ACC: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Florida State and Jameis Winston were the runaway favorites Monday to repeat as ACC champion and league player of the year, respectively. Those were the two names atop my ballot as well. As for how I slotted everyone else:

Atlantic
1) Florida State
2) Clemson
3) Louisville
4) Syracuse
5) Boston College
6) NC State
7) Wake Forest

Coastal
1) Duke
2) Pitt
3) North Carolina
4) Miami
5) Virginia Tech
6) Georgia Tech
7) Virginia

Couple of points: You'll have a hard time convincing me -- and most likely anyone else -- that Clemson and Louisville, as of today, are not the closest to FSU in the Atlantic. The Nos. 4-6 spots left a little wiggle room (sorry, Wake), and I think that Syracuse returns more proven talent from last year than BC and NC State.

On the other side of things, well, I see no reason not to pick Duke right now. The Blue Devils are the defending Coastal champions, return a ton of contributors and are the closest thing to a proven commodity in the wide open division.

After that: Chaos. The division sets up nicely for a team to make another surprise run this year, and Pitt is the one that I think is perhaps best-positioned to take advantage. The schedule sets up nicely for the Panthers, who get Duke at home and sub BC for FSU as an Atlantic opponent. While Chad Voytik is a newcomer under center and the offensive line had its share of obvious issues last season, more consistency up front (and, one can only assume, improved health) should help the offense exploit playmakers in the backfield and at receiver.

I think UNC has as good of a shot as anyone else of winning the division, but the team's youth, particularly on the offensive line, has me hesitant to pick them as the favorite.

Miami being picked as the Coastal frontrunner shocked me, given the way the team finished last season, the complete uncertainty at quarterback and the lack of punch shown on defense last season. A look at the voting suggests the Hurricanes accumulated just enough points as a second- or third-place team to ultimately get the No. 1 nod over Duke (33) and UNC (27), both of whom garnered more first-place votes than Miami (26).

We'll have more on the Coastal possibilities later on in the blog, further illustrating just how wide open this race really is. The fact every team but Virginia received a first-place vote speaks to that.

ACC's lunch links: QB roundup

July, 22, 2014
Jul 22
12:00
PM ET
The most honest man at ACC Kickoff was probably Wake Forest's Dave Clawson. And, to his credit, he even managed to find a little humor in the bleak picture painted by his depth chart this year, as the High Point Enterprise wrote.
Asked to comment about where his first Wake Forest team is predicted to finish in the ACC's tough Atlantic Division, Clawson replied, “Were we picked to win it? I didn't see those. Were we unanimous first? The bull's-eye is on us, right?”

Clawson didn't sugar-coat the team's lack of experience and depth, but he had his most pointed comments regarding the quarterback position, where Tyler Cameron and Kevin Sousa are battling for a job that no one seems eager to win.

“Those two guys who took snaps in the spring, neither did enough, even if we didn't have those [true freshmen] coming in, to take control of the job,” Clawson said.

What was unique from Clawson was his pessimism on the position. What wasn't unique were the questions about the position. Plenty of coaches were asked about their quarterbacks in Greensboro, and for good reason. After talking with each coach and the players in attendance, here's a quick run-down of where each ACC team's QB situation stands.

1. Florida State: Jameis Winston is the returning Heisman winner and his time in Greensboro was, at the very least, a solid first step in FSU's quest to repair its quarterback's image.

2. Duke: Anthony Boone is the only other quarterback in the league with at least 300 attempts last season who is back for 2014, but David Cutcliffe still plans to use two quarterbacks and eagerly talked up Thomas Sirk, who will step into the red zone role manned so well by Brandon Connette last season.

3. Clemson: The biggest worry for Clemson is the potential for a real quarterback controversy (or, at the very least, a lively debate) if Cole Stoudt struggles early. Dabo Swinney offered blanket support for his senior, but the early schedule is difficult, and the immensely talented but completely green Deshaun Watson is waiting in the wings.

4. NC State: Dave Doeren can barely contain his enthusiasm about the addition of Jacoby Brissett, whom the coach described as “everything you recruit in a quarterback.” Doeren did remind reporters, however, that Brissett's on-field experience remains extremely limited.

5. North Carolina: Hey, if Peyton Manning says Marquise Williams is going to be an exceptional passer, who are we to argue? Still, it's not enough to convince Larry Fedora to hand him the starting job just yet, and it sounds more and more like UNC will use two quarterbacks at times.

6. Syracuse: Terrel Hunt has proved he can win and he's taken on a leadership role this offseason, but he still needs to prove he can be a respectable downfield passer. And even Scott Shafer admitted things needed to get better there.

7. Louisville: The depth chart isn't set in stone here either, but Bobby Petrino had plenty of praise for Will Gardner in Greensboro, saying, "He can make all the throws you need to make. He's got the arm strength. He's got a very quick release. ... He's a natural leader that the players have already learned to follow."

8. Pitt: Paul Chryst says Chad Voytik still has a ways to go, but he's pleased with the quarterback's progress and, of course, Voytik will have as dangerous a weapon as any first-year starter in the league in Tyler Boyd.

9. Boston College: The Eagles actually have a relatively experienced and settled QB spot with the arrival of transfer Tyler Murphy, and lineman Andy Gallik said Murphy has grasped the offense and taken on a leadership role. But his problem will be that he doesn't have much in the way of receiving targets or experience in the backfield to help him out.

10. Virginia: Mike London shrugged off the rumors about his job, and one reason he can do that is that he's immensely confident in QB Greyson Lambert, who looks to have cemented his role as the team's starter.

11. Georgia Tech: Paul Johnson smiled at the notion that recently departed QB Vad Lee said the triple-option wasn't for him, noting the situation had become “frustrating” for both sides. With Justin Thomas, however, Johnson said he has the ideal quarterback to run his offense.

12. Virginia Tech: Well, Brenden Motley did get a preseason player of the year vote, even if he's not exactly destined to win the starting job. Frank Beamer said he plans to end the drama soon, even if no one separates himself and “he has to go with a gut decision.”

