ACC: Virginia Cavaliers

ACC viewer's guide: Week 13

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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Much of the drama is already gone from the ACC slate, and the SEC rivalry games are still a week away. But there is still plenty to watch for in Week 13.

12:30 p.m.

Virginia Tech at Wake Forest, ESPN3, #VTvsWAKE
The Hokies can wrap up bowl eligibility with a win against Wake Forest, which given the litany of injuries Virginia Tech has suffered this season -- including tailback Marshawn Williams, who tore his ACL last week -- is probably commendable. The Hokies are coming off their second road win of the season against a top-25 foe, so the trip to Winston-Salem against a Demon Deacons team still looking for its first ACC victory shouldn’t be a huge test. Wake hasn’t been able to run the ball on anyone this season, but Virginia Tech’s defense allows 5.64 yards-per-carry on non-sack rushing attempts this season -- 104th nationally.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesJameis Winston and Florida State will try to produce a rare fast start this week against Boston College.
3:30 p.m.

Boston College at No. 3 Florida State, ABC/ESPN2, #BCvsFSU
A year ago, it was the Eagles who gave FSU its toughest game of the regular season. Now, BC is the ACC’s last chance to send the Seminoles to a conference loss. The matchup isn’t ideal for an FSU defense that has been gashed by the run on a few occasions this season, and after escaping a physical matchup against Miami last week, it will be interesting to see how focused the Seminoles are for this one. But with a season of close calls already in their rearview mirror, Jimbo Fisher no doubt has emphasized the importance of a fast start this week, and for FSU, it needs to start thinking about earning some style points to impress the CFB playoff committee.

Syracuse at Pittsburgh, ESPNU, #CUSEvsPITT
Pitt has lost three straight despite 1,040 yards of offense from James Conner and Tyler Boyd. The Panthers have actually dropped six of their past seven after a 3-0 start to the season, and now they must win out to have a shot at a bowl game. Four of Pitt’s six losses have been by five points or less, however, and Conner and Boyd remain two of the most potent threats in the ACC. Whether Syracuse’s underrated defense can slow down Pitt’s stars might be paramount, but the Orange will also need to find some offense against a Panthers team that has allowed 147 points in its past three games.

No. 24 Louisville at Notre Dame, NBC
The Cardinals are back in the top 25, but they will go to battle in South Bend without starting quarterback Will Gardner. Reggie Bonnafon will take over at QB coming off his best game as a college player last week when he threw for 69 yards, ran for 76 more and scored three times against Boston College. But the real intrigue might come on the other side of the ball, where Everett Golson leads an Irish offense that leads all Power 5 teams in turnovers against Louisville’s stout defense, led by safety Gerod Holliman and his 13 interceptions.

Georgia State at No. 22 Clemson, ESPN3, #GSUvsCLEM
Since Deshaun Watson went down with a hand injury last month, Clemson’s offense has more turnovers (11) than touchdowns (7), and that downward spiral hit rock bottom last week when Cole Stoudt threw three interceptions, including two that were returned for touchdowns. But as bad as Stoudt’s performance was, Dabo Swinney and the Tigers believe he’s still a capable quarterback, and certainly the job gets a lot easier this week. The bigger question now is whether it will be Stoudt’s job in two weeks when Clemson looks to end a five-game losing streak against rival South Carolina.

7 p.m.

Miami at Virginia, ESPN2, #MIAvsUVA
The Hurricanes are coming off a physical and emotional loss to Florida State and looking to rebound. Virginia is still clinging to bowl hopes, and might need to win out to salvage coach Mike London’s job. The key to the game might be how well the Hoos’ defense can slow Duke Johnson and the Miami running game, but as FSU found out last week, quarterback Brad Kaaya is certainly capable of doing some damage. Virginia, on the other hand, has just 59 rushing yards combined in its past two games, and it has scored on the ground just once in its past five.
This wasn’t how Willie Byrn wanted his career at Virginia Tech to end, but in a way, maybe it was a relief.

The season opened with lofty goals, but after a 4-5 start and a series of demoralizing losses, nearly all those goals the Hokies had set this summer had evaporated, and what was left was a three-game stretch that offered little beyond a potential bowl bid and a chance to simply keep playing football. For Byrn, that was enough.

