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CFT 2018 Preseason Previews: The ACC

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It was not so long ago ACC commissioner John Swofford set the public challenge to the entire conference to step up their game on the big stage when the opportunities to impress and change the narrative about the ACC as a whole was needed. Fast-forward a few years, and the ACC has done just that. Heading into the 2018 season, the ACC is in position to once again make a solid case for being considered the top conference in the sport.

Leading the way once again should be Clemson, with Dabo Swinney looking to take the Tigers to a fourth straight postseason berth. The Tigers begin the season ranked second in the major polls (and sitting on top of our own CFT Top 25), which has become the new norm for the three-time defending ACC champions. The biggest question Clemson seems to have is who should play quarterback, but that should not get in the way of what Clemson’s season could yield. Whether it is Kelly Bryant or Trevor Lawrence, the Tigers offense should continue humming right along to the ACC Championship Game, with a playoff spot within sight for a fourth consecutive season. Only Alabama has a longer streak of playoff appearances going, as Clemson is well aware after playing the Crimson Tide each of the past three years, including twice in the national championship and last year’s semifinal round. Clemson wasn’t quite up to par to take on eventual national champion Alabama last year, but this year’s Tigers will grow from that experience and thrive behind arguably the nation’s top defensive line starring Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence, and Christian Wilkins.

If Clemson is the model of consistency in the ACC, then Miami is the program looking to prove last year was not a fluke. Mark Richt took Miami to its first appearance in the ACC Championship Game in his second season on the job, but Miami’s playoff bubble burst by losing the final game of the regular season at Pitt and then against Clemson in the conference championship. Miami’s season ended with a third straight loss in the Orange Bowl against Wisconsin so the ‘Canes will look to take their turnover chain swag and shrug off a rough ending to the 2017 season. Miami’s offense may still have room for improvement even with Malik Rosier returning at quarterback, but the defense should make Miami a formidable foe once again. With Shaq Quarterman and Jaquan Johnson leading the defense, the Hurricanes will look for an early statement to start off the year in the season opener against LSU in Arlington. If Miami beats LSU, then the Hurricanes will be in great position to flirt with an undefeated regular season once again, at least until a showdown in Blacksburg against Virginia Tech in mid-November.

Justin Fuente has done well with the Hokies, although he will have one of his youngest teams yet hoping to make a run in the ACC Coastal Division this fall. That may not be a tremendous setback given how the schedule will allow for that talent to come together and find their groove before the bulk of the ACC schedule (Virginia Tech opens on the road at Florida State though). Virginia Tech should be a team that improves as the season plays on, and they could be a team capable of knocking Miami out of the ACC title hunt. At the very least, Virginia Tech could be Miami’s biggest division threat, although nobody should ever underestimate a Georgia Tech team returning nine offensive starters, including senior quarterback TaQuon Marshall, this could be one of those years Georgia Tech makes something happen. The Yellow Jackets could pull a pivotal conference upset with home games against Clemson and Miami.

This could be a year of lower expectations at programs like Louisville (so long Lamar Jackson and nearly everyone on defense, but hello wide receiver Jaylen Smith) and NC State (although the Wolfpack do have Ryan Finley at QB, but like Louisville, nearly everyone on defense is gone, including Bradley Chubb). And a program like Boston College (perhaps the best Steve Addazio has coached yet with nine returning offensive starters including sophomore running back stud AJ Dillon and a strong defensive ability). Syracuse might even sniff a bowl game, while North Carolina and Virginia could have tough paths to the postseason.

And, of course, Florida State is coming in with some new energy provided by new head coach Willie Taggart. Expecting the Seminoles to flip a switch and dethrone Clemson may be premature this season, but after a rough 2017 season, Taggart may be just the guy to turn the page as Florida State begins bouncing back to being what you expect from Florida State. Having running back Cam Akers sure helps. The defense may not have all of the pieces in place just yet with so much roster turnover, but the defensive line is solid with senior Demarcus Christmas and potential breakout player Marvin Wilson. Florida State won’t stay down for long, but making a serious run at Clemson in 2018 may not be likely. 2019, however, could be a different story.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

ACC ATLANTIC DIVISION

  1. Clemson
  2. Florida State
  3. NC State
  4. Louisville
  5. Boston College
  6. Wake Forest
  7. Syracuse

ACC COASTAL DIVISION

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

IN SHORT…

Oklahoma losing WR A.D. Miller to transfer

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As Oklahoma is set to add players as part of the Early Signing Period later on today, it appears the Sooners will also see one leave its roster as well.

According to a tweet from Brett McMurphy of WatchStadium.com, A.D. Miller has decided to transfer from Lincoln Riley‘s OU football program.  247Sports.com subsequently confirmed that “Miller is looking to transfer and has entered his name into the NCAA transfer pool.”

No specific reason for the departure was given.

A three-star 2015 signee, Miller started 10 games during his time with the Sooners.  The wide receiver made four of those starts during his redshirt junior season this past year.

The Dallas native will finish his time in Lincoln with 236 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns on 21 catches during his 27 appearances with the Sooners.

UAB caps best season in school history with first bowl win

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Sometimes the first play from scrimmage is a mirage for what’s to come, like Ted Ginn, Jr.’s opening kickoff touchdown in the 2007 BCS National Championship. Other times, it tells the entire story.

When Tyler Johnston hit Xavier Ubosi for a 70-yard touchdown pass on the first play of Tuesday night’s Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl, it told you pretty much all you needed to know. Johnston would hook up with Ubosi for two more long touchdown passes throughout the night, and UAB blasted Northern Illinois, 37-13.

