regular season, we have two undefeated teams: Alabama and Baylor. Oregon is a one-loss Pac-12 champ. Ohio State is a one-loss BIG champ. Florida State runs the table in the regular season. Virginia Tech beats Ohio State, but loses to, say, North Carolina. However, the Hokies defeat the Seminoles in the ACC championship game. So you have Ohio State (BIG champs) at 12-1 with a loss to VT; VT at 12-1 (ACC champs) with a loss to UNC; Florida State at 12-1 with a loss to VT; Auburn at 12-1 with a loss to Bama; Alabama at 13-0 (SEC champs), Baylor at 12-0 (Big 12 champs) and Oregon at 12-1 (Pac-12 champs) with a loss to, say USC. For fun, let's throw in Michigan State at 11-1 with a loss to Ohio State, Stanford at 11-1 with a loss to Oregon, and Oklahoma at 11-1 with a loss to Baylor. In this scenario, who would YOU (not the selection committee) pick as the four teams in the playoff?
Andrea Adelson: This scenario needs a tweak, because Michigan State and Oregon play in Week 2. So let's just say Oregon's loss is to the Spartans instead of USC to make this slightly more accurate. My final decision ... my head hurts. In all seriousness, it is really tough to even make a guess because there are so many other factors at play. How do these teams actually look? Were the losses blowouts or close? How did the rest of the schedule shape up? Is it better or worse than it looked in the preseason? Those should all come into play when starting to compare one-loss teams against another. Having said that, I would give conference champions the first look. In this case, Alabama and Baylor are unbeaten and conference champs, they get in. Oregon gets in because it's a conference champion and lost to a high-quality team early in the season. Virginia Tech would look appealing in this scenario, too, with wins over No. 1 Florida State and ranked Ohio State, plus Miami and an ACC championship. The bottom line is strength of schedule is going to be quite different at the end of the season than it is today, and there are too many unknowns to start guessing which one-loss team would make it in. Can't wait to see how it all plays out.
Adelson writes: I looked back at the rushing attempts and passing attempts on Petrino-coached teams at Louisville, Arkansas and Western Kentucky. In his first four seasons at Louisville, Petrino's teams ran the ball slightly more than they passed it. In four seasons at Arkansas, they passed the ball slightly more than they ran it. Last season, Western Kentucky ran the ball slightly more. You are correct that whether the run or pass was favored, the split hovered around 55-45. In 2004, 60 percent of the Louisville offense went to rushing attempts. That's the highest it ever went. Last year at Western Kentucky, rushing attempts accounted for 53 percent of the offensive plays. As you point out, the reason people think Petrino chucks it all over the field is because his offenses are more effective at throwing the ball regardless of the split between run and pass. In those nine seasons, the passing offense ranked higher than the rushing offense six times in the NCAA stats. Louisville has depth in the backfield and should be good on the offensive line, so make sure to keep an eye on the Cardinals' running game Monday night.
Adelson: Generally, the polls make little sense. SEC teams get the benefit of the doubt always. Good thing, then, that polls are virtually meaningless in the new College Football Playoff era. I am most interested in see how the selection committee ranks its Top 25. The first set will be unveiled Oct. 28.
Adelson: As athletic director Whit Babcock told me, time will tell. But as I mentioned last week, this Hokies team is looking like a better choice to win the Coastal with each passing day. We will see whether that is an accurate assessment soon enough.
Adelson: I actually agree with most of what David wrote. I think voters will find a reason not to give Jameis Winston the Heisman unless he is far and away the best candidate in the country. I do not envision that being the case with some of the talented players back for this season. Virginia Tech has grown on me; Jacoby Brissett and Tyler Murphy are good additions for their respective teams. I don't think Stacy Coley will catch passes from three different quarterbacks, and I'm not ready to call UVa a bowl team -- though I think the Hoos will get to five wins. Not sure on six.
Yes, Swinney’s team escaped with a 38-35 win, but Gurley and the Georgia ground game looked dominant. Gurley carried just 12 times but racked up 154 yards and two scores. Overall, the Bulldogs ran for 222 yards in the game and scored five times on the ground. That vaunted Clemson defensive front had few answers.
