2014 NCAA Football Preview: Atlantic Coast Conference

August 11, 2014

They say good things come to those who wait.

We’ve all waited for quite some time, but we finally have what we wanted: 2014 marks the first college football season that will culminate with a playoff. Welcome to the modern sports world, fellas.

It’s exciting for sure, but with a new procedure to crown a champion in college football comes a new standard to be set and lots of rules to memorize. Even for someone who keeps up with the sport and writes about it regularly, it won’t be easy. Trust me.

For example, raise your hand if you were aware that there is now an entire selection committee dedicated to coming up with the Top 25 teams starting in late October, the top four of which would be the teams competing in the playoff if the season ended that week. Keep your hand raised if you also knew that these rankings would be released on Tuesday nights instead of on Sunday as the BCS rankings were in past years. And give yourself a pat on the back with that hand if you knew that AP voters, coaches and athletic directors no longer have any bearing on those rankings.

We’ll take a closer look at some of those nitty-gritty details later on. But for now it’s easier to start with something a bit more familiar. For four years Around The Corn has released conference-by-conference previews for college football, and it’s always been one of my favorite series to publish.

This year I’ll cover the conferences in geographical order, starting at the East coast and moving West based on the majority of teams in each league. That means that the Atlantic Coast Conference is the first to be given the ATC preview treatment.

It’s been a long six months without American football. Now we’re less than three weeks away from meaningful games being played.

Around The Corn is IN…are you?


Who would have guessed that a team from the Atlantic Coast Conference would have been holding up the crystal ball at the end of last season? Not me. I’ve been ragging on the ACC for years now, but Florida State made me look like a fool by not only running the table en route to the national title but by also ending the SEC’s reign of seven consecutive wins on college football’s biggest stage.

Normally I end the overview for this conference by saying something along the lines of “anything is possible here, because this conference is so wide open.” Clearly, that is no longer the case as the Seminoles have established themselves as the bullies that everyone else is trying to take out. Jameis Winston may have come out of nowhere last season, but with him back behind center there is no reason to suggest that the ACC isn’t equally as capable as any other conference in the nation of capturing the first national title under the College Football Playoff format.

Then again, it must be noted that this is still the Atlantic Coast Conference of old with the exception of Florida State. Plenty of talent lays within the 13 other teams in the league, and there’s a good chance that the Seminoles will draw that talent out on a weekly basis. In addition, on any given week a team like Wake Forest can upset a Virginia Tech.

The overall message is simple: Florida State is the beast in this league, but there are 13 other squads chomping at the bit to get a shot at taking down the reigning national champs. Nothing is easy in this conference, so don’t expect one team to simply glide through the season without a single test. It may have looked like that was what was occurring in 2013, but it won’t happen again.

Team(s) With the Best Shot at a Playoff Bid

Florida State

When you win the national title behind the play of a freshman Heisman Trophy winner, chances are you’re going to feel pretty good about making another run the following year. Such is the case for the Florida State Seminoles, who must replace some key players on each side of the ball but have the talent to do so. On offense, the Seminoles no longer have 6’5″ receiver Kelvin Benjamin, a favorite target of Jameis Winston’s near the endzone. But with senior wideout Rashad Greene and stud tight end Nick O’Leary, Winston still has plenty of targets at his expense.

The biggest question will be weather the defense returns to form after losing five players that contributed to a squad that finished in the top three nationally in scoring, passing and total yards allowed. The secondary should be fine, as it returns three of four starters from 2013. Linebacker play will be crucial to Florida State’s chances of repeating its success from last year, as only Terrance Smith returns.

While the offense was impressive last season, Florida State really separated itself from the rest of the pack in the ACC with its stifling defense. Only Boston College and Auburn managed to post more than 17 points on the Seminoles last season, which was integral in relieving any pressure Jameis Winston may have had in his first season as a starting quarterback. As good as Winston is, chances are many teams on the schedule will have devised a gameplan specifically to stop him. Florida State’s defense must be good enough to pick up the slack on days where Winston isn’t having his way with the opposition.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

North Carolina

Making consecutive appearances as the ACC’s team to watch out for, both the potential upside and downside are great for the Tar Heels. The upside, which is that there are plenty of athletic offensive skill players such as wideout Quinshad Davis and quarterback Marquise Williams, make North Carolina an extremely difficult team to match up against. The downside, which is that those players can be streaky and the defense, despite returning seven starters, is questionable, could turn a potential 9-3 team into a mediocre 6-6 one.

