Florida State Seminoles: David Watford

Phil Steele released his preseason All-ACC teams earlier this week, and it might have been noteworthy to some that the player he listed as his second-team quarterback — North Carolina’s Marquise Williams — isn’t currently assured of even keeping his starting job. That, of course, speaks to the quality of Williams’ competition (Mitch Trubisky has a little talent, too), but mostly to the lack of any established experience at the position around the ACC.

Of the ACC’s 14 teams, only Florida State and Virginia return quarterbacks who appeared in every one of their games last season — and Virginia's David Watford isn’t currently listed as the team’s starter this year.

None of this is a new story, of course, and we’ve already touched on what impact the turnover at quarterback might have this season around the league. Looking at last year’s records, the teams that returned quarterbacks saw an aggregate increase of nine wins, while teams with turnover at the position broke even.

Those victory totals only tell us so much, though. Florida State only increased its victory total by two with a new quarterback, but those were two pretty important wins. UNC’s victory total dipped by one game, but its returning quarterback wasn’t the one on the field when the Tar Heels were playing their best.

So we dug a little deeper into the numbers to see what impact, if any, a change at quarterback might have on the offense.

Looking just at 2013, there were five ACC teams that had the same starting quarterback in at least 75 percent of its games as it did the preceding year. Seven had changes at the position. The results were about what you might expect.



Overall, teams replacing a quarterback had a 1 percent dip in total offense and a 4 percent dip in yards per attempt, while the teams with returning experience improved in both areas.

It’s probably worth noting, too, that both Florida State and Maryland represent outliers in this discussion. Florida State had a new QB, but Jameis Winston won the Heisman Trophy. He’s a unique talent. Maryland, meanwhile, was using a linebacker at quarterback by the end of 2012, so change was inherently a good thing for the Terps. If we take those two teams out of the equation, the numbers change a bit: Teams undergoing change at QB had a 6 percent dip in total offense and a 9 percent decline in yards per attempt.

So, that settles it, right? Change at quarterback means a decline in offensive production, which is bad news for the ACC in 2014.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesFlorida State had a new quarterback last season, and the Seminoles certainly didn't take a step back with Jameis Winston.
Not exactly.

In 2012, the vast majority of the ACC (9 of 12 teams) returned their starting QBs from 2011, and while those teams did have a slight increase in offensive production (1.75 percent, compared to a 4 percent decline for the three teams with turnover), the actual passing performances told a different story. The nine teams returning QBs actually had a 3 percent dip in yards per attempt, while the teams with turnover (Maryland, Miami,Virginia) had a 6 percent increase.

Look at the numbers in 2011 for teams returning QBs, and the outcome is even more counter-intuitive. Five teams returned quarterbacks and had a 2.25 percent increase in yards per attempt and essentially broke even in total offense. The teams with turnover at QB, however, increased total offense by more than 3 percent and had a whopping 9.5 percent increase in yards per attempt from 2010.

In other words, in 2011 and 2012, change at quarterback didn’t make much of a difference. In fact, during the last three years collectively, teams that made a change at QB saw no discernible change in total offense and enjoyed a 2 percent increase in yards per attempt (better than the 0.67 percent increase for teams returning QBs).

So why did last year’s numbers paint such a scary picture?

The answer is probably that the returning quarterbacks in the league actually played a far smaller role in their respective offenses. Overall, the five teams returning QBs from 2012 had a whopping 15 percent decline in passing attempts per game, with Boston College being a prime example. Chase Rettig returned as QB, but BC’s attempts per game dipped from 39 in 2012 to 20 in 2013, while its yards per attempt jumped from 6.5 in 2012 to 7.5 last season.

In other words, the veteran quarterbacks probably had a little more help surrounding them (such as Andre Williams), while the young QBs were left to figure a lot out on their own (such as Pete Thomas).

As we look to 2014, there will no doubt be major question marks at QB for a lot of teams, but for many, there’s nowhere to go but up. And based on the numbers, there’s no reason a first-time starter can’t engineer those recoveries.
Last weekend’s NFL draft in which 42 ACC players were selected was a reminder of how much talent was departing the conference. But just as Sammy Watkins, Aaron Donald and Kyle Fuller say goodbye, the focus turns to the players who’ll step into the spotlight in 2014.

With that in mind, here’s a quick look at the top returning players in the ACC this upcoming season, based on their stats from 2013. (Last year’s ACC ranking in parentheses.)

[+] EnlargeDuke Johnson
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsMiami tailback Duke Johnson rushed for 920 yards in 2013, despite missing five games due to injury.
PASSING YARDS
1. Jameis Winston, FSU - 4,057 (1st)
2. Anthony Boone, Duke - 2,260 (6th)
3. David Watford, Virginia - 2,202 (9th)

Of note: The turnover at the quarterback position has already gotten its share of press, but it’s almost impossible to overstate how green the QBs across the ACC will be in 2014. Of the 23 players who passed for at least 250 yards in 2013, only seven will be back in 2014. Watford, the third-leading returning QB, isn’t projected to start at Virginia, and Marquise Williams, who ranks fourth among returners, is locked in a battle for the starting job at North Carolina, too. Next up among definitive starters is Syracuse’s Terrel Hunt, who finished 14th in the league in passing last season.

