Monday, August 18, 2014

Long and Suite Preview: The ACC/Notre Dame

By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

When you think of the ACC this year, chances are the defending national champion Florida State Seminoles, led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, are the first team to pop into your mind.

But the conference is far more than just the repeat-minded Noles, as Miami, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Clemson and Louisville all bring back talented squads that hope to ruin FSU's run to the College Football Playoff.

Here's what to expect from the ACC in 2014. Oh yeah, and Notre Dame is annoyingly still not in a conference, but now playing a quasi-ACC schedule. We'll look at the Irish as well.

2014 Projections

ACC Atlantic

1. Florida State
Last Year: 14-0, #1, BCS Champions, ACC Champions

We're going to talk a lot about the defending champs later, so I'll just give you the bullet points here. The Seminoles return seven starters on offense, including Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.

Six starters, all probably future NFL players, return on defense, and several years of top-flight recruiting should help Jimbo Fisher easily fill the two-deeps on both sides of the ball. With Winston and a talented supporting cast, FSU should be considered the favorites, not just in the ACC, but to win the inaugural College Football Playoff.

2. Clemson
Last Year: 11-2, #8

Clemson loses a ton from a great offense, including first round NFL Draft pick receiver Sammy Watkins and star quarterback Tajh Boyd. Still, the Tigers have as much talent as anybody in the ACC this side of Tallahassee, thanks to the miraculous recruiting of coach Dabo Swinney.

The offense will be totally rebuilt around either senior quarterback Cole Stoudt or freshman Deshaun Watson, but whomever steps in will have talent, if little experience around them with explosive redshirt freshman running back Wayne Gallman poised for a big first year.

The defense does bring back seven starters, including All-ACC middle linebacker Stephone Anthony and dominant pass rusher Vic Beasley. Beasley's monster 2013 (13 sacks, 23 TFL) has many in Clemson believing that the Tiger defense could carry the young offense through a learning year.

They may not be as talented or experienced as the Noles, but the Tigers are likely still the second best team in the ACC.

3. Louisville
Last Year: 12-1, #15

Replacing a first round pick at quarterback is never easy, but the Cardinals have the unenviable task of also finding a new head coach after Charlie Strong packed his bags for Austin. Well, instead of finding a totally new coach, the Cardinals simply brought back former, and now disgraced, boss Bobby Petrino. Louisville should have plenty of talent returning, especially on offense where seven starters return from a prolific unit.

Receiver DaVonte Parker will lead one of the best skill units in the conference, and four starters retuning on the line should help sophomore Will Gardner into his new role as the starting quarterback.

Things aren't as rosy on defense, where the Cardinals must replace seven starters, but senior Lorenzo Mauldin is easily one of the best pass rushers returning in the ACC. A largely young group will look to get its feet wet around him up front, and a new, tougher schedule should set the Cards back a bit.

If they were in the Coastal they'd have a shot, but in the brutal Atlantic with FSU and Clemson, better than third place is a lot to ask for from these Cardinals.

4. Syracuse
Last Year: 7-6, NR

Most of Syracuse's hoped improvement hinges on dual-threat quarterback Terrel Hunt being significantly more consistent in his junior season. The speedy Hunt rushed for over 600 yards and threw for another 1,600 in limited action last season, but his 10/8 TD to INT ratio is troubling. With seven other starters returning on offense, it will be on Hunt to lead the offense to better things in 2014.

On defense the Orange bring back a pair of talented defensive backs in safety Durrell Eskirdge and corner Brandon Reddish, but it will be on younger players like defensive end Ron Thompson to inject some play making ability into the front-7.

All in all, Syracuse has an experienced, if inconsistent team coming back. the Orange should contend for the middle of the division and make a bowl game, but a break out year from Hunt could send them as high as second in the Atlantic.

5. Boston College
Last Year: 7-6, NR

Coach Steve Addazio has bumped recruiting up in Chestnut Hill, and last year the Eagles returned to a bowl after a two-year absence, surprisingly blasting Arizona in the AdvoCare Bowl.

This year most of BC's experience returns on the defensive side, with star OLB Steven Daniels anchoring what should be a typically solid Eagle linebacking group. The offense will be rebuilt around a transfer QB after the loss of All-American running back Andre Williams. Former Florida Gator Tyler Murphy will hope his improvisational skills have a bit more success in the ACC after a taking a beating last year in the SEC.

He won't have any starting experience coming back at receiver, but the entirety of the interior offensive line coming back should provide some protection up the middle. It will be tough for the Eagles to get back to a bowl game, but the program has some tangible momentum for the first time since Matt Ryan left town. We'll see if BC can cash it in.

6. NC State
Last Year: 3-9, NR

N.C. State is a bit of a boom or bust proposition this season. The Wolfpack brings back seven starters on both sides of the ball, plus adds Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. Brissett should add an element of explosiveness to the position with his speed, but it remains to be seen whether or not he can truly command an offense.

We'll see this year.

Senior defensive end Art Norman will anchor a defense looking to step forward after finishing second-to-last in the ACC in points allowed. Norman's return, along with the continued development of a still young secondary should make N.C. State better in 2014, but a bowl game still might be a bit too much to ask for.