“There’s kind of an energy,” Byrn said. “All the scenarios are out the window, and what we’re thinking about is letting go, having fun and really focusing on getting better. It’s not about that one place to get at the end of the season, but just taking it day by day. I think when you do that, it takes the pressure off.”

Maybe it was that ability to get back to basics, or maybe it was simply the talent on Virginia Tech’s defense playing to its full potential, but the recipe worked. The Hokies upended Duke on Saturday for their second road win of the season over a ranked team, and with a win this week against Wake Forest, the Hokies will go bowling for the 22nd straight season.

[+] EnlargeWillie Byrn
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsWhile the season hasn't gone the way Willie Byrn (82) had hoped, Virginia Tech still has its eyes on a bowl game.
The scenarios are similar at Pittsburgh and North Carolina. Both schools opened the season with high hopes and spent time in the AP Top 25 in September. But those early expectations faded quickly and both teams are now teetering on the brink of bowl eligibility.

At Virginia, too, simply getting to six wins means something. The Cavaliers were hardly Coastal Division darlings to open the season, but at the time of their first bye week, they stood atop the division and Mike London looked like a coach of the year candidate. Now, with two games left, Virginia needs to win out to extend its season.

A conference crown or a New Year’s Day bowl are out of the question in Chapel Hill, Charlottesville, Pittsburgh and Blacksburg, but there’s still an emphasis on making these final two weeks of the season count for something.

“Since I’ve been playing football, I’ve gone to a championship game or beyond the regular season,” Pitt receiver Tyler Boyd said. “We’ve been practicing all year to get to a bigger stage. So at the end of the year, I always want to continue, and I feel like the other guys want to be a part of what I’m trying to do. We’re striving for what we want.”

Pitt has lost six of its last seven games after starting the year 3-0, and for Boyd, it’s been tough to diagnose the problems. He’s been outstanding, topping 120 receiving yards in three straight games — all Pitt losses. Figuring out what’s gone wrong and finding a recipe for redemption is better done now, Boyd said, than waiting for next year.

“It’s hurt me, and it’s hurt others, but I don’t really know what it is that we’re not able to finish these games out,” Boyd said. “But guys are going to continue to work on their craft and get better. We’re still working on trying to find ways to win those close games.”

At North Carolina, the goals are twofold. The Tar Heels are trying to make a bowl, but they also wrap up with games against Duke and NC State — the team’s two biggest rivals. But like 2013, UNC also has a chance to erase a lot of bad memories by finishing on a high note.

A year ago, North Carolina opened the season 1-5 and was left for dead. It wrapped up the year by winning six of seven, however, and that was a major reason so many pundits liked the Heels to win the Coastal in 2014. That, of course, didn’t happen, but quarterback Marquise Williams wants to rewrite that familiar script.

“When people think things are not going so good, we look back at last year and say, 'Hey, we were in the same predicament, so why can’t we do it two years in a row?'" Williams said. “There are things we wish hadn’t happened and we wish there was a different outcome, but we’re where we are right now and we just want to finish these two games strong and hopefully we can be remembered as the best team in November.”

Virginia’s scenario stands in stark contrast to the struggles at North Carolina. Six weeks ago, the Hoos were the toast of the Coastal, with a narrow loss to UCLA and a win over Louisville inspiring hope that maybe all the talent on the roster would finally lead to a winning season.

Instead, UVa has lost four straight and it now must beat Miami and rival Virginia Tech to get bowl eligible and, possibly, to save London’s job. Beating Miami will be tough, but that final weekend against the Hokies is the biggest domino. Virginia hasn’t beaten Tech in 11 years, and the senior class knows its legacy can be written in Blacksburg.

“That’s the one game guys are ready for no matter what,” safety Anthony Harris said. “It’s a game players and coaches and fans remember. To have an opportunity to get bowl eligible with a win against your rival is always a plus.”

Whether it’s getting a win over a rival, making a bowl or simply finishing on a positive note, with two weeks left in the regular season, motivation isn’t entirely hard to come by for the also-rans of the ACC. It’s just about finding it in the right spots.

