The ACC heads into 2014 on stable ground and with plenty of forward momentum surrounding the conference.
Maryland is set to depart for the Big Ten on July 1, and the ACC welcomes Louisville into its 14-team setup. The Cardinals were one of the top programs in the American Athletic/Big East and should be a solid addition to the conference.
Not only is the ACC adding a program with the ability to be a top-25 team each season, the conference is home to college football’s defending national champion – Florida State. The Seminoles own arguably the No. 1 roster in college football for 2014, one of the nation’s top coaches in Jimbo Fisher, and the defending Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Jameis Winston. With a favorable schedule and a loaded roster, Florida State is positioned to repeat as college football’s national champions. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Only one team during the BCS era (Alabama) was able to go back-to-back.
After Florida State in the Atlantic, Clemson ranks as the No. 2 team. The Tigers lose quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins, but there’s still a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. With end Vic Beasley deciding to stay at Clemson for his senior year, the defensive line is among the best in the nation. Despite the departures of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and coach Charlie Strong, Louisville is projected to finish No. 3 in the Atlantic. The Cardinals should remain explosive on offense with quarterback Will Gardner, running back Michael Dyer and receiver DeVante Parker, but the defense has some holes to fill, especially in the secondary with the loss of standout safeties Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor.
The second tier of the Atlantic Division starts with Syracuse, projected to finish No. 61 nationally. The Orange finished 2013 by winning four of their last six games and return an improving quarterback in Terrel Hunt, along with one of the ACC’s top offensive tackles in Sean Hickey.
Syracuse is projected to finish No. 4 in the Atlantic, but Boston College and NC State aren’t far behind. The Wolfpack could be the most-improved teams in the ACC behind transfer quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
While the Atlantic Division has a clear pecking order, the Coastal is up for grabs. Six teams appear to have a shot at the division title, with Virginia projected to finish a distant seventh.
Virginia Tech is Athlon’s projected Coastal Division champion, but there’s very little separation between Frank Beamer’s team and Miami or North Carolina. The Hurricanes have concerns at quarterback and on defense, but in terms of overall talent, Miami owns the No. 2 roster in the ACC. The Tar Heels have an explosive offense, which will be needed with a defense that has concerns on each level.
Prep for the 2014 season, follow Athlon Sports and its college football editors on Twitter: @AthlonSports, Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), David Fox (@DavidFox615) and Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Inside the War Room: Key Questions That Shaped Athlon's 2014 Predictions
What gave Virginia Tech the edge in the Coastal?
The 2014 Coastal Division is as wide open as any division in any league that we can remember. Six of the seven teams — all but Virginia — were in the discussion for No. 1. Eventually, we boiled it down to Virginia Tech, Miami and North Carolina. The biggest issues for North Carolina are a suspect offensive line and concerns on the defensive line and in the secondary. Miami’s schedule is very difficult — Louisville and Florida State are the crossover opponents — and the Canes’ defense has struggled in recent years. Also, there is now a concern at quarterback with Ryan Williams out with a torn ACL.
That leaves us with Virginia Tech. The Hokies have their problems on offense, but the defense will be outstanding. The schedule is also very favorable. They play Miami at home and do not play the top three teams in the Atlantic Division — Florida State, Clemson and Louisville. We’re not sure Virginia Tech will be the best team in the ACC Coastal in 2014, but it looks as though it is the team most likely to win the division. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)
With so many key players back, how can Duke go from division champs to fifth place?
Duke was one of the nation’s biggest surprises in 2013, but it took some fortunate bounces for the Blue Devils to win the Coastal Division crown. They managed a 6–2 league record despite being outgained by an average of 41.4 yards in their eight regular-season ACC games. They actually won a game on the road in which they did not convert a third-down attempt, beating Virginia Tech 13–10 in Blacksburg. This is in no way meant to discredit Duke’s accomplishments in 2013. It was an amazing season for a program that for years had been among the worst in the nation. But the numbers don’t lie; Duke was a good, but hardly great, team that could just as easily gone .500 in the league. Going forward, Duke should remain competitive, but it’s hard to envision this team posing a serious challenge in the Coastal. The offense should once again be potent, but the defense will remain a problem. The Devils ranked 13th in the league (in ACC games) in total defense last year, allowing 451.0 yards per game. That has to improve significantly. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Is there a sleeper team to watch in the ACC in 2014?
Pittsburgh. Aaron Donald is a huge loss for the defense, but the offense has a chance to improve in the third year under coach Paul Chryst. New quarterback Chad Voytik is promising and had a good showing in the bowl win over Bowling Green. The Panthers also have a solid backfield with James Conner and Isaac Bennett returning after each rushed for over 700 yards last season. Receiver Tyler Boyd is one of the best in the nation, and the offensive line – a source of concern in recent years – appears to be taking a step forward. Also, Pittsburgh’s schedule is favorable. The Panthers won’t play Florida State, Louisville or Clemson in crossover play with the Atlantic. Instead, Pittsburgh plays a manageable slate of Syracuse and Boston College. And key games against Coastal foes Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech are at home. – Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Which prediction scares us the most?