"It’s like tackling a tree trunk," said Clemson safety Robert Smith.
Finding a way to corral that tree trunk will be Clemson’s top defensive priority Saturday, and it will need to be a team effort.
The strength of Clemson’s defense is its front seven, particularly along the line, and that showed, even during Gurley’s stellar performance a year ago.
Here is a breakdown of Georgia’s rushing performance in last year’s game:
When the Tigers stacked the box and Georgia kept runs between the tackles, a few big plays developed but the Bulldogs’ overall success rate was way down. When Gurley and his cohorts bounced runs outside -- as he did on that 75-yard touchdown sprint -- things got ugly.
The interior of Clemson’s defense remains strong with Grady Jarrett, Josh Watson and Stephone Anthony up the middle, but personnel changes in the secondary and a one-game suspension for defensive end Corey Crawford raise questions about the Tigers’ ability to seal the edges.
That has put an emphasis on fundamentals, defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.
"We didn’t tackle great [last year], gave up too many explosive plays," Venables said. "I know our guys can hold up physically, but your secondary is going to have to tackle well in run support."
Of course, that is easier said than done against a runner like Gurley, whose combination of speed and power makes him tough to catch, let alone bring down.
"Just his combination of size, strength and speed," Jarrett said, "it’s second to none."
Venables likely has a few tricks up his sleeve for this year’s matchup. When Vic Beasley was pressed this week on how much he might work as a stand-up rusher or outside linebacker, he simply grinned.
The line has gotten stronger, too. Clemson’s front seven will feature six senior starters. It’s a unit that led the nation in tackles for loss a year ago.
The other advantage for Clemson this time around is that the Tigers know what’s coming. That can be a double-edged sword, Smith said, but his defense remains confident.
"You can’t let what he did last year affect you this year, but you know what he can do," Smith said. "He’s a tremendous running back. We saw up close and personal. We don’t forget. But we also can’t let that hinder what we’re going to do this season."
There's Shaq Mason and Shaq Lawson. Shaquille Powell and Shaq Wiggins. There's even Shakeel Rashad.
Here a Shaq, there a Shaq, everywhere a Shaq Shaq.
Indeed, there has been a proliferation of Shaqs across the ACC and college football over the last few seasons thanks to Shaquille O'Neal.
What does basketball have to do with football? In this case, when O'Neal emerged as an NBA All-Star, his name started to become popular, too. In 1994, Shaquille was the 234th most popular name in the United States, according to the Social Security names database. Shaquille retained its popularity enough to earn a ranking in 1995 and 1996, too.
Mason was born in 1993, when O'Neal would have been going into his second year in the league with the Orlando Magic. The Georgia Tech guard confirms he was indeed named after Shaq Diesel.
"Every time I met a new person, they were always like, 'Were you named after Shaquille O’Neal?' Mason said. "But growing up, I was the only person around me named Shaquille. I didn’t know any others until I got older."
Mason is the only Shaq in the ACC named to the preseason All-ACC team, but he is not the only standout at his position named Shaq across the country. Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson is a preseason All-American candidate; South Carolina's Shaq Roland is one of the better receivers in the SEC.
Back in ACC country, Shaquille Powell will start at running back for Duke on Saturday against Elon. Lawson is the primary backup to Vic Beasley at Clemson; Wiggins has to sit out this season after transferring to Louisville from Georgia. Though his name is spelled differently, let's count Rashad in here, too. Especially since one of his nicknames is "Shakinabox."
Maybe we can spell that "Shaqinabox" just for this exercise.
Naming babies after athletes is nothing new. The name Jordan also started rising in popularity when Michael Jordan became basketball king. So did the name Peyton, after Peyton Manning emerged at Tennessee and then as a perennial NFL All-Pro.
Makes you wonder whether we will see a new generation of Jameises in 18 years.
But it’s an optical illusion. Strip away the pads and the jersey and there is a chiseled warrior underneath, an athlete in the strictest sense.
