NCF Nation: Florida State Seminoles
NC State safety Jarvis Byrd. Three tackles and a pass break-up on their own are not usually enough to earn recognition here. But Byrd playing and making an impact is certainly noteworthy, and it could be one of the early feel-good stories of the college football season. He considered giving up the game after suffering a third ACL tear last season. The NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility this season, but he barely practiced in camp and, as our David Hale noted last week, was hardly expected to play in the opener against Georgia Southern, let alone make an impact. Byrd ended up sealing the Wolfpack's 24-23 win with a fourth-down hit on the Eagles' BJ Johnson, forcing an incomplete pass that clinched the game with 1:02 left.
Virginia linebacker Henry Coley. If you told anyone before Saturday that alleged national-title contender UCLA would manage just one offensive touchdown against the reigning ACC cellar-dwellars, you'd probably think Virginia escaped with a victory. The Cavaliers' defense certainly deserved better in a 28-20 loss, as Coley led a charge that rendered the Bruins' offensive line rudderless, exposed just how difficult of a Heisman chase Brett Hundley will have and kept the Hoos alive all day. Coley matched a career high with 14 tackles, recorded a career-high two sacks and notched the second forced fumble of his career. UVa held UCLA to just 358 yards of total offense. The difference, of course, was Virginia's offense giving away 21 points through a pair of pick-sixes and a fumble recovery for a score. Still, this was a step in the right direction for a program that went 0-8 in league play last year, and the Hoos have to think they have the same chance everyone else does in a wide-open Coastal Division.
Pitt running back James Conner. At times it just looked flat-out unfair to see the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Conner barreling his way forward against an FCS team in Delaware. The sophomore finished the day with 153 rushing yards and four touchdowns on just 14 carries. The key words there may be "finished the day," as Conner's day rushing the ball was over at the 6:16 mark of the second quarter. The Panthers' 62-0 win over the Blue Hens marked their highest scoring game since Sept. 9, 1995, when they beat Eastern Michigan 66-30. Their 409 rushing yards marked their highest total since the Tony Dorsett era, when Pitt tallied 444 yards on the ground against Army in 1976.
Florida State wide receiver Rashad Greene. Greene was, expectedly, Jameis Winston's favorite target during FSU's 37-31 win over Oklahoma State. The senior had 11 receptions for 203 yards and a touchdown, a nifty 50-yarder with 3:58 left in the contest that proved to be the game-winner. It may be alarming that the Seminoles' other five pass-catchers combined for just 14 catches and 167 yards, but with FSU locked in a Week 1 dogfight, it only made sense that it turned to its most reliable pair of hands. Greene is also the Noles' punt returner, and though he returned just one for 2 yards against the Cowboys, his workload could be something worth monitoring as the season progresses.
Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy. The Florida transfer made his presence felt in the Eagles' 30-7 rout of in-state rival UMass, showing a dimension that simply wasn't there for BC offensively a year ago. Murphy completed 17 of 24 passes for 173 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He carried the ball 13 times for a career-best 118 rushing yards and another score. He was never sacked. He hit six different receivers, including three for at least three catches apiece. BC totaled 511 yards of offense and dominated time of possession, holding the ball for 42:11. Friday night's home tilt with ACC foe Pitt should be a great litmus test for both teams after dominant opening-weekend performances.
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.
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?
Considering the way the final three quarters played out, there were a dozen or so plays that stemmed the tide and flipped momentum in AT&T Stadium. Ultimately, three plays ended up having the biggest impact on the game, and they were all born out of mistakes. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher agrees with the contemporary cliché that more games are lost rather than won, and Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy has to feel that way after the No. 1 Seminoles defeated the Cowboys 37-31.
The decisive play came with a little more than four minutes left in the game. The Florida State offense struggled much of the night, and reigning Heisman winner Jameis Winston looked flustered throughout. Rashad Greene, now fourth all-time on the Seminoles' receiving list, ran a shallow cross, and as he broke to the middle of the field, the Cowboys cornerback bumped into a teammate, freeing Greene. The pass was a little behind Greene, so that little collision might have been the difference between an interception and what Greene did once he caught the ball -- go 50 yards for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown. Two plays earlier, Oklahoma State quarterback J.W. Walsh had fumbled the football when he looked poised to rip off a big gain. The Cowboys trailed by three and had a chance to take their first lead of the game. But Walsh was tripped up and fumbled, and Winston iced the game shortly thereafter.
