From the squinting to the epic first game performance to the chain to the epic season performance to the pregame speech against Clemson to the rape charges to the Heisman Trophy to the game-winning drive in the National Championship game to the stolen crab legs to the baseball diamond, Jameis Winston is the new face of college football now that Johnny Drama Manziel has moved on to the NFL. Enjoy his time as the face because next year that torch will be passed again. Winston came in guns blazing like nobody we've ever seen. Domination is a word thrown around lightly, but Winston dominated in his first season under center. He chose the Seminoles over the in-state Crimson Tide and that decision certainly paid off by picking the only other team in the nation with as much talent as Alabama, but also the team with a coach who has a history in developing Quarterbacks. The scary part of this whole Florida State roster is that they actually return a lot. Kelvin Benjamin was the only first round pick last year off this team that when it is all said and done, will have featured a lot more than one first round draft pick.
As mentioned, Winston is the leader of this offense, but he is flanked by some serious talent. Most notably, maybe the best offensive line in football loses only one starter from last year. C Bryan Stork was a big name after garnering 1st team All-America honors last year, but the rest of the line will be dominant and the depth will be improved. Tight End Nick O'Leary was an All-American last year and could be thought of as a first round draft pick next year considering his blocking ability and big play receiving ability. The biggest losses on the team will be at the WR position. Kelvin Benjamin was a huge target that allowed Winston to often just throw it up and hope the bigger player comes down with the ball. His size will be missed, but the 6'4" Isaiah Jones is a true sophomore that could make up for some of the production lost. Ermon Lane and Travis Rudolph are both five-star recruits and I bet at least one of them makes a big impact this year. The best receiver on the team will be Rashad Greene once again. Greene is one of the most explosive receivers in the country and could challenge for Biletnikoff honors depending on how much the ball is spread around. And finally, the stable of running backs may be even better than last year despite losing the workhorse in Devonta Freeman and the power running of James Wilder. Karlos Williams will probably get the bulk of the carries and he is a freak athlete who will wear down defenses. Mario Pender and Dalvin Cook were both two of the best running backs coming out of high school and will be unbelievable depth at the position. This group may be second to Alabama in the entire nation.
Defensively there is more to be replaced. Still, the Seminoles remain extremely talented. Lamarcus Joyner, Telvin Smith, and Timmy Jernigan were All-Americans at all three levels of defense. Christian Jones was one of the best linebackers in the league and his loss will be felt too along with 1st team All-ACC FS Terrence Brooks. Terrance Smith returns to lead the linebackers with talented sophomore Ukeme Eligwe. Eligwe is extremely athletic and could be the next star of the second level. The secondary could be one of the best secondaries in football with lockdown corners PJ Williams and Ronald Darby leading the way. I expect this defense to drop of a little bit after allowing just 12.1 points per game last year, which is truly elite. In 2012 and 2011, the Seminoles gave up about 15 points per game, which I could see being the case this year. With potentially an improved offense, this defense could manage to drop off even the slightest bit and still be fine. Still, that is a big 'if' because there remains a lot of talent on this side of the ball.
Florida State had a dream season in 2013 so naturally there are some worries that things won't fall quite the same way. For example, if Jameis Winston went down, that would seriously hurt this team's title hopes. Fortunately for the 'Noles, they have enough talent to get through the regular season undefeated even without Winston, so as long as he is there for the College Football Playoff, they should be good. The biggest question mark will be if Florida State can keep the same mentality. If they can, I can say pretty certainly that they will be in the playoff come the new year even though there are certainly no guarantees in football. While Clemson should be a bit weaker this year, tough games against Oklahoma State to start the season and an improved Florida team could pose challenges. But I will still take Jameis every time. We expect Florida State to not only win the ACC, but to win the National Championship for the second consecutive year!
As bizarre as it sounds, the Tigers had a “quiet” 11-2 2013 season, spending much of the year in the background of Florida State’s undefeated title run. They started the season on giant high, defeating Georgia on opening night before getting whipped by the Seminoles in the middle of an ACC season in which they dominated the rest of their opponents. The regular season culminated in the Tigers once again being unable to get over the hump that is beating their in-state rival, South Carolina. The difference last year was that Clemson did get over its BCS hump, beating Ohio St in one of the best games of the bowl season. So while the 2013 campaign could be seen as another small step in the right direction for Clemson faithful, it also marked the end of the Tajh Boyd-Sammy Watkins era. So the main question this offseason for the Tigers remains: can Clemson still be the explosive team they’ve become without the two players that started it all?
