NCF Nation: Clemson Tigers

Every team has issues to address this offseason, and this week, we're taking a look at the most glaring holes for each ACC team and figuring out where they might find answers between now and the season opener.

Clemson Tigers

Position to improve: Running back

Why it was a problem: Clemson was a balanced offense in 2014, rushing an average of 39.3 times per game -- trailing only Georgia Tech, Boston College and Pitt in the ACC. The problem, however, was the success on those plays was limited. The Tigers averaged just 4.1 yards per carry on non-sack rushing attempts, which was the sixth-worst mark among Power 5 teams. The five teams that were worse finished a combined 19-42 for the season.

How it can be fixed: Clemson already started to see gains on the ground in the latter weeks of the 2014 season. Redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman stepped into the starting role and produced far better results, topping 100 yards in three of his last six games. Still, Clemson averaged just 4.5 yards per carry as a team during that stretch and converted less than 40 percent of its third-down attempts on the ground. Getting healthier should help those numbers though. Adam Choice, Tyshon Dye and Zac Brooks all missed significant time in 2014. Having a healthy Deshaun Watson at QB should make a difference, too. Cole Stoudt struggled to stretch the field with his arm, allowing opposing defenses to stack the box against the run. Watson, on the other hand, was one of the most dynamic downfield threats in the country. When defenses are forced to respect Watson's arm -- not to mention his scrambling ability -- there should be far more opportunities for the Tigers to move the ball on the ground.

Early 2015 outlook: As with so much of Clemson's 2015 outlook, a lot depends on the health of Watson at quarterback. When he was in the lineup in 2014, the Tigers looked dangerous on offense. When he wasn't, they struggled. He's recovering from a torn ACL this offseason, so his status for 2015 remains a bit unclear. But even if he's not 100 percent, there's reason to think Clemson's ground game should still take a step forward now that Gallman has a year of experience under his belt and the rest of the running backs figure to be healthier. The improved performance down the stretch in 2014 also offers plenty of room for optimism, and if Clemson's production on offense can be as balanced as its play calling was in 2014, the Tigers figure to have one of the ACC's most potent attacks.
The end of our countdown has finally arrived. Here are the ACC's top five players of the 2014 season.

To see the full list, click here.

1. James Conner, Pittsburgh
Position: Running back
Year: Sophomore
Tough to go with anybody else at No. 1 after watching Conner bulldoze the competition en route to ACC Offensive Player of the Year and ACC Player of the Year honors. And, well, it is not every day that Tony Dorsett's long-standing school records are shattered. Conner led the league in rushing yards (1,765), rushing touchdowns (26), rushing yards per game (135.8) and scoring (156 points). His touchdown and scoring totals broke the Pitt single-season records Dorsett set in 1976. Conner had three 200-yard games and seven 100-yard games, often taking multiple defenders on his back along for a ride. He was downright dominant, and in a year of powerful backs, he deserves the No. 1 spot.

2. Jameis Winston, Florida State
Position: Quarterback
Year: Redshirt sophomore
If there is one player on this list you would take with the game on the line, it would be Winston. But this list is an evaluation of the top performances week in and week out, and Winston was simply not consistent enough to merit the top spot this year. He made too many mistakes, whether he was trying too hard with an inexperienced receiving corps or just making the wrong decisions. But those mistakes do not diminish the fact that Winston remains one of the best (and most dangerous) players in the nation. Winston ended the season with an ACC-leading 3,907 yards passing, 25 touchdowns and 18 interceptions, all down from a year ago. But he did lead Florida State to a third straight ACC title and a spot in the College Football Playoff.

3. Vic Beasley, Clemson
Position: Defensive end
Year: Senior
Beasley returned to school for his senior season and was even better -- despite facing more double- and triple-teams than at any point in his career. He won ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors and was a finalist for the Bednarik and Lombardi awards after racking up a team-high 21.5 tackles for loss, a team-high 12 sacks, nine quarterback pressures, three pass breakups and two forced fumbles. Nobody in the ACC was better off the edge than Beasley, and he was a nightmare for many teams to block.

4. Duke Johnson, Miami
Position: Running back
Year: Junior
Johnson had the best season of his career because he was able to stay healthy and play all 13 games, finishing second behind Conner in the ACC in rushing with 1,652 yards. But Johnson led the league in all-purpose yards with 2,073, emerging as a much bigger pass-catching threat out of the backfield. When the season ended, he stood above all the other Miami greats on the career rushing and all-purpose yards lists. But maybe most impressive of all, he averaged 7.4 yards every time he touched the ball.

5. Gerod Holliman, Louisville
Position: Safety
Year: Redshirt sophomore
There were plenty of questions about the Louisville secondary heading into the season, following the loss of Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor, two of the best players on the 2013 defense. But Holliman stepped right into the starting lineup and made an immediate impact in Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme, using his athleticism to make plays all over the field. When it was over, Holliman had tied an NCAA record with 14 interceptions and won the Jim Thorpe Award as the best defensive back in college football.
Another season, another 10 wins for Clemson.

