College Football Preview: FSU, Clemson Battle for ACC Supremacy
Teams: Boston College (Atlantic), Clemson (Atlantic), Duke (Coastal), Florida State (Atlantic), Georgia Tech (Coastal), Maryland (Atlantic), Miami (Coastal), North Carolina (Coastal), North Carolina State (Atlantic), Pittsburgh (Coastal), Syracuse (Atlantic), Virginia (Coastal), Virginia Tech (Coastal), Wake Forest (Atlantic)
Best Team: Florida State
Best Coach: Frank Beamer (Virginia Tech)
Top Players: QB Tajh Boyd (Clemson), RB Duke Johnson (Miami), WR Sammy Watkins (Clemson), WR Stefon Diggs (Maryland), OT Morgan Moses (Virginia), OT James Hurst (North Carolina), DT Timmy Jernigan (Florida State), DE Kareem Martin (North Carolina), LB Christian Jones (Florida State), DB Lamarcus Joyner (Florida State)
Top Storyline: Will Clemson or Florida State lay claim to the Atlantic Division title? Could either make a run for the national championship?
The ACC has been overlooked in recent years, mostly due to its elite teams (Florida State, Clemson, and Virginia Tech) losing in critical games and failing to make a serious run for a national title.
With Florida State and Clemson fielding some of their better teams in recent years, this could conceivably be the year that pattern changes. Additionally, Miami, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, and Maryland all field teams that have top-15 potential although each are currently ranked outside of the Top 25.
Nevertheless, the Seminoles, despite being neck and neck with Clemson, are my pick to take home the conference title.
Despite Jimbo Fisher’s seeming inability to coach teams that live up to their potential, this team is still the best in the ACC. However, any run at national significance will start with freshman quarterback Jameis Winston. The young quarterback, who was one of the nation’s best baseball players coming out of high school, is a dynamic playmaker who has the potential to be a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate by season’s end.
Still, Winston is a freshman and may struggle to live up to his lofty talent, however, he will benefit from a stable of talented backs including juniors James Wilder, Jr, *635 rushing yards, 136 receiving yards, and 13 total touchdowns) and Devonta Freeman (660 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns). Additionally, freshman Mario Pender is very talented and could make an impact.
Moreover, a young quarterback’s best friends are a good tight end (junior Nick O’Leary is one of the nation’s best) and a strong receiving corps. FSU returns impact receivers including junior Rashad Greene (741 yards), senior Kenny Shaw (632 yards), and, perhaps their most talented playmaker, sophomore Kelvin Benjamin (495 yards). Additionally, four of five offensive linemen return to keep pressure off the young signal caller.
Defensively, the Seminoles are always stellar, but Christian Jones (95 tackles, 7 TFLs) leads a group that will be one of the nation’s best. Junior defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, senior linebacker Telvin Smith, and senior defensive back Lamarcus Joyner have already proven to be elite playmakers. Young stars like sophomore defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, sophomore defensive end Mario Edwards, and sophomore cornerback Ronald Darby also join the group to make the Seminoles one of the fiercest defenses in the country.
Prediction: Looking at Florida State’s schedule, there are only two games that should be seriously competitive: at Clemson on October 19 and at Florida on November 30. However, Florida State always seems to lose games that it should not (last year it was NC State), so nothing can be taken for granted. I see this team winning the ACC, at least matching last year’s 12-2 record but losing at least one game that keeps it out of the title game.
Right there with the Seminoles are the Clemson Tigers, who Dabo Swinney has turned into a consistent powerhouse. With senior quarterback Tajh Boyd (3896 passing yards, 514 rushing yards, and 46 total touchdowns) returning, the Tigers could reach new heights in 2013.
The Tigers lose running back Andre Ellington and that position could be a major question mark over the season, though four out of five offensive linemen returning should ease that transition. At receiver, Clemson also lost DeAndre Hopkins yet they still have junior Sammy Watkins who is one of the most explosive playmakers in the nation. Junior Martavis Bryant will be leaned on heavily to fill the #2 void.
Defensively, the Tigers return a number of impact players including junior defensive end Vic Beasley (8 sacks), junior defensive end Corey Crawford (47 tackles, 1 sack, 5 TFLs), junior linebacker Stephone Anthony (77 tackles, 1 sack, 3.5 TFLs, and 1 interception), and sophomore safety Travis Blanks (51 tackles, 2 TFLs, 7 PBUs). True freshman cornerback Mackensie Alexander is also one to keep an eye on as well.
