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CFT 2015 Preseason Preview: ACC Predictions

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The ACC is starting to gain some confidence as a conference based on success in recent seasons. Florida State won a BCS title and Clemson defeated Ohio State in the Orange Bowl two postseasons ago. Last year the Seminoles were invited to the College Football Playoff and Georgia Tech topped the SEC’s Cinderella team from Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl, and Clemson smacked Oklahoma up and down the field in the Russell Athletic Bowl. The ACC will work the numbers to their liking to prove they are among the elite power conferences right now, but the numbers can just as easily tell a different story as well. Regardless, things look to be lining up for a fun season in the ACC with Clemson a preseason favorite of many, Florida State likely to remain in the hunt and Louisville proving to be a tough out. And then there is the ACC Coastal Division, where mediocrity across the division makes for another wide-open division race this fall.

Let’s put my money where my mouth is and go on the record with some predictions for the ACC this season. Feel free to hold me accountable at the end of the season when these surely go wrong.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

1. Florida State (Last year: 13-1, lost to Oregon in College Football Playoff semifinal)
Florida State has entered the stage of program development where it is appropriate to suggest the program is reloading, rather than rebuilding. The Florida State offense returns just three starters from last year’s squad, but it does add Notre Dame transfer quarterback Everett Golson. With Dalvin Cook recently being found not guilty of battery charges, he should remain a featured asset in Florida State’s offense . Getting at Louisville in Tallahassee will be key, but the road game at Clemson could prove difficult. I have Florida State, Clemson and Louisville all ending the season with identical division records and splitting game sin the three-way head-to-head. This one comes down to the 27th ACC division tiebreaker, which may end up in Florida State’s favor when all is said and done.

2. Clemson (Last year: 10-3, beat Oklahoma in Russell Athletic Bowl)
The Clemson Tigers are returning perhaps the top quarterback in the conference with Deshaun Watson. Many are already pegging him as a strong Heisman Trophy contender, and having one of the top wide receiving units in the ACC will certainly help his case. The offensive line returns just two starters from last season though, and the entire offense has just four returning starters. The defense is in even more of a shaky ground with a pair of starters back in 2015. But place some trust in Brent Venables to have the defense up to speed enough to work things out along the way. An early Thursday night game at Louisville could be tricky, and the final game of the regular season at South Carolina is rarely easy. But Clemson gets Florida State at home in Week 10, by which most of Clemson’s concerns could very well have been put to rest.

3. Louisville (Last year: 9-4, lost to Georgia in Belk Bowl)
Another team that has a bunch of starters to replace, Louisville returns just seven starters from last season’s team. And things could very well get off to a bumpy start with Auburn in the season opener and Clemson just a couple of weeks later. But I think they manage to split those games, winning the important ACC Atlantic Division match-up on Thursday night in Week 3. The addition of defensive end Devonte Fields should be a really good addition to the defensive line. Louisville’s defense should be very good, and perhaps one of the best in the ACC, but the secondary will have to step up and make some plays if Louisville is going to make the kind of noise I expect from them this season.

4. Boston College (Last year: 7-6, lost to Penn State in Pinstripe Bowl)
Boston College is going to be one of those teams that gives opponents a tough game, but ultimately will not have enough offense to make the Eagles any serious threat in the ACC. The defense can hold its own, but Steve Addazio has just three returning starters this season. None of them are on the offensive line. I suspect Boston College will try trusting the running game with Jon Hilliman capable of going for 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. Things may very well improve at Boston College as the season progresses, but there is a brutal stretch that includes back-to-back road games at Clemson and Louisville and that is followed by a home game against Virginia Tech. Playing Notre Dame in Fenway Park late in the year should be interesting as well. Boston College should have what it takes to go bowling, and a return trip to the Pinstripe Bowl may not be unlikely.

5. North Carolina State (Last year: 8-5, beat UCF in St. Petersburg Bowl)
North Carolina State is a team many people think is capable of making some noise in the ACC this season, and they very well could. The reason is the Wolfpack return seven starters on offense and seven more on defense. If experience is the key, no team in the ACC Atlantic Division has more of it heading into the 2015 season. There is not one thing NC State does exceptionally well, but they are pretty well-rounded in all areas of the game. Jacoby Brisset is back to start at quarterback, after helping the team improve dramatically last season. Now we will see if he is capable of taking NC State to the next step forward. The Wolfpack should get off to a good start with a favorable schedule, but I’m seeing some bumps in the road once they get into ACC play. NC State gets Louisville and Clemson at home, which is good and easily a recipe for potential upset alerts. I still will go with the favorites for now.

