Getty Images

CFT 2016 Preseason Previews: the ACC

Leave a comment

As the 2016 season draws near, we will peek into our crystal ball and guess project how each of the five major conferences will play out. Today, we will be examining the East Coast’s Power Five entrant.

The first two years of the College Football Playoff, the ACC, along with the Big Ten and SEC, sent a team to the semifinals each postseason go ’round.  Florida State was knocked out of the semifinals by Oregon in 2014, while Clemson made it to the national championship game last year before being bested by Alabama.

During that span, and really for a couple of years prior, FSU and Clemson were essentially the only football things the conference had to crow about nationally.  Could this be the year when other teams in the league join them?  That remains to be seen, although North Carolina and Louisville both have the talent and potential to be labeled as playoff darkhorses entering the 2016 season.

So, without any further ado, let’s see how this little corner of the college football world sees the ACC race shaking out.

ACC ATLANTIC

1. Clemson (14-1 in 2015; lost to Alabama in College Football Playoff title game)
This is damn-near flip-a-coin territory as you really couldn’t go wrong in the top spot with two of the best teams not only in the division but in the country.  In the end, I went with the team with the more experienced — and, for now, talented and productive — quarterback.  Deshaun Watson is not only the most heralded and decorated quarterback at the FBS level, he’s one of the most gifted players at any position in the game and is earmarked for the Top Three of next year’s NFL draft.  In the sport of college football, one player — see: Newton, Cam — can indeed make a team better than the roster would suggest they should be.  Fortunately for Watson, he’s not in that category as he’s surrounded by talented playmakers, although there could be some concern in replacing experience lost on the defensive side of the ball.

2. Florida State (10-3 in 2015, lost to Houston in Peach Bowl)
Last year was a quote-unquote “rebuilding year” at FSU, and the Seminoles still managed a 10-win season and a spot in one of the New Year’s Six bowl games.  They return nine starters on offense — one of those starters, quarterback Sean Maguire, will begin the season on the sidelines due to injury, replaced by redshirt freshman Deondre Francois — and six on the defensive side of the ball.  Since winning the national championship in 2013, Jimbo Fisher has pulled in recruiting classes ranked second (2016), third (2015) and fourth (2014).  So yes, there is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to talent.  And, perhaps most importantly, they get Clemson at home in Tallahassee this season.

3. Louisville (8-5 in 2015, beat Texas A&M in Music City Bowl)
After winning six of their last seven games last season, Louisville is poised to provide Clemson and Florida State with a challenge in the ACC Atlantic — whether that statement should end with an exclamation point or question mark remains to be seen.  The Cardinals nearly derailed the Tigers’ early-season title hopes last season in coming three points shy of an upset.  That was followed a month later by a 20-point loss to the Seminoles.  With 16 returning starters, including superb dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson, the talent is certainly there for the U of L to, potentially, compete with the big boys of the division.  Whether they can turn that competing potential into reality will be known within the first month of the season as they will face their divisional nemeses in Weeks 3 (FSU) and 5 (at Clemson).

4. North Carolina State (7-6 in 2015, lost to Mississippi State in Belk Bowl)
The following stat is highly illuminating, and a fairly good summation of the state of the Wolfpack under Dave Doeren: in the last two seasons, NC State went 0-10 vs. bowl-eligible teams in the regular season, 13-1 vs. teams that weren’t.  In other words, the Wolfpack is just good enough to qualify for a middle-of-the-road bowl, but don’t appear even remotely ready to compete against the best the division has to offer let alone the conference elite.  The loss of do-everything quarterback Jacoby Brissett won’t help get to the next level, and neither will a schedule that features road tests against Clemson, Louisville and North Carolina as well as home dates with Notre Dame, Florida State and Miami.

