ACC: North Carolina State Wolfpack
Hale: Who knows what to make of the Jekyll-and-Hyde Tar Heels? Their defense isn’t good, but neither is Rutgers’. The offense looked stagnant in its last outing, but Larry Fedora will have had a month of prep time to fix any flaws. UNC at least beat some quality opponents (Georgia Tech, Duke), while Rutgers was 2-5 against teams that finished .500 or better, allowing 457 yards and 36 points per game. North Carolina 38, Rutgers 28.
Fortuna: Fans of defense will have to close their eyes and look away in horror. Though Marquise Williams has been phenomenal for much of the season, the Rutgers' offense is riding high off its comeback win at Maryland. With the chance at an eight-win season in its inaugural Big Ten campaign. Leonte Carroo will be a handful for a UNC defense that has already seen its coordinator get fired. Rutgers 38, UNC 31
Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl
Adelson: The Wolfpack ended the season on a high note after a total domination of in-state rival North Carolina. The defense has started to gain momentum and play a little more aggressively, while the run game has started to find some footing, too. Jacoby Brissett and Shadrach Thornton each had 100 yards rushing against the Tar Heels. Look for that combination to be the difference. NC State 28, UCF 27.
Shanker: UCF has their own Jacoby to combat NC State’s Brissett. The Knights' Jacoby Glenn was the AAC’s defensive player of the year. UCF will keep NC State offense in check and score just enough points. UCF 24, NC State 17
Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman
Adelson: The Hokies have not been consistently reliable this season, but they did show signs of life offensively last time out against Virginia. J.C. Coleman ran hard -- and that run game will be a big key against a Cincinnati run D that ranks No. 80 in the nation. Here is betting Virginia Tech will get its run game going to make the difference. Virginia Tech 24, Cincinnati 21.
Shanker: This should be an interesting battle of strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness. Cincinnati’s offense and Virginia Tech’s defense are among the country’s best. Each team’s other unit is among the worst. The Bearcats will have more motivation in this game, though. Cincinnati 20, Virginia Tech 17
Duck Commander Independence Bowl
Shanker: It was an ugly finish for Miami, but South Carolina couldn’t beat a Clemson team that had a one-legged Deshaun Watson at quarterback. Miami 23, South Carolina 14
Adelson: In a game that presents such even matchups, this one might come down to coaching. That is where South Carolina has the edge. Miami has lost four straight bowl games; South Carolina has won three straight. The Hurricanes have shown no motivation to play; Spurrier will find one for the Gamecocks. South Carolina 27, Miami 24.
New Era Pinstripe Bowl
Fortuna: Points will be hard to come by at Yankee Stadium. Penn State might have the nation's No. 1 rushing defense, but it struggled the one time it faced a mobile quarterback in J.T. Barrett, as Ohio State rushed for 219 yards. Tyler Murphy is an even bigger threat with his legs, and he'll be able to make a few big plays that will ultimately prove to be the difference for an Eagles team that just keeps getting better. BC 17, Penn State 13
Hale: OK, Penn State’s offense isn’t much to rave about, but what has been lost in the Nittany Lions’ season is that the defense has been exceptional. Penn State allowed just 85 yards per game on the ground -- tops in the country -- which could negate BC’s top offensive threats. Expect a low-scoring game, with the Lions having a slight edge. Penn State 17, BC 14
Russell Athletic Bowl
Adelson: It is hard to forget how different Clemson looks offensively with Cole Stoudt behind center, so all the attention in this one will be squarely focused on the Tigers' No. 1-ranked defense. Oklahoma expects Samaje Perine to play, but he will not have much running room against Vic Beasley & Co. Clemson 20, Oklahoma 17
Hale: Since their respective regular-season finales, Oklahoma has gotten healthier and Clemson has learned it will be without star QB Deshaun Watson. The Tigers’ D is terrific, and perhaps that will be enough to secure a win, but odds are the offense is going to have to muster at least a few sustained drives, and Cole Stoudt is averaging just 5.6 yards-per-attempt since Oct. 1 with four TDs and eight interceptions. Oklahoma 17, Clemson 13
Hyundai Sun Bowl
Adelson: Duke has improved defensively this season, but the Blue Devils have not faced many teams as explosive as Arizona State. Plus, they beat only one team with a winning record. Both teams struggled down the stretch, but Arizona State has a better body of work and offense, so expect a Sun Devils victory. Arizona State 35, Duke 28.
Fortuna: These types of games usually come down to who has more to play for, and in this case it is certainly Duke. The Blue Devils are aiming for their second straight 10-win season and for their first bowl win in 53 years after falling just short against Johnny Football last year. Expect a clean offensive performance and just enough stops on defense to escape victorious. Duke 34, ASU 27
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Hale: The Fighting Irish have lost five of six and didn’t beat a team with better than a 7-5 record this season. LSU’s offense might not be stellar, but the Tigers took Alabama to overtime, fell five points shy of beating Mississippi State and have wins over Wisconsin and Ole Miss. We’ll take the LSU defense, with just enough help from Leonard Fournette, to get the job done. LSU 24, Notre Dame 20.