RUSHING YARDS
1. Kevin Parks, Virginia - 1,031 (2nd)
2. Duke Johnson, Miami - 920 (5th)
3. James Conner, Pitt - 799 (8th)
4. Isaac Bennett, Pitt - 797 (9th)
5. Shad Thornton, NC State - 768 (11th)

Of note: Louisville’s Dominique Brown would actually rank third on this list after racking up 825 rushing yards last season, good for fourth in the AAC. Including Brown, the ACC returns 11 running backs this year who accounted for at least 500 yards on the ground in 2013, though Miami’s Dallas Crawford (558 yards) is currently working with the Hurricanes’ secondary. Parks returns after a 1,000-yard season. The last running backs to return following a 1,000-yard effort in the ACC were Gio Bernard and Andre Ellington in 2012. Both topped 1,000 again in their follow-up campaigns.

RECEIVING YARDS
1. Jamison Crowder, Duke - 1,360 (2nd)
2. Tyler Boyd, Pitt - 1,174 (3rd)
3. Rashad Greene, FSU - 1,128 (5th)
4. Quinshad Davis, UNC - 730 (13th)
5. Willie Byrn, Virginia Tech - 660 (14th)

Of note: Louisville’s DeVante Parker would rank fourth on this list. He had 885 yards last season, good for seventh in the AAC. Crowder is in position to reach 1,000 receiving yards for the third straight season and is 1,153 yards shy of breaking former teammate Conner Vernon’s ACC record. The Hokies have three of the top seven returning receivers in terms of yards.

TACKLES PER GAME
1. David Helton, Duke - 9.5 (1st)
2. Jeremy Cash, Duke - 8.6 (3rd)
3. Denzel Perryman, Miami - 8.3 (5th)
4. Kelby Brown, Duke - 8.1 (7th)
5. Ryan Janvion, Wake Forest - 7.9 (8th)

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesClemson's Vic Beasley has 21 sacks in his career.
Of note: Duke’s front four took a big hit with the loss of three senior starters, but the back seven should be one of the most experienced and productive in the conference. Of the 25 ACC players with at least 50 solo tackles last season, 12 return this season.

INTERCEPTIONS
1. Ant Harris, Virginia - 8 (1st)
2. Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech - 6 (2nd)
3. Brandon Facyson, Virginia Tech - 5 (3rd)

Of note: Eleven ACC players had at least four interceptions last season, and a whopping nine of them return in 2014, including sophomores Facyson and Fuller at Virginia Tech. Add to that list two more returners from Louisville in Charles Gaines (5 picks) and Terell Floyd (4 picks), and the young QBs in the ACC in 2014 are going to have a lot to worry about.

SACKS
1. Vic Beasley, Clemson - 13 (1st)
2. Eli Harold, Virginia - 8.5 (9th)
2. Norkeithus Otis, UNC - 8.5 (9th)
4. Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech - 6.5 (12th)
5. Adam Gostis, Georgia Tech - 5.5 (16th)

Of note: Louisville’s Lorenzo Mauldin (9.5 sacks) would be second on this list. And here’s a number that should have a lot of Clemson fans excited: Of the 32 players who finished with at least 10 tackles for loss last season, just 13 will be back in the ACC in 2014. Of those 13 returners, five play for the Tigers.

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(*Target totals courtesy ESPN Stats & Info.)

Much has been made about the enormous turnover at quarterback in the ACC, where nine of the league’s 14 teams will feature a different starter in Week 1 of 2014 than at the conclusion of 2013.

The new arms throwing the football will be a major storyline for the spring, but the players on the other end of those passes will be much different this year, too. Eight of the top 12 receivers in the ACC last season are moving on, including likely first-round NFL draft picks Sammy Watkins, Eric Ebron and Kelvin Benjamin.

[+] EnlargeTyler Boyd
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsPittsburgh's Tyler Boyd could be one of the ACC's top wideouts in 2014.
Combine the high turnover at quarterback with the loss of so many top receivers, and it’s fair to say the passing games in the ACC will look much different in 2014. Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some impressive returning talent. Nine receivers who were targeted at least 70 times last season return.

The obvious standout is Jamison Crowder, who was targeted a whopping 174 times in 2013. Nationally, only Fresno State’s Davante Adams (180 targets) was thrown to more often, according to ESPN Stats & Info. It’s also worth noting that Fresno State had 203 more passing attempts than Duke did. Crowder was on the receiving end of 37 percent of Duke’s passing attempts last season, compared with just 27 percent for Adams. Among ACC receivers, only Boston College’s Alex Amidon accounted for a higher percentage of his team’s throws (41 percent). Given his contributions on special teams, too, there's a case to be made that, aside from Jameis Winston, no player in the ACC means more to his team than Crowder.

It’s worth noting, too, that Duke is one of the five ACC teams with the quarterback position already settled, with Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette both returning for 2014, giving the Blue Devils easily the most tested quarterback-receiver combo in the conference.

Beyond Duke’s established QB/WR combo, Florida State is in good hands with senior Rashad Greene returning for his senior season. In 2013, he was on the receiving end of 27 percent of Winston’s throws, and with Benjamin and Kenny Shaw both gone, Greene’s role figures to only get bigger in 2014.

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Believe it or not, the third-most tested combo in the conference is at Virginia, where QB David Watford returns along with receiver Darius Jennings, who was targeted 78 times last year. Of course, the Virginia passing game was far from effective for much of the season -- and Jennings only hauled in 49 percent of his targets with a paltry 4.3 yards/target average -- but the rapport Watford and Jennings were able to build throughout 2013 offers some hope for the Cavaliers’ offense.

