James Conner

Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

CFT 2017 Preseason Previews: The ACC

1 Comment

It was not so long ago ACC commissioner was setting the challenge to the entire ACC membership to start representing the conference better on the national stage in spotlight opportunities. In 2016, the ACC could not have done much better. The conference took all of the bragging rights with an impressive bowl record, the national champion (taking down the SEC champion in the process), and the Heisman Trophy winner. So, what does the ACC do for an encore?

ACC ATLANTIC

1. Florida State (10-3 in 2016; won Orange Bowl vs. Michigan)
After watching division rival Clemson capture back-to-back ACC crowns and play in two consecutive national championship games, the 2016 season appears to be Florida State’s time to ascend back to the top of the conference to wave the ACC banner in the College Football Playoff. Florida State, the preseason favorite in the ACC this fall, will have one of the most difficult schedules in the nation, starting with a season-opening tilt against Alabama in Atlanta. The offense must replace Dalvin Cook and hope Deondre Francois blossoms as a sophomore in an offense lacking in returning starters but not in potential and talent. FSU’s defense will be in much better shape at the start of the year with a loaded unit with plenty of starting experience, highlighted by safety Derwin James.

2. Clemson (14-1, ACC champion, won College Football Playoff national championship vs. Alabama)
To say Clemson football lost its identity with the departure of so many key players from their championship run would be a slight exaggeration. Dabo Swinney is still the coach and the Tigers will still be a talented bunch despite having big shoes to fill. Expect Clemson to take a slight step back, but the Tigers will still be in the way of Florida State. They even get the Noles at home. Early back-to-back tests against Auburn (home) and Louisville (away) will give an early idea of whether or not there is a championship hangover with Clemson. With a stacked offensive line in gear, whoever takes over at quarterback (likely Kelly Bryant) should be protected.

3. Louisville (9-4, lost Citrus Bowl vs. LSU)
After the way last season ended, the theme to the 2017 season for the Cardinals should be something along the lines of “unfinished business.” The Cardinals dropped the last three games of the season, including a 26-point loss at Houston, a three-point loss to in-state rival Kentucky and a 20-point setback against LSU in the bowl game. After the red-hot start Lamar Jackson and the offense got off to, the end to the year was stunning. Jackson still won the Heisman Trophy and the schedule sets up well for another hot start this fall. But three new offensive line starters must be filled and the offense must cut down on turnovers if Louisville is to make a push in the division.

4. North Carolina State (7-6, won Independence Bowl vs. Vanderbilt)
If there is one thing to like about NC State in 2017, it will be the amount of starting experience the team brings back. This is especially true on the defensive side of the football where a front four led by defensive end Bradley Chubb and three other seniors could cause problems for even the best offenses in the ACC. The offensive line is also looking to be in solid shape with veteran starting experience across the line to protect junior quarterback Ryan Finley. Dave Doeren is in his fourth year with the program, and this one could be his best team yet.

5. Boston College (7-6, won Quick Lane Bowl vs. Maryland)
Head coach Steve Addazio could find himself back on the hot seat at some point this season, even after seemingly cool the temperature with a positive finish to the 2016 season to take into the offseason. The Eagles return a good number of starters on both sides of the football, but the talent gap between Boston College and some of the other teams in the division and conference is telling. Dual-threat quarterback Anthony Brown, a freshman, could provide a spark to the offense, but expect the Eagles to keep pounding the ball in the hands of running back Jon Hilliman. On defense, Boston College has one of the top defensive players in the ACC in defensive end Harold Landry and an experienced defensive mid and backfield to rely on.

6. Syracuse Orange (4-8)
Dino Babers has started to put together a game plan for the Orange with the idea of having a long way to go to restoring pride in the program. With some glimpses at what could be coming for the Orange showed last season (including an upset of Virginia Tech), Babers can count on having a roster returning nearly all of its starters from a year ago on both sides of the football, including quarterback Eric Dungey and linebacker Zaire Franklin. If experience counts for something, then the Orange could be in decent shape to get back to a bowl game. Getting to the postseason will be a challenge. After three winnable games to start the season, Syracuse plays at LSU and later must play games at Florida State and Louisville. They also have a crossover game against Miami to worry about.

