NCF Nation: Clemson Tigers
Spring start: March 12
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Big shoes to fill: Steve Addazio helped BC make huge strides in 2013, but the task of keeping the momentum going gets much harder without star running back and Heisman finalist Andre Williams, who rushed for an NCAA-best 2,177 yards and 18 touchdowns. Tyler Rouse and Myles Willis will attempt to fill the vacancy this spring, and both have potential. Willis averaged nearly 6 yards per carry as Williams’ primary backup last year. The real intrigue might wait until fall, however, when four freshmen running backs arrive on campus.
- Murphy makes the move: It’s an open competition at quarterback after Chase Rettig’s departure, but there’s no question the most intriguing player in the race is Florida transfer Tyler Murphy. The fifth-year senior worked with Addazio at Florida, and he’ll open the spring competing with redshirt freshman James Walsh and early enrollee Darius Wade. That’s a deep enough bench that BC didn’t worry about moving Josh Bordner, last year’s backup, to tight end. With both of last year’s starting tackles gone, too, Murphy’s experience could be even more important in determining the outcome of the QB battle.
- Restocking the LBs: Even at its low points in recent years, Boston College managed to churn out plenty of talented linebackers, but the position gets a massive overhaul this year. First-team All-ACC star Kevin Pierre-Louis (108 tackles in 2013) is gone, as is Steele Divitto (112 tackles). That leaves junior Steven Daniels (88 tackles, 5 sacks) as the lone returning starter. Josh Keyes adds some experience, but it’ll be a group in transition this spring.
Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Replacing Boyd: The talk of Clemson’s spring camp will no doubt surround the quarterbacks, as senior Cole Stoudt, sophomore Chad Kelly and early enrollee Deshaun Watson vie for the job. Stoudt’s experience makes him the early favorite, but it’s Watson, a dual-threat QB with immense talent, who could steal the show. Coach Dabo Swinney has already lauded Watson as perhaps the most talented quarterback Clemson has signed, so all eyes will be on the freshman to see if he can back up all that hype with a strong spring.
- Skill-position shuffling: If the QB battle is the headliner, there are plenty of significant sideshows on offense this spring. Clemson waved goodbye to receivers Sammy Watkins (1,464 yards, 12 TDs) and Martavis Bryant (828 yards, 7 TDs) and tailback Roderick McDowell (1,025 yards, 5 TDs). That means a massive overhaul on offense, where there’s no clear-cut bell cow at running back (Zac Brooks and D.J. Howard return as potential options) and the receiving corps will be looking for some new top targets.
- Dominance up front: On offense for Clemson, there’s plenty of concern for what the Tigers lost. On defense, however, the excitement is all about what they’re bringing back. Clemson’s defensive line, in particular, could be one of the nation’s best. When All-American Vic Beasley announced his return for his senior season, the Tigers knew they could have something special. Add sophomore lineman Shaq Lawson and senior Stephone Anthony at linebacker and Clemson has all the makings of a dominant pass rush.
Spring start: March 19
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- The running backs: After leading FSU in rushing three straight years, Devonta Freeman is gone. So, too, is James Wilder Jr. But the Seminoles enter spring with a quartet of intriguing options to replace their departed stars, led by Karlos Williams (730 yards, 11 TDs in 2013) and Dalvin Cook (No. 21 on the 2013 ESPN300). Mario Pender, who missed last year with academic issues, also figures to be in the mix.
- The defensive front: There are a wealth of question marks here, both in terms of personnel and scheme. With Timmy Jernigan, Telvin Smith and Christian Jones gone, there are plenty of jobs up for grabs. The development of Mario Edwards Jr., Eddie Goldman and Terrance Smith will be key, but with Charles Kelly taking over the defense, it’s also still a bit unclear how much the scheme will deviate from what Jeremy Pruitt ran with so much success in 2013.
- Jameis Winston’s swing: A year ago, the big question was who would win the QB battle. Now, Winston’s got a Heisman Trophy and will be a favorite to win it again in 2014. So the intrigue surrounding the FSU star QB is more on the baseball field, where once again, he’ll be splitting time this spring. Perhaps the bigger question is how the rest of the QB depth chart shakes out, with Sean Maguire the elder statesman and John Franklin III looking to make his move.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 11
What to watch:
- Bobby’s back: After a seven-year hiatus that included an abrupt departure from the Atlanta Falcons and a damaging scandal at Arkansas, Bobby Petrino is back in charge at Louisville insisting he’s a changed man. Fans will be watching closely to see if he has changed his stripes away from the field, but also whether he can rekindle the same offensive fireworks he delivered in his first stint with the Cardinals.
- Replacing Bridgewater: It’s an open QB battle, and for Petrino, it’s among the first chances he’ll have to see the players vying to replace departed star Teddy Bridgewater in action. Sophomore Will Gardner is perhaps the favorite, but he has just 12 career pass attempts. Redshirt freshman Kyle Bolin is close behind, while Reggie Bonnafon is set to arrive in the fall.
- New look on D: Louisville finished the 2013 season ranked second nationally in scoring defense, trailing only national champion Florida State. But this spring, things will look a bit different for the Cardinals, as Todd Grantham takes over as the new defensive coordinator after being lured from Georgia. Grantham figures to bring a 3-4 scheme to Louisville, which will certainly shake things up a bit. Defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin missing the spring with a shoulder injury only clouds the situation further.
Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12
What to watch:
- Brissett takes the reins: The sting of last year’s winless ACC season was barely in the rearview mirror before coach Dave Doeren named Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett his new starting quarterback. Brissett spent last year on the sideline, but apparently Doeren saw enough during practice to comfortably wave goodbye to Pete Thomas, who announced his transfer. There will be ample spotlight on Brissett this spring as he tries to revive the underperforming NC State passing game.
- The new faces: If 2013 was about cleaning house, this spring begins the far more difficult project of rebuilding. For NC State, that means plenty of new faces, including a whopping seven early enrollees headlined by safety Germain Pratt. While there are ample holes for Doeren to fill in Year 2, these incoming freshmen could certainly push for starting jobs and bring an influx of depth that the Wolfpack sorely missed last year.
- Shoring up the lines: NC State’s 2014 signing class included 11 offensive and defensive linemen, and that’s just the start of the overhaul at the line of scrimmage. Last season, the Wolfpack allowed the second most sacks in the ACC (35) on offense while its defensive front recorded the fewest sacks in the conference (20). That’s a formula for disaster, and Doeren understands NC State must get much better in the trenches. Brissett’s arrival at QB could help, but the bottom line is NC State needs to see improvement on both sides of the line, and it needs to start this spring.
Spring start: March 18
Spring game: April 19
What to watch:
- Hunt’s next step: 2013 was a roller coaster season for Terrel Hunt. He lost the QB battle in fall camp, stepped in as starter after two weeks and was dominant, struggled badly through the midsection of the season, then closed strong with back-to-back come-from-behind wins. Now that he has experience, it will be interesting this spring to see how much he’s progressed. The talent is there, and spring practice should give Hunt a chance to refine it a bit more.
- The defensive front: Syracuse finished its first ACC season ranked fourth in rushing defense and third in sacks despite myriad personnel issues entering the year, but more questions remain as the Orange look toward 2014. With star lineman Jay Bromley and veteran linebacker Marquis Spruill gone, the Orange are looking to fill sizable holes. Robert Welsh figures to be the anchor of the Syracuse pass rush, and the Orange could benefit from the return of Donnie Simmons, who missed 2013 with a knee injury.
- Secondary concerns: Syracuse got a chance to learn what life was like without top cover corner Keon Lyn after the senior fractured his kneecap late last year, but while Brandon Reddish did an admirable job as his replacement, a whole new set of questions crops up in the secondary this spring. Syracuse figures to have openings at both corner and safety, and while Julian Whigham, Darius Kelly and Ritchy Desir offer options, there’s a lot to be decided on the practice field this spring.
Spring start: March 25
Spring game: April 26
What to watch:
- Clawson’s early impact: It’s been 14 years since Wake Forest opened a spring camp with someone other than Jim Grobe calling the shots, so there’s no question this will be an intriguing few weeks in Winston-Salem. Dave Clawson takes over after leading Bowling Green to a MAC championship, and he inherits a major rebuilding job. First up for the coach will likely be creating an offensive identity -- something Grobe couldn’t do in 2013.
- Identifying some offense: If 2013 was an offensive slog for Wake Forest, 2014 threatens to be much, much worse. As bad as things got at times last year, the Deacons at least had veterans to rely on. This season, Wake’s leading passer (Tanner Price), rusher (Josh Harris), receiver (Michael Campanaro) and top tight end (Spencer Bishop) are all gone. On the plus side, plenty of younger players saw action in 2013. The job this spring is to figure out who can take a big step forward entering the 2014 campaign.
- The defensive scheme: Wake appears to be moving away from the 3-4 that was a hallmark of recent seasons, as new coordinator Mike Elko tries to maximize the talent remaining on the roster. Without veteran lineman Nikita Whitlock, Wake’s defensive front will have a far different look in 2014, and this spring will largely be about Elko identifying playmakers and tweaking his system to fit their skill sets.
None of them has ever started a game.
“This is probably the most slim it’s been since I’ve been here,” said Leal, a fifth-year senior. “We’ve always had at least five or six guys, but right now it’s only three.”
As spring practices begin throughout the conference, the ACC kicks off its 2014 season with a complete overhaul at the quarterback position. It was only a year ago that Florida State’s Jameis Winston was an unproven rookie who had yet to start a game. Now, the 20-year-old reigning Heisman Trophy winner is the veteran of the league, as nine of the 14 schools will have a first-year starting quarterback, and the competition is open at 11 programs. Florida State, Duke and NC State are the only programs that have definitively named starters, and even NC State doesn’t know what to expect out of first-year starter and Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett.
Brissett, though, knows what’s expected.
“Go make sure it was earned,” he said, “not given.”
Count on that to be a trend in the conference this spring.
Clemson, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest are all starting from scratch, without any starting experience at the quarterback position. Some of the league’s most recognizable names have to be replaced, including Tajh Boyd, Logan Thomas and Teddy Bridgewater. Coaches at North Carolina, Syracuse and Virginia have deemed their competitions open, in spite of experienced starters returning.
