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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.


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.


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.

Clemson over North Carolina

Former Navy LB Caleb King killed in fighter jet crash

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A routine U.S. Navy training flight that ended in tragedy had a college football connection.

Earlier this week, two Navy aviators were killed when a fighter jet crashed off the coast of Key West, Florida, this past Wednesday.  Those who lost their lives were, according to the Associated Press, Lt. Cmdr. James Brice Johnson and Lt. Caleb Nathaniel King, who served in the “Blacklions” of Strike Fighter Squadron Two One Three (VFA-213).  Johnson was the pilot of the aircraft.

“[T]he aircraft crashed on final approach to Boca Chica Field following a training mission,” wrote.  While details are scant at the moment, below is from that website’s report:

The crash happened around 4:30 p.m., Hecht said. Both pilots onboard the Super Hornet ejected, he said. Initially, Hecht said a search-and-rescue effort for the aircrew was still ongoing around 6 PM, but later he said the pilots were recovered within minutes and taken by ambulance to the medical center.

An eyewitness, Barbie Wilson, told the crash “looked like something out of a movie.”

Wilson, who lives on the back side of the air station, said she stopped to watch an F/A-18 flying overhead, as she often does, and was shocked to see what appeared to be a massive malfunction in midair.

“Literally, the wings went vertical, and there was a fireball, and it just literally dropped out of the sky,” Wilson said.

King (pictured, left) was a linebacker for the Midshipmen football team from 2009-11.  He played in 38 games during his time at the military academy.

“Our hearts and deepest condolences go out to the entire King family,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said in a statement. “We lost a dear brother and warrior. The entire Navy Football Brotherhood mourns the passing of a great American. We love you Caleb!”

Temple’s on-campus stadium plans stall after city council meeting

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The dream of Temple football playing in an on-campus stadium appears as though it’s on hold after a Philadelphia city council meeting got heated once again and resulted in the pulling of support by a key local leader.

Per KYW 1060, City Council President Darrell Clarke told the radio station that he would not support the reported $125 million project at a meeting earlier this week. Though the university leadership remains focused on making the new stadium happen eventually, the dwindling support from those in the community have basically stalled the effort and puts into question where the team will play football in 2020 and beyond.

Protestors against the stadium being built already interrupted a town hall meeting on the project last week.

“We do not feel that a 35,000 seat stadium fits in a residential block,” said Reverend Bill Moore, who is part several local groups pushing to ax the project.

Temple had signed an extension on their lease with nearby Lincoln Financial Field (the home of the Philadelphia Eagles) but that agreement runs only through the 2019 season. The hope had been to get the new on-campus stadium built by the time the 2020 campaign rolled around but that is looking increasingly unlikely as local residents — and now city council members — become more and more vocal in their opposition to the project.

The university has not issued a formal statement on their next steps after this latest setback but at least the team itself is moving forward as usual with spring football already under the way in Philly.

Study says War Memorial Stadium needs millions in upgrades to remain in use for Arkansas games in Little Rock

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Just like an old house, older stadiums require tons of money to keep them up to date. Those in the state of Arkansas are very aware of that when it comes to War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette reports that a study commissioned by the state has found that roughly $17 million worth of repairs, maintenance work and improvements are needed at War Memorial if the 70 year old venue wants to remain in operation. The timeline for such changes were listed as anywhere from three years for “critical” issues to five years for other items, which come as part of a whopping $160,000 study from Conventions Sport & Leisure International LLC.

The millions of dollars of work required is notable because the Fayetteville-based Razorbacks have annually played a game at the stadium in Little Rock dating back to 1948. The team will not only host their first spring game under new coach Chad Morris at the venue but will also play Ole Miss in Little Rock during the upcoming season. That contest is the last scheduled game for Arkansas at War Memorial however as the contract to hold games there is expiring in 2018.

It remains to be seen what the next steps are for UA football, the state and the venue are. Even prior to this most recent study being commissioned, the Razorbacks were looking to have as much as $10 million worth of work done at the stadium to meet their own requirements and those of the SEC in general for conference play.

“Discussions are continuing” Kevin Trainor, associate athletics director at Arkansas, said in an emailed statement to the paper.

Could this be the last we see of the Razorbacks in Little Rock? Given the history between the city, stadium and team it would seem doubtful but somebody’s got to pay for renovations and it may be a while before anybody ponies up the cash needed to get the venerable old building up to date.

Sean McDonough on leaving Monday Night Football: College football is more fun

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While we’re not exactly formal media critics here at CFTalk, you really don’t have to have too much experience watching television to know that ESPN’s Sean McDonough calling Monday Night Football the past two years was a bit of a round peg in a square hole. The veteran play-by-play man has called a lot of major sporting events over the years but was known to most prior to his NFL stint as one of the regular voices on the college football circuit after all.

McDonough is just now starting to open up about his departure from MNF and is perhaps not surprisingly excited at the prospect of returning to the college level, which he insists was his decision. Awful Announcing passes along an interview he did with Boston area radio program The Kirk & Callahan Show this week and let’s just say that McDonough confirms what we already know about which sport is better if you’re picking between the NFL and college football.

“I say that after a lot of reflection and mostly a lot of belief that, ultimately, what is the most important thing in life is to be happy,” McDonough said. “As much as it was a great honor to be the voice of ‘Monday Night Football’ –– and you guys know me well enough, and certainly a lot of my friends and family do –– it wasn’t a tremendous amount of fun the last two years. When I took my ego out of it, when the conversation about a reboot of MNF came up, when I took the ego part of it out, and rationalized it, I really could be fine with  not being the voice of MNF, then it became easy. I love college football. For me, it’s more fun, and that’s a personal taste.”

Amen Sean, amen.

While it is great news that CFB is getting back McDonough, the sport’s gain is tempered by the loss of fellow play-by-play man Joe Tessitore, who will be taking over in the MNF booth calling games. Something says that the esteemed JoeTess will do a great job calling NFL games every Monday night but will, like McDonough, come to miss the excitement, wild endings and colorful presentation that happens at the college level every Saturday.