In terms of pure explosiveness, North Carolina could have an interesting combination with Marquise Williams back at quarterback and emerging talent Quinshad Davis at receiver. Davis hauled in an impressive 67 percent of his targets and gained an average of 10.1 yards per target last season, including 10 touchdowns. Of course, he’ll need to prove he’s as effective without Ebron hogging so much of the attention from opposing defenses this year.

Similarly, the ACC will get its introduction to Louisville standout DeVante Parker in 2014. While Parker won't have the luxury of Teddy Bridgewater throwing to him, his numbers last season were immensely impressive. He averaged nearly 11 yards each time he was thrown to, and he hauled in two-thirds of his targets.

While Crowder and Greene represent the cream of the crop for receivers with returning quarterbacks, the player with perhaps the most upside of the group is Tyler Boyd. Pitt might be in search of a new starting quarterback to replace Tom Savage, but few first-year starters will have a weapon as reliable and explosive in the passing game as Pitt has in Boyd. As a true freshman in 2013, Boyd finished third in the conference in targets (behind only Crowder and Watkins), hauled in nearly 70 percent of his targets (tops among returning receivers with at least 70 targets) and his 10 catches of 25 yards or more is second only to Crowder among returning receivers in the conference.

But perhaps the most intriguing names on this list are the trio from Virginia Tech. The Hokies account for one-third of all the ACC’s returning receivers with at least 70 targets, meaning that while Frank Beamer works to find his new quarterback, he’ll have a veteran group of receivers to target. Of course, experience only matters if there’s talent to back it up and that’s the big question in Blacksburg.

Virginia Tech ranked 63rd nationally in passing offense last season, 68th in yards per attempt and 89th in QB rating. While Demitri Knowles, Willie Byrn and Joshua Stanford were all among the ACC’s most targeted receivers, they also hauled in just 56 percent of the balls thrown their way and averaged just 7.9 yards per target. They’ll need to be far more reliable in 2014 with a new QB throwing to them.

What we learned in the ACC: Week 14

December, 1, 2013
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Here’s a quick look back at five lessons learned in the ACC in the final week of the regular season, in no particular order:

1. Duke is the outright Coastal Division winner. No tiebreaker scenarios needed. No back doors opened. Duke marched right into the ACC championship game with a thrilling 27-25 win at North Carolina, leaving no doubt it was the best team in the division and the most deserving to line up against Atlantic Division winner Florida State. Duke’s fate was sealed when DeVon Edwards intercepted Marquise Williams with 13 seconds remaining. It was a fairytale ending to Duke’s Cinderella season, which included eight straight wins to end the season and an undefeated season on the road. With its 10 wins, Duke broke the school record for wins in a season. Duke’s six ACC wins were the program’s most since 1989 -- also the same year that Duke last won an ACC title.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Gerry Melendez/The State/Getty ImagesTajh Boyd and Clemson again struggled in their rivalry game with South Carolina.
2. The ACC couldn’t get it done against the SEC (again). Six turnovers for Clemson. Six. It was déjà vu for the Tigers in their fifth straight loss to South Carolina. The turnovers continued to haunt Clemson in the series and be the difference in the game, just as they had in their past four losses to the Gamecocks. This looked like a prime year for the ACC to come out on the winning end against the SEC -- especially with Georgia veteran quarterback Aaron Murray done for the season with a torn ACL. Instead, Wake lost to Vandy, and Georgia Tech lost to Georgia. Florida State beat Florida, but you knew that was coming. And considering the state of the Gators, it wasn’t much worth bragging about. Georgia Tech squandered a 20-point lead and the defense came up short in the second overtime, losing a 41-34 heartbreaker. The ACC went 1-3 against the SEC this week, losing yet another chance to close the gap with its neighboring rival.

3. Syracuse is bowl eligible. In what was another one of the ACC’s most thrilling and entertaining down-to-the-wire games, Syracuse ended the season with a 34-31 home win over Boston College to reach bowl eligibility in its final chance to do so. With six seconds remaining, Terrel Hunt threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to tight end Josh Parris to win the game. It snapped BC’s four-game winning streak and was one of the best offensive performances of the season for the Orange. Unfortunately for BC, Heisman hopeful running back Andre Williams was injured in the third quarter and didn’t return. BC quarterback Chase Rettig accounted for three touchdowns, but it wasn’t enough, as Syracuse racked up 480 yards and won the turnover battle.

4. Maryland leaves the ACC on a winning note. The Terps won their final regular-season game as members of the ACC, a convincing 41-21 drubbing of an inept NC State team, to finish 7-5. It was a significant -- and much-needed -- turnaround for Maryland and coach Randy Edsall before heading to the Big Ten next season. It was also a terrific sendoff for quarterback C.J. Brown, who ran for three touchdowns and threw for two more in the win. It was Maryland’s first seven-win season since 2010. Maryland is likely bound for the Military Bowl, but as the Terps finish their season, they do so with the ACC’s lawsuit still hanging over their heads.