“I looked at that and was kind of surprised,” said Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas, the frontrunner to take over the job after Vad Lee’s decision to transfer. “It should even the playing field out a little bit, but at the same time, we all have to go through our parts.”
Not to mention spring and summer auditions.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said it’s likely the competition between Chad Kelly, Cole Stoudt and Deshaun Watson will extend beyond this spring -- and possibly into the season.
“Going in, Cole starts out as No. 1 simply because of where we finished the season -- basically by default, if you will,” Swinney said. “He’s the senior. It’s basically his to lose going in, but it’s incredibly close. You’re talking about -- in my opinion -- three guys who are going to play in the NFL. I believe with all my heart that Cole Stoudt is going to play in the NFL. And the same thing with Chad Kelly, and the same thing with Deshaun Watson, if they stay healthy. So you’ve got three NFL players competing to be the guy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people say, well, if you don’t have one quarterback then you have none. But that’s not the case here.”
It could be the case elsewhere, though.
Virginia Tech (Michael Brewer), Boston College (Tyler Murphy), Miami (Ryan Williams) and NC State (Brissett) are all hoping that transfers can give the position an immediate boost, but former Texas Tech quarterback Brewer won’t join the Hokies until this summer. While none of them has started a game at their current schools, all but Brewer have started at least three games at their previous programs.
Williams started 10 games while he was at Memphis, and he’s the leading candidate to replace Stephen Morris, but “it is wide open,” according to offensive coordinator James Coley. And Williams knows it.
"You have to earn it, you have to earn everything,” Williams told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “I don't want anything given to me. If it's given to me, I didn't work hard enough.”
Brissett started three games at Florida, and Murphy started six games for the Gators after starter Jeff Driskel was lost for the season. Murphy went 2-4 with 1,216 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions before missing the final three games of the season with a shoulder injury.
Nothing is guaranteed in Chestnut Hill this spring, either, as the Eagles also have Darius Wade, a true freshman who enrolled early, and James Walsh, who will be a redshirt freshman.
All eyes will be on Louisville’s quarterback competition, as the Cardinals enter their first season in the ACC without Bridgewater, who left early to enter the NFL draft. Will Gardner and Kyle Bolin will be the top two candidates this spring, and they’ll be joined by incoming freshman Reggie Bonnafon this summer.
“It’s wide open,” first-year coach Bobby Petrino said. “We’ll go through spring and see who comes out 1-2-3 and then obviously we’ll give Reggie an opportunity in the fall to compete with those guys.”
With the addition of Louisville, the ACC enters this season perceived by many to be the strongest it has ever been.
Now it just needs to find a few quarterbacks to help prove it.
2. In a discussion on the ESPNU Football Podcast on Wednesday, my colleague Matt Fortuna made an interesting point in favor of the idea that Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has established himself as a success in South Bend despite having had only one BCS-bowl season. Three of Kelly’s coordinators have been hired as head coaches: Charley Molnar (UMass), Chuck Martin (Miami of Ohio) and Bob Diaco (UConn). Here’s another point in Kelly’s favor: he is in year five in South Bend without questions surrounding his job security. Since Dan Devine retired in 1980, only Lou Holtz has passed the five-year threshold.
3. Has it occurred to anyone else that this is the golden age of college football in the state of South Carolina? The Gamecocks have finished 11-2 and in the top 10 in the last three seasons; Clemson has done both in the last two seasons. This from the flagship programs of a state best known in recent years for exporting its talent to national powers such as Florida State and Penn State. What Steve Spurrier and Dabo Swinney have achieved gets lost because they have one conference title between them in their present jobs. But the state of South Carolina stands behind only Alabama in recent success.
Collectively, the Tigers are actually more experienced.
With 19 scholarship seniors on the roster, this is the most veteran team Swinney has had to work with in the past five seasons in Death Valley. In 2012, Clemson only had 11 scholarship seniors, and just 10 last season.
That is important, considering several of them will be given opportunities to play immediately.
At the receiver position, where Clemson has to replace Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, Clemson has three early enrollees who will participate this spring: Demarre Kitt, Kyrin Priester and Artavis Scott. True freshman receiver Trevion Thompson will join the team this summer. True freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson also enrolled early, and he will be competing this spring with quarterbacks Chad Kelly and Cole Stoudt. At running back, Swinney said he is particularly excited about Wayne Gallman, a redshirt freshman who came “so close to playing last year.” Overall, Swinney said he thinks the running back position will be the deepest it’s been in years.
In fact, Swinney’s biggest concerns are the ones nobody is talking about: replacing Chandler Catanzaro at kicker and finding some answers at offensive tackle.
“We’ve certainly got questions, just like any team out there has questions, but that’s why people buy tickets,” Swinney said. “I think our defense has a chance to be outstanding -- the best we’ve been in a while. I’m really proud of the improvement we made defensively this year, but I think we can take that thing to a much higher level with our personnel, with our depth, with our experience next year defensively. Offensively, I expect us to be really good. I mean really good. I don’t see any reason why not. Yeah, we’ve got to figure things out and get them all in the right spot, but I don’t have any doubt we’re going to be explosive and fun to watch.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is not one of them.