Another season, another big victory against a Power 5 opponent in a bowl game.

Another season, another Top-25 finish.

Seems about time to give Clemson its proper due. But there remains a disconnect between what people think about Clemson and what the facts show. How else to explain this rather interesting note:

The 2014 season marked the fourth straight year and fifth time in the six full seasons Dabo Swinney has been head coach that the Tigers had a higher final AP ranking than their preseason ranking.

The question, then, is why?

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesClemson again won 10 games, even with QB Deshaun Watson missing much of the season.
Perhaps it is because outsiders want to cling to the antiquated term used to describe the program when it loses games, often in head-scratching fashion. But people, we are not living in the past. Clemson has not lost to an unranked team since 2011.

Look at the actual results: Clemson’s only losses in 2014 were to teams that finished in the final top 10 of the AP and coaches polls (Florida State, Georgia and Georgia Tech). Go back the past three seasons, and Clemson’s only losses were to teams that finished in the final top 10 (Florida State and South Carolina in 2012 and 2013). It just so happens Clemson, Florida State and South Carolina have all been really good all at once. Failing to beat both consistently seems to be a harsh way of judging a team.

Here are a few more illuminating notes, for good measure.

  • Clemson joined Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Oregon as the only schools to finish in the top 15 for the third straight year.
  • Clemson joined Alabama, Florida State and Oregon as the only schools to finish in the top 25 for the fourth straight year.
  • Clemson, Alabama, Northern Illinois and Oregon are the only schools to post four straight 10-win seasons.
  • Clemson’s 42 wins over the past four seasons are a school record for a four-year period.

But Clemson is in a similar spot to the ACC as a whole: narratives die hard. Because they often win out as a lazy fallback. Let’s use the final 2014 AP poll as a case study. Eight Power 5 teams finished with three losses. Clemson was ranked last in the group, at No. 15.

Georgia Tech and Georgia won head-to-head meetings, so there is no quibbling with their rank. But let’s look at two other SEC schools ranked ahead -- Mississippi State and Missouri. Mississippi State ended the season with losses in three of its final four games. Its best wins -- against Texas A&M, Auburn, and LSU -- all lost their luster after a horrible bowl showing from the SEC West.

Yet the Bulldogs finished No. 11, getting penalized far less than a team from the ACC would if it ended in a similar manner. If Florida State lost three of its final four, you think the Seminoles would finish the season at No. 11? No.

Clemson and Mississippi State each beat one team ranked in the final AP Top 25. All three losses for both teams were to ranked opponents. But Clemson finished the season on a three-game winning streak; Clemson had the No. 1 defense in America; and Clemson managed to win 10 games without quarterback Deshaun Watson as its full-time starter for most of the season.

How does any of this put Mississippi State ahead?

Now on to Missouri, a team with a much worse loss on its resume (Indiana). Its best win was probably against Minnesota in its bowl game. It finished the season with zero wins against teams ranked in the final Top 25. Yet, Missouri was one spot ahead of Clemson in the AP ranking, and a peculiar four spots ahead in the coaches’ poll.

We could also look at Wisconsin’s resume. The Badgers also had one win against a final Top 25 team, but a much worse loss (Northwestern) and was blown out in the Big Ten title game. Ohio State might have won the national championship, but 59-0 is hard to ignore.

So essentially, Clemson is trailed by misperceptions about its own program and its own conference. Is becoming a playoff contender the only way to start changing the narrative? Because clearly, winning does not seem to be doing the job.
We’re winding down our list of the ACC’s top 25 players from 2014. To view the previous entries, click here. Now, on to Nos. 6 through 10.

6. Rashad Greene, Florida State

Position: Receiver

Year: Senior

There’s never been any question about Greene’s talent, but in 2014 he firmly established himself as one of the great leaders in FSU history. Surrounded by an inexperienced group of receivers, Greene stepped up to become one of the most consistent targets in the nation and caught 99 passes for 1,365 yards -- with numerous game-changing plays along the way. His 74-yard touchdown against Clemson preserved FSU’s win streak, and he finished with double-digit receptions in three games and topped 100 yards receiving eight times. Greene wrapped up his career as FSU’s leading receiver in each of his four seasons.

7. Grady Jarrett, Clemson

Position: Defensive tackle

Year: Senior

Jarrett was the vocal leader of Clemson’s dynamic defensive front, and few tackles in the country made a bigger impact on a week-to-week basis than he did. His 45 tackles paced all Clemson defensive linemen, and his 10 tackles for loss were the most by an ACC interior lineman. Jarrett was a key cog in the nation’s fifth-ranked rushing defense, and he helped solidify the middle for a unit that racked up 254 tackles for loss over the past two seasons.

