ACC: North Carolina State Wolfpack

2015 ACC schedule breakdown

January, 30, 2015
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Now that we have all had some time to digest the 2015 ACC schedule, let us look at the most noteable takeaways.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsDeshaun Watson and Clemson will get a later shot at Florida State in 2015, which is a positive development.
The good: Moving Florida State-Clemson to November. If both teams are as good as they have been in recent years, then their game will again determine the Atlantic Division. And there is nothing better than a high-stakes division contest in November, as opposed to September. There was absolutely no drama in the Atlantic this past season after Florida State beat the Tigers in Week 4; the Noles' spot in the ACC championship game was virtually solidified. As Jared Shanker pointed out, the ACC will have nationally relevant games in all three months of the 2015 regular season. That is absolutely huge.

The bad: North Carolina and Boston College are saddled with two FCS games apiece, a fact that did not go unnoticed Thursday. There is a simple explanation: previously scheduled games fell through and both schools were left scrambling. North Carolina had initially scheduled Ohio State for 2015. The game was moved, then subsequently canceled when the Big Ten voted to play nine conference games. Two more factors were at play: the ACC reversed course on a nine-game league schedule when it agreed to a partnership with Notre Dame. North Carolina wanted to wait on that schedule rotation to see how it would shake out. While having two FCS teams on the schedule is far from ideal, North Carolina does play two power-five teams with Illinois and South Carolina. As for Boston College, New Mexico State recently backed out of a 2015 game against the Eagles because it overscheduled. That left a hole the Boston College had to fill on very short notice. So Howard was added. Nobody is running around throwing a party over the FCS opponents. Sometimes these dilemmas happen. (Remember when Florida State had to replace West Virginia with Savannah State?)

The ugly: Poor Syracuse. Not only do the Orange get LSU in nonconference play, they also have the toughest three-game conference stretch of anybody in the ACC: at Florida State, at Louisville and Clemson on three straight weekends spanning the end of October into November. Nobody else in the Atlantic has to face the division's top three teams consecutively. Miami also faces a tough three-game stretch in October that could make or break Coastal Division hopes: at Florida State, Virginia Tech and Clemson. Nope, the Canes got no favors when they traded Louisville from the Atlantic for the Tigers. But there might not be anything uglier than the NC State nonconference schedule: Troy, Eastern Kentucky and then road games (yes, road games) against Old Dominion and South Alabama.

The byes: A 13-week scheduling window wreaked some havoc with the way the schedules were created because there was only space for one open week. ACC senior associate commissioner of football operations Michael Strickland had some good insight into how that was handled. Some teams are going to suffer more than others. Boston College has 10 straight games before its open date. Opening with the two FCS games might not serve as any consolation. Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech each have to play nine straight games to open the season; Florida State, Miami, Pitt and Clemson have to play nine straight games to end the season. The bye week is placed at an odd time for Clemson. The Tigers play Louisville on Thursday, Sept. 17 then go 15 days until they play again, Oct. 3 against Notre Dame. That is the longest regular-season layoff in school history.

The different: Friday night is the new weekday favorite in the ACC, with more announced dates than Thursday night, the former go-to spot. David Teel of the Daily Press has a great explainer piece on the topic, but it all comes down to television. The ACC will feature its top four teams from 2014 on either Thursday or Friday night this upcoming season. Strategery is definitely involved there.

The impossible: Once again, Virginia has the toughest schedule in the ACC, facing 10 teams that made bowl games in 2014. The move to overschedule is an interesting one, especially when you look at the nonconference scheduling models that NC State and Duke have followed. Both those programs have the worst nonconference schedules in 2015, choosing an easier route toward bowl eligibility. Last season, for example, Virginia was vastly improved, but still finished 5-7 with a backbreaking nonconference schedule. NC State finished 8-5 with a bowl victory, thanks to a cupcake nonconference schedule. NC State has scheduled up in the future to meet the requirement that ACC teams play at least one Power 5 opponent. But for right now, this schedule is hugely beneficial in the wins column. In the case of Virginia, the Hoos would be pleased if they make it out of their first four games against UCLA, Notre Dame, William & Mary and Boise State 2-2.

As former Virginia offensive lineman Luke Bowanko tweeted Thursday after the schedule was released:

ACC morning links

January, 30, 2015
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If you were taking one player who came out of the 2010 recruiting class, who would it be? Texas A&M had eventual top-six picks Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews, and either would be fine picks. There is Blake Bortles, who elevated UCF to a new level. There is also C.J. Mosley, who turned out to be the next great Alabama linebacker.

[+] EnlargeDonald
AP Photo/Don WrightAaron Donald didn't miss a beat in his transition from Pitt to the NFL.
Athlon Sports is taking former Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Maybe we're a little biased here at the ACC blog, but we give it our stamp of approval.

Let's just stick with what Donald has done at the collegiate level before even entertaining his first-year NFL dominance. As a senior, Donald cleaned up on the awards circuit. He was named the winner of the 2013 Outland Trophy, Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Lombardi Award and Chuck Bednarik Award. He was also a unanimous All-American after securing 11 sacks and 28.5 tackles for loss and forcing four fumbles in his final season.

In only his first season in the NFL, Donald is a defensive rookie of the year candidate. Colleague Nick Wagoner states his case for Donald, noting the his nine sacks, the most by any rookie over the last three years and second most among all defensive tackles in 2014. His 17 tackles for loss are a league record for a rookie defensive lineman, too.