7. Wake Forest
Last Year: 4-8, NR

New coach Dave Clawson is not walking into a good situation, but few first year coaches ever are. The former Bowling Green head coach inherits a program that hasn't finished with a winning record since 2008 and finished dead last in the ACC in scoring offense a season ago.

It appears Clawson wants to change things in a hurry, recently naming true freshman John Wolford his starting quarterback. If it's a youth movement he wants, look for sophomore receivers Jared Crump and Tyree Harris to get a ton of playing time as well.

With only five starters coming back on both sides of the ball, expect Clawson to get his young guys experience and prepare for the years ahead where his (hopefully) more talented recruits can bring the Demon Deacons back to rarely found respectability.

ACC Coastal

1. North Carolina
Last Year: 7-6, NR

This division is wide open, but the Tar Heels should be the most talented team in the Coastal. Quarterback Marquise Williams finally got the job to himself when Bryn Renner's season ended with an injury, and Williams proved worthy of the gig. With a 15/6 TD to INT ration, and 1,700 in just six full games, Williams is a major reason why UNC's offense could be among the nation's best in 2014.

But there are other reasons. For one, North Carolina returns four of its top five pass catchers, including big play receiver Quishad Davis. The Tar Heels also bring back sophomore running back T.J. Logan, who impressed averaging nearly 6 YPC in part time duty last year.

The defense is stacked with talent, returning seven starters, led by pass rusher Norkeithus Otis. All in all, five of last year's starting seven is back, and both safeties return to anchor a young secondary.

After finishing last year on a magical five game run to qualify for a bowl, UNC has as much momentum as anyone in the country. They'll have to actually build on it, but in the wide-open Coastal, they have to be considered the favorites.

2. Miami
Last Year: 9-4, NR

These darn Hurricanes fool me every year! Last year, when Miami began the season 7-0 with wins over Florida and at North Carolina, I was getting ready for the return of Swag. But, an injury to star running back Duke Johnson, and the return of erratic play from quarterback Stephen Morris led to Miami dropping three in a row.

The Canes also couldn't keep up with Teddy and Louisville in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

Last year's defense was surprisingly below average, but tons of talent returns and, for the first time in years, Miami will be mature on that side of the ball. With only one freshman or sophomore penciled into the starting lineup, Miami will be physically ready to handle just about anything the ACC can throw at it.

Johnson returns from injury on offense and plenty of speed on the outside could lighten his burden. But it will all depend on if the quarterback can deliver the ball. Many believed that highly regarded redshirt freshman Kevin Olsen has the inside track to the job, but Kansas transfer Jake Heaps has impressed thus far in camp. Whoever it is, they'll have the tools to succeed, assuming they can protect the ball.

3. Virginia Tech
Last Year: 8-5, NR

Virginia Tech's struggles the past few seasons can largely be attributed to quarterback Logan Thomas never quite living up to expectations. Enter Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer, whom coach Frank Beamer hopes can give him a competent option, and allow the Hokies to win the old fashioned way.

Virginia Tech ranked second in the ACC to national champion Florida State in virtually every defensive category, but the up-and-down play of Thomas, not at all aided by his weak offensive line, sank the Hokies to 8-5 with an embarrassing bowl loss to UCLA. The defense should again be good, with five starters returning and longtime coordinator Bud Foster back in the fold.

The question will be on offense, where the Hokies return their leading rusher, sophomore Trey Edmunds, and all three of their top receivers to help Brewer turn things around. Four starters return from last season's disappointing line, but three are hitting their senior seasons, so if there was ever a time for improvement, it's now.

Virginia Tech won't be great, but they could just be good enough to grind out a division title.

4. Pittsburgh
Last Year: 7-6, NR

Pitt ranked near the bottom of the conference on both sides of the ball in its ACC debut, but close wins over Duke, Notre Dame, Syracuse and against Bowling Green in the Little Caesar's Bowl gave the Panthers their first winning campaign since 2010.

Hopes are now higher as coach Paul Chryst enters year three in the Steel City.

There will be talent to tinker with on offense as leading receiver Tyler Boyd returns. After a breakout season that saw him amass 85 catches for nearly 1,200 yards, Boyd seems poised to take the next step and become one of the nation's best. Pitt's top six rushers return behind a line that returns four starters.

Sophomore Chad Voytik looks to be the heir apparent at quarterback, but expect some growing pains early on, even with such an experienced supporting cast.

Defense is a way of life in the city of Pittsburgh, but the town's college team (not unlike its pro team) struggled to stop wide-open attacks in 2013. With both OLBs returning for their senior seasons, and promising end Shakir Sota getting his first chance to start, Pitt should be better, but don't expect the Steel Curtain either.

Pitt has a lot coming back on offense, but questions at quarterback, and in the defensive trenches should temper expectations for Chryst's bunch. Still, the time is now for Pitt to take the next step, with no Florida State, Clemson or Notre Dame on the schedule.