“Things don’t get better unless you take initiative and continue to fight,” Harris said. “We started off well, and we want to finish strong and get as many wins as we can. The message for the young guys is to keep fighting. We’re all playing for something different, but also something similar, which is to make the most of what’s in front of us.”

ACC Week 13 predictions

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
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Fortuna: Can Duke handle its first Thursday night game? Can it withstand the very real target on its back that has come from beating UNC two years in a row? Can it clean up its offensive miscues from this past week against Virginia Tech? That last question will matter most Thursday, as the Blue Devils will have to score plenty of points to keep up with QB Marquise Williams and the Heels offense. Turnovers will be key for Duke's defense, but here's guessing that Williams rebounds and delivers after throwing the game-sealing pick in last year's game. UNC 35, Duke 30

Hale: Saturday’s loss was a tough one for the Blue Devils, but it was hardly a game in which Duke was outplayed. David Cutcliffe's team has thrived all season by getting all the little things right -- but against Virginia Tech, Duke looked like a different team. So what’s more likely to happen: Duke falls apart again in a must-win game or it reverts to its status as one of the most fundamentally sound teams in the country? I’m betting on the latter, but I don’t need a leap of faith to get there. The biggest difference against the Hokies was a ferocious Virginia Tech pass rush, and UNC doesn’t bring anything close to that caliber of defense to the table. Anthony Boone will have time to throw, Jamison Crowder will find space downfield, and the Duke running game should have room to run. Duke has no choice but to get a win here, and Cutcliffe will have his team ready to get it done. Duke 31, North Carolina 27

Adelson: There is one stat that illustrates why Louisville will win: Everett Golson has 19 total turnovers in his past seven games. The Louisville defense has forced 25 turnovers this season, one of the best marks in the country. And Golson will be playing with a bum shoulder. So the focus has to be on whether Golson can finally start taking care of the football the way he did earlier in the season, something coach Brian Kelly has stated publicly for weeks now. Notre Dame is coming off an emotional overtime loss; Louisville had a bye to prepare. The Cards are not going to be intimidated, either, having played in big-time atmospheres over the past several years. Louisville 27, Notre Dame 24

Fortuna: Notre Dame was not as good as its 6-0 start indicated. But it's not as bad as this current slump indicates, either. Saturday against Northwestern was the perfect storm of miscues that left the Irish vulnerable to defeat. And while the defense remains banged up, there are some talented newcomers who have slowly grown into their roles. Golson, for all of his giveaways, remains a dynamic quarterback, one who was on the fringe of the Heisman Trophy discussion as recently as two weeks ago. If he can protect the ball -- and if the Irish can go through field goals without any pre-kick issues -- Notre Dame has enough talent to resemble the offense of a month ago and withstand the Cardinals' pressure up front. Notre Dame 31, Louisville 25

Unanimous selections

Virginia Tech at Wake Forest: The Hokies believe the upset of Duke last week will spur a late-season rally, and the good news is Wake Forest should help boost that push. Virginia Tech should become bowl eligible after this game as it is hard to see the Demon Deacons' offense doing enough to beat the Hokies. Virginia Tech 21, Wake Forest 7

Syracuse at Pittsburgh: It has been a rough few weeks for the Panthers, who are fighting to make a bowl game. The Panthers have two of the conference's best offensive players in James Conner and Tyler Boyd, and it will be tough for Syracuse and its struggling offense to match the production of those two. The Panthers defense should get a bit of a break this week after allowing 147 points in their past three games. Pitt 34, Syracuse 24

Boston College at Florida State: Boston College has the ability to annoy and potentially upset FSU because of the Eagles' ground attack and stout defense. However, Jimbo Fisher said the Seminoles are physically ready for the Eagles. It would not be a shock if this game was close -- every FSU game is -- but at this point no one has been able to beat the Noles and that should continue. Florida State 27, Boston College 17

Georgia State at Clemson: The Tigers are playing Georgia State, which is 1-9 with all nine losses coming in a row. No matter who plays quarterback for Clemson, this should be an easy win. Clemson 49, Georgia State 0

Miami at Virginia: The Canes are reeling after a devastating loss to Florida State, and there certainly could be a hangover. The loss proved how far Miami has come and how talented the Canes are, though, and they should be able to beat Virginia. But don't count out the Cavaliers. The defense is good and the offense is getting better. They also had an extra week to prepare and need a win to keep their bowl hopes alive. Miami 24, Virginia 20

Current standings
Shanker: 63-16
Adelson: 62-17
Fortuna: 61-18
Hale: 61-18

ACC morning links

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
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If Clemson coach Dabo Swinney goes to Florida, it might force Steve Spurrier to retire. How would the Ol' Ball Coach handle Swinney, the preferred target of Spurrier's snipes, becoming the coach at the school where Spurrier won a Heisman and national title?

