In some alternate universe, the conference that may lament the end of the Bowl Championship Series era the most, as we head into the debut of the College Football Playoff, might be the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Yes, the same ACC that had gone 3-13 in such games going into last season (Boise State and Utah each had two BCS wins by themselves in that same span). The same league that had its BCS representative allow 70 points in the Orange Bowl just a couple of years ago. But the past two seasons have provided a springboard that the ACC has used to its full advantage, and now goes into 2014 ferociously challenging the Southeastern Conference and the Pac-12 for conference supremacy.
Last season, the ACC sent 11 of its 14 football-playing members to bowl games, more than any other league. The Heisman, Doak Walker, Davey O’Brien, Outland, Lombardi, Bednarik, Nagurski and Groza Award winners all came from the league. The word “Clemson” stopped being a verb that signified unfulfilled potential (well, at least for one season) when the Tigers defeated Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. Finally, Florida State, the once mighty Leviathan within conference walls that had lost its big, bad reputation over the past few seasons, reclaimed the crystal ball and snapped the seven-year spell the SEC had on it when the Seminoles defeated Auburn in a thrilling BCS Championship Game in Pasadena six months ago.
Momentum is clearly on the side of the ACC, and A Lot of Sports Talk could tangibly feel that in every corner of the Grandover Resort as we covered the 2014 ACC Football Kickoff in Greensboro, N.C. this week. Along with welcoming in a new season, the league also welcomed in its newest member, the University of Louisville, and its inclusion on the gridiron only will add to the excitement that should be in store in 2014. Louisville’s inclusion now makes three teams in the Atlantic Division alone that won at least 11 games in the 2013 season. The Coastal Division (which you can read more about here) should be as wide open as it was last season, when a five-way tie for the top spot almost occurred. Duke, last year’s Coastal winner, is a real player in football now, but the competition they’ll face in defending their crown will be fierce, which only will lift the play of the entire league as a whole.
Over the span of two days during the meet-and-greet sessions, we conducted interviews with over 15 different student-athletes and coaches from the conference, along with providing the conference with our predictions as to how the 2014 season will unfold. Here’s our gaze into our very cloudy and, at most times, unreliable crystal ball in projecting the 2014 season, starting with the Atlantic Division. By the way, can you believe that the college football season is just one month away from commencing?
**Teams are ranked in order of A Lot of Sports Talk’s ballot submitted to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Teams with the speaker logo next to its name have accompanying audio interviews from ACC Football Kickoff.
All season long, Florida State partied like it was 1999, the last time it won a national championship. After winning their 13 prior games by an average of 42.4 points per, and invoking the memories of the dominant teams under Bobby Bowden, the Seminoles captured the final BCS National Championship in Pasadena after defeating Auburn in a 34-31 thriller to end the BCS era. An urban legend to begin the season, redshirt freshman Jameis Winston turned into a Heisman winner by the end, clearly emerging as the best quarterback in the nation while directing an offense that barely hiccuped all season. Winston is back – albeit having to answer a few more off-the-field questions after a shoplifting incident at a Publix supermarket in April – with an even more determined attitude to lead FSU back to the top. It was almost sad to see the media throng head over to Winston like flies onto food left unattended to on a counter top, as the player who joined Winston at ACC Media Day, cornerback P.J. Williams, happened to be the player who made the interception that turned around the championship game against Auburn. Williams is one of six returning starters on defense, with the secondary clearly ranking as one of the best in the country. During our time in Greensboro, head coach Jimbo Fisher called out the Big 12 for not having a conference championship game, and, in essence, questioning the merits of its champion when it comes to the College Football Playoff (which, in our opinion, doesn’t really matter in the long run). As long as Florida State takes care of its business, they shouldn’t have to worry about how other conferences operate. The “business” they have to take care of this season includes games vs. Oklahoma State (in Arlington, TX), Clemson, Notre Dame, away to Louisville and Miami and at home to Florida to end the regular season. It’s a harder schedule than last season, and the crown the Seminoles are wearing on their heads will just grow heavier and heavier with each passing day.
It’s true that you can’t please everybody in this world, but it seemed as if the 2013 version of the Louisville Cardinals football team couldn’t please anybody. They won 12 games (and 23 over the past two seasons), with their only loss coming to the eventual winners of the Fiesta Bowl. But perfection was expected from the Cardinals in their last (and only) season in The American, and once they went down to UCF at home in October, the season, to many, was considered a lost one. Charlie Strong, the man who replaced Bobby Petrino at Louisville, moved on to become the University of Texas. In to replace Strong is…Petrino. Hired back to coach the Cardinals after his coaching spell/redemption stop at Western Kentucky, Petrino is an offensive guru who should be able to have his team overcome the loss of one of the program’s great players in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Louisville’s schedule this season has no long stretch for breathing room; they take on Miami on Monday night to begin the season, play Syracuse and Clemson on the road while facing off against Florida State in the month of October, and in November, they end their season with a road trip to South Bend to play Notre Dame and their rivalry game against Kentucky (moved from the beginning of the season).