"I saw him the other day with his shirt off, and he’s ripped," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Yet, it’s Jarrett’s body that has been the evidence critics have used against him again and again, starting with the team he is set to face in Clemson’s season opener Saturday, Georgia. Jarrett, who grew up in Conyers, Ga., wanted to play college football at Georgia, but the Bulldogs simply weren’t interested.
"You always know about Georgia growing up," Jarrett said. "You see the 'G' everywhere. But they didn’t really want me like that."
It was easy to dismiss Jarrett as too short, too slow, too ordinary, and when he was coming out of high school, there were plenty of schools that fell for that illusion.
ESPN ranked Jarrett as the No. 80 defensive tackle in the nation. He was the 22nd-ranked player in Clemson’s 2011 signing class, which included receiver Sammy Watkins and linebacker Stephone Anthony and four other defensive linemen. Mississippi State was the only other Power Five school to show much interest, never mind the 198 tackles, 63 for loss, and 27.5 sacks he accrued in his final two seasons at Rockdale County High School.
"The perception of me from a lot of people coming up through recruiting wasn’t really good at all," Jarrett said. "And it’s something I used to take personally."
But Clemson didn’t buy into the illusion. Swinney watched the film, saw how Jarrett used that undersized physique to create leverage against opposing linemen. He saw the pedigree, that Jarrett was the son of former NFL linebacker Jessie Tuggle, that he was a protege of Ray Lewis, a man Jarrett refers to as an uncle. He saw the drive of a player everyone else said was too small carrying a massive chip on his shoulder.
For Swinney, Jarrett was a hidden gem.
Of course, back then, Clemson needed all the help it could get on defense. In Jarrett’s freshman season he played just 61 snaps. The Tigers’ defense was a disaster, culminating with an embarrassing 70-33 thumping at the hands of West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. But the Tigers’ D and Jarrett were both works in progress, and Swinney knew the finished product would be special.
As a sophomore, Jarrett worked his way into the starting lineup. He recorded 10 quarterback pressures, 8.5 TFLs and helped the Tigers’ defense move from 85th in the nation in TFLs to 30th. A year later, he was even better, making 83 tackles, including 11 behind the line of scrimmage, for a defense that led the nation in TFLs.
Jarrett wrestled in high school, and he used those skills against his opposition. He turned his undersized frame to an advantage, a short guy in a game where getting low is optimal.
"He’s probably one of the lower athletes I’ve gone against," said Clemson center Ryan Norton. "He’s very athletic, and his pad level is unbelievable."
Slowly but surely, the perceptions of Jarrett began to change, and those teams that dismissed him so easily were forced to take notice.
"People see what I can do now," Jarrett said. "I feel like it was up to me to change that perception. I believe I have, and now I’m trying to capitalize off it."
Even after two strong seasons, however, Jarrett toils largely in the shadows. In a conference loaded with top defensive tackles last season, Jarrett wasn’t considered on the same level as Aaron Donald or Timmy Jernigan. Even in his own locker room, Anthony and Vic Beasley get the bulk of the defensive hype.
But the people who know him, who know the program -- they understand.
"If I was going to start a program right now, I’d pick Grady Jarrett first and build everything else around that guy," Swinney said. "He’s that impactful. His worth ethic, his drive, his ability to hold other people accountable and lift others up, and that chip he has on his shoulder -- he’s special."
To hear his coach and teammates talk, Jarrett is the best player in the country no one seems to know about, and that is a label he’s happy to embrace.
Jarrett isn’t flashy. He doesn’t want to be. Instead, he is focused on every minor detail, determined to get it all right. On a team that boasts nearly two dozen seniors, on a defensive front that includes eight seniors in the two-deep, that work ethic has made Jarrett the unquestioned leader.
"When he says something, everybody’s attention is drawn to Grady," said Beasley, an All-American who led the ACC in sacks last season. "He’s a very vocal leader, and he just does it by example also. He’s good in the classroom and on the field. He keeps us going. He’s that main guy on the defense that gets us hyped and keeps us going."
It’s a role Jarrett has embraced this season. In truth, he’s not quite sure how it came about. He simply showed up, did his work, spoke out when he needed to and listened when the others talked. It came naturally, but it feels good to finally get the respect he's deserved.