All in all Clemson returns five of 11 offensive starters but it’s the losses of Boyd and at the skill positions that will be the biggest. After Chad Kelly was dismissed from the team during the spring, the QB battle shrunk from three to two. The most realistic-looking scenario would be for senior Cole Stoudt to get the gig this year and give freshman and 5-star recruit, Deshaun Watson, a year to mature before hitting the field with the job undoubtedly in 2015. But if Watson shows enough in the next month, there’s no reason to think he couldn’t beat out Stoudt as he certainly possesses more upside. One of the things that has hindered the Tigers over the past few years in big games has been turnovers. Clemson held a horrendous -9 in their two losses combined last year and as good as Boyd was he was responsible for a lot of them. The next step on the road to defeating their rivals may be finding a guy who can consistently take care of the ball. Clemson has had a long line of excellent running backs over the years from CJ Spiller to Andre Ellington and they lose another solid one in Roderick McDowell. They have two talented freshmen at the top of the depth chart though (Gallman and Dye) so this position shouldn’t be any cause for concern especially with the way that OC Chad Morris finds ways to creatively use his players. In addition, they are losing their top two targets on the outside in Watkins and Martavis Bryant but it will a blessing for the offense to return a dependable slot receiver in Adam Humphries and security blanket in TE Stanton Seckinger.
While the offense is losing its brightest stars from last season, the Clemson defense undoubtedly returns its most important piece in DE Vic Beasley. Beasley decided to return for his senior season after a breakout All-American campaign and will anchor a veteran-laden front seven that accounted for 38 sacks last year. The Tiger defense will certainly miss their leading tackler from 2013 in MLB Spencer Shuey along with blossoming CB Braushad Breeland who bolted for the NFL. Stepping in to take his place though should be the highly-recruited redshirt freshman, Mackensie Alexander. K Chandler Catanzaro, who went 31-33 over his final two years, is gone as well.
Last year was really a toss-up between Clemson and Florida State, at least in the preseason. Clemson had the more experienced QB and the best WR in the nation. I knew Jameis Winston would be good, but not THAT good. This year, there is a pretty clear talent gap between Florida State and the rest of the conference. Actually, except for Alabama, there is a pretty clear talent gap between Florida State and everyone. So while I don't think Clemson will challenge for the Conference crown, I expect another big season in Death Valley.
2013 marked the end of an era for Louisville in several different ways. The most obvious of those changes is of course moving from the AAC to the tougher ACC. The Cardinals also lost two huge pieces of their team to go along with the shift in conferences as standout QB Teddy Bridgewater opted to enter the NFL and the coach who helped rebuild their program, Charlie Strong, took the same job at Texas. With all of that being said, it would certainly be unfair to expect a repeat 12-1 season from the Cardinals in 2014. With a legitimate loss of key personnel coupled with newer and tougher competition, the question isn’t if there will be a drop off but just how much of one to expect.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, they were able to replace Strong with a very capable head coach and familiar face in Bobby Petrino. Petrino is back at Louisville for his second stint as coach after spending four years at the school from ’03-’06. Since then, Petrino has found himself in some sticky off-the-field situations but his on-the-field track record remains good. Specifically, he brings a great offensive mind to the table that should help ease the loss of Bridgewater on the offense. Speaking of Bridgewater, it will be interesting just who takes over the quarterback position. The likely candidate is sophomore Will Gardner, but he is just one of a number of options. No matter who Bridgewater’s heir turns out to be, they will be helped out by the return of 3 All-AAC offensive linemen (OG Smith, OG Miller, OT Brown) as well as a very good receiving core that includes pro prospect, Devante Parker. So despite losing its best player, expect this offense to be just as if not more explosive in ‘14.
On defense, things might be more difficult for the Cards. This was Strong’s expertise, and it showed under his tutelage, as the unit sported some of the best numbers in the nation in 2013, giving up just 12 points and 250 yards per game. With the much less defensive-minded Petrino and the loss of 11 starters, it will be interesting to see just how much of a step back Louisville’s defense takes. Particularly impressive for the Cards in 2013 was its ability to stop the run as they gave up just 81 yards per game on the ground. While they return 2 starters from last year at linebacker (ILB Burgess, OLB Mauldin), this figures to remain a strength despite losing 3rd round draft pick Preston Brown. However, losing all three of last year’s starters on the defensive line and standout FS Calvin Pryor to the NFL could make defending the pass a tall task if no one on those units is able to step up.
While I don't expect Louisville's defense to be very bad, it will get worse. Most coaches need a couple years to get their guys in and mold their identity on the team. For Bobby Petrino it seems like he is left with, well, a Bobby Petrino team. I could see this offense actually taking a step forward even with the huge loss of one of the nation's best quarterbacks because Petrino is just THAT great of an offensive mind and he has toys to play with as well. Clemson appears to be the only team that Louisville will be competing against because of the large talent discrepancies between Florida State at the top and the bottom four teams below. I picked Clemson because of a much stronger defense and getting the head-to-head matchup in Death Valley. However, it wouldn't surprise me to see the Cards finish at number two.