5. Boston College (3-9 in 2015)
Coming off a combined six wins the previous two seasons, BC went 7-6 in each of the first two years of the Steve Addazio era on Chestnut Hill.  Year 3 brought a slide back to 3-9, a mark that included zero wins in conference play, again renewing concerns about the future of the Eagles football program.  The Eagles careened to the end 2015 on an eight-game losing streak and will enter 2016 with a third offensive coordinator in four seasons.  The defense being above-average is a given; if Scot Loeffler can resurrect a moribund offense, BC could be headed back to a bowl game after a one-year sabbatical.

6. Wake Forest (3-9 in 2015)
Hired to replace the resigning Jim Grobe, Dave Clawson was viewed as a head coach who could help breathe some life into a flailing football program.  Instead, Clawson has put a pair of three-win seasons on the board — the worst two-year stretch for the Demon Deacons since four wins in 1995-96 — that have left his seat at least a little bit on the warm side.  Wake hasn’t played in a bowl since 2011, and Clawson hasn’t shied away from publicly stating the postseason is his goal this season.  The schedule sets up somewhat favorably for a bowl run as Wake plays seven homes games this year, with six of those coming against sub-.500 teams.  If a bowl is not in the picture? Place Clawson squarely on the hot seat entering 2017.

7. Syracuse (4-8 in 2015)
If nothing more, first-year head coach Dino Babers and his fast-paced offense will add some on-field electricity to a Carrier Dome that could certainly use it.  Whether that translates into immediate success in the won/loss column seems unlikely as Babers will likely need 2-3 years to procure the personnel that will fit his system.  Well, that and the fact that Babers inherited a program that won a combined seven games the past two seasons.  And a 2016 schedule that includes games against Louisville, Notre Dame, Clemson and Florida State.

ACC COASTAL

1. North Carolina (11-3 in 2015, lost to Baylor in Russell Athletic Bowl)
North Carolina allowed two touchdowns fewer per game last season than the year before, and they return six defensive starters from that much-improved squad.  While they return seven starters on the other side of the ball, one of those that has to be replaced is record-setting quarterback Marquise Williams.  The good news is that Williams’ replacement, redshirt junior Mitch Trubisky, has plenty of experience, having thrown for 1,000-plus yards in 19 games as a career backup.  The schedule could prove problematic in getting back to double-digit wins as UNC opens the season on a neutral field against Georgia, then travel to Florida State, Miami and Duke the rest of the year.  Still, the Tar Heels should be the team to beat in the Coastal.

2. Miami (8-5 in 2015, lost to Washington State in Sun Bowl)
Let’s get this out of the way upfront: Mark Richt is a significant upgrade over Al Golden on the sidelines, and it’s not really close.  Richt’s parting of the ways with Georgia paved the way for The U to find its best hope for a return to national prominence since the days of Butch Davis.  With 15 returning starters, a number that includes ACC passing-yards-per-game leader Brad Kaaya, the talent is there for Richt to make an immediate impact.  In fact, it should surprise no one if it’s the Hurricanes representing the Coastal in a conference championship game — an appearance that would mark Miami’s first-ever appearance in the title tilt since joining the league in 2004.  And that little factoid, in a nutshell, sums up the pre-Richt State of The U.

3. Pittsburgh (8-5 in 2015, lost to Navy in Military Bowl)
James Conner and his kicking cancer’s ass — while also rehabbing a bum MCL — is one of the feel-good stories of the entire 2016 offseason.  Combine a healthy Connor with reigning ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year Qadree Ollison, and the Panthers would possess one of the most talented backfield tandems in the conference if not the nation.  Coming off the program’s best season in five years under first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi and returning 16 starters, there’s a cautious optimism permeating the Steel City.   Whether that optimism remains after league road trips to North Carolina, Miami and Clemson — not to mention a date with Oklahoma State in Stillwater — is to be determined.

4. Virginia Tech (7-6 in 2015, beat Tulsa in Independence Bowl)
For the first time in nearly three decades, Frank Beamer won’t be patrolling the sidelines when Tech opens the 2016 season.  40-year-old Justin Fuente is Beamer’s replacement, and arguably the best move he made since his hiring was retaining long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster.  With Foster in place, Fuente can turn his attention to installing his up-temp offense in Blacksburg.  It may take a year or two — and a recruiting class or two — for Fuente’s offensive ways to take root and blossom, but he should prove to be one of the three best hires of the 2015 coaching carousel.