"If your peers look to you for guidance, that’s the ultimate respect," Jarrett said. "Being able to go to Vic or Stephone and they take to it, that’s really humbling for me."
As Jarrett gets set to kick off his senior season against Georgia’s explosive ground game Saturday, he insists he is not out for revenge, not hoping to prove a point to another team that rejected him. He has all the love he needs now.
But there is that tinge of bitterness, that knowledge that this is his last chance to remind the school down the road from his boyhood home that it missed out on something special.
"There’s always a little extra incentive," he finally relented.
But there’s more ahead, plenty of other last chances to make his mark before his college career ends and a fresh round of evaluations by scouts and coaches and critics begins. There is so much more he wants to accomplish.
There is a sense of desperation to this season, Jarrett said, and that is something his coach doesn’t mind hearing.
Still, Swinney was never one of the critics, never fooled by the illusion. The chip on Jarrett’s shoulder drives him, so Swinney won’t knock it off. Still, he knows this isn’t the end for Jarrett. It’s the beginning.
"He’ll play for a while on the next level," Swinney said. “I know he’s not sexy looking. He’s not 6-3. But he’ll outplay all of them guys."
The Demon Deacons tallied 94 yards of total offense. They notched five first downs. They surrendered seven sacks.
All of it added up to a 17-10 loss that puts further emphasis on just how much of an uphill climb the Deacs have ahead of them in Year 1 of the Dave Clawson era.
Wake actually jumped to a 10-0 lead, kick-started by a punt block that Kevin Johnson recovered in the end zone. Its defense was stout most of the night, holding ULM to 352 total yards and forcing a turnover.
Pete Thomas -- formerly of NC State and Colorado State -- had a 9-yard touchdown run with 3:37 that proved to be the difference-maker for the Warhawks.
Wake gets Gardner-Webb at home next Saturday night, as sure of a chance as any for its offensive line to find its footing and give true freshman John Wolford a chance to make some some progress. Still, it could be a long year in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Thursday did little to alleviate many of the concerns facing the Deacs this offseason.
As for the rest of the ACC ...
- Freshman are likely to make an impact at BC, Michael Vega writes in the Boston Globe.
- The (Charleston) Post and Courier's Aaron Brenner previews Clemson-Georgia with the Macon Telegraph's Seth Emerson.
- Steve Spurrier will be at Duke this weekend for the 25-year reunion of its ACC title team, Laura Keeley writes in the Raleigh News & Observer.
- Georgia Tech is looking to group sales to help with low season ticket sales, Ken Sugiura writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
- Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham knows the threat Duke Johnson presents, Jeff Greer writes in the (Louisville) Courier-Journal.
- James Conner is ready to punish with and without the rock, Sam Werner writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
- The (Syracuse) Post-Standard's Nate Mink answers fan questions on the Orange.
A few quick caveats:
- If the Orange Bowl selects a Big Ten team this year, a spot would open up in the Capital One Bowl for the ACC. We're not banking on that just yet.
- Either the TaxSlayer Bowl or Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl gets an ACC team, but not both. For the purposes of our preseason projections, we're slotting a team into the TaxSlayer Bowl, but that could change down the road.
- For bowl selection purposes, Notre Dame is treated as an ACC team, meaning the Fighting Irish will grab one of the conference's tie-ins unless it is invited to the College Football Playoff.
- The Birmingham Bowl serves as a backup for the ACC should enough teams become eligible. We're not projecting that yet either.
- After the playoff committee makes its selections and the Orange Bowl makes its pick, the Russell Athletic gets the next choice of teams. After that, the next group of four work together to decide on selections with geography and a fan base's likelihood to travel to the game playing a role. We attempted to account for that below.
With all that said, here's our best guess at what awaits the ACC in December and January.
