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ACC Kickoff

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ACC football kickoff 2014: What you need to know

Seminoles likely to continue domination at ACC media days

By Andrew Carter
acarter@newsobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/19/17/44/luL68.Em.138.jpeg|208
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Defending national champion Florida State is loaded, still, thanks to stellar recruiting class after stellar recruiting class. And, oh yeah, quarterback Jameis Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, is back, too. Speaking of which ...
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/07/19/17/44/PeUvX.Em.138.jpeg|215
    Chuck Liddy - cliddy@newsobserver.com
    Poor Duke. The Blue Devils have their best season in decades and it's dismissed as a fluke. How else to explain the lack of respect the Blue Devils are receiving, despite returning the vast majority of the key players who led them to a 10-win season last year?

The ACC’s annual media days are upon us – those long days of cliché questions and cliché answers, all mixed in with some golf and an ice cream social and, every now and then, some insight.

Those things – the golf and the ice cream – are on the itinerary in Greensboro at the ACC Kickoff, which starts Sunday and ends Monday. Also on the itinerary: interviews with the league’s players and coaches and an extended Q-and-A with ACC Commissioner John Swofford.

The festivities start at 12:30 Sunday, with Swofford’s annual preseason football forum. He’s likely to mention the financial health of the conference and the fact that the reigning national champion comes from the ACC.

And then we’ll be off, with two days of talk about how much better this team will be this season, and how much the players on that team improved during the offseason, and about how the new coaches over there have brought discipline and innovation.

Yes, 2014 will be the year for all 14 of the ACC’s teams, if you believe what coaches and players will say during the next two days. Amid all that, though, there will be some storylines and questions of genuine interest. Among them:

Can anybody challenge Florida State?

Forget the thought of whether any ACC team can beat the Seminoles. The question is: Can any team even finish a game within three touchdowns of the Seminoles?

That happened once last season, when FSU’s closest conference game was a 14-point victory at Boston College. Outside of that, the Seminoles’ average margin of victory against ACC teams was 42.1 points.

Yes, FSU lost some important pieces. Receiver Kelvin Benjamin, running back Devonte Freeman, safety LaMarcus Joyner and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan were among the team’s seven selections in the NFL draft.

But the Seminoles are loaded, still, thanks to stellar recruiting class after stellar recruiting class. And, oh yeah, quarterback Jameis Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, is back. Speaking of which ...

How will Jameis Winston handle the circus that awaits him?

The media spotlight in Greensboro at ACC Kickoff is far from the media glare that exists permanently in places like New York City. Even so, Winston’s presence will create a spectacle in Greensboro. It would have been that way if the focus was solely on football, but it will be, in part, about the off-field “issues” and “distractions” and the non-football headlines Winston has made. A damning sexual assault accusation followed Winston last season, and we never received clear answers about that case.

We do know, though, that the FSU community – the vocal part of it, anyway – backed Winston and admonished the accuser. Winston showed his appreciation by walking out of a supermarket in May with some crab legs he didn’t pay for.

A forgivable, petty crime? Sure. But one that didn’t do wonders for perceptions of Winston’s character. Credit Florida State for bringing Winston to Greensboro to face the questions. It’ll be worth watching how he handles them.

Welcome, Louisville

Prepare yourself, ACC fans, for a barrage of Louisville-is-now-in-the-ACC stories. The conference hosted a welcome party in Louisville earlier this month, when Louisville became an official member of the league.

Now Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino and his players – receiver DeVante Parker and defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin are the team’s representatives at kickoff – will be subject to endless questions about what it’s like to be in Greensboro and in a new league, which stadium they’re most excited to visit this season and how they see themselves fitting in.

On a more serious note, Louisville’s arrival does strengthen the ACC, which has been tremendously sensitive in recent years to the prevailing perception that it’s a college football lightweight. Louisville, which replaces mediocre Maryland, helps the ACC’s reputation.

But the Cardinals’ arrival in the Atlantic Division also adds to the imbalance that already existed. In the Atlantic, you have Florida State and Clemson and Louisville. Meanwhile …

Who emerges out of the wild, wacky Coastal Division?

Poor Duke. The Blue Devils have their best season in decades and it’s dismissed as a fluke. How else to explain the lack of respect the Blue Devils are receiving, despite returning the majority of the key players who led them to a 10-win season last year?

Any other team that returns what Duke does would be a runaway favorite in a division with no other dominant threat. But because it’s Duke, various prognostications have Miami winning the Coastal, or North Carolina or Virginia Tech.

Which means, probably, that Duke will win the division again or none of those four teams will. Georgia Tech? Pitt? Nothing in the unpredictable Coastal would be surprising. Well, outside of the Coastal champion giving Florida State a decent game in the ACC championship.

And finally, is the ACC closing the gap with SEC and Big Ten?

Long the butt of jokes and ridiculed for its poor record in BCS bowl games (and farewell, BCS), the ACC had its days of reckoning last season: Florida State won the national championship and Clemson beat Ohio State in the Orange Bowl.

Duke, of all schools, won 10 games and came close to beating Texas A&M in Johnny Manziel’s final college game. So for the first time in a long time, questions at the ACC Kickoff won’t be about when the conference will start to turn the corner, but about how the ACC can continue its success.

That perception gap between the ACC and SEC/Big Ten is still there, though. There are plenty of skeptics. But the ACC is well-positioned, too, and it begins its part-time football relationship this season with Notre Dame, which will play against five ACC schools.

So you’ve got the defending national champion in the ACC, along with the reigning Heisman winner, along with Notre Dame as a quasi-league member, all amid the backdrop of on-going discussions about a TV network that could be a revenue driver if it comes to fruition.

The ACC has plenty of momentum. Now the question is whether it can sustain it.

So there you have it. Lots of Florida State and Jameis Winston, along with a welcome to Louisville, along with the great unknown of the Coastal Division and talk of league’s future, all mixed in with some ice cream and golf and Greensboro hospitality.

Sounds about right.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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