All joking aside, The Clemson Insider is reporting Swinney is on the short list of Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley, although Swinney said he has not spoken to anyone at Florida.

At the very least, it certainly makes sense Swinney's name would at least be brought up, whether in the media or behind closed doors in Gainesville, Florida. He's eliminated much of the underachieving stigma at Clemson, where the fan base expects conference championships and New Year's Day bowl games. He cut his teeth as an offensive assistant and had some of the country's top offenses at Clemson. Defensively, Swinney has coached some poor units but credit him for making a great hire in Brent Venables and turning it around. Clemson ranks No. 2 nationally in total defense.

From a recruiting standpoint, there are not many better recruiters than Swinney, who is only 45. Clemson's 2015 class is ranked No. 3, and Swinney told reporters he's putting together "the best recruiting class we have ever had." That is saying something, too, considering he pulled Deshaun Watson out of the SEC's backyard last cycle and has signed a top-15 class the last four years.

Despite Clemson's campus being six hours from the Florida border, Swinney has been wildly successful recruiting the state. Four Floridians ranked in the ESPN 300 are committed to Clemson, and since 2011 he has received 15 four-star commitments from Florida prospects. Sammy Watkins was one of them.

Of course, with two games left and an Orange Bowl berth still a possibility -- the program's third in four seasons -- Swinney is not entertaining any questions about his name being linked to Florida.

"We are not even going to acknowledge that kind of stuff," he told reporters. "Ya'll know I love Clemson.

"We will see how it all pans out, but that is where our focus is -- great finish, great bowl game, great recruiting class and build Clemson into a College Football Playoff team so we can get to where we want to be."

Breathe easy, Spurrier.

ACC Show: Week 13 replay

November, 19, 2014
Nov 19
10:30
AM ET
Join ACC reporters Andrea Adelson, David Hale, Matt Fortuna and Jared Shanker as they get into the Week 13 schedule, the Coastal race and Florida State's lack of national respect. They'll also answer your questions live on screen.

ACC bowl projections: Week 12

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
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NC State wrapped up bowl eligibility this week, and Virginia Tech can do the same Saturday against Wake Forest, but there’s still some drama left as UNC, Pitt and Virginia scramble for more wins and the shuffle for a spot in the Orange Bowl remains chaotic. Here’s where we’re at in the ACC as of now.

College Football Playoff: Florida State*
Capital One Orange Bowl: Georgia Tech*
Russell Athletic Bowl: Notre Dame*
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Louisville*
Belk Bowl: Clemson*
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Miami*
New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Duke*
Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman: Virginia Tech
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: North Carolina
Quick Lane Bowl: Boston College*
BITCOIN Bowl: NC State*

Note: Notre Dame takes one of the ACC’s bowl slots if it is not invited to a New Year’s Six bowl game.

* Bowl eligible

ACC Upset Watch: Week 13

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
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ACC Upset Watch never takes a week off. Not with the season set to end.

Thursday

North Carolina (5-5, 3-3) at Duke (8-2, 4-2), 7:30 p.m., ESPN. Line: Duke by 6. Both teams need this win badly: The Tar Heels to become bowl eligible; Duke to remain in the hunt for the Coastal Division crown. Duke is going for its third straight win in the series, but the past two years have not been easy -- the Blue Devils have won the games by a combined five points. Now, they only have a short week to prepare following a disappointing loss to Virginia Tech that was marked by uncharacteristic mistakes -- three turnovers, two missed field goals (including the potential game winner) and too many penalties. While Duke should be able to run the ball in this game, Marquise Williams will give the Tar Heels an opportunity to pull the upset. Last week against Pitt, he accounted for four touchdowns and went over 100 yards rushing. Williams leads the team in both rushing and passing and is the only ACC quarterback ranked in the top 10 for rushing yards per game (No. 7) and passing yards per game (No. 2).

