Even if the result of the ACC season is a foregone conclusion – No. 1-ranked Florida State beating the Coastal Division champion on Dec. 6 in Charlotte in the ACC championship game – that doesn’t mean the 2014 football season won’t be interesting.
Between the returning familiar names (Jameis Winston, Jamison Crowder) and the new additions (Louisville, Notre Dame), the ACC promises to have its share of moments. If nothing else, the ACC deserves your attention for interrupting the SEC’s title reign last season.
And, if all goes according to plan, Florida State will have one of the four seats at the College Football Playoff table when the postseason begins. A preview of the upcoming season, which begins Thursday with Wake Forest’s trip to Louisiana-Monroe:
Five games to watch
1. UNC at East Carolina (Sept. 20): The two teams combined for 86 points last year, ECU quarterback Shane Carden accounted for six touchdowns in the ECU blowout. The Tar Heels have never lost two straight to ECU.
2. Clemson at Florida State (Sept. 20): The 51-14 demolition of the Tigers was the moment everyone knew the Seminoles were officially back. Surely, Clemson will be better prepared this year.
3. Florida State at Louisville (Thur., Oct. 30): The Seminoles’ toughest road test will be against the league’s newcomer, which just so happens to be stocked with players from Florida.
4. UNC at Duke (Thurs., Nov. 20): Another Thursday night showcase for the league, the first at Duke, where David Cutcliffe will look to improve to 3-0 against Larry Fedora.
5. N.C. State at UNC (Nov. 29): Lots of possibilities here: Fedora’s third straight win over State, UNC closing out the Coastal Division title, bowl eligibility for the Wolfpack.
Five names to watch
1. Jameis Winston, QB, FSU: It has been almost 40 years since Archie Griffin became the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner. FSU’s offensive line will give Winston every opportunity to match Griffin.
2. Vic Beasley, DE, Clemson: The high-flying Tigers winning with defense? Why not when Beasley (ACC-best 13 sacks in 2013) leads an ever-improving group.
3. Jamison Crowder, WR, Duke: No one, not even Winston, meant as much to his team’s success as Crowder (108 catches, 1,360 yards) did to Duke’s last season.
4. Ryan Switzer, WR, UNC: Dude had five punt returns for a touchdown in a six-game span last season. What will he do for an encore?
5. Michael Dyer, RB, Louisville: The MVP of Auburn’s BCS title win over Oregon in 2010, a healthy Dyer could put up big numbers in Bobby Petrino’s offense behind an experienced line.
1. Louisville: Unlike other recent ACC additions, the Cardinals add a national presence in football and basketball.
2. Notre Dame: Kinda, sorta, anyways. The Fighting Irish will play four ACC teams this season and five going forward. Brian Kelly's top 25 team faces Louisville and FSU this season.
3. Dalvin Cook, RB, FSU: Perhaps you’ve heard, the Seminoles have stockpiled recruiting talent recently. The five-star running back could run for 1,000 yards in a part-time role behind FSU’s magnificent line.
4. Elijah Hood, RB, UNC: For the second straight year, Fedora kept the best running back in the state home. If the Charlotte product is that much better than sophomore T.J. Logan, look out ACC.
5. Bo Hines, WR, N.C. State: Dave Doeren mined Charlotte for a receiver, who was one of the catalysts of the strong recruiting class, and one who is already in the good graces of quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
1. Jim Grobe: We’re going to look back at that 2006 ACC title for a long time and wonder, “How’d he do that?” Great coach, great man and college football is the lesser without him.
2. Kelby Brown, LB, Duke: Even UNC fans can root for the Duke senior whose third knee injury will cause him to miss the entire 2014 season. With any help from the NCAA, Brown will be back for 2015 for a sixth year of eligibility.
3. Maryland: Come on, admit it, you’ll miss the Terps. Syracuse fans will fill a certain void, but no one can supply the vitriol like the old inhabitants of Terp Town.
4. Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson: Only Philip Rivers threw for more yards and no one in ACC history can match Boyd’s 107 career touchdowns. Going to find out real quick if it was Boyd or coordinator Chad Morris who made the Clemson offense work.
5. Andre Williams, RB, Boston College: The only back in ACC history to break the 2,000-yard barrier. Needless to say, the Eagles won’t be the same without him.
Predicted order of finish
1. Florida State (8-0 ACC, 12-0 overall): Michigan State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Alabama or Auburn will give the Noles a game, but that won’t be until the College Football Playoff starts in January.
2. Louisville (7-1, 10-2): Much will depend on the development of sophomore quarterback Will Gardner, but the Cards have one of the best lines in the ACC and plenty of skill to reach the double-digit win plateau for the third straight year.
3. Clemson (6-2, 8-4): That’s an SEC loss to start the season (Georgia) and one to end it (South Carolina) with two in the ACC in the middle. The Tigers lost too much lumber (Where have you gone, Sammy Watkins?) on offense not to take a step back.
4. N.C. State (2-6, 6-6): Between Brissett, a talented recruiting class and a soft schedule, Doeren should get the Wolfpack back on track after a disastrous 2013.
5. Boston College (2-6, 5-7): Did you know Boston College and Auburn produced the same number (four) of NFL draft picks last year? Coach Steve Addazio made the most of his talent, but the real work begins this season.
6. Syracuse (2-6, 4-8): The Orange deserve more credit than this, but there aren’t enough breaks on the schedule. By the time State and Duke get to New York in November, a bowl game could be out of reach.
7. Wake Forest (1-7, 3-9): The Demon Deacons start over under Dave Clawson, and with deceptively difficult trips to Louisiana-Monroe and Utah State, it will be a slow, painful process.
1. Miami (6-2, 10-2): IF – capital “I” and “F” – junior running back Duke Johnson (920 yards in 7 1/2 games) can stay healthy, the Canes will win their first division title, regardless of who plays quarterback.
2. Virginia Tech (5-3, 7-5): This is a reflection of the Hokies’ schedule, more so than the current state of a fading yet proud program. Without FSU, Clemson or Louisville, a stout defense can carry a feeble offense to five ACC wins.
3. UNC (5-3, 8-4): Without a doubt the toughest schedule the Tar Heels have had under Fedora. The season will be defined by the five-week stretch starting with a trip to ECU (Sept. 20) and bookended by a visit from nemesis Georgia Tech (Oct. 18).
4. Pitt (5-3, 9-3): Another “because the schedule says so” Coastal team, but also there’s a ton of skill on offense in receiver Tyler Boyd and running backs James Conner and Isaac Bennett for a sharp mind like coach Paul Chryst’s to produce eight or nine wins.
5. Duke (4-4, 8-4): Few teams can afford the type of injuries and exits the Blue Devils have experienced since the Peach Bowl loss to Texas A&M. Utility quarterback Brandon Connette (transfer to Fresno State) and linebacker Kelby Brown (third major knee injury) will be missed the most.
6. Georgia Tech (3-5, 6-6): If Paul Johnson’s seventh season looks more like the past four than the first two, there won't be an eighth with the Yellow Jackets.
7. Virginia (0-8, 2-10): Mike London must wonder what he has to do to get a schedule like Duke’s or UNC’s. Instead, the Hoos cross over with Louisville and FSU, and get UCLA and BYU outside the ACC.