Donald is not the only former ACC player on the list. Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley, who just finished his final season, is ranked ninth. He was a four-star recruit coming out of high school and ESPN.com listed him as an athlete, but Athlon had him as a tight end.

As a senior, Beasley led the ACC with 12 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss. He also led the country's best defense as Clemson finished No. 1 in yards allowed per game.

Year after year, the ACC puts dozens of players in the NFL even though its recruiting classes don't compete with those of the SEC. It's a tribute to the league's talented coaches.

A few more links to kick off the weekend, which is the last visit weekend before signing day:
The ACC will have an opportunity to make a big-time statement when the 2015 season kicks off.

That has become par for the course.

In what has become an annual rite of passage, the ACC has four blockbuster meetings against Power 5 opponents set for Week 1:
  • North Carolina vs. South Carolina on Thurs., Sept. 3 in Charlotte, North Carolina
  • Louisville vs. Auburn on Sat., Sept. 5 in the annual Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. On the same day, Virginia travels to face UCLA at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
  • Then, perhaps the most anticipated game of the weekend: defending national champion Ohio State travels to play Virginia Tech on Labor Day Night. This marks the Hokies' third appearance on Labor Day Monday; the game will be nationally televised by ESPN.

Those were among the big games spotlighted when the ACC released its schedule on Thursday. In all, ACC teams will play more games against teams that are ranked in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early 2015 Top 25 rankings (12) than any of the other Power 5 conferences. ACC teams also are playing a higher percentage of Power 5 teams (38 percent) than any other Power 5 conference.

None of this comes as a surprise, considering how strongly the ACC has scheduled nonconference opponents in recent years. For the ACC to continue to make inroads toward changing national perception, it will have to keep winning the spotlight games. As it stands, the ACC most likely will be the underdog in those four opening -weekend contests. And many people believe the only way an ACC team can make it into the playoff is with an unblemished record.

In addition to those marquee nonconference games, all eyes will be squarely on Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech as prime playoff contenders.

We should know more about their ACC and College Football Playoff fates over a four-week period spanning October and November.

Circle your calendars for:
  • Georgia Tech at Clemson, Oct. 10
  • Florida State at Georgia Tech, Oct. 24
  • Florida State at Clemson, Nov. 7

As for the always important mid-week games, Virginia Tech might not be hosting a Thursday night contest in 2015, but it does have Labor Day against the Buckeyes and a Friday night home game against NC State on Oct. 9. The Hokies also travel to play Georgia Tech on Thurs., Nov. 12.

Florida State and Clemson have mid-week games as well: Louisville will host the Tigers on Thurs., Sept. 17 in a game that should have Atlantic Division implications, while Florida State plays at Boston College the next day. Boise State at Virginia (Sept. 25); Louisville at Wake Forest (Oct. 30); and Miami at Pitt (Nov. 27) round out the Friday night slate. North Carolina at Pitt on Oct. 29 is the only other Thursday night game.

ACC morning links

January, 29, 2015
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With the new contract signed and details made public, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher is now among the highest-paid coaches in college football, making at least $5 million annually over the life of the contract.

It’s the second raise for Fisher in the past 13 months, but that’s the nature of coaching at the highest levels of college football these days. On the heels of a 29-game winning streak and berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff, Fisher earned a bump in pay to put him in the exclusive club of coaches making $5 million annually.

It’s not as easy to win at Florida State as some other perennial top-10 programs despite the consistent success the school has achieved over the past four decades. Tallahassee is four hours or more from most of Florida’s hubs for high school talent, and Fisher doesn’t enjoy the limitless recruiting budget some schools can offer coaching staffs. Fisher had to overhaul a program to reshape it in his own image, and he did it in just the few years following Bobby Bowden.

Fisher has been criticized as a coach before, and there are already questions as to whether the Florida State program can maintain its status without Jameis Winston. The numbers are in Fisher’s favor, though. He has won three straight ACC titles, a national title and has lost only once since December 2012. Florida State can’t afford to allow another college program swoon Fisher and give the sixth-year coach reason to leave.

Florida State likely isn’t going to find a better coach and recruiter than Fisher, who is wrapping up a top-three class, his fourth in the past five years. While the school has been reluctant to open its checkbook in the past, the administration had to lock up Fisher for the foreseeable future. They did that with the contract extension and the buyout, which starts at $5 million and then decreases in the following years.

Credit the FSU administration, too, for doing what it can to remain competitive with the rest of the college football powerhouses, especially in the SEC. The school opened its pockets to Fisher’s assistants, too, giving Fisher another $750,000 to pay his assistant coaches. A number of Seminoles assistants have left the program over the past three seasons. There was an assistant coaching exodus from Tallahassee following the 2012 season, and Jeremy Pruitt made the high-profile move from Florida State to Georgia before the start of the 2014 season.

If Fisher can win a fourth consecutive ACC championship despite an overhaul on offense and defense heading into 2015, there’s a good chance the school will be announcing another extension around the same time next year.

