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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…

Louisville WR: Every one of our WRs can beat every one of Alabama’s DBs

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Louisville lost Lamar Jackson to the NFL, but the remaining Cardinals have not suffered a lack of confidence without their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. Or at least not Cardinals wideout Dez Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick (above, left) appeared at Louisville’s media day on Saturday and declared his Cardinals wide receiving corps could match up with Alabama’s secondary man-for-man.

“Every receiver in our receiver corps can honestly beat every one of their DBs one-on-one in coverage,” Fitzpatrick said. “It ties into the other stuff, if the blocks are right, if the quarterback’s drop is right, we ran eight-yard routes instead of a 10-yard route, that’s the kind of stuff I feel like we need to sharpen up.

“But I feel like straight talent-wise, I feel like we have the upper edge against their secondary, 1,000 percent.”

Fitzpatrick was Louisville’s second-leading receiver as a redshirt freshman, hauling in 45 grabs for 699 yards with nine touchdowns. Senior Jaylen Smith led the Cards a year ago with 60 receptions for 980 yards and seven scores, and No. 3 receiver, junior Seth Dawkins, is also back. Alabama underwent a wholesale change in its defensive secondary — cornerbacks Anthony Averett and Levi Wallace and star Tony Brown graduated, while safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison declared early for the NFL. The Tide also lost defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley.

But the most important piece of Alabama’s pass defense is back, and that’s Nick Saban. New coordinator Tosh Lupoi and new defensive backs coach Karl Scott are expected to plug-and-play a new unit that will still rank among the best in college football.

But not good enough to shut down Louisville and its new quarterback, Jawon Pass, at least according to Fitzpatrick.

A game with a 31-point spread just became slightly more interesting.

Louisville’s All-ACC WR Jaylen Smith has emergency appendectomy

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Louisville opened fall camp on Friday but did so without one of their best players after a rather scary medical situation.

According to a school release, All-ACC wide receiver Jaylen Smith underwent an emergency appendectomy earlier in the day and will be out for an undetermined amount of time as he recovers.

“We are fortunate to catch this early and anticipate a full recovery,” head coach Bobby Petrino said in a statement. “Jaylen is doing well and we look forward to him returning to the practice field as soon as possible.”

Much of the attention on the Cardinals’ football team the past few months has centered on quarterback Jawon Pass replacing Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson but it might be Smith who is the top offensive weapon for Petrino in 2018. He was named a first-team All-ACC pick last season after finishing with 980 yards and seven touchdowns and enters the upcoming campaign averaging 16.9 yards per catch since playing early as a freshman.

The appendectomy is even tougher news for Smith as it not only occurred at the start of camp, but happens just a day after his birthday this week. Thankfully it sounds like he’ll be able to get back to 100 percent soon but it is not exactly the kind of news that you want to hear if you’re a Louisville fan this week after a rough offseason.

Biletnikoff Award watch list highlighted by 2017 finalist David Sills

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You know how I know we’re getting closer to the start of a new season?  Yet another watch list.

The latest to release theirs is the Biletnikoff Award, with the honor going to the nation’s top receiver issuing a list consisting of 50 players from all nine FBS conferences as well as one independent (UMass).  Headlining this year’s preseason list is West Virginia’s David Sills, who was a finalist for the 2017 award claimed by Oklahoma State’s James Washington.  One other 2017 semifinalist is included as well, Ole Miss’ A.J. Brown.

A total of seven teams placed two receivers each on the watch list: Cal (Kanawai Noa, Vic Wharton III), Louisville (Dez Fitzpatrick, Jaylen Smith), Nebraska (Stanley Morgan Jr., JD Spielman), North Texas (Jalen Guyton, Michael Lawrence), Oklahoma (Marquise Brown, CeeDee Lamb), Toledo (Diontae Johnson, Cody Thompson) and West Virginia (Gary Jennings Jr., Sills).

Three conferences totaled seven players apiece, the ACC, Big 12 and MAC.  That trio is followed by five each from Conference USA and four apiece for the AAC, Pac-12 and Sun Belt.  The Big Ten and Mountain West each placed three.

Below is the complete list of 2018 Biletnikoff Award preseason watch listers:

JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Stanford
Tyre Brady, Marshall
A.J. Brown, Ole Miss
Marquise Brown, Oklahoma
Trevon Brown, East Carolina
Ryan Davis, Auburn
Greg Dortch, Wake Forest
Terren Encalade, Tulane
Dez Fitzpatrick, Louisville
James Gardner, Miami-Ohio
Jonathan Giles, LSU
Marcus Green, ULM
Jalen Guyton, North Texas
Emanuel Hall, Missouri
Justin Hall, Ball State
Kelvin Harmon, North Carolina State
N’Keal Harry, Arizona State
Penny Hart, Georgia State
Justin Hobbs, Tulsa
Andy Isabella, Massachusetts
Gary Jennings Jr., West Virginia
Anthony Johnson, Buffalo
Collin Johnson, Texas
Diontae Johnson, Toledo
KeeSean Johnson, Fresno State
CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma
Michael Lawrence, North Texas
Ty Lee Middle, Tennessee
McLane Mannix, Nevada
Scott Miller, Bowling Green
Denzel Mims, Baylor
Stanley Morgan Jr., Nebraska
Kanawai Noa, California
James Proche, SMU
T.J. Rahming, Duke
Ahmmon Richards, Miami
Deebo Samuel, South Carolina
David Sills V, West Virginia
Steven Sims Jr., Kansas
Jaylen Smith, Louisville
Kwadarrius Smith, Akron
JD Spielman, Nebraska
Cody Thompson, Toledo
John Ursua, Hawaii
Teddy Veal, Louisiana Tech
Jamarius Way, South Alabama
Nick Westbrook, Indiana
Vic Wharton III, California
Malcolm Williams, Coastal Carolina
Olamide Zaccheaus, Virginia

Louisville to be without leading receiver vs. Kent State

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The reigning Heisman Trophy winner won’t have his favorite target in the passing game as his ongoing attempt at back-to-back stiff-armed hardware continues.

Bobby Petrino announced Saturday morning that Jaylen Smith will not play in today’s game against Kent State, set for a noon ET kickoff.  The wide receiver is dealing with an injury to his left wrist; it’s unclear when he sustained the injury.

The Louisville Courier-Journal writes that “[m]ore information on Smith’s injury should be available after the game.”

This season, Smith is far and away the Cardinals’ leading receiver, totaling 22 catches for 379 yards through the first three games of the season.  Seth Dawkins is next with 11 receptions, while Dez Fitzpatrick‘s 211 yards are second on the team.

Last season, Smith led the Cards in averaging 22.2 yards per catch.  This season, he was at 17.2 ypc.