7. Wake Forest (7-6, won Military Bowl vs. Temple)
The Demon Deacons could cause some trouble for most teams on their schedule, but Dave Clawson will have to overcome a good amount of youth on the roster this season in order to coach the team back to a bowl game. Wake Forest has struggled to score with an offense that fails to protect its quarterback and a running game that can easily be stopped at the line. The good news is Clawson feels this is the best offensive line he has had since coming to Wake Forest, although depth will be a significant concern. But at least there won’t be rogue radio broadcasters trying to sell off and distribute Wake Forest’s game plan this season, hopefully.

ACC COASTAL

1. Miami (9-4 in 2016, won Russell Athletic Bowl vs. West Virginia)
Get ready to ask all of your college football friends a familiar question at some point this season. Is Miami back? The Hurricanes should take some steps forward as a program and could end up winning its first division since joining the ACC, but there is still a good amount of ground to makeup to be on the same level as Florida State and Clemson, and maybe Louisville. But in this division, anything could go. Miami will play some defense with linebacker Shaq Quarterman leading the charge, but the Hurricanes have a serious quarterback question following the loss of Brad Kaaya to the NFL. Florida State on the road is tricky, but home games against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech could be good.

2. Virginia Tech (10-4, ACC Coastal champion, won Belk Bowl vs. Arkansas)
The defending division champs could just as easily get back to the ACC Championship Game this season, especially if redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson brings some versatility to the offense in Year 2 under head coach Justin Fuente. The Hokies also have new starters at running back and tight end and a couple of spots on the offensive line, but the defense should be in solid shape with a load of experience at linebacker (hello there, Andrew Motupuaka). The Hokies have a tough November with road games at Miami and Georgia Tech and they draw Clemson in inter-divisional play. Regardless, this looks like a solid top 25 team.

3. Pittsburgh (8-5, lost Pinstripe Bowl vs. Northwestern)
The Pitt Panthers scored wins against the eventual national champions (Clemson) and Big Ten champions (Penn State), yet they lost a total of four games by seven points or fewer. Can the Panthers flip a few of those close calls the other way? Pitt must replace James Conner but running back Qadree Ollison can do some damage on the ground. Former USC quarterback Max Browne also takes over at quarterback with one of the top wide receivers in the ACC to throw to (Quadree Henderson). How it all comes together with a new offensive coordinator remains to be seen, and the schedule is not kind with non-conference matchups at Penn State and home vs. Oklahoma State and conference road trips to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech before closing out the year at home against Miami. But no Florida State, Clemson, or Louisville gives the Panthers as healthy a conference schedule as possible for a run to the division title.

4. Georgia Tech (9-4, won TaxSlayer Bowl vs. Kentucky)
Never underestimate a team coached by Paul Johnson. This is especially true when he returns a good number of starters. After closing out the 2016 season on a four-game winning streak, including a bowl victory over Kentucky, the Yellow Jackets are not to be taken lightly. In fact, Georgia Tech may be the best sleeper pick you will find in the ACC as they bring back the most experience in a division that always seems to be up for grabs. Georgia Tech’s running game will always be the strength of the team, which will help ease the pressure on a defense that is lacking in overall talent.

5. North Carolina (8-5, lost Sun Bowl vs. Stanford)
Everything about UNC appears to be a valid question this season. Can the defense keep improving under a new defensive coordinator? Can the offense work with a quarterback who struggled at times at LSU? Who is going to make plays for the team? After losing Mitch Trubisky to the NFL, the UNC Tar Heels will place the football in the hands of former LSU quarterback Brandon Harris this season. He may be handing off to a freshman running back with Michael Carter being molded to carry the load.Special teams is also a concern for UNC after losing key special teams players from last year like Ryan Switzer and T.J. Logan. This could be a rough season in Chapel Hill.

6. Duke (4-8)
The Blue Devils could look like a dangerous team as the season plays out, and there is a schedule that gives Duke an opportunity to turn some heads if they can manage to win a couple of home games against Northwestern and Baylor. But despite Duke’s recent trend of being a team that catches you off guard, the 2017 season could end up only marginally better in the win column than 2016 ended. David Cutcliffe will continue to develop quarterback Daniel Jones, but a lack of playmakers to throw the ball too means Duke’s offense won’t be likely to keep opposing defensive coordinators up all night leading up to a game. The defense returns linebackers Ben Humphreys and Joe Giles-Harris, but the defense has concerns across the field as well. Getting to a bowl game this season would be a major accomplishment for Duke in 2017.

