Way-Too-Early 2013 ACC Football Power Rankings

Can Georgia Tech QB Vad Lee Lead the Yellow Jackets Back to the ACC Title Game?

Can Georgia Tech QB Vad Lee Lead the Yellow Jackets Back to the ACC Title Game?

It’s been a couple months since we last checked in on the ACC’s football teams, and in that time, we’ve been able to digest recent recruits, coaching changes and the new directions of each squad. And with spring practices in full swing, chances are we’ll get to know even more over the coming weeks. Until then, here’s where the ACC‘s 14 (15) teams stand in our way-too-early assessment:

1. Clemson Tigers (Last: 1): Clemson’s offseason focus is obviously on the defensive side of the ball, as they look to build upon the positives of last year. While Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins will be the motors that guide the success of the offense, it really is that defensive unit that will guide just how far this team can go, and if they can achieve their ultimate goal (a national title).

2. Louisville Cardinals (Last: 2): Far too many players are coming back for the defending Sugar Bowl champs to accept anything but another trip to a BCS game. But yet, it seems far too many critics see them doing just that. If coach Charlie Strong can keep that chip on the Cardinals’ shoulders, we may just be looking at a darkhorse contender for the BCS title game.

3. Florida State Seminoles (Last: 3): Can they effectively replace EJ Manuel at the quarterback position? That’s really the linchpin of FSU’s year, and the key question this spring as well. If they can come out of spring with a great handle on who their starting passer is, it means the offense also progresses faster come August, too.

4. Miami (FL) Hurricanes (Last: 4): Too much returning talent on offense for the ‘Canes to go anywhere but up. And while the continuing off-the-field nonsense certainly doesn’t help matters for this group, it could also work to their advantage. With new offensive coordinator James Coley now officially plugged in, I’d highly expect results to come in the form of big season from key playmakers Duke Johnson and Stephen Morris.

5. North Carolina Tar Heels (Last: 6): Technically, the Tar Heels are your defending Coastal division champ, so expectations should be pretty high right off the bat. But as year two of Larry Fedora’s offense takes shape, this team does have a pretty clear shot to challenge for the conference title. The difference-maker may end up being the defense, though, which struggled at times last season, and must replace several key starters.

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ACC Football Head Coaching Hot Seats 2013

Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson is One of Several ACC Coaches on Tentative Ground Right Now

Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson is One of Several ACC Coaches on Tentative Ground Right Now

We’re just jumping into spring practice (you can look at every ACC team’s previews here), but for all 14 (15) squads, this is the start of the 2013 season. And for head coaches, this is where the year’s evaluations start; from their players, the school administrations, the fans and the boosters that can easily pull the plug on their position. While some of the ACC‘s head coaches are firmly entrenched where they’re at, there are also plenty that find themselves in precarious situations. Regarding both, we provide a quick evaluation of where all of them stand, new coaches and all.

Completely Safe (5)

Dabo Swinney, Clemson (sixth year): Swinney has brought the Tigers to an extended period of success they haven’t seen in decades, winning the ACC, becoming a perennial top-20 program and taking home a huge victory in the 2012 Chick-fil-a Bowl. The only things left? Consistently beating South Carolina and winning a national championship.

David Cutcliffe, Duke (sixth year): After getting Duke to their first bowl game since 1994, it appears that Cutcliffe can do no wrong in Durham. Of course, now the question begs whether he can keep it up. So long as he can consistently win between five and seven games, Cutcliffe will be just fine at Duke.

Charlie Strong, Louisville (fourth year): Strong had a real opportunity to leave this past offseason, yet chose to stick around at Louisville to finish what he started. While there’s always the threat he could head to the SEC, Strong’s ability to rebuild this program and contend on a national stage (see: Sugar Bowl) have him here long-term if he wants to be.

Larry Fedora, North Carolina (second year): Just a small sample size for Fedora thus far, but in his one season, he’s already brought UNC to a place of far more prominence than they’ve been in a decade. He’ll get several seasons to continue implementing his system, but if trends continue, he’ll be fine in Chapel Hill.

