ACC: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

It has become a yearly ritual across the ACC -- waiting on the coaching turnover that is bound to happen.

No job is ever too safe, it seems.

Just remember back to when the regular season ended a few weeks ago. Nobody appeared in imminent danger of getting fired or leaving. But alas, dominoes across the landscape brought the inevitable.

Paul Chryst exited Pitt and the ACC last week for Wisconsin and just like that, the ACC coaching fraternity will have a new member. It has gone on this way since the 2009 season ended, every single year bringing a first-year head coach to the league.

[+] EnlargePaul Johnson
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsPaul Johnson joined the ACC coaching ranks in 2008, along with David Cutcliffe and Dabo Swinney.
For three years in a row, coaches have left for bigger jobs. But on the whole, coaches are not leaving en masse to take bigger opportunities. In this respect, it is clear the ACC is not the old Big East, the ultimate in steppingstone conference jobs.

Still, the league has had to deal with more yearly turnover than most. There is no one explanation that ties them all together. Most of the coaches who are no longer around were fired, some after finding early success in their careers.

But sometimes yearly coaching turnover leads to longevity. After Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, the next longest-tenured coaches in the ACC are David Cutcliffe, Paul Johnson and Dabo Swinney.

All started coaching in the ACC in 2008.

So in this respect, coaching turnover ended up bringing a strong group of coaches together all at once. Why did it all come together in 2008? Maybe the stars aligned just so. Swinney laughs at the mention, because he actually became Clemson interim coach in October 2008 before earning the full-time job at the end of the season.

Still, Swinney, Johnson and Cutcliffe all have led their respective teams to ACC championship games and provided their programs a level of stability that has begun to change perceptions. Johnson and Cutcliffe have won ACC Coach of the Year honors a combined five times in the last seven years; Swinney has an ACC championship and an opportunity to post four straight 10-win seasons.

They each believe they have found their destination jobs. Cutcliffe has turned down various overtures to leave Duke; Johnson and Swinney just earned contract extensions over the last year.

“I guess the ADs did a good job, they picked good people that fit the situation at each school,” Swinney said when asked for a way to explain their collective success.

There is no one explanation that links all three. Johnson and Cutcliffe had been head coaches at successful programs before. Swinney was the outlier in the group. He remembers walking into his first ACC coaches meeting and seeing Bobby Bowden, along with a slew of other veteran coaches just looking at him.

“Paul recognized I was a fish out of water,” Swinney says with a laugh. “I’m sitting in there with all these people thinking, ‘What am I going to do here? Paul just said, ‘Hey sit here,’ and showed me the ropes. We were both new, but he was an old veteran guy who’d been around the block a couple times.”

It was not long before Swinney and Johnson were winning. It took Cutcliffe much longer, only because he inherited the worst situation of the three. Duke athletic director Kevin White did not hire Cutcliffe, but he knew exactly the coach he was getting when he arrived in Durham.

White first heard about Cutcliffe while working as Tulane athletic director, when he became close with the Manning family. The Mannings did nothing but sing Cutcliffe’s praises. Later, White’s son played basketball at Ole Miss when Cutcliffe was coaching there, so the two got to know each other. They briefly worked together at Notre Dame.

White came to Duke several months after Cutcliffe was hired and knew his football program would be a winner. No matter how long it took to get there.

“Joe Alleva made a brilliant hire with David,” White recalled recently. “I remember writing him a note and saying, ‘You've hit the cover off the ball here. This guy's going to be brilliant at Duke. He'll be a great fit.’ And so I got a chance to come here and kind of jump in the foxhole with David. … And I've used a really bad kind of analogy that, oftentimes we talk about a whale on the beach. … For about 60 years, we had foreclosed on football.

“So the whale wasn't on the beach when David came. It was up in the parking lot. And so I knew it was going to take a couple years to get the whale down in the sand, and then a couple years to get the whale's belly wet, and here we are, now we're looking for the gulfstream. We've got a chance to have a darn good football program and we've got, I think, arguably the very best coach in college football.”

So coaching turnover does sometimes end up having benefits. Just look at 2008.

ACC reporter Matt Fortuna contributed to this report.

ACC bowl predictions

December, 19, 2014
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Quick Lane Bowl

Hale: Who knows what to make of the Jekyll-and-Hyde Tar Heels? Their defense isn’t good, but neither is Rutgers’. The offense looked stagnant in its last outing, but Larry Fedora will have had a month of prep time to fix any flaws. UNC at least beat some quality opponents (Georgia Tech, Duke), while Rutgers was 2-5 against teams that finished .500 or better, allowing 457 yards and 36 points per game. North Carolina 38, Rutgers 28.

Fortuna: Fans of defense will have to close their eyes and look away in horror. Though Marquise Williams has been phenomenal for much of the season, the Rutgers' offense is riding high off its comeback win at Maryland. With the chance at an eight-win season in its inaugural Big Ten campaign. Leonte Carroo will be a handful for a UNC defense that has already seen its coordinator get fired. Rutgers 38, UNC 31

Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl

Adelson: The Wolfpack ended the season on a high note after a total domination of in-state rival North Carolina. The defense has started to gain momentum and play a little more aggressively, while the run game has started to find some footing, too. Jacoby Brissett and Shadrach Thornton each had 100 yards rushing against the Tar Heels. Look for that combination to be the difference. NC State 28, UCF 27.

Shanker: UCF has their own Jacoby to combat NC State’s Brissett. The Knights' Jacoby Glenn was the AAC’s defensive player of the year. UCF will keep NC State offense in check and score just enough points. UCF 24, NC State 17

Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman

Adelson: The Hokies have not been consistently reliable this season, but they did show signs of life offensively last time out against Virginia. J.C. Coleman ran hard -- and that run game will be a big key against a Cincinnati run D that ranks No. 80 in the nation. Here is betting Virginia Tech will get its run game going to make the difference. Virginia Tech 24, Cincinnati 21.