Fortuna: Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will have his work cut out for him in trying to stop a Bulldogs offense that's No. 8 nationally in scoring (41.7 ppg), but his defensive unit has been among the nation's best as well. If quarterback Reggie Bonnafon is at full health, he and the Louisville run game should be able to open things up for DeVante Parker and the passing attack. Louisville 31, Georgia 24
Shanker: Louisville’s sixth-ranked defense is allowing 364 yards per game against teams with winning records. Behind Nick Chubb, Georgia will be able to score. Georgia 30, Louisville 24
Capital One Orange Bowl
Hale: The bottom line for the Yellow Jackets is that the D has to do a much better job against Dak Prescott than it did against Jameis Winston in the ACC Championship Game. If Prescott gets time to move in the pocket and make throws downfield, it will be hard to corral Mississippi State. If Tech’s D can limit his big plays and force a couple turnovers, the offense will do more than enough to get the win. We’re betting on the latter. Georgia Tech 41, Mississippi State 38
Fortuna: The Bulldogs' rush defense has been solid (No. 31 nationally), which should improve with nearly a month to prepare for Georgia Tech's triple-option attack. MSU also has a really good quarterback in Dak Prescott, who was near the top of the Heisman discussion before losing at Alabama. The Yellow Jackets need to force several Prescott turnovers to give their offense a chance to have its desired effect, and that might be a tall order. Mississippi State 35, Georgia Tech 30
Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual
Adelson: The Seminoles are in a different position -- playing as the underdog. There is little doubt that will serve as motivation. But beyond the intangibles, Florida State will find a way to win behind Jameis Winston and Dalvin Cook, who has emerged to make the Seminoles more balanced and effective. Florida State 35, Oregon 31
Shanker: It was tough to pull the trigger on Oregon after going with Florida State all season. The rash of injuries are continuing for Oregon, but I think they will be able to run the ball effectively against the Seminoles. The Ducks will blow an early lead but put together a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. Oregon 35, Florida State 34
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl
Shanker: Both teams lost their coach, so it will be interesting to see how each team responds. The talent is clearly in the Panthers’ favor as they have James Conner and Tyler Boyd on offense. Pitt 31, Houston 13
Maybe that is not such a bad idea.
While it is true outgoing AD Steve Pederson helped usher Pitt into the ACC, it also is true he had an uneven track record when it came to hiring football coaches. Though Chryst's departure for Wisconsin after three years on the job cannot be placed on Pederson's shoulders, the next hire Pitt makes will be absolutely crucial for the program. Pitt cannot swing and miss on this hire the way Pederson did with Todd Graham and Mike Haywood, the two men brought in after he fired Dave Wannstedt.
Bill Fralic, a Pitt All-American lineman, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review of Pederson:
"He could not hire a good football coach. And he fired a loyal Pitt guy who averaged nine wins his last three years, and they haven't come close to that since. He meddled with everything. He was a control freak. Hopefully, we can recover from what he's done there."
Pitt is ready to win right now. It must hire a coach who can take what Chryst did and run with it. Make no mistake -- Pitt must hire a coach who will continue on with the blue-collar tradition Pitt fans have come to expect. All the high-octane mumbo jumbo Graham sold in the one year he was in Pittsburgh is just not going to fly. An offense predicated on a strong run game must remain a priority.
Many have already laid out their lists of potential candidates. Greg Schiano and Pat Narduzzi are among the two most intriguing names. They both have recruiting ties to the area, and both would presumably emphasize a power-run game. Double plus right there. Returning running back James Conner has the potential to be a 2,000-yard rusher with the right coach calling the plays.
Having been burned so many times in the recent past, Pitt would obviously be looking for a coach to put down roots in Pittsburgh for the long-term. Whether Pitt is that type of job may be in the eye of the beholder. In any case, Pitt should not concern itself with that idea right now.
It should hire the best available coach, plain and simple. Several outlets reported that Pederson had made contact with Schiano before being removed as AD. Though Pederson is gone, Schiano should remain on the list. At least he has proven he can win on the collegiate level, though he did fail to deliver in the clutch several times at Rutgers.
It is safe to say Pitt is brimming with potential. That is why this hire has to be the right hire. Pitt cannot afford to take any more steps backward.
Here are a few more links to start your morning:
A week later, I still have a hard time understanding how Roberto Aguayo did not win the Lou Groza Award. Now, more puzzlement: the FWAA All-America team does not have Aguayo on it, either. None of this is meant to take away from the year Brad Craddock had at Maryland. He was terrific, too. But there is no real doubt Aguyao is the hands down best kicker in the country, is there?
- Congrats to the Clemson football players set for graduation today.
- Is this Georgia Tech's toughest four-game stretch ... ever?
- The Louisville Courier-Journal grades the Cards' 9-3 finish. They get an A from AA.
- Miami quarterback Ryan Williams is preparing to start a new chapter in his life.
- Bowl-bound NC State is happy not to be home for the holidays.
- Syracuse has signed the first member of its 2015 class.
- Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster has not had contact with any other schools.
Clemson threw deep (20-plus yards) on 7.46 percent of its total plays, well above the league average of 5.93 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And that was probably not the best idea either, because while Clemson went deep more often than anyone else, the Tigers also averaged the second-fewest yards-per-attempt on those throws (trailing only Syracuse) and nearly 10 yards per attempt less than what Tajh Boyd mustered last year for Clemson. That’s not exactly a recipe for offensive success.
Watson completed nearly 50 percent of his deep balls in 2014 with seven touchdowns and just one interception. He averaged 15.9 yards per attempt, which would’ve been tops in the ACC if he’d been the only quarterback throwing for the Tigers in 2014. But he wasn’t.
Cole Stoudt and Nick Schuessler completed just 15 percent of their deep balls this season with one TD, two interceptions and a woeful 5.2 yards-per-attempt average. To put that in perspective, if they’d been the only quarterbacks throwing for Clemson this year, the Tigers would’ve been dead last in the league in YPA by nearly four full yards.