Georgia Tech seems a little low at No. 6 in the Coastal Division. The Yellow Jackets went 5–3 in the league last year — highlighted by a 24-point win over Coastal Division champ Duke — and have a remarkable streak of 19 straight seasons without a losing record in league play. So why so low this year? Well, as we mentioned earlier, the Coastal is wide open, and not much separates the top six teams in the division. But we had to pick someone sixth, and Georgia Tech was the choice to finish behind Pittsburgh and Duke. The Jackets have some concerns at the skill positions, most notably at quarterback after the surprising transfer of quarterback Vad Lee. Some Georgia Tech fans might consider Justin Thomas an upgrade, but he has yet to prove he can operate Paul Johnson’s option attack with consistency. Also, Tech’s top two rushers (David Sims and Robert Godhigh) are gone, and the defense must replace six starters. The schedule presents some challenges as well; the Jackets — unlike Miami, Pitt and Duke — have to play Clemson from the Atlantic Division and two of their key swing games are on the road — at Pittsburgh and North Carolina. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)
What is Florida State’s biggest obstacle to repeat?
Good question. Take a look at Florida State’s roster and schedule. See many holes or concerns? Didn’t think so. The receiving corps needs to be revamped with the departure of Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin, but there’s also a lot of talent. Five-star recruits Ermon Lane and Travis Rudolph add depth and could make an instant impact if Christian Green or Jesus Wilson fails to secure a starting spot. The secondary is among the best in the nation, but the front seven has a few pieces to replace. Tackle Timmy Jernigan is the biggest loss from the 2013 unit, as there’s not a ton of proven depth on the interior. How the defense responds to new coordinator Charles Kelly will also be interesting to watch. Punting is also concern as Cason Beatty struggled in 2013. None of the mentioned obstacles could impact Florida State during the regular season but could be a bigger issue in the playoffs. Barring a complete meltdown with turnovers or sluggish play, the Seminoles should finish the regular season unbeaten and own the top spot in college football’s four-team playoff. – Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Is there any hope for Virginia to finish anywhere but last in the Coastal?
Obviously, anything can happen, but the Cavaliers have a huge hill to climb in 2014. Virginia went 0–8 in the league last year — with all but one loss coming by 10 points or more — and doesn’t appear much better (on paper) this season. Plus, the schedule is very difficult, with crossover games against Florida State and Louisville from the Atlantic Division. – David Fox (@DavidFox615)
2014 ACC Team Previews
ACC Bowl Tie-Ins for 2014
ACC Champ: Orange* vs. SEC/Big Ten/N. Dame
Capital One: Big Ten or ACC vs. SEC
Russell Athletic: ACC vs. Big 12
Gator/Music City: ACC or Big Ten vs. SEC
Belk: ACC vs. SEC
Sun: ACC vs. Pac-12
Pinstripe: ACC vs. Big Ten
Military: ACC vs. American
Independence: ACC vs. SEC
Detroit: ACC vs. Big Ten
St. Petersburg: ACC vs. American
* If conference champ is not in CFB Playoff
by Nolan Hayes (@tnolanhayes)
QB Or Not QB?
Jameis Winston made the most of his first opportunity to be Florida State’s starting quarterback, winning the Heisman Trophy and guiding the Seminoles to the national championship last season. He returns for his sophomore season with only 14 career starts to his credit, but he is a grizzled veteran when it comes to ACC quarterbacks in 2014.
Amazingly, Winston has more career starts than any other signal-caller in the league.
Just five of the conference’s 14 teams — Duke, Florida State, North Carolina, Syracuse, and Virginia — return their starting quarterback from last season. UNC is included in that group only because an injury to Bryn Renner allowed Marquise Williams to start five games that he would not have started otherwise.
Six of the teams in the conference do not have a quarterback who has started a major-college game. The number almost could be seven, with Miami’s Ryan Williams (who started 10 games for Memphis in 2010) suffering a torn ACL during the spring.
Clemson must move on without Tajh Boyd, the ACC’s career leader in passing efficiency. Louisville kicks off its first season in the league after saying goodbye to Teddy Bridgewater. Virginia Tech needs a replacement for Logan Thomas, the school record-holder for career total offense. Georgia Tech’s Vad Lee decided to transfer.
The list goes on and on, creating a sharp contrast to the experience the conference had at quarterback entering 2013. Last year, the ACC had a league-record five quarterbacks returning who had at least 6,000 career passing yards.
What are the consequences of the ACC’s inexperience at football’s most important position? It’s reasonable to expect more mistakes and less efficiency from ACC quarterbacks as a whole this season. While that’s less than ideal for a conference that is trying to build on the momentum created by a national championship and two consecutive Orange Bowl victories, some hope remains.
