NCF Nation: Clemson Tigers

We’re almost through the first week of the season -- we’re still waiting on you, Miami-Louisville -- which means college football is ripe for overreaction. It’s this time of year that is worth reminding everyone to take a step back, take a deep breath and remember it isn’t even September yet.

With that said, there are only 12 games on each team’s schedule, and each school can’t afford to throw a week away. So here are some things the ACC blog thinks we learned through the season’s first few days.

[+] EnlargeRashad Greene
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezWill Florida State find another receiving threat to complement Rashad Greene?
1. Florida State’s 2014 team wasn’t built in a laboratory … and isn’t as invincible as some tried to project upon the preseason No. 1. The Seminoles jumped out to an early lead, but the armor began to crack shortly thereafter. The defense looked out of sync at times and had issues stopping the Cowboys’ offense in the second half. Oklahoma State had 364 yards, with nearly all coming over the final three quarters. All preseason, Jimbo Fisher and his players said the pressure of repeating and being No. 1 would not affect this team, but the fifth-year FSU coach admitted to that in his postgame news conference. Offensively, the Seminoles set records in 2013, but with no Kelvin Benjamin or Kenny Shaw, there is no legitimate No. 2 receiving option opposite Rashad Greene.

The good news is this is an early wake-up call for Florida State, and they still escaped with a win. Though they are considered likely two-touchdown favorites for every game this season, this game probably humbled Florida State a little after the public inflated their egos the past eight months.

2. Clemson’s defense is better, except when it’s against the best:
The Tigers’ defense improved drastically the past season, and Dabo Swinney and Brent Venables deserve credit for that. However, the Tigers allowed 38 points in their toughest games a season ago, and once again a quality offense shredded the unit. Georgia hung 45 on Clemson behind nearly 200 rushing yards from Todd Gurley, who might be the ridiculous early Heisman favorite now, thanks to the Tigers. Gurley averaged more than 13 yards per carry, and on top of it he had an easy 100-yard kickoff return score. All offseason the Tigers’ defense was hyped as possibly the conference’s best as it returns stars along the defensive front, the biggest being Vic Beasley. But the front seven wore down in the second half, and now the Tigers are left questioning whether they deserved the preseason attention.

3. It’s probably a good idea to shelve the perception talk for the time being:
ACC commissioner John Swofford and league coaches must have spent the offseason bench pressing the large stack of papers listing the conference’s 2013 accomplishments because they walked into ACC media days with their collective chest puffed out about the ACC playing second fiddle to nobody. Well, Wake Forest lost to Louisiana-Monroe and failed to eclipse 100 total yards. Syracuse nearly lost to FCS Villanova, North Carolina and Georgia Tech both trailed FCS schools, and NC State needed a touchdown with a little more than 90 seconds left for the win. Clemson looked good in the first half, but the defensive front seven was shredded by the UGA rush game and couldn’t tackle in the second half. Florida State even looked human, but at least the Seminoles pulled out the win. The rest of the league needed to show some progress, but the cupcake scares were all too familiar for ACC advocates.

4. Give a lot of credit to the Virginia defense: All afternoon the Cavaliers’ defense was brilliant against No. 7 UCLA. Despite continuously being put in bad situations, the defense bailed out Virginia, and the Cavs nearly pulled off the upset. We all knew Virginia had the potential to be really good on defense, but it showed it Saturday by holding UCLA to fewer than five yards per play and creating a couple of turnovers. Starter Greyson Lambert did not last long, but Virginia might have found its quarterback of the future in Matt Johns. Unfortunately for Virginia, there were too many mistakes. UCLA returned three turnovers for touchdowns, and the play calling was questionable late in the game. Mike London’s conservative approach might have cost Virginia the win.

5. Pittsburgh’s James Conner wants to join the Heisman discussion:
In Year 3, Paul Chryst has Pitt looking like Wisconsin, at least in box scores. The Panthers rushed 56 times for 409 yards and seven touchdowns. Pitt threw a total of 14 passes in the 62-0 drubbing. Sure it was against FCS Delaware, but there were no gimme games for Pitt during Chryst’s first two seasons. Youngstown State defeated Pitt in the 2012 opener, and there were many more close calls over the past two seasons. The Panthers were a popular dark horse pick in the Coastal Division, and they did nothing to suggest they don’t belong in the conversation. They are going to ride Conner, who ran for 153 yards and four touchdowns on only 14 carries. The bad news is sophomore receiver Tyler Boyd dislocated a finger and could miss the Friday night game against Boston College.

6. Deshaun Watson is going to push for more playing time: The No. 1 quarterback in the 2014 class did not look like a freshman on his first collegiate drive. He showed great poise on his first throw, which nearly went for a long touchdown. On his next two plays, the Clemson backup threw beautiful passes, with the second going for a touchdown. Stoudt played well in the first half, but the Clemson offense could not get much of anything going in the second half. Watson only attempted four throws, but the Tigers have South Carolina State and then a bye before Florida State. Could we see more of Watson when Clemson travels to Tallahassee?
For a while, it looked as if Clemson might give Georgia a game. But in the second half, Mark Richt's Bulldogs pulled away at home behind a powerful offensive line and a strong group of running backs and won the season opener in Athens 45-21.

You can’t keep the monster in his cage

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It looked like Todd Gurley wasn’t going to get a chance to run free. Halfway through the first half, Georgia’s star tailback had only four carries. Then he decided to take matters into his own hands. On special teams, he fielded the kickoff and found daylight. Splitting the middle of the field, he sprinted 100 yards for the touchdown. It wasn’t fair. A guy that big isn’t supposed to run that fast. The 226-pound junior couldn’t be caught as he ran 100-plus yards without being touched. It was one of those Heisman Trophy-type moments. All that was missing was the stiff-arm pose.

Georgia runs it down Clemson’s throat

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Georgia telegraphed what it was doing. The Bulldogs were running the football, no matter what. And Clemson couldn’t do a darn thing to stop it. Gurley carried for two, then 38 yards to start the drive. Sony Michel then came in and went for six yards. Hutson Mason got in on the action, picking up a yard of his own. Michel then came back and showed off his wheels and reeled off a 17-yard gain. Gurley, now facing a gassed defense, took care of the rest. With the front seven overloaded to his right, he took the pitch that direction, cut back and caught Clemson sleeping. He found daylight in the middle of the field, made a safety miss and went 18 yards to pay dirt. The touchdown pulled Georgia ahead by two scores. But more importantly, it proved Clemson didn’t have an answer for a determined Bulldogs offense.

And then it happened again

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How would you like to face Nick Chubb after Gurley, Keith Marshall and Michel have been pounding the rock all night? How would you like to tackle that 228-pound beast? The true freshman running back couldn’t be corralled by Clemson all night. And when he took the handoff with his team up 10 points, he decided to finish the job, this time showing off his wheels and his strength running through tackles. He shook four Clemson defenders’ grasp, hit the edge and took off. He went 47 yards for the touchdown that put the game away for Georgia.