8. Justin Thomas, Georgia Tech

Position: Quarterback

Year: Sophomore

Entering the season, fans were beginning to wonder if Paul Johnson’s option offense had run its course at Georgia Tech. Then Thomas was added to the fray, and everything changed. The sophomore proved a perfect fit for Johnson’s scheme and threw for 1,719 yards and 18 touchdowns while becoming just the second Tech QB in the past decade to top 1,000 yards on the ground. Thomas is one of just 13 Power 5 QBs in the past decade to top both benchmarks in a single season. Thomas helped Georgia Tech become the nation’s most prolific rushing offense and led the Yellow Jackets to an 11-3 season, a Coastal Division title and a win in the Capital One Orange Bowl.

9. DeVante Parker, Louisville

Position: Receiver

Year: Senior

How do you make a case for a player who missed the first seven games of the year to rank in the top 10? With Parker, it’s actually pretty easy. A foot injury during fall camp sidelined Parker early, but the Cardinals’ receiver debuted Oct. 18 against NC State with nine catches for 132 yards, and he never slowed down. In his six games this season, he topped 120 yards five times, including a 214-yard performance against Florida State. Despite missing half the season, Parker finished seventh in the ACC in receiving yards, and among Power 5 receivers with at least 40 catches, none averaged more yards per reception than Parker, at 19.9.

10. Jamison Crowder, Duke

Position: Receiver

Year: Senior

Crowder finished with 1,000 receiving yards for the third straight season, after turning in his fourth 100-yard game of the year in Duke’s bowl game against Arizona State. One of the ACC’s most consistent receiving threats in each of the past three seasons, Crowder was an all-purpose star who finished third in the ACC in receiving yards, second in receptions, first in punt-return yardage and sixth in all-purpose yards. Also, he was the only ACC player with multiple special-teams touchdowns this season.
We’re counting down the ACC’s top players of the 2014 season, with a look today at Nos. 11 through 15.

To read the rest of the list, click here.

11. Clive Walford, Miami

Position: Tight end

Year: Senior

Walford emerged as a go-to receiver for freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya, becoming one of the most reliable targets on the team. That speaks volumes to his growth because Miami has no shortage of players at the skill positions. Walford ended up leading the team with 44 receptions -- one of just nine tight ends in the country to lead his team in that category. His 676 yards and seven touchdowns ranked second on the team.

12. Nick O'Leary, Florida State

Position: Tight end

Year: Senior

O'Leary won the John Mackey Award as the best tight end in the nation, but we have him ranked just behind Walford. The truth is, you can split hairs on who was better this season. A case can be made for both. O'Leary set career highs with 48 receptions for 618 yards to finish second on his team in both categories, while adding six touchdown catches. As David Hale pointed out in December, Walford had the stats edge in receptions per game, receiving yards, touchdowns and yards per catch, all while playing with a true freshman quarterback. None of that is to diminish what O'Leary did. It is a great year when two tight ends are worthy of such a high ranking.

13. Eddie Goldman, Florida State

Position: Defensive tackle

Year: Junior

Goldman was the glue that held the Florida State defensive front together through injuries and some depth issues, racking up 35 tackles, including eight for loss and a team-high four sacks. But his impact goes beyond the stat sheet. Goldman held down the inside in the same way Tim Jernigan did the year before. In his biggest game against Clemson, Goldman forced a crucial fumble late in the fourth quarter and also had a sack and made a fourth-down stop in overtime to help the Seminoles win.

14. Denzel Perryman, Miami

Position: Linebacker

Year: Senior

If Miami needed a play to be made on defense, Perryman was its man. Perryman led the team with 110 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss and was named one of five finalists for the Butkus Award, given to the best linebacker in the nation. There were many who questioned the Canes' overall defense, but nobody questioned Perryman, his talent and the impact he made on that unit. He ended his career on the school's top-10 list for tackles.

15. Stephone Anthony, Clemson

Position: Linebacker

Year: Senior

Like Perryman, Anthony started to come into his own in 2013 and made an even bigger impact in 2014. Anthony had a team-high 90 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 11 quarterback pressures, one interception, four pass breakups and two caused fumbles en route to a spot on the media and coaches All-ACC first team. Clemson earned a lot of attention for its play up front. Anthony deserves credit for that because he was a big key to the group's overall success.

ACC all-bowl team

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It wasn’t the finest bowl season for the ACC, which won just four games, but there were still some strong performances. Here’s our 2014-15 all-bowl team for the ACC.

OFFENSE

QB: Justin Thomas (Georgia Tech)

Thomas thoroughly dominated the Mississippi State defense in the Orange Bowl, accounting for 246 yards of offense and four touchdowns. Credit. though, to Clemson’s Cole Stoudt, who was pressed into action with Deshaun Watson out with injury and threw for 319 yards with four total touchdowns, too.

[+] EnlargeSynjyn Days
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsSynjyn Days scored three of Georgia Tech's seven touchdowns against Mississippi State.
RB: Synjyn Days (Georgia Tech)

His 171 yards on the ground led all ACC runners during bowl season to cap off an extraordinary second half of the year for Days. He scored three times on the ground versus Mississippi State, as the Bulldogs never stood a chance against Georgia Tech’s dominant rushing attack.

