CFT Predicts: the ACC

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As the 2013 season draws near, we peek into our crystal ball and guess project how each of the five major conferences will play out. Today, we examine the ACC.  

While we’re at it, be sure to check out our other conference predictions: SECBig Ten, Pac-12

Atlantic Division

1. Clemson (Last year: 11-2; beat LSU in Chick-fil-A Bowl) 
What happened last season?
The Tigers shook their ‘Clemsoning’ curse and previous Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia by going 11-2 and beating LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

So why are they ranked here?
Offense, offense, offense. And some offense sprinkled in. Quarterback Tajh Boyd is a legitimate Heisman candidate and he’ll have Sammy Watkins to throw to for a third straight year. Watkins had a bit of a sophomore slump in 2012 — at least by his standards — because of a variety of issues, from a suspension to injuries, but he still finished second on the team in receiving yards. His touchdown production should rise again after getting in the end zone just four times.

Anything else?
The defense improved under first-year coordinator Brent Venables. With as good as the Tigers offense projects to be, there’s more wiggle room on that side of the ball. Also, can Clemson finally beat South Carolina after dropping four straight games?

2. Florida State (Last year: 12-2; beat NIU in Orange Bowl) 
What happened last season?
The ‘Noles won the ACC and beat NIU in the Orange Bowl. They also pulled their annual head-scratcher by losing to North Carolina State. The circle never ends, it seems.

So why are they ranked here?
Talent isn’t a question Tallahassee, but there are a lot of new faces. Redshirt freshman Jameis Winston has a ton of upside at the quarterback spot, it just remains to be seen at this point how he handles his first year as starter. Wide receiver depth is becoming an issue too. The defensive line loses two pass rushers in Tank Carradine and Bjoern Werner, but that’s an area stacked — almost unfairly — with capable players.

Anything else?
Florida State had a whopping 11 NFL draft picks in April, but Jimbo Fisher also had to replace roughly half his coaching staff. That’s a lot of turnover and it’ll be interesting to see how players and coaches jell this year.

3. Maryland (Last year: 4-8)
What happened last season?
Randy Edsall doubled his win total in year two with the Terps, but a linebacker was starting at quarterback by the end of the year because of injuries. Apparently, being a quarterback at Maryland can be equated to playing drums for Spinal Tap.

So why are they ranked here?
The quarterbacks are finally back with working knees and there is some talent on that side of the ball, namely wide receiver Sefon Diggs. Another running back will have to step up with Wes Brown being suspended for the year, though the running game in general needs to improve. The Terps also have to replace a sizable portion of their starting defensive front seven. Several of Maryland’s toughest games (Florida State, Virginia Tech) are on the road too.

Anything else?
It feels like wide receiver Deon Long has led the life of a traveled NFL veteran more than a college player, but he finally at Maryland. He was suspended this spring, but he should be a good addition to the passing game. He has the physical tools to make an impact, so he could be a player to watch.

4. Wake Forest (Last year: 5-7) 
What happened last season?
It was a tough season in hindsight for the Deacs when you consider they lost two games by an average of six points (against Maryland, Duke) that could have propelled them back into the postseason.

So why are they ranked here?
There’s some potential for this team, which returns a good portion of its starting 22 from a year ago. Tanner Price is a veteran quarterback and leading running back Josh Harris will be eligible to play in 2013. The problem is Wake Forest couldn’t find the end zone last year and were shut out twice. The defense wasn’t much better, but it does return eight guys from 2012.

Anything else?
There are plenty of manageable games on Wake’s schedule this year, including in the non-conference department. Getting back to a bowl is a realistic goal.

5. North Carolina State (Last year: 7-6; lost to Vanderbilt in Music City Bowl) 
What happened last season?
Though NC State hadn’t had a losing season since 2009, and despite upsetting Florida State, Tom O’Brien couldn’t keep his job. He’s replaced by former NIU coach Dave Doeren.