5. Georgia Tech (3-9 in 2015)
From the opener in 2014 through the first two games of last season, Tech won 13 of 16 games.  After that, the Yellow Jackets went 1-9 the last 10 games to stagger to the end of 2015.  The lone win in that stretch?  A 22-16 shocker over Florida State.  The good news, if you can call it that, is that six of those nine losses were by eight points or less, with three of those coming by four or fewer.  Still, Tech’s streak of 18 straight bowl appearances came to an end; if the running game gets back to its previous levels — they averaged nearly 90 yards fewer on the ground than the year before — and Justin Thomas reverts to his sophomore form under center, there’s no reason the Yellow Jackets can’t start a new one.

6. Duke (8-5 in 2015, beat Indiana in Pinstripe Bowl)
In the first iteration of this preview, I slotted Duke at No. 4 in the Coastal, in very large part because of the guarded (misguided?) optimism that starting quarterback Thomas Sirk would, coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon, return at some point early on in the 2016 season.  Whoops?  With Sirk out for the season, the task of maintaining Duke football’s lofty levels of recent success has gotten exponentially more difficult.  The Blue Devils won 27 games the past three seasons, five more than the program won, combined, in the 13 seasons before David Cutcliffe‘s arrival in 2008.  What people tend to forget is that, prior to win totals of 10 (2013), nine (2014) and eight (2015) the past three seasons, Cutcliffe’s squads posted win totals of four, five, three, three and six from 2008-12; here’s to guessing there’s a dip back toward the latter in 2016 before rising back to the former.

7. Virginia (4-8 in 2015)
Bronco Mendenhall was one of the best — and most surprising — hires of the most recent spinning of the coaching carousel, but the former BYU head coach has his work cut out for him in Charlottesville.  The past four seasons under Mike London, the Cavaliers won a total of 15 games.  UVa. also, naturally, struggled in conference play, winning just eight of 32 ACC games in that span.  If anyone can get the program turned around it’s Mendenhall, although it’ll take time.  Fortunately for all involved, the new coach should get plenty of that.

CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION
Clemson over North Carolina

Jim McElwain says Florida is heading to Texas to “beat the heck out of Michigan”

Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images
1 Comment

It goes without saying that coaches will say what coaches say. Suggesting their team is on a mission to score a big win in front of fans clad in the school colors should not be taken for anything more than simply aiming to get a rise out of the fans. Mission accomplished for Florida head coach Jim McElwain, but possible bulletin board material for Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh.

Speaking before Florida students over the weekend, McElwain laid it out there by saying his Gators were looking to do one thing against Michigan; win with authority.

“We’re heading to Dallas here in a couple weeks to go beat the heck out of Michigan, and then come back to you guys,” McElwain said, according to SEC Country.

The Gators are opening the college football season next week in Arlington, Texas against the Michigan Wolverines of the Big Ten. Florida will be a bit undermanned with the recent suspension of seven players, including star wide receiver Antonio Callaway. Michigan also won the most recent meeting between the two schools, with Harbaugh’s Wolverines dominating McElwain’s Gators in the Citrus Bowl two seasons ago (41-7).

Michigan will be looking to reestablish its identity with a good amount of roster turnover this season, but the depth hit from the recent suspensions in Gainesville may help give Michigan an edge. Either way, we can only look forward to seeing how Harbaugh potentially responds once this claim from McElwain makes its way to Ann Arbor.

Roll Tide! Alabama tops preseason AP Top 25; OSU, FSU, USC receive first-place votes

1 Comment

For the fourth time under head coach Nick Saban, the Alabama Crimson Tide will begin a college football season as the No. 1 team in the Associated Press Top 25.

