2014 ACC Preview

Welcome to the THUNDERBLOG’s College Football Preview! With the season starting on Thursday, we’ll be taking you through each conference to let you know what to watch for as you watch this year. First up, the Atlantic Coast Conference:

(Note: All rankings from AP Top 25; cover photo via)

Atlantic Division

1) #1 Florida State Seminoles (2013: 14-0, Won BCS National Championship Game vs. Auburn)

Head Coach: Jimbo Fisher (5th year–all with FSU–45-10 record)
Returning Starters: 7 Offensive/6 Defensive

The ‘Noles return QB Jameis Winston (2014 Heisman Winner) who should be able to take this deep roster deep into the season. Many people will say they’ll go far because of their weak conference and while the ACC may not the best top-to-bottom conference, Florida State’s schedule helps their regular season undefeated odds a ton. Their toughest games include: Oklahoma State on Saturday (August 30th) at Cowboys Stadium, hosting Clemson on September 20th (whom FSU demolished 51-14 in Death Valley last year), playing at Louisville on October 30th (after a bye week), and hosting Florida on November 29th (won 37-7 last year but the Gators should be tougher this season). The Louisville game is by far their toughest road game although you can never discount the possibility of an upset in the Miami game, especially on the road (I don’t see it though).

Team MVP: QB Jameis Winston – pretty obvious pick but RB Karlos Williams should tear it up on the ground and the Seminoles’ receiving core is deep with Sr. Rashad Williams needing on 1,133 yards to break the school’s career record.

2)  #16 Clemson Tigers (2013: 11-2, Won Orange Bowl vs. Ohio State)

Head Coach: Dabo Swinney (7th year–all with Clemson–51-23 record)
Returning Starters: 5 Offensive/7 Defensive

The Tigers lost QB Tajh Boyd and WR Sammy Watkins to the NFL and their presences will be missed. Clemson plays on road at Georgia (August 30th) and Florida State (September 20th) in their first and third games and with UNC as their fourth opponent, they could potentially have multiple losses entering October. The defense remains very much in-tact returning seven starters so they’ll have that going for them. Even with a tough road schedule, the Tigers should be able to finish as runner-up to the Seminoles.

Team MVP: DE Vic Beasley – the senior d-lineman had 20 tackles and 8 sacks last year and doesn’t want to leave college having never won against arch-rival South Carolina. Clemson has lost the last four meetings coming into the 112th game on November 29th.

3) Louisville Cardinals (2013: 12-1, Won Russel Athletic Bowl vs. Miami; 1st Season in ACC)

Head Coach: Bobby Petrino (10th season, 1st BACK with Louisville, 5th total at UL–41-9/83-30 record)
Returning Starters: 7 Offensive/4 Defensive

Louisville’s first ACC opponent was their final opponent of 2013: the U (Miami) this Monday, September 1st. Having lost QB Teddy Bridgewater, the Cardinals will need the running back-tandem of Dominique Brown and Michael Dyer to produce as sophomore Wil Gardner should be their new starting QB. Gardner is 8-12 with 112 yards and 2 TDs in his career but that small sample size doesn’t show enough to tell if he can get WR DeVante Parker another 1000-yard season. Louisville’s toughest games include: playing at Clemson on October 11th, hosting Florida State on October 30th and traveling to South Bend (Notre Dame) on November 22nd.

Team MVP: WR DeVante Parker – he’ll get his 1000-yard season.

4) Syracuse Orange (2013: 7-6, Won Texas Bowl vs. Minnesota)

Head Coach: Scott Shafer (2nd season, 7-6 record at ‘Cuse)
Returning Starters: 8 Offensive/4 Defensive

Scott Shafer has set a goal for the team to win 8 games, one more than last year. With 15 total returning starters, it’s possible they could pull that off, but they’ll need to make up for a tough October: they host Louisville and Florida State in back-to-back weeks and travel to Clemson on October 27th. Combined with having to play Notre Dame at Giants Stadium on September 27th, there isn’t too much room for error in this goal. They’ll need QB Terrel Hunt to improve his TD/Int ratio (10/8) but his ability as a dual-threat QB is great. The open the season Friday night (August 30th) against former Big East Basketball rival Villanova which should be one of the most lob-sided Orange over Wildcat wins in the history of the Carrier Dome.

Team MVP: QB Terrel Hunt – if he doesn’t turn the ball over, he’ll open up a lot of space for the Orange offense to work.