So why are they ranked here?
Turnover is rarely easy, and there’s a lot of it for the Wolfpack in 2013. In addition to a new coaching staff, this team loses quarterback Mike Glennon and, even though he had some disappointing moments in 2012, cornerback David Amerson. There’s plenty to be excited about with Doeren, but his first year could be rough.

Anything else?
If there’s one area of improvement to look for right away, it would be the ground game. NC State was among the worst rushing teams a year ago while NIU ranked 12th in the nation in that category. The offense does return its top two leading rushers from a year ago in Shadrach Thornton and Tony Creecy.

6. Syracuse (Last year: 8-5; beat West Virginia in Pinstripe Bowl) 
What happened last season?
The Orange got off to a bit of a bumpy start, but won six of their final seven games in 2012. Two of those wins came in convincing fashion against Louisville and West Virginia.

So why are they ranked here?
The ‘Cuse lose coach Doug Marrone to the NFL and in comes Scott Shafer. The Orange are also entering a new conference with some key departures, including quarterback Ryan Nassib, wide receiver Alec Lemon and defensive back Shamarko Thomas — all leaders in their respective positions.

Anything else?
If there is one person to watch, it’s Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen. Though Shafer doesn’t plan on announcing a QB until the last possible moment, Allen is believed to be in a position to win the starting job. He played sparingly for the Sooners, but could be a key member of the offense for the Orange.

7. Boston College (Last year: 2-10)
What happened last season?
The Eagles won two games and Frank Spaziani got the long-awaited boot.

So why are they ranked here?
Former Temple coach Steve Addazio takes over and has, by all accounts, injected some energy into a program that desperately needs some. Whether that energy will turn into wins remains to be seen. This was an offense that couldn’t run the ball or score a year ago, but the passing duo of quarterback Chase Rettig and wide receiver Alex Amidon do give experience and play making ability to the passing game.

Anything else?
The front part of BC’s schedule is brutal, but there’s some room for the Eagles to make some noise toward the end of the year and build some momentum heading into 2014. The final two games against Maryland and Syracuse are on the road, but those aren’t impossible games to win.

Coastal Division

1. Miami (Last year: 7-5)
What happened last season?
The Hurricanes actually won a share of the Coastal Division, but they also self-imposed a postseason ban for the second straight year because of the ongoing NCAA investigation of the program.

So why are they ranked here?
Miami figures to have one of the more potent offenses in the entire conference thanks to the return of quarterback Stephen Morris and running back Duke Johnson, with the latter considered to be among the most exciting players to watch in the game. It’s the defense that has all the question marks for the ‘Canes. This was a team that was simply pushed around up front and gave up at least 40 points four times last year.

Anything else?
Give Al Golden credit. He’s identified the weakness on defense (not that it was too difficult) and recruited some immediate help. David Gilbert and Justin Renfrow join the team from Wisconsin and Virginia, respectively, and add an immediate boost along the defensive line.

2. North Carolina (Last year: 8-4)
What happened last season?
Like Miami, North Carolina had to watch the postseason from home thanks to a postseason ban. Unlike the Hurricanes, this was NCAA-mandated. Still the Tar Heels won eight games under first-year coach Larry Fedora.

So why are they ranked here?
There are two major departures from last year’s team: running back Giovani Bernard and offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper. Bernard received a bulk of the carries in the run game and had over 1,200 yards. So whether it’s one player — perhaps A.J. Blue — or a committee, that production will have to be replaced. But there are plenty of other playmakers on offense, including veteran QB Bryn Renner. Defense returns its entire secondary and should be an overall improved unit that fared well enough in Year 1 under Fedora.

Anything else?
UNC’s key stretch comes in the middle of the season. It starts with a road game at divisional opponent Georgia Tech and ends with another road game at North Carolina State. Get through that and a bulk of the Coastal Divsion contenders should be behind them by that point.