Shanker: This should be an interesting battle of strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness. Cincinnati’s offense and Virginia Tech’s defense are among the country’s best. Each team’s other unit is among the worst. The Bearcats will have more motivation in this game, though. Cincinnati 20, Virginia Tech 17

Duck Commander Independence Bowl

Shanker: It was an ugly finish for Miami, but South Carolina couldn’t beat a Clemson team that had a one-legged Deshaun Watson at quarterback. Miami 23, South Carolina 14

Adelson: In a game that presents such even matchups, this one might come down to coaching. That is where South Carolina has the edge. Miami has lost four straight bowl games; South Carolina has won three straight. The Hurricanes have shown no motivation to play; Spurrier will find one for the Gamecocks. South Carolina 27, Miami 24.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl

Fortuna: Points will be hard to come by at Yankee Stadium. Penn State might have the nation's No. 1 rushing defense, but it struggled the one time it faced a mobile quarterback in J.T. Barrett, as Ohio State rushed for 219 yards. Tyler Murphy is an even bigger threat with his legs, and he'll be able to make a few big plays that will ultimately prove to be the difference for an Eagles team that just keeps getting better. BC 17, Penn State 13

Hale: OK, Penn State’s offense isn’t much to rave about, but what has been lost in the Nittany Lions’ season is that the defense has been exceptional. Penn State allowed just 85 yards per game on the ground -- tops in the country -- which could negate BC’s top offensive threats. Expect a low-scoring game, with the Lions having a slight edge. Penn State 17, BC 14

Russell Athletic Bowl

Adelson: It is hard to forget how different Clemson looks offensively with Cole Stoudt behind center, so all the attention in this one will be squarely focused on the Tigers' No. 1-ranked defense. Oklahoma expects Samaje Perine to play, but he will not have much running room against Vic Beasley & Co. Clemson 20, Oklahoma 17

Hale: Since their respective regular-season finales, Oklahoma has gotten healthier and Clemson has learned it will be without star QB Deshaun Watson. The Tigers’ D is terrific, and perhaps that will be enough to secure a win, but odds are the offense is going to have to muster at least a few sustained drives, and Cole Stoudt is averaging just 5.6 yards-per-attempt since Oct. 1 with four TDs and eight interceptions. Oklahoma 17, Clemson 13

Hyundai Sun Bowl

Adelson: Duke has improved defensively this season, but the Blue Devils have not faced many teams as explosive as Arizona State. Plus, they beat only one team with a winning record. Both teams struggled down the stretch, but Arizona State has a better body of work and offense, so expect a Sun Devils victory. Arizona State 35, Duke 28.

Fortuna: These types of games usually come down to who has more to play for, and in this case it is certainly Duke. The Blue Devils are aiming for their second straight 10-win season and for their first bowl win in 53 years after falling just short against Johnny Football last year. Expect a clean offensive performance and just enough stops on defense to escape victorious. Duke 34, ASU 27

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl

Hale: The Fighting Irish have lost five of six and didn’t beat a team with better than a 7-5 record this season. LSU’s offense might not be stellar, but the Tigers took Alabama to overtime, fell five points shy of beating Mississippi State and have wins over Wisconsin and Ole Miss. We’ll take the LSU defense, with just enough help from Leonard Fournette, to get the job done. LSU 24, Notre Dame 20.

Belk Bowl

Fortuna: Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will have his work cut out for him in trying to stop a Bulldogs offense that's No. 8 nationally in scoring (41.7 ppg), but his defensive unit has been among the nation's best as well. If quarterback Reggie Bonnafon is at full health, he and the Louisville run game should be able to open things up for DeVante Parker and the passing attack. Louisville 31, Georgia 24

Shanker: Louisville’s sixth-ranked defense is allowing 364 yards per game against teams with winning records. Behind Nick Chubb, Georgia will be able to score. Georgia 30, Louisville 24

Capital One Orange Bowl

Hale: The bottom line for the Yellow Jackets is that the D has to do a much better job against Dak Prescott than it did against Jameis Winston in the ACC Championship Game. If Prescott gets time to move in the pocket and make throws downfield, it will be hard to corral Mississippi State. If Tech’s D can limit his big plays and force a couple turnovers, the offense will do more than enough to get the win. We’re betting on the latter. Georgia Tech 41, Mississippi State 38

Fortuna: The Bulldogs' rush defense has been solid (No. 31 nationally), which should improve with nearly a month to prepare for Georgia Tech's triple-option attack. MSU also has a really good quarterback in Dak Prescott, who was near the top of the Heisman discussion before losing at Alabama. The Yellow Jackets need to force several Prescott turnovers to give their offense a chance to have its desired effect, and that might be a tall order. Mississippi State 35, Georgia Tech 30

Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual
Adelson: The Seminoles are in a different position -- playing as the underdog. There is little doubt that will serve as motivation. But beyond the intangibles, Florida State will find a way to win behind Jameis Winston and Dalvin Cook, who has emerged to make the Seminoles more balanced and effective. Florida State 35, Oregon 31

Shanker: It was tough to pull the trigger on Oregon after going with Florida State all season. The rash of injuries are continuing for Oregon, but I think they will be able to run the ball effectively against the Seminoles. The Ducks will blow an early lead but put together a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. Oregon 35, Florida State 34

Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl

Shanker: Both teams lost their coach, so it will be interesting to see how each team responds. The talent is clearly in the Panthers’ favor as they have James Conner and Tyler Boyd on offense. Pitt 31, Houston 13

ACC morning links

December, 19, 2014
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Boston College took the proper steps to wrapping up Steve Addazio on Thursday, signing the second-year coach to an extension through the 2020 season. The deal should, at the very least, provide some security for a program that has done nothing but overachieve in Addazio's first two years on the job, making consecutive bowl games despite massive personnel losses.

Addazio's name has been floated around plenty during silly season, but Eagles fans can at least rest a little bit easier knowing that his rebuilding plan is still on schedule. But clarity throughout ACC regimes remains difficult to find after Wednesday.

Pittsburgh still needs a new athletic director, in addition to a new head coach, and it is unclear which will come first, or the effect one will have on the other. As colleague Andrea Adelson wrote this week, you cannot blame the Panthers for third-year coach Paul Chryst leaving for his dream job, as he went home to Wisconsin. But it is clear now more than ever that the program needs some stability, something Chryst was able to bring to the program after so much turnover.

The Panthers have plenty of young weapons on offense and are in a much better position now than they were when Chryst took over, but the cumulative effect of a fourth coaching search -- and an AD search -- since 2010 cannot be overstated.

Here are the rest of your ACC links:
Capital One Orange Bowl: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (10-3) vs. Mississippi State Bulldogs (10-2)

Dec. 31, 8 p.m. ET, Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla. (ESPN)

Key matchup: Dak Prescott vs. Georgia Tech defensive front

Why it matters: At lot of small things go into deciding wins and losses on a football field, but here’s a fairly telling stat: In Mississippi State’s 10 wins, Prescott had a Total QBR of 81.4 and a 21-to-7 TD:INT ratio. In its two losses, Prescott’s QBR was 34.0 with three touchdowns and three picks. It’s oversimplifying to say that as Prescott goes, so goes Mississippi State, but it’s certainly true that the Bulldogs are a much easier offense to defend when Prescott is off his game. On the flip side, Georgia Tech’s defense has struggled to disrupt the opposing quarterback throughout this season, and the ACC Championship Game was a perfect example of just how porous the Yellow Jackets’ D can be when it gives a top quarterback time in the pocket. In games when Tech records two sacks or more this year, it’s 6-0 and allows an average of 18 points per game. In games when it has zero or one sack, the record is just 4-3 and the D surrenders an average of 31 points per game.