Prediction: The Seminoles may be the slightly better team, but Clemson is very good and a lot of credit should go to sixth year coach Dabo Swinney. With national title aspirations, the Tigers face a tough road to get there as they open with Georgia on August 31, face Florida State October 19, play at Maryland on October 26, and match up at rival South Carolina on November 30. Unfortunately for the Tigers, they could end up as the best 9-3 team in the nation. However, with Boyd at the helm, teams will need to be up significantly to put Clemson away, so there is a lot of reason for optimism for the Tigers, and I see them winning one against one of the SEC powerhouses for a 10-2 season.
In the Coastal division, the Miami Hurricanes appear to finally be on the right track again and return 10 starters from last season’s 7-5 team. Senior quarterback Stephen Morris (3346 passing yards) is at the helm, but sophomore running back Duke Johnson is the best player. Johnson rushed for 947 yards, had another 221 yards receiving, returned another 892 (a whopping 33 yard average), and scored 13 total touchdowns. Junior receiver Phillip Dorsett (842 yards) leads a strong group of receivers, and senior tackle Seantrel Henderson is the best among an offensive line group that returns all five starters. Defensively, the Hurricanes are not quite as strong but still return 8 starters. Juniors defensive end Anthony Chickillo (45 tackles, 4 sacks, and 2.5 TFLs) and Denzel Perryman (64 tackles, 6 TFLs, and 1 interception) are the headliners.
Prediction: Al Golden has this team on the right track, and the possess the pieces for significant improvement over year. Miami faces significant challenges on September 7 against Florida and on November 2 against Florida State. Those may be too much to overcome, but wins at North Carolina (10/17) and against Virginia Tech (11/9) could vault them into the 10-2 range.
Maryland was woeful at the quarterback position in 2012 after starter C.J. Brown and both of his backups went down with injuries, forcing a true freshman linebacker to take the reigns. The loss of Brown was not only a devastating blow on its own, but also hindered the use of the Terrapins greatest weapons, sophomore sensation Stefon Diggs. The electric wideout, who still managed 848 yards receiving (while also accumulating 934 yards and two touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns), will greatly benefit from having Brown back at the helm. Also, Diggs will be joined in the receiving corps by the top prep player in the nation last season, junior Deon Long. Like Diggs, Long can make some special plays happen and the two will form one of the nation’s best receiving corps. On the other side of the ball, Maryland returns five starters led by junior linebacker Cole Farrand (78 tackles, 6 TFLs). For the most part, the defense was a solid unit in 2012 outside of games against top competition, and they should put together a similar performance in 2013.
Prediction: Randy Edsall’s team has some of the conference’s top playmakers, and the Terrapins could be a force. The team is likely to lost on October 5 at Florida State and October 26 against Clemson, but games against West Virginia and at Virginia Tech could reveal how much better this 2012 4-8 team can be. A 9-3 or 8-4 type season is certainly within reach.
In his 27th season with the Hokies, Frank Beamer leads a team that will look to get to the ACC title game for the third time in four years. Offensively, senior quarterback Logan Thomas returns as the team’s leading passer (2976 yards) and rusher (524). However, Thomas, who threw for 16 interceptions in 2012 has yet to prove he can carry a team, and, like most Beamer teams, this will be a team driven by its defense. Senior cornerback Antone Exum (48 tackles, 16 PBUs, and 5 interceptions) is a stud at the corner position and is joined in the defensive backfield by star senior corner Kyle Fuller (52 tackles, 3 TFL, and 2 interceptions) and junior safety Kyshoen Jarrett (83 tackles, 4.5 TFLs). The front seven is also very talented with senior defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins (51 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 6.5 TFLs), senior defensive end James Gayle (43 tackles, 5 sacks, and 6 TFLs), and senior linebacker Jack Tyler (119 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 10.5 TFLs) among the nation’s top performers at their positions. Additionally, a trio of strong return men (Jarrett. Demitri Knowles, and JC Coleman) return as part of what looks to once again be a stellar special teams unit for VT.