Considering the backlash against the proposed rule, ACC coordinator of officials Doug Rhoads said it will get “extra scrutiny” from the rules committee. Rhoads has spoken with every coach in the conference about it, and while he wouldn’t give an exact breakdown of where the coaches stand on it -- other to say some were in favor, some weren’t -- Rhoads did say “the majority” of ACC coaches don’t think there’s sufficient research to validate the change.
The ACC reflects the national sentiment.
“Not speaking for the rules committee, but speaking from an officiating perspective, I think there’s concern amongst a number of coaches that there wasn’t sufficient data gathered to support whether this was or wasn’t needed,” Rhoads said. “That’s where we are now in the comment period, coaches saying where is the data that this is a player safety issue? There’s not a compelling argument that’s the case here, so I think it’s going to get extra scrutiny over this comment period before it ever becomes final.”
If passed, the proposal would prohibit teams from snapping the ball until at least 10 seconds run off the 40-second play clock, which would allow defenses time to substitute. The exceptions would be in the final two minutes of each half or if the play clock began at 25 seconds.
“Oh, so now all of a sudden we don’t care about them in two minutes?” Swinney deadpanned.
Under offensive coordinator Chad Morris, Clemson typically snaps the ball somewhere between the 23 and 30-second mark, but the Tigers often snap it within 30 seconds. Swinney said they change their tempo a lot, and if their offensive linemen can handle it, why can’t the defense?
“And how about the offensive guys?” he said. “Most of the time, when you look at defenses, they rotate their defensive line the whole game. We do it, most teams do it. Those offensive linemen play just about every snap. So we’re going to sit here and cry for guys who are playing 30 snaps when you’ve got guys on the other side playing 70? Give me a break. It’s an agenda, that’s what it is. If we’re going to talk about player safety, then when they’re going to blitz seven and we’ve only got six, is that extra guy going to hold his hand up before he comes so we know where he’s coming from and that kind of stuff? The whole thing is ridiculous.”
Rhoads pointed out that there’s already an “absolute mandate” for officials to stop the game and send a player out if he thinks the player is injured or fatigued. At the FBS level, Rhoads said teams are averaging close to 180 plays per game, the highest it’s ever been. A few years ago, he said teams were averaging 130-140 plays.
“There’s no way you see a fatigued guy, a guy down on one knee,” Rhoads said. “Whether he asks for that injury timeout or not, that’s part of our management of the game -- detect anything to do with player safety, stop the game, let the trainers look at him.”
The NCAA's 11-member playing rules oversight panel will vote on the proposal on March 6. No coaches are on the panel, but by now, the committee should know where the majority of coaches stand on it.
You can check out all the final results here. Rather than fill a post with endless numbers and 40-yard dash times, we thought it would be fun to give you a glimpse of the combine experience through the players' eyes. Here is a look at selected tweets from ACC players during their time in Indianapolis.
Enjoyed my time in Indy felt a lot of things went well and got some great feedback, gotta keep on climbing and improving thanks for the love— Tajh Boyd (@TajhB10) February 24, 2014
I can't even explain this feeling right now. My feet hurt but I'm glowing right now. So proud of the RB's man. God is good all the time— Andre Williams (@drewill44) February 24, 2014
Blessed with the opportunity to be here http://t.co/xOi87VLoAr— IG:Heartbreak_uno4 (@Heartbreak_mea) February 22, 2014
I would say that was a good day. 4.42 40 yard dash, 38 inch vertical jump and 9 feet 11 inches broad jump ;)— Terrence Brooks (@_Showtime31) February 25, 2014
“November will be a different month for me,” Radakovich said. “I’m really beginning to make some plans here as to how we’re going to make that happen, because we’ll meet Monday afternoons and Tuesday afternoons, so Monday will be a washout of a day and Tuesday for the most part, too, due to travel. My staff, occasionally, we might have to meet on a Saturday before a game just to get some business done.
“I’ve been blessed here with a really good staff of people, and that was one of the reasons why I was happy to take on the responsibility, because there’s a good group here that has done it for a long time. We have some new eyes to help make us better, but the organization is good, so that allows me to move forward with this challenge.”
The entire committee still has plenty of challenges to tackle before the season begins. At a meeting last month in Dallas, the group had preliminary discussions about a recusal policy, but there was no resolution. The committee has also discussed the possibility of having some sort of a practice session before the members have to choose the top four teams of the 2014 season. The next selection committee meeting is scheduled for April, and it will meet again in August before the season begins.
“I’m sure that somewhere down the road there will be some exercises that will include pulling together a real bracket,” Radakovich said. “It’s been really good to watch the group together, to be a part of the group, because it is truly 13 people looking for the same answer, and that is pulling the best four teams together for the semifinals and placing some really great matchups in the other games to keep college football at the forefront of people’s minds at that time of the year and create some great games and good memories for the coaching staffs and student-athletes.”
Here’s a completely unscientific ranking of the five best student sections in the ACC, based on a combination of attendance, fun and good old-fashioned decibel level:
2. Virginia Tech: From the pregame “Enter Sandman” entrance to the end of the fourth quarter, the students stay loyal all the way. They’re the ones who have made Thursday nights in Blacksburg special. They’re the loudest for the “Let’s go! Hokies!” cheer, and one of the biggest reasons Virginia Tech has had such an overwhelming home-field advantage.