13. Miami: Ryan Williams would make this a much better scenario, but Al Golden isn't interested in predicting his veteran will be back from a torn ACL any time soon. That leaves Jake Heaps and Kevin Olsen, neither of whom earned a ton of praise in Greensboro.

14. Wake Forest: It's going to be a long year for Clawson, but at least he's got a sense of humor about it.

More links:

Dabo Swinney is confident Clemson will have a chance to win the Atlantic, writes The State.

Swinney has no intention of taking religion out of his football program, writes Sports on Earth.

There are no hard feelings between Swinney and Syracuse coach Scott Shafer, writes The Post-Standard.

Florida State's offensive line will be what sets the Seminoles apart in the ACC, writes Tomahawk Nation.

And your non-sports link of the day: If you don't hear from me for a few months, blame the new Simpsons World from FXX, which looks… amazing.
Headed to Greensboro for media day. Make sure you follow the ACC blog team on Twitter: Andrea will be tweeting from @ESPN_ACC, in addition to @DavidHaleESPN, @Matt_Fortuna and @JShankerESPN.

James in North Carolina writes: Do you think there is another division in college football as wide open as the Coastal? I think Duke, VT, Miami, and North Carolina are all very close talent wise, and any of them could beat each other on any given day. I don't feel that Pitt is on the same level, but with the other teams dishing out losses to each other, they could be right there in the mix. The same could be said for Georgia Tech. In my opinion, the only team that I don't think will compete is UVA, but strange things tend to happen in the ACC.

Andrea Adelson writes: The Coastal is without a doubt the most wide open division in college football. I have seen Duke, Virginia Tech and North Carolina all listed as preseason favorites; Miami won nine games last season; I expect Pitt to be much better; Georgia Tech has a long history of success in the Coastal and cannot be counted out; and Virginia will be much better and much more competitive. I would not be surprised if the entire division ended up with bowl eligibility this season, even the Hoos. I still think Duke and North Carolina are the front-runners, followed closely by Virginia Tech, Pitt, Georgia Tech and Miami. The Hokies have a favorable schedule (BC and Wake from the Atlantic) and I am going to go ahead and guarantee they will be better on offense. Virginia Tech and Pitt might be slightly ahead of Georgia Tech and Miami. The Jackets have a lot of question marks on defense, and so does Miami (along with uncertainty at quarterback). Check back next week to see how we each voted in the ACC preseason poll. I wouldn't be surprised if we all pick a different Coastal champ.




Jon in Atlanta writes: Hey AA, I've been looking at a few projections about the ACC Coastal. I think it's pretty safe to say, that no one is a stand out winner. Some have UNC, some VT and some Duke. I would love for my Jackets to sneak in and win it. However, with a new QB and a few questions on the "D" side, I think that will be a tough stretch. I'm thinking it's going to be another 7 win season for us, what's your thoughts? Can we win more?

Adelson writes: I have not been overly optimistic about Georgia Tech this season. Then I read some interesting notes about the Jackets in the Phil Steele college football preview magazine. Did you know the Jackets have a .500 record or better in ACC play for 19 straight seasons -- the longest streak in the country? That stat alone makes it hard to completely discount Georgia Tech. I think Justin Thomas will be an upgrade over Vad Lee, and the offense will be fine. My biggest concern is the defense, particularly up front. Having said that, the nonconference schedule is easier than it has been over the past two seasons, Miami, Clemson and Duke all play in Atlanta and there are no midweek games on the schedule. This team has the potential to win more than seven games.




UM student in SF, Calif., writes: The past month Miami has been tearing it up on the recruiting trail. I mean the 2016 class is already shaping up to be special. I was wondering how much the fact that the NCAA cloud has passed played into this, and how long you think Golden has to step up and win some real games now. Do you think he gets like a clean slate or something?

Adelson writes: NCAA closure has been absolutely huge for Miami. Players who shied away from the Canes, even in-state, are now really giving Miami a close look. I wrote a little bit about the impact in the Tampa area. Golden is not on the hot seat by any stretch. Everybody in the administration knows what he was saddled with over the past three seasons, especially since he took the job and had no idea there would be a major NCAA investigation that would essentially take up every single season he has had to date. As for winning some real games, let's not forget about last season. Yes, it ended in disappointment, but Miami won nine and also beat Florida. The Gators ended up having a disastrous season, but at the time they played, Florida was viewed as the better team. I thought that was a big win for Golden and the program. Now, I know what you are getting at -- getting back to beating Florida State and playing for an ACC championship. Miami has assembled some talent over the past several years, but I still think the Canes are a few years away from consistent 10-12 win seasons. Having said that, I do think Golden deserves some patience. I know expectations are always sky-high at Miami. He wouldn't want it any other way. But at the same time, he has had more on his hands than any other coach in the league.




Wayne in Tallahassee, Fla., writes: Can my Noles learn to stay out of trouble? I know you have to wait for the all facts, but kick (Jesus Wilson) off the team and set an example. I'm tired of seeing this!

Adelson writes: I understand your frustration. Certainly, you are not the first college football fan tired of seeing athletes getting into trouble. Will kicking him off the team set an example? This year, Jimbo Fisher kicked Ira Denson off the team after he was charged with petty theft and the illegal use of a credit card. Wilson still got into trouble. Now, I realize the cases are different and it is sometimes hard to compare each offense. Denson allegedly perpetrated a crime against a teammate; Wilson allegedly stole a scooter. Should a coach kick every player off the team who is arrested and charged with a crime? How does a coach prevent athletes from getting arrested? These are all difficult questions each coach must face.

Eds note: Earlier this week, I profiled Clemson offensive lineman Kalon Davis and his study abroad trip to Kyoto, Japan. Tragically, professor E. Leslie Williams -- who led the trip -- died suddenly last week. Thoughts and prayers are with Davis, Williams and the Clemson family.
Big names among the assistant ranks tend not to stay assistants for too long, but Clemson’s Chad Morris says he’s right where he wants to be and isn’t looking for a head-coaching gig long-term, writes the Augusta Chronicle.

Of course, if a certain job in College Station, Texas, were to open up -- as our Travis Haney wrote about this week -- it certainly would seem like a good fit for Morris, who is a Texas A&M graduate. But Morris also earned $1.3 million last season, which makes it a bit easier to stay comfortable in a coordinator role, and though he is smart enough to know when the right situation comes around, I think he is also sincere when he says he is not looking to leave.

