SQ ACC Preview
Conference Champion: Florida State 13-1 (8-0). Defeated Georgia Tech in ACC championship game 37-35.
Coach of the Year: Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech
After two straight seven-win seasons, Paul Johnson's Yellow Jackets broke through with a 11-3 record (6-2 in conference play). The 2014 Jackets led all ACC teams in total offense, rushing yards, rushing yards per game, points, and points per game. This came a year after a mediocre 7-6 season. The vast one-year improvement, not to mention the fact that it was the first time in five years Georgia Tech won at least 10 games, gave Johnson his 3rd ACC Coach of the Year award.
Offensive Player of the Year: RB James Conner, Pittsburgh
This is no surprise. Conner was an absolute beast for the Panthers and emerged as one of the best running backs in college football. He led all ACC runners in rushing yards (1,765 yards) and touchdowns (26, no other runner was even close to him in that category). He had seven 100+ rushing yard games, six 150+ rushing yard games, three 200+ rushing yard games, and one 250+ rushing yard game.
Defensive Player of the Year: DE Vic Beasley Jr., Clemson
Beasley anchored the nation's top ranked defense by leading all ACC defensive players in sacks (12.0) and tackles for loss (23). He was an intimidating presence for opposing offenses despite constantly being double and triple-teamed.
Three Memorable Games:
1. Florida State 23 vs. Clemson 17 OT, Sep. 20th-Without starting QB Jameis Winston who was suspended one game for shouting a derogatory, sexist remark, the Seminoles managed to escape the Clemson Tigers in OT to move up to 3-0 in their season. Backup QB Sean Maguire threw for 304 yards, completed 54% of his passes, and threw a costly interception that gave the Tigers the ball in FSU territory with just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter. Just when things started to look bleak for the Noles, Clemson RB C.J. Davidson fumbled at the FSU 18 to give Florida State the ball back. Florida State RB Karlos Williams would eventually seal the deal for the Noles in OT with a 12-yard touchdown run.
2. Georgia Tech 27 vs. Virginia Tech 24, Sep. 20th-The Jackets overcame a 16-10 halftime deficit and a 24-17 fourth quarter deficit to defeat the Hokies by a score of 27-24. Georgia Tech QB Justin Thomas threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to WR DeAndre Smelter to tie the game at 24 and Harrison Butker kicked a 24-yard field goal to give the Hokies the victory.
3. NC State 24 vs. Syracuse 17, Nov. 1st-In the Wolfpack's first ACC win in nearly two years and first road win since 2010, DE Pharoah McKever returned an 82-yard interception to give spark NC State to the victory. The Orange were up 14-9 and were in Wolfpack territory late in the third quarter when QB A.J. Long threw an interception to McKever that would prove costly in the end.
Looking Ahead to 2015:
Conference Favorite: Clemson
The Noles lost 11 players to the 2015 NFL draft. The biggest loss by far was Jameis Winston, who was selected first overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Notre Dame transfer Everett Golson is likely going to be FSU's new starting QB, but how well will he fit in to Jimbo Fisher's system? That remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the Clemson Tigers are looking to win their first conference championship since 2011 and there's a very good chance of that happening. Quarterback Deshaun Watson should likely emerge as a Heisman favorite. He had extremely solid stats for the Tigers as he passed for 1,466 yards in eight games, with 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Mike Williams, who had 1,030 receiving yards (leading all Clemson receivers) and nine touchdowns, is returning and poised to have an even better year. Second leading receiver Artavis Scott (965 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in 2014) is also returning. The WR duo of Williams and Scott will be dangerous for opposing defenses and help Watson achieve a very memorable year for the Tigers. Although they lost a few key pieces on defense (particularly Vic Beasley Jr.), they should have just enough firepower on offense to claim their first ACC conference crown in four years.