Saturday

Louisville (7-3) at Notre Dame (7-3), 3:30 p.m., NBC. Line: Notre Dame by 3.5. The Irish have hit a bit of a rough patch the past few weeks, so this is the perfect time for the Cards to take advantage. Though Will Gardner is out for the season, freshman Reggie Bonnafon has playing experience and that will help. So will having DeVante Parker and Michael Dyer on his side. The Irish have had issues stopping both the run and the pass this season, so those two could be in for another big day. Plus, the Louisville offensive line is coming off its best performance of the season. Defensively, Gerod Holliman could create problems for turnover-prone Everett Golson, and Lorenzo Mauldin could be back, giving the defense a much needed boost. Plus, Louisville has had a week to prepare for this game so you can bet Bobby Petrino will have some new wrinkles for Notre Dame.

Miami (6-4, 3-3) at Virginia (4-6, 2-4), 7 p.m., ESPN2. Line: Miami by 6. After playing such an emotionally draining game against Florida State, Miami has to now face a desperate (and physical) Virginia team while guarding against a letdown. Virginia has played Miami well over the past few seasons, winning three of the last four. The Hoos have to win out to get back to a bowl game, and potentially save coach Mike London's job. One of the big keys for Virginia is not only forcing turnovers, but scoring off them. Miami has turned the ball over 20 times this season so there will be opportunities there for the UVa defense. If Greyson Lambert can limit the mistakes, Virginia will have a chance.

ACC morning links

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
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We’re nearing awards season -- two ACC tight ends were announced as Mackey Award finalists on Monday -- so, of course, the talk turns to the Heisman Trophy.

There’s still plenty of debate over who deserves to win the award, but the Orlando Sentinel notes that it’s unlikely Jameis Winston will repeat.

Winston's off-field issues -- his code of conduct hearing with Florida State has been postponed to Dec. 2 -- are likely to turn off many voters, and his 11 interceptions and declining touchdown totals certainly will disqualify him from a few more ballots.

In ESPN’s latest Heisman watch, Winston checks in at No. 7 -- behind another ACC name, Miami’s Duke Johnson.

That ranking certainly begs a more interesting question than whether Winston will win: Will he even get an invite to New York?

Since the Heisman Trophy began in 1935, only three winners returned for the following season and didn’t finish in the top 5 in voting: Ohio State’s Vic Janowicz in 1951, Navy’s Roger Staubach in 1964 and Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford in 2009. It’s worth noting, too, that it was an injury that kept Bradford from New York -- not performance.

So could Winston become the first healthy returnee to finish outside the top five in 50 years?

If Florida State finishes undefeated, Winston might still earn his trip. He’s obviously gone to battle with a weaker supporting cast this season, his passing yardage is actually up from last season, and he’s been exceptional in leading the Seminoles back from big deficits -- a narrative that might have a less controversial QB as the Heisman frontrunner in most years.

It’s also worth noting that, in the past decade, no Power 5 team that was undefeated leading up to the Heisman presentation failed to have a representative in New York City.

Of course, if there’s one thing we can probably all agree on regarding Winston, it’s that there isn’t too much in the way of precedent. He’s a unique talent and a unique character -- for better or worse. So in his case, history might not be much of a guide.

A few more links for your Tuesday reading ...

ACC Power Rankings: Week 12

November, 16, 2014
Nov 16
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ACC viewer's guide: Week 12

November, 14, 2014
Nov 14
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If the Coastal teams want people to stop making jokes at their expense, then this is their weekend to make a stand.

12 p.m.

No. 19 Clemson at No. 22 Georgia Tech, ESPN, #CLEMvsGT
This game as close to a must-win if either team wants an opportunity to play in the Orange Bowl. As is the case with most every game that involves the Yellow Jackets, it probably will come down to rush and third-down defense. Clemson provides stiff competition in those areas, which makes for an intriguing game within the game. Georgia Tech ranks third in average rushing yards per game and leads the country with a third-down conversion rate of 59 percent, four points better than any other team. Clemson allows an average of only 91 yards on the ground, however, and no team is better than the Tigers at getting off the field on third downs. Just like Georgia Tech on third downs, no team is close to Clemson on third-down defense. If Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson can play the way he did before the injury and keep the Tigers' offense on the field, Clemson has the upper hand.