Here’s a few more links around the ACC:
  • Stephone Anthony and Grady Jarrett reflect on their time at Clemson in separate Q&As. Anthony is here and Jarrett is here.
  • Florida State announced its spring game will be Apr. 11.
  • Duke Johnson and Ereck Flowers, who both declared early for the NFL draft, will be going to the NFL combine along with six of their senior Miami teammates.
  • What type of offensive coordinator will Boston College attempt to hire?
  • Here's everything you need to know about Syracuse verbal pledge Eric Dungey.
  • NC State should land two of the state's top prospects, which is not something the Wolfpack -- or any North Carolina school -- has done often recently.
  • A video feature on how Virginia Tech is tackling the challenge of making safer helmets.

Position that needs improvement: N.C. State

January, 28, 2015
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Every team has issues to address this offseason, and this week, we're taking a look at the most glaring holes for each ACC team and figuring out where they might find answers between now and the season opener.

North Carolina State Wolfpack

Position to improve: Wide receiver

Why it was a problem: Take a look at the final ACC stats, under receptions/game and receiving yards/game. You will find players from 3-9 Syracuse and 3-9 Wake Forest. But you will not find anybody listed from 8-5 N.C. State. The Wolfpack simply did not have a go-to guy in their group in 2014. Their leading receiver was a true freshman -- Bo Hines, with 616 yards and just one touchdown catch. Only three other schools had their top leading receiver finish with fewer yards: Boston College (a running team), Wake Forest (a team that was offensively challenged) and Virginia (not known for its passing offense). While it is true N.C. State likes to use its tight ends and backs in the pass game, there is no doubt the Wolfpack need a wide receiver to emerge in 2015.

How it can be fixed: Another year with quarterback Jacoby Brissett under center will help. One big area N.C. State hopes to improve is its deep passing game, which was virtually nonexistent a year ago. Brissett struggled to throw the long ball with accuracy; and the Wolfpack are in need of a dynamic receiver who can stretch the field. Coach Dave Doeren is also hopeful the addition of receivers coach George McDonald will help a young group returning as well. "He has a really good way about him of teaching the game," Doeren said recently. "With a young receiver corps, we need somebody who can take every detail of the position and get them to do it where they’re excited about playing the position and doing it the way we want to get it done."

Early 2015 outlook: Bo Hines decided to transfer to Yale after the season. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, third among the wide receivers, also is gone. So among the top three returners in receiving yards, only one is a wide receiver: Bra'Lon Cherry, with 27 catches for 354 yards. More will be expected of tight end David J. Grinnage. But among receivers, Cherry, Johnathan Alston, Maurice Trowell and Stephen Louis will be expected to increase their production. Also watch for true freshman Nyheim Hines, on the ESPN 300. Though he is listed as a running back, he could be a good choice to fill Bo Hines' spot at receiver. There are no seniors in the group of players mentioned above.

ACC morning links

January, 28, 2015
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With national signing day closing in, it is hard not to be impressed with the efforts ACC schools have made across the board.

At last check, eight schools are ranked in the ESPN Recruiting Nation Top 40 class rankings. Duke, featured at N0. 39, is poised to sign David Cutcliffe's best class. NC State and Louisville are putting together strong classes, along with usual Top 25 suspects Florida State, Clemson, Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech.

Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson is doing work, too. Though the Deacs are not in the rankings, Clawson is quietly putting together a solid class. ESPN 300 prospect Bowman Archibald spurned Miami despite signing a financial aid agreement with the school in August. As he explained when he switched his commitment last September, his on-campus visit impressed him. He is already enrolled at Wake Forest (though he just had surgery for a broken leg).

Another four-star prospect, quarterback Kyle Kearns out of California, committed over the weekend. Then Tuesday, the Deacs scored another big commitment from running back Rocky Reid, a former Tennessee commit.

All three committed after taking official visits. Perhaps that is not a coincidence.



It also should not go unnoticed that Wake Forest has flipped players once committed to schools like Miami and Tennessee. The Deacs can clearly sell early playing time to a player like Reid, who joins a running back group in search of a standout. There also is no depth behind quarterback John Wolford, so coming to Wake to play quarterback should be appealing -- especially if Clawson's past history is taken into consideration.

Though Wake Forest went 3-9, this is a team that improved throughout the course of the season, that played with heart, energy and passion and never quit. Clawson has gotten the players on his roster to believe. Now he is getting recruits to believe as well.

More around the ACC:
So Wake Forest and North Carolina will face off in 2019 and 2021 in games that won’t count in the ACC standings but will reignite a longtime rivalry, writes the Winston-Salem Journal.

As the Journal notes, it’s setting right a wrong done to the two schools due to conference expansion, but it’s also fair to wonder what the longterm ramifications of the deal might be.

Our Andrea Adelson wrote that the two programs deserve credit for taking this relatively unprecedented step to rekindle the rivalry — a step that no doubt will play well with traditionalists eager to see more of those recently deceased rivalries brought back to life.

The move no doubt will also spark some talk about adding a few more nonconference games between ACC teams, with BC Interruption throwing a regular meeting between Boston College and Miami into the discussion.

Elsewhere, Florida State has long coveted a chance to play more routinely in Atlanta, where the Seminoles possess a strong alumni base. NC State and Duke would make a lot of sense, too. In the SEC, where the league has also expanded to 14 teams and added a new rule requiring at least nine games against Power 5 foes, there could be a push for some programs to follow suit, too.

Beyond just those potential geographic rivalries, there’s a potentially significant recruiting impact to seeing cross-divisional foes more routinely, too. Wouldn’t Virginia Tech love to get to play another game in the state of Florida more than once every six years? Or Clemson showing off its offense in South Florida? And certainly Syracuse and BC could stand to steal a few more recruits in Virginia by getting a couple extra games against the Hokies or UVa?