That’s just one of the interesting facts we find when we dig into the ACC’s deep-ball numbers for 2014.
A few more, with deep-ball stats courtesy ESPN Stats & Info:
- No team was worse on the deep ball in the ACC than Syracuse. This is no surprise. The Orange completed just 27.8 percent of its deep balls (worst in the ACC), averaged 9.2 yards per attempt (again, worst), had just two touchdowns (13th) and five interceptions (t-12th). That’s down a bit from last year, but the Orange have struggled on those throws ever since Ryan Nassib left.
- Perhaps the most improved team on the deep ball this year was Virginia. Last season, the Hoos were just 7-of-50 on throws of 20 yards or more. This year, they more than doubled their deep-ball yards, completion percentage and TD throws.
- North Carolina had one of the ACC’s most potent offenses, but it wasn’t because of the deep ball. This is one of the reasons Larry Fedora was so high on Mitch Trubisky, but the numbers didn’t back up that confidence. Overall, UNC’s completion percentage of 28 percent on deep balls was third-worst in the league and its 9.93 YPA was fourth worst, but Marquise Williams was far better than his counterpart. Williams wasn’t great (28 percent completions, 12.2 YPA) but Trubisky really struggled (3-of-15 for 100 yards with a pick).
- Only Wake Forest went deep less often than Pittsburgh (4.28 percent of total plays), which seems a bit odd considering that the Panthers could’ve used play-action well (given the strong running game) and they actually had the highest completion percentage of any ACC team on throws of 20-plus yards (44.4 percent).
- Florida State was far less successful on the deep ball this year than last, with its completion percentage down (48.8 in 2013 to 35.7 in 2014) and TDs way off (16 last year, nine this). But FSU also threw five fewer interceptions on deep throws this year, and when it did get a completion, it’s YPC was actually improved (40 YPA this year, 32 YPA last year).
- No team was better on the deep ball than Miami in 2014. Brad Kaaya proved to be an excellent downfield thrower, matched with a good running game and speed at receiver. For the year, Miami completed 41.3 percent of its deep balls (second in ACC), averaged 14.6 yards per attempt (first) and had nine touchdowns on those throws (tied for first). It’s worth noting though that just 12 percent of Miami’s passes in 2014 were 20 yards or more, the third fewest in the league.
- No team gained a higher percentage of its total offense in 2014 via the deep ball than Louisville (15.9 percent), which is interesting given that DeVante Parker missed seven games and Bobby Petrino cycled through three different quarterbacks. Overall, Louisville’s deep-ball numbers were virtually the same as 2013, in spite of losing its star receiver for more than half the year and a first-round draft pick at quarterback. That’s a real credit to the work Petrino did this season.
- Not surprisingly, Georgia Tech and Boston College had the highest percentage of their pass attempts be deep balls. Next up though? NC State (17 percent).
- Virginia Tech wasn’t great on the deep ball (10.5 YPA, four TDs, four INTs), but it was a necessary part of the Hokies’ offense. For the year, 74.1 percent of Tech’s plays of 20-plus yards came on throws of 20-plus yards -- meaning if the Hokies didn’t look deep, they rarely had a shot at a big play. The league average on that stat was 45.6 percent, meaning the rest of the ACC got more than half of its big plays from plays that weren’t deep balls. Virtually all of Virginia Tech’s big-play threat relied on the arm of Michael Brewer. That speaks volumes about the Hokies’ season.
Throughout our evaluations we come across many players who show promise and based of their upside for development or scheme fit are great additions.
Here are five unheralded commitments in the ACC worth keeping an eye on.
OG Wyatt Knopfke, Boston College
While Knopfke is an ESPN 300 player, he’s not as well-known as other interior linemen in the rankings. The big man out of Florida is a physical, strong player with the tools to be a good well-rounded player. And while listed at guard, he could be a candidate to develop at center as well. With an Eagles line that was loaded with seniors this season, head Coach Steve Addazio, an O-line coach himself, has a player who can develop into a key contributor in Knopfke.
DE LaSamuel Davis, Clemson
Four-star prospects like OT Zach Giella and athlete Van Smith are talented prospects and still rated highly, but they could be overlooked in a Tigers’ class that features double-digit ESPN 300 prospects. Another prospect in that group is Davis who notched over 100 tackles and 16 sacks this season. A rangy defender with wiry strength, he can use his hands well, flashes a good first-step and displays the tools to at least develop into a productive edge rusher. He needs to work to fill out his frame and be more consistent with his motor, but among this great collection of talent, Davis could emerge in time as a productive defensive contributor.
That could certainly change in 2015, when the ACC has several emerging stars who could contend for the award. Here’s a quick look at the league’s top challengers for the 2015 Heisman Trophy.
(Note: We’re assuming that Winston and Miami’s Duke Johnson won’t return for 2015, but if either does come back, he would immediately jump to the top of our rankings.)
1. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
If he had stayed healthy all season, Watson might have been a contender for the award as a true freshman. Assuming he can stay on the field in 2015, he looks poised to be the biggest playmaker in the conference for an offense in which he will be surrounded by young talent.
2. Miami QB Brad Kaaya
Kaaya had his ups and downs as a true freshman in 2014, but he showed plenty of poise and was arguably the ACC’s top deep-ball threat. Miami’s offense has plenty of skill-position talent, but Kaaya will need the Hurricanes to finish better than 6-6 if he wants a crack at the Heisman.
3. Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
There will be plenty of enthusiasm surrounding Cook’s sophomore campaign in 2015, and if Florida State makes another run at the playoff, he would likely be in the Heisman conversation. The problem for Cook is that he will likely be starring on an offense forced to replace its top receiver, top tight end, four starting linemen and Heisman-winning quarterback.