And Morris isn’t the only ACC assistant would could be a hot commodity at some point in the next couple years. A few other names to watch for bigger jobs:

Bud Foster, Virginia Tech: The offense has been down over the past few years for the Hokies, but Foster's defense has been as good as ever. Foster has turned down lucrative offers elsewhere in the past, so he is clearly not looking to leave, but he will nevertheless remain on the radar for a lot of other programs looking to bring in a proven commodity.

Jay Graham, Florida State: He is young, has NFL experience and SEC ties, and he is a recruiting whiz. He also presided over the first 1,000-yard back at Florida State in 16 years last season. Graham is going to be a hot name very soon.

Chip West, Virginia: How does a team that finishes 2-10 and has a head coach constantly mired in hot-seat rumors still land a solid recruiting class, including five ESPN300 members? Chalk it up to West, one of the best recruiters in the nation.

Scottie Montgomery, Duke: He will get his first crack at a coordinator job this year as he takes over for Kurt Roper, who left for Florida. Montgomery has NFL experience as a wideouts coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he is a terrific recruiter. If Duke’s offense continues to shine, he is going to get a lot of credit -- and a lot of long looks from other programs.

Brent Venables, Clemson: Morris gets all the buzz because offense is fun and the Tigers’ defense has played second fiddle for years. But look, everyone remembers that Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia to conclude the 2011 season, and what Venables has done for the Tigers’ defense since then -- 29.3 ppg in 2011, 24.8 in 2012, 22.2 in 2013 -- has been impressive, and this year’s unit could be his best yet. More importantly, the Clemson defense is finally climbing out of the shadow of its prolific offense.

More links:

Athlon has a look at recruiting in the Tidewater, Virginia area, and how the region has become a key battleground for programs like Florida State and Virginia.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a piece on how colleges are bringing in outside help to sell tickets.

The Daily Progress is looking at Virginia’s opponents and wonders if this is the golden age of Duke football.

A new play-calling system should help Terrel Hunt run Syracuse’s up-tempo offense, according to Syracuse.com. We wrote plenty about up-tempo offenses yesterday, if you missed it.

Georgia Tech’s special teams should be a strength, writes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Courier-Journal wonders why Bobby Petrino isn’t having more success on the recruiting trail at Louisville.
Earlier on Thursday, we looked at the success and drawbacks of Clemson’s up-tempo offense, which got us to thinking about the league’s tempo as a whole.

Chad Morris came to Clemson, bringing the up-tempo style with him, in 2011. Since that time, the Tigers have averaged a 22-percent increase in plays per game and a 42-percent increase in scoring. Not surprisingly, both of those numbers are the best among ACC teams.

But it’s not just Clemson that’s moving faster on offense. In the three years since Morris’ arrival in Death Valley (beginning in 2011), the ACC as a whole has seen a 7-percent increase in offensive plays per game (and, accordingly, a 7-percent decrease in the time of possession per play) compared with the immediately preceding three-year stretch. In fact, all 14 teams that played in the ACC in 2013 have seen at least a marginal improvement in offensive tempo during the last three seasons.

Here are the teams with the biggest jumps in tempo, measured by time of possession per play:

1. Clemson (up 20.1 percent)
2. North Carolina (up 14.4 percent)
3. Syracuse (up 14.4 percent)
4. Pittsburgh (up 10 percent)

It may not come as much of a surprise then that the teams to see the biggest leaps in scoring from the 2008-10 time span vs. 2011-13 look pretty familiar.

1. Clemson (up 43 percent)
2. North Carolina (up 32 percent)
3. Florida State (up 28 percent)
4. Syracuse (up 25 percent)

It’s common sense, really: more plays translates pretty directly to more scoring chances, and more scoring chances translates to more points. Add better talent to that mix (as has certainly been the case at both Clemson and Syracuse) and the results get even better.

Of course, as we noted in the earlier post on Clemson, there’s a tradeoff on the defensive side when the offense is moving so quickly. Here are the teams that have seen the biggest increases in points surrendered during those same time frames.

1. Boston College (42.3 percent)
2. Clemson (35 percent)
3. North Carolina (22 percent)
4. Pittsburgh (17.9 percent)

Obviously there are other factors at play here beyond just tempo, but there clearly is some correlation between how fast an offense moves and how much pressure that then puts on a defense. For the most part, teams like Clemson are happy to make that tradeoff because the offensive exploits more than outweigh the potential drawbacks defensively. The result has been a 32-8 record in three years with Morris guiding the offense for the Tigers. Similarly, Syracuse has improved dramatically and is hoping to run even faster on offense this year, while North Carolina and Pitt have each garnered some buzz as potential Coastal Division favorites.

The elephant in the room when it comes to discussing tempo in the ACC, however, remains Florida State. After all, no team has been more dominant than the Seminoles, who’ve seen offensive productivity skyrocket in the last three years, while it’s tempo has remained virtually unchanged. And that’s really a good reminder that tempo can help, but there’s more than one way to put up points.

Lastly, here’s a quick look at the fastest- and slowest-paced teams in the ACC from 2011-2013, based on time of possession per play. (Note: League average during that span was one play every 25.4 seconds)

Fastest pace
1. Clemson (21.4 seconds)
2. North Carolina (24.0 seconds)
3. Syracuse (24.1 seconds)
4. NC State (24.4 seconds)
5. Duke (24.8 seconds)

Slowest pace
1. Georgia Tech (28.0 seconds)
2. Virginia Tech (27.2 seconds)
3. Boston College (27.1 seconds)
4. Florida State (27.0 seconds)
5. Pittsburgh (26.3 seconds)
It's no secret that the strength of Clemson's team this season figures to be its defensive line. And, of course, there are plenty of numbers to underscore the Tigers' ferociousness up front.
  • The ACC returns 13 players who had at least 10 tackles for loss last season. Five of them play for Clemson.
  • Vic Beasley had 23 TFLs vs. teams from BCS-AQ conferences last season. No other returning ACC player had more than 12.
  • Clemson's defense recorded a tackle in the backfield once every 7.8 plays last season against AQ teams.
  • The Tigers didn't rely on the blitz either. When rushing four or fewer, Clemson recorded a sack every 11.1 passing attempts last season, the second-lowest rate in the league.