3. Florida State: From Tallahassee to Pasadena, these guys know how to represent. Love it or hate it, the “war chant” is one of the most recognizable college football traditions, and nobody can belt it out better than the FSU students. Their tomahawk chop is unmistakable, along with their pride and passion in FSU football.
4. Georgia Tech: They’re at their best on a Thursday night, and they’re no doubt the heart and soul of Bobby Dodd Stadium. They’re always there for the entrance of the Ramblin’ Wreck, and decked out in their white and gold. Oh, and they’re pretty smart, too, those engineers. They’ve got a catchy fight song, and they’re always ready to answer, “What’s the good word?”
5. NC State: Carter-Finley can surprise you with its energy if you’ve never been there before, and the “sign of the wolf” is a must-learn if you’re going to sit with the students. (Even President Barack Obama learned how to do this while on campus in 2008.) NC State students have a lot of Pack pride, and they show it on Saturdays.
The league had three schools ranked in the Top 25 in the nation in attendance in 2013 -- the usual standouts Clemson, Florida State and Virginia Tech. Clemson, in fact, set a school record this season with an average of 82,048 fans per home game, thanks in large part to blockbuster home matchups against Georgia and Florida State.
Only four schools had attendance drop more than a negligible amount. Just two had them drop more than 5 percent. Only two schools were filled to less than 75 percent capacity. Pitt was one of five FBS schools to see an attendance increase of more than 8,000 per game. All seemingly good news for the league.
Meanwhile, the ACC only has two stadiums that seat 80,000. Functionally speaking, the ACC does not have stadiums big enough to compete with the average attendance in the SEC (75,674) or Big Ten (70,431).
But that is not to say everybody is satisfied with attendance levels across the league. The average attendance in 2012 was the lowest in the ACC in 12 years. The goal, of course, is to continue to grow attendance everywhere, at the smallest schools and the largest.
Now, obviously winning and home schedules are huge factors in how well school fare at attracting crowds. Pitt benefited greatly from a vastly improved home schedule that featured Florida State, Notre Dame and Miami. Georgia Tech saw a 10 percent increase in its attendance thanks to home games against Virginia Tech (on a Thursday night) and Georgia.
Virginia Tech, meanwhile, had its 93-game home sellout streak snapped against Western Carolina last September, ending the third-longest active sellout streak in the country. The Hokies did not have the best home slate, with no Thursday night games for the first time in 11 seasons, and the program has not won at the same clip as it did several years ago. Its average attendance dipped 2 percent.
Winning helped Florida State average nearly the same attendance in 2013 as it did the season before despite a lackluster home schedule. But the Seminoles also had several promotions scheduled going into the season to help make games more attractive to fans. They touted the return of Bobby Bowden against NC State, and honored the 1993 national champions against Syracuse.
Also, the athletic department added retention team to the sales staff just this month as a way to create a better experience for season ticket holders. The goal is to be more personable, and more accessible for questions or concerns. In addition, the school hired former ACC official Karl Hicks as deputy athletics director for external operations, where he will oversee, in part, tickets, sports information, marketing and promotions, and communications.
Georgia Tech is considering an auction-style sales format to help increase revenue from the biggest home game on the 2014 schedule -- against Clemson on Nov. 15. Northwestern used a similar format last season against Ohio State and Michigan and ended up getting more per sideline ticket for both games than its highest ticket price in 2012.
League schools exchange ideas on how to increase attendance throughout the course of an academic year. Recently at the winter meetings, one of the topics discussed was how to improve connectivity at venues to keep fans happy. People so wired to cell phones and technology that frustration often sets in at packed stadiums when fans cannot get a signal or send a text or tweet.
Next season, the ACC trades out Maryland for Louisville. The Cardinals have a bigger stadium than the Terps and filled it to 95 percent capacity in 2013 -- compared to 80 percent for Maryland. And that was playing a weak American schedule.
Still, Louisville sold out its season ticket allotment and expects even better crowds in 2014, with home games against Miami, Florida State and Kentucky. Florida State expects a big home boost, too, with games against Clemson, Florida and Notre Dame in Tallahassee.
So there are reasons for optimism as the league looks toward the future.
Staunch proponents of maintaining their current divisional structure, ACC officials have finally conceded a willingness to change -- if, of course, the NCAA should decide to loosen its restrictions on the requirements to host a conference championship game. If the NCAA were to give conferences full autonomy over their title games, as the ACC has formally requested, the ACC could eliminate its divisions entirely. It could keep the divisions, but not require everyone to play each other in the same division, as the NCAA currently mandates. It could have the top two teams in the BCS standings playing for the league title.
Under the current structure, the Atlantic Division’s schedule is both its greatest strength and weakness, as each team will have to face Florida State -- the defending national champ -- No. 8 Clemson, and No. 15 Louisville. The addition of Louisville alone causes a glaring disparity between the competition in the divisions.
Using the final Associated Press rankings, the teams in the ACC’s Atlantic Division will play 19 opponents ranked in the top 15 of the final rankings, while the Coastal Division will face only seven. Duke and Pittsburgh have no opponents ranked that high, and Virginia Tech (Ohio State), North Carolina (at Clemson), and Georgia Tech (Clemson) each have one. Meanwhile, five of the seven teams in the Atlantic Division will each face three opponents ranked in the final top 15 -- and yes, most of those opponents come from within their own division.