Few players in the country carried a heavier share of their team’s offensive load in 2014 than Conner did for Pitt. While he was a bit overshadowed by the Big Ten's top running backs, his 1,675 yards and 24 rushing TDs would have had him in the Heisman Trophy discussion most seasons. He could certainly match or exceed those numbers next year.
5. Georgia Tech QB Justin Thomas
In his first year running Paul Johnson’s offense, Thomas was exceptional, but as the Georgia Tech coach was quick to point out, this could be just the tip of the iceberg. With a year of experience and wider latitude in directing the offense in 2015, Thomas could easily emerge as one of the country’s most explosive offensive threats.
6. North Carolina QB Marquise Williams
Williams’ numbers in 2014 were exceptional, but he was largely overshadowed by UNC’s rocky season defensively. If the Tar Heels can finally emerge into a Coastal contender with Williams leading a high-powered offensive attack, he could emerge as one of the nation’s biggest dual threats at quarterback. His numbers this year were already similar to Dak Prescott, so perhaps 2015 will be Williams’ chance to spend the season getting the Heisman hype.
7. Pittsburgh WR Tyler Boyd
It’s tough for wide receivers to push their way into the Heisman campaign, but Boyd’s numbers in 2014 were exceptional. Whether he can turn in a 2015 season similar to what Alabama’s Amari Cooper did this year depends greatly on whether there is a new coaching regime at Pitt and the progress of Panthers QB Chad Voytik. But Boyd’s talent as a receiver and on special teams certainly will be worth monitoring.
8. Miami RB Joseph Yearby
He played second fiddle to Johnson this year, but it’s easy to see why Miami fans are so excited about the future for Yearby. As a true freshman, he averaged 6.1 yards per carry and 600 yards of total offense. With a starter’s share of the offense next season, Yearby could emerge into an all-purpose star for the Hurricanes.
Defensive players aren’t usually in the Heisman conversation, but with so much turnover expected on FSU’s offense in 2015, it will be up to Ramsey and the defense to keep the Seminoles afloat. Ramsey is already one of the nation’s top defensive backs, and in his third year as a starter, he could easily take the next step into the Heisman Trophy conversation with a few big plays at crucial times -- much as Notre Dame’s Manti Te'o did in 2012.
10. Duke RB Shaun Wilson
Here’s an under-the-radar player to watch as a potential Heisman hopeful in 2015. Wilson wasn’t Duke’s starter this season, but as a true freshman he still led the Blue Devils in rushing (590 yards) and was second in TDs (5) while finishing sixth in the nation in yards per rush (8.0). He could secure the starting job next year on an offense that could be more run-heavy, giving Wilson a chance to rack up huge numbers as one of the league’s most explosive runners.
Others to watch: Boston College RB Jon Hilliman, Louisville RB Brandon Radcliff, NC State QB Jacoby Brissett, Virginia RB Taquan Mizzell
But since we don’t want to ignore those near-misses entirely, here is a quick look at some of the toughest decisions we had to make for this year’s All-ACC team.
Quarterback: The bottom line is that there is no better player in the conference than Jameis Winston when he’s on, but unlike last season, he had his share of struggles, too. Meanwhile, Marquise Williams emerged as a tremendous dual threat for UNC, helping to overcome a lot of the Tar Heels’ defensive struggles with some huge performances on offense, and Justin Thomas injected new life into Paul Johnson’s old option offense at Georgia Tech. Both Thomas and Williams were deserving candidates for first team — and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson would have been, too, if he had stayed healthy all season. Overall, it was a stellar year for quarterback play in the ACC.
Offensive guard: The problem with debating the merits of offensive linemen is that there aren’t many stats to use to break a tie, and when it came to our top three choices at guard -- Laken Tomlinson, Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson -- there was ample debate. In the end, we went with the first two, but Jackson’s contributions -- particularly with the revolving door at center for FSU this season -- shouldn’t go unnoticed. He might have been the Seminoles’ best offensive lineman.
Tight end: In the end, numbers set Clive Walford apart here. He led all ACC tight ends in yards, touchdowns, first downs, yards-per-catch and receptions per game while working with a true freshman quarterback. Still, it’s hard to ignore Nick O'Leary’s fine season (plus bonus points for taking on a bus and winning). Bucky Hodges, Gerald Christian, David Grinnage and Cam Serigne all had fine seasons as well.
Defensive end: OK, we cheated here. Vic Beasley was the obvious choice, but for the opposite side of the line, the debate between Dadi Nicolas and Mario Edwards Jr. was intense, with viable arguments made for both players. Edwards was a crucial cog on FSU’s defense, one of the most dynamic mixes of size and speed in college football. Nicolas was a force throughout the season and stepped up when interior lineman Luther Maddy went down with an injury. In the end, we followed the playoff selection committee’s precedent and avoided the tough question altogether by making our defense a 3-4 unit instead. Sorry, Dadi and Mario -- but now you know how Baylor and TCU feel.
Linebacker: There probably isn’t a more stacked position in the ACC than linebacker. Denzel Perryman and Stephone Anthony were exceptional. David Helton led the ACC in tackles. Lorenzo Mauldin was the most dynamic pass-rusher on Louisville’s stout defense. They all made the cut, but it meant a host of deserving options were left out, including BC’s Josh Keyes, Virginia’s Max Valles and Henry Coley, Syracuse’s Cameron Lynch and Georgia Tech’s Paul Davis.