Virginia Tech at No. 21 Duke, ESPNU, #VTvsDUKE
This does not classify as a game Virginia Tech needs to win to reach bowl eligibility, but it would give the Hokies relief if they can steal a win against the Coastal-leading Blue Devils. Given how the Virginia Tech offense has played over the course of the season and now coupled with a defense that is not playing its best, it will be a tough task to upset Duke. For the Blue Devils, will they be caught looking ahead to a Thursday night matchup against classic rival North Carolina? The Duke offense was not playing to the best of its capabilities last week, so success against Virginia Tech would be a good boost before the UNC game. The Tar Heels know how to light up a scoreboard -- both by scoring points and allowing them.

12:30 p.m.

Pittsburgh at North Carolina, ESPN3, #PITTvsUNC
This is another game in which a win is desperately needed to help keep the hope of a bowl game alive. Both Pitt and UNC are sitting two wins shy of bowl eligibility with three games to go. The Tar Heels have quarterback Marquise Williams, who several teams have had an issue stopping, and Pitt is keeping its secondary together with adhesive at this point. However, the Panthers have James Conner and the Tar Heels don't stop the run well. Or the pass. Or anything really. Ideally, the Panthers would like Conner to keep moving the chains and eat up the clock, but this could end up being a high-scoring affair.

3 p.m.

Wake Forest at North Carolina State, ESPN3, #WAKEvsNCSU
The good news is somebody has to win this game. The bad news is it won't save either team's season, although the Wolfpack can get to six wins and a bowl game with a win. That still is a mild disappointment considering the program's 4-0 start this season. NC State has the potential to score with QB Jacoby Brissett, but the Demon Deacons have an underrated defense. If the Wake offense can sustain a few drives and find the end zone even twice, it could be enough to leave Raleigh with a win.

8 p.m.

No. 3 Florida State at Miami
The message was pretty clear from the selection committee Saturday: If the Seminoles lose, they can kiss the playoffs goodbye. That might have been assumed previously, but now it is understood. This will be a much tougher game for the Seminoles than it looked like it would be just a few weeks ago as Miami is playing the best it has all season. The Hurricanes present matchup problems for Florida State as they are able to run the ball effectively with a variety of backs, including Duke Johnson. The junior could be the country's best running back, and his backup Joseph Yearby is destined for stardom. If Miami controls the clock and piles up the rushing yards, it will be meaningless if it cannot cash in when it reaches the red zone. Otherwise, Miami leaves the door open for Jameis Winston and potentially another wild comeback for the Seminoles. Florida State's opportunity at consecutive national championships could end Saturday, which would close the door on the ACC making it into the inaugural playoff, too.
There's a group message including 16 or 17 of the top quarterbacks in last year's signing class, Miami's Brad Kaaya said, and he chimes in once or twice a week to join the discussion.

They'll talk a little trash, commiserate over tough practices and occasionally, Kaaya said, joke about the ugliness of another team's uniforms. As the 2014 season has progressed, however, the QBs -- along with a host of other top freshmen, particularly in the ACC -- have had a lot of game film to discuss.

[+] EnlargeBrad Kaaya
Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsMiami's Brad Kaaya, who leads the ACC in several key passing categories, cites advanced preparation as the reason true freshmen are making a considerable impact.
Kaaya is one of five true freshman quarterbacks to start games in the ACC this season, and throughout the conference, the Class of 2014 is making an instant impact. From Virginia Tech, where freshmen have ruled the offense, to Florida State, where the newcomers are playing key roles in a title defense, there's a massive youth movement going on around the league.

"Guys are coming in at all positions being prepared a lot earlier," said Kaaya, who leads the ACC in touchdown passes, yards per attempt and passing efficiency. "A lot of the high school offenses around the country are really benefiting quarterbacks. A lot of coaches are starting to adopt a lot of spread formations and pass, pass, pass. That's really preparing guys for college a lot more."

