The message was loud and clear, from the players, the coaches and even signs plastered with stats from recent Heisman Trophy winners and champions.
The ACC is making its case as the best conference in college football.
The SEC and Big 10 may have something to say about that, but they didn’t have chance for a rebuttal Thursday at the ACC Football Kickoff.
Twenty-eight players – two from each team in the conference – with their coaches herded to Charlotte to address the media five months before one of their squads will challenge a Coastal Division opponent at Bank of America stadium for the conference championship.
The conference – and particularly the Atlantic Division — is home to the reigning national champions in Clemson and the reigning Heisman trophy winner in Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson.
The coaches preached about the conference’s depth, diversity, and talent. And Thursday, each of the Atlantic Division teams said they’re getting better.
Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher said that in debates about the best league in the country, there is no comparison.
“I think we’ve established ourselves as the premier conference in college football,” Fisher said.
Clemson is looking ahead, not backwards
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney agreed. But he said he wants to reaffirm that for the future, not the past. Swinney said people always ask him how his team will fare after losing notable players, none bigger than two-time Heisman trophy finalist Deshaun Watson. Swinney said people should be focusing on what’s to come, not what they’ve already accomplished.
“We keep talking about those guys that aren’t with us anymore, which that’s kind of understandable,”Swinney said. “But we’ve got a lot of guys that are hungry to go and prove that they can get the job done.”
One of those guys is defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, who had 10 pass breakups last season — something incredibly rare for a player that starts with his hand in the dirt on the line of scrimmage. Wilkins leads a considerably strong defensive unit that is sure to carry Clemson. The Tigers are only lost four players on defense.
How can Lamar Jackson get better?
Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino said Heisman-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson can get better put him under center more.
Jackson took most of his snaps from the shotgun last year, dazzling the nation with his read-option speed and scrambling ability with 1,571 rushing yards as a quarterback. Petrino said mixing up the offense will make defenses respect the pass more and will leave them guessing, which opens up more play action and running plays.
Jackson had a breakout sophomore season and his team started 9-1, with their only loss being to Clemson. But Louisville lost its last three games. Jackson said that while he is honored by his personal accolades, he more interested in team success.
“I’m just trying to win more games than last year and the biggest goal is the national championship,” Jackson said.
FSU not backing down from Alabama
Florida State opens against national runner-up Alabama, and coach Jimbo Fisher said he’s excited about it.
“We’ll, I scheduled it, so I better be ready for it,” he said.
Fisher said it will be a great litmus test to see where his team stands early in the season.
Quarterback Deondre Francois, who started last year as a freshman, said he’s looking forward to the opportunity. The Seminoles lost starting running back Dalvin Cook to the NFL, but Francois said he believes his team will be fine without him. The Seminoles have two options for a rushing attack in Jaques Patrick and Cam Akers. Francois, the ACC Rookie of the Year last year who threw for 3,350 passing yards said he had a great spring and is ready to take the next step.
“We’re just working hard and excited for that game,” he said.
N.C. State looking to finish close games
N.C. State finished last year 7-6, but lost four games by one possession. None were as heartbreaking as the Clemson game, when the Wolfpack lost 24-17 in overtime.
Coach Dave Doeren said he thinks about those games all the time, and he said it should be a motivator for his squad.
“I think anytime you have a game that really exaggerates the importance of one play, it helps your program because you can go to that and say, ‘hey guys when we go work out today, this last rep matters because every rep matters,” Doeren said.
Wake Forest seeks balance
When Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson first arrived, he said practices were not competitive because the offense couldn’t grab first downs. This spring, he said, was more of a back and forth affair.
Clawson credited that jump to the experience of his players. For the first time since 2013 – his first year leading the Deacons – he said the upperclassmen outnumber the underclassmen. The team is returning 15 starters from a team that finished 7-5 and won a bowl game.
Clawson said he wants to make that a standard, not an anomaly.
“We don’t want people to be surprised when Wake makes a bowl game,” Clawson said. “I don’t think successful people or successful programs are ever complacent.”