Who has the best football roster in the ACC heading into 2014?
Love or hate football recruiting, it matters. Coaching, support staffs, financial situations and even a little bit of luck goes into winning football games, but having great players always helps too.
So recruiting rankings are just one facet of a deliberate and in-depth equation that helps Athlon Sports project the college football season every year.
When the staff sits down to hash out the Athlon Sports preseason Top 25 each year, recruiting rankings are as much a part of the discussion as returning starters, scheduling differences, coaching changes and historic trends. It all gets incorporated into what eventually becomes the best-selling college football preview magazine on newsstands.
The ACC will go through yet another change in 2014 as the College Football Playoff Era begins. Louisville, fresh off 23 wins over the last two seasons, will join one year after Pitt and Syracuse entered the league. Maryland is off for greener (cha-ching) pastures in the Big Ten and so yet another era of ACC football begins.
However, with all of the turnover in recent years, the ACC will begin play in ’14 with a familiar face leading the charge.
Here is how the ACC rosters rank entering the 2014 season. Below is each roster in the ACC based on average national recruiting ranking over the last five classes (according to 247Sports), each team's win-loss record over the last four seasons and some analysis of what it all means heading into the '14 season.
What did we learn?
Florida State is a cut above
This is not rocket science. Florida State is by far the most talented team in the ACC. The Noles rank behind only Alabama in terms of overall talent nationally — tied with Florida for second with a national recruiting rank of 5.8 nationally. So it should come as no surprise that Jimbo Fisher’s squad has the best overall (45-10) and conference record (26-6) over the last four years. In fact, the recruiting class rankings indicate that no one is really even close. So as if the defending BCS National Champions and returning reigning Heisman Trophy winner needed any more help in their effort to repeat, Florida State will enter 2014 with a significant talent advantage in the ACC once again.
Clemson is Clemson
Ten or fifteen years ago, that statement would have carried a negative connotation. Now, however, it's positive. Clemson has really good players and is winning a lot of games. In fact, the Tigers are essentially tied with Miami as the league's second-most talented roster and is tied with Virginia Tech for the second-most ACC wins over the last four years (24-8). Has Clemson slipped behind Florida State to some degree? Certainly. But if the Tigers continue to recruit as well as they have and continue to get coaching from a star-studded staff, then they should be the top challenger to the Noles for the foreseeable future.
Mike London’s Last Chance
Over the last four seasons, London and the Cavaliers have the worst conference record of any team in the ACC by three games (8-24). Overall, Virginia is tied with Wake Forest for worst overall record at 18-31. Yet, the difference for the Wahoos is their recruiting has been solid. According to the recruiting rankings, Virginia has the sixth-best roster in the ACC, ahead of Louisville, Pitt, NC State, Georgia Tech and Boston College. After one winning season 2011, London has struggled to win games and it should be no secret that this is a make-or-break season in Charlottesville for the fifth-year head coach.
Good things ahead for Larry Fedora, Al Golden?
While Mike London is on the hottest of ACC hot seats, two others should be poised to win. Or at least, will face increased expectations to win. Larry Fedora has the fifth-best roster coming back to Chapel Hill in 2014 and yet North Carolina is just .500 in ACC play over the last four seasons (9-7 under Fedora). He has the talent to work with but now needs to separate himself from his two predecessors — both of whom barely finished above .500 themselves (Butch Davis, 28-23; Everett Withers, 7-6). Fedora's talent at his previous stop, Southern Miss, relative to his competition in the C-USA underachieved. Will he experience the same thing in the ACC or will the Tar Heels win more than five conference games for the first time since 1997, when Mack Brown was still wearing Carolina blue.
Golden is in an even better situation with the No. 2-ranked roster in the league coming back to Coral Gables this summer. The time is now for a well-respected coach at a program that normally competes for national championships. Clearly, Golden didn't know the gravity of the situation he stepped into when he took the Miami job three years ago but his steady hand and throwback sideline style has increased Miami's win total in three straight seasons — from six wins to seven to nine. The Coastal Division race is wide open and he has what appears to be the best roster among the any of the contenders. The time is now for the Canes.
Paul Johnson knows what he is doing
Has Georgia Tech lost a lot of games over the last four years? Yes, 25 in fact. But Johnson's team trails only Florida State (26), Clemson (24) and Virginia Tech (24) for ACC wins over the last four seasons. And he is doing it with one of the "poorer" rosters in the league. Johnson's depth chart ranks 10th in terms of talent entering this fall but his teams consistently beat those ranked above them as it relates to recruiting. He is 6-for-6 in postseason berths, has won three division titles and at least five ACC games in three straight seasons. Despite what could be perceived as an apparent lack of talent, Tech should once again compete for a division crown in '14.
Tough road for the new kids on the block
Syracuse has the 12th-best roster in the ACC heading into 2014. It definitely feels like the Orange will settle in as just another middle of the pack ACC squad on the football field. Pitt and Louisville have significantly more talented rosters but are still well behind the top of the conference when it comes to recruiting. All three were accustomed to be near the top of the Big East recruiting rankings in their old stomping grounds. Now, however, the Cardinals have the seventh-best roster entering this summer while the Panthers check in at eighth. It will be an uphill battle for all three.
Is the end really near for Beamer Ball?
Virginia Tech has slumped the last two seasons. There is no debating that. However, Frank Beamer's team is still tied for second in the ACC with a 24-8 record over the last four seasons and Tech's recruiting has seen a slight uptick over the last three classes — averaging as the 23rd-ranked class over the last three seasons. That is up significantly from back-to-back classes ranked outside of the top 30 in the two previous cycles. So the question becomes: Were the last two years Beamer's fault — an older coach slipping in the twilight of his career like so many before him — or just Logan Thomas' fault? The '14 season will be a critical one in Blacksburg.