The win bolstered what was already the best season in school history for Bill Clark‘s Blazers. Just two years back from the dead, UAB had already secured its first conference championship and its first 10-win season; now, the program has its first bowl win to boot.

The Boca Raton Bowl was one of just three bowl games pitting conference champions against each other, the others being the Orange (SEC vs. Big 12) and Rose (Big Ten vs. Pac-12) bowls.

UAB (11-3) came into the game averaging less than 200 passing yards per game, but the redshirt freshman Johnston went off for easily the best game of his young career, hitting 17-of-28 passes for 373 yards with four touchdowns and an interception. The bulk of the damage went to Ubosi, who snared seven passes for 227 yards and three touchdowns. Ubosi entered the game with 28 grabs for 610 yards and five touchdowns, including four catches for 24 yards in his two most recent games.

After the 70-yard score put UAB up 7-0 (and, it turns out, for good), the Johnston-to-Ubosi connection put the game away for good with 5:11 to go in the second quarter with a 46-yard strike that gave the Blazers a 24-10 lead.

A 66-yard bomb at the 5:15 mark of the third quarter concluded Ubosi’s night and gave UAB a 34-13 lead. Johnston’s other touchdown pass was a 3-yard shovel to running back Spencer Brown at the 12:08 mark of the second quarter, turning a 10-7 UAB lead back into a comfortable 10-point spread.

As the score indicates, Northern Illinois (8-6) struggled to get anything going offensively. Marcus Childers completed 22 of his 29 passes but gained just 179 yards on those completions. NIU entered the night with the nation’s 118th most efficient passing attack, so a 6.2 yards per attempt average wouldn’t necessarily spell doom as long as the Huskies managed to run the ball, but that was a struggle as well. Against UAB’s top-20 rushing defense, NIU mustered just 108 yards on 44 carries. Tre Harbison tied Childers for the team lead with 35 yards (he had a team-high six yards at halftime) and scored the Huskies’ lone touchdown, a 1-yarder to pull them within 10-7 in the final minute of the first quarter.

Given a chance to add a cosmetic score midway through the fourth quarter, Jordan Nettles fumbled a 4th-and-goal run out the side of the end zone.

Ex-TCU QB Shawn Robinson headed to Missouri

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Oklahoma is presently the king of the quarterback transfer market. It’s literally impossible to improve upon turning two transfers into two Heisman Trophy winners. But if the Sooners are the gold medal winners of that particular competition, Missouri definitely wins silver.

After beating out a host of competitors to land Clemson graduate transfer Kelly Bryant, the Tigers have now landed Bryant’s successor in TCU transfer Shawn Robinson.

Mizzou announced Robinson’s arrival on Tuesday night, a Christmas Eve present to Tigers fans before Recruiting Santa drops his presents on Wednesday morning.

As an undergraduate transfer, Robinson will sit out the 2019 season, which works perfectly for Missouri as Bryant will be a one-and-done in Columbia. Robinson will then take over for Bryant in 2020 as a redshirt junior.

While Robinson flashed rare ability during his half-ish season as TCU’s starter this fall, he also showed why he would benefit from the opportunity to sit and learn. Robinson completed 60.8 percent of his passes, but for just 6.5 yards per attempt with nine touchdowns against eight picks.

He tossed two interceptions in the Frogs’ September loss to Ohio State and then coughed up three turnovers in a loss at Texas a week later, essentially eliminating TCU from national title contention. After throwing two more picks in a loss to Texas Tech and then completing just three of eight passes against Oklahoma a week after that, Robinson was shut down for the year to have season-ending shoulder surgery.

Missouri will be Robinson’s fifth different school since entering high school. He played at two different Dallas-Fort Worth area schools before leading DeSoto to a state championship as a senior in 2016, and will now play for his second college starting in 2020.

Big passing plays put UAB up on Northern Illinois

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If UAB was to beat Northern Illinois in the Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl on Tuesday night, it was supposed to happen on the ground, where the Blazers’ top-30 running game would grind out an advantage over the Huskies’ No. 3-ranked yards per carry defense to secure a tight, hard-fought win. UAB, with its No. 100-ranked passing offense, certainly wasn’t supposed to go bombs away on the Huskies.

But Bill Clark‘s team flipped that script on the very first play, when Tyler Johnston hit a streaking Xavier Ubosi for a 70-yard touchdown pass.

After a 25-yard Nick Vogel field goal and a Northern Illinois touchdown, UAB pushed its lead back to 10 when Johnston flipped to Spencer Brown for a 3-yard shovel pass score at the 12:08 mark of the second quarter.

Then, after an NIU field goal pulled the Huskies back within a score at 17-10, Johnston again found Ubosi for a long score, this one a 46-yarder, to push UAB in front 24-10.

Johnston is well on his way to his best night of the year, hitting 13-of-20 passes for 256 yards and three touchdowns, while Ubosi hauled in six catches for 161 yards and two scores.

Instead of cutting into its 14-point deficit just before the halftime gun, the NIU offense helped increase it. Marcus Childers was sacked and fumbled away the ball at his own 31-yard line with 2:13 left in the half, setting up a 34-yard Vogel field goal to push the UAB lead to 27-10 as the first half expired.

NIU’s touchdown came on a 1-yard Tre Harbison run in the final minute of the first quarter, capping a 9-play, 59-yard drive. He was NIU’s leading rusher with six yards on four carries.