Paul Chryst, Pittsburgh (second year): Another second-year coach, Chryst has seen some results after a season at the helm, but it appears he’s set to grow the program further after (especially after a nice recruiting haul this spring). If they take a step back, questions may start, but he’s got plenty of runway to work with.

Fine for Now (4)

Jimbo Fisher, Florida State (fourth year): Expectations are always high at FSU, so it’s no surprise Fisher sits here, despite winning 12 games and an ACC title last year. Now, of course, it’ll be interesting to see if he can live up year-to-year. If Fisher can’t contend more than every few seasons, patience will grow short very quickly around Florida State.

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ACC 2013 Spring Football Preview: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

The 2013 Season Could Be Quarterback Vad Lee's Year, Especially if Spring Goes Well

The 2013 Season Could Be Quarterback Vad Lee’s Year, Especially if This Spring Goes Well

As the ACC‘s spring practices get under way, we’ll be previewing the big storylines for each of the league’s 14 (15, in this case) teams. Check back on weekdays for what to look out for during your school’s spring practices and spring game.

Team: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Spring Practice Start Date: March 25

Spring Game Date: April 19

Has the triple-option worked for Georgia Tech? Or better question: has Paul Johnson worked for Georgia Tech? After a year in which the Yellow Jackets finished just 6-6 during the regular season, this may just be the last shot for Johnson. With a miniscule recruiting class walking in the door, it won’t be easy. But responding to concern from fans, I’d assume this team must win at least eight games for him to truly feel safe come the offseason. Is that doable, though? This spring sets us on the right track to knowing a bit more.

Following a season where the ‘Wreck scored nearly 34 points per game, it’s hard to believe they had any issues at all on the offensive side of the ball. However, they also failed to score more than 21 five separate times, and (again) without a viable passing game in 2012, the team was an open target for opponents willing to stack the box against the run. Some of that may be due more to graduating QB Tevin Washington than the offense itself, but it’s likely we’ll see a transition period for this season as well. While Vad Lee and Synjyn Days both saw snaps at the quarterback position, it’s questionable which player (if either) can handle the full-time job. Like last year, there’s potential Johnson trots out two separate starters (both Lee and Days), though from a stability standpoint, one wold assume they’d have to choose eventually. The Yellow Jackets averaged just 129 passing yards per game last season (119th in the FBS); a true waste of talent when you’re fielding strong passers like Lee, or quality receivers like Jeff Greene. The team returns plenty of players who were involved in last year’s offense (they had 17 unique rushers and 14 unique receivers), so the pieces should be in place to hit the ground running this spring and find a more efficient way to use everyone’s talents.

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2012 ACC Football Season Recap: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Georgia Tech's Up-and-Down Season Leaves Everyone in Search of a True Verdict; Positive or Negative?

Georgia Tech’s Up-and-Down Season Leaves Everyone in Search of a True Verdict; Positive or Negative?

Team: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

W-L: 7-7 (5-3)

Postseason: 21-7 Hyundai Sun Bowl win over USC

Top Offensive Performer: Tevin Washington, QB

Top Defensive Performer: Jeremiah Attaochu, LB

It’s hard to get a handle on just what happened during Georgia Tech’s roller coaster season. After starting the year with a close loss to then-no. 16 Virginia Tech, hopes were high in Atlanta. But soon after, the wheels came off and three straight losses would land them at a very disappointing 2-4 record. Three in-conference wins in a row and two postseason bans would catapult them into the ACC Championship Game somehow, but not before they were embarrassed by rival Georgia. Though they lost the ACC title game to Florida State, they’d aptly put up a fight, before ending the odd season with a dominating win over USC (preseason no. 1 team in the country). Have you followed all that so far?