In other words, the Tigers are pretty good up front. But digging into those numbers also uncovered a few other interesting tidbits about ACC defensive fronts. Normally we like to compose a nice narrative around one or two key stats, but for the purposes of this post, we're going a little more free-flowing. Here's a bit of what we found:

• Yes, Clemson was exceptional when it came to defensive fronts in 2013, but so was the rest of the ACC. (Or, perhaps, if you're a pessimist, the O lines around the league were particularly bad.)

Of all teams to play at least eight games vs. AQ conference schools, Clemson had the best rate of TFLs, recording one every 7.8 plays. But, of the top 18 teams in plays-per-TFL last year, seven now play in the ACC. Here's the list:

1. Clemson (7.8)
3. Louisville (8.5)
4. Virginia Tech (8.7)
10. Virginia (9.5)
15. Syracuse (9.8)
17. Florida State (10.1)
18. NC State (10.4)

• Looking at that list, it's worth noting Louisville, Syracuse and Florida State all lost key players from last season's defensive lines to the NFL.

• Speaking of key defensive linemen moving on to the NFL, few teams figure to suffer quite as much from the loss of a key starter this season than Pitt.

How big was Aaron Donald's contribution to the Panthers' defense? He had 21 TFLs against AQ conference teams, which accounted for a whopping 43 percent of the team's total.

Moreover, Pitt relied more on its four-man rush, led by Donald, than any other team in the ACC. A whopping 92 percent of Pitt's sacks in 2013 came with just a four-man rush, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

• The flip side of that coin is Virginia, where the D-line figures to get plenty of credit (and should be even deeper this year), but it was the blitz that really carried the Hoos. Nearly half of all of dropbacks by Virginia's opponents last season were countered with a blitz, according to ESPN Stats & Info, and 71 percent of the Cavaliers' sacks came when rushing five or more defenders.

• Defensive coordinators often talk about how the secondary can't flourish without a strong defensive front and vice versa, making it something of a chicken-or-egg discussion, but it's notable that of the top ACC defensive fronts (based on plays/TFL) in AQ-conference games, only Virginia Tech had a highly rated secondary. The Hokies ranked No. 2 in the ACC and No. 17 nationally in yards-per-attempt vs. AQ teams last year. The rest of the top 5 ACC lines were far worse: Clemson (38th nationally in YPA), Virginia (86th), Maryland (47th) and Syracuse (63rd).

• Don't go thinking the high amount of blitzes hurt Virginia's pass defense though. The Hoos allowed 1.6 fewer yards per attempt when blitzing than when sending four or fewer pass-rushers last season. In fact, only Virginia and Syracuse (1.4 fewer yards/attempt) were better when rushing more than four defenders last season.

• The flip side of that coin? Not surprisingly, it's Clemson, which allowed 3.2 more yards-per-attempt when blitzing last season than it did when rushing four or fewer defenders. Other big splits in that direction: Duke (2.4), Miami (1.1), UNC (1.1) and NC State (1.0).

• Pitt has the lowest percentage of its TFLs come against AQ opponents (57 percent). Syracuse had the highest (85 percent).

• Florida State's returning TFL leaders for 2014 is not surprisingly Mario Edwards Jr., with 9.5. Care to guess who's No. 2? We'll give you a minute.

Still thinking?

Give up?

That'd be Chris Casher, who had 5. Casher didn't start a game last season, and he's not exactly guaranteed a starting spot this year. Florida State's sack leader in 2013 was cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, who finished with 5.5. The last time the Seminoles' leader in sacks had so few for a season was 2006 (Buster Davis had 5).

• The only team that recorded a TFL less often (on a per-play basis) against AQ-conference teams last season than Miami was Texas A&M. The Hurricanes' leader in TFLs, Shayon Green, won't be back for 2014.

• And, of course, getting back to Clemson for a moment, there was one other stat the folks on Twitter were more than happy to mention when I talked up Beasley's season.

Um, yeah. The answer to that one would be zero, which should make for a pretty good stat to build a narrative around when Clemson and FSU face off again in September.
It’s Day 3 of media days for the SEC, and while we’ve yet to get any juicy ACC bashing like we did last year, first-year Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason did say something on Monday that warranted a little more discussion.

Mason’s comments, courtesy of Team Speed Kills:
“We don't believe in redshirting at Vanderbilt. What we'll do is we'll take out of that class of 22, we'll probably have 17 guys that will step on the field and play at some point in time this year.”

Mason’s estimates certainly seem a bit generous, given that playing 77 percent of your true freshmen is virtually unheard of around college football. But it’s also possible the Vandy coach is at the forefront of a new way of doing things. Tennessee coach Butch Jones added to the discussion Tuesday, promising at least 10 true freshmen would play significant roles for the Vols this season.

More and more, particularly among the most competitive schools on the recruiting trail, immediate playing time for freshmen is an essential sales pitch. And for top recruits who seem likely to bolt for the NFL with eligibility remaining anyway, the redshirt year only takes away from time spent on the field. At the very least, regular work on special teams for true freshmen gets them game experience and prevents key contributors from being exposed to injury, so why not go that route?

It’s a philosophy I’ve discussed with FSU’s Jimbo Fisher a few times, and while he certainly hasn’t gone to quite the level Mason has suggested, the Seminoles -- who have inked a top-10 recruiting class each year of Fisher’s tenure -- have made a habit out of playing true freshmen. Just last year, Nate Andrews, Jalen Ramsey and Kermit Whitfield all played critical roles in the team’s BCS title, while 13 of 16 non-QB skill players in the class saw some action.

That got us to thinking how the rest of the ACC stacks up when it comes to redshirting freshmen. Here’s how the numbers from the Class of 2013 played out:

 
Of note, we didn’t include any signees who never arrived on campus, and we didn’t include juco players or transfers.