Winston looked like a Heisman winner on a 28-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound sophomore lumbered down the field, jumped over his offensive lineman, juked a Cowboys defender and then dove into the end zone. It was the kind of play we've come to expect from Winston but hadn't seen Saturday to that point. That touchdown was also set up by a series of Oklahoma State miscues. The Cowboys looked as if they would pin Florida State deep, but an errant snap on a punt gave the Seminoles the ball near midfield. The Cowboys defense held, but on third-and-11, Cowboys defensive back Ashton Lampkin, who was picked on constantly, was called for holding. It extended Florida State's drive, and Winston rumbled into the end zone the very next play.
Florida State capitalized on the Cowboys' two turnovers, scoring touchdowns off of each. Oklahoma State managed only three points off the Seminoles' two miscues. The first Cowboys turnover came early in the game as Nate Andrews intercepted Walsh near the Oklahoma State end zone, and then Andrews walked in for the score. It was an outstanding play from Andrews, but it once again was precipitated by a special teams breakdown. The Cowboys fouled up the kickoff return and started the drive at their own 3-yard line. Walsh's interception was on the drive's first play, and it gave FSU an early 10-0 lead.
Good teams feed off their opponents' mistakes, and that is exactly what Florida State did.
Heisman Trophy winner and Florida State Seminoles QB Jameis Winston explains the ups and downs he's experienced in 2014 -- from winning the national championship to being cited for shoplifting -- and how he plans on helping the Seminoles repeat.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
-- 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 weekWhy 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
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Karlos Williams walked into the room, briefly introduced himself and within seconds was knee deep in offensive football parlance.
“There are different calls, maybe on the same play. On the front side I might be a free release to the flat with no blocker responsibility,” explained Williams, while probably holding a quiet suspicion his breakdown was hardly resonating with the rest of the room. “If you’re on the backside you might have a leak, or you may just be in protection, period.”
Eighteen months ago, Williams wouldn’t have been nearly as articulate or intuitive about the game of football. He would have talked just as much -- only Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher rivals the senior running back in words per minute -- but the conversation would not have been as in depth, because he wasn’t atop the depth chart.
Fast forward to days before the 2014 opener and Williams will be making his second career start. With him on the plane to Texas will be his jersey, playbook and an 8.5 x 11-inch green, college ruled notebook.
“Always, always” is the notebook tucked under his arm, Williams said.
Williams, formerly a safety and linebacker, played in 25 of his first 26 games at Florida State but did not crack the starting lineup until the 2012 ACC championship and even then it was due to an injury. He wasn’t picking up the little details in Florida State’s defensive scheme. He wasn’t too concerned about learning them either.
“I was very immature when I first got here. I didn’t understand the power of preparation,” Williams said. “I thought you just went out there and did it. I saw Nick Moody play safety, Terrance Parks, Terrence Brooks, Lamarcus Joyner do it and I said ‘How do those guys do it?’ When I look back on it, those guys were sitting in the front row taking notes.”
Williams’ prep status as a 6-foot-2, 210-pound five-star athlete with 4.4 speed caused part of those poor study habits. Williams and his brothers were all superior athletes, and when a player of Williams’ caliber is on the field, high school offenses revert to words instead of plays -- “Just give Karlos the ball.”
Williams played with his brother Vince, now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, for two seasons in college. Williams does his best impression of how he looked when he saw how intently Vince took notes -- eyes wide, mouth agape. Vince would take notes without his eyes ever coming off the screen. Williams didn’t understand and didn’t care to figure it out. Vince would rub his eyes to regain focus on the screen while Williams closed his, rolling over to go to sleep.
Pruitt, who has since left for Georgia, expected the same dedication from Williams. Pruitt knew Williams understood the basis of his scheme, but he would continue to toil on the second team if he could not master the defense completely.
“He understood I wasn’t going to be the best if I didn’t take notes. I got the big picture but the little details could have made me a better DB,” Williams said.