5. The Hokies still own the state. As much as Virginia Tech’s offense has struggled this season, rival Virginia’s offense was even worse on Saturday in a 16-6 loss. The Hokies’ defense held Virginia without a touchdown on its home field, and both quarterbacks -- starter David Watford and his backup, Greyson Lambert -- were ineffective. It was the 10th straight win against UVa for the Hokies, who have won 18 of the past 22 games in the series. Much has been made about Virginia’s strong recruiting class, but it has yet to add up in this rivalry or in the win column under coach Mike London. UVa ended the season on a 10-game losing streak and winless in the ACC for the first time since 1981.

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ACC Power Rankings: Week 11

November, 11, 2013
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1. Florida State (9-0, 7-0; Last week: No. 1): The Seminoles reinforced their standing as one of the top two teams in the nation with a 59-3 win over Wake Forest, yet another game in which the starters were pulled in the second half. The offense did not have its best rhythm but defense and special teams earn A-pluses for their respective performances. Perhaps most impressive was the way Florida State took care of business without one hint of distraction.

2. Clemson (8-1, 6-1; LW: No. 2): Look who is sitting pretty for an at-large berth in the BCS? The Tigers were off Saturday, preparing for a Thursday night contest against Georgia Tech, a team that has given them trouble over the years. But if Clemson can beat the Jackets, FCS The Citdael and then South Carolina in the regular-season finale, another Orange Bowl appearance could very well be in order.

3. Miami (7-2, 3-2; LW: No. 3): We know. It does not seem logical to have the Canes remain at No. 3 after two straight losses. But they are the only other ACC team in the BCS standings (at No. 23). So they stay. For now. But their hold on this spot is precarious to say the least. The preseason favorites to win the Coastal are no longer in control of their destiny after a disheartening loss to Virginia Tech. Two weeks ago, Miami sat unbeaten and ranked No. 7. Now the Hurricanes need help. Big time.

4. Duke (7-2, 3-2; LW: No. 5): Just when things looked incredibly bleak against NC State, the Blue Devils reeled off 21 straight fourth-quarter points to win decisively. DeVon Edwards, with a kickoff return and two interception returns for scores, was honored as the Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week. Duke has won five straight, the second-longest streak in the ACC behind FSU. A win over Miami this Saturday would vault them to No. 3 in the standings.

5. Virginia Tech (7-3, 4-2; LW: No. 7): It was gut-check time Saturday in Miami, and the Hokies showed they are not going down without a fight. After ugly offensive performances in its past two losses, Virginia Tech had its best showing in years, essentially doing whatever it wanted in a 42-24 win. The Hokies had a season-high 549 yards and Logan Thomas posted his second straight 300-yard game. The last time Tech beat a top-15 team on the road when not ranked was in 1989, a 12-10 at No. 9 West Virginia. We realize the Hokies beat Miami, but they did lose to Duke and BC -- a team not as good as Florida State, the only other blemish on Miami's record.

6. Georgia Tech (6-3, 5-2; LW: No. 4): Trying to rank the Jackets, Virginia Tech, Duke and Miami could almost be considered an exercise in futility. Georgia Tech lost to the Hokies and Hurricanes, so it makes sense to rank those teams ahead. But they beat Duke early in the season and that should count, too. Georgia Tech has won three straight but has fewer wins than the three teams above. Ultimately, we will know much more about this group after its trip to Clemson on Thursday night.

7. Pitt (5-4, 2-3; LW: No. 8): Paul Chryst and the Panthers' program picked up a huge win over No. 23 Notre Dame on Saturday, right when they needed it. After a disappointing performance in a loss to Georgia Tech the week before, Pitt was firmly on the bowl bubble. But now, Pitt should have the confidence and momentum to win at least one more and keep its postseason streak alive.

8. Boston College (5-4, 2-3; LW: No. 6): The Eagles had a harder time than some expected on the road against New Mexico State, but they found a way to win the fourth quarter thanks to the incredible Andre Williams. The senior back scored the game-winning 80-yard touchdown and added another for good measure to finish with a single-game school record 295 yards rushing. It was Boston College's first road win this season and continued an exceptional turnaround under first-year coach Steve Addazio.

9. Syracuse (5-4, 3-2; LW: No. 10): The Orange are also on a winning streak after a 20-3 win over Maryland, inching ever closer to bowl eligibility. Syracuse is now 3-1 against Atlantic Division competition and above .500 for the first time this season. Jerome Smith had his third 100-yard game on the year as the Orange gained more than 200 yards rushing for the fifth time this season. Syracuse is 4-1 in those games.

10. North Carolina (4-5, 3-3; LW: No. 9): Watch out for the Tar Heels, who have won three straight after a 1-5 start and are making a serious push to make a bowl game. Marquise Williams impressed in his first start since Bryn Renner was lost for the season, and the defense has seemed to turn a corner, giving up an average of 14.3 points per game during this winning streak. Granted, two of those wins have come against the two worst teams in the ACC but you can see progress.

11. Wake Forest (4-6, 2-5; LW: No. 11): The outcome against Florida State was perhaps worse than some had expected, if only because senior starting quarterback Tanner Price was benched after throwing three interceptions. Backup Tyler Cameron was not much better, throwing three interceptions of his own. The Deacons have now scored three total points since Michael Campanaro was lost for the season. They might not win another game this year, with contests against Duke and Vanderbilt remaining.