Prediction: The Hokies’ defense will once again be fierce, however, Thomas will need to step up for them to be a serious contender in the ACC. Right now, I think Miami is a slightly better team in the Coastal, yet Virginia Tech could win the division with a light schedule. No one envies the Hokies for having to play Alabama in Week One, however, they avoid matchups against Clemson and Florida State. If they can win against one or two of North Carolina, Miami, and Maryland, they could win the division. Overall, this team seems like a 9-3 type team.
Larry Fedora was an outstanding hire for North Carolina last offseason, and the Tar Heels saw a quick benefit en route to an 8-4 2012. In his second season, Fedora and company could be eyeing an ACC title. With running back Giovani Bernard gone, however, senior quarterback Bryn Renner will have the offense leaning heavily on him. His top two receivers, including stud tight end Eric Ebron (625 yards) return, and senior tackle James Hurst should have Renner resting easy knowing his blindside will be protected. Although Fedora is an offensive minded coach, the defense returns terror senior defensive end Kareem Martin (40 tackles, 4 sacks, and 11.5 TFLs) as part of a solid unit. Senior safety Tre Boston (86 tackles and 4 interceptions) is also one of the best in the country.
Prediction: Like Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels somehow avoid FSU and Clemson, but they also do not face Maryland. Games against Miami and Virginia Tech, if they were to win one, could vault them into the ACC title game. If they hope to jump into the national spotlight, however, they will have to stop Jadeveon Clowney (though Hurst should do better than most) and the South Carolina Gamecocks in the August 29 opener. I do not think they yet have the firepower, but they could finish with a very respectable 9-3 record.
Outside of the top six, this is not a very strong conference and there is very little that differentiates the bottom half. Because of their consistency, Georgia Tech comes in at number seven. However, Paul Johnson has lost quarterback Tevin Washington which leaves a significant hole to fill.Running backs David Sims and Zach Laskey will be leaned on to compensate. However senior defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu is the team’s top returner after posting 10 sacks in 2012.
Prediction: The Yellow Jackets won the Coastal division in 2012 despite going 6-6 in the regular season (final record was 7-7). A similar record is expected this season as the team will likely be considered underdogs against North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Miami, BYU, Clemson, and Georgia.
Boston College posted a 2-10 record last season, but their performance was not quite as woeful as the record indicates. Although the Eagles will break in a new coach, they do return 18 starters from last season. Senior quarterback Chase Rettig showed improvement over the course of last season and should carry that into 2012. His top four receivers return including senior Alex Amidon who had 1210 receiving yards last season. Defensively, Boston College returns a pair of standout linebackers in seniors Kevin Pierre- Louis (85 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 TFLs) and Steele DeVitto (92 tackles).
Prediction: Steve Adazzio performed well enough at Temple to earn the job and times his takeover of the Eagles program well as the team returns most of its impact players from a year ago. Unfortunately, those 18 starters did not impress in 2012 and the team faces a tough schedule that includes conference foes FSU, Clemson, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, and Maryland in addition to PAC 12 opponent USC. Those can be penciled in as losses, and I would think they are likely to lose at least one more. Still, 5-7 is a major improvement from 2-12.
Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe has a knack for making the most out of very little, and the Demon Deacons once again do not have a whole lot of talent. They do, however, return most of the key pieces from a year ago. Senior quarterback Tanner Price (2300 yards) is solid and senior running back Joshua Harris (608 yards) is serviceable and senior wide receiver Michael Campanaro (763 yards) is quite solid. The top returners, however, may be senior nose guard Nikita Whitlock (51 tackles, 3 sacks, and 2.5 TFLs), who can make plays in opponent’s backfield from the interior, and senior linebacker Justin Jackson (82 tackles, 4 sacks, and 4.5 TFLs).
Prediction: The Demon Deacons will not blow anyone away will talent, but they are fundamentally sound and possess a strong enough defense, which returns 8 starters, to compete. Game #2 against Boston College (9/6) will go a long way towards establishing a pecking order in the bottom half of the ACC, but this team is not likely to be better than .500.