5. Duke
Last Year: 10-4, #23, ACC Coastal Champions

Duke surprised everyone last season, coming out of nowhere to win the Coastal Division, and the Blue Devils actually gave Johnny Football and Texas A&M a heck of a fight in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

The secret is certainly out about coach David Cutcliffe's bunch, but Duke may be even better this year. With eight starters returning on offense, including quarterback Anthony Boone, the Blue Devils should again score points. Turnovers are still an issue for Boone, however, which makes claiming Duke an offensive juggernaut ingenuine at this point.

The defense has a little more work to do, but an aggressive secondary built around safety Jeremy Cash should help Duke again be one of the hardest teams in the ACC to consistently pass on. Middle linebacker Kelby Brown seems to sniff out plays before they come, and OLB David Helton does a great job cleaning up the flat.

It's pretty much anybody's game in this division, so don't be surprised if this experienced Duke team is once again in the thick of things come November.

6. Georgia Tech
Last Year: 7-6, NR

Coach Paul Johnson's Yellow Jackets have been stuck in neutral the last few years, and they appear to be headed down that path again. Georgia Tech won't be bad, nor will anyone particularly want to face its unique Triple-Option attack, but the ceiling is pretty low.

Hope will ride on sophomore quarterback Justin Thomas' ability to command Johnson's system, which can be deadly when run properly, but predictable and easy to stop when run by a limited quarterback. If Thomas struggles with checks at the line and hesitates to throw it downfield against loaded boxes, it could be a long year on offense.

Defensively, the Yellow Jackets lose their leading tacklers and pass rushers, but return a tough corner in D.J. White. Adam Gostis has the ability to push the pocket from his defensive tackle spot and MLB Quayshawn Nealy is solid, so there are parts to build around up front as well.

As crazy as it is, Georgia Tech has been to a bowl game in 17 consecutive seasons. That's the third-longest streak in the country, but don't expect much more than bowl eligibility from this year's group.

7. Virginia
Last Year: 2-10, NR

The Cavaliers are your typical good news/bad news team coming off a terrible year. The good news is that almost everybody is back, and the bad news is that all of those guys were pretty bad in 2013. One positive is that sophomore Greyson Lambert appears to have wrestled the starting quarterback position from junior David Watford. Neither was great last year, but Lambert showed some promise off the bench at the end of the season, and they'll need somebody that can at least take care of the ball after Watford's 15 interceptions sank UVA's season early.

The offense loses its top two receivers, but running back Kevin Parks returns after a 1,000 yard campaign, and he'll have three returning linemen up front to block for him. The defense gave up an ACC worst 34.5 points per game in 2013, so the nine returning starters on that side of the ball don't inspire much confidence.

This team will have experience and some new found moxie at quarterback, but don't expect any miracles in coach Mike London's fifth season. This could be the end of his time in Charlottesville, as the Cavaliers have had just one winning season in his tenure.

Notre Dame
Last Year: 9-4, #20
2014 Projection: 8-4

Notre Dame came flying back to Earth last season after a magical 2012. The Irish seemed to run out of luck after starting quarterback Everett Golson was kicked out of school and the defense suffered a rash of injuries, keeping them a notch below the nation's elite.

Several play makers are gone from a championship caliber defense, with the front-7 hit particularly hard, but star linebacker Jaylon Smith's sideline-to-sideline tackling ability should mask plenty of weaknesses.

The return of Golson, a true dual-threat, is a welcome site for coach Brian Kelly after his offense limped to a 53% completion percentage and looked bogged down at times. Then-freshman Tarean Folston came on strong at the end of last year, and should team with Golson to form an explosive backfield.

Golson coming back should certainly help Notre Dame, but the dismissal of three starters, including receiver DaVaris Daniel and and defensive lineman Ishaq Williams, after an academic fraud investigation could slow the Irish out of the gate.

The Irish face a brutal schedule with trips to Florida State, USC and Arizona State looming, along with home games against Michigan, Stanford, North Carolina, Northwestern and Louisville. Notre Dame could be improved, but the record may not show it.

Players to Watch

Everett Golson, QB, Notre Dame

Tommy Rees certainly wasn't bad replacing Golson after the then-sophomore was kicked out of school for academic misconduct, but he also wasn't the unique weapon that Golson became during Notre Dame's run to the 2012 BCS Championship Game.

The Irish will need that dynamic play maker to return this season if they are to navigate the aforementioned brutal schedule and return to a marquee bowl game. Coach Brian Kelly's offense will give Golson plenty of high percentage throws to make and a ton of space to work in while he's running, but keeping the chains moving and limiting turnovers against several great defenses will be a challenge.

At the end of the day, Notre Dame may be a year away, but if Golson again overachieves, they could be playing on New Year's Day, or beyond.

Luther Maddy, DT, Virginia Tech

Coach Frank Beamer has always hung his hat on defense and special teams. Maddy gives the Hokies the chance to be dominant in the former. The powerful and, perhaps more importantly, athletic defensive tackle has a knack for finding his way into opposing backfields.

After leading the team with 6.5 sacks and 13.5 TFL as a junior, Maddy will look to make another leap in his final collegiate season. If he does, Virginia Tech could be back in the ACC Championship Game, and Maddy could be fighting for a first round NFL Draft grade at next year's Combine.

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