6. Syracuse (Last year: 3-9)
It looks to be a long season at Syracuse. The move to the ACC has not shown much improvement in the recruiting game under Scott Shafer, who could very well be coaching for his job this season. Syracuse could get off to a quick 3-0 start this season, but even that might be difficult. Then LSU comes to the dome in Week 4. Syracuse will get a bye after the big game with the LSU Tigers, and a road trip to USF comes after that, but then ACC play resumes and Syracuse’s next win may not come until 2016 at that point.

7. Wake Forest (Last year: 3-9)
If you thought Syracuse had it rough, take a look at Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons will be a young team in 2015, giving head coach Dave Clawson some more expected growing pains this fall. Wake Forest could get off to a 2-1 start with wins over Elon and Army (losing to Syracuse), but it will be a long stretch of demoralization after that. If Wake Forest manages to get to four wins to improve on last season’s win total, that should be considered a solid victory for Clawson and company.

COASTAL DIVISION

1. Virginia Tech (Last year: 7-6, beat Cincinnati in Military Bowl – they also beat Ohio State, in case you forgot)
Virginia Tech has the best defense in the ACC this season, and that should be enough to push the Hokies ahead fo the rest of the seemingly always up-for-grabs Coastal Division. The biggest question for Virginia Tech is whether or not the offense can avoid giving it away. Having Marshawn Williams back and healthy at running back should help. I look for the Hokies to give Ohio State a respectable fight in the Labor Day season opener, bu the Buckeyes leave with revenge after last season’s meeting in Columbus. From there, things look good for Virginia Tech with no Clemson, Florida State or Louisville on the schedule. Pittsburgh and UNC are both at home too. The schedule and defense should come in handy this season in Blacksburg.

2. North Carolina (Last year: 6-7, lost to Rutgers in Quick Lane Bowl)
No offense in the ACC returns as many starters this season than the North Carolina Tar Heels. A total of 10 starters are back for UNC, including a healthy Marquise Williams at quarterback, but how much will he have to carry the offense this season? In addition to being the leading passer, Williams is also UNC’s leading returning rusher from a year ago (788 yards, 13 touchdowns). I’d like to see others take some of the pressure off Williams to do everything if UNC is going to make a serious run to the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte. Looking at the schedule, I see real potential for a possible 7-0 start, but I also see the possibility of a rough finish to the season. That would seem to be the opposite of what happened last season after UNC closed on a hot streak to overcome a dismal start to the season.

3. Pittsburgh (Last year: 6-7, lost to Houston in Armed Forces Bowl)
I seem to have said this the past couple of years and I will do so once more; Why not Pitt? Pat Narduzzi takes over the Pittsburgh program and that should help lock things down on defense, with seven returning starters. The former Michigan State defensive coordinator also inherits some of the top offensive players in the ACC with wide receiver Tyler Boyd and running back James Conner, but it will be up to quarterback Chad Voytik to keep things moving consistently for the Panthers. If the Panthers can get off to better than a 2-2 start (as I predict), they could make a run in the wide open division.

4. Miami (Last year: 6-7, lost to South Carolina in Independence Bowl)
Another year, another season of wondering if this could possibly be the year Miami finally plays in the ACC Championship Game. They have yet to do so since leaving the Big East to provide the ACC with more football balance, and it looks as though this could be another season that sees early promise and hype ultimately fizzle out in an up-and-down second half of the season. They have the quarterback in Brad Kaaya, but do they have the ability to pull it together everywhere else? I have Miami getting out to a nice little 4-0 start before visiting Florida State in Week 6. From there it should be on-off-on-off for the Hurricanes. That could put head coach Al Golden on as hot a seat as possible at the end of the season.

5. Georgia Tech (Last year: 11-3, beat Mississippi State in Orange Bowl)
The formula for Georgia Tech’s success never seems to change, although the effectiveness of it seems to have mixed results. Paul Johnson‘s offensive style picked up 11 wins last season and gave Florida State one of many close calls last season in the ACC Championship Game. Playing in this wide open division, you can easily make a case for Georgia Tech to make a return trip to Charlotte at the end of the season, and a steady defense helps support that argument. I just think there are some tough battles ahead this season with a road trip to Notre Dame followed by ACC contests against Duke, North Carolina, Clemson, Pittsburgh and Florida State all in a row. That can be a tough stretch for the Yellow Jackets, as could the final two games of the season, at Miami and home against Georgia. Georgia Tech will still be a decent team, but they may skate on thin ice en route to the postseason.