The defending SEC champions received 52 first-place votes from the AP voters, easily pulling away from No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Florida State. Both the Buckeyes and Seminoles received first-place votes, as did No. 4 USC. But none of those schools received more than four first-place votes from the voters. Alabama and Florida State meet in Week 1 next week in Atlanta.

Defending national champion Clemson was left without a first-place vote, but still starts the year highly-ranked at No. 5. They are followed by Penn State, fresh off a Big Ten championship from last season. Defending Pac-12 champion and College Football Playoff participant Washington starts the year at No. 8, one spot behind the defending Big 12 champion Oklahoma Sooners with a first-year head coach in Lincoln Riley. Oklahoma travels to Columbus, Ohio to play Ohio State in Week 2. Wisconsin and Oklahoma State round out the top 10 in the preseason AP poll.

The lone Group of Five team in the preseason top 25 is USF, with new head coach Charlie Strong taking over the Bulls. Strong’s new team is ranked No. 19, a few spot s ahead of his old program, the No. 23 Texas Longhorns (now coached by Tom Herman).

The SEC leads the country with six teams appearing in the preseason AP Top 25, followed by the ACC and Big 12 with five ranked teams each. The Big Ten and Pac-12 each have four schools represented. No independent teams appear in the preseason top 25.

And here is the full AP Top 25 preseason poll, with first-place votes noted);

  1. Alabama (52 first-place votes)
  2. Ohio State (3)
  3. Florida State (4)
  4. USC (2)
  5. Clemson
  6. Penn State
  7. Oklahoma
  8. Washington
  9. Wisconsin
  10. Oklahoma State
  11. Michigan
  12. Auburn
  13. LSU
  14. Stanford
  15. Georgia
  16. Louisville
  17. Florida
  18. Miami FL
  19. USF
  20. Kansas State
  21. Virginia Tech
  22. West Virginia
  23. Texas
  24. Washington State
  25. Tennessee

Tennessee WR Josh Smith to miss start of season with broken collarbone

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Tennessee will be without wide receiver Josh Smith at the start of the season, including the season opener in Atlanta against Georgia Tech next week. Smith will be out of action for the next four to eight weeks with a broken collarbone.

This is the latest injury setback for MSith, who has had ankle surgery in the past as well as a groin injury in January. After catching 13 passes for 97 yards and a touchdown last season, MSith was expected to be a larger contributor to the offense this season as a slot receiver. That may eventually to prove true, but just how soon he can get back on the practice field, let alone a game field, remains to be seen.

At the minimum four weeks, Smith would likely not be returning to the field until a Week 3 matchup with UMass in Knoxville or the Week 4 SEC East battle with Georgia, also in Neyland Stadium. Tennessee has a bye week after the Georgia game to allow for an extra week of rest and recovery if needed. If Smith is out for a full eight weeks, his first game back for the Vols could potentially be the October 21 game at Alabama.

Smith also returned six punts last season for a total of 35 yards.

CFT 2017 Preseason Previews: Playoff Predictions

Getty Images
3 Comments

Fair warning: CFT’s 2017 College Football Playoff predictions are boring

But, sometimes, reality is boring.

Alabama and Ohio State have pulled ahead of the pack in recruiting, return a number of players — or, at least, a large enough number to outflank the competition — and are still coached by Nick Saban and Urban Meyer. As such, our staff is picking (with one outlier) those two to square off for the 2017 national championship, with different views on how the title game goes down.

Kevin
Rose Bowl: Ohio State over Florida State
Sugar Bowl: Alabama over Penn State
CFP National Championship: Ohio State over Alabama

Bryan
Rose Bowl: Ohio State over Florida State
Sugar Bowl: Alabama over USC
CFP National Championship: Ohio State over Alabama

Zach
Rose Bowl: Ohio State over Stanford
Sugar Bowl: Alabama over Florida State
CFP National Championship: Alabama over Ohio State

John
Rose Bowl: Ohio State over USC
Sugar Bowl: Florida State over Alabama
CFP National Championship: Ohio State over Florida State