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CFT 2017 Preseason Previews: The ACC

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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

Big Ten pulls plug on fall football amid COVID-19 concerns

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The Big Ten won’t play football this fall because of concerns about COVID-19, becoming the first of college sports’ power conferences to yield to the pandemic.

The move announced Tuesday comes six day after the conference that includes historic programs such as Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State had released a revised conference-only schedule that it hoped would help it navigate a fall season with potential COVID-19 disruptions.

But it was not a surprise. Speculation has run rampant for several days that the Big Ten was moving toward this decision. On Monday, coaches throughout the conference tried to push back the tide, publicly pleading for more time and threatening to look elsewhere for games this fall.

“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”

The Big Ten touts itself as the oldest college athletic conference in the country, dating back to 1896 when it was called the Western Conference, and its schools have been playing football ever since. It became the Big Ten in 1918 and grew into a football powerhouse.

The 14 Big Ten schools span from Maryland and Rutgers on the East Coast to Iowa and Nebraska out west. Not only has it been one of the most successful conferences on the field but off the field it has become one of the wealthiest.

The Big Ten, with its lucrative television network, distributes about $50 million per year to its members.

Trump, coaches push for college football as cracks emerge

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President Donald Trump joined a U.S. senator and a number of coaches Monday in the push to save the college football season from a pandemic-forced shutdown.

There was speculation that two of the five most powerful conferences — the Big Ten and the Pac-12 — might call off their seasons. Farther east, Old Dominion canceled fall sports and became the first school in the Bowl Subdivison to break from its league in doing so; the rest of Conference USA was going forward with plans to play.

A Big Ten spokesman said no votes had been taken by its presidents and chancellors on fall sports as of Monday afternoon and the powerful Southeastern Conference made clear it was not yet ready to shutter its fall season.

“Best advice I’ve received since COVID-19: ‘Be patient. Take time when making decisions. This is all new & you’ll gain better information each day,’” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey posted on Twitter. ”Can we play? I don’t know. We haven’t stopped trying.”

A growing number of athletes have spoken out about saving the season with Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence among the group posting their thoughts on Twitter with the hashtag #WeWantToPla. Trump threw his support behind them Monday.

“The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled,” he tweeted.

Old Dominion has stopped trying. The Virginia school canceled football and other fall sports less than a week after Conference USA set out a plan to play a football season.

“We concluded that the season – including travel and competition – posed too great a risk for our student-athletes,” ODU President Broderick said.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh took a different stand, saying the Wolverines have shown players can be safe after they return to school.

“I’m not advocating for football this fall because of my passion or our players desire to play but because of the facts accumulated over the last eight weeks since our players returned to campus on June 13,” he wrote. “I am advocating on August 10 that this virus can be controlled and handled because of these facts.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, picked up on the safer-with-football theme in a letter to the presidents and chancellors of the Big Ten.

“Life is about tradeoffs. There are no guarantees that college football will be completely safe — that’s absolutely true; it’s always true,” he wrote. “But the structure and discipline of football programs is very likely safer than what the lived experience of 18- to 22-year-olds will be if there isn’t a season.”

“Here’s the reality: Many of you think that football is safer than no football, but you also know that you will be blamed if there is football, whereas you can duck any blame if you cancel football,” added Sasse, a former college president. “This is a moment for leadership. These young men need a season. Please don’t cancel college football.”

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.westwoodonepodcasts.com/pods/ap-top-25-college-football-podcast/

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More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

Players unite in push to save college season, create union

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Michigan defensive back Hunter Reynolds saw the tweets from Trevor Lawrence and other college football players pushing for the opportunity to play this season despite the pandemic.

Reynolds, one of the organizers behind a players’ rights movement in the Big Ten, didn’t like the way some on social media seemed to be pitting Lawrence’s message against the efforts of #BigTenUnited and #WeAreUnited.

“There was a lot of division,” Reynolds told AP early Monday morning.

Reynolds got on a call with Lawrence and the star quarterback’s Clemson teammate, Darien Rencher, and within a matter of hours the summer of athlete empowerment found another gear.