The other disclaimers about the Tar Heels involve the schedule and last year’s performance. The schedule is particularly tough in 2014, with trips to Clemson, Miami and Duke highlighting the conference slate. In addition, part of the reason North Carolina is an attractive choice for this section is a 6-1 run to end the 2013 campaign. However, only half of those wins came against teams with winning records and two of those teams finished the year 7-6. If North Carolina wants to truly surprise anyone, Larry Fedora’s team will have to beat the likes of Coastal Division contenders such as Virginia Tech and Miami as well as the mediocre squads.

Despite all the disclaimers, this is a team with the talent and coaching capable of winning the Coastal Division. The question is whether the Tar Heels can put everything together early enough to remain relevant in the conference come late October/early November.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player to Watch)

Terrel Hunt (Jr.), Syracuse quarterback

Jameis Winston would have fit nicely into this section, but of course you’re going to watch the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Someone you may not have thought about watching but should is Syracuse junior Terrel Hunt, who is sort of like a Jameis Winston lite. A dual threat quarterback with an emerging ability to throw the ball, Hunt should have plenty of time to decide whether he wants to throw or tuck it and run as the Orange return four offensive lineman. Syracuse ranked 12th in the conference in passing yards per game last year, but assuming Hunt is the starter all season there will be improvement in that department.

At 233 pounds, Hunt is a load to take down for most defensive backs, so he’ll probably always be a bit more run happy than most people would like from a quarterback. But his gains in the passing game were evident last year and he will likely step up as a leader on a Syracuse team that brings back several pieces on offense. Hunt is the type of player necessary for a team like Syracuse to shock one of the big boys in the ACC.

Out-Of-Conference Game to Watch

Clemson vs. Georgia (August 30th)

For the second straight year the Tigers open up with a game against the Bulldogs, but this time the game is being played in Athens. Both Tajh Boyd and Aaron Murray are gone, so this battle between two Top 20 opponents could introduce the nation to a new set of talented gunslingers. More than likely, however, we will get an idea of just how good Georgia’s rushing attack is with both Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall healthy.

Clemson has had one of the more potent offensive attacks in the country the past few years, but it could be tough sledding against the Bulldogs in this one. Ten starters return on Georgia’s defense and although Mark Richt’s team wasn’t the most stellar defensively in 2013, experience is key in early season contests. Don’t expect this rematch to reach the high 30s in points as it did last year; neither Clemson nor Georgia has the firepower to score as quickly as in 2013. New quarterbacks feeling out experienced defensive squads mean this one should be close but could play out at a grinding pace.

In-Conference Game to Watch

Florida State vs. Louisville (October 30th)

Looking at the schedule, it is entirely possible that the Seminoles will roll through the first two months of the season without much competition. But come the end of October, Jimbo Fisher’s team better be prepared for Bobby Petrino’s Louisville Cardinals. The Cardinals will be adjusting to the ACC rigors this year, but by the time this game is played Petrino’s team will have faced Miami and Clemson. This is exactly the type of scenario that Petrino loves; his team playing underdog to the highly talented Seminoles.

If there is one team that can put up enough points on Florida State to keep things interesting, it would be Louisville. Sophomore quarterback Will Gardner has the tall task of replacing Teddy Bridgewater, but he has enough talent around him to make the job manageable. Plus, he’ll have had plenty of experience against quality competition by this point in the season. A Petrino coached team probably won’t hold Florida State under 30 points, so expect this game to be full of offensive fireworks. This is the one to watch if you’re hoping for a Seminole slip up.

Conference Predictions

Atlantic Division

1. Florida State (12-1, [7-1])

2. Clemson (9-3, [7-1])

3. Louisville (8-4, [5-3])

4. Syracuse (7-5, [4-4])

5. North Carolina State (6-6, [2-6])

6. Boston College (5-7, [2-6])

7. Wake Forest (2-10, [0-8])

Coastal Division

1. Miami (10-2, [7-1])

2. Duke (9-3, [5-3])

3. Virginia Tech (8-4, [5-3])

4. North Carolina (7-5, [4-4])

5. Georgia Tech (6-6, [3-5])

6. Pittsburgh (7-5, [3-5])

7. Virginia (4-8, [2-6])

Championship Game (Florida State vs. Miami)

Winner: Florida State

Questions from the Readers

This is a section dedicated to the readers, where I will answer the questions you have sent me through Facebook, Twitter (@KBecks_ATC) or email (kbecks@aroundthecorn.com). Unfortunately, there were no questions sent regarding the ACC or its teams. Feel free to ask multiple questions, as I will answer any appropriate question that is submitted in time. Thanks guys.

– K. Becks

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