Who wins: The smart money is probably on Prescott and the Bulldogs here. Not only is Tech’s pass rush among the most listless in the Power 5, but Prescott’s mobility and Josh Robinson's playmaking ability will only help to temper the Yellow Jackets’ aggressiveness. Of course, none of this is a secret to Tech DC Ted Roof either, and with a month to prep and get healthy (including the possible return of Jabari Hunt-Days), it’s certainly possible that the Jackets will look far sharper defensively than they did against Florida State. And if Prescott does make a mistake, Tech is more than capable of capitalizing. Perhaps as important, too, is that Tech’s offense should be able to move the ball against Mississippi State, chewing up some clock and limiting Prescott’s opportunities to create the big play. In the end, it may not be a great performance for either defense, but whichever one can come up with a couple of key stops could be the difference in a high-scoring affair. We’ll go with Tech, 41-38.

ACC morning links

December, 18, 2014
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Pitt must try and replace Paul Chryst without an athletic director.

Maybe that is not such a bad idea.

While it is true outgoing AD Steve Pederson helped usher Pitt into the ACC, it also is true he had an uneven track record when it came to hiring football coaches. Though Chryst's departure for Wisconsin after three years on the job cannot be placed on Pederson's shoulders, the next hire Pitt makes will be absolutely crucial for the program. Pitt cannot swing and miss on this hire the way Pederson did with Todd Graham and Mike Haywood, the two men brought in after he fired Dave Wannstedt.

Bill Fralic, a Pitt All-American lineman, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review of Pederson:

"He could not hire a good football coach. And he fired a loyal Pitt guy who averaged nine wins his last three years, and they haven't come close to that since. He meddled with everything. He was a control freak. Hopefully, we can recover from what he's done there."


Pitt is ready to win right now. It must hire a coach who can take what Chryst did and run with it. Make no mistake -- Pitt must hire a coach who will continue on with the blue-collar tradition Pitt fans have come to expect. All the high-octane mumbo jumbo Graham sold in the one year he was in Pittsburgh is just not going to fly. An offense predicated on a strong run game must remain a priority.

Many have already laid out their lists of potential candidates. Greg Schiano and Pat Narduzzi are among the two most intriguing names. They both have recruiting ties to the area, and both would presumably emphasize a power-run game. Double plus right there. Returning running back James Conner has the potential to be a 2,000-yard rusher with the right coach calling the plays.

Having been burned so many times in the recent past, Pitt would obviously be looking for a coach to put down roots in Pittsburgh for the long-term. Whether Pitt is that type of job may be in the eye of the beholder. In any case, Pitt should not concern itself with that idea right now.

It should hire the best available coach, plain and simple. Several outlets reported that Pederson had made contact with Schiano before being removed as AD. Though Pederson is gone, Schiano should remain on the list. At least he has proven he can win on the collegiate level, though he did fail to deliver in the clutch several times at Rutgers.

It is safe to say Pitt is brimming with potential. That is why this hire has to be the right hire. Pitt cannot afford to take any more steps backward.

Here are a few more links to start your morning:

A week later, I still have a hard time understanding how Roberto Aguayo did not win the Lou Groza Award. Now, more puzzlement: the FWAA All-America team does not have Aguayo on it, either. None of this is meant to take away from the year Brad Craddock had at Maryland. He was terrific, too. But there is no real doubt Aguyao is the hands down best kicker in the country, is there?
The most aggressive offense in the ACC in 2014 was Clemson, which might not have been a surprise in 2012 or 2013, but in a year in which there were so many personnel issues for the Tigers’ offense, it’s a bit shocking.

Clemson threw deep (20-plus yards) on 7.46 percent of its total plays, well above the league average of 5.93 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And that was probably not the best idea either, because while Clemson went deep more often than anyone else, the Tigers also averaged the second-fewest yards-per-attempt on those throws (trailing only Syracuse) and nearly 10 yards per attempt less than what Tajh Boyd mustered last year for Clemson. That’s not exactly a recipe for offensive success.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtDeshaun Watson completed nearly 50 percent of his deep balls in 2014 with seven touchdowns and just one interception.
But, of course, personnel had a lot to do with that, and it only goes to show how much a healthy Deshaun Watson affects Clemson’s overall offensive success, because those aggregate numbers hardly tell the whole story.

Watson completed nearly 50 percent of his deep balls in 2014 with seven touchdowns and just one interception. He averaged 15.9 yards per attempt, which would’ve been tops in the ACC if he’d been the only quarterback throwing for the Tigers in 2014. But he wasn’t.

Cole Stoudt and Nick Schuessler completed just 15 percent of their deep balls this season with one TD, two interceptions and a woeful 5.2 yards-per-attempt average. To put that in perspective, if they’d been the only quarterbacks throwing for Clemson this year, the Tigers would’ve been dead last in the league in YPA by nearly four full yards.

That’s just one of the interesting facts we find when we dig into the ACC’s deep-ball numbers for 2014.

A few more, with deep-ball stats courtesy ESPN Stats & Info:

  • No team was worse on the deep ball in the ACC than Syracuse. This is no surprise. The Orange completed just 27.8 percent of its deep balls (worst in the ACC), averaged 9.2 yards per attempt (again, worst), had just two touchdowns (13th) and five interceptions (t-12th). That’s down a bit from last year, but the Orange have struggled on those throws ever since Ryan Nassib left.
  • Perhaps the most improved team on the deep ball this year was Virginia. Last season, the Hoos were just 7-of-50 on throws of 20 yards or more. This year, they more than doubled their deep-ball yards, completion percentage and TD throws.
  • North Carolina had one of the ACC’s most potent offenses, but it wasn’t because of the deep ball. This is one of the reasons Larry Fedora was so high on Mitch Trubisky, but the numbers didn’t back up that confidence. Overall, UNC’s completion percentage of 28 percent on deep balls was third-worst in the league and its 9.93 YPA was fourth worst, but Marquise Williams was far better than his counterpart. Williams wasn’t great (28 percent completions, 12.2 YPA) but Trubisky really struggled (3-of-15 for 100 yards with a pick).
  • Only Wake Forest went deep less often than Pittsburgh (4.28 percent of total plays), which seems a bit odd considering that the Panthers could’ve used play-action well (given the strong running game) and they actually had the highest completion percentage of any ACC team on throws of 20-plus yards (44.4 percent).
  • Florida State was far less successful on the deep ball this year than last, with its completion percentage down (48.8 in 2013 to 35.7 in 2014) and TDs way off (16 last year, nine this). But FSU also threw five fewer interceptions on deep throws this year, and when it did get a completion, it’s YPC was actually improved (40 YPA this year, 32 YPA last year).
  • No team was better on the deep ball than Miami in 2014. Brad Kaaya proved to be an excellent downfield thrower, matched with a good running game and speed at receiver. For the year, Miami completed 41.3 percent of its deep balls (second in ACC), averaged 14.6 yards per attempt (first) and had nine touchdowns on those throws (tied for first). It’s worth noting though that just 12 percent of Miami’s passes in 2014 were 20 yards or more, the third fewest in the league.
  • No team gained a higher percentage of its total offense in 2014 via the deep ball than Louisville (15.9 percent), which is interesting given that DeVante Parker missed seven games and Bobby Petrino cycled through three different quarterbacks. Overall, Louisville’s deep-ball numbers were virtually the same as 2013, in spite of losing its star receiver for more than half the year and a first-round draft pick at quarterback. That’s a real credit to the work Petrino did this season.
  • Not surprisingly, Georgia Tech and Boston College had the highest percentage of their pass attempts be deep balls. Next up though? NC State (17 percent).
  • Virginia Tech wasn’t great on the deep ball (10.5 YPA, four TDs, four INTs), but it was a necessary part of the Hokies’ offense. For the year, 74.1 percent of Tech’s plays of 20-plus yards came on throws of 20-plus yards -- meaning if the Hokies didn’t look deep, they rarely had a shot at a big play. The league average on that stat was 45.6 percent, meaning the rest of the ACC got more than half of its big plays from plays that weren’t deep balls. Virtually all of Virginia Tech’s big-play threat relied on the arm of Michael Brewer. That speaks volumes about the Hokies’ season.