At the end of October, you were riding a four-game losing streak and had lost 12 straight in ACC play, but by the end of November, you were playing your best football of the year. How much changed in that last month of the season?
You have talked a lot about the challenges of having such a young team, but that those players managed to bounce back from a really rough stretch midseason has to speak highly of their maturation, right?
Doeren: Yeah, we had a team meeting where I thanked our seniors for just that, keeping the guys together. The younger players followed their leadership, and I told our staff that they did a great job keeping the ship the way it needed to be kept. Guys that wanted to win were willing to throw it in there and compete, and [it] showed in the small victories as we went through that process and came out of it playing pretty good football.
Early on, it seemed like if Jacoby Brissett was playing well, the team played well. But down the stretch, it looked like you found a little more diversity offensively, playing a bit more physical and using the run game. Is that a fair assessment?
Doeren: I’ve been searching for balance ever since I got here. We had it throughout the season in most of our games. When you get behind the way we did in the Clemson game or the second half of Georgia Tech, it forces your hand. The only game I thought we abandoned who we were was Boston College. We got in a throwing mode too much. Since that game, I think our offensive staff has really done a great job of game-planning and being balanced and using Shad Thornton or Matt Dayes throughout the game, and David Grinnage in the play-action game and finding some hits for Bryan Underwood or getting Bo Hines the ball in the slot. They just used their personnel and really found the identity I want to have as a running football team that can control the clock. We’ve been able to find that.
Hakim Jones made some headlines with his comments about playing physical against North Carolina, and QB Marquise Williams in particular. I’m sure you weren’t thrilled with the bulletin-board material, but does it speak to your team’s progress that they actually went out and backed up those comments with their performance on the field?
Doeren: The first thing I did when I heard the comment was I called him and [said], 'You better back it up.' I respect Marquise Williams a lot. He’s a really good player. And I think Hakim does, too, but he got in the moment of the press conference and he definitely said what he was thinking, but he didn’t need to say it. But he backed it up, and the guys supported him. That’s not something I want to repeat, but I’m glad they did back it up, because those moments can go the other way on you in a hurry. Our defensive kids played really good football in that game. We dominated the line of scrimmage, we tackled well, and they were physical when they got there.
The other big issue you had midseason was the suspension of several key players for an off-field incident. Was that a turning point in giving those players a little bit of an eye-opening experience and getting some young guys game-day reps?
Doeren: That game was a really big learning experience for those kids that had to sit out. They had to earn their way back into the lineup, and they did. But it allowed some other kids to get out there and play, which in turn helped our depth. Bradley Chubb and Airius Moore got some really big playing time because of it, and I think when you ask about our improvement, it’s our coaching staff and players working together and buying into that process that you have to practice and prepare well to play well. As a young team, sometimes guys don’t understand how hard you need to practice, but by the end of the season we were a very different football team when it came to the effort we were giving on a daily basis on the practice field.
Dec. 26, 8 p.m. ET, Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Florida (ESPN)
Key matchup: NC State RB Shadrach Thornton vs. UCF LB Terrance Plummer
Why it matters: Thornton was an average performer for much of 2014, but it was mostly because he saw few opportunities. He averaged 12 carries per game through the season's first quarter, but carried it more than six times only once over the next four. It gave the 6-foot-1, 206-pound junior fresh legs for the season's closing numbers, though. Over the Wolfpack's final two games, Thornton rushed 44 times for 271 yards (6.1 YPC) and two touchdowns. Of course, North Carolina's defense provided little resistance in the finale. UCF is ranked in the top 11 in the major defensive categories, including fifth against the run. Plummer leads the defense, and at 6-foot-1, 236 pounds, Plummer is a thumper. He won two national player of the week awards for a 17-tackle performance in a win over BYU. His 12.5 tackles for loss ranks fourth in the AAC, and, with another top bowl performance, the former Fiesta Bowl defensive MVP could eclipse 100 tackles for the third straight season.
Who wins: The edge belongs to Plummer because of his surrounding talent. UCF ranks third nationally in total defense and No. 9 in points allowed. Plummer will clamp down on the NC State rushing attack, and AAC defensive player of the year Jacoby Glenn should give Wolfpack QB Jacoby Brissett a hard time. The Wolfpack's offense has been inconsistent this season and is ranked 87th in yards against FBS teams with winning records, and they could have trouble keeping Brissett upright against UCF, which ranks 26th in sacks. The Knights should win a low-scoring affair, 20-17
USA Today released a comprehensive list of college football assistant coaches' salaries Wednesday, and there is a name familiar to readers of this space at the top.
Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster took home more than any other assistant across the country this past year, clearing a total of $1,369,500. He is not alone near the summit, as three of the nation's six highest-paid assistants come from the ACC: Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris -- who was hired as SMU's head coach last week -- is No. 5 ($1.3 million), while Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is No. 6 ($975,000).
Foster's ranking this year comes with some fine print: The longtime Hokies defensive coordinator will receive an $800,000 longevity payment for four-plus years of service if he remains in his position through Dec. 31, according to the paper.
It's important to note that most of this information comes from public records request, which private schools don't have to abide by. So you won't see any numbers from the staffs of Boston College, Duke, Miami, Syracuse or Wake Forest. The same goes for Pitt, which is covered under state law exempting it from releasing such information.
Another way of looking at this may be through the salary pool programs afford their assistant coaches.