Of course, there are some drawbacks to this, too.

For one, does the UNC-Wake rivalry really spark any more excitement for Tar Heels fans than, say, adding more non-traditional foes to the schedule -- perhaps from the Big Ten or SEC? And for teams like FSU, Clemson and Georgia Tech, who already have a set nonconference rival in the SEC, there’s a hefty financial incentive to keep seven home games each year, which complicates the process significantly.

The bottom line, however, is that conference expansion has played havoc with scheduling just as the College Football Playoff has put teams’ résumés in the spotlight more than ever. Finding some creative ways to fit tradition, finances and résumé-building games together is paramount, and what UNC and Wake have done at least sets a precedent for other programs looking to find some answers to scheduling dilemmas. It’s not an answer to all the problems, but it’s a start.

A few more links:
It was a banner weekend on the recruiting trail for Dave Doeren and NC State.

The Wolfpack landed four-star tailback Johnny Frasier (Princeton, N.C.), who had been committed to Florida State and hadn’t even had NC State in his top five before the 2014 season began, as the Raleigh News & Observer notes.

Frasier is a big get for Doeren on a number of levels, but the success landing in-state talent may be the biggest takeaway. As Backing the Pack writes, Frasier is the fourth four-star prospect from North Carolina that Doeren has nabbed for this recruiting class, which is a great sign for the future of the program.

For Florida State, the loss was expected, but it means that early enrollee Jacques Patrick is the lone commitment the Seminoles have at running back for 2015, writes the Orlando Sentinel.

On the flip side, three of NC State’s top-five rated commits, according to ESPN, are running backs, and that is already a big position of strength for Doeren’s crew.

In fact, the success of NC State’s ground game in 2014 was one of the most under-the-radar stories of the year. A few tidbits:
  • NC State’s 5.98 yards per carry ranked 13th nationally and eighth among Power 5 teams.
  • Only four Power 5 teams had a lower rate of runs that went for a loss or no gain.
  • Only four Power 5 teams had a better rate of runs going for at least 5 yards, and three of those played in New Years Six bowls.
  • No team in the nation had a higher success rate converting third downs on the ground (66.1 percent).

Creating a more dynamic backfield is the next step for the Wolfpack’s ground game, which garnered the bulk of its productivity on consistency between the 20s, but lacked a home-run threat or a great red-zone runner. Frasier can probably help with the former immediately, but as Tom Luginbill notes, he’ll need to develop a bit more lower-body strength before he’s ready to make an impact with the latter.

A few more links:
  • Florida State’s Tre Jackson won MVP honors for the South team at the Senior Bowl, writes Tomahawk Nation.
  • Miami’s Ladarius Gunter had a strong showing at the Senior Bowl, writes the Miami Herald.
  • Pitt offensive lineman Artie Rowell has been a terrific ambassador for the Panthers and the ACC, writes the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
  • One reason Virginia Tech will be a trendy pick in the Coastal next season is the wealth of returning starters, as the Roanoke Times notes.
  • With DeVante Parker NFL bound, Louisville landed a top recruit at receiver over the weekend, writes The Courier-Journal.
  • USA Today takes a look at how former Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris is handling his first month at SMU.
  • Morris’ arrival at SMU sent one QB commit looking elsewhere, and Kyle Kearns has now landed at Wake Forest, writes the Winston-Salem Journal.
NC State has a new headliner for its 2015 class after luring ESPN 300 running back Johnny Frasier from Florida State. Here's a look at how big this commitment is the the Wolfpack:

The top three teams in the ACC in 2014 in yards per rush were Georgia Tech (6.06 yards/carry), Pitt (5.32) and Miami (5.26), and given that those three teams had Synjyn Days, James Conner and Duke Johnson, that's no surprise.

But here's an interesting side note to that information: None of those three teams had firmly established passing attacks, but they also just so happened to account for three of the top four spots in yards per pass attempt. Tech led the way (9.27), followed by Miami (8.31), FSU (8.23) and Pitt (7.85).

The explanation is pretty simple. Defenses load up to stop the run, and that leaves man coverage downfield for big-play opportunities. The end result of a strong running game tends to be a lot more chances to connect on the deep ball.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Brissett
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesNC State averaged just 3.5 yards after the catch this year, which ranked ninth among ACC teams. That stat doesn't help out QB Jacoby Brissett's numbers.
Then there's the team that finished fourth in yards/carry: NC State.

First off, it might be a bit of a surprise that the Wolfpack were so successful on the ground. Their offense was rarely heralded as a top rushing attack, but they averaged 5.23 yards per carry and had the league's best third-down conversion rate on the ground. If we take sacks out of the equation (something the NCAA should be doing anyway), NC State actually averaged nearly 6 yards per rush in 2015, trailing only Georgia Tech among ACC teams.

It stands to reason then that with that strong ground game, the Wolfpack were also a huge big play threat through the air, too, right? Not exactly.

NC State ranked eighth in yards per attempt (6.96), seventh in yards per completion (11.8) and eighth in percentage of completions gaining 10 yards or more. If we apply sacks to the passing game, the Wolfpack finished ninth in the ACC in yards per pass play.