Gurley isn’t to be outdone

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What more can we say? Gurley played like he was trying to win the Heisman Trophy in one game and did a good job of stating his case. Midway through the fourth quarter, you’re not supposed to have the gas to run like this. You’re not supposed to slip a bunch of tackles and go 51 yards that quickly. But Gurley isn’t normal. By the time the night was over, he had 298 total yards and four touchdowns.

ACC viewer's guide: Week 1

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
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Time to get you ready for football action with our quick look at Week 1 matchups across the ACC. Use the listed hashtags to follow along on Twitter. All times ET.

Noon

No. 7 UCLA at Virginia, ESPN, #UCLAvsUVA: In his career as a head coach, Mike London has won all six of his season openers, but this one is the biggest challenge he has ever faced to start a season. The Bruins come in off a 10-win season with a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Brett Hundley. Perhaps the only edge the Hoos have is the starting time. UCLA makes its first trip to an ACC stadium since 1955 and will kick off at 9 a.m. PT. As London joked during his news conference earlier this week, "I'd like to play 6 o'clock in the morning our time, if possible."

Delaware at Pitt, ESPN3, #DELvsPITT: The Panthers are going for their first win in a season opener since 2011 and have learned not to pencil in wins against FCS opponents. The biggest point of intrigue is how often they plan to use running back James Conner at defensive end. Coach Paul Chryst said Conner will be used only on rushing situations, the way he was in the bowl game. Still, two-way players are always a bit of a novelty, and folks are waiting to see how effective Conner can be at both positions.

12:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Brissett
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeJacoby Brissett will make his debut as NC State's quarterback against Georgia Southern.
Wofford at Georgia Tech, ESPN3, #WOFvsGT: The Jackets should not have too much to worry about in this matchup, but they definitely will want to take a good look at how their revamped defensive line fares, along with new starting quarterback Justin Thomas. Here is a fun historic fact for you: These teams last met back in 1901, a 33-0 Georgia Tech win.

Georgia Southern at NC State, ESPN3, #GASOvsNCST: Wolfpack players are well aware of Georgia Southern's stunning win over Florida last season and vow not to let the same happen to them. Though NC State is young, its most experienced unit is on the defensive line -- good news against the triple-option Eagles. There's no doubt coach Dave Doeren believes his program has a chance to start fresh after last year's disappointing 3-9 campaign. This is our first shot to see how quarterback Jacoby Brissett fares managing the NC State offense.

3 p.m.

Boston College at UMass, ESPN3, #BCvsUMASS: UMass fans had some fun trolling BC earlier this week, tossing a Minutemen jersey on Doug Flutie's statue outside Alumni Stadium. But BC will actually hit the road in this one, which features the debut of Florida transfer Tyler Murphy at quarterback. The Eagles also will feature a revamped running back and receiving group as they try to make a bowl game for the second straight season.

4 p.m.

William & Mary at Virginia Tech, ESPNEWS, #WMvsVT: Quarterback Michael Brewer makes his debut for the Hokies, who are hoping to reclaim their spot atop the Coastal Division this season. Running back and receiver are also two key areas to watch, especially freshmen Isaiah Ford, Marshawn Williams and Shai McKenzie. Trey Edmunds will play but won't start, as he continues to come back from a broken ankle.

5:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesVic Beasley and the Clemson defense will be tested by Georgia.
No. 16 Clemson at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN, #CLEMvsUGA: It is strength against strength: Clemson's defensive line against Georgia's run game. Todd Gurley rushed for a career-high 154 yards on the Tigers in their matchup last season, and the Clemson defense knows it must stop him first and foremost. The Tigers will play without suspended starting end Corey Crawford, but they have the returning talent and depth to make up for his absence. Clemson had 123 tackles for loss last season. The Tigers also had 28 sacks with just a four-man rush, fifth-best among power-five schools. Just how much Clemson has improved defensively will go a long way toward determining the outcome.

6 p.m.

Elon at Duke, ESPN3, #ELONvsDUKE: Duke is aiming for its fourth straight win in a season opener as it looks to continue on its momentum from the past two seasons. This is the first of four straight winnable nonconference games, which could have Duke 4-0 before it heads to Miami on Sept. 27 for a crucial Coastal Division showdown against the Hurricanes.

Liberty at No. 23 North Carolina, ESPN3, #LIBvsUNC: The storylines for the Tar Heels have been away from the field, as four players were suspended for this game following a Yahoo! Sports report that alleged a hazing incident between players. Larry Fedora has not publicly named his starting quarterback, but it probably doesn't matter whether Marquise Williams or Mitch Trubisky starts in this one.

8 p.m.

No. 1 Florida State at Oklahoma State, ABC, #FSUvsOKST: The Seminoles begin their Dallas-to-Dallas quest against the Cowboys, who return the fewest starters among all Power Five conferences. We all know Jameis Winston returns, but the storyline to watch in this one is who emerges at receiver next to Rashad Greene. A win would give the Seminoles 17 consecutive victories and match the school record set in 1999-2000.

Monday

Miami at Louisville, 8 p.m., ESPN, #MIAvsLOU: Miami has been waiting on its chance at revenge since December, when the Cards embarrassed them in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando. Much has changed for both programs since then: Louisville has a new coach and new offensive and defensive schemes; both teams have a new starting quarterback; Miami welcomes the return of running back Duke Johnson. And let's not forget this is the ACC debut for Louisville, as well. One pretty interesting note: Louisville was 22-1 at home under Petrino during his first stint as coach.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 1

August, 30, 2014
Aug 30
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Noon ET

Tennessee-Martin at Kentucky, SEC Network
Mark Stoops enters his second season at Kentucky, and he has a new starting quarterback, Patrick Towles. The third-year sophomore won the position battle in preseason training camp, and the Wildcats are looking for him to get off to a positive start. Establishing confidence early will be key, and against an FCS foe like Tennessee-Martin, that should be feasible. Stoops says Towles is “not on a short leash,” and that he has confidence in his new signal-caller. Just setting a positive tone with a convincing win would be good for the Wildcats as they continue to try to build depth, increase talent level and work their way up from the SEC cellar.

3:30 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsMaty Mauk will open the season as Missouri's quarterback against South Dakota State.
South Dakota State at No. 24 Missouri, ESPNU
The Maty Mauk era begins at quarterback for Missouri. The Tigers are 13-1 in season openers under Gary Pinkel with 13 consecutive wins, and they’re 13-0 all time against FCS teams. The Tigers don’t have Kony Ealy and Michael Sam but still return several standout defenders such as defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who aim to continue the Tigers’ defensive line success. Missouri also has the nation’s longest active turnover streak at 44 games.