Conference Dark Horse: Georgia Tech
It's weird calling Georgia Tech a dark horse considering they're coming off an 11-win season. The reason why I've labelled them as such is because they're not getting nearly enough respect, especially when compared to other ACC squads like Florida State and Clemson. Justin Thomas, one of the nation's most electrifying dual-threat QBs (1,719 passing yards, 18 passing touchdowns, 1,086 rushing yards, and eight rushing touchdowns in 2014) is returning and so is leading receiver DeAndre Smelter (715 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 2014). These stats are not the most eye-popping, but Georgia Tech is the real deal and could have another double-digit winning season.
Most Improved Team: Miami
Miami is coming off a disappointing 6-7 season, but there's reason to believe that they'll be better in 2015. QB Brad Kaaya won ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year, throwing for 3,198 yards with 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He will be joined by a pair of two very solid four-star freshmen in running back Mark Walton and wide receiver Lawrence Cager. In addition, Miami's 2015 schedule is pretty favorable. Nebraska, Cincinnati, Florida State, Clemson, Duke, and Georgia Tech will not be easy, but they are all beatable.
Freshmen to Watch:
1. Josh Sweat, WDE, Florida State-Sweat was considered the top high school prospect until he fell victim to a major injury knee injury. But even with these injury concerns, the weak defensive end provides the Noles with an immediate boost in their front seven. Sweat was an intimidating presence for High School QBs; he racked up 22 sacks, 31 tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles in 2013.
2. Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson-Wilkins, the 6th ranked DT recruit in the nation, gives Clemson's front seven an added boost. In his senior season, he tallied 71 total tackles and 22 tackles for loss. He also had an outstanding performance in the 2015 Under Armour All-America Game where he recorded a sack and blocked an extra point and returned it for a score.
3. Johnny Frasier, RB, NC State-There's no guarantee that the former FSU commit will become the Wolfpack's primary runner, but if he does, look out. He was a monster in high school, rushing for 3,042 rushing yards and 45 rushing touchdowns in 2013.
Offensive Player of the Year Prediction: Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
I'm pretty high on Watson. He's got a cannon of an arm and his two primary targets (Williams and Scott) should help him out tremendously. In limited action in 2014, he had 14 touchdowns and two interceptions (as mentioned before). In addition those overall numbers, he had a very solid four game stretch in which he passed for 1,122 yards and 11 touchdown passes to go along with just one interception. As of now, he is my early favorite to win the Heisman.
Defensive Player of the Year Prediction: Kendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
Fuller anchored the ACC's fourth best secondary with a conference leading 15 passes broken up. He was tied for first in passes defended (15 passes broken up, two interceptions) and is widely regarded as one of the best corners in the nation. With Gerod Holliman off to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Fuller has a chance to become the ACC's premier defensive back.
Three Games to Watch:
1. Clemson vs. Florida State, Nov. 7th-This is a game that everybody should have marked on their calendars. Florida State and Clemson are hands down the two best teams in the ACC. With Winston now gone from Florida State and Watson being Clemson's QB, this could be Clemson's game to lose, but I would not bet on it. Jimbo Fisher-led teams should never be counted out. Let's not forget that Fisher's record without Winston is 32-10, so it isn't a guarantee that, just because Winston is gone, the Noles will be much worse. Clemson will need to put in an excellent all-around performance in order to earn their first win over the Noles since 2011.
2. Clemson vs. Georgia Tech, Oct. 10th-This should be another good one. Can Georgia Tech repeat their magic from last year? We'll see, but I certainly think so. After getting pounded by the Jackets 28-6 last year, the Tigers will be looking for some revenge in the 2015 rematch. This game could mean a lot to Clemson if they stay in the thick of the playoff race.
3. Miami vs. Virginia Tech, Oct. 17th-It will be interesting to see how Miami QB Brad Kaaya continues to evolve as he'll have to eventually face one of the best secondaries in the ACC in Virginia Tech. Kendall Fuller is a beast and can strike fear in a quarterback's eyes, so Kaaya might try to avoid throwing to him. This game might be a bit meaningless considering both of these teams were mediocre last year but hey, teams always bounce back, right?