College football players from across the country united Sunday in an attempt to save their season and ensure they will no longer be left out of the sport’s biggest decisions.

Lawrence, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, Oklahoma State All-America running back Chuba Hubbard, Alabama running back Najee Harris and numerous other players from Florida State to Oregon posted a graphic on social media with #WeWantToPlay and #WeAreUnited.

“We came to the conclusion, We Want to Play, their message might have been conveyed differently but at the end of the day the message wasn’t too far off from what Big Ten United wanted to promote,” Reynolds said. “Which is we all want to play sports this fall. Every athlete, I’m pretty sure, wants to play their sports. They just want to do so safely.”

The #WeAreUnited hashtag was used a week ago by a group of Pac-12 players in announcing a movement they say has the support of hundreds of peers within their conference. They have threatened mass opt-outs by players if concerns about COVID-19 protocols, racial injustice in college sports and economic rights for athletes are not addressed.

#BigTenUnited arrived on the scene a couple days later, a movement that claimed the backing off 1,000 Big Ten football players. Their demands were more targeted, strictly related to health and safety in dealing with COVID-19.

Sunday night, the call with Reynolds, Rencher and Lawrence led to a Zoom meeting — of course — with some of the Pac-12 players involved in “WeAreUnited.”

Washington State defensive lineman Dallas Hobbs got to work on a graphic and now the movement is officially nationwide.

“Just started bouncing ideas off each others’ heads and kind of discussing where we go from here and we ended up coming up with that statement,” said Reynolds, a senior from South Orange, New Jersey.

Under the logos of each Power Five conference — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — the players pronounced their platform:

— We all want to play football this season.

— Establish universal mandated health & safety procedures and protocols to protect college athletes against COVID-19 among all conferences throughout the NCAA.

— Give players the opportunity to opt out and respect their decision.

— Guarantee eligibility whether a player chooses to play the season or not.

— Use our voices to establish open communication and trust between players and officials: Ultimately create a College Football Players Association.

All of this capped a weekend during which the adults who run college sports seemed to be moving toward shutting it all down because of the pandemic.

A day after the Mid-American Conference became the first of the major college football leagues to cancel the fall season, Power Five conference commissioners met Sunday. They discussed mounting concerns about whether a season can be safely conducted with the pandemic still not under control in the United States.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said no decisions on the season have been made, but conceded the outlook has not improved.

“Are we in a better place today than two weeks, ago? No, we’re not,” he said.

Bowlsby cited “growing evidence and the growing pool of data around myocarditis.”

Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart and it has been found in some COVID-19 patients. There is concern it could be a long-term complication of contracting the virus even in young, healthy people, a group that has usually avoided severe cardiovascular symptoms.

Also Sunday night, the Big Ten’s university presidents and chancellors held a previously unscheduled meeting, a person with knowledge of the meeting told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was not announced by the conference.

Another person with direct knowledge of the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no votes were taken or decisions made about the college football season.

The final call on whether major college football will played this season rests in the hands of the university presidents who oversee the largest conferences.

With doom and gloom hanging over college football, Lawrence, who has become the face of the sport in a summer of strife, tried to push back the tide with a series of tweets.

“People are at just as much, if not more risk, if we don’t play,” Lawrence posted. “Players will all be sent home to their own communities where social distancing is highly unlikely and medical care and expenses will be placed on the families if they were to contract covid19.”

Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth had a similar message, and the parents of Ohio State football players weighed in, too.

Reynolds wants athletes to have a say in the meetings that are deciding the fate of their sports — starting now.

”All college athletes through unifying and not being afraid to speak our minds and having social media to kind of mobilize, I think that box on a Zoom call is something that is pretty attainable,” he said. “Especially, in the near future.”

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.westwoodonepodcasts.com/pods/ap-top-25-college-football-podcast/

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More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

After MAC surrenders to pandemic, will other leagues follow?

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In many ways, the Mid-American Conference has little in common with Power Five leagues that first come to mind when fans think of major college football.