Those ACC rankings, with the national ranking in parantheses, are:
1) Clemson $4,448,225 (4th)
2) Virginia Tech $3,583,250 (8th)
3) Florida State $3,386,000 (11th)
4) Louisville $3,225,000 (18th)
5) Virginia $2,908,670 (24th)
6) NC State $2,692,560 (32nd)
7) Georgia Tech $2,233,600 (44th)
8) North Carolina $2,051,667 (53rd)
Here are the rest of your Thursday links:
- Our Chris Mortensen clears up any confusion about David Cutcliffe and Michigan.
- Deshaun Watson will undergo knee surgery Friday and miss Clemson's bowl. Watson's predecessor, Tajh Boyd, shares his thoughts on Watson playing on a torn ACL.
- On the subject of former Clemson quarterbacks: Chad Kelly tweeted that he is Ole Miss-bound.
- With BC readying to play Penn State, the (Harrisburg) Patriot-News' David Jones thinks out loud about what could have come from the Northeastern sports league that Joe Paterno had once dreamed up.
- Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is critical of UNC, his alma mater, in the school's academic fraud scandal, CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd writes.
- The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Jerry DiPaola says AD Steve Pederson should extend Paul Chryst's contract in light of the Wisconsin job opening again.
In the last decade, the pecking order in bowl performance has pretty clearly mirrored national perception:
SEC: 55-31 (.640)
Pac-12: 34-28 (.548)
Big 12: 41-36 (.532)
ACC: 36-45 (.444)
Big Ten: 27-47 (.365)
In other words, the SEC is great, the Pac 12 and Big 12 are solid, and the ACC and (especially) the Big Ten are bad. It’s that simple, right?
But there is a bit more to those numbers than meets the eye.
For one, things are changing for the better. Nine of the ACC’s 36 wins in the past decade came in the last two years, and after going 1-8 against the SEC from 2004 through 2008, the ACC is a far more respectable 6-5 against the big, bad SEC since then.
Secondly, the league has made some shrewd moves in changing the bowl tie-ins, giving the ACC some better postseason matchups. Even with a rather lackluster overall record in the last decade, the ACC only had two ranked teams lose to unranked foes in bowl games, but often the matchups didn’t do the conference any favors.
Again, that’s beginning to change. From 2004 through 2011, the ACC was just 3-13 in matchups of ranked vs. ranked teams, but in the past two seasons, the conference has a more impressive 4-1 record in those games, with the only loss the shootout between Duke and Texas A&M last season.
And if we look at aggregate performance, close losses were clearly the norm. In the last decade’s worth of bowl games, the ACC has been outscored by just 75 points — or roughly a touchdown per season. In five of those 10 seasons, the ACC actually scored more points than its opposition in total, but the league has a winning record in bowl games just twice (2005 and 2012).
Plus, there are some notable outliers in performance. In 2007, 2008 and 2011, the league was woeful, sporting a combined record of 3-14 against Power 5 conference foes in the bowl games. But in the other seven seasons, the ACC actually is 13-14 against the other Power 5 conferences — not great, but certainly not particularly underwhelming.
But, of course, perception remains, so the question is, what does the ACC need to do to begin changing that perception this season?
Start with Florida State. There is no more high-profile game than the Seminoles’ Rose Bowl matchup against Oregon. FSU was dinged all year for playing close games against the ACC — something that wouldn't have been as big an issue in the SEC or Pac-12. It was a direct indictment of the ACC’s prowess, so a solid victory for the Seminoles over a Pac-12 power would, in turn, give some credence to the notion that the conference is a lot deeper than critics assumed.
Secondly, with 11 representatives playing in bowl games, a winning record is a must. During the past decade, the ACC hasn’t won more than five bowl games in a single year, while the SEC has had six or more seven times. So even a 6-5 record for the ACC this season would be real progress.
Third, the league needs to avoid embarrassment. That means no 70-33 scores like Clemson’s Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia in 2011, a game that still stands (unfairly) as a tribute to ACC ineptitude. But the league also has a rather unimpressive 20-17 mark against non-Power 5 foes in the last decade. That’s partially skewed by matchups against teams such as Louisville, West Virginia and Utah — current Power 5 squads — previously playing in leagues that wouldn’t count in that metric, but it also includes Marshall thumping Maryland last year, Cincinnati beating Duke the previous year and Air Force knocking off Georgia Tech in 2010. The ACC has three bowl games this year against non-Power 5 foes, and it really needs to win them all.
And lastly, there’s the SEC. The regular season ended on a particularly upbeat note on that front as the ACC went 4-0 in rivalry games against the SEC, and now it has three more chances to earn victories — though none will come easily. Georgia Tech is an underdog against Mississippi State. Miami has looked lackluster lately, but needs to knock off South Carolina. And Louisville — the league’s newest member — gets a crack at Georgia. Winning at least two of those games — particularly the Orange Bowl against an SEC West foe — would be huge.
So, can the ACC do all of that? And even if it does, will it really matter?
Perceptions don’t change overnight, but every little bit helps, and the ACC has been taking some small steps. A bigger leap this season certainly seems possible.
He does not remember how the idea came to him, or why it came to him. He just remembers grabbing a pen and some paper and writing a letter, then another, then another, until he had written letters to all his teammates on offense.
They did not say much. A few words of encouragement to one player, a thank you for being a good teammate to another. He hand delivered the letters, each time met with surprise. How many people take time to write letters anymore?
For Brissett, it was a way to grow closer with his teammates in his first season as a starting quarterback at NC State. His teammates responded so favorably, he kept handing out letters.
“It just stuck with me,” Brissett said in a recent interview. “A lot of them keep the letters. I know one week I didn’t write letters because I talked to the whole offense together and everybody was curious why they didn’t get a letter. It’s funny to see they actually pay attention to it.”
That happened to be Louisville week.