AUDIO: Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino[audio:https://s3.amazonaws.com/ALOST/Bobby+Petrino+interview.mp3]
Remember when Dabo Swinney was on thin ice at Clemson after a 6-7 season in 2010, which included a 22-point home loss to arch-rival South Carolina and a bowl defeat to South Florida? Well, the past three seasons have seen the best stretch of football Clemson has ever had, winning 32 games, making two BCS Bowls and winning the Orange Bowl against Ohio State at the end of last season. The challenge now is for Dabo to continue that rich vain of form without a mainstay of those last three Clemson teams, record-setting three-year starting quarterback Tajh Boyd. Oh, and wide receiver Sammy Watkins, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, also is gone. Cole Stoudt, son of former NFL quarterback Cliff Stoudt, is in line for the quarterback job, but will be pushed in the summer by highly-touted freshman Deshaun Watson. While the offense gets up to speed, the Tigers’ defense might be the best it has been in years, especially with the return of All-America defensive end Vic Beasley. Beasley, without a position at Clemson just a couple of years back (was once listed as a tight end), had 13 sacks last season, helping the Tigers in leading the nation as a team in tackles for loss. The defense will have to be on point to start the season, however, as Clemson has road trips to Athens (Georgia) and Tallahassee before the calendar officially flips over to fall.
The good news? The Orange have the most lettermen returning of any team in the ACC (57) and arguably have the second-best quarterback in the conference in Terrel Hunt. Also, Syracuse is only one of 10 teams in the FBS to have won three bowl games in the last four seasons, providing positive momentum going into 2014. The bad news? The autumn winds of change. In a five-game stretch starting on Sept. 27, Syracuse plays Notre Dame (in East Rutherford, N.J.), Louisville on a Friday night (home), Florida State on Homecoming (home), at Wake Forest and at Clemson. Furthermore, that stretch is part of a longer run in which Syracuse plays nine weeks in a row without a bye. A 3-0 record to begin the season is imperative, which makes Syracuse’s game vs. former ACC member Maryland on Sept. 20 the biggest game of the season, in my opinion.
AUDIO: Interview with Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer[audio:https://s3.amazonaws.com/ALOST/Scott+Shafer+interview.mp3]
AUDIO: Interview with Syracuse linebacker Cameron Lynch[audio:https://s3.amazonaws.com/ALOST/ACC+Media+Days-Cameron+Lynch+interview.mp3]
The honeymoon between Wolfpack fans and first-year head coach Dave Doeren seemed to be going real smooth at the beginning of last season when State opened the year 3-1, with their only loss a very respectable 26-14 defeat against Clemson in Death Valley. The proverbial wheels fell off after that, with the Wolfpack dropping eight straight games to end the season, losing seven of those games by double digits. Things are looking up for Coach Doeren in year two, especially with Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett stepping into the program to be the new signal-caller. Brissett’s dual-threat ability is similar to former Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch, who Doeren coached a couple of years back when the Huskies made a surprise BCS appearance. Their schedule realistically allows for a 4-0 start before a home game vs. Florida State on Sept. 27. Remember this: the last two times Florida State has visited Raleigh, the Wolfpack have come out on top, defeating #16 FSU in 2010 and a third-ranked Seminoles team in 2012.
Dave Clawson, fresh off of winning a MAC Championship with Bowling Green, takes over as head coach in a Power Five conference for the first time. His predecessor, Jim Grobe, also came over from a MAC school (Ohio) and proceeded to become Wake Forest’s all-time winningest head coach. Although Grobe’s record with the Demon Deacons was under .500 (77-82), Clawson still has some big shoes to fill. Despite 54 lettermen returning, only five returning starters come back on each side of the ball, and there is an alarming lack of experience at quarterback. The winner at quarterback might not benefit from a great running game, as the Deacons’ running backs combined to average only 3.4 yards per carry in 2013.
AUDIO: Interview with Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson[audio:https://s3.amazonaws.com/ALOST/Dave+Clawson+interview.mp3]
Steve Addazio’s teams will always reflect his personality, which means the Eagles will always be a tough-nosed, in-your-face football team that will try to wear opponents down with the run game. Last year’s Doak Walker Award winner, Andre Williams, provided BC with the perfect spearhead to that style of play, rushing for 2,177 yards last season and breaking the spirits of defenses late in games. Williams is now a New York Giant, and Addazio will have to reestablish his brand of football with only three returning starters on offense. Another former Florida quarterback has found his way to the ACC, as Tyler Murphy, a player Addazio helped recruit to Florida while he was an assistant in Gainesville, will now call the signals at The Heights. Defense might have to win the day at the beginning of the season as the offense works its way into gelling into an effective unit.
AUDIO: Interview with Boston College head coach Steve Addazio[audio:https://s3.amazonaws.com/ALOST/ACC+Media+Days-Steve+Addazio+interview.mp3]
**To read our 2014 preview of the Coastal Division, go to our ACC Kickoff Extravaganza: Coastal Division page.
[Cover photo (Jameis Winston) courtesy of Reuters]