ACC

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#47 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

NATIONAL FORECAST

#47

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Paul Johnson, 48-32 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Paul Johnson | DEF. COORDINATOR: Ted Roof

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 47 Georgia Tech.

Previewing Georgia Tech’s Offense for 2014:

The thought last year was that Georgia Tech’s offense could take a jump forward because it had never had a quarterback like Vad Lee — a true dual-threat who could make run-focused defenses pay with his arm. Unfortunately, Lee completed only 46 percent of his passes — not entirely his fault — and had a hard time operating coach Paul Johnson’s option offense.

Move forward a year, and a similar thought is being applied to replacement quarterback Justin Thomas. The former state high school sprint champion is the fastest and quickest quarterback that Johnson has had, someone who could make the option offense explosive just with his feet. Last season, mostly in mop-up action, Thomas had 33 carries, and five of them went 20 yards or more.

The question, though, is whether Thomas can make that happen on a consistent basis. He struggled in the spring with his ball-handling and his decision-making with option reads. There’s also the matter of whether or not an offensive line that will replace three starters who had combined for 117 career starts can find suitable replacements among a fairly inexperienced lot.

Beyond wide receiver DeAndre Smelter — who joined the football team after a three-year run with the Yellow Jackets’ baseball team to become the team’s most consistent and dangerous threat in the passing game — Georgia Tech doesn’t have a proven pass-catcher. B-back (fullback) Zach Laskey has speed and runs hard behind his pads but has played a backup role the past two seasons. B-back Travis Custis was supposed to be a contributor in the backfield, but he was ruled ineligible following spring practice.

Previewing Georgia Tech’s Defense for 2014:

Defensively, the Jackets face a similar uncertainty. Six starters are lost, including All-America defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu and defensive back Jemea Thomas, a clutch playmaker.

Georgia Tech will have to find and develop three new starters on the defensive line from a group that couldn’t push the starters in 2013. Coordinator Ted Roof would prefer that he have backups who can play and contribute. Whether that happens could determine the course of the season. Key pieces include nose tackle and returning starter Adam Gotsis (14.5 tackles for a loss last season); and defensive tackle Shawn Green, who didn’t see the field much because of injuries. Jabari Hunt-Days was expected to move from linebacker to defensive end but was ruled ineligible for the 2014 season following spring practice.

There are solid players elsewhere. Linebacker Quayshawn Nealy is a three-year starter with a nose for the ball, and fellow linebacker Tyler Marcordes came on strong in spring practice. At safety, Isaiah Johnson and Jamal Golden missed most or all of last season with injuries, but they bring experience and savvy. Cornerback D.J. White is a star on the rise.

The Jackets also expect to be more comfortable now in the second year under Roof’s guidance. Tech improved from 28.3 points per game allowed in 2012 to 22.8 last fall.

Previewing Georgia Tech’s Specialists for 2014:

Kicker Harrison Butker made 10-of-14 field-goal attempts, but he needs to improve on his kickoffs. Punter Ryan Rodwell redshirted last season after playing in six games in the 2012 season. Consistency will be his big challenge. After missing the final 10 games of the season with a shoulder injury, Golden should give a boost as a return specialist. In 2012, he was the only player in the country in the top 12 in both punt and kickoff return average.

Final Analysis 

The Jackets seem stuck around the seven-win mark, almost always competitive but usually falling short against top-tier competition. If all the variables fall their way, this could be a nine-win team that contends for the Coastal Division title. But if Thomas struggles and the defense takes a step back, six or seven wins could be the ceiling.  




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#28 Louisville Cardinals

NATIONAL FORECAST

#28

ACC Atlantic PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Bobby Petrino, 41-9 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Garrick McGee | DEF. COORDINATOR: Todd Grantham

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 28 Louisville Cardinals. 

Louisville Cardinals Previewing Louisville’s Offense for 2014:

Exit Teddy Bridgewater. Enter Bobby Petrino. The first guy was Louisville’s dynamic quarterback the last three seasons. The second is the Cardinals’ new head coach, a guy with a proven record of putting 40 points on the scoreboard, regardless of his quarterback. That’s what Louisville expects now that Petrino has replaced Charlie Strong. The Cardinals lack a tested quarterback. Will Gardner completed eight passes last season. But Petrino smiled broadly after Gardner completed 32-of-37 passes for 542 yards and four touchdowns in Louisville’s spring game. The backup spot remains open.