So Williams bought a color-coded notebook. Blue was his notes on an offense’s trips package. Red signified if a team was in a four-wide set. Without even seeing his notebook, Williams hand gestures a flow chart, recalling how on the field his mind would flip between colors if the offense sent a receiver in motion.
By the time the season rolled around, Williams felt indebted to Pruitt, and his junior season might have been the year he saw his most extensive playing time. But early in the 2013 season, Williams was moved to running back.
It was time for another notebook.
“When I first moved to running back, I focused on what a stretch is and I know what a zone is,” he said, “but I wasn’t focused on the footsteps or how I carried the ball or hat placement.”
That’s what the entirety of fall practice was for, shoring up the minor details that could turn a first down into a touchdown or keep quarterback Jameis Winston upright in pass protection. Williams’ running back notebook is filled with corrections and commendations, audibles and adjustments. If the offense uses a new terminology for a stretch or zone rush, it’s in his notebook.
During Florida State’s first preseason scrimmage, Williams jogged back to the huddle after the first play already with new material for his notebook. He didn’t roll his shoulders carrying out a play-action fake. When Williams opened his notebook, the first line was bulleted and read: “Play-action pass, roll your shoulders.”
This season, Williams is tasked with taking pressure off Winston and the passing game. He said he wouldn’t be prepared for the increased role if not for dedicating himself to writing notes
“It takes initiative to write something down, writing down what you can understand without every word, writing what you need to hear,” Williams said. “It helped me through camp.
“… I learned the lesson the hard way, which is the best way. It paid off for me.”
By the end of the day Monday, the trending topic was now taboo. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher put the kibosh on the hashtag during a team meeting before practice.
Earlier Monday, I asked Fisher if the #Dallas2Dallas promotions set Florida State up for a championship-or-bust season in Tallahassee, if anything short of a return trip to Jerry World would be deemed disappointing.
That's often not how the fans -- at least the most vocal -- and the media -- at least the most vocal -- operate, though. If you believe Las Vegas, the Seminoles are the slight favorite to win the national title. If you believe the polls, the Seminoles are the prohibitive favorite, garnering all but nine of the first-place preseason ballots in the two polls combined.
But with all of the preseason hype -- magazine covers, double-digit June point spreads and draft experts salivating at a roster stocked with NFL talent, none greater than at quarterback -- the 2014 season, like it or not, will be defined by a north Texas city more than 800 miles west of the Florida capital.
I'm not saying it is fair. It's not. It's irresponsible to expect perfection from a team, but that's the college football world where we reside. Fisher acknowledged being a preseason No. 1 is much different now than it was 20 years ago. Hours after the Seminoles hoisted the crystal ball in January, the train championing Florida State's repeat chances already left its Pasadena station.
Last month, Nick Saban was peppered with questions about Alabama's consecutive losses to end the season. Forget the Crimson Tide were a missed field goal from potentially playing for another national championship, there was the palpable sense that 11-2 was not good enough in Tuscaloosa, and the identity of the program, which has won three of the last five BCS titles, needed to be reshaped.
At ACC media days in July, Fisher waxed nostalgic about the era pre-dating the BCS and Bowl Coalition, when there was not always a guarantee No. 1 would play No. 2 to crown a definitive champion. "It mattered if you won the Orange Bowl or the Sugar Bowl or the Cotton Bowl or the Rose Bowl, you had a great year," he said. "Now, we went 12-2 and won the Orange Bowl and won our first ACC [championship in 2012], we act like it's not a big deal."
Fisher said without that 2012 season, the national championship wasn't possible. But now Florida State is among the elite, the program some believe is poised to earn the dynasty distinction. That top tier, for example Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma (Bob Stoops has dealt with unreasonable expectations for years) to name a few, are judged by national titles.
What Florida State does have is a locker room that proved in 2013 it could isolate itself from outsiders. Over the last few days, Fisher has asked his team not to "eat the cheese," his way of telling his players to sniff out the bait, to not buy into the hype. He said he feels "really good" about how his team has received the message, and he will continue to drill it in their heads.
"We're just going to take it one day at a time, one game at a time and eventually we'll reach Dallas. That's how he told us to approach it," defensive lineman Derrick Mitchell said.