6. Virginia (Last year: 5-7)
Virginia has had a rough stretch under Mike London, and this might be the final straw for the head coach if things do not show potential moving forward. Unfortunately for London, there may not be much progress shown with a three-win season. Yet, I have them somehow managing to avoid last place and staying ahead of Duke? Strange, I admit, but I think Virginia manages to win a pair of home games in ACC play, against Syracuse and Duke, and that is good enough to sneak just ahead of the Blue Devils in the standings. It may not, however, be enough to assure London a job in Charlottesville next season. Early games against UCLA, Notre Dame and Boise State (and William & Mary) might be rough to watch at times.

7. Duke (Last year: 9-4, lost to Arizona State in Sun Bowl)
Do not be fooled by a last-place finish in the ACC Coastal. As you no doubt have learned by now, I view this division as a wide-open race, and I still predict Duke will be bowl-eligible this year. That will be because Duke has a very favorable schedule this season with likely wins in non-conference play and no Clemson, Florida State or Louisville on the conference schedule. Yet I still see Duke struggling to find much consistency in conference play. David Cutcliffe has done a remarkable job in Durham, but this year’s team may be lacking in enough playmakers outside of safety Jeremy Cash to find enough wins to make a run at the division.

ACC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

Florida State over Virginia Tech
After coming out on top of a clouded three-team tie in the ACC Atlantic Division, Florida State once again manages to win the ACC championship game for a fourth straight season. As will be the story all season, the Hokies defense keeps them in the game but the offense simply will not have enough firepower to get by a team with as much talent as Florida State. But will this Florida State team have done enough to convince the College Football Playoff selection committee it deserves a second straight invite to the postseason party?

Virginia Tech suspends RB McKenzie for opener vs. Buckeyes

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It seems Ohio State will not be the only team on the field in Blacksburg a bit undermanned. Virginia Tech will also have a player suspended. Running back Shai McKenzie will sit out of the first game of the season against the Buckeyes after being suspended by the team.

McKenzie was suspended from all team activities earlier this summer after being charged with two misdemeanor counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. More recently, McKenzie was sentenced to 15 days in jail for the misdemeanor consensual sex with a minor charge. He has since been reinstated by the team, but will serve his time in Week 1.

Ohio State has suspended four players for the contest; defensive end Joey Bosa, H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson and wide receiver Corey Smith for the season-opener to be played on Labor Day night. Virginia Tech was the only team to hand Ohio State a loss last season, doing so in Columbus. Ohio State rallied and improved through the course of the regular season and was prepared for a magical postseason run even with third-string quarterback Cardale Jones having to step in.

Jayhawks add ex-Hokie WR Joshua Stanford to roster

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Virginia Tech granted Joshua Stanford a temporary leave of absence in mid-September last year in order to allow him to deal with a personal issue.  Nearly 11 months later, that temporary sabbatical has become a permanent one.

Kansas revealed its updated roster Thursday, with Stanford appearing as the only previously unknown transfer the Jayhawks had picked up this offseason.  Stanford is the third transfer wide receiver KU has added in the last four months, joining LaQuvionte Gonzalez (transferred from Texas A&M in April) and Quincy Perdue (left UAB for KU in June).  Former South Carolina linebacker Marcquis Roberts was added as a transfer as well.

The Kansas City Star writes that Stanford “appears to be eligible to play right away,” although the school has not confirmed his status for the 2015 season.  Counting this season, Stanford would have two seasons of eligibility remaining if the Star is correct.

Gonzalez and Roberts will have to sit out the 2015 season, while Perdue is eligible to play immediately.

Prior to his sabbatical at Tech, Stanford had started 13 of the Hokies’ 16 games the past two seasons, including two of three in 2014.  He was third on the team in 2013 with 40 catches for 640 yards.  He had just five catches for 35 yards in a trio of 2013 games.

Clemson paces All-ACC preseason team; Miami shut out

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Clemson was tapped by the media as the preseason favorite to win the ACC title, so it’s not surprising that the Tigers have fared well individually as well.