Georgia Tech’s offense performed mostly as advertised in 2012; running the ball using Paul Johnson’s triple-option, while throwing it sparingly. The group’s 33.6 points per game (33rd in the FBS) were similar to last season (34.3), but admittedly, that doesn’t tell the whole story. In the 2012 season preview I wrote up for Georgia Tech, I emphasized that although their run-first offense certainly worked, there was a ceiling applied unless the team learned how to pass with efficiency. Not surprisingly after losing star receiver Stephen Hill to the NFL Draft last year, the passing numbers did go down (by 14 yards per game). It should also be noted that departing senior QB Tevin Washington — while a natural for the triple-option — is hardly a “passer” by any FBS standards. In his four years at Tech, he’s managed just 21 touchdown passes and 50.7-percent completions. His passing yardage diminished by 400 yards despite playing in one additional game this season, though it would be remiss to leave out his reduced playing time, too. Running the ball, however, was truly his forte. The senior ran for 20 scores this year, giving him 38 on his career. He was always more comfortable advancing the ball on the ground, which is what made him (and the Tech offense) overly consistent during his career, too.

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Hyundai Sun Bowl Preview: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets vs. USC Trojans

Georgia Tech Must Throw the Ball Effectively If They Have Any Shot Against USC

Georgia Tech Must Throw the Ball Effectively If They Have Any Shot Against USC

Neither of these teams should be here. USC, the top team in the nation by many preseason measures, was not supposed to lose any games — let alone five. Georgia Tech, left for dead at 3-5, had no business getting to the ACC title game, let alone playing the Trojans in a New Year’s Eve bowl game. And yet, here we are, pitting two flawed teams against one another in a battle to see who ends 2012 more disappointed than the other.

Bowl Game: Hyundai Sun Bowl

Location: El Paso, Tex.

First Year: 1935

2012 Participants: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (6-7) vs. USC Trojans (7-5)

Last Meeting: USC over Georgia Tech, 23-6 (1973)

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Georgia Tech (previous bowl game: 30-27 loss vs. Utah in 2012 Hyundai Sun Bowl)

We all saw the script for Georgia Tech’s success play out during the ACC Championship Game against Florida State: Pass the ball with some sort of effectiveness, and continue running their triple-option. The issue then, as it will be again against USC, is figuring out who should be delivering those passes. Tech had three different quarterbacks (Tevin Washington, Synjyn Days and Vad Lee) throw the ball against FSU, and while they had 118 yards through the air, they also completed just five of 16 attempts with two interceptions. Ideally, they should be able to establish a bit more consistency against a USC defense that ranked just 71st in the FBS against the pass, and bump that completion percentage up to somewhere around 50 percent. From a defensive standpoint, recent injuries to key Trojans have flipped the script a bit for the Yellow Jackets. Quarterback Matt Barkley is out following his injury against UCLA back in November, and based on recent reports, it appears star receiver Marquise Lee is also out of commission. Suddenly, Georgia Tech’s focus is now stopping the running game, which could very well carry the load for USC. Neither Silas Redd nor Curtis McNeal have seen all that many carries this season (just 263 between them), so they’ll basically be coming at this game with fresh legs. The Wreck’s run defense was middle-of-the-road this year (47th nationally), but benefited from their offense’s own ball-control style. Teams ran the ball on them just 450 times all year, and still managed to rack up 4.27 yards per carry. If USC dictates the pace, it’s something to watch out for.

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ACC Championship Game Preview & Prediction: Florida State vs. Georgia Tech

EJ Manuel and Florida State Are Looking For Their First ACC Title Since 2005

The final ACC contest of the season pits Atlantic Division champion Florida State (10-2) (7-1) against Coastal Division champ Georgia Tech (6-6) (5-3). While FSU has sat atop the conference standings virtually all season, it’s been a long road back from the bottom for the Yellow Jackets, who arrive in Charlotte due to Miami and North Carolina‘s respective postseason ineligibility. These two teams have not faced each other since 2009, a 49-44 barnburner won by Tech. But trust that there’s no love lost here, and both are anxious to earn a trip to the Orange Bowl.