3. Virginia Tech (Last year: 7-6; beat Rutgers in Russell Athletic Bowl) 
What happened last season?
2012 was a disappointment by Virginia Tech’s standards. The Hokies needed overtime three times to pull out wins and there were some tough losses to Pitt and Cincinnati mixed in.

So why are they ranked here?
Primarily because health and depth are already concerns for Virginia Tech before a single regular season snap has been taken. Star cornerback Antone Exum will miss the season opener against Alabama and perhaps longer. The knee injury he sustained early this year was serious and there are few guarantees when it comes to a timeline for return. There’s been some attrition on both sides of the ball with various injuries and departures. If this team can get healthy as the season goes on, maybe it can make a run for the divisional title late in the season.

Anything else?
Scot Loeffler takes over as offensive coordinator. Quarterback Logan Thomas was, to say the least, inconsistent last year with just over a 50 percent completion rate and 18 touchdowns to 16 interceptions. He’s shown at times he can make tremendous throws, but he needs to be able to do it without a handful of bad throws and decisions in between. With Loeffler calling the plays, Thomas doesn’t need to throw for 4,000 yards — he just needs to play smarter.

4. Georgia Tech (Last year: 7-7; beat USC in the Sun Bowl) 
What happened last season?
The Yellow Jackets backed their way into the ACC championship game, but embarrassed USC in the Sun Bowl. So, yeah. Georgia Tech came out ahead on that one.

So why are they ranked here?
Some key pieces of GT’s triple option are leaving, including Tevin Washington and Orwin Smith. But, Vad Lee moves in to take control of the offense, and he already saw plenty of game action last year. The defense ended up playing much better down the stretch last year after Al Groh was fired, so there’s definitely room to continue growing on that side of the ball.

Anything else?
Despite being a run-heavy offense, Georgia Tech has been known to have one big, physical receiver under Paul Johnson. Jeff Greene looked to be that guy until he left for Ohio State. Who will step up for the Yellow Jackets in that spot in 2013?

5. Pitt (Last year: 6-7; lost to Ole Miss in BBVA Compass Bowl) 
What happened last season?
Pitt got off to a tough start in Year 1 under Paul Chryst by losing to Youngstown State to start the season, but rebounded quickly by beating Virginia Tech in Week 3. The Panthers actually won and lost games in alternating pairs the entire way through the year before falling to Ole Miss in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

So why are they ranked here?
After 14 years, 10 head coaches and 500 sacks, the Tino Sunseri era is finally over. Tom Savage, the former Rutgers quarterback who is also a veteran of the college game, enters 2013 as the starter. But there are a lot of concerns on offense, namely the running game. Ray Graham is gone and Rushel Shell, the running back figured to take bulk of the carries going forward, has moved on to West Virginia. Defense should be the strength of the team with defensive tackle Aaron Donald coming back along with a solid secondary that has safety Jason Hendricks, who led the team in tackles a year ago.

Anything else?
Pitt has the opportunity to make a huge first impression in the ACC if it can beat Florida State at home in Week 1. There are some tough games for the Panthers this season, including a road trip to Virginia Tech, and the Panthers are an unknown heading into ACC play.

6. Duke (Last year: 6-7; lost to Cincinnati in Belk Bowl)
What happened last season?
Duke became bowl eligible for the first time since 1994 under coach David Cutcliffe. The Blue Devils ultimately lost a close game to Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl, but there was a lot to be happy with in 2012.

So why are they ranked here?
There’s little concern on offense. Even though quarterback Sean Renfree is gone, there’s a lot of buzz on Anthony Boone. Boone is a mobile guy who gives Cutcliffe another dimension to add to the offensive attack. If the ground game can improve, this is a team that could be tough to stop. Defense is a concern as it ranked among the worst in the country a year ago. The Blue Devils will probably find themselves in more than a couple shootouts this fall.