Overall, 107 of the ACC's 258 true freshmen signed in 2013 saw playing time last year -- or 42 percent. That number was a bit higher for ESPN 300 players, of which 23 of 41 (56 percent) saw action. Pitt played the most true freshmen (12), and Miami played the highest percentage of its signing class (67 percent), while Louisville (3 of 16) and Georgia Tech (2 of 13) played the fewest.

That latter category is interesting because Paul Johnson’s recruiting has been criticized regularly at Georgia Tech, and the 2013 class has already had more transfers (three) than players to see the field (two). And, of course, one of those two who saw action was kicker Harrison Butker. Moreover, Charlie Strong may find redshirting is a far tougher sell at Texas than it was at Louisville.

That FSU, Miami, Clemson and UNC inked the most ESPN 300 players and were among the most likely to play true freshmen shouldn't come as a surprise. Part of the formula is getting freshmen who are ready to play, and obviously the more talented the player, the more likely he is to see the field. (It's noteworthy, though, that just two of Clemson's nine ESPN 300 signees avoided a redshirt -- wide receiver Mike Williams started three games and linebacker Ben Boulware was largely used on special teams). But the other part of the argument is that giving true freshmen a chance to play is crucial to landing the best recruits. And in the case of Whitfield and Andrews, both were three-star recruits. So, too, were impact freshmen like Breon Borders, Brisly Estime and James Conner.

There will always be strong candidates for redshirts -- quarterbacks and offensive linemen, in particular -- and for some recruits, the opportunity to watch and learn and develop physically for a year remains a blessing. But there’s also a good chance Mason is on to something, and while it’s doubtful that 75 percent of true freshmen will see the field at most schools, there’s ample motivation for coaches to at least move in that direction.

More links:
  • A boatload of top prospects are going to be visiting Florida State in the next few days, writes the Tallahassee Democrat.
  • Clemson’s defense figures to carry the team this season, writes The Post and Courier.
  • North Carolina AD Bubba Cunningham says the school is working to "move forward" from the ongoing NCAA investigation surrounding academic fraud, writes the Charlotte Observer.
  • Virginia Tech tailback Trey Edmunds says he’s ready to go full speed after breaking his tibia against Virginia last season, writes The Roanoke Times.
  • Georgia Tech freshman Clinton Lynch knew what to expect with the Yellow Jackets before he arrived on campus, writes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
  • A Louisville-area company wants to promote the Cardinals’ receiving corps with a billboard, writes The Courier-Journal.
  • And your non-sports link of the day: Here’s a list of the best beers of 2014 (so far), courtesy of Paste. What, no Miller High Life?
Just a few weeks remain before fall camp opens around the ACC, and there are plenty of big questions still left to be answered. With that in mind, we’re looking at some of the conference’s biggest wild cards -- veterans without a distinguished track record who could make all the difference for their respective teams this season. One caveat: With so much of the conference breaking in a new QB, we ignored that key position for now. We’re also not including any true freshmen, since they all come with their share of intrigue. Instead, these are the Coastal Division’s biggest wild cards as we get set for 2014.

Duke: DE Dezmond Johnson

With fewer than five tackles for loss per game last year, Duke had the second-least-productive defensive front in the ACC. Then the Blue Devils lost three of their four starters on the D-line. That means there are major holes to fill and plenty of room for improvement. Johnson is a fifth-year senior coming off a solid spring, which makes him the first man up to fill the void.

Georgia Tech: DE Kenderius Whitehead

Talk about a wild card. Whitehead started his career at NC State, transferred to Georgia Military College, then became the first juco player to sign with Georgia Tech in the Paul Johnson era. Because he’s wrapping up his degree at GMC, he won’t even report to Tech until later this month, but the Yellow Jackets are so thin on the D-line that Whitehead could still be the starter at rush end. Aside from Adam Gotsis, Tech has virtually no established pass rushers, but before Whitehead can even begin to assert himself on Tech’s depth chart he has to take care of academics elsewhere.

Miami: LB Thurston Armbrister

A part-time starter last season, Armbrister has the ability to rush the QB and play the run. But after two linebackers were dismissed earlier this month, further diminishing an already thin group, the Hurricanes need their senior to blossom into a more well-rounded player in 2014. Aside from Denzel Perryman, Miami has little in the way of sure things in the linebacking corps. Getting some better production from that group -- Miami had the fewest tackles for loss in the conference and second fewest among Power 5 teams last season -- could be the key to the Canes’ defense.

North Carolina: DT Greg Webb

There’s ample depth on UNC’s defensive line, but there are plenty of question marks, too. After bandit Norkeithus Otis, the unit lacks an experienced pass rusher, and the Heels finished last in the ACC in rushing defense in 2013, allowing 182 yards per game on the ground. Right now, a handful of juniors and seniors are atop the depth chart, but last year’s struggles only underscore the need for younger talent to emerge. Webb could be the centerpiece. An ESPN 300 recruit in 2013, he has the size and quickness to make a difference up the middle. And if he can progress along with Nazair Jones, Dajaun Drennon and Junior Gnonkonde, there’s plenty of room for the unit to grow into a force in 2014.

Pitt: OT Adam Bisnowaty

A former four-star recruit, Bisnowaty has plenty of upside, but a back injury stemmed his progress early last season and sidelined him for the final four games and much of this spring. The left side of Pitt’s O-line has ample talent between Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson, but the unit was a sieve at times last year, with the Panthers allowing the most sacks per game of any Power 5 team in the country. If Bisnowaty is healthy, he has a chance to get much better. And if he can hold down the left tackle spot, Pitt’s pass protection -- combined with a more mobile QB in Chad Voytik -- has a chance to improve dramatically.

Virginia: WR Darius Jennings

Coming out of high school, Jennings was an ESPN 150 prospect, and he appeared close to blossoming as a sophomore in 2012, catching 48 balls for 568 yards. Last year, however, was a regression. He had 10 fewer catches and just 340 yards on the season. He flashed potential with a 13-catch, 119-yard, two-TD performance against Georgia Tech, but that accounted for a third of his season’s production. With Virginia’s QB situation improving, the Cavaliers are looking for Jennings to finally capitalize on his potential in his final season in Charlottesville.