7. Virginia (2-10)
Virginia may still be in good hands with head coach Bronco Mendenhall, but he realized fairly quickly how much work was needed to make the Cavaliers competitive again. Virginia will have to take some baby steps forward as a program in 2017, because the player development and recruiting is going to take some time before Mendenhall has Virginia even thinking about going to a bowl game. Virginia will have to rely on a veteran-led defense to keep games close, and the scheduling gods have given Virginia a break with no crossover games against Clemson and Florida State, but they do have to go to Louisville and they travel to Boise State for a non-conference matchup. Virginia also misses Notre Dame on the rotation this season. Quarterback Kurt Benkert will look to have a rebound season after a rough 2016 season.

ACC CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION
Florida State over Miami

Report: Former Pitt RB James Conner given clean bill of health

Getty Images
Leave a comment

James Conner will head to next week’s Combine with a clean bill of health, according to a report Thursday from ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

“Pitt RB James Conner, who missed most of 2015 with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, received a clean scan today, a week prior to combine, per source,” Schefter tweeted.

Conner led the ACC in rushing in 2014, rushing for 1,765 yards and 5.92 yards per carry with 26 touchdowns in 2014, before a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis caused him to miss all but one game of the 2015 campaign. (And in that one game, Conner still rushed for nearly 10 yards per carry and two touchdowns.)

He battled back to return to the field in 2016, again leading the Panthers with 216 carries for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns while finishing third on the club with 21 grabs for 302 yards and four touchdowns.

Conner will compete at the Combine for draft positioning with fellow running backs Leonard FournetteDalvin Cook and D'Onta Foreman, among others.

Pitt hires veteran OC Shawn Watson as Matt Canada’s replacement

Pitt Athletics
Leave a comment

Veteran offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has been hired to become Pittsburgh’s next offensive coordinator, the Panthers announced Thursday evening.

Watson replaces Matt Canada, who followed a trail of Benjamin Franklins to take the same post at LSU.

“Shawn Watson was one of my first mentors in this business,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said in a statement. “He sat me down as a young coach and taught me how to work with wide receivers in my first full-time job at Miami in the early 1990s. Ever since that time, we have always talked about being able to reunite on the same staff again. I’m really thrilled that the time has finally arrived and he’ll be joining us at Pitt as our new offensive coordinator.

“Shawn is, first and foremost, a wonderful person and father,” Narduzzi added. “As a football coach, he is extremely knowledgeable, an excellent recruiter and will be a tremendous strength in the quarterback room and offensive staff room. I’m really looking forward to having Shawn and his wife Anita join us in Pittsburgh.”

Watson has previous coordinator experience at Colorado, Nebraska, Louisville and Texas, but was demoted after one game in the 2015 season in Austin and pushed off Charlie Strong‘s staff at the conclusion of that season. He spent the 2016 campaign as a quality control assistant at Indiana.

“I am tremendously honored and excited to join the staff at Pitt and be part of what Pat Narduzzi is building there,” Watson said. “Pat is one of my closest and dearest friends. I’ve known him for a very long time and have always admired the passion and energy he brings to coaching and teaching. Pat and his staff have accomplished so much in such a short period of time at Pitt. I can’t wait to join them, meet our players and get ready for spring ball.”

He inherits an offense that was one of the most improved nationally, as the Panthers jumped from 56th nationally to 13th in yards per play and 68th to 10th in scoring from 2015-16. That success led Canada to become a Broyles Award finalist as one of the nation’s best assistants and to the LSU job.

But the Panthers are likely due to take a step back in ’17 no matter who calls the plays. Starting quarterback Nathan Peterman graduated, leading rusher James Conner left for the NFL Draft and most of the offensive line leaves the roster as well.

Watson should gel with Narduzzi in terms of tempo. The Panthers have averaged around 65 plays per game over the past two seasons — generally good for around 90th nationally — which is slightly below the 68 snaps Watson averaged in his last two full seasons as a play-caller at Louisville and Texas.

Justin Jackson’s career day helps Northwestern nip No. 23 Pitt in Pinstripe Bowl

Getty Images
1 Comment

If you’re a fan of Northwestern football, go ahead and send all of your thank you notes and/or cards to Justin Jackson, c/o NU athletics.  Although, you could save some for the secondary as well.