Offense

Florida State possesses more offensive weapons than any ACC team not named Clemson, and yet, their production has been sporadic all season. Yes, they put up 41.3 points per game, but keep in mind that number’s padded by two games against FCS opponents, too. Quarterback EJ Manuel also may have fallen off from his Heisman form earlier in the season, however, when he’s given the reigns to really run this offense (not always the case), he usually impresses. In a season full of positive growth and noted accuracy, last week’s four-turnover debacle must be quickly pushed out of his mind if FSU hopes to leave this game as ACC champs. The best way to beat Georgia Tech is putting them behind early, and with Manuel’s arm, the ‘Noles are more than capable of doing so.

On the Tech side, it’s all about involving the passing game. The biggest criticism with Paul Johnson’s offense has been predictability. Every defense knows they’re going to run the triple-option, so the game-plan hones in on it, and dismisses the pass. Neither Tevin Washington or Vad Lee have the best arms, either, which means they’ll have to pick their spots and throw when the defense gets too comfortable defending the run. As I’ve maintained before, efficiency when throwing the ball — even if it’s just 10-12 times per game — is what makes the triple-option most effective. The Wreck’s struggled with that concept all year, unfortunately, which doesn’t bode well for them here. Advantage: Florida State

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ACC Football 2012 Power Rankings: Week 14

Tajh Boyd and the Clemson Offense Were No Match for South Carolina, as the Gamecocks Embarrassed the Tigers Once Again

With the regular season officially over, we check back in with the ACC’s teams to assess the damage of 2012. The good: two teams won ten games during the regular season, just one team won less than four games, and 10 teams (could be 11 if Pitt wins this weekend) won at least six games. The bad: No team won more than 10 games, two of the league’s top five teams are ineligible, and eight teams (out of 14) won between five and seven games. Oh, and Maryland decided to leave. Which is bad.

1. Florida State Seminoles (10-2) (7-1) (LW: 1): Favored against archrival Florida, the Seminoles had a very manageable game at home and seemed poised for their first 11-win regular season in years. But then they struggled out the gate, and closed just as poorly en route to a 37-26 defeat. As a team, FSU looked outmatched everywhere but the defensive line, and quarterback EJ Manuel‘s four turnovers were the stuff of a worst-case nightmare. They’ll be favored again in the ACC Championship Game, and under no circumstances can the conference really afford for them to lose.

2. Clemson Tigers (10-2) (7-1) (LW: 2): Clemson’s BCS dreams are all but dead after they came up very short against South Carolina and its vaunted defensive front. The Tigers impressive offense was shut down in a way no one had really figured out up until Saturday, and the result exposed a team that can’t run the ball with consistency, nor can they manage to stop anyone on defense either. If Clemson hopes to take the next step and become a truly elite program under coach Dabo Swinney, they need to take full advantage of opportunities against top-tier competition. They had just three games against teams with winning records all season, and went 1-2 in those contests, while being outscored 124-116.

3. Miami (FL) Hurricanes (7-5) (5-3) (LW: 5): It’s unfortunate for the conference to see Miami sit out another postseason, but if the alternative is seeing an even better, more experienced version of this group next year, it may be the best option for everyone. In line to play in its first ACC title game, we miss out on a ‘Canes/’Noles matchup this year in exchange for what’s hopefully many more to come. Anyone who watched Stephen Morris and Duke Johnson in action this season knows there are good times ahead, so long as the defense starts to clean up its act.

4. North Carolina Tar Heels (8-4) (5-3) (LW: 4): As the year’s wore on, we’ve caught glimpses of what this Heels offense could truly become under Larry Fedora and his spread attack. But on Saturday, quarterback Bryn Renner really delivered on that potential by putting up over 300 yards and five touchdowns. The junior’s obviously taken a bit more time to adapt to the new system than initially expected, but all in all, you still can’t argue with 3,356 yards and 28 scores. Expect even better production next year, as Fedora really turns him loose.

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