ACC morning links: Tech's pass rush

December, 16, 2014
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If Georgia Tech is going to win the Orange Bowl, it's going to have to have a much better game up front on defense than it did in the ACC Championship.

The Dispatch takes a look at the battles along the line of scrimmage in the Orange Bowl and notes that Dak Prescott is more than capable of having a huge game if his offensive line handles Tech's D-line.

Tech got virtually no pass rush against Florida State in the ACC title game, and Jameis Winston used that cozy pocket to pick apart the Yellow Jackets' pass rush while tailback Dalvin Cook racked up one big run after another.

The lack of a serious pass rush was an ongoing problem for Georgia Tech -- despite KeShun Freeman's spot on ESPN's Freshman All-America team. Against Power 5 opponents, Tech had a sack rate of just 4.1 percent -- the eighth-worst of any Power 5 team. And those numbers made a big difference.

This season, Tech had six games in which it recorded at least two sacks. It was 6-0 in those games and opposing quarterbacks completed 58 percent of their throws with six touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The defense allowed an average of 18 points per game.

In the seven games in which Tech had zero or one sack, the Yellow Jackets were 4-3 and the opposing QBs completed 67 percent of their throws with 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. Tech's D surrendered an average of 31 points per game in those contests.

There could be some potentially good news on that front for Georgia Tech as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution says Jabari Hunt-Days could potentially return to action after sitting out the fall semester for academic reasons.

Regardless of Hunt-Days' status, however, Prescott figures to be a formidable foe and Josh Robinson adds some extra punch to the Mississippi State ground game. How well Tech can disrupt the Bulldogs' backfield may well tell the story of whether it takes home a win in Miami.

A few more links:

ACC's 2015 Heisman hopefuls

December, 15, 2014
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Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy on Saturday, and while the ACC had plenty of impressive performances in 2014, Jameis Winston was the lone representative from the conference to finish in the top 10 in voting.

That could certainly change in 2015, when the ACC has several emerging stars who could contend for the award. Here’s a quick look at the league’s top challengers for the 2015 Heisman Trophy.

(Note: We’re assuming that Winston and Miami’s Duke Johnson won’t return for 2015, but if either does come back, he would immediately jump to the top of our rankings.)

1. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson

If he had stayed healthy all season, Watson might have been a contender for the award as a true freshman. Assuming he can stay on the field in 2015, he looks poised to be the biggest playmaker in the conference for an offense in which he will be surrounded by young talent.

2. Miami QB Brad Kaaya

Kaaya had his ups and downs as a true freshman in 2014, but he showed plenty of poise and was arguably the ACC’s top deep-ball threat. Miami’s offense has plenty of skill-position talent, but Kaaya will need the Hurricanes to finish better than 6-6 if he wants a crack at the Heisman.

3. Florida State RB Dalvin Cook

There will be plenty of enthusiasm surrounding Cook’s sophomore campaign in 2015, and if Florida State makes another run at the playoff, he would likely be in the Heisman conversation. The problem for Cook is that he will likely be starring on an offense forced to replace its top receiver, top tight end, four starting linemen and Heisman-winning quarterback.

[+] EnlargeJames Conner, Detrick Bonner
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsPitt running back James Conner rushed for a school-record 24 touchdowns in 2014.
4. Pittsburgh RB James Conner

Few players in the country carried a heavier share of their team’s offensive load in 2014 than Conner did for Pitt. While he was a bit overshadowed by the Big Ten's top running backs, his 1,675 yards and 24 rushing TDs would have had him in the Heisman Trophy discussion most seasons. He could certainly match or exceed those numbers next year.

5. Georgia Tech QB Justin Thomas

In his first year running Paul Johnson’s offense, Thomas was exceptional, but as the Georgia Tech coach was quick to point out, this could be just the tip of the iceberg. With a year of experience and wider latitude in directing the offense in 2015, Thomas could easily emerge as one of the country’s most explosive offensive threats.

6. North Carolina QB Marquise Williams

Williams’ numbers in 2014 were exceptional, but he was largely overshadowed by UNC’s rocky season defensively. If the Tar Heels can finally emerge into a Coastal contender with Williams leading a high-powered offensive attack, he could emerge as one of the nation’s biggest dual threats at quarterback. His numbers this year were already similar to Dak Prescott, so perhaps 2015 will be Williams’ chance to spend the season getting the Heisman hype.

7. Pittsburgh WR Tyler Boyd

It’s tough for wide receivers to push their way into the Heisman campaign, but Boyd’s numbers in 2014 were exceptional. Whether he can turn in a 2015 season similar to what Alabama’s Amari Cooper did this year depends greatly on whether there is a new coaching regime at Pitt and the progress of Panthers QB Chad Voytik. But Boyd’s talent as a receiver and on special teams certainly will be worth monitoring.

8. Miami RB Joseph Yearby

He played second fiddle to Johnson this year, but it’s easy to see why Miami fans are so excited about the future for Yearby. As a true freshman, he averaged 6.1 yards per carry and 600 yards of total offense. With a starter’s share of the offense next season, Yearby could emerge into an all-purpose star for the Hurricanes.

[+] EnlargeRonald Darby, Jalen Ramsey
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsJalen Ramsey (8) will be a leader on a Florida State defense that might have a little more on its shoulders in 2015.
9. Florida State DB Jalen Ramsey

Defensive players aren’t usually in the Heisman conversation, but with so much turnover expected on FSU’s offense in 2015, it will be up to Ramsey and the defense to keep the Seminoles afloat. Ramsey is already one of the nation’s top defensive backs, and in his third year as a starter, he could easily take the next step into the Heisman Trophy conversation with a few big plays at crucial times -- much as Notre Dame’s Manti Te'o did in 2012.