So, why the disparity for NC State, particularly given the overall solid play of QB Jacoby Brissett? And given that the Wolfpack lost two of its top receivers -- Bo Hines and Marquez Valdes-Scantling to transfers, might things get worse in 2015?

The first explanation is that Brissett just isn't much of a downfield thrower, and the numbers do bear this out. Here are his completions percentages by distance, courtesy ESPN Stats & Information:

Behind the line: 88.5 percent
0-5 yards: 61.5 percent
6-14 yards: 59.1 percent
15+ yards: 37.7 percent

Worse yet, in conference play that completion rate on deep balls dropped to just 28 percent, with a woeful 7.9 yards per pass rate on throws of 15-plus yards.

But it's tough to put all that blame on Brissett. He was working with an inexperienced group of receivers, and that certainly didn't help matters. According to ESPN Stats & Info, NC State had seven drops on deep balls, the most in the ACC and the fourth-most of any Power 5 program. Three of those came from Valdes-Scantling alone. If we counted those drops as catches, Brissett's completion rate on deep throws actually jumps to a far more respectable 45.4 percent, which would've ranked fourth in the ACC.

Moreover, even on completed passes, Brissett's receivers didn't do a lot to help him out. NC State averaged just 3.5 yards after the catch this year, which ranked ninth among ACC teams.

Again, losing Valdes-Scantling doesn't seem like a major setback. While he was among Brissett's most used deep targets, he struggled overall, catching just 40.7 percent of his passes, averaging just 4.8 yards per reception and adding just 1.9 yards after catch per reception. Bryan Underwood, who also departs, was the only regularly employed receiver with worse numbers.

The loss of Hines, on the other hand, is a serious blow. His 71.4 percent completion rate was the best by an NC State wideout in 2014, his 9.8 yards per target led the team, and his 4.9 YAC per reception was also tops among wideouts. (Numbers courtesy ESPN Stats & Info.)

If there was a tradeoff in Brissett's low completion rate on deep balls, however, it's that there was little risk involved in the shots he did take, however, and the rewards tended to be big. Brissett threw 10 touchdown passes on deep balls in 2015, which tied with Jameis Winston for the ACC lead, and he had just one interception on those throws, which was the fewest by any ACC QB with at least 50 attempts. In fact, the only other Power 5 QB in the nation with at least 10 touchdowns and no more than one INT on deep balls was Baylor's Bryce Petty. So that's pretty darned impressive.

Based on that info then, the question might be whether NC State's risk-reward balance is shifted too far in the direction of safety, and whether the offense might actually benefit from Brissett trying to thread the needle on a few more throws downfield.

Regardless, given the attrition at wide receiver, it's unlikely Dave Doeren is going to want to alter that formula too much, but it's probably also worth noting that in the bowl game against UCF, when Brissett was just 15-of-26 passing overall, he was a perfect 3-of-3 for 115 yards and a touchdown on deep balls.

NC State returns the bulk of that successful ground game in 2015, so it stands to reason that the big-play threat in the passing game should remain. With a year of playing time in the Wolfpack's offense under his belt, perhaps Brissett will want to roll the dice a bit more next season, and while the losses at wideout depleted the numbers, the unit as a whole probably had nowhere to go but up anyway.

In other words, NC State's offense remains a work in progress, but 2014 established a foundation and illustrated where there are still some big gains to be made. That should be encouraging for the Wolfpack moving forward.
Because it's never too early to start making bold predictions about the 2015 season, Athlon put together its list of 10 potential breakout players for the upcoming season, and it includes two budding stars in the ACC.

The first is Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson, which should be something of a no-brainer, given that the junior racked up 21.5 tackles for loss in the past two seasons despite serving as the backup to Vic Beasley. Only seven other players in the ACC have totaled 10 or more TFL in each of the last two seasons, and of that group, only Lawson will be back for 2015.

“A guy like Shaq Lawson, he could've been starting his first two years, but he sat behind Vic Beasley and you can't complain about that,” defensive back Robert Smith said. “But he could've just as easily been starting the same way.”

Lawson is an obvious starter this year, but the Post & Courier projects out the rest of Clemson's starters, too.

The second of Athlon's breakout candidates is Travis Rudolph, the FSU wide receiver who stepped up as a strong No. 2 option after Rashad Greene as a true freshman this season, including six catches for 96 yards and a score in the Rose Bowl.

Rudolph definitely progressed as the year went along -- he had just one catch in FSU's first four games -- but he's going to have a tougher task in 2015. Greene and tight end Nick O'Leary are gone, meaning all eyes will clearly be on Rudolph to step into the No. 1 role in the passing game. Jameis Winston is gone, too, and the question about the next FSU QB is a big one. Still, Rudolph showed how much talent he has this season, and he's on record as being eager to follow in Greene's footsteps.

Looking around the rest of the ACC, a few other names to watch as potential breakout candidates:

Andrew Brown, Virginia: Injuries limited his freshman performance, but the Hoos will have a new-look defensive line in 2015, and Brown, the former five-star recruit, will be a big part of their plans.

Shaun Wilson, Duke: The ACC already got a small taste of what Wilson can do, as he rushed for 598 yards as a freshman in 2014. His 7.7 yards-per-carry average was the best by any Power 5 running back with at least 75 carries, but his numbers in conference -- 46 carries, 186 yards, 1 TD -- weren't quite as impressive. He'll have a bigger role in 2015.