RB: J.C. Coleman (Virginia Tech)

The running game was a problem all year for Virginia Tech, but once the Hokies were down to their fourth option at tailback, things got figured out. Coleman finished up a strong final four games with his best performance of the year, carrying 25 times for 157 yards and a touchdown in Tech’s win over Cincinnati.

WR: DeVante Parker (Louisville)

Louisville’s quarterback play was dreadful against Georgia in the Belk Bowl, and it cost the Cardinals a chance to win. But Parker, as usual, was excellent. He had eight catches, six of which went for first downs, and he led all ACC receivers with 120 yards. He also had one of the most impressive touchdown grabs of the season called back because he stepped out of bounds before the catch.

WR: Mike Williams (Clemson)

There’s plenty of competition for the second receiver spot, with six players chiming in with between 96 and 114 yards through the air during bowl season, but we’ll give Williams the slight nod. He had nine catches (tied for most in the ACC) for 112 yards and a touchdown, and six of his catches went for first downs.

TE: Jack Tabb (North Carolina)

It wasn’t a sterling season for tight ends in the bowl games despite so many fine performances during the regular season. Still, Tabb hauled in five catches for 51 yards and a score, which easily set the pace at the position.

OL: T.J. Clemmings (Pittsburgh)

Pitt’s defense couldn’t hold a big lead in its bowl game against Houston, but no blame goes to the offensive line, which was strong. Pitt ran for 227 yards and three touchdowns and allowed just one sack on 37 attempts, with Clemmings grading out once again as the Panthers’ top blocker.

OL: Shaq Mason (Georgia Tech)

Georgia Tech ran for 52 more yards than any other team during bowl season. Credit goes to the entire offense for the strong performance, but there’s no question Mason has been the on- and off-field leader of the offensive line all season.

OL: Joe Thuney (NC State)

NC State’s 3.82 yards-per-carry average wasn’t great, but the ground-and-pound approach against UCF did the trick. The Wolfpack scored twice on the ground and had eight runs of 10 yards or more, with Thuney grading out as their top performer.

OL: Tre Jackson (Florida State)

It’s easy to dismiss Florida State’s Rose Bowl performance, but the offensive line had nothing to do with the five turnovers the offense coughed up. In fact, Dalvin Cook and Karlos Williams were cruising through a stellar outing thanks to the blocking of Jackson and his linemates before the bottom fell out.

C: Andy Gallik (Boston College)

The Eagles’ problems with PATs haunted them again in bowl season, but the ground game that paced the offense all season was once again terrific. BC ran for 285 yards and two scores against a Penn State defense that had been among the best in the nation against the run. Ample credit to the whole group, but Gallik has been a star all season.

DEFENSE

DE: Tyriq McCord (Miami)

McCord had five tackles, including one sack, in the loss to South Carolina, and while his secondary couldn’t cover Pharoh Cooper, the Hurricanes’ front did manage to keep the Gamecocks’ powerful ground game in check, holding Mike Davis to just 55 yards.

[+] EnlargeGrady Jarrett
AP Photo/John RaouxGrady Jarrett's performance in the Russell Athletic Bowl helped Clemson limit the Sooners to just six points.
DT: Grady Jarrett (Clemson)

Perhaps the ACC’s best defensive player during bowl season, Jarrett was a beast in thwarting Oklahoma’s high-octane offense. Jarrett had 3.5 tackles for loss, one quarterback hurry and a forced fumble as Clemson dominated the Sooners’ through the first 3½ quarters of action.

DE: Vic Beasley (Clemson)

Beasley’s early sack against Trevor Knight was a harbinger of a long day to come for the Oklahoma quarterback, who mustered just 2.8 yards per attempt in the game. Beasley was at the heart of the pass rush, tallying five tackles, including three for a loss.

LB: Rodman Noel (NC State)

Led NC State’s defense with eight tackles, including two for a loss, and helped hold UCF to just 2.9 yards per carry on the ground and disrupting the Knights’ passing game throughout. UCF quarterback Justin Holman completed just 43 percent of his throws.

LB: Ben Boulware (Clemson)

Boulware had five tackles and a fumble recovery in the win over Oklahoma, but it was his 47-yard interception return for a touchdown to give Clemson a 17-0 lead late in the first quarter that made the biggest impact.

LB: P.J. Davis (Georgia Tech)

Davis led all players in the Orange Bowl with 11 tackles, and while Mississippi State’s offense did manage to move the ball to the tune of 605 yards, the game was never particularly close because Davis helped prevent big plays -- just three of 20 yards or more through the first three quarters -- and held Dak Prescott to just 4-of-10 passing on third down.

LB: Deon Clark (Virginia Tech)

Clark led all Virginia Tech defenders with 11 total tackles, including a sack and a forced fumble, as the Hokies thwarted Cincinnati’s high-flying offense in the Military Bowl.

S: DeVon Edwards (Duke)

The Blue Devils’ defense was hardly great against Arizona State, but Edwards did lead the pack with 14 tackles, including one for a loss, a forced fumble and a sack.