Prepared or not, the QBs have been thrown into the deep end this season.

Kaaya has started every game for Miami. John Wolford has done the same at Wake Forest and been the recipient of the highest sack rate in the country to boot. Reggie Bonnafon is now the starter at Louisville, AJ Long had his shot at Syracuse before getting hurt and this week Deshaun Watson returns from a broken finger to helm the Clemson offense. After nearly upending FSU and throwing six touchdown passes against North Carolina a week later, Watson quickly established himself as one of the most prominent members of the Class of 2014.

"He's to the nth degree of what you want in a quarterback," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "He's a great player, very talented, but he's smart, a natural leader, very humble, he's a giver, he's confident, great instincts. He's got everything."

But it doesn't stop with the quarterbacks.

Six of the top 25 receivers in the ACC are true freshmen. Five of the top 15 rushers are from the Class of 2014. The conference's leading tackler arrived on Virginia's campus just six months ago.

Wolford's top target at Wake Forest is freshman tight end Cam Serigne. Jameis Winston has quickly developed trust in freshman Travis Rudolph as a capable complement to star Rashad Greene. Jon Hilliman's 11 touchdown runs for Boston College rank second in the league -- the most by a true freshman in the ACC in more than a decade.

It's a tribute, in part, to all the young talent entering the league. Of the ACC's top 27 signees from 2014, 22 have seen the field this year -- including 10 of the top 11.

"I just think you see the level of play at every level evolving," said Bo Hines, an early enrollee this spring who starred in the spring game for NC State before emerging as the Wolfpack's most reliable receiver. "Players at high school are becoming more gifted from working out or coaching. I just think you see a closer playing field once you get to the next level."

The transition may not be as steep, but it still takes work and patience.

Before the season began, Frank Beamer was giddy over the impact his 2014 signing class could provide -- in particular, a tandem of receivers with a bright future. It wasn't necessarily clear that future would start immediately, given that Virginia Tech returned three receivers with at least 700 yards from last season, but Isaiah Ford had no doubts he'd be an impact player from Day 1.

Last spring and over the summer, Ford worked with his high school coaches on strength training, conditioning, route running and any other skills he thought needed refining to play with the big boys at the next level. By the time he got to Blacksburg, he was already comfortable with what Virginia Tech's coaches wanted to see from him.

"One of the biggest things coming in is I knew that's what I wanted to do so I prepared myself all summer," Ford said. "So when I stepped on the field for the first day, I had every intention of playing right away."

[+] EnlargeTravis Rudolph
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsTrue freshman Travis Rudolph has gained the trust of Jameis Winston and the defending national champion Florida State Seminoles.
Ford leads the Hokies with 41 catches, 522 yards and five touchdowns this year, but his fellow true freshman Cam Phillips has been nearly as good. Overall, 60 percent of Virginia Tech's receiving yards and 67 percent of its rushing yards have come from either redshirt or true freshmen.

But as physically fit as the group arrived, Beamer said the key is that the kids are smart, too.

"I think that goes hand in hand with being able to play early and play at a high level," Beamer said.

It's also about earning respect quickly. Mistakes are inevitable, Ford said, but having a patient coaching staff and a strong work ethic goes a long way.

For Kaaya, it's a little different. By virtue of his position, he's expected to command a huddle, but that's not always easy when the guys around him have been through a lot more battles.

"I'm a freshman who just got here and hasn't proved himself. There are guys in the huddle who have kids and are married and are five years older than me," Kaaya said. "So for me, it was just working hard, showing guys I'm a hard worker, practicing well and making good decisions."

So far, that hasn't been nearly as big a problem as fans might have expected for Kaaya or a host of his fellow newcomers.

It's a credit to the quality of talent entering the ACC, but also to the players making the most of their opportunities, Hines said. Playing time is easier to win for true freshmen these days, but it's not won with talent alone.

"My goal was to be the most reliable guy on the field," Hines said. "You want to be the guy that they want to throw to on third down or clutch situations during the game, and I've always worked on being that guy."
videoCHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- John Risher watched construction begin on the new football stadium in the town where he lived, and being a curious, energetic young man, he could not waste a perfect opportunity to get his hands a little dirty.