Maybe there’s another Jameis Winston ready to shine.
The ACC welcomes Notre Dame to the league this season … sort of. The Fighting Irish are not members of the conference in football, but they will play four ACC teams this season as part of an agreement with the league that granted Notre Dame’s other athletic teams membership in the ACC. Notre Dame plays Syracuse in East Rutherford, N.J. (Sept. 27), home against North Carolina (Oct. 11), at Florida State (Oct. 18), and home against Louisville (Nov. 22).
Notre Dame will play six games against ACC teams in 2015 and then five games against ACC foes in 2016. As part of the agreement with the conference, the Fighting Irish will play every ACC team at least once every three seasons.
A New ‘Big Game’
Speaking of the Coastal Division and its 2013 champion, Duke’s rise has been nothing short of amazing under coach David Cutcliffe. Opposing teams used to worry about playing at Duke because the atmosphere and opponent were so bad that it was hard to get excited about the game. These days, Duke’s opponents worry about playing against a team that can beat them.
How much progress have the Blue Devils made? They won six conference games last season — exactly twice the amount they won in eight years combined before Cutcliffe’s arrival in 2008. After back-to-back bowl appearances and back-to-back wins over rival North Carolina, this much is clear: The nation needs a new punchline, and the ACC needs a new doormat. Duke no longer fits the bill on either account.
“As far as I’m concerned, Duke is one of the top-tier programs right now,” UNC wide receiver Ryan Switzer says. “Coach Cutcliffe has got them on a roll. They came into Kenan last year and whipped us. They’ve beaten us the past two years, so you can’t not put Duke as a big game. You can’t do it anymore. You can’t look past them.”
A League Divided
The critics of the ACC’s two-division format got louder after Louisville replaced Maryland, which bounced to the Big Ten, in the Atlantic Division. The Cardinals went 23–3 over the past two seasons, including a 3–1 mark against schools now in the ACC, and they have Bobby Petrino back as their head coach. So it’s safe to assume that Louisville will make life tougher for the other teams in the Atlantic than Maryland would have.
The reality for fans of Atlantic Division members Boston College, NC State, Syracuse and Wake Forest is sobering. They already had it tough with Florida State and Clemson, the top two programs in the league in recent years, in their division. But now they must find a way to hurdle another strong program just to earn a trip to the ACC Championship Game.
On the other side in the Coastal Division, the story is different. Miami and Virginia Tech have been perennially great in the past, and they might be perennially great again. But they aren’t special programs right now, and that has left the door open for other teams (hello, Duke) to walk through on the way to the league championship game.
ACC Coordinator Carousel
by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Duke: Offensive Coordinator
Old: Scottie Montgomery, Kurt Roper; New: Scottie Montgomery
Roper, a longtime David Cutcliffe assistant, is now the offensive coordinator at Florida. Montgomery, who was an All-SEC wide receiver at Duke in the late 1990s, is now the lone offensive coordinator.
Florida State: Defensive Coordinator
Old: Jeremy Pruitt; New: Charles Kelly
Pruitt bolted after only one season at Florida State and is now the defensive coordinator at Georgia. Kelly was promoted from linebackers to coach to defensive coordinator. His duties will shift from coaching linebackers to defensive backs. He has been a coordinator at Jacksonville State, Nicholls State and Henderson State.
Louisville: Offensive Coordinator
Old: Shawn Watson; New: Garrick McGee
Watson followed Charlie Strong from Louisville to Texas. McGee resigned as the head coach at UAB to become the offensive coordinator at Louisville. McGee worked for Petrino at Arkansas from 2008-11 and had a previous stint as the offensive coordinator at Northwestern. He began his playing career at Arizona State but played his final two seasons at Oklahoma.
Louisville: Defensive Coordinator
Old: Vance Bedford; New: Todd Grantham
Bedford is now the defensive coordinator at Texas, working for his old boss at Louisville, Charlie Strong. Grantham spent the past four seasons as the defensive coordinator at Georgia. He also has experience as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, with the Browns from 2005-07.
North Carolina: Offensive Coordinator
Old: Blake Anderson; New: Seth Littrell
Anderson is now the head coach at Arkansas State — the fourth in the last four seasons for the Red Wolves. Littrell spent the last two seasons as the offensive coordinator at Indiana, where his offenses ranked near the top of the Big Ten.
Wake Forest: Offensive Coordinator
Old: Steed Lobotzke; New: Warren Ruggiero
Lobotzke was not retained by the new staff and landed as the offensive coordinator at Division II Winston-Salem State. Ruggiero followed new Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson from Bowling Green.
Wake Forest: Defensive Coordinator
Old: Brian Knorr; New: Mike Elko
Knorr accepted a position as the defensive coordinator at Air Force but left 10 days later for the same position at Indiana. Elko made the move from Bowling Green with Dave Clawson. He was the Falcons’ defensive coordinator for five seasons.