Added senior Christian Green: "Us as players, we know it's a grind every day. We know that this week is our first game and we have to focus on Oklahoma State."
When I asked Fisher about #Dallas2Dallas, he smiled and joked the Seminoles will be in Dallas on Thursday. So many others have already booked their return.
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.
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.
Factor in national implications -- it was a season opener in August against and part of a 42-0 rolling of the unranked Jayhawks -- and it pales in comparison to the 1979 Sugar Bowl.
"We had to meet them about three-fourths of the way and drag them off the field," Andrews said. Ken Alexander, Derrick Brooks and Corey Sawyer, who combined for the final fourth-down stop, laid on the blistering AstroTurf unable to get up as the referee signaled in Florida State's direction. "They didn't have anything left."
That was the season opener of the 1993 season, Florida State playing Kansas, which finished the prior season ranked in the top 25, at the Meadowlands, a national venue. The drive eclipsed 20 total plays, and Florida State committed four penalties inside the 10. While the Seminoles would win by six touchdowns, it was that particular drive that came at the end of the half when the Jayhawks were within two scores. Florida State held a dozen times in the shadow of its own goal post, then marched down the field with a 99-yard touchdown drive to put the game out of reach.
"That made our football team right there," Andrews said.
A season-opening game against a major-conference opponent on a national stage has the potential to alter the trajectory of a season, Andrews said. On Saturday, No. 1 Florida State travels to the state of Texas for the Cowboys Classic against Oklahoma State in AT&T Stadium. It's a prime-time game, and one "College GameDay" will be at.
Much like Kansas, Oklahoma State finished the previous season ranked, although pollsters are not quite as high on the Cowboys in 2014 as they overhaul their starting lineup. Regardless of the strength of the opposition, a nationally relevant opponent on the road or at a neutral site to begin the season can effect the next four months. Florida State, which is using the hashtag #DallasToDallas to define its title defense aspirations, hopes the Aug. 30 game will do just that this fall.
"The better it is for us to play on those kinds of stages," Fisher said.
Andrews served as Bobby Bowden's defensive coordinator for 27 seasons, and the two were never shy to play a national championship-caliber opponent to begin the season. From 1988-98, Florida State opened its season with a ranked opponent away from the confines of Doak Campbell Stadium on four occasions. Eleven times from 1988-03 the Seminoles began the season with a road or neutral-site opponent.
Bowden said the prospects of an opener with national implications sets the tone for offseason workouts and preseason camp. There is an added motivation for players and coaches alike when the opponent isn't an FCS cupcake.
"The thing about opening against a good team is it makes your boys get ready faster," Bowden said. "If you play a smaller division or someone you're favored by 25 points against, you're careful you won't have a letdown. But when you play a big one, they're usually ready to play."
Andre Wadsworth was a senior defensive lineman for Florida State in 1997 when the Seminoles opened at USC in The Coliseum. Wadsworth said the team began the season with an added focus on executing its offense and defense as it knew any self-inflicted wounds against a team the caliber of Southern Cal could derail a potential national championship season before it truly began. Florida State defeated USC, and the Seminoles would win their next 10 games before a three-point loss to Florida in the finale that ended a perfect season and hopes of a national title.
"The thing is to define yourself as early as possible as a team," Wadsworth said.
Fisher, in his fifth season at Florida State after replacing Bowden, said entering camp that the game against an Oklahoma State program that has averaged 10 wins since 2010 had the Seminoles focused and practicing at peak performance throughout preseason two-a-days. Fisher said he embraces the challenge, and the rest of team is itching to arrive at "Jerry World" and play on the biggest of big screens -- one that stretches 60 yards.
"That game is going to be electric," quarterback Jameis Winston said. "Florida State, we love to be in big games with millions of people watching us. That's what's fun, that's what football is for.
You're forgiven if this entire exercise seems foreign. But at least 10 of the ACC's 14 teams will start new faces under center when games kick off next week. And there is a good chance that four of those 10 will have quarterbacks who began their college careers elsewhere.