10. Duke RB Shaun Wilson

Here’s an under-the-radar player to watch as a potential Heisman hopeful in 2015. Wilson wasn’t Duke’s starter this season, but as a true freshman he still led the Blue Devils in rushing (590 yards) and was second in TDs (5) while finishing sixth in the nation in yards per rush (8.0). He could secure the starting job next year on an offense that could be more run-heavy, giving Wilson a chance to rack up huge numbers as one of the league’s most explosive runners.

Others to watch: Boston College RB Jon Hilliman, Louisville RB Brandon Radcliff, NC State QB Jacoby Brissett, Virginia RB Taquan Mizzell

ACC mailblog

December, 12, 2014
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Mailbag is back!

Eric in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., writes: Does the selection committee have it out for FSU and the ACC? FSU was ranked fourth the previous week, so why not just leave FSU in that spot? By moving FSU up a spot it seems the selection committee is trying to make it hard as possible on FSU and its fans. Playing in the Sugar Bowl would have been a neutral site game for FSU, but the Rose Bowl is giving Oregon a home game vs. FSU. FSU wins the positional matchups against Oregon and Oregon isn't as good as Alabama, but the travel is much tougher. The fans can't reasonably be asked to go to both the Rose Bowl and Dallas. Fans are going to have to choose between one or the other and Dallas is both cheaper and the championship game. When it comes to the ACC itself it smells fishy that the selection committee can reasonably justify jumping an idle Mississippi State team over an idle Michigan State team. Mississippi State had the most impressive idle week ever. That cost the ACC the Citrus Bowl, so that had to be intentional on the part of the committee.

Andrea Adelson writes: Conspiracy theorists are out in full force, aren't they? From my perspective, I believe Florida State should have been given the opportunity to play in New Orleans, as the only team, with an unbeaten record. The selection committee has tried to justify its ranking because Florida State has not passed "eye tests" or had much "game control" but I still cannot understand how a team that won all its games is ranked No. 3. It certainly feels like a shot fired at the ACC. As for Mississippi State, I have seen many suggest that move was made to help the Big Ten fill its entire bowl allotment (voila! It did). But one person I spoke to in the ACC office said it would be hard to believe the committee concerned itself with another conference's bowl ties beyond the New Year's Six games. It all is quite interesting, isn't it?


Matthew Gann in Washington, D.C., writes: I was wondering if anyone asked the CFP Committee why Mississippi State found themselves ranked ahead of Michigan State in the latest rankings. Neither team played a game. Did they just change their minds in 5 days? Was it a geographical decision, seeing as Mississippi State will go to Miami instead of Michigan State? Whatever the reason is, I'd like to know.

Adelson writes: The committee wants to remind everybody that it starts with a clean slate each and every week, and does not use its previous rankings as a starting point. So forget about the rankings from last week. In looking at Mississippi State and Michigan State without a ranking attached, the committee believed the Bulldogs have a better body of work. Michigan State essentially lost to the only two good teams it played, against Oregon and Ohio State. Though Mississippi State ended the season with losses in two of its final three games, the Bulldogs also had more quality wins, against Auburn and LSU. So that was their rational. And that is why these weekly rankings served to confuse us all.


Jon in Atlanta writes: Do you think that Winston's off the field issues is what kept him out of the voting for the Heisman? also ... Do you think GT is getting a little disrespected as a 7 point underdog?

Adelson writes: I think there are a variety of reasons. I do think off-the-field issues played a role. I do think winning last year played a role as well. But I think above all, Jameis Winston was not nearly as good this season as he was last season, nor was he as good as Marcus Mariota. It is tough to invite a quarterback with 17 interceptions to New York, especially when he only has 24 touchdown passes. His completion percentage also is down, and so are his passing yards. Though we all know how Winston has performed in the clutch, he did not consistently perform well all season.


Smittyknows1961 in Milledgeville, Ga., writes: Under the current Playoff format, Mark Richt, although he has the highest integrity of all college football coaches, will need to take his foot off the break and slobber clobber every team we play from here on out. That is the message this playoff selection committee is sending. Style over what was once good old fashioned football. The bling is the thing now. I say screw the bling and go to 16 teams down to 8 down to 4 down to 1. You're going to have cut out the patsy teams on your schedule and schedule higher ranked schools. All these years of helping those lesser schools athletics departments out with payout checks on Saturdays comes to a screeching halt. If the big schools want to help the smaller schools out with a paycheck - then let all the big boys donate funds into an escrow account during the year from each game played. If you got to be out for blood!, then let the blood flow. The game is not what it used to be. There could be a bye week system built into a format that includes more teams. The 16 team format gives Baylor and TCU of this year an opportunity for what their players worked so hard for -- a chance to relish a championship!

Adelson writes: Not just Richt. Jimbo Fisher has never been somebody to run up the score, and he reiterated this season he refuses to do so. But he had opportunities to ratchet up the score in several of the "close" games this season. What if the Virginia win goes from 14 points to 21? Does that make a difference? As for going to 16 teams, I cannot see programs eliminating cupcake games. The financials are not only important for the teams they are bringing in, but for the schools hosting, because home games generate good money. And athletic directors don't want to kill their players with impossible schedules. I know the game is radically different, but these are still college students (I know that sounds ridiculous in the face of so much money changing hands with the current playoff structure). The 16 teams would also force teams to play way too many games. I already think this format, with all 4 playoff teams potentially playing 15, is an enormous stress on the players being asked to perform at a high level over such a long season. I know the selection did not work out smoothly this season, but let's see how four works out first.


Martin Lisius writes: Hi Andrea. I have a solution to determine a national champion among the 6 top college football teams. 1. Name only the top two teams. 2. Tell the remaining 4 they are all worthy but only two more spots remain and ask those schools if they would consider an impromptu set of games at a neutral site one week prior to the semifinals. They will accept. This is brilliant because it allows 4 high quality candidates to have a chance to prove themselves on the field. This will make pretty much everyone happy and would be the right thing to do. I'm pretty certain the committee has the authority to do this if the schools agree as this new playoff thing is a work in progress. I think not doing this would be irresponsible.

Adelson writes: Well the current contract only calls for four teams over a 12-year period. The format you suggest essentially would give the top 2 teams a first-round bye, correct? As I mentioned above, I am not sure playing more games is the answer. Under the BCS, several qualified teams got left out of the national championship game. This is not really unprecedented, but with more opportunities and now a selection committee comes much more controversy.

All-ACC team's toughest omissions

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
10:30
AM ET
ESPN released its All-ACC team today, and though we certainly won’t expect much sympathy, it’s worth mentioning that putting those lists together is no easy task. This year, in particular, there were so many strong performances around the ACC that narrowing down the top guards, linebackers, defensive ends -- even the quarterback -- was an arduous task destined to leave some deserving players off the final list.

But since we don’t want to ignore those near-misses entirely, here is a quick look at some of the toughest decisions we had to make for this year’s All-ACC team.