Last year, Scott Shafer took over the reins from current Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone, and he did a nice job leading the Orange to the Texas bowl game. Syracuse finished 7-6 last year, yet failed to record any impressive wins. Headlining this season is their difficult schedule; there is a three-week stretch of Notre Dame, Louisville, and Florida State, which is followed by an away game at Clemson soon after. I'm calling for an upset in one of those games. Maybe Shafer can get some revenge on Dabo this year after sharing a few choice words after Clemson went for it on fourth down up 35-7. Despite this tough draw, the Orange will benefit from Shafer and his staff being in their second year, and their attempt to play at a faster tempo this year will make for some excitement in upstate New York.
Syracuse comes off of a year in which their offense averaged 22.7 points per game, an 8 point drop-off from the previous year. While they do have a clear starter in quarterback Terrel Hunt, the Orange is still trying to recover from losing standout QB Ryan Nassib. Hunt had a very strong showing in the Texas bowl, leading the Orange to a 21-17 victory over Minnesota. However, he has yet to fully prove himself and will need to build his confidence early in the season before they face the heart of their ACC schedule. Syracuse’s offensive line was hit hard with injuries in the spring, but if they can remain healthy they should be a very solid group. ‘Cuse returns four offensive linemen from last year, and junior LG Rob Trudo will provide strong leadership as he started all 13 games last year. Unfortunately for the Orange, they lose their number-one rusher in Jerome Smith. While Smith’s 914 rushing yards will be missed, the Orange should recover with senior Prince-Tyson Gulley taking over. Gulley suffered an ankle injury mid-season last year, but if he can remain healthy Syracuse should maintain solid running back production.
Defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough will have his hands full as he tries to improve this Orange defense. Syracuse’s defensive line is led by defensive ends Micah Robinson and Robert Welsh, but the two combined for a mere 5 sacks last year. For linebackers, the Orange lose 2nd team all-ACC Marquis Spruill who started all 13 games and had 5.5 sacks. However, ‘Cuse does return the majority of its linebacking corps and its production should be solid with sophomore Marquez Hodge returning. Six of their top eight members of the secondary return for Syracuse, but I do not expect this unit to be a strongpoint for the Orange. Syracuse allowed 230 pass yards per game last year, and the losses of CB Ri’Shard Anderson and SS Jeremi Wilkes will cause that number to increase this year.
Syracuse should improve in most areas of the field this year, but with their tough schedule they will have an average record this year. Their offense is lacking a standout at quarterback, but overall they are a solid unit that should average 22-25 points per game. Defensively, they return a good amount of their players, but it is difficult to imagine they will improve much from last year. Simply put, Syracuse will be a decent team in the ACC with six or seven wins the season.
After a rough first year for Dave Doeren, the Wolfpack look to begin an upward trend in their leadership. Wolfpack fans can’t expect to win the division with Florida State still in power, but a victory over the Tar Heels and a bowl sound pretty good. Not to mention Clemson is weaker and there is certainly some excitement heading into 2014. Both the offense and the defense should improve in 2014 and things are looking up.
Doeren is still looking for his Jordan Lynch to run his offensive attack and may have found him in Jacoby Brissett, a highly-recruited QB who sat out last season after transferring from Florida. He was the most talented QB on the roster last year and should improve on last year’s numbers posted by Pete Thomas and Brandom Mitchell. Brissett isn’t quite as physical as Jordan Lynch, but he is mobile and a good fit for this offense. Shadrach Thornton had a good year running the football and I expect him to eclipse 1,000 yards this season with an improved offensive line and a better passing game. Leading receivers Rashard Smith and Quintin Payton do not return leaving the receiving corp in a bit of a hole. Bryan Underwood is the most experienced WR on the roster and is a home run threat. However, he only scored one touchdown, which shows how fresh this group is. I expect increased production in the passing game because of Brissett, but the WR group could take a hit this year.
Defensively, it all starts up front for the Wolfpack. Thomas Teal and Art Norman are difference makers along the line. Not to mention, the top recruit of the incoming class, Kentavius Street, could make an early impact as well. Last year the Wolfpack allowed 5 yards per carry and recorded only 20 sacks, both stats were a big drop off from prior years. I anticipate these numbers to be much better in 2014. Dontae Johnson was the best player in the secondary last year and he has moved on to the NFL. Still, I expect a bump in the level of play by the secondary. Jack Tocho got time as a true freshman at cornerback and played alright. He had a solid spring and could be one of the better players on this defense. The State defense should be better as a result of it being year two in the new system and some key players returning.