Brissett never made that mistake again. So the ritual continued all the way up to the end of the season.
“For me and my roommate, it touched us both and showed us how serious he was about the games and it showed he had faith in us,” senior receiver Bryan Underwood said. “It was good to see he was taking another step in leadership toward the team.”
Neither coach Dave Doeren nor offensive coordinator Matt Canada knew about the letter writing, though neither was surprised to hear Brissett had been doing it all season.
We are talking about a player who bakes cookies for his offensive linemen. Indeed, Brissett is not too proud to show his sensitive side, though it is easier to do that with words on a page.
“It’s a matter of saying I appreciate what you’ve done so far,” Brissett said. “Or if someone is going through a rough time, it’s a chance to say I’m here for you if you need me. Sometimes, you’ve got to joke with some of them. With the offensive linemen,nah you have to joke with them because they’re never serious, anyway.”
Brissett is a big reason why NC State made it back to a bowl game in 2014, ready to take on UCF in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl on Dec. 26. He started all 12 games in his first season as a full-time starter and ended up throwing for 2,344 yards and 22 touchdowns to five interceptions while running for 498 yards and three more scores.
His performance against rival North Carolina was the best of the season, as he rushed for 167 yards and accounted for four touchdowns. Getting back to a bowl and beating the rival Tar Heels qualifies as major progress for a team that went 3-9 under Doeren a year ago.
But nobody is satisfied, least of all Brissett.
“I think being a quarterback, and with the goals and expectations I have for myself, I have to put a lot more pressure on myself than everybody else does,” Brissett said. “I hold myself to a higher standard and every game, I want to make the right read, the right throw and as much as everybody says you can’t be perfect, why not? That’s always my thought process going into a game.”
He has his letter writing process, too. Seems that has worked out perfectly for Brissett and his teammates.
Likewise, Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley one again took home defensive player of the year honors, while Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya was named both overall and offensive rookie of the year. Virginia safety Quin Blanding was again named defensive rookie of the year.
Coach of the year? That would be Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson, who received 10 of the 14 votes from his peers.
Defending national champion Florida State led the way in all-league teams, tallying 18 players across the three teams.
The team with the second-most? Virginia, surprisingly enough, as the Cavaliers landed nine players on the all-league teams despite finishing with a 5-7 record.
WR: Rashad Greene (FSU)
WR: Jamison Crowder (Duke)
WR: Tyler Boyd (Pitt)
TE: Nick O’Leary (FSU)
T: Cameron Erving (FSU)
T: T.J. Clemmings (Pitt)
G: Laken Tomlinson (Duke)
G: Tre' Jackson (FSU)
C: Shane McDermott (Miami)
QB: Jameis Winston (FSU)
RB: James Conner (Pitt)
RB: Duke Johnson (Miami)
K: Roberto Aguayo (FSU)
SP: Jamison Crowder (Duke)
DE: Vic Beasley (Clemson)
DE: Mario Edwards Jr. (FSU)
DT: Grady Jarrett (Clemson)
DT: Eddie Goldman (FSU)
LB: Denzel Perryman (Miami)
LB: Stephone Anthony (Clemson)
LB: Lorenzo Mauldin (Louisville)
CB: Kendall Fuller (Virginia Tech)
CB: Garry Peters (Clemson)
S: Gerod Holliman (Louisville)
S: Jalen Ramsey (FSU)
P: Wil Baumann (NC State)
To see the full roster, click here.
Among the biggest differences between the coaches' and media's voting: Boston College center Andy Gallik was relegated to the second team this time around, with Miami's Shane McDermott taking the top spot on the coaches' team. McDermott received only honorable mention status from the media last week. Louisville linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin was also a first-team newcomer, replacing Duke's David Helton, who made the media's first-team and who took home some pretty impressive hardware of his own Tuesday night in New York. Clemson cornerback Garry Peters was also a first-team addition, leaping the media's selection of FSU's P.J. Williams.
Louisville receiver DeVante Parker made the coaches' second-team after playing in just five games. Parker had made the media's third-team. The coaches flipped the media's second- and third-team quarterbacks, putting Georgia Tech's Justin Thomas on the second-team and North Carolina's Marquise Williams on the third-team.
The coaches' third-team ended up containing five linebackers, as four tied in the voting, as well as two cornerbacks and two punters.
To see the media's All-ACC picks from last week, click here.
1. Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual: Florida State vs. Oregon
The Seminoles could win a lot of respect for the ACC with a win over Oregon here, but what should make this game fun is the showdown between last year’s Heisman winner and the odds-on favorite for this year’s award. It’s only happened three previous times that two Heisman winners faced off.
2. Belk Bowl: Louisville vs. Georgia
What’s not to like about this ACC-SEC showdown? Georgia’s powerful ground game vs. Louisville’s stout defense. Gerod Holliman trying to set the NCAA interceptions record in Hutson Mason's last game. And, of course, Todd Grantham vs. his old team.
3. Capital One Orange Bowl: Georgia Tech vs. Mississippi State
All year, ACC fans had to hear about the big, bad SEC West. Now Georgia Tech gets a chance to prove that all that hype was just bluster by knocking off the upstart Bulldogs. If FSU can land the biggest blow for the ACC this postseason, the Yellow Jackets are a close second on that list.
4. Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Notre Dame vs. LSU
We’re including the Fighting Irish on this list since they grabbed one of the ACC’s slots and have a chance to do some damage to the SEC West. But don’t worry, if they lose, we can pretend they never had anything to do with the ACC in the first place.