Quarterback: The bottom line is that there is no better player in the conference than Jameis Winston when he’s on, but unlike last season, he had his share of struggles, too. Meanwhile, Marquise Williams emerged as a tremendous dual threat for UNC, helping to overcome a lot of the Tar Heels’ defensive struggles with some huge performances on offense, and Justin Thomas injected new life into Paul Johnson’s old option offense at Georgia Tech. Both Thomas and Williams were deserving candidates for first team — and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson would have been, too, if he had stayed healthy all season. Overall, it was a stellar year for quarterback play in the ACC.

Offensive guard: The problem with debating the merits of offensive linemen is that there aren’t many stats to use to break a tie, and when it came to our top three choices at guard -- Laken Tomlinson, Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson -- there was ample debate. In the end, we went with the first two, but Jackson’s contributions -- particularly with the revolving door at center for FSU this season -- shouldn’t go unnoticed. He might have been the Seminoles’ best offensive lineman.

Tight end: In the end, numbers set Clive Walford apart here. He led all ACC tight ends in yards, touchdowns, first downs, yards-per-catch and receptions per game while working with a true freshman quarterback. Still, it’s hard to ignore Nick O'Leary’s fine season (plus bonus points for taking on a bus and winning). Bucky Hodges, Gerald Christian, David Grinnage and Cam Serigne all had fine seasons as well.

Defensive end: OK, we cheated here. Vic Beasley was the obvious choice, but for the opposite side of the line, the debate between Dadi Nicolas and Mario Edwards Jr. was intense, with viable arguments made for both players. Edwards was a crucial cog on FSU’s defense, one of the most dynamic mixes of size and speed in college football. Nicolas was a force throughout the season and stepped up when interior lineman Luther Maddy went down with an injury. In the end, we followed the playoff selection committee’s precedent and avoided the tough question altogether by making our defense a 3-4 unit instead. Sorry, Dadi and Mario -- but now you know how Baylor and TCU feel.

Linebacker: There probably isn’t a more stacked position in the ACC than linebacker. Denzel Perryman and Stephone Anthony were exceptional. David Helton led the ACC in tackles. Lorenzo Mauldin was the most dynamic pass-rusher on Louisville’s stout defense. They all made the cut, but it meant a host of deserving options were left out, including BC’s Josh Keyes, Virginia’s Max Valles and Henry Coley, Syracuse’s Cameron Lynch and Georgia Tech’s Paul Davis.

ESPN.com's All-ACC team

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
9:00
AM ET
Presenting the 2014 ESPN.com All-ACC team:

Offense

WR Rashad Greene, Florida State: Whenever FSU was in trouble, Greene was there to save the day. He made big catch after big catch, took big hit after big hit, and ended the season with 93 catches for 1,306 yards, helping him break both FSU's records for receptions and receiving yards.

WR DeVante Parker, Louisville: The senior caught 35 passes for 735 yards and five touchdowns, the latter two numbers among the top 10 in the ACC. Oh, did we mention he missed the first seven games?

TE Clive Walford, Miami: Was there a more complete tight end in the country? The numbers say there might not be: 44 catches (third nationally), 676 yards (third), 7 TDs (third nationally). Walford did this all with a true freshman QB, too.

OT Cameron Erving, Florida State: Erving repeated as the ACC's blocking trophy winner, moving from left tackle to center in Game No. 10 this season and staying there, further showing his value to a unit that had dealt with interior injuries but came on strong late to help running back Dalvin Cook bloom into one of the country's finest freshmen.

OT T.J. Clemmings, Pittsburgh: Clemmings ought to get at least a piece of James Conner's player of the year trophy. The converted defensive end was among the nation's most improved players, starting every game for the second season in a row while using his athleticism to ace a position switch he had resisted earlier in his career.

C Andy Gallik, Boston College: BC lost a Heisman finalist at running back and actually improved its rushing totals this season. A dual-threat QB explains part of that, but so, too, does a powerful offensive line, led by Gallik in the middle, who helped pave the way for the league's No. 2 rushing attack.

OG Shaquille Mason, Georgia Tech: The only ACC team that rushed for more than BC? The only one that kept its QB unscathed more than Duke? The Yellow Jackets are the answer to both, with Mason captaining an oft-overlooked unit that was absolutely integral to the program's resurgence this season while running its famed triple-option attack.

OG Laken Tomlinson, Duke: The future pro turned in his best season yet, helping a Blue Devils offensive line that anchored a balanced offensive attack and kept QB Anthony Boone upright all season long, as Duke surrendered just 13 sacks, tied for 11th-best nationally.

QB Jameis Winston, Florida State: The reigning Heisman winner was not as sharp as last season, but he once again put up big numbers (3,559 yards, 24 TDs) while leading FSU to another perfect mark. Winston is 26-0 for his career as a starter. You simply cannot beat that.

RB James Conner, Pitt: The ACC player of the year rewrote the Pitt record books -- no easy feat for a place that boasts names like Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin and LeSean McCoy. Conner rushed for 1,675 yards and 24 TDs, responding to each defense's best shot game after game.

RB Duke Johnson, Miami: Like Conner, Johnson set himself above his peers at a program that has produced plenty of great running backs. Coming off an injury-shortened 2013 season, the junior ran for 1,520 yards and 13 TDs, becoming Miami's all-time leading rusher and its career leader in all-purpose yards.

Defense

DE Vic Beasley, Clemson: The ACC's defensive player of the year has seen his decision to return for his senior season pay off, as Beasley led the ACC in sacks (11) and tackles for loss (18.5) while making Clemson's defense the top-ranked unit nationally.

DT Eddie Goldman, Florida State: Who can forget Goldman forcing a Clemson fumble late to keep FSU's perfect season alive? The junior was in the right place at the right time often, a versatile threat who moved back inside this season after playing end. He dominated the line of scrimmage, and one just needs to look at how FSU fared without Goldman -- giving up 331 rushing yards to Georgia Tech as he went down early -- to see his value.

DT Grady Jarrett, Clemson: Ends might get all the stats and glory, but Jarrett's impact on offenses might have been as big as Beasley's, as he helped form arguably the top defensive line in the country. Jarrett had 6.5 TFLs and 11 QB hurries, freeing up those around him and making running the ball next to impossible down the stretch for opponents.

LB David Helton, Duke: The senior led the ACC in tackles (125) and ranked 11th nationally. Helton helped Duke overcome the preseason loss of linebacker Kelby Brown and led a unit that continued its ascension under coordinator Jim Knowles, finishing fifth in the ACC in scoring average (20.6 ppg), and 20th nationally.

LB Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville: A step-up in competition for Mauldin and the Cardinals meant even better results, as the hybrid notched a career-best 45 tackles and led the team in tackles for loss (13), while notching 6.5 sacks. Louisville's defense was one of the most surprising units in the country this season in its first year under coordinator Todd Grantham, ranking No. 6 nationally.