"I really don't know," Miami coach Al Golden said of the surplus of ACC quarterback transfers. "We liked where we were in the spring, and clearly Ryan [Williams] went down the week before the spring game. It's really not a function of not being confident in the guys that are on campus. It's more a function of just wanting to get a guy that has been in the game and has the experience."
Golden acknowledged the quarterback market has been busier than usual, particularly in his league. He brought in former BYU and Kansas quarterback Jake Heaps this summer after Williams, the Hurricanes' No. 1 quarterback, suffered a right ACL injury that will keep him out for an indefinite period of time. (Williams, naturally, began his career elsewhere, at Memphis.)
Heaps, eligible immediately as a graduate transfer, is battling true freshman Brad Kaaya to start Miami's opener.
"I think the quarterback position has grown in terms of talent over the last few years," said Heaps, who set several freshman records at BYU in 2010 before losing his job both with the Cougars and later at Kansas. "There’s a lot of great, quality quarterbacks in college football right now and they all want a chance to play. That’s where you’re seeing a lot of these guys transfer. They’re in their situation but they know they can play somewhere else so they make those moves and try and find the best situation for them and in some cases it works out, in others it doesn’t. Just knowing they have that opportunity is first and foremost.
"Sometimes things just don’t work out. Recruiting is the way it is and sometimes a situation isn’t what you think it will be when you get there. It’s been a unique trend in the last little bit, but I think if a guy has an opportunity to go play, he should go explore that."
Likewise, fellow Coastal member Virginia Tech turned to the free-agent route following an underwhelming spring from its three quarterbacks, welcoming Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer (and two true freshmen) to the race to replace Logan Thomas and kick-start an offense in need of a jolt after just 15 wins in the past two seasons. In an odd twist, Brewer, who has two seasons left to play after graduating from Texas Tech, was recommended to the Hokies' staff by Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who coached Brewer back at Lake Travis (Texas) High.
Brewer brings with him a nearly 71 percent completion percentage from his limited action with the Red Raiders, including 440 passing yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.
On the other side, in the more daunting Atlantic, a pair of second-year coaches are turning to former Gators quarterbacks to command their offenses.
Boston College coach Steve Addazio goes back with Tyler Murphy, a fellow Connecticut native whom Addazio had initially recruited to Gainesville, Florida, during his time as an assistant there. Jacoby Brissett transferred to NC State shortly after coach Dave Doeren was hired there, sitting out last season and taking enough initiative behind the scenes to earn the starting nod before spring ball this year.
“Last year we brought in Brandon Mitchell [from Arkansas] through the one-year loophole, and then at the end of the year, Pete Thomas and Manny Stocker left to go to [Louisiana-Monroe and UT-Martin]," Doeren said. "While that was going on, Jacoby transferred here from Florida. So I’ve seen about all of it that can go around. It’s just part of what recruiting is now. Guys want to play and people don’t want to wait their turn much anymore."
Murphy, who transferred in January, has one year to add some pizzazz to an Eagles' offense looking to spread the field more after last season's run-heavy approach. He spoke often with Brissett (who has two years left at NC State) back when both were still weighing their options when departing Florida.
The familiarity was more than enough to reunite Murphy with Addazio, who said a guy like Murphy probably should have gone to BC in the first place.
"Being a New England guy and growing up around BC, I watched a lot of BC and Matt Ryan in the early 2000s," Murphy said. "So it feels good to be a part of this institution, this program and I'm looking forward to the season."
Florida State could see a pair of its former quarterbacks start against each other next week, as Jake Coker transferred to Alabama one year after Clint Trickett transferred to West Virginia.
Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher was supportive of both, with Trickett being familiar with WVU (his dad used to coach there before moving to FSU) and Coker heading to his home-state program after backing up Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Fisher likened the rash of quarterback departures to that of college basketball transfers, because both are possession-dominated athletes.
The graduate-transfer rule, popularized by Russell Wilson three years ago, has only added to that. And, in many ways, it has been a boon for both sides.
"[It] gives some opportunities for guys that are worried about situations like Tyler's," Addazio said, referring to Murphy's injury-shortened 2013. "He's like, 'I've got one shot at this thing. I want to go where I feel like I've got the best opportunity to be the starter.' So you're seeing a lot of this right now. I like this opportunity."
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.
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.