Anything else?
No matter where Duke finishes in the ACC this season, there’s something to be said for what Cutcliffe is building there. He’s had other opportunities to leave, and he’s chosen to stay. He’s one of the most well-regarded X’s and O’s coaches in the game and the Blue Devils should be in a position at the end of the year to possibly make it to a second straight bowl game.

7. Virginia (Last year: 4-8)
What happened last season?
Virginia got an early season win against Penn State when the Nittany Lions were struggling, and a late-season win over Miami. In between was when things were rough.

So why are they ranked here?
Mike London went with a coaching overhaul that brings in former North Carolina State coach Tom O’Brien and Jon Tenuta as defensive coordinator. Defense should be the greater strength for UVA this year with a seasoned secondary. It’s the offense that needs work. Two quarterbacks from 2012 — Phillip Sims and Michael Rocco — are gone, so this is a team that will probably have to rely on its run game.

Anything else?
It’ll be interesting to see if Virginia can make strides with a restructured coaching staff, but wins could still be hard to come by with a tough schedule. BYU, Oregon and even Ball State make up a difficult non-conference slate, and the last four games against Clemson, North Carolina, Miami and Virginia Tech is a rough way to end the year.

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John Taylor’s Prediction:

ATLANTIC
1. Clemson
2. Florida State
3. North Carolina State
4. Wake Forest
5. Maryland
6. Syracuse
7. Boston College

COASTAL
1. Miami
2. North Carolina
3. Georgia Tech
4. Virginia Tech
5. Pittsburgh
6. Virginia
7. Duke

Ben’s ACC champ: Clemson
John’s ACC champ: Clemson

Wisconsin launches early Heisman campaign for RB Jonathan Taylor

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The Heisman Trophy has generally been synonymous with the best quarterback on one of the best teams in recent years but there have been a few running backs who have broken through to win the most prestigious award in all of college football.

Hoping to become the next tailback to break the signal-callers’ grip on the stiff arm? That would be Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, who appears to have a budding campaign for the trophy that was launched by the school on Thursday:

Herschel Walker. Ron Dayne. Ricky Williams. Adrian Peterson. LaDainian Tomlinson. Dominant running backs. Legendary names. Unrivaled production … until now,” one tagline reads. “There’s a new kid on the block and he’s “Bringing Running Back,” back into the spotlight, just like those that came before him. And his name is Jonathan Taylor.”

The website goes through all of the notable stats that Taylor has piled up in just two seasons in Madison and while it doesn’t explicitly say everything is designed to raise the junior’s awareness ahead of Big Ten Media Days and the upcoming 2019 campaign, it does note that his fellow Wisconsin Doak Walker Award winners have all been finalists in New York at some point in their career.

i.e. hint, hint media this guy is pretty good.

And nobody is debating that after he has set numerous records during his first two years on campus. Key to actually making it to New York though might be how Taylor’s team does around him. If the Badgers can get back to being in contention for the Big Ten title once again in 2019, chances are high that the tailback’s play will play a bigger part in getting him the attention he deserves than a website and a hashtag.

Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy headlines 2019 Biletnikoff Award Watch List

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Media Day season is also Watch List season and the latest to surface for the 2019 campaign comes out of Tallahassee in the form of the Biletnikoff Award Watch List. The award, given annually to the nation’s most outstanding receiver, includes the defending winner in Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and fellow semifinalist Tylan Wallace out of Oklahoma State, as well as a number of other talented pass-catchers from around the country.

Here’s the full list, which is a good general overview of the best wide receivers and tight ends for the upcoming season even if a few names can gripe about being left off:

Lynn Bowden, Jr. (Kentucky)

Rico Bussey, Jr. (North Texas)

Cedric Byrd (Hawaii)

Grant Calcaterra (Oklahoma)

Damonte Coxie (Memphis)

Gabriel Davis (UCF)

Bryan Edwards (South Carolina)

D’Wayne Eskridge (Western Michigan)

Aaron Fuller (Washington)

Antonio Gandy-Golden (Liberty)

KJ Hamler (Penn State)