5. Hyundai Sun Bowl: Duke vs. Arizona State
Duke has gained plenty of respect during the past three seasons, but a weak nonconference slate has meant there are still some doubters. David Cutcliffe’s crew can do a lot to erase those doubts with a win here. And after the Blue Devils pushed Johnny Manziel to the limit in last year’s bowl game, we’re hoping for a few fireworks this year, too.
6. Russell Athletic Bowl: Clemson vs. Oklahoma
This might be No. 2 on our list if it weren't for all the injuries. Deshaun Watson may undergo knee surgery. Samaje Perine sprained his ankle in Oklahoma’s regular-season finale. Trevor Knight missed the last three games of the season, too. But on the upside, it’ll give us one last look at that terrific Clemson defense, led by departing seniors Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley and Stephone Anthony.
7. Duck Commander Independence Bowl: Miami vs. South Carolina
OK, so two 6-6 teams don’t exactly equal a great matchup, and there’s a real question about how motivated Miami is after the Canes dropped their last three. But this is chance to hear from Steve Spurrier and watch Duke Johnson, so it can’t be that bad, right?
8. Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman: Virginia Tech vs. Cincinnati
This isn’t a matchup with much cache, but it’s a chance to see one of the best young QBs in the country in Gunner Kiel go against one of the best defenses in the country, including Hokies’ superb sophomore corner Kendall Fuller. Add in a couple accomplished coaches in Frank Beamer and Tommy Tuberville and there’s plenty to like about this game.
9. New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Boston College vs. Penn State
We like the matchup, but there are two big problems here. First, it’s two teams from the Northeast, which isn’t going to spark much national love. More importantly, we don’t expect much offense as Penn State ranked second nationally in total defense and BC ranked 12th.
10. Quick Lane Bowl: North Carolina vs. Rutgers
It’s a bowl game in Detroit in late December, so there’s only so much excitement to go around, but we like watching Marquise Williams and Ryan Switzer, and given that UNC and Rutgers ranked 113th and 115th in yards-per-play allowed this season, there should be ample scoring to keep your attention.
11. Bitcoin St. Petersbug Bowl: NC State vs. UCF
We still don’t completely understand how bitcoin works, but we like the idea of Jacoby Brissett returning to his home state to take on the nation’s No. 3 defense.
12. Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl: Pitt vs. Houston
It’s the team none of the ACC bowls wanted vs. a team that fired its head coach, so that’s not an easy sell. But any game with James Conner and Tyler Boyd is one worth watching, so we’ll still be tuning in for this one.
Clemson will match up against Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl, pitting defensive coordinator Brent Venables up against his former employer, notes the Tulsa World.
Venables was an assistant at Oklahoma from 1999 through 2011, but at Clemson, he's taken a unit that allowed nearly 400 yards per game the year before he arrived to one that surrendered just 260 per game this season and has led the nation in tackles for loss two straight seasons.
Of course, if Venables' D is the key to Clemson's bowl game, its offense still figures to be driving the intrigue right now.
After defeating South Carolina two weeks ago, Dabo Swinney admitted that QB Deshaun Watson was playing with a torn ACL. He said at the time Watson would play in the bowl game, but Swinney backtracked on that idea Sunday, according to The Post and Courier.
That certainly would seem the more cautious (and sensible) option, avoiding any chance of Watson getting further injured and getting a jump start on the recovery. Having Watson healthy for the start of 2015 is certainly far more significant for the Tigers than finishing off 2014 with a bowl victory.
But the bowl game will also be the first chance for Clemson to show off its new offensive coaching staff, which features co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, who were promoted when Chad Morris left for SMU. Swinney clarified Sunday that it will be Elliott calling the plays, according to Tiger Net.
If it's Cole Stoudt starting at QB, it's not likely Clemson fans will get much of a good look at what's in store. The senior has averaged just 5.5 yards per attempt with five touchdowns and nine interceptions since Watson was initially injured against Louisville on Oct. 11.
Instead, the Russell Athletic Bowl figures to be a final spin for an offense in transition and a defense that developed into one of the most dominant forces in the country.
A few more links:
- Florida State may not be thrilled to be ranked third without a loss, but it'll get to play in some familiar confines when it heads to the Rose Bowl, and the time off should ensure a few key defensive players will be healthy when the Seminoles take on Oregon.
- The committee certainly ruffled feathers in Texas with its selections, but an inexplicable swap in the rankings between an SEC and Big Ten team also managed to hurt NC State, writes the Charlotte Observer.
- The Military Bowl will feature the current and former home for Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock, writes the Roanoke Times.
- Pitt was the team left out of the ACC's tie-in games, but it found a home in the Armed Forces Bowl against Houston, writes the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
- Both teams may have ended up 6-6, but the Independence Bowl matchup between Miami and South Carolina should still offer plenty of intrigue and, of course, a few good quips from Steve Spurrier, writes the Miami Herald.
- Georgia Tech will give the ACC a shot at one of those supposedly elite SEC West teams when it faces off against Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl, writes the Macon Telegraph.
- There will be plenty of familiarity in the Belk Bowl as Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham faces off against former boss Mark Richt and the Georgia Bulldogs, writes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Final Nevada 3 Louisiana-Lafayette 16 Final Utah State 21 UTEP 6 Final 22 Utah 45 Colorado State 10 Final Western Michigan 24 Air Force 38 Final South Alabama 28 Bowling Green 33
6:00 PM ET Marshall Northern Illinois 9:30 PM ET Navy San Diego State
12:00 PM ET Central Michigan Western Kentucky 8:00 PM ET Fresno State Rice
1:00 PM ET Illinois Louisiana Tech 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State