Dave Doeren did an excellent job with Northern Illinois in 2012, and he was a great hire for the North Carolina State Wolfpack. However, the team’s top two players from a year ago, quarterback Mike Glennon and cornerback David Amerson, are now in the NFL. The team, which returns a total of only ten starters, is likely going to be more run game centric which should put more pressure on sophomore running back Shadrach Thornton who ran for 694 yards last season while catching another 274. Thornton will be featured particularly as the Wolfpack search for a quarterback (Jacoby Brissett, who transferred from Florida will be a great fit but must sit out this year). Defensively, sophomore cornerback Juston Burris (44 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFLs, 6 PBUs, and 3 interceptions) could be an impact player and senior defensive end Daryl Cato-Bishop (36 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and 4 TFLs) will be looked to for big plays in key situations.
Prediction: Dave Doeren should get the Wolfpack to being highly competitive in the ACC, but it will likely be next year before he gets to that point. Still, despite a thin roster of returners, a light out of conference schedule as well as avoiding Miami and Virginia Tech could give NC State a shot at bowl eligibility with only a couple of in-conference wins.
Like NC State, Syracuse lost its star quarterback (Ryan Nassib) and defensive back (Shamarko Thomas) to the NFL. Moreover, head coach Doug Marrone is now with the Buffalo Bills. Still, the Orangemen return senior running backs Jerome Smith (1171 rushing yards) and Prince Tyson Gulley (830 yards rushing and 282 yards receiving). Junior linebacker Dyshawn Davis (69 tackles, 1 sack, 13 TFLs, and 1 interception) and senior linebacker Marquis Spruill (64 tackles, 2 sacks, and 7 TFLs) play on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage as part of a strong defensive unit for the Orangemen.
Prediction: Again, it is splitting hairs to distinguish among the bottom half teams, but Syracuse is unlikely to match its 8-5 record from last season. Four or five wins would be considered a successful season.
Mike London is a pretty good young coach and even has some of the nation’s top recruits coming to Virginia. However, he does not have the pieces right now for a serious run in the ACC. Offensively junior running back Kevin Parks ran for 734 yards last season will be relied on as the Cavaliers break in sophomore quarterback David Watford. True freshman running back Taquan Mizzell could provide significant spark as well, and the team’s top three receivers return. Helping all of them is senior tackle Morgan Moses, a mountain on the blindside, who is one of the best in the country. Junior safety Anthony Harris returns after recording 87 tackles in 2012.
Prediction: The Cavaliers face a brutal schedule that has out of conference games against BYU and Oregon (Ball State will not be a cake-walk either) as well as most of the top teams in the ACC including Maryland, Clemson, North Carolina, Miami, and Virginia Tech. Mike London’s team was 4-8 last season and that is likely to be about where they fall in 2013.
Offensive guru David Cutcliffe somehow has the Duke Blue Devils playing competitive football. Junior receiver Jamison Crowder returns as one of the best in the conference after 1074 receiving yards last year although Sean Renfee is no longer around to sling the ball around (that task likely falls to junior Anthony Boone), but Cutcliffe does return four of five starter linemen as well as leading rusher Jela Duncan (553 yards as a freshman in 2012). Senior cornerback Ross Cockrell is the best player on the team. He was stellar last season as he recorded 71 tackles, 1 sack, 3 TFLs, 13 PBUs, and 5 interceptions.
Prediction: Duke made a bowl game last year for the first time since 1994, but will face a tough road to doing it again. NC Central should be an easy win, but they will need to win five of at Memphis, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, Troy, Navy, at Virginia, NC State, and at Wake Forest or pull a major surprise against one of the conference’s elite teams to get back to one. It is possible that they could do it, but about four wins is more likely.
In his second year and the program’s first in the ACC, Paul Chryst could face a tough road. Tom Savage, who has bounced around since having a strong freshman season at Rutgers will be one of the more intriguing players in the conference as he takes over the for the Pittsburgh. While he will have senior receiver Devin Street (975 receiving yards) returning, the run game is not likely to do very well, so a lot of pressure will be on the quarterback who has not seen action for awhile. Senior safety Jason Hendricks (90 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, and 6 interceptions) and senior defensive tackle Aaron Donald (64 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and 13 TFLs) are some of the nation’s best at their positions.
Prediction: There are a lot of question marks with Pitt, but this team could end up towards middle of the conference. However, they could also end up at the bottom. Every game will be a battle for the Panthers as only New Mexico and Old Dominion would be semi-confident win projections. Still, this team should sneak in about two games in conference play so a 4-8 record is a reasonable expectation.
For more college football insights and analysis, follow @ColeMuzio on Twitter