Virginia Tech: TE Ryan Malleck

OK, so pretty much the entire Virginia Tech offense feels like a wild card this year -- from leading rusher Trey Edmunds to a talented-but-inconsistent receiving corps to, of course, the mystery at QB. But for an offense in transition, its best friend can often be a reliable tight end. Coordinator Scot Loeffler plans to use Malleck, who missed last year with a shoulder injury, as a key contributor in 2014. When Loeffler was OC at Temple in 2011, his tight end led the team in receiving. When he moved to Auburn in 2012, the tight end finished second. Malleck was held out of contact drills this spring and has some competition at the position, but if he’s healthy, it’s reasonable to expect a big season.
NFL.com has made its predictions for the ACC’s leaders in the major statistical categories, and it didn’t exactly go out on a limb with any selections. In fact, I’d say NFL.com’s picks are probably the same as mine.

But let’s play devil’s advocate for a bit today and dig a little deeper into the ACC’s talent pool to find some other contenders. So, here are my not-so-obvious choices:

Passing yards

NFL.com choice: Jameis Winston (Florida State)
Not-so-obvious choice: Will Gardner (Louisville)

OK, there’s really only one contender for this, and it’s Winston. But if we’ve got to find an alternative, we’ll go with Bobby Petrino’s new QB. In nine years as a college head coach, Petrino’s QBs have topped 3,000 yards five times (and that includes four different quarterbacks). Louisville also has a strong group of receivers and a veteran line in front of Gardner, so the passing game should be solid. And who knows? Perhaps FSU blows out so many of its opponents again that Winston’s numbers suffer as a result of too many second halves spent on the bench.

Rushing yards

NFL.com choice: Duke Johnson (Miami)
Not-so-obvious choice: Zach Laskey (Georgia Tech)

What separates Johnson beyond talent is that he figures to be a bell cow in the backfield, and that’s something that just doesn’t exist much anymore. Florida State, Syracuse, Clemson, UNC, Pitt — they’re all going to have more of a committee approach that will likely prevent any one back from piling up too many yards. That’s true at Georgia Tech, too, but because the Yellow Jackets run the ball more than anyone else (78 percent of its plays last year), we’ll assume Laskey will get his shot at a title anyway. Of course, despite all those carries, Tech tailbacks have led the ACC in rushing just twice under Paul Johnson (2008 and 2010).

Receiving yards

NFL.com choice: DeVante Parker (Louisville)
Not-so-obvious choice: Rashad Greene (Florida State)

OK, so Parker might actually be the not-so-obvious choice here, as Greene, Tyler Boyd and Jamison Crowder all return fresh off 1,000-yard seasons. We’d bet all four top 1,000 again this year, but the edge will go to Greene, who has the best QB throwing to him, but won’t have to compete with Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw for targets this year.

Tackles

NFL.com choice: Steven Daniels (Boston College)
Not-so-obvious choice: Kelby Brown (Duke)

A lot gets made of BC’s run of great tacklers. Every year, the Eagles produce another 100-tackle defender. But do you know which team had the top three tacklers in the ACC last season? That’d be Duke (David Helton, Jeremy Cash and Brown), and all three are back this year. In fact, in the last six seasons, Duke has produced eight players with 100-tackle seasons.

Sacks

NFL.com choice: Vic Beasley (Clemson)
Not-so-obvious choice: Corey Crawford (Clemson)

Beasley has already received so much attention, it would be a mild surprise if he led the league in sacks again just because opposing linemen will make him a focal point all season. In fact, the last time the same player led the ACC in sacks in consecutive years was Florida State's Peter Boulware in 1995 and 1996. So here’s betting that one of Beasley’s teammates reaps the rewards of all the attention he figures to get in 2014.

Interceptions

NFL.com choice: Kendall Fuller (Virginia Tech)
Not-so-obvious choice: P.J. Williams (Florida State)

This one is sort of a crapshoot, but Florida State figures to be up big in many games, forcing the opposition to throw, and with a balanced and deep corps of defensive backs, it will be hard for teams to avoid throwing to any one side of the field. So that means Williams should get a few chances, and he’s as talented as any corner in the country, so we’re betting he makes the most of a few of those opportunities.

More links:

ESPN's early ACC projections

July, 15, 2014
Jul 15
10:30
AM ET
ESPN used its Football Power Index to put together preseason projections for each team, and once again Florida State is a heavy favorite.

According to ESPN’s formula, the Seminoles have at least an 87 percent chance of winning each game on their schedule next season, with their toughest battles projected to be at Miami (87 percent chance of an FSU win), vs. Clemson (88 percent), vs. Florida (91 percent) and the neutral site season opener against Oklahoma State (91 percent).

Overall, ESPN has FSU with a 40 percent chance to finish the season undefeated. The next closest team is Oregon, with just a 13 percent chance at an undefeated season. The numbers also suggest it’ll be an FSU vs. North Carolina ACC title game, with Clemson, Virginia Tech and Miami having the next best shots at a conference championship. On the other hand, Wake Forest has just 3.6 projected wins -- the third-fewest among Power 5 teams.

Of course, a lot can change between now and when the games are actually played, but for a quick look into the ACC’s preseason projections, here’s how ESPN’s FPI numbers add up at the moment.

Keep in mind that the conference ranks are based on their odds of winning the ACC, so teams in the Atlantic have lower odds due to tougher competition.