Adrian Hardy (Louisiana Tech)

Damon Hazelton (Virginia Tech)

Tee Higgins (Clemson)

K.J. Hill (Ohio State)

Isaiah Hodgins (Oregon State)

Justin Jefferson (LSU)

Jerry Jeudy (Alabama)

Tyler Johnson (Minnesota)

Collin Johnson (Texas)

CeeDee Lamb (Oklahoma)

Ty Lee (Middle Tennessee State)

Kalija Lipscomb (Vanderbilt)

McLane Mannix (Texas Tech)

Kirk Merritt (Arkansas State)

Riley Miller (Ball State)

Denzel Mims (Baylor)

Darnell Mooney (Tulane)

Rondale Moore (Purdue)

Albert Okwuegbunam (Missouri)

K.J. Osborn (Miami)

Dezmon Patmon (Washington State)

Jared Pinkney (Vanderbilt)

Michael Pittman, Jr. (USC)

James Proche (SMU)

Jalen Reagor (TCU)

Jared Rice (Fresno State)

Sean Riley (Syracuse)

Reggie Roberson, Jr. (SMU)

Justyn Ross (Clemson)

Henry Ruggs III (Alabama)

Laviska Shenault, Jr. (Colorado)

JD Spielman (Nebraska)

Amon-Ra St. Brown (USC)

Marquez Stevenson (Houston)

Tamorrion Terry (Florida State)

Jaylen Waddle (Alabama)

Tylan Wallace (Oklahoma State)

JoJo Ward (Hawaii)

Quez Watkins (Southern Miss)

Ryan Day isn’t going to name Justin Fields as Ohio State’s starting QB just yet

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Almost as soon as Justin Fields’ waiver to play right away in 2019 was approved, the Georgia transfer was pegged as Ohio State’s starting quarterback.

Ryan Day, however, is picking up this whole being a head coach at media day thing pretty good because the new leader of the Buckeyes offense declined to anoint Fields as the starter despite ample evidence that he’s the guy for the job.

“It’s an interesting situation. Whoever is playing in that first game will be the first time. Justin and Gunnar (Hoak) are going to compete like heck to go win the job,” Day said from the podium at Big Ten Media Days on Thursday. “At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to who can play the game.”

Hoak, who grad transferred over from Kentucky, was a key pickup for the program in the offseason not just to provide some competition for Fields but to provide much-needed depth after a host of quarterbacks left for other schools. While he has experience playing in five games last year with the Wildcats, there’s a gap in terms of natural talent between him and Fields.

Day seems likely to stick to his timetable of naming the starter a few weeks into camp but it still seems pretty clear as to who eventually will take over for Dwayne Haskins under center for the scarlet and gray.

Still though, you have to hand it to the rookie for going full on coach-speak when it came to his signal-caller at his very first media day in charge.

Big Ten’s Jim Delany upset with College Football Playoff Selection Committee

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Thursday marked the final Big Ten Media Days press conference for outgoing commissioner Jim Delany.

While his appearance was fairly low-key all things considered, the longtime college athletics stalwart didn’t hold back when it came to discussing his league and the College Football Playoff, lobbing some critical comments towards the Selection Committee in particular.

“I wish we had a little more continuity. I wish they would demonstrate as well as state the stronger commitment to strength of schedule,” Delany said. “We should be playing comparable schedules and if we’re not, there should be somewhat to differentiate that.”

The Big Ten has missed out on the playoff the past two seasons and saw its champion be skipped over in another year for a divisional runner-up.

Delany also voiced support for something suggested by Big 12 counterpart Bob Bowlsby to require all teams to play at least 10 Power Five opponents in a season, helping even out the difference between eight and nine conference slates.

“I’ve been disappointed, quite honestly, about the strength of schedule,” he added. “We’re not going to change. There may be pressure to change, but I think that’s short-selling our fans, our players, our TV partners. I’m hoping that the committee catches up with the intent of the founders.”