Athlon reviews the ACC and looks ahead to the second half of 2014.
At the midpoint of the 2014 season, familiarity reigns in the ACC. Florida State is clearly the No. 1 team in the league, and uncertainty overshadows the Coastal Division.
The Seminoles are likely to be favored by at least 10 points in every game the rest of the way and should be a heavy favorite over the Coastal Division champion in Charlotte. Barring an upset loss, Florida State will be one of the four teams in college football’s inaugural playoff.
Clemson is the ACC’s No. 2 team, but the Tigers suffered a setback with a hand injury to quarterback Deshaun Watson in Saturday’s win over Louisville. The talented true freshman will miss a couple of games but could return by early November. Assuming Florida State makes the playoff, Clemson – assuming it wins out or finishes 9-3 – would be the favorite to take the Seminoles’ spot in the Orange Bowl.
While there’s clarity on the Atlantic side, the Coastal is anyone’s guess. Virginia was projected by most to finish last in the Coastal this year. But the Cavaliers are 2-0 and sit atop the Coastal with six conference games remaining. Georgia Tech, Duke, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh all have one loss in ACC play after Week 7. Miami and North Carolina – two preseason favorites – are in the basement with two conference losses.
Midseason Reviews and Second-Half Predictions
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2014 ACC Midseason Review and Second-Half Predictions
Coach of the Year: Mike London, Virginia
London was squarely on the hot seat entering this season, but the fifth-year coach has the Cavaliers in the mix for the Coastal Division title at the midpoint of 2014. Virginia is 4-2 overall, and at 2-0 in conference play, is the only unbeaten team left in the Coastal. The Cavaliers still have to play Duke, Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech, but London has the program on the right track and poised to return to the postseason for the first time since 2011.
Newcomer of the Year: Tyler Murphy, QB, Boston College
Tough call for this award at the midway point. Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya, NC State quarterback Jacoby Brissett, Virginia safety Quin Blanding and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson all deserve a mention, but Murphy gets the award after six games. The Florida transfer has thrived in Boston College’s run-first offense, averaging 118.5 rushing yards per game and 8.3 yards per carry. Murphy ranks third in the ACC in rushing yards (711). The senior is a work in progress as a passer (3 TDs, 6 INTs), but his emergence is a big reason why Boston College is on track to earn another bowl appearance in coach Steve Addazio’s second year.
Offensive Player of the Year: Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
Yes, Winston missed a game due to suspension, but he’s clearly the best player in the conference. With a struggling offensive line and rushing attack, the sophomore has even more of the offensive load on his shoulders, and Winston has responded with a strong first half. The sophomore is completing 70 percent of his passes (three points higher than 2013), has passed for 1,605 yards and 11 scores. Winston has completed at least 62 percent of his passes in four out of the five games he’s played in, and threw for 370 yards in the opener against Oklahoma State. And Winston’s passing numbers are even more impressive when you consider Florida State had to replace two of its top four receivers from last year.
Defensive Player of the Year: Vic Beasley, DE, Clemson
Beasley entered 2014 as one of the top defensive players in the nation, and the senior has picked up where he left off. In six games, Beasley has 15 tackles – nine for a loss – recorded eight sacks, two pass breakups, three quarterback hurries and one forced fumble. Beasley’s eight sacks rank third nationally, and the senior has recorded at least one in every game this year. One of Beasley’s best games of 2014 took place in Tallahassee, as he recorded two sacks and two tackles for a loss against Florida State’s veteran offensive line.
Midseason Disappointment: North Carolina
Miami is a possibility for this spot, but North Carolina gets the nod after a 2-4 overall and 0-2 start in ACC play. The Tar Heels were not impressive in season-opening wins over Liberty and San Diego State and have dropped four in a row since. North Carolina lost three of its four games by 15 points or more but played well in a 50-43 defeat to Notre Dame on Saturday. Problems on both sides of the ball have contributed to the 2-4 start, as the Tar Heels are allowing 6.2 yards per play on defense, and the offense has lost 12 turnovers and is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry in ACC games. Youth has attributed to a chunk of North Carolina’s problems, especially on the defensive side and on the offensive line. The young talent is promising for 2015 and beyond, but the thoughts of North Carolina contending for a division title in 2014 were probably premature.