West Virginia vs. No. 2 Alabama, ABC/ESPN2
The Crimson Tide open as heavy favorites against the Mountaineers, who were 4-8 a year ago. It sounds like Blake Sims will be Alabama’s starting quarterback today, but expect Jake Coker to play also. It appears this quarterback battle will continue for the time being. Clint Trickett is West Virginia’s starter after eight appearances and five starts last season. The Mountaineers play a pace that Nick Saban isn’t a fan of, so it will be interesting to see if that gives the Crimson Tide any trouble or if they simply impose their well at the line of scrimmage -- on both sides of the ball.

4 p.m. ET

Arkansas at No. 6 Auburn, SEC Network
A meeting of two coaches who are quite fond of each other, Bret Bielema and Gus Malzahn. All kidding aside, this is a contrast of styles (smashmouth football versus hurry-up no-huddle) and a matchup of two teams on the opposite ends of the spectrum last season, with Arkansas last in the SEC West and Auburn winning the SEC. The Tigers are looking to take the division title again while the Razorbacks hope for improvement. This is the start to a tough schedule for Arkansas (the nation’s toughest, according to the NCAA). Jeremy Johnson will start at quarterback for Auburn, but Nick Marshall will eventually see the field. When is unknown, as Malzahn has kept that to himself.

5:30 p.m. ET

No. 16 Clemson at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN
This was an entertaining affair last season, one that Clemson won 38-35. It should be another compelling game this time. After South Carolina’s thrashing at the hands of Texas A&M on Thursday, this would be a good opportunity for Georgia to flex its muscle, since many might now look toward the Bulldogs as the SEC East favorite. Both teams have quarterbacks with big shoes to fill (Cole Stoudt for Clemson; Hutson Mason for Georgia), and this could also be a chance to make an early Heisman statement for Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

7 p.m. ET

Idaho at Florida, ESPNU
Florida trots out its new offense under new coordinator Kurt Roper, and quarterback Jeff Driskel makes his return to the lineup for the first time since a season-ending leg injury suffered against Tennessee last season. The Gators are eagerly looking to start this season and put the past behind them; last season’s disastrous 4-8 campaign was unacceptable. Idaho is coming off a 1-11 year in 2013, so this is a game Florida should look to dominate early and build confidence.

7:30 p.m. ET

Southern Miss at Mississippi State, SEC Network
Mississippi State is looking to take a big step forward this season and returns 83 percent of its letter-winners from 2013 (57 total), which is the third-highest percentage in the nation. That includes quarterback Dak Prescott, linebacker Benardrick McKinney and defensive lineman Chris Jones, all of whom are poised for big seasons. Southern Miss is coming off a 1-11 season, and Mississippi State is looking for its 12th straight home win against a non-SEC team.

9 p.m. ET

No. 14 Wisconsin at No. 13 LSU, ESPN
This is a huge early-season battle between two squads that are strikingly similar. Both have experienced offensive lines and good running games going against inexperienced defensive fronts, and both have been mostly mum on their quarterback situations (though reports have Tanner McEvoy starting for Wisconsin, and Les Miles admitted both Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings will play for LSU). The running backs will probably be the focus, though. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon is getting early Heisman publicity, and LSU true freshman Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 player in the 2014 class, is someone everyone is waiting to see.

Sunday, 7 p.m. ET

Utah State at Tennessee, SEC Network
This is one of the most intriguing games of the week, even though it doesn't involved a ranked team. Tennessee begins Butch Jones' second season, and there will be plenty of fresh faces on the field. Jones said Wednesday that between 28-30 freshmen could play on Sunday night. This Utah State team is a good one led by a dynamite quarterback, Chuckie Keeton, who threw for 18 touchdowns before a knee injury robbed him of his final eight games. Tennessee's starter, Justin Worley, earned the job this month and has 10 career starts. The Vols are hoping he can take a step forward, and he has some talented weapons around him to use.

Top Week 1 stories:
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney joked this week that he still wakes up seeing images of Georgia’s Todd Gurley sprinting down the sideline on a 75-yard touchdown run early in last year’s matchup between the Tigers and Bulldogs. It’s a tough image to forget.

Yes, Swinney’s team escaped with a 38-35 win, but Gurley and the Georgia ground game looked dominant. Gurley carried just 12 times but racked up 154 yards and two scores. Overall, the Bulldogs ran for 222 yards in the game and scored five times on the ground. That vaunted Clemson defensive front had few answers.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesRunning back Todd Gurley and Georgia's ground game torched Clemson last season.
Now, as the Tigers get set for their return trip to Athens, Georgia, that image of Gurley bursting through the line of scrimmage and outrunning an overwhelmed secondary to the end zone remains front and center.

"It’s like tackling a tree trunk," said Clemson safety Robert Smith.

Finding a way to corral that tree trunk will be Clemson’s top defensive priority Saturday, and it will need to be a team effort.

The strength of Clemson’s defense is its front seven, particularly along the line, and that showed, even during Gurley’s stellar performance a year ago.

Here is a breakdown of Georgia’s rushing performance in last year’s game:

.

When the Tigers stacked the box and Georgia kept runs between the tackles, a few big plays developed but the Bulldogs’ overall success rate was way down. When Gurley and his cohorts bounced runs outside -- as he did on that 75-yard touchdown sprint -- things got ugly.

The interior of Clemson’s defense remains strong with Grady Jarrett, Josh Watson and Stephone Anthony up the middle, but personnel changes in the secondary and a one-game suspension for defensive end Corey Crawford raise questions about the Tigers’ ability to seal the edges.

That has put an emphasis on fundamentals, defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.

"We didn’t tackle great [last year], gave up too many explosive plays," Venables said. "I know our guys can hold up physically, but your secondary is going to have to tackle well in run support."

Of course, that is easier said than done against a runner like Gurley, whose combination of speed and power makes him tough to catch, let alone bring down.

"Just his combination of size, strength and speed," Jarrett said, "it’s second to none."

Venables likely has a few tricks up his sleeve for this year’s matchup. When Vic Beasley was pressed this week on how much he might work as a stand-up rusher or outside linebacker, he simply grinned.

The line has gotten stronger, too. Clemson’s front seven will feature six senior starters. It’s a unit that led the nation in tackles for loss a year ago.

The other advantage for Clemson this time around is that the Tigers know what’s coming. That can be a double-edged sword, Smith said, but his defense remains confident.

"You can’t let what he did last year affect you this year, but you know what he can do," Smith said. "He’s a tremendous running back. We saw up close and personal. We don’t forget. But we also can’t let that hinder what we’re going to do this season."

Grady Jarrett overlooked no more

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
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Grady Jarrett's looks are deceiving. He’s a squat 6-foot-1 and, on most days, he’s pushing 300 pounds so that when pads and a helmet supplement his physique, he looks about as wide as he is tall, the type of interior lineman opposing rushers need a road map to find their way around.

But it’s an optical illusion. Strip away the pads and the jersey and there is a chiseled warrior underneath, an athlete in the strictest sense.