Josh Jones, NC State: The redshirt freshman started the final five games of the year at strong safety for the Wolfpack, and that happened to coincide with a 4-1 finish to the season in which NC State allowed just 4.68 yards per play -- the seventh-best rate for any Power 5 team from Nov. 1 to the end of the season.

Joseph Yearby, Miami: The freshman had more than 600 yards from scrimmage backing up Duke Johnson in 2014. Now Johnson is gone, but rising star QB Brad Kaaya remains, and Miami's offense hopes to not miss a beat. It could be a huge year for Yearby, who played his high school ball alongside FSU's Dalvin Cook.

A few other links:

ACC morning links

January, 19, 2015
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There was no big mystery about what would happen when the first autonomous legislation passed at the NCAA convention over the weekend.

Full cost-of-attendance was first on the docket, and it easily passed. But it was not a unanimous vote. One school voted against adding the stipend: Boston College.

Rather than go with the flock, the university decided to take a stand, worried that the increased financial burdens to athletic departments everywhere could mean devastating consequences for non-revenue sports. In a statement released Saturday night, the university said:
Boston College is concerned with continuing to pass legislation that increases expenses when the vast majority of schools are already institutionally subsidized. The consequence of such legislation could ultimately hurt student-athletes if/when programs are cut.

This legislation further segregates student-athletes from the general student population by increasing aid without need-based consideration. Legislation already exists for student-athletes in need through pell grants and the student-assistance fund.

We have concerns that the Federal Financial aid formula is sufficiently ambiguous that adjustments for recruiting advantage will take place.

Indeed, this is one of the many unanswered questions that remain now that autonomy is here: How will many cash-strapped athletic departments begin to pay for all the bells and whistles only the few can afford, simply because they want to keep pace? Everybody can agree that cost of attendance is a worthy cause, but nobody really has any idea what the financial consequences will be down the road.

A student-athlete at Boston College receives a roughly $250,000 education in four years' time, higher than most schools this legislation will impact. As colleague Mitch Sherman points out:
Boston is an expensive place to attend school, equating to a stipend for student-athletes at BC that will exceed the still-undetermined average. Without a football program awash in money, Boston College must dig deep to keep pace with its rivals -- or consider other ways to save money, perhaps including the elimination of non-revenue sports.

Now there exists a potential consequence to autonomy that fails to mesh with the mission of the NCAA. And if it's a problem at Boston College, which gets a piece of the ACC pie, imagine the trouble brewing at smaller colleges.

It was a big recruiting weekend across college football. Here are a few updates in the ACC:
In other ACC news:
  • Duke lost its defensive line coach, while Virginia Tech lost its receivers coach.
  • Several ACC players stood out at the East-West Shrine Game, including former Miami defensive end Anthony Chickillo, Louisville running back Dominique Brown and offensive lineman John Miller and NC State kicker Niklas Sade.
  • Senior Bowl practices get underway this week, and Shaq Mason and T.J. Clemmings are two players to watch. Meanwhile, Tre' Jackson appears to be the only Florida State player who will participate in the Senior Bowl after Rashad Greene, Nick O'Leary, Cameron Erving and Josue Matias all dropped out.
  • Sam Werner of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette takes a look at the legacy former athletic director Steve Pederson leaves behind.

ACC all-bowl team

January, 16, 2015
Jan 16
11:00
AM ET
It wasn’t the finest bowl season for the ACC, which won just four games, but there were still some strong performances. Here’s our 2014-15 all-bowl team for the ACC.

OFFENSE

QB: Justin Thomas (Georgia Tech)

Thomas thoroughly dominated the Mississippi State defense in the Orange Bowl, accounting for 246 yards of offense and four touchdowns. Credit. though, to Clemson’s Cole Stoudt, who was pressed into action with Deshaun Watson out with injury and threw for 319 yards with four total touchdowns, too.

[+] EnlargeSynjyn Days
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsSynjyn Days scored three of Georgia Tech's seven touchdowns against Mississippi State.
RB: Synjyn Days (Georgia Tech)

His 171 yards on the ground led all ACC runners during bowl season to cap off an extraordinary second half of the year for Days. He scored three times on the ground versus Mississippi State, as the Bulldogs never stood a chance against Georgia Tech’s dominant rushing attack.

RB: J.C. Coleman (Virginia Tech)

The running game was a problem all year for Virginia Tech, but once the Hokies were down to their fourth option at tailback, things got figured out. Coleman finished up a strong final four games with his best performance of the year, carrying 25 times for 157 yards and a touchdown in Tech’s win over Cincinnati.

WR: DeVante Parker (Louisville)

Louisville’s quarterback play was dreadful against Georgia in the Belk Bowl, and it cost the Cardinals a chance to win. But Parker, as usual, was excellent. He had eight catches, six of which went for first downs, and he led all ACC receivers with 120 yards. He also had one of the most impressive touchdown grabs of the season called back because he stepped out of bounds before the catch.

WR: Mike Williams (Clemson)

There’s plenty of competition for the second receiver spot, with six players chiming in with between 96 and 114 yards through the air during bowl season, but we’ll give Williams the slight nod. He had nine catches (tied for most in the ACC) for 112 yards and a touchdown, and six of his catches went for first downs.

TE: Jack Tabb (North Carolina)

It wasn’t a sterling season for tight ends in the bowl games despite so many fine performances during the regular season. Still, Tabb hauled in five catches for 51 yards and a score, which easily set the pace at the position.