Thanks in very large part to Jackson’s career day, Northwestern (7-6) was able to hold off No. 23 Pittsburgh (8-5) and stake its claim to the 7th annual New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium with a 31-24 win.  The victory was the Wildcats’ first in a bowl game since 2012 and just the third ever since the program was established in 1892.

And, again, thanks be to Jackson.  The junior running back gashed the Panthers defense for 224 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries.  His previous career-high was 188, set in a mid-October win over Michigan State earlier this season.

Jackson was part of a back-and-forth second half, with the lead changing hands four times in the last two quarters after the Wildcats had taken a 14-10 lead into the halftime locker room.  What turned out to be the final lead change didn’t involve Jackson, though, as Clayton Thorson connected with Garrett Dickerson for a 21-yard touchdown pass on a fourth and one with 8:23 remaining in the fourth quarter to give the Panthers a four-point lead.

On the first play of the ensuing possession, Quadree Henderson, playing in pace of the injured James Conner, fumbled the ball back to the Wildcats at the Panthers’ 27-yard line; four plays later, a Jack Mitchell 37-yard field goal extended the lead to seven.

Pitt’s second-to-last chance to tie the game nearly ended in a touchdown but for a tremendous defensive play in the end zone and instead came to a halt on an interception tossed by Ben DiNucci, who prior to this game had never attempted a pass at the collegiate level.  The redshirt freshman was in the game because starter Nathan Peterman sustained a third-quarter head injury and didn’t return.  Conner suffered the same fate on the same type of injury in the same quarter.

Another DiNucci interception with 1:22 left sealed the Panthers’ third consecutive bowl loss.  The 24 points were the fewest for a Pitt offense this season that came into the game 11th in the country in scoring at 42.3 points per game.

Interestingly, with Pitt’s loss, ranked teams are off to an 0-3 start to the bowl season.  The Big Ten is 2-1 this postseason, while the ACC suffered its first loss after winning its first three.

Red-zone stands, Justin Jackson push Northwestern to halftime lead on No. 23 Pitt in Pinstripe Bowl

Getty Images
1 Comment

Northwestern’s defense bent to the point of breaking but (mostly) never snapped, leading the Big Ten school to a surprisingly defensive 14-10 halftime lead on No. 23 Pittsburgh in the 7th annual New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.

Already up 3-0 late in the first quarter, Pitt was looking at a fourth and goal from the Northwestern one-yard line that if successful would’ve extend its lead to two scores.  Instead, leading rusher James Conner was stuffed for no gain, with the Wildcats flipping that turnover on downs into a 10-play, 99-yard drive that was aided greatly by a 68-yard Justin Jackson run and capped off by Jackson’s eight-yard touchdown run.  The junior running back accounted for 88 rushing yards by himself on that drive.

The Panthers, though, seemed poised on the ensuing possession to regain the lead.  On a second and goal from the 10-yard line following a false start penalty, however, Nathan Peterman was picked off by the Wildcats’ Godwin Igwebuike with just under 13 minutes remaining in the second quarter.  Pitt’s defense, though, returned the favor, with Avonte Maddox intercepting a Clayton Thorson pass in the end zone five minutes later to snuff out a Wildcats’ scoring opportunity.

The Panthers’ offense could do nothing with the gift, handing the ball right back to the Wildcats on a three and out.  Eight plays and 74 yards later, another Jackson touchdown run, this one from 16 yards out, pushed the lead to 14-3 with just over three minutes remaining in the half.  In addition to scoring both touchdowns, Jackson ran for 147 yards on his 18 carries.

On the next possession for Pitt, however, it was the big play that got the Panthers back into the game, with Peterman hitting Jester Weah on a beautifully-thrown 69-yard touchdown pass just 17 seconds after the Wildcats’ second score.

The fact that the Wildcats held the high-scoring Panthers to a mere 10 points through two quarters was, along with Jackson’s play, the story of the first half.

Pitt came into today’s game 11th in the country in scoring at 42.3 points per game.  The Panthers scored at least 36 points in 10 of 12 regular season games, and in the other two they scored 28.  In their regular-season finale, they scored 76 points in a win over Syracuse.

Despite the relative lack of points, both teams moved the ball relatively well.  Northwestern finished with 294 yards of total offense, Pitt 264.  The Panthers came into the game averaging 447.5 yards per game while the Wildcats are less than 100 yards away from hitting their seasonal average of 392.9.

Having deferred after winning the pregame coin toss, Pitt will open the second half on offense.