"I saw him the other day with his shirt off, and he’s ripped," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.

[+] EnlargeGrady Jarrett
AP Photo/ Richard ShiroAccording to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, the determination showed by Grady Jarrett, left, has made an impression on the entire team.
Indeed, Jarrett, the senior defensive tackle for the No. 16 Tigers, is meticulous about his body. He watches what he eats. He trains methodically. He monitors his sleep schedule. He is, as Swinney concluded, "completely committed."

Yet, it’s Jarrett’s body that has been the evidence critics have used against him again and again, starting with the team he is set to face in Clemson’s season opener Saturday, Georgia. Jarrett, who grew up in Conyers, Ga., wanted to play college football at Georgia, but the Bulldogs simply weren’t interested.

"You always know about Georgia growing up," Jarrett said. "You see the 'G' everywhere. But they didn’t really want me like that."

It was easy to dismiss Jarrett as too short, too slow, too ordinary, and when he was coming out of high school, there were plenty of schools that fell for that illusion.

ESPN ranked Jarrett as the No. 80 defensive tackle in the nation. He was the 22nd-ranked player in Clemson’s 2011 signing class, which included receiver Sammy Watkins and linebacker Stephone Anthony and four other defensive linemen. Mississippi State was the only other Power Five school to show much interest, never mind the 198 tackles, 63 for loss, and 27.5 sacks he accrued in his final two seasons at Rockdale County High School.

"The perception of me from a lot of people coming up through recruiting wasn’t really good at all," Jarrett said. "And it’s something I used to take personally."

But Clemson didn’t buy into the illusion. Swinney watched the film, saw how Jarrett used that undersized physique to create leverage against opposing linemen. He saw the pedigree, that Jarrett was the son of former NFL linebacker Jessie Tuggle, that he was a protege of Ray Lewis, a man Jarrett refers to as an uncle. He saw the drive of a player everyone else said was too small carrying a massive chip on his shoulder.

For Swinney, Jarrett was a hidden gem.

Of course, back then, Clemson needed all the help it could get on defense. In Jarrett’s freshman season he played just 61 snaps. The Tigers’ defense was a disaster, culminating with an embarrassing 70-33 thumping at the hands of West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. But the Tigers’ D and Jarrett were both works in progress, and Swinney knew the finished product would be special.

As a sophomore, Jarrett worked his way into the starting lineup. He recorded 10 quarterback pressures, 8.5 TFLs and helped the Tigers’ defense move from 85th in the nation in TFLs to 30th. A year later, he was even better, making 83 tackles, including 11 behind the line of scrimmage, for a defense that led the nation in TFLs.

Jarrett wrestled in high school, and he used those skills against his opposition. He turned his undersized frame to an advantage, a short guy in a game where getting low is optimal.

"He’s probably one of the lower athletes I’ve gone against," said Clemson center Ryan Norton. "He’s very athletic, and his pad level is unbelievable."

Slowly but surely, the perceptions of Jarrett began to change, and those teams that dismissed him so easily were forced to take notice.

"People see what I can do now," Jarrett said. "I feel like it was up to me to change that perception. I believe I have, and now I’m trying to capitalize off it."

Even after two strong seasons, however, Jarrett toils largely in the shadows. In a conference loaded with top defensive tackles last season, Jarrett wasn’t considered on the same level as Aaron Donald or Timmy Jernigan. Even in his own locker room, Anthony and Vic Beasley get the bulk of the defensive hype.

But the people who know him, who know the program -- they understand.

"If I was going to start a program right now, I’d pick Grady Jarrett first and build everything else around that guy," Swinney said. "He’s that impactful. His worth ethic, his drive, his ability to hold other people accountable and lift others up, and that chip he has on his shoulder -- he’s special."

To hear his coach and teammates talk, Jarrett is the best player in the country no one seems to know about, and that is a label he’s happy to embrace.

Jarrett isn’t flashy. He doesn’t want to be. Instead, he is focused on every minor detail, determined to get it all right. On a team that boasts nearly two dozen seniors, on a defensive front that includes eight seniors in the two-deep, that work ethic has made Jarrett the unquestioned leader.

"When he says something, everybody’s attention is drawn to Grady," said Beasley, an All-American who led the ACC in sacks last season. "He’s a very vocal leader, and he just does it by example also. He’s good in the classroom and on the field. He keeps us going. He’s that main guy on the defense that gets us hyped and keeps us going."

It’s a role Jarrett has embraced this season. In truth, he’s not quite sure how it came about. He simply showed up, did his work, spoke out when he needed to and listened when the others talked. It came naturally, but it feels good to finally get the respect he's deserved.

"If your peers look to you for guidance, that’s the ultimate respect," Jarrett said. "Being able to go to Vic or Stephone and they take to it, that’s really humbling for me."

As Jarrett gets set to kick off his senior season against Georgia’s explosive ground game Saturday, he insists he is not out for revenge, not hoping to prove a point to another team that rejected him. He has all the love he needs now.

But there is that tinge of bitterness, that knowledge that this is his last chance to remind the school down the road from his boyhood home that it missed out on something special.

"There’s always a little extra incentive," he finally relented.

But there’s more ahead, plenty of other last chances to make his mark before his college career ends and a fresh round of evaluations by scouts and coaches and critics begins. There is so much more he wants to accomplish.

There is a sense of desperation to this season, Jarrett said, and that is something his coach doesn’t mind hearing.

Still, Swinney was never one of the critics, never fooled by the illusion. The chip on Jarrett’s shoulder drives him, so Swinney won’t knock it off. Still, he knows this isn’t the end for Jarrett. It’s the beginning.

"He’ll play for a while on the next level," Swinney said. “I know he’s not sexy looking. He’s not 6-3. But he’ll outplay all of them guys."

ACC bowl projections: Preseason

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
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If predicting the order of finish in each division is tough duty this time of year, figuring out the bowl scenarios is an even crazier endeavor. Still, we'll take a crack at it each week of the season, beginning with our preseason projections.

A few quick caveats:
  • If the Orange Bowl selects a Big Ten team this year, a spot would open up in the Capital One Bowl for the ACC. We're not banking on that just yet.
  • Either the TaxSlayer Bowl or Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl gets an ACC team, but not both. For the purposes of our preseason projections, we're slotting a team into the TaxSlayer Bowl, but that could change down the road.
  • For bowl selection purposes, Notre Dame is treated as an ACC team, meaning the Fighting Irish will grab one of the conference's tie-ins unless it is invited to the College Football Playoff.
  • The Birmingham Bowl serves as a backup for the ACC should enough teams become eligible. We're not projecting that yet either.
  • After the playoff committee makes its selections and the Orange Bowl makes its pick, the Russell Athletic gets the next choice of teams. After that, the next group of four work together to decide on selections with geography and a fan base's likelihood to travel to the game playing a role. We attempted to account for that below.