5) Boston College Eagles (2013: 7-6, Lost Advocare V100 Bowl to Arizona)

Head Coach: Steve Addazio (2nd year at BC, 4th Overall–7-6/20-17 record)
Returning Starters: 3 Offensive/6 Defensive

Andre Williams was the shinning star for this team last and he will certainly be missed as the Eagles return zero skill-players on offense. They did gain quarterback transfer Tyler Murphy from Florida who should help BC win conference games against the other lower-ranked Atlantic teams (see below) if he and his receivers have been able to get on the same page. The Eagles do return all four defensive backs who should be able to improve on their worst-ranked passing defense in ACC-play from last year. The fact that BC doesn’t leave the state of Massachusetts for their first five games should help the team come together.

Team MVP: RB Myles Willis – the sophomore average 5.8 yards per rush last year and while he won’t replicate Andre Williams’ season, he’ll be the focal point of this offense, especially in the beginning of the season.

6) NC State Wolfpack (2013: 3-9)

Head Coach: Dave Doeren (2nd year at NCSt, 4th Overall–3-9/26-13 record)
Returning Starters: 7 Offensive/7 Defensive

NC State’s 0-8 record in the ACC last year almost made me put them at the bottom of the Atlantic Division but I was swayed by two factors: number of returners compared to Wake Forest and NC State hosts WF this year–that game may be the tiebreaker for 6th. NC State returns most of their line for both sides of the ball and all-but-one defensive back. While they have a nightmarish ACC-road schedule (going to Clemson, Louisville, Syracuse, and UNC), the Wolfpack’s easy out-of-conference schedule can help them win games than last year.

7) Wake Forrest Demon Deacons (2013: 4-8)

Head Coach: Dave Clawson (1st year at WF, 6th Overall–32-31 record)
Returning Starters: 5 Offensive/5 Defensive

The Deacons have averaged less than 19 points per game in their last two seasons. Having to go on the road to Louisville and Florida State, it could be three in a row. As mentioned above, the NC State win last year was what brought them to sixth in the Atlantic, but having to go to NC State doesn’t bode very well for them.

Coastal Division

1) Virginia Tech Hokies (2013: 8-5, Lost Sun Bowl to UCLA)

Head Coach: Frank Beamer (28th year–all with VT–224-109-2 record)
Returning Starters: 9 Offensive/5 Defensive

With the injury to Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, Virginia Tech’s non-conference schedule looks a lot easier (hosting William & Mary, East Carolina, and Western Michigan) giving them the possibility to win their first five games. The challenge comes in conference play on the road as they’ll travel to North Carolina, Pittsburgh and 2013-ACC-runner-up Duke. The Hokies shouldn’t fall to the Blue Devils again but the UNC game will be much tougher than last year’s 27-17 victory. Returning nine offensive starters with a transfer QB should certainly help the offensive score more than 22.5 points per game while the defense could shape up to only allow 19.3 points per game like last year as they return five starters with upperclassmen taking those open jobs.

Team MVP: RB Trey Edmunds – this guy ran for 132 yards on 20 carries against Alabama last year and while he didn’t do much after that (675 yards in 2013, missed bowl game), this was all as a redshirt freshman. At 6’1″ 217 pounds, Edmunds could tear up Blacksburg this year.

2) #23 North Carolina Tar Heels (2013: 7-6, Won Belk Bowl vs. Cincinnati)

Head Coach: Larry Fedora (3rd year at UNC, 7th Overall–16-10/49-29 record)
Returning Starters: 8 Offensive/7 Defensive

The Tar Heels are a hot pick for the Coastal Champion because of their hot finish to 2013 and their dual-threat offensive thanks to QB Marquise Williams. Williams lead the team in rushing last season but expect SO RB TJ Logan to be much more involved this season. UNC draws an unfortunately cross-division opponent in Clemson (traveling there on September 27th) and will have to travel to both Miami and arch-rival Duke. The good news is with 15 starters returning, it will take no time for the players to come together and potentially continue their hot streak.

Team MVP: QB Marquise Williams – he only started half the season as he was the Week 1 backup last year and still led the team in rushing. His athletic ability should help the Heels move into the top five in both passing and rushing.

3) Miami Hurricanes (2013: 9-4, Loss Russell Athletic Bowl to Louisville)

Head Coach: Al Golden (4th year at Miami, 9th Overall–22-15/49-49 record)
Returning Starters: 7 Offensive/7 Defensive

The wheels came off last year when Miami got leveled by Florida State as they lost three-straight and fell from #7 to unranked. Prior to that, the U had two quality wins over Florida and UNC. This year, the team returns 14 starters including RB Duke Johnson (920 yards, 6 TDs) but has the hardest draw of the top-three Coastal teams. Miami is the only one of these three that has to play Florida State (UNC does play Clemson, however) but has to travel to Louisville this Monday, September 1st and plays a tough road game at Nebraska. Miami does host UNC on November 1st which could help them to victory and potential jump into the second spot.