Gardner has every weapon an unproven quarterback could want — halfbacks, wide receivers, tight ends and four returning linemen.

Don’t believe the hype that Petrino is a pass-only coach. He isn’t. Petrino believes in a power-running game, especially while protecting a lead in the second half. Running back is the deepest pool of talent on the team. Dominique Brown led Louisville with 825 yards last season, but the two most impressive runners during the spring were Auburn transfer Michael Dyer and freshman L.J. Scott.

Petrino is convinced that receiver DeVante Parker is a first-round NFL Draft pick because of his size, speed and sure hands. James Quick, a five-star recruit in 2013, should emerge on the other side. Petrino will create ways to get the ball to Eli Rogers, Kai De La Cruz and tight end Gerald Christian.

Four starters return to what should be one of the better offensive lines in the ACC.

Previewing Louisville’s Defense for 2014:

Petrino’s biggest recruit on defense was bringing coordinator Todd Grantham from Georgia. The Cards ranked first nationally in total defense and second in scoring defense last season, numbers that will be difficult to replicate with only four returning starters — defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin, linebacker James Burgess and corners Charles Gaines and Terell Floyd.

Grantham will have to rebuild the middle of his defense — both tackles, interior linebackers and both safeties.

“I feel real good about our front seven,” Petrino says. “We’re going to be good on the interior. Our linebackers are going to be able to play the way we want to play.”

Here are the guys who will have to deliver to justify Petrino’s confidence: end Sheldon Rankins, nose tackle DeAngelo Brown and linebackers Nick Dawson and Keith Kelsey.

The secondary is a greater concern, because safeties Calvin Pryor and Hakeem Smith were three-year starters, and Jermaine Reve, the only experienced replacement, missed the spring game with a knee injury. Safety is usually a dangerous spot for a freshman or junior-college transfer, but Grantham will take a long look at true freshman Michael Johnson.

Previewing Louisville’s Specialists for 2014:

Strong was more concerned with ball control and field position than long returns. Petrino will change that. Gaines will handle kickoffs, and Quick, a state champion sprinter, is eager to return kickoffs and punts, if Petrino agrees. Placekicker John Wallace has a strong and accurate leg, making 20-of-24 field goals last season, including 11-of-13 from 30 yards or longer. Punter Ryan Johnson dropped 11 kicks inside the 20.

Final Analysis

New quarterback, new coach, new conference (the ACC), new, more formidable schedule. There’s a lot to process for a program that won 23 games as well as the Sugar and Russell Athletic bowls the last two seasons. But Petrino has won everywhere he’s coached in college — including a 41–9 record during his first stint at Louisville. If Gardner stays healthy, the Cards have enough weapons to score big on everybody but Florida State, Clemson and Notre Dame. Defense will determine if Louisville can win more than eight.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#31 North Carolina Tar Heels

NATIONAL FORECAST

#31

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Larry Fedora , 15-10 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Seth Littrell | DEF. COORDINATOR: Dan Disch, Vic Koenning

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 30 North Carolina.

Previewing North Carolina’s Offense for 2014:

North Carolina has plenty of weapons entering Year 3 with coach Larry Fedora’s fast-paced attack. The question is whether the Tar Heels will get enough help from the offensive line in order to utilize their skill position talent.

Quarterback Marquise Williams figures to be the trigger man after guiding UNC to four wins in its final five games last season. Williams has improved as a passer and has the strength and toughness to pick up tough yards as a runner.

UNC is especially loaded at running back, where returning starter T.J. Logan leads a quartet full of speed and power. Incoming recruit Elijah Hood figures to make an immediate impact with his punishing style, and fleet-footed Romar Morris and Khris Francis also will contribute.

At receiver, the production of All-ACC tight end Eric Ebron will be difficult to replace. But the Tar Heels have nice variety among their wideouts. Quinshad Davis and Bug Howard are tall, rangy targets on the outside, and Ryan Switzer and T.J. Thorpe are shifty, speedy players with open-field ability.

Up front is where the questions exist. The Tar Heels lost their top two performers from a unit that was shaky for much of last season. They must find a left tackle to replace departed star James Hurst, and they need Lucas Crowley to emerge in his starting role at center.

Previewing North Carolina’s Defense for 2014:

Torched for the first half of the 2013 season, UNC’s defense improved as players gained a better grasp of Vic Koenning’s aggressive scheme. Star defensive end Kareem Martin is gone, but the unit should be better than it was in Fedora’s first two seasons.