With all that said, here's our best guess at what awaits the ACC in December and January.

College Football Playoff: Florida State Seminoles
Orange Bowl (Miami): Clemson Tigers
Russell Athletic Bowl (Orlando, Florida): Virginia Tech
TaxSlayer Bowl (Jacksonville, Florida): Miami
Belk Bowl (Charlotte, North Carolina): North Carolina
Hyundai Sun Bowl (El Paso, Texas): Louisville
New Era Pinstripe Bowl (Bronx, New York): Notre Dame
Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman (Annapolis, Maryland): Pitt
Duck Commander Independence Bowl (Shreveport, Louisiana): Duke
Quick Lane Bowl (Detroit): Syracuse
BITCOIN St. Petersburg Bowl: Georgia Tech

ACC Week 1 predictions

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
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Why Clemson will win: Defense. It wins championships, right? It will win this game for the Tigers, who led the nation in tackles for loss last season and return every single major contributor to the group. An improved front seven means better results slowing down Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, the two players Clemson needs to slow down the most. Rather than the shootout we saw a year ago, the defenses will have a much bigger role this season. Right now, Clemson is better than Georgia there, so I'm calling for the upset.
-- Andrea Adelson

Why Georgia will win: Early-season games against nationally recognized teams have not been kind to Georgia coach Mark Richt over the years (see: Clemson, Oklahoma State, Boise State, South Carolina x 2), so the law of averages says he has to win some, right? Well, there's more than just cosmic balancing in the Bulldogs' favor. While the Tigers made huge gains on defense a season ago, they also allowed an average of 38 points per game against Florida State, Georgia, Ohio State and South Carolina. We're not quite sure what to expect out of new Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason, but the duo of Gurley and Marshall at running back is unmatched anywhere else in the country. Last season's game might have played out differently had Gurley not strained a quad on a 75-yard touchdown run.
-- Jared Shanker

Why Miami will win: Duke Johnson changes everything for the Canes, as he keeps their offense moving and takes plenty of pressure off Brad Kaaya. Likewise, the loss of DeVante Parker takes plenty of punch out of Louisville's offense. A new coach, a new league and a new quarterback create too much uncertainty around a Cardinals team that has the target on its back after embarrassing Miami last time around. -- Matt Fortuna

Why Louisville will win: It's not that I'm supremely confident in this pick, but the Cardinals have a few things going for them. First, it's a marquee game for the program, its first as a member of the ACC. Secondly, while a lot has changed on defense for Louisville, it was the top-ranked rushing D in the country last season, which should help Todd Grantham's crew deal with the dynamic Duke Johnson. Most important, however, at quarterback Miami is starting a true freshman in his first career game on the road in a frenzied atmosphere. It won't be a gimme, but Louisville will pull off the victory. -- David Hale

Upset pick of the week

Why ULM will win: ULM has three advantages: It beat Wake Forest a year ago and is familiar with some of the returning personnel; the WarHawks bring back 14 starters; and they are playing at home. Wake Forest is starting true freshmen at quarterback and center. It's never easy to go on the road and make your first career start, let alone on national television. Factor in all the youth and inexperience for the Deacs, and you see why ULM has the edge. -- Andrea Adelson

More consensus picks: Syracuse over Villanova; Pittsburgh over Delaware; UCLA over Virginia; Georgia Tech over Wofford; NC State over Georgia Southern; Boston College over UMass; Virginia Tech over William & Mary; Duke over Elon; North Carolina over Liberty; Florida State over Oklahoma State
Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson told the two freshmen quarterbacks he signed in February they would have every opportunity to win the starting job.

That was not an empty promise. The Deacs needed to replace their departed senior quarterback, and they had no experienced players on their roster. Why not give the freshmen a shot?

Sometimes they rise to the challenge, like John Wolford. Clawson started hearing reports about Wolford from his upperclassmen before fall practice even began. They told him, “That freshman is really good.”

Once practice began, it became pretty clear he was more than good. Clawson decided early in camp that Wolford would be his starter, beginning tonight at ULM (7 p.m. ET, ESPNU). He is not the only coach who has gone that route.

Three true freshmen quarterbacks have an opportunity to play in Week 1, the most in the ACC since 2010. Brad Kaaya earned the starting job in Miami, while Deshaun Watson is expected to play when Clemson takes on Georgia on Saturday.

According to research gathered by the ACC office, this could be the first time in league history that two true freshmen quarterbacks open the season under center.

Watching a youth movement unfold at the position is not unexpected. The ACC lost nine starting quarterbacks to either graduation, the NFL draft or transfer. Only Jameis Winston, Anthony Boone and Terrel Hunt return as unquestioned starters.

In Wake’s case, the Deacs have turned to true freshmen quarterbacks the last two times they had to make a decision. Tanner Price started nine games for Wake Forest in 2010 and never relinquished his starting job. But he did not open the season as the starter.

Wolford will be the first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener in school history.

“He gives us our best chance to win,” Clawson said. “He is our best quarterback, so I can’t worry about whether he’s a freshman, sophomore, junior, senior. In a perfect world, you always love to have the guy be in the system one or two years before he plays. But we’re going to put the guys out there who give us the best chance to win. And he clearly won the job. He’s playing at a high level. I don’t think those things suddenly disappear once you play a game.”

Both Clawson and Miami coach Al Golden have described their new starting quarterbacks as very even-keeled, an important quality to have considering both players have to make their first career starts on the road.

Clawson said Wolford is “the same person every day. There’s not a lot of reps where you’re shaking your head saying, ‘What's he thinking about?' He is as ready as any true freshman I've been around.”

Miami faced a different situation than Wake Forest. The Canes had hoped to start senior Ryan Williams, but he tore his ACL in the spring and is not healthy enough to play. Redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen was next in line, but he is serving a suspension. Kaaya beat out senior transfer Jake Heaps during fall practice and will start Monday night against Louisville.

“I think that's probably where we got the most confidence from him, just his overall depth and understanding of what we were trying to get done and his ability to get us in the right play at the line of scrimmage. Without that, it would be hard to name him the starter, but he certainly demonstrated to us all training camp that it wasn't going to be too big for him.”

Clemson, meanwhile, plans on starting senior Cole Stoudt but coach Dabo Swinney says Watson will play. What type of role Watson will have remains to be seen. What Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris plan to do with Watson provides a level of intrigue we are unaccustomed to with this offense.

When Swinney was asked whether he knew when Watson would go into the game, he smiled and said, “When we put him in, that's the perfect time to put him in.”

Stoudt is actually the last true freshman to play quarterback at Clemson, back in 2011. The last Clemson true freshman quarterback to start a game was Nealon Greene in 1994.

Watson may bring intrigue, but he has to wait a few more days to get his shot.

Wolford gets the spotlight tonight.
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These SEC openers are getting pretty routine for Clemson. The past two years, the Tigers started the season with wins against Auburn and Georgia. On Saturday, they face the Bulldogs again, this time in Athens, Georgia. Who has the edge? SEC reporter Edward Aschoff and ACC reporter Andrea Adelson debate.