12. Maryland (5-4, 1-4; LW: No. 12): Hard to believe the Terps began the year 4-0 with a Top 25 ranking. The wheels have come off since a 63-0 drubbing in Tallahassee, thanks in part to injuries at key spots on offense and defense. In a 20-3 loss to Syracuse, the offense was abysmal, with 292 total yards and four turnovers. The Terps still have bowl hopes, but given the way they have played in the past three losses, they could just as easily lose out.

13. NC State (3-6, 0-6; LW: No. 13): We thought there was a chance the Wolfpack would struggle this year with a new head coach, new scheme and a young team. But it is safe to say nobody anticipated they would be 0-6 in ACC play, pulling an oh-fer against in-state teams Wake Forest, North Carolina and Duke. The latest came in a 38-20 loss to Duke, in which NC State could not hang on to a fourth-quarter lead or take advantage of Duke's clearly struggling offense. The Blue Devils had four turnovers. But so did the Wolfpack.

14. Virginia (2-8, 0-6; LW: No. 14): What else is left to say about the Hoos? They have not even been competitive in their past two losses, falling to Clemson and North Carolina by a combined 104-24. David Watford was benched in the loss to the Tar Heels after throwing two interceptions, but it seems a little too late for that now.

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What to watch in the ACC: Week 8

October, 17, 2013
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The moment is almost here. Florida State-Clemson is the highlight of this weekend's ACC lineup, and of the conference's season. National title implications, Heisman Trophy implications and much more are on the line Saturday night in Death Valley. Here's what to look for in that contest and everywhere else in the league this weekend, which gets a head start tonight in Chapel Hill, N.C.

1. Miami's ball security. The Hurricanes are a top-10 team and 5-0. But an overlooked aspect through this start has been just how sloppy they have been with the ball in recent weeks. Miami has turned the ball over four times in each of its last two contests, and it needs to be sharper offensively coming out of the bye week as it faces a nearly desperate North Carolina.

[+] EnlargeBryn Renner
Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesNorth Carolina hopes the return of Bryn Renner will help the Tar Heels get closer to their potential.
2. Bryn Renner's return. The UNC quarterback missed the Virginia Tech game two weeks ago because of a foot injury but will play against Miami. Marquise Williams was solid in Renner's spot and could see more time, but the Tar Heels need their veteran presence back as they look to shake the cobwebs from a 1-4 start and emerge from the bye looking more like the team that had Coastal Division title dreams entering Larry Fedora's second season. Their all-black uniforms -- part of their "Zero Dark Thursday" billing -- should be something to watch, too.

3. Terrel Hunt looks for breakout ACC performance. The Syracuse quarterback ran away with the starting job in strong outings against Wagner and Tulane, but he has struggled against Clemson and NC State. He threw for less than 100 yards in each contest, though he did rush for 92 yards and a touchdown in the win over the Wolfpack. Still, Hunt must continue to grow and the offense has to continue to evolve after relying so much on the veteran ground game.

4. Georgia Tech D hopes for turnaround. The Yellow Jackets felt they turned a corner when they shut down UNC late last month to get to 3-0. But they have dropped three in a row since, giving up 38 or more points in each of the last two contests. Of course, throwing a pick-six in each of the last two games doesn't help matters, either, but Georgia Tech desperately needs a stronger performance from its defense to get back on track and be in position for a bowl berth.

5. C.J. Brown back leading Maryland. To be fair, Caleb Rowe played well last week against Virginia, but the Terrapins' offense operates at a different level with Brown in charge. Back from a concussion suffered at FSU, Brown will look to build off his nearly 64 percent completion percentage and help Maryland clinch bowl eligibility against Wake Forest, no small feat for a program that had just six total wins in coach Randy Edsall's first two seasons.

6. Duke's D looks to keep it going. The Blue Devils made a bit of a statement in their 35-7 win over Navy, their second straight game generating pressure up front. They will look to do that again this weekend against a struggling Virginia squad, though ACC offenses have not been kind to Duke in the past year. The Blue Devils have not won a league game since last Oct. 20 and have given up at least 38 points in every ACC contest since then.

7. Virginia looks for playmakers in the passing game. David Watford may have come of age at Maryland in defeat, but he needs some help from his receivers. Tight end Jake McGee leads the Cavaliers with 27 catches for 233 yards and two touchdowns, but no receiver has reached the 20-catch mark. Virginia ranks 104th nationally in passing yards and must improve on offense after coming up just short against the Terrapins in a game that was closer than most expected it to be. The offense gave itself a chance at the end and did not give the ball away all game.

8. Can Pitt establish the run? For as much success as the Panthers have had through the air, their ground game has been M.I.A. through the season's first five games, ranking 105th nationally. They have tallied just eight and 23 yards, respectively, in their last two games against Virginia and Virginia Tech. Old Dominion and Navy these next two weeks should provide Pitt nice opportunities to gain some traction in the run game.

9. Famous Jameis' big moment. Everything about Jameis Winston says that he loves the spotlight. But the redshirt freshman sensation has never been tested the way he will Saturday night, as FSU's ACC and national title hopes rest on his right shoulder in the first major test of a career that looks destined for greatness. Can Winston handle the Death Valley atmosphere, and can he exceed the ridiculous expectations that have been placed on him since Week 1? He could be racking up some hardware if he plays anything like he has so far.