LB Stephone Anthony, Clemson: The leading tackler (73) on the nation's top defense, Anthony impacted games in a number of ways for the Tigers, making 9.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage while forcing two fumbles and picking off one pass.

LB Denzel Perryman, Miami: The senior led the Hurricanes in virtually ever major category: Tackles (102), TFLs (8.5) and forced fumbles (3) among them. He validated his decision to return after last season, recording yet another 100-tackle season and making his case as perhaps the top linebacker in the ACC.

S Gerod Holliman, Louisville: Fourteen interceptions. Fourteen! What more needs to be said? Holliman broke the ACC record and tied the NCAA mark. He had four multi-pick games, including a three-pick performance at BC. And he did this all after transitioning from corner to safety under Grantham's tutelage.

S Jalen Ramsey, Florida State: The sophomore made big play after big play, giving FSU's D an edge at the star position. He clinched the Miami game with a late pick and had two on the season to go with two forced fumbles, 11 break-ups, 13 passes defended and 9.5 TFLs. He blocked a kick, too.

CB Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech: The last in line of the storied Fuller family to come through Blacksburg, the sophomore showed plenty of the same NFL promise that has guided his older brothers. One of only a handful of Hokies to start every game, Fuller finished second in the ACC in passes defended (15), recorded 4.5 TFLs and recovered one fumble.

CB Garry Peters, Clemson: As overlooked as one can be on a defense loaded with stars, Peters quietly executed his job to a T, picking off one pass, breaking up 11 and defending 12. He forced a fumble and managed eight TFLs as well on a pass defense that ranked No. 3 nationally.

Special teams

K Roberto Aguayo, Florida State: Just another year at the office for Aguayo: 25-of-27 on field-goal attempts, perfect on extra points and a number of crucial kicks, which wasn't always required last year when he first stepped into the national spotlight. Aguayo is a whopping 46-of-49 for his career on field-goal attempts.

P Will Monday, Duke: Monday averaged 43.4 yards per punt, with 12 of his boots going for 50 or more yards. Eight of his punts were touchbacks, 19 were fair caught and 17 were inside the 20-yard line.

KR DeVon Edwards, Duke: Edwards averaged 25.4 yards per kick return, including a 99-yard touchdown in a high-scoring affair at Pitt, which the Blue Devils ended up winning in OT.

AP Tyler Boyd, Pitt: Boyd was a jack-of-all trades for Pitt, catching 69 passes for 1,149 yards and eight touchdowns. He was also the ACC's top punt returner, averaging 10.8 yards per return, which ranked 15th nationally.

ACC morning links

December, 12, 2014
Dec 12
8:00
AM ET
Thursday brought news on two ACC quarterbacks, as former Miami signal-caller Kevin Olsen announced that he has found a new home while Syracuse's Mitch Kimble said that he is seeking a transfer.

Olsen, who posted the news on Instagram, will be hoping for a fresh start at Towson after a brief Hurricanes tenure that went about as poorly it possibly could have. The former four-star recruit and brother of ex-Miami star TE Greg Olsen had several run-ins with the law and eventually left school this past September. He would be eligible to play for the FCS Tigers in 2015. Here's hoping he is able to turn things around off the field and resurrect his promising career.

Kimble, meanwhile, will likely be taking the FCS route as well. The redshirt freshman told Syracuse.com's Nate Mink that Illinois State, Eastern Illinois and Western Illinois are among the schools he is considering. Kimble had entered the season as the Orange's No. 4 signal-caller and saw limited time with the rest of the reserves after Terrel Hunt went down for the season in October.

Kimble is a Jerseyville, Illinois, native, which would help explain some of the programs he is looking at.

Here are the rest of your ACC links:

ACC morning links

December, 11, 2014
Dec 11
8:00
AM ET

USA Today released a comprehensive list of college football assistant coaches' salaries Wednesday, and there is a name familiar to readers of this space at the top.

Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster took home more than any other assistant across the country this past year, clearing a total of $1,369,500. He is not alone near the summit, as three of the nation's six highest-paid assistants come from the ACC: Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris -- who was hired as SMU's head coach last week -- is No. 5 ($1.3 million), while Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is No. 6 ($975,000).

Foster's ranking this year comes with some fine print: The longtime Hokies defensive coordinator will receive an $800,000 longevity payment for four-plus years of service if he remains in his position through Dec. 31, according to the paper.

It's important to note that most of this information comes from public records request, which private schools don't have to abide by. So you won't see any numbers from the staffs of Boston College, Duke, Miami, Syracuse or Wake Forest. The same goes for Pitt, which is covered under state law exempting it from releasing such information.

Another way of looking at this may be through the salary pool programs afford their assistant coaches.

Those ACC rankings, with the national ranking in parantheses, are:

1) Clemson $4,448,225 (4th)
2) Virginia Tech $3,583,250 (8th)
3) Florida State $3,386,000 (11th)
4) Louisville $3,225,000 (18th)
5) Virginia $2,908,670 (24th)
6) NC State $2,692,560 (32nd)
7) Georgia Tech $2,233,600 (44th)
8) North Carolina $2,051,667 (53rd)

Here are the rest of your Thursday links:

By the numbers: ACC bowl perception

December, 10, 2014
Dec 10
4:00
PM ET
There are some legitimate concerns with evaluating a conference based on its bowl performance — uneven matchups, the long wait between games, etc. — but the reality is that a league’s performance in those high-profile events tends to dictate perception. For the ACC, that’s been a problem through the years.

In the last decade, the pecking order in bowl performance has pretty clearly mirrored national perception:

SEC: 55-31 (.640)
Pac-12: 34-28 (.548)
Big 12: 41-36 (.532)
ACC: 36-45 (.444)
Big Ten: 27-47 (.365)

In other words, the SEC is great, the Pac 12 and Big 12 are solid, and the ACC and (especially) the Big Ten are bad. It’s that simple, right?

[+] EnlargeRashad Greene
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State's success has done a lot to change the perception of the ACC nationally, and the Seminoles' matchup against Oregon can do a lot more.
Well, there is some truth to the logic. At the very least, the ACC and Big Ten haven’t done much to change perceptions. And even this year, when the ACC sends 11 teams (plus Notre Dame) to bowl games, less than half the league’s representatives will be favored to win.

But there is a bit more to those numbers than meets the eye.

For one, things are changing for the better. Nine of the ACC’s 36 wins in the past decade came in the last two years, and after going 1-8 against the SEC from 2004 through 2008, the ACC is a far more respectable 6-5 against the big, bad SEC since then.

Secondly, the league has made some shrewd moves in changing the bowl tie-ins, giving the ACC some better postseason matchups. Even with a rather lackluster overall record in the last decade, the ACC only had two ranked teams lose to unranked foes in bowl games, but often the matchups didn’t do the conference any favors.