Andrea Adelson: In the buildup to this game, nobody is giving Clemson a shot to win. I find that amusing, considering Georgia's reputation to underachieve. I know that Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins are gone, but the Tigers bring back several key players on defense -- including All-American Vic Beasley. Nobody wants to hear that since offenses generate all the headlines. And, well, Georgia has Heisman hopeful running back Todd Gurley coming back. But the Bulldogs have their own issues headed into this game. So tell me, Edward, why is Georgia such a clear-cut favorite?

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia running back Todd Gurley is healthy and primed for a big junior season.
Edward Aschoff: Clemson's defense got better last season, but Georgia's offense will be too much for the Tigers between the hedges. This is an offense that returns most of the pieces to an offense that notched 484.2 yards per game and 6.7 yards per play in 2013. Yes, record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray is gone, but fifth-year senior Hutson Mason knows the offense backward and forward. He might not have the resume Murray had, but he's run the offense in practice over and over and over for years. He has great chemistry with that stacked receiving corps, has a solid offensive line to protect him and is working with one of the deepest running games in the country.

Mason doesn't have to be perfect on Saturday, he just has to find his targets. Receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley are dealing with injuries, but Chris Conley, who led the team with 45 receptions and 651 receiving yards last season, has the potential to be one of the SEC's best this fall. He's tough enough to make plays over the middle and is a deep-play threat. Michael Bennett is tough and catches everything thrown this way, and the Bulldogs won't hesitate to use Gurley and Keith Marshall more in the passing game.

Speaking of Marshall, he's cutting and sprinting like he did before last season's knee injury, so that doesn't bode well for Clemson's defense, either.

While the Bulldogs will be able to throw, run and score for days, I do have concerns about the defense, especially that secondary. But what should help make up for the shortcomings is the nation's best linebacker group. Watch out for Leonard Floyd. He should have a breakout year and could be the SEC's best pass-rusher.

The game is also in Athens, where Georgia has lost just two games since the start of the 2011 season.

AA: Georgia definitely has the edge on offense. Nobody is going to argue that. Clemson players have repeatedly praised Gurley, who had a monster game against the Tigers a year ago with 154 yards and two touchdowns. But the running game seems to be the only real certainty on the offense. If Mitchell and Scott-Wesley don't play, who becomes the home-run threat to stretch the field? That is one key aspect in this game that cannot be overlooked. Gurley and Marshall are fantastic. But if Clemson clogs the box and slows them down, does Mason have enough playmakers around him to keep the Tigers honest?

[+] EnlargeCole Stoudt
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtClemson QB Cole Stoudt will look to throw often to his experienced receiving corps against Georgia.
Let's not forget, Clemson made a living in the opposing team's backfield a season ago, leading the nation in tackles for loss (122). The D had four sacks and five tackles for loss a year ago against the Bulldogs. Players who accounted for 96.5 of those TFLs return in 2014. When you are the underdog, going on the road to open the season, surely you want to be able to rely on a strong defense to help set the tone -- especially at the outset. Clemson has the ability to do that in this matchup given the return of guys such as Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Stephone Anthony.

The secondary should be a concern for Georgia. Clemson quarterback Cole Stoudt is a senior with game experience (he owns the school record for single-game completion percentage) and years spent learning the Chad Morris offense. Freshman Deshaun Watson should throw a nice curve into the offensive mix as well, something not even new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt can properly anticipate. Pruitt may have flustered the Clemson offense a year ago when he was at Florida State, but he has new personnel to coach and new personnel to plan for on the other side.

Now that we laid out our points, what is your prediction and why?

EA: I think this one will be tight until the end, with Georgia pulling away, 31-24. You might question Georgia's deep-play ability, but Conley will come up with the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth before Georgia's defense makes a last-minute stop. I'm going out on a limb to say Floyd will be a major part of that final defensive drive for the Bulldogs.

AA: I am going with the upset in this one. I think Clemson's defense will make a huge difference, forcing several turnovers. Stoudt, Watson and the Clemson receivers will make their names known against a patchwork secondary. Clemson wins, 28-27.

ACC fearless predictions

August, 26, 2014
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The college football season is finally ready to kick off. No doubt all the time we’ve spent studying depth charts and devouring news will be rendered meaningless by September’s end, but that won’t stop us from making a few bold predictions about what’s to come in 2014. If we get half of them right, we’ll call it a success.

1. Jameis Winston will post better numbers -- but won’t win the Heisman.

Much has been made of the depletion of Winston’s receiving corps, but losing Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw won’t spell doom for the Florida State QB. In fact, Winston struggled at times last year when getting too greedy down the field, and a renewed emphasis on a shorter passing game could up his numbers. When throwing to RBs or TEs last year, Winston completed 79 percent of his throws and averaged 11.6 yards per attempt, with 11 of his 86 passes going for touchdowns. Add the likelihood he’ll play more fourth quarters this season, and his numbers could well go up in 2014 -- but, of course, winning back-to-back Heisman Trophies is no easy task, and neither Winston nor coach Jimbo Fisher has ever shown much interest in chasing individual awards.

[+] EnlargeWill Gardner
AP Photo/Garry JonesUnder coach Bobby Petrino, Will Gardner has a chance to flourish as Louisville's starting QB.
2. Louisville’s Will Gardner will be the ACC’s second-best quarterback.

It’s telling that what could’ve been one of the most discussed QB vacancies in the conference was actually among the least interesting this offseason. Coach Bobby Petrino waited until Sunday to make it official, but Gardner was the obvious choice since the spring. Then there’s this: In nine years as a head coach, Petrino’s starting QBs have averaged 63 percent completions, 8.8 yards per attempt, 21 TDs and 8 interceptions -- stats that would’ve rivaled any QB in the league last year, save Winston and Tajh Boyd.

3. Virginia Tech wins 10 again.

The Hokies won at least 10 games in each of their first eight seasons in the ACC, but that streak ended in 2012 and the team is just 10-10 against Power Five conference foes in the past two years. But coach Frank Beamer is giving his young talent a chance to shine, the Week 2 date with Ohio State suddenly looks a lot more winnable and the rest of the schedule shapes up nicely for the Hokies. The offense needs to get a lot better to be a legit College Football Playoff contender, but Virginia Tech will at least be in the conversation.

4. Virginia goes bowling.

The schedule makes this a tough sell. Ten of Virginia’s 12 opponents played in a bowl game last year, and there may not be a single easy win on the slate. But there’s talent in Charlottesville, including 19 four- or five-star recruits inked in the past four years. That’s more than Louisville (16) and just one fewer than Virginia Tech (20). That talent has to translate to wins eventually, right? It’ll take some upsets, but the Hoos will get to six wins.