S: Chris Milton (Georgia Tech)

Milton’s eight tackles and support against the run were crucial for Georgia Tech’s defense against Mississippi State, but his interception on Prescott’s second throw of the game set the tone for a dominant Yellow Jackets win.

CB: Jack Tocho (NC State)

While NC State’s defensive front tormented the UCF passing game, the defensive backs did their part, too. Tocho had three tackles and two pass breakups, while UCF’s passing game mustered just 4.85 yards per attempt through the first three quarters as the Wolfpack built a 31-13 lead.

CB: Kendall Fuller (Virginia Tech)

Fuller had four tackles, broke up a pass and had and an interception against Cincinnati, as quarterback Gunner Kiel, one of the nation’s most dangerous passers, completed just 14 of 26 throws.

SPECIAL TEAMS

P: Bradley Pinion (Clemson)

Pinion’s net punting average against Oklahoma was 43.4 yards -- just one-tenth of a yard shy of tops in the conference. He had two punts downed inside the 10, and none of his five boots were returned.

K: Joey Slye (Virginia Tech)

Slye connected on all four field goal attempts, including two outside of 40 yards, and was 3-of-3 on PATs in Virginia Tech’s win over Cincinnati.

KR/PR: Jamison Crowder (Duke)

Crowder has been a star on special teams for much of his career, and he ended it on a high note by returning a punt 68 yards for a touchdown against Arizona State -- his second of the season. He accounted for 66 percent of all the punt returns in the ACC in 2014.
The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft has passed. Now let's take a quick look at the biggest draft deadline winners and losers across the ACC:

Winners

Clemson: The Tigers did lose an underclassman: punter Bradley Pinion. Head-scratching, yes. But the reason the Tigers are winners this year is that they held on to all their top offensive talent. While nobody was in position to declare early, it still is notable that this is the first time Clemson has not had an underclassman on offense turn pro since 2010. That could very well change once these freshmen start growing up, but for now, it is good to be co-offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott.

Duke: The Blue Devils had only one player who could have potentially left early: safety Jeremy Cash. When he announced he would return to school, there must have been a huge sigh of relief. Not only does the Duke secondary now return all its starters, it returns its best player. Cash had 111 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 2 interceptions and 4 forced fumbles this past season. With linebacker Kelby Brown (ACL) expected healthy for 2015, Duke potentially has two of the best defensive players in the ACC.

Notre Dame: So the Irish have only one toe in the ACC football waters, but they did end up a huge winner, and that is something teams with Notre Dame on the 2015 schedule need to know. All underclassmen who could have returned did: defensive lineman Sheldon Day, left tackle Ronnie Stanley, center/guard Nick Martin and quarterback Everett Golson (at least for now). Stanley was the biggest surprise because some had projected him as a first-round pick on a few early mock drafts. While Golson's status remains unclear, getting Day, Stanley and Martin back means expectations will again be high in South Bend, Indiana.

Losers

Florida State: The Seminoles might be the biggest draft-deadline loser in the country, with five players turning pro early this year: quarterback Jameis Winston, cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby, defensive tackle Eddie Goldman and defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. Of that group, Winston and Goldman are listed on the first Mel Kiper Jr. mock draft. Losing players to the draft is nothing new for the Seminoles, but they have taken heavy losses from their underclassmen in the past three years: 12 in all. Add to that losses from a terrific senior group, including Rashad Greene, Nick O'Leary and Karlos Williams, and 2015 might end up being a bit of a rebuilding year for the Seminoles as they get a boatload of young guys ready to play. On the bright side, kicker Roberto Aguayo and linebacker Terrance Smith announced they would return to school.

Louisville: Many expected safety Gerod Holliman to leave after he tied an NCAA record with 14 interceptions, despite some questions about his pro potential. But losing defensive backs Charles Gaines and James Sample has to be a blow the Cardinals were not quite expecting. Louisville, which ranked No. 5 in the nation in pass efficiency defense, must now replace five of its top six defensive backs in 2015. Put another way, Louisville is losing players responsible for 21 of the 26 interceptions it had last season.

Miami: While we all expected running back Duke Johnson to leave, losing him is still tough for a Miami offense that revolved heavily around him in the past three seasons. Johnson leaves as the school's all-time career all-purpose yards and rushing yards leader. Add the departure of offensive tackle Ereck Flowers and now Miami has to replace its two best underclassmen, plus top seniors Clive Walford and Denzel Perryman.

Overreacting in the ACC

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We live in a hot-take world, but sometimes hot takes are wild overreactions based on how we feel right now, this very instant! With that in mind, we take a look at some of the biggest overreactions in 2014, and why they were wrong.

Overreaction: FSU should have been left out of the playoff.