There are no 75,000-seat stadiums in the MAC. Million-dollar per year coaches are rare. In a typical season, NFL scouts might find one or two potential first-round draft picks playing at the 12 MAC schools that dot the Midwest. The MAC’s biggest games — #MACtion, if you will — are often played on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Its television deal with ESPN pays per year only a few million more than the $9 million Clemson pays coach Dabo Swinney.

Still, the MAC is one of 10 conferences that competes in the NCAA’s highest level of football, and Saturday it became the first of those to surrender to the coronavirus pandemic and cancel the fall sports season.

So is the MAC an anomaly, done in by its small budgets or is this a dire sign of things to come in college football?

“I won’t try to judge what other folks are doing,” MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “I know we’re all in the same place. They all have their advisers. They’re going to make judgments based on the information they are receiving.”

Not long after the MAC announced it would explore second-semester seasons for all fall sports, including soccer and volleyball, the Big Ten made its own announcement that seemed ominous given the timing.

Tapping the brakes on football’s preseason, the Big Ten told its schools that until further notice full contact practices cannot begin. All teams will remain in the first two days of what is known as the “acclimatization period,” working out in just helmets. The first Big Ten games of the season are scheduled for Sept. 5.

“As we have consistently stated, we will continue to evaluate daily, while relying on our medical experts, to make the best decisions possible for the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes,” the Big Ten said in a statement.

The MAC’s schools were facing a significant financial burden by trying to maintain costly COVID-19 protocols, while also dealing with the uncertainty that campuses can be opened safely.

A move to the spring, however, could also be budget-buster if it means less revenue from the ESPN deal, which pays each school about $1 million per year, and football ticket sales. The MAC also shares about $90 million per year in College Football Playoff money with four other conferences.

“It would be naive to say that you don’t give thought and consideration to what the financial ramifications of any decision are, but this was a health and well-being decision first and foremost,” Steinbrecher said. “As we sit here today we don’t know what this will mean financially and how the rest of the fall plays out.”

Steinbrecher said the decision effects only fall sports, not basketball or others that begin in the second semester such as baseball, softball and lacrosse.

He added the decision was unanimous among the membership. Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier, supported by NIU President Lisa Freeman, has been a vocal advocate of delaying the season.

“No one wants to have football or sports more than me,” said Frazier, who played football at Alabama in the late 1980s. “Football gave me all the opportunities I have today, but I can’t do it at the expense of people’s lives.”

Eastern Michigan athletic director Scott Wetherbee said he has been feeling a sense of inevitability for two weeks about the MAC canceling fall football, but can’t predict whether this decision trickles up to other conferences.

“Could it? Certainly. There’s certainly a narrative out there that could happen,” Wetherbee said. “No, it wouldn’t shock me if some followed suit. In fact, it would shock me if some didn’t.”

NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline made clear that even though plans for the football season have been adjusted to accommodate potential COVID-19 disruptions like the ones Major League Baseball has had, they are all still aspirational.

“Almost everything would have to be perfectly aligned to continue moving forward,” Hainline said Friday during the NCAA’s weekly video chat on social media.

As the Power Five conferences re-worked their schedules to play exclusively or mostly within their conferences, another of the MAC’s revenue streams dried up.

MAC schools, with athletic budgets in the $30 million range, rely heavily on payouts from road games against power conference teams. Kent State alone had more than $5 million in so-called guarantee games canceled. Whether they can be recouped and when is still to be determined. Without that revenue, the strain became too great of trying to keep players and staff safe during a pandemic.

“Certainly there was a cost attached to it,” Wetherbee said. “But as a league we were prepared to do it.”

The move to try spring football has already been going on in the second tier of Division I.

Nine of 13 conferences that play in the Championship Subdivision, have postponed fall football seasons. The first was the Ivy League in early July.

Now it’s the MAC, which was among the first conferences to limit fan access to its basketball tournament in March as concerns for the virus began to soar across the country. On March 12, the MAC was among many conferences to call off their tournaments hours before the NCAA canceled all of March Madness.

“If you told me in March we’d be here today,” Steinbrecher said, “I’d never have believed it”