5. Clemson is a running team.

With Boyd and Sammy Watkins stealing the bulk of the headlines the past three years, Clemson’s passing game got a lot of credit for the team’s success. But the Tigers actually ranked in the top three in the ACC in rushing attempts in each of those three seasons. Now with a new QB and significant turnover at receiver, the passing game is a question, but Dabo Swinney loves his tailbacks. Don’t be surprised if freshman Wayne Gallman tops 1,000 yards -- something a Clemson tailback has done each of the past three seasons.

6. Young runners make a big impact.

Gallman won’t be the only rookie runner to make noise in 2014. The ACC has some impressive veterans in Duke Johnson, Karlos Williams, Kevin Parks and Dominique Brown, but there are plenty of fresh faces eager to make an impact, too. Virginia Tech’s Marshawn Williams, North Carolina’s Elijah Hood and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook could join Gallman as freshman sensations, while sophomores like T.J. Logan, James Conner, Myles Willis, Matt Dayes and Taquan Mizzell could all have big seasons, too.

7. Stacy Coley catches a TD from three different QBs.

If there was a more settled QB situation at Miami, Coley might be a niche pick for Heisman honors as one of the game’s most explosive players. Unfortunately, it could be a revolving door at QB for the Canes. Freshman Brad Kaaya gets first crack, and the hope is that Ryan Williams will return from an ACL injury sooner than later. Don’t be surprised if Jake Heaps or Kevin Olsen gets a shot to start at some point, too. Coley will make them all look better, but he’d benefit from some stability at QB.

8. Jamison Crowder sets the standard.

Crowder had 30 more targets last season than any other ACC receiver, and now Duke is without its second-best pass-catcher in Braxton Deaver. That makes Crowder an even more integral part of the Blue Devils’ passing game, and it means he should cruise past former teammate Conner Vernon’s ACC record for receiving yards. Crowder is just 1,152 yards short entering the season.

9. Tyler Murphy and Jacoby Brissett look good.

Boston College and NC State will both be starting QBs who transferred from Florida, and both have a chance to put up solid numbers. In fact, we're predicting both Murphy and Brissett post better stats this season than Jeff Driskel, the man who kept them both on the bench in Gainesville.

10. The Coastal champ will be ...

Is there really any answer here that would feel remotely safe? Heck, Georgia Tech could win the division or miss out on a bowl game. Anything seems possible. But since it’s prediction time, we’ll ante up, just so you can remind us how wrong we were in December. So, let’s say ... Virginia Tech.
Tony Steward came into Clemson with all the accolades reserved for the best high school recruits in the country.

He was the No. 1-ranked player at his position. He won the high school version of the Dick Butkus Award, given to the top linebacker in the country. He played in the U.S. Army All-America Game.

No surprise, then, that he played right away at Clemson. But only a few games into his freshman season in 2011, Steward tore his ACL backpedaling during a special teams drill in practice. The injury was especially devastating since Steward had torn the ACL in his other knee the year before. The double-injury whammy did a number on him physically and mentally, hindering him from reaching his potential.

[+] EnlargeClemson's Tony Steward
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesTony Steward's Clemson career has been hampered by injuries, but he doesn't feel like he has anything holding him back now.
But Steward wants to change all that. He knows he has one last shot to make an impact. Now that he finally has won a starting job as a senior, Steward has no plans to relinquish it.

His transformation began in the spring, with the weakside linebacker job open for the taking.

"I just felt like I didn't have anything holding me back," Steward said in a recent phone interview. "I was given an opportunity and I felt like I needed to make the most of it and did everything I could in my power to make sure I didn't let myself down or my teammates down."

Steward admits he has not yet lived up to the expectations he set out for himself when he left high school. The second knee injury is a big reason why. Though he returned to the field the following season, he did not really trust his knee. He was tentative on the field, and his confidence was low.

"I feel like over the last few years, I've been able to get all that confidence back and not worry about anything at all," Steward said. "I've had bumps and bruises here and there, little strains but nothing serious. The biggest thing was getting my mind back right from my knee.

"All of that came with time. Getting out on the field, doing things, focusing on technique. The biggest thing was just the repetition, because once you do something for a long time, you stop thinking. You just do it. It's muscle memory. That's one of the biggest things that helped me out."

Fellow linebacker Stephone Anthony understood what Steward was going through. He, too, came into Clemson in 2011 as a highly-touted prospect with all eyes focused squarely on him. Though Anthony did not have to overcome a knee injury, it did take him several years to win a starting job. Now he is a preseason All-ACC choice.

The two have grown close during their time at Clemson, and Anthony has given Steward some words of advice along the way.

"There's patience that comes with it," Anthony said. "Me and him, we definitely are very similar and we both had to learn we can't live up to nobody else's expectations. We're going to put enough pressure on ourselves. We want to be great, and we just have to let it take its course."

Just last week, defensive coordinator Brent Venables told reporters in Clemson that Steward has done a "fabulous job" on the weak side. Steward will need to show that in games, too, as he replaces Spencer Shuey, who finished second on the team in tackles a season ago.

There is no doubt Steward will play a crucial role on run defense, and will be counted on to help slow down Georgia running back Todd Gurley in the opener Saturday. Steward embraces the chance.

After years of waiting, he is ready to be counted on every week.
No. 12 Georgia is favored to beat No. 16 Clemson by more than a touchdown. Tigers fans have got to be thinking:

When did the Bulldogs become such an automatic to win?

Clemson has its own spot in Urban Dictionary for its varied "failures," but Georgia has had its own stumbles over the last six years.

The Bulldogs have almost become synonymous with unmet expectations. Since 2008, they have started every season ranked in the preseason AP Top 25. Three times, they ended the season unranked. Only once did they finish the season ranked higher than where they started. They have lost three or more games five times over that six-year span.

Clemson has its own issues to get past (cough ,cough Florida State and South Carolina). But high preseason expectations have only come into play over the last few years. This is only the third time since 2008 that Clemson will start the season ranked in the preseason Top 25. In the previous two seasons, their only losses came to the aforementioned Seminoles and Gamecocks.

So maybe Clemson deserves some serious consideration heading into this game. The Tigers did beat Georgia last year -- a game in which the Bulldogs were road favorites and at full strength. They did beat Ohio State in the Discover Orange Bowl as an underdog.

Clemson has won its last four games against SEC teams NOT named South Carolina. Three times, the Tigers were the underdog.

“I haven’t paid any attention, but I’m pretty sure nobody has given us a chance to win the game,” Clemson linebacker Stephone Anthony said. “That’s fine. Nothing wrong with being the underdog. We don’t feel like we’re the underdog. We’re going to come in ready to go.”

There are obvious reasons why Georgia is favored. The Bulldogs have a preseason Heisman candidate in running back Todd Gurley, terrific receivers and a talented quarterback in Hutson Mason. Home-field advantage is obviously big.