College Football Playoff: Florida State Seminoles
Orange Bowl (Miami): Clemson Tigers
Russell Athletic Bowl (Orlando, Florida): Virginia Tech
TaxSlayer Bowl (Jacksonville, Florida): Miami
Belk Bowl (Charlotte, North Carolina): North Carolina
Hyundai Sun Bowl (El Paso, Texas): Louisville
New Era Pinstripe Bowl (Bronx, New York): Notre Dame
Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman (Annapolis, Maryland): Pitt
Duck Commander Independence Bowl (Shreveport, Louisiana): Duke
Quick Lane Bowl (Detroit): Syracuse
BITCOIN St. Petersburg Bowl: Georgia Tech
-- Andrea Adelson
Why Georgia will win: Early-season games against nationally recognized teams have not been kind to Georgia coach Mark Richt over the years (see: Clemson, Oklahoma State, Boise State, South Carolina x 2), so the law of averages says he has to win some, right? Well, there's more than just cosmic balancing in the Bulldogs' favor. While the Tigers made huge gains on defense a season ago, they also allowed an average of 38 points per game against Florida State, Georgia, Ohio State and South Carolina. We're not quite sure what to expect out of new Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason, but the duo of Gurley and Marshall at running back is unmatched anywhere else in the country. Last season's game might have played out differently had Gurley not strained a quad on a 75-yard touchdown run.
-- Jared Shanker
Why Miami will win: Duke Johnson changes everything for the Canes, as he keeps their offense moving and takes plenty of pressure off Brad Kaaya. Likewise, the loss of DeVante Parker takes plenty of punch out of Louisville's offense. A new coach, a new league and a new quarterback create too much uncertainty around a Cardinals team that has the target on its back after embarrassing Miami last time around. -- Matt Fortuna
Why Louisville will win: It's not that I'm supremely confident in this pick, but the Cardinals have a few things going for them. First, it's a marquee game for the program, its first as a member of the ACC. Secondly, while a lot has changed on defense for Louisville, it was the top-ranked rushing D in the country last season, which should help Todd Grantham's crew deal with the dynamic Duke Johnson. Most important, however, at quarterback Miami is starting a true freshman in his first career game on the road in a frenzied atmosphere. It won't be a gimme, but Louisville will pull off the victory. -- David Hale
Upset pick of the weekWhy ULM will win: ULM has three advantages: It beat Wake Forest a year ago and is familiar with some of the returning personnel; the WarHawks bring back 14 starters; and they are playing at home. Wake Forest is starting true freshmen at quarterback and center. It's never easy to go on the road and make your first career start, let alone on national television. Factor in all the youth and inexperience for the Deacs, and you see why ULM has the edge. -- Andrea Adelson
More consensus picks: Syracuse over Villanova; Pittsburgh over Delaware; UCLA over Virginia; Georgia Tech over Wofford; NC State over Georgia Southern; Boston College over UMass; Virginia Tech over William & Mary; Duke over Elon; North Carolina over Liberty; Florida State over Oklahoma State
That was not an empty promise. The Deacs needed to replace their departed senior quarterback, and they had no experienced players on their roster. Why not give the freshmen a shot?
Sometimes they rise to the challenge, like John Wolford. Clawson started hearing reports about Wolford from his upperclassmen before fall practice even began. They told him, “That freshman is really good.”
Once practice began, it became pretty clear he was more than good. Clawson decided early in camp that Wolford would be his starter, beginning tonight at ULM (7 p.m. ET, ESPNU). He is not the only coach who has gone that route.
Three true freshmen quarterbacks have an opportunity to play in Week 1, the most in the ACC since 2010. Brad Kaaya earned the starting job in Miami, while Deshaun Watson is expected to play when Clemson takes on Georgia on Saturday.
According to research gathered by the ACC office, this could be the first time in league history that two true freshmen quarterbacks open the season under center.
Watching a youth movement unfold at the position is not unexpected. The ACC lost nine starting quarterbacks to either graduation, the NFL draft or transfer. Only Jameis Winston, Anthony Boone and Terrel Hunt return as unquestioned starters.
In Wake’s case, the Deacs have turned to true freshmen quarterbacks the last two times they had to make a decision. Tanner Price started nine games for Wake Forest in 2010 and never relinquished his starting job. But he did not open the season as the starter.
Wolford will be the first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener in school history.