Koenning likes to bring blitzes from all over the field, but he should be able to get a consistent pass rush from Norkeithus Otis at the Bandit position. Otis had 7.5 sacks last season and leads a deep group up front that also features run-stopping nose tackle Ethan Farmer.

At linebacker, senior Travis Hughes returns for one final chance to capitalize on lofty potential that has gone mostly unfulfilled. The coaching staff wanted to get UNC’s best athletes on the field together more often, so speedy senior Darius Lipford was shifted from Bandit to middle linebacker. However, Lipford declared for the NFL's supplemental draft in July.

The secondary should be improved with the emergence of cornerback Brian Walker, a potential star, and the move of senior Tim Scott from corner to free safety. Safety Dominique Green and Ram Malik Simmons also are coming off promising finishes to 2013.

Previewing North Carolina’s Specialists for 2014:
The Tar Heels are dangerous on special teams. Switzer, who led the nation in punt return average and tied an NCAA record with five punt returns for scores last season, puts fear in the hearts of opposing coaches and punters. Logan brought back a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns last season, and Thorpe led the ACC in kickoff return average in 2011. Punter Tommy Hibbard has helped the Tar Heels lead the league in net punting each of the last two years. Kicker Thomas Moore lacks accuracy from long range, but he is reliable from inside 40 yards.
Final Analysis

The Tar Heels have enough talent to challenge for first place in the ACC’s Coastal Division, which remains unpredictable and up for grabs, but their margin of error is small. In truth, UNC looks to be in better shape for 2015 than for this season. The offense has only one senior on the two-deep depth chart, and the defense would benefit from another year of experience up front and in the secondary. But the Tar Heels have to play the 2014 season first. If they perform better than expected along the offensive line and get a breakout season from someone on a defense that lacks an established star, the future could be now. 




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#30 Miami Hurricanes

NATIONAL FORECAST

#30

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#2

HEAD COACH: Al Golden , 22-15 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: James Coley | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mark D’Onofrio

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 30, the Miami Hurricanes. 

Previewing Miami's Offense for 2014:

Coordinator James Coley’s fast-paced attack averaged 33.8 points and 425.8 yards per game in 2013, but with quarterback Stephen Morris graduating and heir apparent Ryan Williams unlikely to be ready after undergoing April knee surgery, this group has some challenges.

Quarterback Kevin Olsen is working to hold off Gray Crow and freshmen Brad Kaaya and Malik Rosier, but Olsen has no game experience and some accuracy issues. There are some major playmakers at running back and receiver. Lining up in the backfield is one of the nation’s most talented backs, first-team All-ACC pick and All-America candidate Duke Johnson. He’s recovered from a broken ankle suffered in game eight last year and is looking to build on a season in which he averaged 174 all-purpose yards per game. He’ll run behind a solid line that returns three starters, including NFL prospect Ereck Flowers.

At receiver, Allen Hurns is gone after setting a school record with 1,162 yards, and it may be more of a receiver-by-committee approach. But if someone is going to fill Hurns’ shoes it will likely be Stacy Coley, who showed game-breaking speed as a freshman with 591 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns. There’s solid depth here with Phillip Dorsett, Rashawn Scott and Herb Waters, and tight end Clive Walford is a big target down the middle of the field. Walford was second on the team with 34 receptions last season. This should be one of the ACC’s more talented group of pass-catchers.

Previewing Miami's Defense for 2014:

Miami must improve dramatically on defense after ranking 13th in the ACC last season, allowing 426.4 yards per game. The Canes struggled to get to the quarterback and had trouble stopping the run — not a good combination.

There are decent playmakers on the defensive line in end Anthony Chickillo and tackle Olsen Pierre, but there isn’t anyone here who commands a double-team. Look for five-star signee Chad Thomas and junior college arrival Michael Wyche to make immediate impacts up front.

At linebacker, Denzel Perryman ranked fifth in the ACC with 108 tackles, and he’s moving from outside to the middle. The coaches had high hopes for Alex Figueroa, but the sophomore linebacker was dismissed from the team in July.

The secondary is a solid group led by shutdown corner Tracy Howard and his team-high four interceptions. On the other side, Ladarius Gunter has 17 career starts on his résumé. At safety there’s starting experience with Rayshawn Jenkins and Deon Bush. If the line gets pressure, the defensive backs should hold up long enough to make their share of plays.