On the other side, we all know that Clemson lost its offensive superstars Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, so there are significant question marks there. But it is impossible to overlook this defense, which should be the strength of this team going into the season.

That means advantage Clemson. Think about it. If you had to open the season on the road against a Top 25 team, would you want a stronger offense or stronger defense?

I would want a stronger defense. You know all the old adages. Yes, Clemson gave up 545 yards to Georgia a year ago, but the Tigers will be better up front and in the back end. If Clemson can hold Gurley and Mason in check, then its offense will not have to get into a shootout the way it did a year ago. This offense cannot afford that, not with all the new starters.

Georgia, meanwhile, has questions of its own. Top receiver Malcolm Mitchell’s status is up in the air. And last week, the Bulldogs had two first-year players and a walk-on running with the first team in the secondary.

Clemson might not have veteran starters on offense, but it has veterans. Senior Cole Stoudt will be given an opportunity to take advantage of some of these mismatches on the outside to help get the offense going. Watkins is gone, but the Tigers have some fast, athletic receivers who will have an opportunity to make some big plays in this Chad Morris offense.

So the Clemson game plan is laid out pretty plainly. If the Tigers can exploit these matchups to their advantage, keep the turnovers to zero, and rely on what should be a solid defense, they will have every opportunity to win.

"We have a chance to start our season strong and just prove a lot of doubters wrong from the beginning," Clemson linebacker Tony Steward said. "Just having that opportunity is awesome."

It is an opportunity Clemson has for the third straight season, after opening with wins against Auburn and Georgia in the last two. Maybe the opener this year will follow the same winning script.
The biggest problem facing the ACC moving forward in the College Football Playoff era is not the teams at the top of the league.

It is everybody else.

While it is great that Florida State and Clemson have proven capable of being playoff contenders year in and year out, what would give both teams and the entire league a huge boost is the development of a solid, consistent Top 5 teams.

That is what the SEC has right now and why it is viewed as having the toughest strength of schedule in the country. Folks look at the ACC strength of schedule and shrug their shoulders. With a selection committee now parsing through every schedule, every strength and every weakness, the idea that the ACC has a relatively weak strength of schedule is one that could end up hurting playoff contenders.

[+] EnlargeFrank Beamer
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesThe ACC would benefit from a return to power by Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech Hokies and the Miami Hurricanes. The teams meet this season Oct. 23 in Blacksburg, Va.
All you need to do is look at the final ESPN.com conference power rankings for the explanation. Despite a national championship from Florida State and a BCS win from Clemson, the ACC finished No. 5 among the Power 5 conferences. ESPN Stats & Information, which compiled the rankings, noted:
The only reason that the ACC is not ranked higher in the conference rankings, however, is the conference is still lacking depth; the ACC went 3-6 in its non-BCS bowl games, with the six losses by a combined 103 points.

With only four spots in the playoff and five power leagues, somebody is going to get left out. The nightmare scenario, of course, would be for the ACC to be on the outside looking in, with strength of schedule the big reason why.

The only real way to fix that is for the rest of the league to rise up.

We're looking squarely at you, Miami and Virginia Tech.

Back when both teams were added in 2004, the hope was that they would instantly improve the league's football profile. Virginia Tech held up its end as one of the most consistent winners in the ACC over the past 10 years. But this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, and Virginia Tech has not done much for the ACC lately. The Hokies put together eight straight 10-win seasons and four conference championships between 2004-2011, raising their profile as one of the marquee teams in the ACC.

Yes, they took some hits for their BCS performance over that period, but overall this program raised the bar higher. Virginia Tech had been a virtual lock to hold up the ACC banner. Since 2004, the Hokies finished with a Top 25 ranking eight times, more than any other team in the league. Ten wins are now expected, a big reason why two straight down years have hurt both the program and the league.

The ACC, meanwhile, is still waiting on Miami, which has not won 10 games since joining the ACC. The Canes came close a few times, including last season, but have had myriad issues to deal with on their climb back up to the top. Every season, the common refrain often includes, "Is this the year Miami will be back?" Its football history and tradition means the ACC needs Miami to thrive as a playoff contender, more than Virginia Tech.

After all, a program that has been known as a football power is held to a much different standard.

That is another reason why the ACC needs these four specific teams to be good. They are football schools. Look at how national perception has started to change with Florida State back on top. If Miami can get there, and if Virginia Tech can get there, all of a sudden the ACC has four strong football powers and can compete with any conference.

Another team into the mix would be ideal. It could be Louisville, coming off 23 wins in two years. It could be Georgia Tech, an ACC program with previous national championships. It could be Boston College, with three Top 25 finishes since 2004. It could be North Carolina. Anybody, really. It has been too long since the ACC had five teams ranked. With the league now expanded to 14, five should be the lowest number to hit.

The last time the ACC had five teams ranked was 2005, when Virginia Tech, Miami, Boston College, Clemson and Florida State were all in the Top 25. Note a common theme there?

Virginia Tech, Miami, Clemson and Florida State.

The ACC needs more of that.
On first glance, the announcement that backup offensive tackle Shaq Anthony has decided to transfer from Clemson may not seem like much.

But when you combine it with the news that running back Zac Brooks is lost for the season, the Clemson run game has now taken on added questions headed into the season.

The Tigers already had to replace starting All-ACC tackle Brandon Thomas, starting guard Tyler Shatley and 1,000-yard back Roderick McDowell. While Anthony was previously suspended for the opener against Georgia, there are no certainties with the offensive line nor the run game in Week 1.

Especially since Clemson struggled to produce consistency in that area last season. Especially since Clemson will need an effective run game to help take pressure off new starting quarterback Cole Stoudt and a new-look group of receivers against what should be an aggressive Georgia defense with familiar foe Jeremy Pruitt taking charge.

Brooks is the bigger blow in the short-term, because he would have contributed heavily against Georgia. Plus, he was the top returning rusher from a year ago and one of the veterans in the group with experience in big games.

But at least Clemson has the luxury of having depth at the position, a group coach Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris have talked up since the spring. Conceivably, the Tigers should still be able to play four to five backs once they settle on a rotation and still be just as good as they would have been with Brooks in the mix.

That, of course, is dependent on the offensive line, too.

So in the long term, the Anthony loss could loom much larger. Clemson has little in the way of depth at tackle with Anthony gone. The Tigers will now be relying on Joe Gore, pretty raw at the position with just 124 snaps over the past two seasons, and Isaiah Battle -- who has been banged up during camp. Anthony was listed as the backup to both players.

Gore has been one of the bright spots this fall, and would have most likely started against Georgia with Anthony suspended. But now there is no margin for error moving forward. The hope is that Gore steps into the right tackle spot without any issues. But if either Gore or Battle gets hurt, the Tigers could be in trouble. Kalon Davis, projected to start at guard, has also played some tackle during the fall so he would be one potential option as a backup at the position.

It all adds a bit more intrigue to what happens with Clemson this season.

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