Midseason Surprise: Georgia Tech/Virginia
As we mentioned earlier, the Coastal Division favorite is anyone’s guess. Virginia is the only undefeated team in conference play, but the Cavaliers’ schedule will increase in difficulty over the next two months with a trip to Tallahassee to play Florida State, along with a road date at Virginia Tech in the finale. Virginia was considered the easy pick for No. 7 in the Coastal this preseason, but the Cavaliers are in the mix to win the division behind a stellar defense. Georgia Tech also entered 2014 with uncertainty, and coach Paul Johnson was on the hot seat after a 7-6 mark in 2013. The Yellow Jackets have jumped out to a 5-1 start this year and have already played Miami, Virginia Tech and Duke. The Coastal Division is unpredictable, and even though Georgia Tech and Virginia are flawed teams, both have emerged as frontrunners after being picked near the bottom in the preseason.
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Three Things to Watch in Second Half
1. Florida State’s Repeat Bid
The Seminoles have dropped in the polls due to the emergence of Ole Miss and Mississippi State, but Florida State is still a heavy favorite to make college football’s playoff. The path to another unbeaten season is favorable, especially if the Seminoles can navigate their next two games: Notre Dame and at Louisville. Finishing with an unbeaten record in back-to-back years is not easy, but Florida State has the talent and personnel to win it all once again. Quarterback Jameis Winston is getting more comfortable with his revamped receiving corps, and the offensive line – tagged as one of the best in the nation this preseason – can play better. On defense, the Seminoles are young and still adapting to new coordinator Charles Kelly. This unit should improve over the course of the season, especially if young players like defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi and end Lorenzo Featherston continue to emerge as options on the defensive line. Additionally, the return of linebacker Matthew Thomas should help bolster Florida State’s front seven.
2. The Coastal Division
Good luck picking a frontrunner. Is it Virginia? Georgia Tech? Miami? Virginia Tech? Pittsburgh? Duke? You get the picture. North Carolina is 0-2 and probably the biggest longshot of winning the Coastal, but any of the six teams ahead of the Tar Heels in the standings have a chance to win. This should be an entertaining race over the next half of the season, and a 5-3 record might be enough to win the division.
3. Development of Young QBs
While Florida State’s quest for a repeat and the Coastal Division are intriguing national storylines, the development of young quarterbacks in the conference is something to watch over the second half. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson is out a couple of weeks due to a hand injury, but the freshman was off to an impressive debut. Will Louisville find an answer between Will Gardner or Reggie Bonnafon under center? NC State’s Jacoby Brissett played well against Florida State but struggled against Clemson and Boston College. Can Brissett work his way back into the mix for All-ACC honors? And with Terrel Hunt sidelined, keep an eye on true freshman A.J. Long at Syracuse. On the Coastal side, Miami’s Brad Kaaya, Virginia Tech’s Michael Brewer and Pittsburgh’s Chad Voytik are all quarterbacks with an opportunity to develop over the second half of the season. There’s a lot of quarterback uncertainty in the conference after Florida State’s Jameis Winston. Which passers will emerge in the final half of the season?
Top Five Games in Second Half
1. Notre Dame at Florida State (Oct. 18)
Two of college football’s top programs meet in Tallahassee for the first time since 2002. And it’s a battle of two of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Notre Dame’s Everett Golson. No shortage of intrigue in Doak Campbell Stadium on Oct. 18.
2. Florida State at Miami (Nov. 15)
What was once a great rivalry has been a one-sided affair in recent years. Florida State has won four in a row over Miami, including a 41-14 blowout against the Hurricanes last year. This could be a critical spot for Miami coach Al Golden, as he needs to have a good showing against the No. 1 team in the ACC.
3. Georgia Tech at Clemson (Nov. 15)
This rivalry has produced a few entertaining matchups and high-scoring affairs. Last year’s game alone produced 86 points and Clemson has won three out of the last four in this series. This game could be a critical one for Georgia Tech’s Coastal Division title hopes.
4. Virginia Tech at Duke (Nov. 15)
Could this game decide the Coastal Division? The Hokies lost 13-10 to Duke last year, but Virginia Tech won the previous 12 games in this series.
5. Virginia at Virginia Tech (Nov. 28)
The Commonwealth Cup is on the line, but this game also could have ACC title implications. Virginia Tech has won 10 in a row over its in-state rival.
Next up: Florida State at Louisville (Oct. 30), Florida at Florida State (Nov. 29), Miami at Virginia Tech (Oct. 23), Clemson at South Carolina (Nov. 29)
Projecting the Final 2014 ACC Standings