[+] EnlargeDalvin Cook
Gary Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsDalvin Cook and the Noles deserved their playoff spot, and they will be in the hunt for one again despite some personnel losses.
Why: This became a popular opinion after the Seminoles lost to Oregon 59-20 in the Rose Bowl. But the idea that an undefeated team from a Power 5 conference should have been left out of the playoff because a blowout proves it was undeserving is laughable. Let’s start with the most important point: Florida State won all of its games before the playoff began. Contrary to popular belief, the Noles actually played a good schedule. Nine of their opponents made bowl games -- all of them with the Power 5 designation. Those nine teams went 6-3 in their bowl games. Compare that to TCU, which played seven bowl teams. Those seven teams went 1-6 in their bowl games. Florida State ended up playing two teams ranked in the final top 15; TCU played one. Florida State played three ranked teams in the final poll; TCU played two. The Noles needed their backup quarterback to beat 10-win Clemson, which destroyed Oklahoma in the bowl game. Ask the SEC how easy it was to beat Georgia Tech in 2014. These points alone prove that Florida State played a better schedule. But critics want to complain that Florida State played too many close games and never really passed the eye test. That when the Noles played an elite team like Oregon, they fell apart and therefore showed they never beat anybody good. These are all specious arguments. Yes, Florida State played close games. But the last time I checked, Florida State WON all of those games. Since when is blowing out every opponent proof that you are more deserving? Last I checked, Oregon blew out nearly everybody on its schedule but ended up losing by 22 in the national championship game. That blowout is forgiven, but Florida State’s was held up as a cautionary tale for future unbeaten Power 5 teams that win too many close games? Bottom line: Florida State absolutely deserved its spot in the playoff. No logical case can be made otherwise.

Overreaction: Miami must fire Al Golden. Now.

Why: The frustration among the Miami fan base is completely understandable. Going 6-7 at Miami is never acceptable, especially given the talent on the 2014 roster. Losing four games to end the season is never acceptable. We could go on, but you get the point. We can all agree that this past season failed to meet everybody’s standards. But the vitriol and negativity surrounding Golden have reached nuclear levels in South Florida. The cupboard is not bare here, far from it. Given the NCAA sanctions cloud that lingered over Miami for more than two years, Golden deserves another shot at getting the Canes pointed in the right direction. Brad Kaaya looks better than any quarterback Miami has had since Ken Dorsey. Despite losing Duke Johnson and Clive Walford, the Canes return a bevy of skill players across the board, including Joe Yearby, Stacy Coley and Braxton Berrios. Defensively, there are high hopes for improvements on the line, and the secondary has a chance to be even better. Although the Canes took some tough losses this past season, they showed against Florida State how well they can play when they have the heart, desire and motivation to win. Golden must now get his players to give that type of effort every weekend. Because the talent is there -- talent Golden brought into Miami when there were serious doubts about the program’s future.

Overreaction: Week 3 ACC Power Rankings: Georgia Tech at No. 13.

Why: Georgia Tech needed a great escape to beat Georgia Southern after looking not so hot in its first two games, against Wofford and Tulane. So we buried the Jackets. But, would you look at that? The Jackets finished 11-3, so uh, yeah that was really, really wrong.

Looking ahead to 2015

Overreaction: Florida State will take a step back!

Why: Depends on your definition. 2015 could be the year somebody else wins the ACC, but nobody should count Florida State out, not for the foreseeable future. The Noles have to replace the heart of their team, but they also return plenty of talent in Dalvin Cook, Jalen Ramsey, Roderick Johnson and plenty of others. The schedule sets up for the Noles to win 10 games again. And given their recent domination over Clemson, there are no guarantees the Tigers will take the Atlantic back.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtDeshaun Watson spent his freshman season getting banged up, but he'll be back.
Overreaction: Deshaun Watson is injury-prone.

Why: Watson got injured three different times since arriving on campus last January, including a season-ending knee injury that will cost him the spring. Already, there are those wondering whether Watson can stay healthy for a full season. Take a deep breath, everyone. Watson has played only one year. Yes, he got hurt. But that happens to football players. Nobody is calling the Ohio State quarterbacks injury-prone. People said the same about Miami running back Duke Johnson, and he played a complete 2014 -- his best yet. Give Watson a chance.

Overreaction: Virginia Tech cannot compete for another ACC title.

Why: There are many who believe Frank Beamer’s best days are behind him after a third straight lackluster season. But Beamer and his staff think this year’s team will give them their best shot at winning the Coastal Division since 2011. All their best skill position players will return, as will quarterback Michael Brewer. The defense should be just as good, if not better, with the expected return of Luther Maddy and Brandon Facyson plus the emergence of Dadi Nicolas and potential All-American Kyle Fuller. There is little doubt the Hokies are a team to watch in 2015.

Top 10 instant-impact recruits in 2015 

January, 14, 2015
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With signing day a few weeks away, early enrollees already on campus and the national championship game in the books, which teams are reloading with talent that can hit the field and make an immediate impact?