I fully expect the Wolfpack to take a noticeable jump in 2014. Doeren is a good coach who is recruiting pretty well to start his tenure. He is a fundamentalist who will have both the offensive and defensive lines playing better regardless of the talent level. I anticipate Jacoby Brissett’s presence to inspire the whole team to play better while some true freshmen could play some meaningful minutes. NC State unfortunately draws the Tar Heels out of the Coastal as they do every year, but all bets are off in the last game of the season. Look for NC State to make a serious run at a bowl game as they improve in Dave Doeren’s second season.
The Eagles played surprisingly well in Steve Addazio’s first year at the helm. Andre Williams made a serious run at the Heisman on his way to over 2,200 rushing yards. BC made it to a bowl when many pundits said otherwise. And Chase Rettig learned Addazio’s offensive system early on and played surprisingly well. This year, the cupboards are bare however with only 9 total starters returning from last year’s team.
Offensively, there may not have been a bigger loss in the conference than Andre Williams. He was the heart and soul of this offense and gave the word ‘workhorse’ a new meaning. He didn’t only run the ball a lot, but he actually ran like a horse. The most impressive feat of last season might have been the game against Florida State in which the BC offense rushed for 200 yards and scored 34 points on the nation’s best defense; no other team even came close to 34 points during the regular season. The offensive line set the pace for Williams and the Eagles’ figure to have another good group in 2014. Only three offensive starters return and all of them are on the line. Andy Gallick is one of the better Centers in the country and he will provide the senior leadership needed on this young offense. Tyler Murphy, a Florida transfer, followed Addazio here and now finds himself as the starter. Murphy is mobile and could be an upgrade over Rettig given his athleticism. Overall, I worry about just how big of a loss Williams was because of how big of an emphasis he was on offense.
Defensively, Boston College wasn’t great last year and they lose some of their better players. Kevin Pierre-Louis, a 1st team All-ACC Linebacker, does not return and neither does 3rd team All-ACC Linebacker Steele Divitto. These two losses should have a huge impact on the run defense, which was admirable last season. The DBs, however, return everyone and should be much better than last year when they struggled. And finally, the defensive line is young and inexperienced. This may actually be one of the more talented defensive fronts BC has fielded in recent memory, but it lacks depth and there is some reason for concern.
Boston College may have a bit of a down year in the post-Andre Williams era before it regains its identity. Unfortunately, they play in an improved Atlantic Division with the loss of Maryland and the addition of Louisville. Not to mention, the Eagles draw a tough cross-division game with a trip to Blacksburg to face Virginia Tech. I don’t expect a winning season from Boston College, but they always tend to surprise me.
For the first time in thirteen years, Wake Forest is entering the season without Jim Grobe at the helm of the program. While he did take the team to new heights, Grobe’s stepping down was a service to the university; Wake has had five straight losing seasons under his direction. New coach Dave Clawson has a track record of improving and revitalizing dormant programs, and I expect him to eventually do the same with Wake. However, this program has been decaying for a few years now, and it’s going to take some time for Clawson to turn this Frankenstein of a program into a Franken-Fine.
Wake’s offensive woes start with their lack of a talented quarterback. Last year, they were led by four-year starter Tanner Price who threw for 2,233 yards and rushed for 240 yards. Those numbers are mediocre at best, and this year with Tyler Cameron as the projected starter those statistics should be even worse. Not only did Cameron struggle in his three starts last year (29% completion and an 0-3 record), but his supporting cast leaves a lot to be desired. The tail back position lacks depth; Wake had to move Orville Reynolds from wide receiver and James Ward from safety to add numbers to the running back corps. As for the receivers, Wake lost their top threat in Michael Campanaro, who average 113 yards per game, to the NFL. As a result, the Deacons will look for sophomores Jared Crump and Tyree Harris to carry the load.
Wake Forest’s defense was clearly their strongpoint last year with 2nd team ACC DL Nikita Whitlock and cast directing a very veteran squad. However, their defense failed to win them many games last year, and with less-experienced personnel the results should get even worse. The defensive line loses Whitlock, Zach Thompson, and Kris Redding which leaves some major holes to fill for defensive coordinator Mike Elko. On the contrary, Wake’s defensive backs are an experienced bunch led by CB Bud Noel. While they did lose standout AJ Marshall, Wake will make up for it by having a reliable and deep secondary corps which will end up being the strength of this Deacons defense.
Dave Clawson has proven he can turn a program around; he inherited a 6-6 Bowling Green team and turned them into a 10-3 squad in five short years. While I have faith he can do the same with Wake, it is going to take at least two years before they can return to the top half of the Atlantic division. Expect a last-place finish in the division this year that is fueled by a lack of both talent and veteran leadership.