10. Spotlight again shines on Death Valley. "College GameDay" is back at Clemson for the second time this season in what is arguably the biggest regular-season game in ACC history. It's another chance for Tajh Boyd to make a Heisman stand, but the onus may ultimately fall on the Tigers' much-improved defense, which has a pass rush that leads the nation in sacks per game. The defense will look to do everything it can to rattle Winston early and solidify this squad as a legitimate national title contender with its second top-5 win of the season.

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What to watch in the ACC: Week 6

October, 3, 2013
10/03/13
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After a few weeks of mediocre games, the ACC gets down to business with a top-25 showdown in Tallahassee and a battle of Coastal Division contenders in Miami. Here are some of the top storylines as the ACC gets rolling in Week 6:

Battle of undefeated teams: At this point, Maryland and Florida State are both playing second fiddle to Clemson in the Atlantic Division, but the winner of Saturday's showdown in Tallahassee will firmly establish itself as the Tigers' top rival. FSU remains the heavy favorite, having never lost to Maryland in 11 previous games at Doak Campbell Stadium, but its defense was exposed last week against Boston College, and the Terps have plenty of offensive firepower. Still, the Seminoles are easily the most talented team Maryland has faced during its 4-0 start, and even coach Randy Edsall said it will take a stellar effort to overcome a long track record of struggles against FSU.

[+] EnlargeTerrel Hunt
Mark Konezny/USA TODAY SportsSyracuse quarterback Terrel Hunt has thrown for seven touchdowns and no interceptions since replacing Drew Allen as the starter.
Coastal Division showdown: In the span of four quarters against Virginia Tech's formidable defense, Georgia Tech went from potential favorite to divisional life support last week. The Yellow Jackets couldn't find an answer to the Hokies' defensive scheme, and they're now faced with a showdown against undefeated Miami in South Florida. A second conference loss -- both to teams ahead of them in the standings -- would likely spell doom for the Jackets' hopes of returning to the ACC championship game. Miami, meanwhile, needs to keep pace with the resurgent Hokies, and Georgia Tech promises a far bigger test than the Hurricanes have gotten in the past two weeks, when they beat Savannah State and USF by a combined 126-28.

The rich get richer: After eight months of rehab on his injured knee, Virginia Tech corner Antone Exum has finally been cleared to play, though a decision on whether he'll take the field this weekend isn't expected until after today's practice. That's not exactly good news for ACC offenses already at a loss for how to solve the Hokies' stingy defense. With Exum out of the lineup, freshmen Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller have been phenomenal, combining for six interceptions and 12 passes defended in five games. Exum, meanwhile, was a second-team All-ACC corner last season. With Exum's return imminent, Facyson is getting reps at receiver, but it'll be up to coordinator Bud Foster to deal with the rather pleasant of finding reps for everyone.

Under the Dome: Syracuse kicks off ACC play for the first time, but the welcoming committee isn't likely to be particularly accommodating. Clemson heads to the Carrier Dome fresh off a throttling of Wake Forest and figures to present the Orange with a far bigger challenge than they've faced during their two-game winning streak against Wagner and Tulane. Still, Syracuse is far more optimistic about the season now that new starting QB Terrel Hunt has the offense rolling, and the Orange are expecting a nearly packed house.

Heisman watch in the ACC: Tajh Boyd has been an early favorite since the season started, and he burnished his credentials nicely last week against Wake Forest, completing 17 of 24 passes for 311 yards and three TDs, while rushing for a fourth. The upstart in the race is Winston, who led another ferocious offensive outburst for Florida State by completing 17 of 27 passes for 330 yards and four TDs. Both QBs get another shot to add to their increasingly impressive totals this week as the crowded field vying for the Heisman jockeys for the spotlight.

QB injuries: In Pittsburgh, Tom Savage faced a battery of concussion tests after being knocked around against Virginia. At Miami, the Hurricanes host Georgia Tech with starting quarterback Stephen Morris still nursing an ankle injury that he aggravated against USF. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas is coming off his best game of the season, but he has been hampered with an abdominal injury for weeks. If any of those injuries prove more serious than initial reports, the always-fluid Coastal Division race could be in for another shakeup.

North Carolina's effort: After a stunning 55-31 loss to East Carolina last week, UNC tailback A.J. Blue publicly questioned whether his team had overlooked a supposedly subpar opponent. The same result isn't likely this week, as the Tar Heels travel to Virginia Tech hoping to salvage their season. A win could reinvigorate North Carolina's hopes in the division, but a loss would send the Heels to 1-4 with another tough game against Miami to follow. It's only Week 5, but North Carolina appears to already be in a must-win situation.

Virginia's slumbering offense: After a 14-3 loss to Pittsburgh, coach Mike London and QB David Watford both lamented Virginia's sluggish offensive performance. London promised changes on the O-line, Watford insisted on extra work with his receivers and the entirety of the unit really has nowhere to go but up this week against Ball State. Virginia ranks 13th in the ACC in scoring offense and passing offense, and its minus-4 turnover margin ranks 110th nationally. Meanwhile, Ball State QB Keith Wenning has thrown for more than 300 yards in every game so far, meaning the Cavaliers are likely going to need some offensive fireworks of their own to keep pace.

Return of Mitchell: If all goes according to plan, this week's game against Wake Forest will be NC State's last without starting quarterback Brandon Mitchell, who broke a bone in his foot in the opener. Pete Thomas has done a solid enough job in Mitchell's absence, but there's a clear gap in playmaking ability. Thomas' 80-yard TD throw to Bryan Underwood in last week's win was his first passing touchdown of the season (to go with five INTs), but the Wolfpack are 3-1 with him as the starter.