Good luck, though, trying to find anyone in the Coastal Division who has a problem with that. Just about every one of those teams is trying to separate itself, and lining up against Louisville regularly certainly won’t help -- just ask Miami. Yes, Louisville will have a new coach and new quarterback, so some drop-off should be expected. Clemson also has to replace All-American receiver Sammy Watkins and quarterback Tajh Boyd, but in the big picture, neither of those programs appears to be disappearing anytime soon. In spite of all of their questions, both should still be projected to finish among the top three teams in the Atlantic Division in 2014.
There are plenty of scheduling questions in front of ACC athletic directors, coaches and officials right now, and lots to consider as the conference moves forward into the College Football Playoff system in 2014. Instead of trying to make the schedules more difficult, either by adding another conference game or some sort of partnership with the SEC, league officials should reevaluate just how tough it already is.
The ACC is looking for competitive balance, but the addition of Louisville has already tipped the scale.
Here's our lineup, starting with the most difficult (*denotes FCS opponents):
FLORIDA STATE: Oklahoma State (10-3), *The Citadel (5-7), Notre Dame (9-4), Florida (4-8)
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: 56.0
- Toughest opponent: Notre Dame
- Weakest opponent: The Citadel
- 2013 bowl teams: 2
- Quick take: This schedule is more difficult than it was a year ago, when the Noles won the national title. Oklahoma State is a neutral site game in Arlington, Texas, but the Cowboys might not even be a preseason Top 25 team, and Florida still has something to prove. Having three games against quality opponents puts this one at the top and none of the other nonconference schedules are as tough. Still, the Noles should go 4-0 against these guys, with a home win over the Irish.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: 54.9
- Toughest opponent: South Carolina
- Weakest opponent: Georgia State
- 2013 bowl teams: 2
- Quick take: Playing Georgia and South Carolina again makes this one of the ACC's most difficult nonconference schedules, especially starting the season on the road against Georgia with a new quarterback. And will Clemson fans ever forgive Dabo Swinney if he loses to South Carolina at home, this time for a sixth straight loss against the in-state rivals?
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: .686
- Toughest opponent: Notre Dame
- Weakest opponent: Liberty
- 2012 bowl teams: 3
- Quick take: The Tar Heels have a big challenge ahead of them in nonconference play. Nobody needs to be reminded that East Carolina beat this team in Chapel Hill a year ago; traveling to South Bend is always a difficult proposition and Notre Dame figures to be good once again; and San Diego State finished second in its division in the Mountain West last year. Sweeping nonconference is possible, but is it probable? Going 3-1 is most likely.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: .588
- Toughest opponent: Ohio State
- Weakest opponent: Western Michigan
- 2013 bowl teams: 2
- Quick take: The Hokies have two difficult nonconference games against Ohio State and East Carolina and a tricky FCS opponent in William & Mary, which has thrown its share of scares into teams over the last four seasons (including an upset of UVa in 2009). They barely survived the Pirates last year, and that game has a tricky placement on the schedule -- the week after the game at Columbus and the week before a big ACC opener against Georgia Tech. Virginia Tech should go 3-1 but a victory over East Carolina cannot be considered automatic.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: .569
- Toughest opponent: Nebraska
- Weakest opponent: Florida A&M
- 2013 bowl teams: 3
- Quick take: Miami has another daunting nonconference schedule this year. Traveling to Lincoln, Neb., will be difficult, while Arkansas State and Cincinnati have been bowl teams for years now. Arkansas State presents a high-powered spread offense that is always difficult to defend, and new coach Blake Anderson has a familiarity with the Canes from his days as North Carolina offensive coordinator. Cincinnati got blown out in the bowl game, but the Bearcats are not going to be a cakewalk. It would be unrealistic to expect a sweep of all these games. Going 3-1 would be a big win.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: .560
- Toughest opponent: UCLA
- Weakest opponent: Richmond
- 2013 bowl teams: 2
- Quick take: The Hoos do not have an easy go of it in nonconference play once again. Though we have Richmond as the weakest opponent, the Spiders have played tough against FBS competition. Last year, they nearly upset NC State and back in 2011, they beat Duke. The BYU game is in Provo, Utah, this year and comes the week after playing Louisville. Kent State is not a gimme, either, the Golden Flashes won 11 games in 2012. Still, going 2-2 has to be the worst case scenario here.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: 57.1
- Toughest opponent: Notre Dame
- Weakest opponent: Villanova
- 2013 bowl teams: 2
- Quick take: The matchup against Maryland will be interesting because it will be the Terps' first season in the Big Ten, and Maryland will be looking to avenge last year's home Atlantic Division loss to the Orange. Maryland will be a much better team than last year, though, and Notre Dame should be a Top 25 preseason team. Overall, Cuse fans should expect a 2-2 finish, if not 3-1 with the lone loss to Notre Dame.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: 54.7
- Toughest opponent: USC
- Weakest opponent: UMass
- 2013 bowl teams: 2
- Quick take: This is a tricky schedule, but three of the games are at home. Obviously USC will be a tough task, and Colorado State proved it's no pushover in its bowl game. The Eagles should expect at least a 2-2 finish.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: .563