Team MVP: RB Duke Johnson – with Dallas Crawford’s (616 yards, 12 TDs) move to DB this past spring, expect Johnson to get the ball A LOT.

4) Pittsburgh Panthers (2013: 7-6, Won Little Caesars Pizza Bowl vs. Bowling Green)

Head Coach: Paul Chryst (3rd year–all with Pitt–13-13 record)
Returning Starters: 8 Offensive/5 Defensive

The Panthers kickoff their second season in the ACC bringing back most of their offensive, but losing a few key players on defense–mainly Aaron Donald and his 11.5 sacks/17.5 TFL. The offensive side of the ball returns the RB-tandem of James Conner and Issac Bennett (combined 1667 yards and 15 TDs and the talented SO WR Tyler Boyd (1174 yards, 7 TDs). Pitt will have to finish the season traveling to UNC (November 15th) and Miami (November 29th) in two of their final three games but hosting Virginia Tech (October 16th) will make it closer than one might think.

Team MVP(s): RBs James Connor/Issac Bennett – I’d love to have Boyd here but with Chad Voytik likely starting (11 attempts last year), who knows how often they’ll call passing plays with these guys in the backfield.

5) Duke Blue Devils (2013: 10-4, Lost Chick-fil-A Bowl to Texas A&M)

Head Coach:  David Cutcliffe (7th year at Duke, 13th Overall–13-44/75-73 record)
Returning Starters: 8 Offensive/6 Defensive* (*see below)

Let’s be honest, Duke has had two great seasons these past two years, ESPECIALLY last year, but they’re not winning the Coastal again, they probably won’t even get close. Sure, returning most of your offense, including your QB, your RB, and most of your receivers helps, but they were underdogs in four of their big wins last year. They have also lost TE Braxton Deaver and All-ACC MLB Kelby Brown to injuries which will hurt them big time, especially the latter. Granted, Duke does miss playing Florida State and Clemson and will play at Syracuse (November 8th) and will host Wake Forrest (November 29th) instead so it is possible for the Blue Devils to return to bowl season for the third-straight season.

Team MVP: WR Jamison Crowder – One of the better ACC receivers, Crowder looks to out-gain last year’s 1360-yard season. With Deaver out (2nd in team with 600 yards last year), expect those numbers to increase.

6) Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (2013: 7-6, Lost Music City Bowl to Mississippi)

Head Coach: Paul Johnson (7th year at GT, 13th Overall–48-32/93-61 record)
Returning Starters: 6 Offensive/4 Defensive

Triple Option. That’s the strategy for Georgia Tech but they are without their top-three rushers from last season–including QB Vad Lee who transferred. The Yellow Jackets don’t have too much depth on either side of the ball, which will hurt them in comparison to other teams. With bigger home games against Miami (October 4th), Duke (October 11th), and Clemson (November 15th), there’s a small possibility for Georgia Tech to make a run, but they’ll need a season like Duke’s from a year ago.

7) Virginia Cavaliers (2013: 2-10)

Head Coach: Mike London (5th year–all at UVA–18-31 record)
Returning Starters: 8 Offensive/9 Defensive

The only thing really going for UVA is that they only lost 19 lettermen from last year. They have a lot of younger players who will need to step up if they hope to make any sort of shot to get out of last in the Coastal. Having to travel to Duke (October 18th), Georgia Tech (November 1st), Florida State (November 8th), and Virginia Tech (November 28th) is a rough gauntlet for anyone, let alone these guys.

Conference Champion: Florida State over Virginia Tech

It’s too tough to go against the defending champs. They have the best roster in the conference and considering they host their toughest ACC threat (Clemson on September 20th), it may be one of those years the #1 ranking is solidified until the postseason.

Playoffs?

The College Football Playoff begins this year and unless the champion barely squeaks out the title, the ACC Champion should be one of the four selected. I say that because I believe FSU is a lock for the title but even if Clemson wins, they could be in the top 4 as well. The only issue with the ACC is the depth of the SEC and Pac-12. The lack of depth in the ACC will hurt it’s champion if it isn’t undefeated, especially since Clemson has the second-highest ranking at #16. The ACC will have at most one representative in the College Football Playoff, but could have none if Florida State isn’t its champion.

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