OL: T.J. Clemmings (Pittsburgh)

Pitt’s defense couldn’t hold a big lead in its bowl game against Houston, but no blame goes to the offensive line, which was strong. Pitt ran for 227 yards and three touchdowns and allowed just one sack on 37 attempts, with Clemmings grading out once again as the Panthers’ top blocker.

OL: Shaq Mason (Georgia Tech)

Georgia Tech ran for 52 more yards than any other team during bowl season. Credit goes to the entire offense for the strong performance, but there’s no question Mason has been the on- and off-field leader of the offensive line all season.

OL: Joe Thuney (NC State)

NC State’s 3.82 yards-per-carry average wasn’t great, but the ground-and-pound approach against UCF did the trick. The Wolfpack scored twice on the ground and had eight runs of 10 yards or more, with Thuney grading out as their top performer.

OL: Tre Jackson (Florida State)

It’s easy to dismiss Florida State’s Rose Bowl performance, but the offensive line had nothing to do with the five turnovers the offense coughed up. In fact, Dalvin Cook and Karlos Williams were cruising through a stellar outing thanks to the blocking of Jackson and his linemates before the bottom fell out.

C: Andy Gallik (Boston College)

The Eagles’ problems with PATs haunted them again in bowl season, but the ground game that paced the offense all season was once again terrific. BC ran for 285 yards and two scores against a Penn State defense that had been among the best in the nation against the run. Ample credit to the whole group, but Gallik has been a star all season.

DEFENSE

DE: Tyriq McCord (Miami)

McCord had five tackles, including one sack, in the loss to South Carolina, and while his secondary couldn’t cover Pharoh Cooper, the Hurricanes’ front did manage to keep the Gamecocks’ powerful ground game in check, holding Mike Davis to just 55 yards.

[+] EnlargeGrady Jarrett
AP Photo/John RaouxGrady Jarrett's performance in the Russell Athletic Bowl helped Clemson limit the Sooners to just six points.
DT: Grady Jarrett (Clemson)

Perhaps the ACC’s best defensive player during bowl season, Jarrett was a beast in thwarting Oklahoma’s high-octane offense. Jarrett had 3.5 tackles for loss, one quarterback hurry and a forced fumble as Clemson dominated the Sooners’ through the first 3½ quarters of action.

DE: Vic Beasley (Clemson)

Beasley’s early sack against Trevor Knight was a harbinger of a long day to come for the Oklahoma quarterback, who mustered just 2.8 yards per attempt in the game. Beasley was at the heart of the pass rush, tallying five tackles, including three for a loss.

LB: Rodman Noel (NC State)

Led NC State’s defense with eight tackles, including two for a loss, and helped hold UCF to just 2.9 yards per carry on the ground and disrupting the Knights’ passing game throughout. UCF quarterback Justin Holman completed just 43 percent of his throws.

LB: Ben Boulware (Clemson)

Boulware had five tackles and a fumble recovery in the win over Oklahoma, but it was his 47-yard interception return for a touchdown to give Clemson a 17-0 lead late in the first quarter that made the biggest impact.

LB: P.J. Davis (Georgia Tech)

Davis led all players in the Orange Bowl with 11 tackles, and while Mississippi State’s offense did manage to move the ball to the tune of 605 yards, the game was never particularly close because Davis helped prevent big plays -- just three of 20 yards or more through the first three quarters -- and held Dak Prescott to just 4-of-10 passing on third down.

LB: Deon Clark (Virginia Tech)

Clark led all Virginia Tech defenders with 11 total tackles, including a sack and a forced fumble, as the Hokies thwarted Cincinnati’s high-flying offense in the Military Bowl.

S: DeVon Edwards (Duke)

The Blue Devils’ defense was hardly great against Arizona State, but Edwards did lead the pack with 14 tackles, including one for a loss, a forced fumble and a sack.

S: Chris Milton (Georgia Tech)

Milton’s eight tackles and support against the run were crucial for Georgia Tech’s defense against Mississippi State, but his interception on Prescott’s second throw of the game set the tone for a dominant Yellow Jackets win.

CB: Jack Tocho (NC State)

While NC State’s defensive front tormented the UCF passing game, the defensive backs did their part, too. Tocho had three tackles and two pass breakups, while UCF’s passing game mustered just 4.85 yards per attempt through the first three quarters as the Wolfpack built a 31-13 lead.

CB: Kendall Fuller (Virginia Tech)

Fuller had four tackles, broke up a pass and had and an interception against Cincinnati, as quarterback Gunner Kiel, one of the nation’s most dangerous passers, completed just 14 of 26 throws.

SPECIAL TEAMS

P: Bradley Pinion (Clemson)

Pinion’s net punting average against Oklahoma was 43.4 yards -- just one-tenth of a yard shy of tops in the conference. He had two punts downed inside the 10, and none of his five boots were returned.

K: Joey Slye (Virginia Tech)

Slye connected on all four field goal attempts, including two outside of 40 yards, and was 3-of-3 on PATs in Virginia Tech’s win over Cincinnati.

KR/PR: Jamison Crowder (Duke)

Crowder has been a star on special teams for much of his career, and he ended it on a high note by returning a punt 68 yards for a touchdown against Arizona State -- his second of the season. He accounted for 66 percent of all the punt returns in the ACC in 2014.
Now that the first year in the College Football Playoff is over, we know exactly what to make of nonconference schedules and their role during evaluations.