- Toughest opponent: Georgia
- Weakest opponent: Wofford
- 2013 bowl teams: 2
- Quick take: This nonconference schedule is more manageable than it was a year ago, when BYU was on the slate in addition to Georgia. Though Tulane is improved and that game is on the road, the Jackets should be able to go 3-1 at worst against the teams they will face in 2014.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: 36.7
- Toughest opponent: at Notre Dame
- Weakest opponent: FIU
- 2013 bowl teams: 1
- Quick take: This is a schedule Louisville should cruise through, with the exception of the road trip to Notre Dame. Last year, Louisville beat FIU 72-0, and beat Kentucky on the road. It's definitely a good setup for a team trying to break it a new coaching staff and quarterback.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: 50.0
- Toughest opponent: Utah State
- Weakest opponent: Army
- 2013 bowl teams: 1
- Quick take: This is a very kind schedule for first-year coach Dave Clawson, and one that on paper, an ACC program should theoretically bulldoze. Don't forget, though, that the Deacs lost to Louisiana-Monroe last year. Nothing is a given for this team in transition.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: .429
- Toughest opponent: Iowa
- Weakest opponent: Delaware
- 2013 bowl teams: 1
- Quick take: The Panthers have a much easier nonconference schedule, now that Notre Dame is no longer on the slate every year. Iowa is a solid team, but that game at home should be very winnable for the Panthers. FIU was abysmal a season ago, while Akron has made some strides under coach Terry Bowden. Still, Pitt has a realistic shot at going unbeaten in nonconference play for the first time since it began playing a conference schedule in 1993.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: .367
- Toughest opponent: Tulane
- Weakest opponent: Elon
- 2013 bowl teams: 1
- Quick take: Duke has one of the easiest nonconference schedules in the league, setting up the Blue Devils to go unbeaten in nonconference play for the second straight year. In fact, you could make the case that the nonconference schedule this year is easier than it was a year ago, even with a power five opponent in Kansas on the slate. Tulane is much improved, but anything other than 4-0 with this schedule would be a disappointment.
- Opponents’ 2013 combined winning percentage: 43.4
- Toughest opponent: At South Florida
- Weakest opponent: Presbyterian
- 2013 bowl teams: 0
- Quick take: Dave Doeren should be 4-0 heading into the Florida State game on Sept. 27. If a road trip to a 2-10 program is going to be his toughest challenge of the nonconference season, there's no reason the Wolfpack shouldn't exceed last year's win total in the nonconference schedule alone. Rival UNC beat ODU 80-20.
In 2013, it was a meeting between two top-five teams, billed all summer to be the most important game of the season.
This year should be no different -- except that it will be.
Until proven otherwise, though, Clemson-FSU is the game that will determine the division winner. Do ACC fans want to see the league's blockbuster so early in the season?
PRO: The biggest argument in favor of having this matchup early is that it will help the loser of the game stay in the hunt for the national title in the new College Football Playoff. Considering the strength of the rest of the conference right now, the loser of that game still has a good chance to run the table. Meanwhile, other leagues like the Pac-12 and SEC are backloaded on their schedules. The national perception is that an early top-10 loss in the ACC isn't as detrimental to the overall résumé as one later in the season.
CON: Jim Young quoted this tweet in ACCSports.com, and it sums up the argument against an early game perfectly:
This is like killing the main character 30 minutes into your movie RT @IWCorriher: FSU/Clemson is in September again? Why??— Jonathan Jones (@jjones9) January 22, 2014 -
Having the game so early loses much of the anticipation of the Atlantic Division race. With all due respect to the rest of the division, it's like crowning the winner before midseason. Of course, it's far too early in the season to declare anyone champs -- we all know anything can and does happen in college football. But whatever happened to saving the best for last?
The ACC has lost 10 players who have decided to forgo their final seasons of eligibility and enter the NFL draft. It’s not a mass exodus, but their departures definitely leave some holes. Florida State is losing some talent, but Clemson arguably has the biggest shoes to fill, as the Tigers are losing their top two receivers from 2013, including All-American Sammy Watkins. With spring football around the corner, there will be plenty of competition throughout the league, but based on what we know now, here is the best guess at who the replacements will be for each of the ACC’s early entrees:
Leaving: Florida State WR Kelvin Benjamin
Leaving: North Carolina C Russell Bodine
The replacement: Lucas Crowley. As a freshman, Crowley made his collegiate debut against rival NC State. He played 11 snaps and graded out at 90 percent. An encouraging sign for UNC fans should be Crowley’s performance against Pitt, where he played a respectable game opposite All-American defensive tackle Aaron Donald. He played 66 snaps at center in that game and had five knockdowns.
Leaving: Clemson DB Bashaud Breeland
The replacement: Garry Peters. He was one of Clemson’s rising stars at cornerback in 2012, but an injury last season set him back. He still played in 10 games and enters this fall with 54 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, one interception, 12 pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 33 games (five starts) in his career.