Here are 10 committed prospect who have the chance to contribute early and often in the 2015 season:

Final 2014 ACC Power Rankings

January, 13, 2015
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2015 Too-Early ACC Power Rankings

January, 13, 2015
Jan 13
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» More 2015 Too-Early Rankings: Top 25 | ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

The 2014 season just ended, but we're already looking ahead to next season. Here are our way-too-early 2015 ACC power rankings:

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Florida State has won three straight ACC championships, but the Seminoles are not a lock to be the preseason favorites to win the league again in 2015.

This could be the season to catch the Seminoles -- especially with Georgia Tech and Clemson returning top-25 teams.

[+] EnlargeJustin Thomas
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsJustin Thomas and the Yellow Jackets will aim to defend the nation's top-ranked rushing offense next season.
Everybody knows what Florida State has done over the past three years to re-establish itself as a national program. The Seminoles will remain a national program in 2015, but they may not be as dominant as they have been, given all the players they must replace.

You thought having to replace 11 NFL players off the 2012 team was bad? At least the Seminoles had Jameis Winston coming in at quarterback, and returning standouts such as Rashad Greene, Nick O'Leary and Lamarcus Joyner on defense.

Now, the Seminoles have to replace perhaps the best player in program history (Winston), the best receiver in program history (Greene) and the best tight end in program history (O'Leary). Not to mention four starting offensive linemen and at least two All-ACC defenders who have declared early, with up to two more on the way.

When it is all said and done, Florida State could end up getting at least another 11 players drafted. That would bring its three-year total to 29 drafted players -- more than the 26 players Miami had drafted off its heralded teams from 2001-03.

Not even a coach that has recruited as well as Jimbo Fisher has can easily reload after losing so many veterans that laid the foundation for multiple ACC titles, a national championship and a 29-game winning streak.

What could make the difference is quarterback. That remains a big uncertainty in Tallahassee. But Georgia Tech and Clemson return two of the best quarterbacks in the ACC -- both sure to earn preseason votes for ACC Player of the Year.

Justin Thomas had a breakthrough season for the Yellow Jackets, the catalyst for an 11-win season and what should be a top-10 final ranking. He has two more seasons in Atlanta. While it is true the Jackets lose terrific players in Zach Laskey, Synjyn Days, Shaq Mason and DeAndre Smelter, the biggest key to efficiency and productivity in the Georgia Tech offense is its quarterback.

Thomas was terrific in his first year as a starter, becoming just the second quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in school history. He ranks No. 4 in the nation in QBR, a measure of how good a quarterback is on a play-by-play level. From a team perspective, Georgia Tech ranks No. 1 in the nation in rushing offense and third-down conversions, No. 3 in time of possession and No. 7 in first downs -- all testaments to how well the triple-option worked this season with Thomas behind center.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtDeshaun Watson and the Tigers finished second in the Atlantic Division in 2014, and will likely be a preseason favorite to take over No. 1 in 2015.
At Clemson, we all saw the potential Deshaun Watson has -- provided he can stay healthy for an entire season. With Artavis Scott, Mike Williams, Wayne Gallman and a host of other young offensive players returning, this offense has the potential to be as good -- if not better -- than the crew Tajh Boyd led a few years ago. The Tigers could end up being the top preseason choice in the Atlantic.

On the whole, the Atlantic Division should be tougher than it has been over the past few seasons. Louisville showed it is a team that has the potential to make some noise in the ACC in Year 1; NC State is vastly improved, and the last ACC team to hand the Seminoles a loss. Boston College has played the Seminoles close the past two seasons, nearly pulling the upset in Tallahassee a few months ago.

Of those three, the Cards and Wolfpack also return their starting QBs.

The ACC schedule will also be more challenging. The Seminoles swap Virginia for Georgia Tech from the Coastal, and the game is in Atlanta. So is their annual Atlantic showdown with Clemson. Already, those two games are setting up to be pivotal in the 2015 ACC race.

There is no doubt Florida State has plenty of talent in the pipeline. But whether the Seminoles will be able to put it all together for 2015 and play like a dominant force remains a question mark, leaving the door open for another team to raise the championship trophy.
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Now that Randy Shannon has been officially announced as a part of the Florida coaching staff, the expectations for success in South Florida are high for the Gators.


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There were moments of glory in the ACC this season, praise-worthy snapshots any conference would want.

A whopping five wins over top-10 teams, and 12 wins over teams from Power 5 conferences; a 5-3 record against the SEC, its first winning mark over its rival conference since 2003; and a team in the first-ever College Football Playoff.

But we are talkin' 'bout the ACC, folks.

Status: It's complicated.

For all the good, there also was the not-so-good, and the same underlying issues that have plagued this league over the last decade. The ACC cannot say this season was better than last, despite some impressive accomplishments.

[+] EnlargeDalvin Cook
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State's sloppy performance against Oregon reinforced the notion that the Seminoles were overrated.
It cannot claim the national champion. It cannot claim a better bowl record. It cannot claim two wins in its biggest bowl games. For better or worse, leagues are judged on their postseason performances. The SEC has seen its stock plummet after a pretty miserable bowl season.