ACC ATLANTIC DIVISION

Boston College

Projected record: 5-7
Strength of schedule: 54
Chance of undefeated season: 0%
Odds of ACC title: 0%
Conference rank: 12

Clemson

Projected record: 9-3
Strength of schedule: 51
Chance of undefeated season: 0.37%
Odds of ACC title: 5.1%
Conference rank: 3

Florida State

Projected record: 12-1
Strength of schedule: 41
Chance of undefeated season: 40.33%
Odds of ACC title: 73%
Conference rank: 1

Louisville

Projected record: 7-5
Strength of schedule: 55
Chance of undefeated season: 0%
Odds of ACC title: 0.3%
Conference rank: 9

NC State

Projected record: 6-6
Strength of schedule: 65
Chance of undefeated season: 0%
Odds of ACC title: 0%
Conference rank: 13

Syracuse

Projected record: 6-6
Strength of schedule: 47
Chance of undefeated season: 0%
Odds of ACC title: 0.1%
Conference rank: 11

Wake Forest

Projected record: 4-8
Strength of schedule: 60
Chance of undefeated season: 0%
Odds of ACC title: 0%
Conference rank: 14

ACC COASTAL DIVISION

Duke

Projected record: 8-4
Strength of schedule: 66
Chance of undefeated season: 0.01%
Odds of ACC title: 1.8%
Conference rank: 7

Georgia Tech

Projected record: 6-6
Strength of schedule: 43
Chance of undefeated season: 0%
Odds of ACC title: 1%
Conference rank: 8

Miami

Projected record: 8-4
Strength of schedule: 35
Chance of undefeated season: 0%
Odds of ACC title: 3.2%
Conference rank: 5

North Carolina

Projected record: 9-4
Strength of schedule: 39
Chance of undefeated season: 0.23%
Odds of ACC title: 10.1%
Conference rank: 2

Pittsburgh

Projected record: 8-4
Strength of schedule: 62
Chance of undefeated season: 0.01%
Odds of ACC title: 1.9%
Conference rank: 6

Virginia

Projected record: 4-8
Strength of schedule: 13
Chance of undefeated season: 0%
Odds of ACC title: 0.2%
Conference rank: 12

Virginia Tech

Projected record: 8-4
Strength of schedule: 61
Chance of undefeated season: 0.01%
Odds of ACC title: 3.3%
Conference rank: 4

ACC lunchtime links

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
12:15
PM ET
Happy 7/11 Day everyone (or Sem/Elem, as my friends and I call it)! Get your free slurpee!
Two more watch lists were released Thursday, and the ACC is well-represented. The Bronko Nagurski Trophy is awarded to the nation’s top defensive player by the Charlotte Touchdown Club. The Outland Trophy is given to the nation’s top interior lineman, offensive or defensive.

Here are the ACC and Notre Dame players to make the watch lists:

Bronko Nagurski Trophy

LB Stephone Anthony, Clemson: A third-team All-ACC selection last season, Anthony was brilliant in the Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State with 11 tackles and an interception. Anthony is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DE Vic Beasley, Clemson: Beasley is a disruptive force in opponents’ backfields and registered 13 sacks as a junior. He led the ACC in sacks in 2013. Beasley also is on the Bednarik Award watch list.

LB Kelby Brown, Duke: The Blue Devils under David Cutcliffe are most known for offense, but Brown is a stout defender and one of the conference’s best. He will make a run at 100 tackles for a second consecutive season this fall. Brown is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DB Jeremy Cash, Duke: Cash was an instant-impact player for the Blue Devils in 2013 following a transfer from Ohio State. With another year in the system, Cash is poised for a huge season. Cash is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DL Mario Edwards, Florida State: The former No. 1 recruit nationally was dominant in the national title game. Edwards is now the leader of the defensive line and has just as good a chance as any to win the Nagurski. Edwards is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DB Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech: An impact performer as a freshman and a second-team All-ACC selection, Fuller is set to be the next great defensive back at Virginia Tech. Fuller is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DB Anthony Harris, Virginia: An All-ACC selection as a junior, Harris will be looked upon to lead the turnaround for the Cavs on defense. It is a talented unit, and Harris, a team captain this fall, might be the best. Harris is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DT Grady Jarrett, Clemson: With Beasley constantly seeing double-teams, this opens up the door for Jarrett to be an interior force for the Tigers’ defensive line, which is arguably the country’s best. Jarrett is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

DT Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech: He helped make a name for himself against Alabama at the beginning of the season, and his strong play continued throughout the season. Maddy is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

LB Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville: It will be interesting to see how he fares without defensive guru Charlie Strong, but he is as talented as they come. Mauldin is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

LB Denzel Perryman, Miami: One of the few bright spots on Miami’s defense last season, Perryman is the unquestioned leader of the Hurricanes defense. He could put up a huge number of tackles this fall. Perryman is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

CB KeiVarae Russell, Notre Dame: He has started every game in his career and was a FWAA Freshman All-American in 2012. He starred in the Irish’s bowl game with an interception and three pass breakups. Russell is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

LB Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame: Poised to be one of the best linebackers of recent history for the Irish, Smith started all 13 games as a freshman. He had the third-most tackles for a Notre Dame freshman in school history in 2013. Smith is also on the Bednarik Award watch list.

CB P.J. Williams, Florida State: Williams was one of FSU’s best players this spring, and he might be the country’s best cornerback. His stiffest competition could come from the opposite side of the field in teammate Ronald Darby, who surprisingly did not make the list. Williams also is on the Bednarik Award watch list.

Outland Trophy

DL Sheldon Day, Notre Dame: An impact player since his freshman season, Day was second among Notre Dame defensive linemen in tackles last season.

OT Cameron Erving, Florida State: A potential first-round draft pick, Erving elected to stay in school for another run at a national championship. As Jameis Winston’s blindside protector, few linemen nationally hold as much responsibility.

OT Sean Hickey, Syracuse: A workout warrior and one of the strongest players in college football, Hickey is the linchpin to the Orange offensive line.

OG Shaquille Mason, Georgia Tech: A two-time ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week, Mason has started 26 of the last 28 games for the Yellow Jackets.

OG Josue Matias, Florida State: Another potential first-round candidate along Florida State’s offensive line, Matias is athletic enough to play offensive tackle, too. He experimented at left tackle this spring.

OC Jake Smith, Louisville: Smith could end up playing right guard, where he started earlier in his career, but he is coming off a junior season in which he started at center. Smith is also on the Rimington watch list.

OG Laken Tomlinson, Duke: A key along the offensive line for the Blue Devils, Tomlinson likely will be a preseason All-ACC team selection. He was a first-team All-ACC coaches selection in 2013 as the Blue Devils’ best lineman.

Clemson’s Grady Jarrett and Virginia Tech’s Luther Maddy were represented on both lists.

Player list for ACC media days

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
2:24
PM ET
The 2014 college football season is inching ever so closer, with ACC media days set to take place in less than two weeks.