They are important. Just ask Baylor.

Of course, nonconference schedules tend to look one way before the season starts and then another when the season ends. Florida State had two Power-5 schools on the docket plus Notre Dame in 2014, but nobody regarded its schedule as particularly tough because those three teams fizzled.

With that in mind, let's take a quick peek at the top three potential playoff contenders in 2015 and what we think could end up being good nonconference slates. Included are 2014 records in parentheses.

Best shape

Georgia Tech: Alcorn State*, Tulane (3-9), at Notre Dame (8-5), Georgia (10-3)
Clemson: Wofford*, Appalachian State (7-5), Notre Dame (8-5), at South Carolina (7-6)

Great news here, considering we expect both teams to start the season as preseason Top 25 teams. If voters are truly paying attention, both will start in the top 15. It is always beneficial to have a well-respected SEC opponent on the schedule, as these two do every year with their in-state rival. Both must face Notre Dame. Let's just say this as nicely as possible: The ACC needs Notre Dame to be better this year. Badly.

Nothing to write home about

Florida State: Texas State (7-5), USF (4-8), Chattanooga*, at Florida (7-5)

You thought Florida State was lampooned for its nonconference schedule in 2014? That one looks like a gantlet featuring Oregon, Ohio State and Alabama compared to this one. If the Seminoles go unbeaten, they should still be in position to make the playoff, but they will come under serious scrutiny for their schedule, even if Florida is better. If they struggle against any of these teams and look suspect vs. ACC competition the way they did this year, well, that might be enough for committee members to consider picking another qualified team.

Now let's take a look at some potential darkhorse playoff contenders

Good shape

Virginia Tech: Ohio State (14-1), Furman*, at Purdue (3-9), at East Carolina (8-5)
Louisville: vs. Auburn (8-5), Houston (8-5), Samford*, at Kentucky (5-7)

We are going out on a very, very long limb here with Virginia Tech included as a potential playoff contender. But expectations in Blacksburg are growing, so ours will, too. In actuality, both teams' playoff fortunes will be decided in their respective openers. Louisville faces Auburn in Atlanta on Sept. 5, while the Hokies take on the defending national champion Buckeyes at home on Labor Day night. If they come away with upsets for the second straight year, their playoff chances would go soaring -- but only if they win the remainder of their games. If they lose, hard to see either making it with one loss. Also in their favor: Both schedules features two Power-5 teams plus solid teams from the American.

Help!

Duke: at Tulane (3-9), NC Central*, Northwestern (5-7), at Army (4-8)

At least the Blue Devils have one Power-5 school on the schedule, though it happens to be one of just three Big Ten teams that failed to make a bowl game in 2014. Perhaps the Wildcats will be better in 2015. In either case, Duke will face an uphill climb given the blase schedule. Add in the ACC Coastal slate and no Top 25 teams from the Atlantic, and the schedule will be viewed as weak. Again.

Now let's take a look at everybody else. Who knows, maybe one of these teams will emerge as the surprise of 2015.

Best of the rest

Virginia: at UCLA (10-3), William & Mary*, Notre Dame (8-5), Boise State (12-2)

Once again, the Hoos have the toughest schedule in the ACC, the only team to face two nonconference opponents with 10 or more wins in 2014. Really tough to hand a team in desperate need of momentum backbreaking schedules year after year after year. The way to handle it? Schedule the way Florida State or NC State did, at least for one year to build some confidence and a few more wins. Don't get me wrong. Playing good teams is important. I love it when teams upgrade their schedules. But at what expense? You have to be at the right place in your program to do it.

Ol' college try

Pitt: Youngstown State*, at Akron (5-7), at Iowa (7-6), Notre Dame (8-5)
Miami: Bethune-Cookman*, at FAU (3-9), Nebraska (9-4), at Cincinnati (9-4)
Boston College: Northern Illinois (11-3), New Mexico St (2-10), Notre Dame (8-5), Maine*

Decent schedules here for all three teams, featuring at least one Power-5 opponent. Northern Illinois and Cincinnati are two of the better Group of 5 teams so these schedules do remain challenging.

You take the good, you take the bad ...

Syracuse: Rhode Island*, Central Michigan (7-6), LSU (8-5), at USF (4-8)
Wake Forest: Elon*, at Army (4-8), Indiana (4-8), at Notre Dame (8-5)
North Carolina: vs. South Carolina (7-6), North Carolina A&T*, Illinois (6-7), Delaware*

One Power-5 for each and then a whole lotta nothin.' If North Carolina can get its act together and potentially make a run, it will be interesting to see how the committee handles a team with two FCS opponents.

Thanks for playing

NC State: Troy (3-9), at Old Dominion (6-6), at South Alabama (6-7), Eastern Kentucky*

The Wolfpack are the only team without a Power-5 school on the schedule. The ACC rule that mandates at least one Power-5 nonconference team on the docket starts in 2017. Schedule upgrades are coming soon in the way of Notre Dame (2016, 2017), West Virginia (2018, 2019) and Mississippi State (2020, 2021). But for now, if NC State does not go 4-0 against this slate something is seriously wrong.

*= FCS

Final 2014 ACC Power Rankings

January, 13, 2015
Jan 13
1:00
PM ET
» More Final 2014 Power Rankings: Top 25 | ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

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