Leaving: Clemson WR Martavis Bryant
The replacement: Mike Williams. The true freshman played in all 13 games and started three, finishing 2013 with 20 catches for 316 yards and three touchdowns. His first career start came against Wake Forest, and Williams had a 14-yard touchdown. As a prep, he was rated the No. 3 player in South Carolina by ESPN.com. Williams has a lot of potential, and the Tigers will need him to reach it quickly.
Leaving: North Carolina TE Eric Ebron
The replacement: Jack Tabb. He played in 10 games at tight end and on special teams, and he also saw some time at linebacker. He finished with six catches for 116 yards and 10 tackles. UNC also signed two tight ends in the 2014 class, including one, Brandon Fritts, who enrolled in January. The other, Avery Edwards, is regarded as the top TE in North Carolina.
Leaving: Florida State RB Devonta Freeman
The replacement: Ryan Green. He played in all 12 games (no starts), and finished with 163 yards and one touchdown on 33 carries. He showed some explosiveness in his limited playing time, as six of his carries went for 10 yards or more. His blocking and ability to take advantage of open holes still need to improve.
Leaving: Florida State DT Timmy Jernigan
The replacement: Nile Lawrence-Stample. He played in 13 games and started six alongside Jernigan at defensive tackle. He finished the season with 15 tackles, including 1.5 for loss. He also had two quarterback hurries. He made his first career start against Pitt and had a season-high three tackles against both Boston College and Maryland. He had one tackle in the national championship game.
Leaving: Syracuse RB Jerome Smith
The replacement: Prince-Tyson Gulley. He was granted a fifth season of eligibility and as of now is expected to play this fall. Gulley qualified for a medical hardship waiver because he broke his collarbone in 2011 and played just four games. He was third on the team in rushing in 2013 and finished with 456 yards and four touchdowns on 83 carries. He also had 15 catches and one receiving touchdown.
Leaving: Clemson WR Sammy Watkins
The replacement: Charone Peake. Watkins was one of a kind, and his record-setting production nearly impossible to duplicate, but Peake is the next man up. He was the Tigers’ second-leading receiver before he tore his ACL during a simple non-contact drill in practice on Sept. 10. Prior to the injury, Peake had eight catches for 84 yards and a touchdown, second only to Watkins in both receptions and yards. In 2012, Peake had 25 receptions for 172 yards and two scores.
Leaving: Florida State RB James Wilder Jr.
The replacement: Karlos Williams. He moved from safety to tailback in Week 2 and finished his first season at the position with 91 carries for 730 yards. His 8.02 yards-per-carry average was sixth in the nation. His 11 rushing touchdowns tied for seventh in the ACC. No running back from an automatic-qualifier conference school scored more routinely than Williams, who scored once every 8.3 carries.
2. Swinney’s staff still is the highest paid ($4.48 million) in the FBS, receiving about $1.1 million more than Florida State pays the staff of Jimbo Fisher. The Seminoles won the FBS at the lower price point. But what resonated with me about defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt leaving for Georgia is the Seminoles being several steps behind the top of the market in coaching salaries. Florida State tried to match Georgia’s offer to Pruitt ($850,000 per year), but still lost Pruitt. Will Florida State try to close the gap?
3. When was the last time Vanderbilt targeted a nationally prominent coaching candidate and then hired him? That might be the greatest legacy left by James Franklin. Stanford’s Derek Mason, one of the hottest commodities among coordinators, leapt at the chance to go to Vandy. He knows how to recruit the player who can make grades and run a 40. It’s a finite pool, however. Vandy’s gain figures to be literally Stanford’s loss.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney agreed Saturday to a new eight-year deal worth $27.15 million, keeping him with the Tigers through the 2021 season.
The Clemson University Board of Trustees Compensation Committee approved the terms on Saturday morning. Swinney will make $3.15 million in 2014, up from the $2.2 million he was set to earn this past season, will have more money available to pay his assistants and has a $5 million buyout if he decides to leave Clemson during the first three seasons of the deal.
“Dabo is one of the top coaches not only in the ACC but in the entire nation,” athletics director Dan Radakovich said in a statement. “His teams have succeeded on the field, in the classroom and in the community. We’re excited to have him lead our program for a long time into the future.”
Swinney, headed into his sixth full season as coach, has gone 51-23 at Clemson, including 33-12 in ACC play. The Tigers have won 10 or more games in three straight seasons, the first time that has happened at the school since 1988-90. That includes back-to-back 11-win seasons and a first BCS win, over Ohio State in the Discover Orange Bowl earlier this month. Clemson has five victories over teams ranked in the top 10 in the last three years; only Alabama and Oklahoma have more (six each).
Off the field, Clemson has finished among the nation’s top 10 in the NCAA Academic Progress Report each of the last three years. Swinney also has emphasized community service. Dabo's All-In Foundation, with a mission to raise awareness of critical education and health issues to help people across the state of South Carolina, has donated and pledged nearly $1 million to local organizations over the past four years.
“I’m extremely excited and appreciative for the opportunity to continue to build our program under the leadership of President Jim Clements and our athletic director Dan Radakovich,” Swinney said in a statement. “The future of Clemson University is extremely bright and the future of our football program is as well. While we have accomplished many goals, we still have several out there to reach and we will continue to work to get there. Kathleen and I are looking forward to continuing to be a part of the great community of Clemson, the Upstate and the state of South Carolina.”