“He gives us our best chance to win,” Clawson said. “He is our best quarterback, so I can’t worry about whether he’s a freshman, sophomore, junior, senior. In a perfect world, you always love to have the guy be in the system one or two years before he plays. But we’re going to put the guys out there who give us the best chance to win. And he clearly won the job. He’s playing at a high level. I don’t think those things suddenly disappear once you play a game.”
Both Clawson and Miami coach Al Golden have described their new starting quarterbacks as very even-keeled, an important quality to have considering both players have to make their first career starts on the road.
Clawson said Wolford is “the same person every day. There’s not a lot of reps where you’re shaking your head saying, ‘What's he thinking about?' He is as ready as any true freshman I've been around.”
Miami faced a different situation than Wake Forest. The Canes had hoped to start senior Ryan Williams, but he tore his ACL in the spring and is not healthy enough to play. Redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen was next in line, but he is serving a suspension. Kaaya beat out senior transfer Jake Heaps during fall practice and will start Monday night against Louisville.
“I think that's probably where we got the most confidence from him, just his overall depth and understanding of what we were trying to get done and his ability to get us in the right play at the line of scrimmage. Without that, it would be hard to name him the starter, but he certainly demonstrated to us all training camp that it wasn't going to be too big for him.”
Clemson, meanwhile, plans on starting senior Cole Stoudt but coach Dabo Swinney says Watson will play. What type of role Watson will have remains to be seen. What Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris plan to do with Watson provides a level of intrigue we are unaccustomed to with this offense.
When Swinney was asked whether he knew when Watson would go into the game, he smiled and said, “When we put him in, that's the perfect time to put him in.”
Stoudt is actually the last true freshman to play quarterback at Clemson, back in 2011. The last Clemson true freshman quarterback to start a game was Nealon Greene in 1994.
Watson may bring intrigue, but he has to wait a few more days to get his shot.
Wolford gets the spotlight tonight.
Defending national champion Florida State Seminoles opens its season Saturday against Oklahoma State. And the Seminoles still have not visited the White House.
"The window for a team visit has likely closed altogether," a Florida State spokesman told the Wall Street Journal.
The WSJ's Ben Cohen and Jonathan Clegg report that FSU offered the White House six available dates in April. The Noles then offered six potential dates in May and June. The president was unavailable for any of them. Nothing materialized in the summer.
FSU would be the first non-repeat college football champion to not make the D.C. trip since 1990. USC's 2004 title team did not visit the nation's capital, but the Trojans had made the trip a year earlier.
UConn's title-winning men's and women's basketball teams made their trip in June, two months after winning their national titles. Hmmm ...
Perhaps old Jimbo Fisher friend Nick Saban cut a deal with President Obama to not let any other college football teams in? The two may be close, after all, as Saban has taken three different Alabama teams to the White House since Obama first took office.
An in-season visit for the Noles is not entirely off the table, but a school spokesman told the WSJ that it would be "very, very difficult."
In other ACC news today …
- SI.com's Martin Rickman looks at the end of Clemsoning.
- There's a bit of "Blind Side" in the story of Duke guard Laken Tomlinson, Laura Keeley writes in the Raleigh News & Observer.
- A Georgia Tech-Tennessee Chick-fil-A Kickoff game is near completion for 2017, Ken Sugiura writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
- Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee says Louisville is in a good place as it nears the opener, Jeff Greer writes in the (Louisville) Courier-Journal.
- Syracuse.com's Nate Mink previews the Orange's game against Pitt with the Post-Gazette's Sam Werner.
- The (Newport News) Daily Press' David Teel says Frank Beamer's extension quiets talk about his potential exit.
- Wake Forest has a chance to show its progress tonight, Dan Collins writes in the Winston-Salem Journal.
12:30 PM ET South Carolina State 23 Clemson 3:30 PM ET Richmond Virginia 4:00 PM ET Georgia Tech Tulane 6:00 PM ET Old Dominion North Carolina State 6:30 PM ET Gardner-Webb Wake Forest 7:00 PM ET Murray State 25 Louisville 7:00 PM ET Florida A&M Miami (FL) 7:00 PM ET Duke Troy 7:30 PM ET Citadel 1 Florida State 8:00 PM ET San Diego State 21 North Carolina 8:00 PM ET Virginia Tech 8 Ohio State