Again, that’s beginning to change. From 2004 through 2011, the ACC was just 3-13 in matchups of ranked vs. ranked teams, but in the past two seasons, the conference has a more impressive 4-1 record in those games, with the only loss the shootout between Duke and Texas A&M last season.

And if we look at aggregate performance, close losses were clearly the norm. In the last decade’s worth of bowl games, the ACC has been outscored by just 75 points — or roughly a touchdown per season. In five of those 10 seasons, the ACC actually scored more points than its opposition in total, but the league has a winning record in bowl games just twice (2005 and 2012).

Plus, there are some notable outliers in performance. In 2007, 2008 and 2011, the league was woeful, sporting a combined record of 3-14 against Power 5 conference foes in the bowl games. But in the other seven seasons, the ACC actually is 13-14 against the other Power 5 conferences — not great, but certainly not particularly underwhelming.

But, of course, perception remains, so the question is, what does the ACC need to do to begin changing that perception this season?

Start with Florida State. There is no more high-profile game than the Seminoles’ Rose Bowl matchup against Oregon. FSU was dinged all year for playing close games against the ACC — something that wouldn't have been as big an issue in the SEC or Pac-12. It was a direct indictment of the ACC’s prowess, so a solid victory for the Seminoles over a Pac-12 power would, in turn, give some credence to the notion that the conference is a lot deeper than critics assumed.

Secondly, with 11 representatives playing in bowl games, a winning record is a must. During the past decade, the ACC hasn’t won more than five bowl games in a single year, while the SEC has had six or more seven times. So even a 6-5 record for the ACC this season would be real progress.

Third, the league needs to avoid embarrassment. That means no 70-33 scores like Clemson’s Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia in 2011, a game that still stands (unfairly) as a tribute to ACC ineptitude. But the league also has a rather unimpressive 20-17 mark against non-Power 5 foes in the last decade. That’s partially skewed by matchups against teams such as Louisville, West Virginia and Utah — current Power 5 squads — previously playing in leagues that wouldn’t count in that metric, but it also includes Marshall thumping Maryland last year, Cincinnati beating Duke the previous year and Air Force knocking off Georgia Tech in 2010. The ACC has three bowl games this year against non-Power 5 foes, and it really needs to win them all.

And lastly, there’s the SEC. The regular season ended on a particularly upbeat note on that front as the ACC went 4-0 in rivalry games against the SEC, and now it has three more chances to earn victories — though none will come easily. Georgia Tech is an underdog against Mississippi State. Miami has looked lackluster lately, but needs to knock off South Carolina. And Louisville — the league’s newest member — gets a crack at Georgia. Winning at least two of those games — particularly the Orange Bowl against an SEC West foe — would be huge.

So, can the ACC do all of that? And even if it does, will it really matter?

Perceptions don’t change overnight, but every little bit helps, and the ACC has been taking some small steps. A bigger leap this season certainly seems possible.
Without question, the ACC upgraded its bowl lineup. There are way better matchups across the board; way better conference opponents across the board; way more reason for excitement across the board.

The opportunity is there for this league to make a collective statement.

Now is not the time to blow it. Especially after a blockbuster final weekend in which the league went 4-0 against the SEC. Ultimately, the way the ACC performs during bowl season will determine how people perceive the ACC headed into 2015.

That is why this postseason in particular is so critical. Because we already saw how a shaky national reputation impacted Florida State in 2014. The ACC cannot afford to keep slipping in the court of public perception, not when that perception clearly matters when it comes time to selecting four teams to make the playoff.

Fair or not, it is more important for the ACC to finish with a winning bowl record than any other Power-5 conference, starting with Florida State in the Rose Bowl and the three games against the SEC. While many have dismissed the wins over the SEC on rivalry weekend because they all came from the East, Georgia Tech has a big opportunity to quiet some of those critics with a win over Mississippi State in the Capital One Orange Bowl.

The Jackets are a seven-point underdog but that does not matter much. They were a 13-point underdog against Georgia and won that game to end the season.

Speaking of Georgia, the Bulldogs are favored over Louisville in the Belk Bowl, one of the best matchups in the postseason. The Cards and their No. 6-ranked defense are not exactly going to allow themselves to get pushed around in this one. Louisville will have every opportunity to win and finish with 10 wins (again).

Then there is Miami-South Carolina in the “shrug your shoulders” err … Duck Commander Independence Bowl. All I have to say is this: The ACC NEEDS you to show up, Miami. For once, just show up.

In all, the ACC will play eight opponents from Power-5 conferences, one more than a season ago. The ACC upgraded the Belk Bowl and Russell Athletic Bowls, and upgraded with a spot in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, too.

The ACC tweaked the bowl tie-ins this past year as a way to upgrade its standing. The selection process also worked slightly differently this year, because teams were no longer slotted into spots based on record. Plus, Notre Dame entered the mix, creating a little extra drama.

The ACC assigned teams into two tier categories based on record. With Florida State in the playoff and Georgia Tech taking the automatic spot into the Orange Bowl, it left Clemson (9-3), Louisville (9-3), Duke (9-3), Notre Dame (7-5), Boston College (7-5) and NC State (7-5) in the Tier I category.

The Russell Athletic Bowl has priority over the four Tier I games (Belk, Sun, Pinstripe, Music City/Gator). Once the Russell Athletic Bowl selected Clemson, five teams remained in the pool to be selected into a Tier I game. ACC officials and bowl reps decided Louisville and Duke had to be placed into Tier I games based on their record. Notre Dame was a lock to go into a Tier I game based on its brand and ability to draw fans to games. So Boston College or NC State would be bumped down into a Tier II game.

Unlike the Big Ten and SEC, the ACC does not assign teams to bowl games based on potential matchup. The ACC still allows its bowl partners to make their own selections. The four Tier I games submitted their top five choices in rank order. Two bowls ended up with their No. 1 choice. Two bowls ended up with their No. 2 choice.

That clearly means there were ties that had to be broken. Their fairest way to do that? A blind drawing out of a hat. NC State ended up being the team that went unselected out of that pool, and ended up in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl against UCF.

What complicated matters slightly was Mississippi State making the Orange Bowl, taking away an ACC spot in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. The ACC had contingency plans in the event this happened, doing legwork weeks in advance to find a bowl that would have an open spot.

Within an hour of the announcement, the ACC knew that it would be able to place a team into the Armed Forces Bowl. After Tier I bowls made their selections, the ACC held a conference call with Tier II bowls. They did the same, ranking the remaining teams in preferred order.

Once NC State was chosen, Pitt was the odd team out. That is how the Panthers ended up against Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl.

The process worked more smoothly than anticipated. What helped was having three Tier I bowl reps in a hotel conference room in Charlotte with ACC officials. Going over scenarios and doing homework well in advance also helped. So did a less rigid system that allowed bowls to have flexibility to choose their preferred teams.

As one ACC official said, it ended with a “home run across the board."

Now it is up to the teams to avoid striking out.

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