The league released its list of players who will be attending the July 20-21 event at The Grandover Resort in Greensboro, North Carolina. Here they are:

BOSTON COLLEGE
C Andy Gallik, R-Sr.
DB Dominique Williams, R-Sr.

CLEMSON
QB Cole Stoudt, Sr.
DE Vic Beasley, R-Sr.

DUKE
OG Laken Tomlinson, R-Sr.
LB Kelby Brown, R-Sr.

FLORIDA STATE
QB Jameis Winston, R-So.
CB P.J. Williams, Jr.

GEORGIA TECH
OG Shaquille Mason, Sr.
LB Quayshawn Nealy, R-Sr.

LOUISVILLE
WR DeVante Parker, Sr.
DE Lorenzo Mauldin, Sr.

MIAMI
RB Duke Johnson, Jr.
LB Denzel Perryman, Sr.

NORTH CAROLINA
QB Marquise Williams, Jr.
LB Norkeithus Otis, Sr.

NC STATE
RB Tony Creecy, R-Sr.
DE Art Norman, R-Sr.

PITT
WR Tyler Boyd, So.
DB Ray Vinopal, R-Sr.

SYRACUSE
OT Sean Hickey, Sr.
LB Cameron Lynch, Sr.

VIRGINIA
RB Kevin Parks, Sr.
SS Anthony Harris, Sr.

VIRGINIA TECH
WR Willie Byrn, R-Sr.
DT Luther Maddy, DT

WAKE FOREST
FB Jordan Garside, R-Sr.
CB Kevin Johnson, R-Sr.

ACC lunchtime links

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
12:00
PM ET
ESPN.com took a look toward the future Wednesday and unveiled the second annual CFB Future Power Rankings, which is more like a pre-era poll rather than a preseason poll. The rankings try to determine which 25 programs will be the best over a three-year period.

It’s an Insider article, but essentially five ESPN experts gave a 1-10 rating on five different categories, punched those numbers into a formula and scaled the schools based on the final grade with 100 being the maximum.

Alabama is still No. 1, but reigning champion Florida State is closing the gap. We’re not going to give all of the numbers and analysis away, but is Florida State poised to be No. 1 this time next season?

The Seminoles’ bevy of 2014 talent earned them a 9.8 out of 10 in roster strength, and they are the odds-on favorite to repeat as national champions. Only Alabama has recruited better recently, and a second championship could put the Noles on a level playing field with the Crimson Tide in the homes of prospects. And many are projecting Alabama and Florida State to play for the national title, and a head-to-head win could shake up the recruiting landscape.

Title path (i.e. strength of schedule/conference) is also taken into account, and Florida State is on a tier all by itself in the ACC. It’s foolish to just assume Florida State will continue to roll through the conference for the next four years, but Clemson is the only team right now with the talent to compete with the Noles for the next few seasons. The rest of the conference is looking to climb into that second tier with Clemson. The non-conference schedule is favorable too if the Gators continue to struggle.

When a program wins three out of the last five national championships and finishes with the No. 1 recruiting class just about every year, it deserves the honor of sitting atop the future rankings. But Florida State made a major jump from last year, and Alabama tumbled a bit in the projections, which could make the Seminoles the team to beat in the present and future.

Here are a few more links to help get you through the day:
From Florida State's veteran line to Clemson's fearsome defensive front, the ACC projects to have some of the country's best position groups this fall, while a few other contenders will enter 2014 with some major question marks in key areas. With that in mind, we're looking at the ACC's best units, a few more that might surprise in 2014 and the top teams with holes that could keep them from an ACC title.

Previous installments of this series can be found here.

Next up: Special teams

Best of the best: Florida State

There is no shortage of ACC teams with playmakers on special teams, but in the end, the Seminoles' talent overwhelms. They bring back sophomore Kermit Whitfield after a historic rookie campaign that was the best in school history. He had a nation-best 36.4 yard kick return average (an ACC record) and a 100-yard touchdown return late in the fourth quarter of the national title game. On top of that, there's reigning Lou Groza Award winner and All-American Roberto Aguayo, whose redshirt freshman season saw him nail 21 of his 22 field goal attempts and all 94 of his extra point tries. His 157 points set a new national record for a kicker as well. FSU also brings back punter Cason Beatty, in addition to the more-than-capable Rashad Greene at punt returner, where the Seminoles have a number of precocious speedsters behind him.

Next up: Duke

North Carolina certainly has a strong argument in returning Ryan Switzer, but the nod here ultimately goes to rival Duke, which brings back all of the key pieces from a special teams unit that played no small role in helping the Blue Devils win the Coastal Division title. There's Jamison Crowder, one of the most versatile players in the country, who amassed 401 yards and two touchdowns last season on 25 punt returns. There's DeVon Edwards, who thrived all over the field as a redshirt freshman, returning 19 kickoffs for 574 yards and two sores. And there's kicker Ross Martin and punter Will Monday, both of whom put forth stellar efforts last season, with Martin connecting on 2 of 3 tries from 50 yards or longer and Monday pinning 21 punts inside the 20.

Possible sleeper: Georgia Tech

Jamal Golden is back after a one-year absence because of a shoulder injury. But don't count out the junior, as he was the only player in 2012 to rank in the top 10 nationally in both punt returns (14.6) and kick returns (28.4). His time away has given way to more film study, and if fully healthy, Golden's numbers figure to be right up there with the rest of the talented specialists returning in the ACC this season. Harrison Butker impressed as a true freshman last season, hitting 10 of 14 field goal attempts and missing just one extra point. Punter Ryan Rodwell, meanwhile, figures to be the main guy after redshirting in 2013.

Problem for a contender: Virginia Tech

Beamer Ball has undoubtedly taken a hit, most notably with the team's kicking woes (VT missed 11 field goals last season) and the dismissal of Cody Journell. Freshman Michael Santamaria may be the answer at starter, for better or worse. Kyshoen Jarrett is back after averaging 5.3 yards per punt return last season. So, too, is Demitri Knowles, who averaged 21.8 yards per kick return in 2013. Something needs to be done about coverage, as the Hokies surrendered three touchdown returns last season.

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