Despite some strides, the ACC cannot say it did much better. Getting 11 teams in bowls is great, when viewed in a vacuum. The hard truth is the league went 4-7 in its bowl games, and just 2-6 against Power 5 opponents.

Those records, taken in tandem with what happened to Florida State, will continue to perpetuate the perception that dogs the ACC: This league is weaker than the others. Once Oregon thoroughly dismantled Florida State 59-20 in the Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual, the ACC bashers came out in full force.

"Look!" they said. "Now that the Seminoles have played somebody good, they were exposed! Maybe the selection committee should have left Florida State out and had TCU in the playoff instead!" Those critics conveniently ignore a 13-0 regular season in which the Noles beat nine bowl teams, including Georgia Tech and Clemson which had two of the most impressive wins during bowl season.

But its close wins against average teams and its final, miserable performance sealed the narrative. Florida State was unworthy all season, and it was finally exposed -- along with the rest of the ACC.

Talking in absolutes conveniently ignores the positives, leading to skewed perspectives. However, there is no doubt the ACC must do better. It is wonderful the ACC bolstered its postseason partnerships, but not so wonderful that it failed to hold its own in those games. Georgia Tech and Clemson did their part, but without a Florida State win, it was not enough to override the overall results.

What was missing this year has been missing for quite some time: consistency from top to bottom across the league. Virginia Tech remains the only team in the country to beat Ohio State this season. But the Hokies went 7-6 again. Boston College beat USC, then missed an extra point against Penn State in the Pinstripe Bowl, costing it a bowl win.

Preseason Coastal favorite Miami ended the season on a four-game losing streak; Duke won nine games again, but only one against a winning team after another heartbreaking bowl loss; North Carolina, ranked No. 23 when the season began, finished 6-7 behind the worst defensive performance in school history.

You get the point. Florida State, Georgia Tech and Clemson will finish ranked in the Top 25, potentially in the top 15 depending on how voters view the Tigers. They will all be preseason Top 25 teams. Beyond that, the ACC needs its middle class to develop, a line that has been regurgitated for years and years.

Now that its bowl season is complete, we now see why the College Football Playoff selection committee never gave unbeaten, defending national champion Florida State the due many (including myself) believed it deserved. Its ranking sent a clear message: Close wins in the ACC are not viewed as all that impressive.

That remains a concern for the ACC moving forward in the playoff era, when teams are judged based on the strength of their conference. What should be an even bigger concern is whether an unbeaten team from the ACC will be left out of the playoff entirely the next time.

Because despite some good wins, the ACC did nothing to change the way people view this league. The ACC remains last among the Power 5 conferences, and now it appears the Big Ten is growing the gap between them.

The ACC's bowl results sent a message, one the conference must try to rewrite.

Again.
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No Deshaun Watson? No problem for Clemson. The Tigers, playing without their star quarterback, had no trouble demolishing Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl, scoring early on a long touchdown and utterly frustrating the Sooners' offense behind a smothering defensive effort to secure a 40-6 win, Clemson's third straight bowl victory.

How the game was won: Clemson's defense entered the game as the No. 1 unit in the nation, and Oklahoma quickly found out why. Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett & Co. were dominant, utterly baffling Trevor Knight throughout and largely stifling freshman tailback Samaje Perine until the game was out of hand. But credit the Tigers' undervalued secondary, which helped create five turnovers in the game. Oklahoma racked up some yards as Clemson waited for the clock to run out, but the Tigers' 40-0 lead through the first three quarters was built on the back of a stellar defensive effort.

Game ball goes to: Cole Stoudt. It's hard not to feel good for a guy who had as tough a season as perhaps any quarterback in the country. Stoudt won the starting job at the end of the spring, but after a 1-2 start to the year, he was supplanted by Watson. When Watson went down with an injury, Stoudt was forced back into action and struggled badly while dealing with both a shoulder injury and confidence issues. His past two performances against Power 5 foes were dreadful, but he stepped up against Oklahoma, tossing a 65-yard touchdown on his first throw and never letting off the gas. Stoudt finished the game 26-of-36 for 319 yards with four total touchdowns and no turnovers. The future remains Watson's, which offers ample optimism for Clemson fans, but Stoudt's bowl win was an appropriate sendoff for a quarterback that had given his career to the Tigers.

What it means: It's another nice feather in the cap of the ACC, which has picked up a number of marquee wins this season. It's also a big win for Dabo Swinney, who has often taken a backseat to his high profile offensive coordinator in recent years. Chad Morris left earlier in the month for SMU, but Clemson's offense didn't miss a beat. It's also the 10th win of the season for Clemson, which marks the fourth straight year the Tigers have reached double digits. Only Alabama and Oregon have longer active streaks among Power 5 programs. It's also Clemson's third straight bowl win, all against teams that opened the season in the top 5.

Best play: The tone for the game was set early, when Stoudt hit Artavis Scott for a 65-yard touchdown on Clemson's first offensive play of the game. The Tigers never looked back, and Stoudt turned in the best game of his career in his final game.

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