The ACC released its preseason all-conference team Thursday morning, with Clemson leading the way with five players landing on the first and only team.  Deshaun Watson was voted as the preseason Player of the Year, and received the expected All-ACC nod as well as 100 of the 163 voters selected the true sophomore as their first-team quarterback.  The next quarterback, Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas, was named on 33 ballots.

Watson wasn’t the leading vote-getter, though, as that nod belongs to Pittsburgh running back James Connor, who received 148 of a possible 163 votes.  Others receiving the most votes at their position include one of Connor’s teammates, wide receiver Tyler Boyd (141), and one of the top placekickers in the history of the game, Florida State’s Robert Aguayo (141).

After Clemson, Florida State and Virginia Tech were next up with four players each selected.  Three of the 14 ACC teams went without representation: Boston College, Miami and Syracuse.  The interesting school in the latter group is, of course, The U.

Not only did the Hurricanes get shut out of the first team, the closest they got to landing a player on the squad was Deon Bush, whose 20 votes left him fourth amongst the safeties.  Other than Bush, Stacey Coley (21 votes, eight amongst wide receivers) Rafael Kirby (19, eighth amongst linebackers) Danny Isidora (18, ninth amongst offensive guards) KC McDermott (12, seventh amongst offensive tackles) and Brad Kaaya (10, fourth amongst quarterbacks) were the Hurricanes receiving double-digit votes.

It’s that lack of talent, or perception thereof, that will have Al Golden heading into the 2015 season on one of the hottest coaching seats in America.

2015 All-ACC Preseason Football Team

Offense
WR – Tyler Boyd, Jr., Pitt
WR – Mike Williams, Jr., Clemson
WR – Artavis Scott, So. Clemson
TE – Bucky Hodges, r-So., Virginia Tech
OT – Roderick Johnson, So., Florida State
OT – Adam Bisnowaty, r-Jr., Pitt
OG – Landon Turner, r-Sr., North Carolina
OG – Eric Mac Lain, Gr., Clemson
C – Matt Skura, r-Sr., Duke
QB – Deshaun Watson, So., Clemson
RB – James Conner, Jr., Pitt
RB – Shadrach Thornton, Sr., NC State

Defense
DE – Dadi Lhomme Nicolas. r-Sr., Virginia Tech
DE – Shaq Lawson, Jr., Clemson
DE – Sheldon Rankins, Sr., Louisville
DT – Adam Gotsis, Sr., Georgia Tech
DT – Luther Maddy, r-Sr., Virginia Tech
LB – Terrance Smith, r-Sr., Florida State
LB – Brandon Chubb, r-Sr., Wake Forest
LB – James Burgess, Sr., Louisville
CB – Jalen Ramsey, Jr., Florida State
CB – Kendall Fuller, Jr., Virginia Tech
S – Jeremy Cash, r-Sr., Duke
S – Quin Blanding, So., Virginia

Special Teams
PK – Roberto Aguayo, r-Jr., Florida State
P – Alex Kinal, r-Sr., Wake Forest
KR – Ryan Switzer, So., North Carolina

After torn ACL in ’14, Hokies RB Williams eyes return in opener vs. Buckeyes

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Virginia Tech running back Marshawn Williams is keeping positive when talking about his return to the football field. If all goes according to plan, he thinks he will have a good shot at playing in Virginia Tech’s season opener against defending national champion Ohio State in a primetime Labor Day game.

“My knee is fine,” Williams said for a featured update on Virgina Tech’s athletics website. “I’m getting better, getting stronger. I’m able to run almost full speed. I would say I’m 80, 85 percent in my mind. I don’t know what they’d [the sports medicine staff] say. But I should be ready, hopefully.”

Williams saw his 2014 season brought to a quick end when he tore his ACL last November. It used to be an injury that could keep a running back out for a full year, but Williams thinks he may be on track to return after just about nine months. It is amazing how far the technology and advanced medical treatment has come, but Williams knows there is some hard work ahead of still.

“I’m doing everything – speed package [a series of conditioning drills], 110s [110-yard sprints],” he said. “I’m doing everything trying to get ready.”

As a freshman, Wiliams finished the 2014 season as Virginia Tech’s second-leading rusher behind J.C. Coleman. Williams was the leading rusher for the Hokies at the time of his injury. Williams rushed for 475 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 3.83 yards per rushing attempt.

“I have no pain, honestly. Nothing major. With this surgery, you have your ups and your downs, but my downs are not as bad as they used to be. It’s getting better.”

That has to be good news for Virginia Tech fans to read.