Boston College bounce-back: Now that the Defense Department has given Army the OK to travel for the game, it's safe for Boston College to start planning for a rebound performance after last week's loss to Florida State. In spite of the outcome from a week ago, BC should have plenty of confidence. The Eagles offense scored 34 points, its high in an ACC game since 2009, and ran the ball successfully against what was thought to be a stout FSU defense. A loss is still a loss, but the impressive offensive performance was yet another sign that BC has taken some big steps forward under first-year coach Steve Addazio.

ACC Power Rankings: Week 5

September, 30, 2013
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Lots of movement in the middle of the Power Rankings this week.

No. 1 Clemson (4-0, 2-0; last week: No. 1). The Tigers easily handled Wake Forest as Tajh Boyd notched the 100th touchdown of his career. What pleased coach Dabo Swinney most of all was a complete effort from both his offense and defense, despite missing several key starters and reserves because of injury. Clemson has now picked up a first-place vote in the coaches poll. When asked Sunday whether it was from him, Swinney said it was not. His team, he says, is not yet deserving of a No. 1 vote.

No. 2 Florida State (4-0, 2-0; last week: No. 2). Headed into Saturday, perhaps the only people who believed Boston College would hold a double-digit lead on the Noles at any point were the players and coaches in that locker room. Indeed, BC had the Noles on the ropes early, jumping out to a 17-3 lead. Florida State recovered in time to win, but BC exposed some major problems in the FSU defense, most especially some inconsistent play up front. The Noles have to get those problems shored up in a hurry with a much better Maryland team coming to town.

No. 3 Miami (4-0; last week: No. 3). The Hurricanes turned the ball over way too much and had costly penalties against South Florida, but still dominated. The key question is this: What do we know about this team today that we did not know three weeks ago following a win over Florida? Miami has not been tested since then in wins over Savannah State and the Bulls, and now the real season begins -- against Georgia Tech to open ACC play.

No. 4 Maryland (4-0; last week: No. 5). The Terps entered the AP Top 25 at No. 25 -- their first ranking since the final poll of the 2010 season. And they didn't even have to play to get in. Guess that means the Terps got a double bonus on their week off, spent preparing for Florida State. What helped their image this weekend was West Virginia's upset win over No. 11 Oklahoma State. Just last week, Maryland beat West Virginia 37-0. That win is looking a whole lot better.

No. 5 Virginia Tech (4-1, 1-0; last week: No. 6). This should become an ACC mantra: Never count out the Hokies. We all know the offense has had its issues, but the defense has been simply outstanding and showed it once again in a win against Georgia Tech last Thursday. Virginia Tech held the Jackets to just 129 yards on the ground and was dominant all the way around. Logan Thomas had his best game since 2011. If the defense keeps this up and Thomas plays as well as he did against the Jackets, the Coastal Division better watch out.

No. 6 Pitt (3-1, 2-1; last week: No. 9). Nice jump for the Panthers, who have won three in a row for the first time since the 2010 season. Now granted, New Mexico, Duke and Virginia are not world-beaters by any stretch, but Pitt showed it could win in a variety of ways during this three-game streak. Against Virginia, it was with an improved defensive effort and just enough from the passing game, though the offensive line clearly has a ways to go. Tom Savage was sacked seven times and sustained concussion symptoms as a result.

No. 7 Georgia Tech (3-1, 2-1; last week: No. 4). The Jackets fall a notch below Pitt because the Panthers have a slightly more impressive win selection. Georgia Tech has won over FCS Elon. All three Pitt wins have come against FBS teams. The fact is, Georgia Tech was the favorite to beat Virginia Tech at home in a crucial Coastal Division matchup. But it seems the Jackets come up short just about every time they play Virginia Tech. The offense was completely ineffective, and Vad Lee looked like a first-year starter. The good news is a win over Miami puts the Jackets in the heart of the race.

No. 8 NC State (3-1, 0-1; last week: No. 8 ). The Wolfpack had another big day against Central Michigan and certainly look like a team trending up. But their FBS wins have come against teams that are a combined 2-8. Their other win, over Richmond, was too close for comfort. Give NC State credit for playing Clemson tight, but we still want to see much more out of this team when the competition gets tougher.

No. 9 Boston College (2-2, 1-1; last week: No. 11). Coaches take no solace in moral victories, but there has to be some sense of confidence in knowing this team could hang with the No. 8 team in the nation. The biggest difference between last year and this year is the way the Eagles are playing up front. That translates directly into their success running the football. Andre Williams leads the ACC in rushing and is halfway to a 1,000-yard season after only four games (505 yards). Pretty impressive, considering BC was one of the worst rushing teams in the nation in 2012.

No. 10 Syracuse (2-2; last week: No. 13). Cuse looked like a different team in its last two games with Terrel Hunt under center, but they did face overmatched competition. We will have a good idea of where Syracuse is after this weekend, when the Orange host No. 3 Clemson. The Orange had a bye week to prepare for the Tigers and have had recent success against ranked teams at home.

