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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

Jim Harbaugh, on threatening tweets directed at him by former player: ‘it’s a serious matter’

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The man at the center of a storm not of his creation has spoken.

Elysee Mbem-Bosse, or someone with access to his Twitter account, sent out a string of disturbing and threatening tweets Monday night that seemed to be directed at U-M head football coach Jim Harbaugh.  Even as U-M’s athletic director expressed concern for a player who left the football program in mid-November, the University of Michigan Police Department had already confirmed that they had launched an investigation into the social-media threats.

At a coaching clinic in Detroit Thursday night, Harbaugh for the first time (somewhat) addressed the threatening tweets seemingly directed at him by a former player.  From the Detroit News:

It’s a serious matter,” Harbaugh told The Detroit News. “I’m confident our administration and university officials will take the proper steps and are taking the proper steps.”

Harbaugh was asked if he felt threatened by the tweets.

“That’s all I’m going to say about it,” he said.

He issued the same response when asked when he became aware of the tweets.

Mbem-Bosse, who appeared in 12 games at linebacker the past two seasons, has not been arrested or charged as of yet in connection to the social-media threats.  Even in the face of a police investigation, the Twitter account attached to Mbem-Bosse, which he marked private before switching it back to public, has remained defiant and continued to direct unnerving tweets at his now-former head coach.

Nick Saban had ‘very positive meeting’ with Jalen Hurts’ dad

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Not surprisingly, Nick Saban is taking a measured approach to what could potentially be a volatile situation within his football program.

In an interview that was posted Thursday, Averion Hurts, the father of two-year starting quarterback Jalen Hurts, stated that, if his son fails to beat out Tua Tagovailoa for the starting job, he would “be the biggest free agent in college football history.”  The intimation, of course, was that Hurts would transfer if/when he lost the competition.

As it turned out, the Crimson Tide head coach was previously scheduled to meet with the media later on in the day, after the piece had gained some national traction.  Predictably, Saban was asked about the quotes attributed to the elder Hurts.

In answering the queries, Saban stated that he had met with the father this past weekend in what he described as “a very positive meeting.”

In the article in question, Averion Hurts stated that, while “Coach Saban’s job is to do what’s best for his team… my job is to do what’s best for Jalen.” Saban’s response? From al.com:

At the end of the day, everybody has career decisions that they have to make. Nobody knows what the outcome of this situation will bring. We don’t want any player not to be able to fill their goals and aspirations in our program here. We don’t want that for any of our players. Jalen’s dad has always been very positive and supportive in every conversation that I had.

So I’m not really concerned with what somebody else chose to write because I’m always sort of use the personal communication that I have with our player, Jalen and his family when necessary. And I have a lot of trust and respect for those folks. And I don’t think there’s an issue or problem from my standpoint.

Hurts has taken the majority of first-team reps this spring as Tagovailoa has been extremely limited because of an injury to his left (throwing hand) that has, thus far, required two different surgeries.  Tagovailoa will not participate in the annual spring game this Saturday, and Saban has refused to give a timeline for a decision on a starter to be made.

Will Greg Schiano attend Rutgers camp with Ohio State coaches?

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The most successful head coach in Rutgers program history could be making his long-awaited return to the program. Sort of. Greg Schiano, now Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, could potentially be one of the members of the Ohio State coaching staff that makes a visit to New Jersey this summer for a football camp run by Rutgers.

The East Coast Elite Football Camp will be held on June 1 for high school juniors and seniors. Ohio State’s coaching staff will be a special guest for the camp, leading many to suspect Schiano will be one of the star attractions for the Rutgers camp.

It is worth noting Rutgers head coach Chris Ash was previously the defensive coordinator for Ohio State before accepting his first head coaching gig with the Scarlet Knights. Schiano was hired by Ohio State to fill the vacancy on the coaching staff as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach. With Ash making it his professional mission to build the Rutgers program using the lessons and strategies learned under Meyer at Ohio State, it seems only natural to invite Urban Meyer and his staff to New Jersey to work a football camp. Not only would this be a tremendous selling point for high school juniors and seniors (thus, potential recruits), but the Rutgers staff can benefit from working alongside Ohio State’s coaching staff, which is among the best in the nation.

Schiano turned a dreadful Rutgers program into a competitive program in the Big East over a span of 11 seasons. During that time, Rutgers played in six bowl games, and won five in a row over a six-year span. In 2006, Schiano coached Rutgers to a No. 12 ranking with a record of 11-2. After a 9-4 season in 2011, Schiano accepted the job with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but a two-year stint in the pros was all Schiano would have before eventually returning to the college game after a two-year break.

Keegan-Michael Key to guest coach at Penn State spring game

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Penn State’s spring game on Saturday could be a coaching matchup of James Franklin vs… James Franklin?

Noted Franklin impressionist and Penn State alum Keegan-Michael Key will be attending the Penn State spring game this Saturday. The school also announced on Facebook Key will be a special guest coach for the game. You can bet the actor will tap his inner Franklin for at least a little bit for some comedy on the sidelines.

Key has made himself visible around Penn State the past few years with his impressions of Franklin during football meetings and on ESPN’s College GameDay. The similarities between Franklin and Key are so good that even the head coach of the Nittany Lions has had to tell some people it’s not him they see on TV sometimes.

With any luck, perhaps we’ll get our first glimpse of the newest addition to the Penn State spring roster, Hingle McCringleberry.

Penn State’s spring game is scheduled for 3:00 p.m. this Saturday.