He and his friends took full advantage of the vast, open lot and played war games in the dirt, the ultimate "boys will be boys" outing in what would become the ultimate "boys will be boys" venue.

Risher had no idea that a few years later, he would be standing in the same spot with bleachers around him and grass underneath him. Incredibly, Risher played for the Virginia football team when Scott Stadium opened.

It was 1931.

Before you start calculating his age, Risher has more stories to tell. Stories that go further back.

He still remembers the first time he saw Virginia play from an apartment building by the old stadium, Lambeth Field. Circa 1920.

"I climbed up there, looked out the window and watched my first game," he said. "I don't think we won."

That game sparked an interest in athletics and a love for Virginia that has lasted 95 years. Risher still watches Virginia football at Scott Stadium from a seat inside the press box, where he works on the stat crew.

To read Andrea Adelson's full story, click here.

ACC Show: Week 12 (2 ET)

November, 12, 2014
Nov 12
10:30
AM ET
Join ESPN.com's ACC reporters Andrea Adelson, Matt Fortuna and Jared Shanker as they discuss weather Miami has a shot at upsetting Florida State and the still- crazy Coastal Division.

ACC bowl projections: Week 11

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
8:10
PM ET
With losses in Week 11, we’re assured that Syracuse and Wake Forest won’t be in the bowl picture this season. Notre Dame also fell for the second time, which hurts its shot at a New Year’s Six bowl, meaning the Irish likely will grab one of the ACC slots instead. NC State (needs one win) along with Pitt, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Virginia (each needs two wins) remain in the mix with just three weeks left to go in the regular season.

College Football Playoff: Florida State*
Capital One Orange Bowl: Clemson*
Russell Athletic Bowl: Notre Dame*
TaxSlayer Bowl: Georgia Tech*
Belk Bowl: Duke*
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Louisville*
New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Miami*
Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman: Virginia Tech
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: Boston College*
Quick Lane Bowl: NC State

* bowl-eligible teams
After a month sidelined with a broken finger, Deshaun Watson will return as Clemson’s starting quarterback this week against Georgia Tech, according to Dabo Swinney.

That’s good news for the Tigers, of course. In the past four games, played with Cole Stoudt at QB for all but a quarter, they managed just seven offensive touchdowns and averaged just 4.54 yards per play (113th nationally during that span).

Stoudt was solid in the win over Wake Forest on Thursday, but his numbers as the starter weren’t great overall. Watson’s were much more impressive. But the timing of the two quarterbacks’ work is of note, too.

Here’s who Stoudt took the majority of his snaps against, with their rank in total defense versus FBS teams in parentheses: Georgia (21), Louisville (6), Boston College (25), Syracuse (22) and Wake Forest (57).

And here’s Watson: Florida State (47), North Carolina (125), NC State (79).

Next up for Watson? That’d be Georgia Tech, which ranks 77th in total D.

At the end of the day, the difference between Stoudt and Watson is still pretty clear though, and Watson’s athleticism has been a huge missing ingredient for the Tigers. Chad Morris has called a much different offense this year than he’d like, but Watson allows the playbook to be opened a bit, and Georgia Tech’s more accommodating defense only adds a little icing to the cake.

While Watson will be back, Robert Smith’s targeting penalty was upheld and that doesn’t make Swinney too happy.

A few other links…

It’s been a losing season for Syracuse, but the veterans on defense have been worthy of praise, writes Syracuse.com.

Virginia’s loss in Tallahassee on Saturday felt awfully familiar, writes The Daily Progress.

It was hard to find many silver linings in Boston College’s loss to Louisville, writes BC Interruption.

FSU fans are fond of calling Sun Life Stadium “Doak South” because Florida State has had its way with Miami there. The Hurricanes are hoping to put an end to that this week, writes the Miami Herald.

Reggie Bonnafon’s role in Louisville’s offense was bigger than anyone expected against BC, writes The Courier Journal.

Chad Voytik has been making progress thanks to some strong preparation, writes the Post-Gazette.

It looks like Dalvin Cook will be on the field for Florida State when it takes on Miami, writes Tomahawk Nation.

FSU legend Ron Sellers doesn’t mind that Rashad Greene is closing in on his records, writes the Orlando Sentinel.

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