No. 11 Duke (3-2, 0-2; last week: No. 12). Nothing has come easy for this team, not even against Troy. The Blue Devils got into another shootout this past weekend but ended up winning. Still, Troy gained 512 yards, the second consecutive week the defense has yielded more than 500 yards. Brandon Connette played a nice game, with 379 total yards and five total touchdowns.

No. 12 Virginia (2-2, 0-1; last week: No. 10). It appears as if Virginia has made plenty of progress on the defensive side of the ball this year with its coordinator change. But the offense looks even worse than it did a year ago, and that is saying something. Virginia continues to struggle on the offensive line and in the run game, putting way too much pressure on first-year starter David Watford. Virginia had 65 yards rushing in a 14-3 loss to Pitt, and is averaging 3.7 yards per carry -- third-worst in the ACC. Unless they figure out how to start running the ball effectively, this is going to be a long season.

No. 13 North Carolina (1-3, 0-1; last week: No. 7). Speaking of an inability to run the football, that is perhaps the biggest reason why the Tar Heels have made the biggest drop in the ACC power rankings. North Carolina started the year at No. 4, but an unsightly home loss to East Carolina has sent it plummeting. The Tar Heels have simply not found an replacement for Giovani Bernard's production nor the starters missing on the offensive line. The defense appears to have regressed as well. Good teams find ways to reload, not rebuild. But this year screams rebuilding all over it, given all the key pieces North Carolina lost off its 8-4 squad a year ago.

No. 14 Wake Forest (2-3, 0-2; last week: No. 14). The Demon Deacons got blown out by Clemson, but they have to regroup quickly against in-state rival NC State if they want to keep their bowl hopes alive. Wake Forest and NC State have split their last six meetings, with the home team winning each time. The matchup is in Winston-Salem, so perhaps that will give the Deacs the edge they need.

What we learned in the ACC: Week 5

September, 29, 2013
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Here’s a look at five lessons learned in the ACC this week, in no particular order:

[+] EnlargeLogan Thomas
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesQB Logan Thomas accounted for 279 yards of offense in the Hokies' win over Georgia Tech.
1. Virginia Tech is still a contender. Quarterback Logan Thomas, who was playing through an abdominal strain, had one of his best games in years in the 17-10 win at Georgia Tech and, in the process, helped validate the program as a contender again in the Coastal Division. Virginia Tech’s offense had played so poorly that the Hokies needed three overtimes to beat Marshall the previous week. There was plenty of doubt surrounding the team as it headed to Atlanta to take on an undefeated Georgia Tech team that was No. 4 in the country in rushing offense. The Hokies were just 2-of-10 on third-down conversions and ran for just 55 yards, but it didn’t matter. They got what they needed from Thomas -- 19 of 25 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown and 16 carries for 58 yards and a touchdown -- and another stellar performance by the defense. The Hokies have won titles with that recipe before, and showed they can do it again.

2. North Carolina is on the bowl bubble. The Tar Heels were playing ECU, not Clemson, but you’d never know it by the score. UNC lost 55-31 in embarrassing fashion on their home field. ECU finished with 603 total yards, the second-highest total ever allowed by UNC at home. North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner had another subpar performance, but the players around him didn’t help out much, either. There was plenty of blame to go around as UNC dropped to 1-3. They’ve got to win five more games to become bowl eligible, and they’re not going to win again anytime soon if they continue to play the way they did against ECU. Six straight conference games await, starting with a road trip to Virginia Tech on Oct. 5 and followed by Miami. The loss to ECU could be the beginning of a downward spiral for the Heels. Or, it could be a much-needed wake-up call. Either way, the margin for error is nearing nonexistent.

3. Florida State’s defense needs work. As expected, Boston College was well-prepared, well-coached and gave the Noles its best shot despite a 48-34 loss. As expected, BC relied on its running game and Andre Williams. Not expected: FSU didn’t seem ready for it. It was the most points FSU had allowed BC in the series' history. The Eagles jumped out to a 14-point lead, scored on all three of their opening drives, ran for 200 yards and converted 2 of 3 fourth downs. Williams finished with 149 rushing yards -- the most by a runner against FSU since 2010. If FSU’s defensive line struggled against BC, expect more of the same next week against Maryland, and certainly on Oct. 19 against Clemson.

4. Virginia’s offense looks worse than last year. Pitt’s defense played better, but it’s hard to believe the Panthers improved that much just a week after allowing Duke 55 points. Virginia was simply inept on offense in the 14-3 loss, finishing with just 188 total yards, 3 of 18 third-down conversions and 1 of 4 fourth downs. Pitt’s Aaron Donald and the D had a little something to do with that, but so did quarterback David Watford, who completed just 15 of 37 passes. Last year, UVa’s passing offense was No. 37 in the country. This year, it’s one of the worst in the country. Watford has taken much of the blame for the team’s offensive struggles, as he is in his first year as a full-time starter, but there was plenty of blame to go around on Saturday.

5. Pitt is at home in the ACC. The Panthers now have won back-to-back games in their new conference and have a chance to move into a tie for the top spot in the Coastal Division if they can win at Virginia Tech next week. Pitt’s lone loss was to Florida State in the season opener. If they can escape Blacksburg with a win, the Panthers could be 6-1 heading into Atlanta on Nov. 2 for another key divisional game against Georgia Tech. With the win over Virginia, Pitt put itself right in the mix in its first season in the ACC. We’ll see how long the Panthers can stay there.

ACC's lunchtime links

September, 26, 2013
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