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

ECU won’t be hiring ex-Purdue interim HC charged with drunk driving

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Interim coach Gerad Parker of the Purdue Boilermakers looks on against the Wisconsin Badgers in the second quarter of the game at Ross-Ade Stadium on November 19, 2016 in West Lafayette, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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An off-field incident involving alcohol has unofficially cost an assistant coach a job.

It had been reported that Gerad Parker, who served as Purdue’s interim head coach last season, decided to leave his new job at Cincinnati to take another at East Carolina. That reported move was complicated after reports surfaced that, following a going-away party in West Lafayette early Tuesday morning, the coach was pulled over and charged with operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated.

Parker had been expected to take over the wide receivers coach job at ECU; Wednesday, multiple reports indicated that the Pirates are moving on from the coach in light of the recent development.

In a tweet that has since been deleted from his Twitter account, Parker apologized. “I’m sorry to all my friends and family,” the coach wrote. “Thanks to all that have reached out and shown support.”

Parker would’ve replaced Phil McGeoghan, who left ECU in late January for a job with the Buffalo Bills. ECU’s search for a replacement will continue.

Kentucky OC Eddie Gran gets contract extension and raise

LEXINGTON, KY - AUGUST 30:  The Kentucky Wildcats take the field before the game against the Tennessee- Martin Skyhawks at Commonwealth Stadium on August 30, 2014 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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After making some changes to the coaching staff this offseason, Kentucky is locking in offensive coordinator Eddie Gran for the next few seasons. Kentucky has signed Gran to a contract extension good through the 2019 season, according to The Courier-Journal.

According to the reported contract extension, Gran will be paid $825,000 in the 2017 season and will be given a $25,000 raise each of the next two seasons. A buyout cost of $150,000 per years is also added to the contract should he leave for another job during that span. Gran was originally under contract through the 2018 season, so his new deal tacks on an extra year in Lexington. The extended contract also bumps Gran’s pay by $175,000 compared to his previous contract.

Kentucky may have finished the 2017 season ranked 9th in the SEC in total scoring, but the Wildcats bumped up their average points per game by roughly six points in 2016 compared to the 2015 season. Kentucky also had the SEC’s third-most productive rushing attack with an average of 234.15 rushing yards per game and 30 rushing touchdowns. Only Auburn and Alabama had better averages and touchdown totals (and Alabama had two more games to pad the stats).

Kentucky has room to improve in the passing game after finishing the 2016 season ranked 13th in passing offense in the 14-team SEC. Kentucky also had an SEC-high 28 turnovers lost in 2016, with 16 fumbles and 12 interceptions thrown.

Gran joined the Kentucky program last year after a three-year stint at Cincinnati as offensive coordinator. Gran has previously been an assistant at Florida State, Tennessee, Auburn, and Ole Miss as well.

Nebraska WR coach Keith Williams sentenced to 30 days in jail for August DUI

LINCOLN, NE - SEPTEMBER 22: A cheerleader waves a flag after the Nebraska Cornhuskers score against the Idaho State Bengals during their game at Memorial Stadium on September 22, 2012 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nebraska won 73-7. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
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Nebraska wide receivers coach Keith Williams pled no contest to charges from a DUI incident last August. On Wednesday, he received his sentence from a county judge and learned he would be sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years of probation.

According to The Lincoln Journal-Star, Williams was also fined $1,000 for his latest DUI charge. Williams has until March 3 to apply for house arrest, although prosecutors made a push for Williams to serve his time behind bars after not being locked up for two prior DUI charges.

Nebraska opens spring football practices on March 4. If he is ruled eligible for house arrest, that would allow Williams to continue coaching in the spring. Otherwise, he could have to miss at least some of Nebraska’s spring practices depending on when his jail sentence would begin.

Williams was pulled over for driving under the influence last August with a BAC above .15. Further complicating things was the fact Williams also had two previous convictions for DUI. Nebraska head coach Mike Riley suspended Williams without pay through the end of August and was prohibited from coaching in Nebraska’s first four games of the 2016 season.

Michigan adds former Hawaii defensive cooridnator Kevin Lempa as defensive analyst

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Former Hawaii defensive coordinator Kevin Lempa has landed in Ann arbor with a new job. Michigan announced Lempa has joined the staff as a senior defensive analyst under Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Don Brown.

“Kevin is a great addition to our football program and defensive staff,” said Harbaugh in a released statement. “He adds a wealth of experience and knowledge on the defensive side of the ball, and Kevin’s working relationship with Coach (Don) Brown will be a big asset for our team.”

“I am very excited and honored to become part of Coach Harbaugh’s staff,” Lempa said in his released statement. “I am also fired up to be working with Coach Brown again.”

Lempa resigned from his position with the Hawaii program following the 2016 season. He previously served as a defensive backs coach at Boston College from 2013 through 2015, when Brown was the defensive coordinator of the Eagles.

As a defensive analyst, Lempa will not have any hands-on instruction with the Michigan roster but will assist in film breakdown and other orders of business in preparing Michigan’s game plan.