Previewing Miami's Specialists for 2014:

The Canes have to replace punter Pat O’Donnell, who ranked second in the nation with a 47.1-yard average in his only season at Miami. Placekicker Matt Goudis may handle both roles even though he says he prefers not to punt. Goudis showed off a strong leg on field goals last season, making 13-of-17 attempts with a long of 49 yards. The return game will be a strength, as the team ranked No. 2 in the ACC in kick returns (25.1 ypr) and No. 4 in punt returns (11.3 ypr). 

Final Analysis

Ten wins were once the norm at Miami, and now it’s a place to set the bar for 2014. The last time UM reached double-digit victories was 2003, and the only way it happens this year is with an improved defense and solid quarterback play. Certainly the pieces are in place on offense for an explosive group, but new faces on both sides of the ball need to make significant impacts for Al Golden’s team to reach its goals.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#38 Duke Blue Devils

NATIONAL FORECAST

#38

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: David Cutcliffe , 31-44 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Scottie Montgomery | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jim Collins, Jim Knowles

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 38 Duke.

Previewing Duke's Offense:

Quarterback Anthony Boone was at the controls of a highly productive offense in 2013 (32.8 ppg), but his performance last season was actually quite uneven. There were times, such as the historic win at Virginia Tech, in which the Blue Devils won in spite of Boone. There was talk of a legitimate QB competition in the spring, but that all changed in April, when Brandon Connette — who has been used in more of a Swiss Army knife role in previous seasons — announced his plans to transfer to a school in California to be near his mother, who has brain cancer.

Duke flourished despite erratic play at quarterback because it developed into a highly balanced offense. The Blue Devils ran for 178.0 yards per game in 2013, their highest average since 1977. The four-back rotation that Duke used to pile up those yards took a hit when Jela Duncan was dismissed from school for violating academic policy, but the Blue Devils still have productive options in Josh Snead and Shaquille Powell.

Two starters must be replaced on an offensive line that opened holes and still pass-blocked at the usual high levels (just 17 sacks allowed), but the three most vital parts — left tackle Takoby Cofield, right guard Laken Tomlinson and center Matt Skura — all return.

Duke also gets one more season from arguably its most valuable player, explosive wideout/returner Jamison Crowder, who enjoyed a record-setting season in 2013. 

Previewing Duke's Defense:

The Duke defense still had its struggles in 2013 (58 points against Pitt?) but it made up for its tendency to give up yards (418.0 per game) with a timely knack for making big plays. The Blue Devils forced the fourth-most turnovers in the ACC (26), led by a ball-hawking secondary that was responsible for 16 of the team’s 18 interceptions.

That will have to be the formula again this fall, because Duke still has issues on the defensive line. The Blue Devils had loads of experience there last season, but still not much in the way of production. Now all but one starter on that unit is gone, leaving just defensive tackle Jamal Bruce and a whole lot of question marks.

Fortunately for Duke, the secondary that was the big concern heading into last season is now the source of strength in 2014. Even without All-ACC corner Ross Cockrell, there’s plenty of talent in this group, led by tackling machine Jeremy Cash at safety. It may get even better if redshirt freshman Evrett Edwards makes the impact that many expect.

Also expected? Plenty of tackles from Duke’s pair of starting linebackers, David Helton and Kelby Brown. Keeping the talented but injury-prone Brown healthy will be key.

Previewing Duke's Specialists:

Perhaps no school in the country is more set on special teams than Duke. The Blue Devils feature All-ACC-caliber performers at kicker (Ross Martin), punter (Will Monday), punt returner (Crowder) and kick returner (DeVon Edwards). Last year, special teams played a critical role in several Duke wins. Expect the same this fall.

Final Analysis

The Coastal Division race should be wide open again this season, and Duke should be in the thick of it. Thanks to a pillow-soft non-conference schedule, and the absence of Clemson, Florida State and Louisville among Atlantic Division crossover opponents (the Devils get Syracuse and Wake instead), a third straight bowl game seems highly likely for the Blue Devils. A repeat trip to the ACC title game? Duke seemed to catch just about every late-game break in 2013 (for a change). It’s hard to envision a repeat of that level of magic again this fall. And the Blue Devils certainly won’t be sneaking up on anyone this time around.




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