CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 05:  Deshaun Watson #4 of the Clemson Tigers holds the ACC Championship trophy after defeating the North Carolina Tar Heels 45-37 at the Atlantic Coast Conference Football Championship at Bank of America Stadium on December 5, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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CFT 2016 Preseason Previews: the ACC

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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

Local Auburn man arrested after setting Toomer’s Corner oak tree on fire

AUBURN, AL - SEPTEMBER 10: Fans of the Auburn Tigers roll trees at Toomer's Corner after defeating the Arkansas State Red Wolves at Jordan Hare Stadium on September 10, 2016 in Auburn, Alabama. The Auburn Tigers defeated the Arkansas State Red Wolves 51-14.(Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images)
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Police have identified and arrested a 29-year-old Auburn, Ala. man after he allegedly set fire to one of the oak trees at the famous Toomer’s Corner.

Fans traditionally celebrate a Tigers victory by “rolling” the trees with toilet paper and did so once again on Saturday night following an 18-13 victory over LSU. However, video surveillance showed a suspect lighting some of the paper on fire, setting the tree ablaze as he walked away.

The Auburn city police department, in a release obtained by USA Today, stated that “witnesses at Toomer’s Corner identified a suspect, who was immediately detained and taken into custody by police on an unrelated charge of public intoxication.” Several reports identified the suspect as Jochen Wiest.

Firefighters quickly responded to the fire and extinguished the burning tree but university officials are still evaluating the damage to the oaks.

“From the ground we can easily see damage to the leaves and base of the tree. It is significant,” Professor of Horticulture Gary Keever said in a statement released by the school. “I expect the foliage will continue to drop. The full extent of damage may not be known for several weeks. The best case scenario would be to see a flush of new growth next spring, but right now it’s too early to tell how the tree will respond.”

The incident is all the more emotional for Auburn fans given that the tradition had just been revived this season following a three-year absence as a result of an Alabama fan poisoning the oaks. Hopefully the area around Toomer’s Corner can recover in time for the Tigers’ next win, which might be as soon as Saturday when they host Louisiana-Monroe.

Notre Dame officially parts ways with defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder

FILE - In an Aug. 29, 2014 file photo, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, right, talks with defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder during practice during media day for a NCAA football team in South Bend, Ind. It was announced Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, that Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder following a 1-3 start. The school tweeted a new release saying VanGorder is being replaced by defensive analyst Greg Hudson.(AP Photo/Joe Raymond, File)
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Notre Dame has officially parted ways with embattled defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

“This is a difficult decision,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”

Notre Dame has allowed 134 points through their first four games and are just 1-3 after extremely high preseason expectations. This was VanGorder’s third season in South Bend but the Irish have regressed significantly and ranked 101st in FBS scoring defense after Saturday’s home loss to Duke.

Defensive analyst Greg Hudson, a former Notre Dame linebacker who has served as defensive coordinator at Purdue, East Carolina and Minnesota, was elevated to fill VanGorder’s role.

“It’s never easy to make a change on your staff, but I’m confident in Greg’s ability to lead our defense,” Kelly added. “As a former player at Notre Dame and an experienced defensive coordinator, he not only understands the expectations necessary to compete at the highest level, but he’ll bring a fresh perspective to our sideline, practice field and meeting rooms.”

The move to make staff changes on the defensive side of the ball isn’t exactly surprising to Irish fans who have seen the team play this year but the timing is notable. Kelly remarked that the coaching was not the problem on defense after the loss to the Blue Devils but still opted to make a change on Sunday. It will be interesting to see if a very young defense will respond, and perhaps even rally, now that a big message has been sent.

Notre Dame plays Syracuse on Saturday at noon ET.

Florida International fires head coach Ron Turner after 10-30 run

HADLEY, MA - SEPTEMBER 17:  Head coach Ron Turner of the FIU Golden Panthers looks on during the game against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium on September 17, 2016 in Hadley, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)
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The firing season in college football is getting started earlier and earlier. Just ask Ron Turner.

The Florida International head coach was fired early Sunday in a move that was hardly surprising aside from its timing.

“I want to thank Coach Turner for his contributions to the FIU football program, most importantly his commitment to academics and community service,” athletic director Pete Garcia said in a short statement. “At this time Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator Ron Cooper has been named interim head coach.”

Turner went 10-30 over four years at the school but was 0-4 to begin the season after a 53-14 loss to Central Florida last week. While he is far from the first coach fired in 2016, Turner did become the first head coach to be fired after the season got underway.

Cooper had a 45–55 record in nine seasons as a head coach at Eastern Michigan, Louisville and Alabama A&M. He was elevated to FIU’s defensive coordinator prior to the season and notably served as LSU’s defensive backs coach when Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu starred in Baton Rouge.

The Panthers are set to play local rival Florida Atlantic on Saturday.

LSU head coach Les Miles, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron fired

AUBURN, AL - SEPTEMBER 24:  Head coach Les Miles of the LSU Tigers looks on during the game against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium on September 24, 2016 in Auburn, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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The Mad Hatter is looking for a new gig.

LSU has fired head coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, the school announced on Sunday. The news was first reported by the Baton Rouge Advocate.

“Decisions like this are never easy ones to make,” athletic director Joe Alleva said in a statement. “Coach Miles has done a tremendous job here and he’s been a great ambassador for our University, which makes this even more difficult.

“However, it’s apparent in evaluating the program through the first month of the season that a change has to be made. Our commitment to excellence and competing at the highest level is unwavering, and our goals for the remainder of this season haven’t changed. We have an obligation to our student-athletes to put them in the best position to have success on the football field each week and we have great confidence that coach Orgeron will do just that.”

The move comes just hours after the Tigers lost to Auburn in the final seconds to drop to 2-2 after beginning the year as a trendy national championship pick and top five team in the polls.

Miles has been in Baton Rouge since 2005 and posted a 114–34 record at the school, including a national title in 2007 and a pair of SEC championships. He was nearly let go after the 2015 season but was retained following a huge wave of public support and potential implications with a large buyout.

Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron was named the interim head coach for the rest of the season. Former LSU quarterback and current tight ends coach Steve Ensminger is slated to become the new offensive coordinator, according to Fox Sports.