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2014 College Football Preview: The ACC

Can anyone besides the Seminoles stop the Seminoles from making a repeat run at the national title?

With the 2014 college football campaign looming and the preseason in full swing, let’s take one last whip around the FBS to top off our talking points, shall we? Previously: the SEC. Next up: the ACC, where even more than usual, it’s Florida State and everybody else.

Click here for more from our 2014 preview.

Spotlight Team(s): Florida State (and Clemson)

Fresh off stressing just how devilishly difficult it is for a given college football team to go undefeated once, let alone in consecutive campaigns, we find ourselves staring at a Florida State squad that’s so bursting at every seam with every flavor of talent1 that it may actually be properly equipped to bull through all challengers on accumulated wealth and strength alone. Right?2

Maaaaaaybe. Some things to remember, apart from that whole business about the near-impossibility of repeat runs: Like fellow BCS title game participant Auburn, Florida State enjoyed some extraordinary luck last season; and as with Auburn, it’s not a slight to say so. The Seminoles’ luck was of a different strain, though: Last year’s FSU team had depth issues, glaring ones, that were remarkably never exposed.3 And that unassailable monster squad, keeper of the final crystal football, is now missing [deep breath] its defensive coordinator, its star defensive tackle, a pair of starting linebackers, a pair of starting defensive backs, two stellar receivers, two running backs, and a center. Plus, sooner or later, on law of averages alone, this team’s got to have a bad day.

Now clutch those pearls, and look at who’s left: Reigning Heisman Trophy–winning quarterback Jameis Winston enters the second year of his Tallahassee reign amid stratospheric expectations that he seems perfectly capable of hurdling. Remember wondering last year what it might look like if he had a really bad day on the field? Us, too, and we’re still waiting to find out. What will transpire in Winston’s redshirt sophomore season is perhaps the most fascinating discussion of 2014. Fully formed as he appeared last year, he’s not invulnerable, and his opponents now have a full season of tape to pick apart. But — and here we’re going to quote directly from our notes — “everybody around him is so big and good at everything.”

Florida State loses all the guys mentioned above, yet still returns Winston, tailback Karlos Williams, tight end Nick O’Leary, receiver Rashad Greene, four O-line starters, three talented D-backs (P.J. Williams, Jalen Ramsey, and Ronald Darby), and a top-notch kicker in Roberto Aguayo. History tells us this team will probably drop one, and may drop a couple, but the Noles look better suited to not do that than any other team in the Power Five.

So monstrous do the Seminoles appear heading into 2014 that we have to go straight into addressing Clemson, whose existence at the moment seems unfairly defined by the gulf separating it from the top team in the division. Florida State looks so good right now that, just for a minute, it feels profoundly unfair to Clemson’s very fine football team. (That minute ends when reminded that it is not, after all, called feelingsball, and that an Orange Bowl victory is both a lovely consolation prize and a refreshing grudge victory against the Orange Bowl itself.) Last year’s meeting between the Atlantic Division’s top teams was the most brutal dispatching we’d ever seen in real life. This year’s Clemson squad travels to Tallahassee in Week 4, sans NFLers Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, and Martavis Bryant. Things could get gross.

But! This Tigers team is very neatly set up to look wobbly early against most of the worst of its schedule, ride a killer defense (linemen Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett both return for their senior seasons, praise be) roughshod through a mostly creamy middle slate, and emerge in November, shiny and hardened into something quite nasty. Clemson’s disasters, when it has them, are spectacular, but the leveling of that program floor under Dabo Swinney’s staff carries on. We’re already looking ahead to the Thanksgiving weekend rivalry clash with South Carolina.

And lest we forget, this is the ACC. Waiting for the goblins who infest league play to grab some team by the ankles at the most inopportune moment has historically been a not-unreliable strategy.

ACC Story Time

Three absorbing plotlines to follow into the mists in 2014.

By the Time You Swear You’re His. After adding Pitt and Syracuse in 2013, the ACC has absorbed one more program to offset losing Maryland to the Big Ten, and that new team also happens to have a new coach. You might have heard of him. Bobby Petrino’s Louisville squad opens 2014 in a plum spot, hosting Miami on Labor Day in prime time, and ticket sales are breaking records. Anything could happen in that Monday opener; following that, the Cardinals get Murray State, Virginia, Florida International, and Wake Forest to round out September, fertile time in which Petrino can mold his latest quarterbacking project4 (more on him in a bit). The Cardinals’ first really scary game doesn’t come around until their October 11 trip to Clemson, and they get Florida State at home. You Coastal partisans aching to see the Atlantic Division suffer from the nigh-unbreakable parity you’re experiencing now? The next couple of years could please you!

Will Duke Johnson Skip a Beat? Miami’s star positive-yardage engine, who set freshman and program records for rushing and kick returns, respectively, in 2012, was already up to 920 yards last season the night his sophomore campaign ended at Florida State on November 2. After managing three triple-digit rushing performances in his first seven games,5 Johnson recorded 97 yards in Tallahassee before suffering a gruesome ankle fracture. He shifted his focus to upper-body workouts almost immediately and is back at full strength. Position matchup to watch in Week 1: Johnson, in his first game back, versus a Louisville defense suffering from severe attrition, playing under a new defensive coordinator, and transitioning to a new scheme.

The Syndicated Division. The DEFENDING DIVISION CHAMPION DUKE BLUE DEVILS6 don’t have the sunniest hopes of prevailing in the Coastal churn, but as with seriously, just about every other team in the Coastal, Duke’s path is manageable. The 2013 quarterback tandem is no more, following Brandon Connette’s departure for Fresno, but quarterback Anthony Boone, receiver Jamison Crowder, and running back Josh Snead should rack up plenty of pinball yards. Defensively, [that shrug emoticon everybody but us knows how to type].7

Duke and David Cutcliffe celebrate after beating Miami

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Everything else, we feel like we’ve seen before. Who the hell knows who’s quarterbacking Miami? (Without looking, we’re going to guess it ends up being somebody named Kyle.) Will Virginia Tech string together a respectable enough season to steer around this year’s edition of All Right, Somebody Has to Fire Frank Beamer? (Definitely. September is dicey for the Hokies, with games against Ohio State and East Carolina in Weeks 2 and 3, but the schedule becomes so ridiculously accommodating after that, we’d almost venture to suggest that conjuring some kind of scoring offense doesn’t even matter.8 Of greater concern for Hokiedom: pervasive attrition on the defensive front between last year and this.) And since today may be the last time we discuss Virginia football for a while, can we go ahead and get in our annual plea to please resurrect this horrifying Heffalump of victory? Thanks so much.

Who’s That Guy? Florida State Running Back Karlos Williams!

Who’s That Guy? is an orientation tool for use in college football’s vast landscape, and is filmed in front of a live studio audience.

Who Is He? Florida State safety turned running back Karlos Williams.

Where Is He From? Davenport, Florida.

Years Played: Two years plus one game on defense and special teams; one year minus one game on offense.

Follow the Bouncing Ball: Recruited as a safety out of Ridge Community High School, Williams flipped over to offense during FSU’s bye week last season in an attempt to bolster depth at running back. Even sharing carries with James Wilder and Devonta Freeman, Williams recorded 730 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, and Wilder and Freeman are off to the pros. Wonder what’ll happen now?

Bio Tidbit: Williams has a young son and daughter:

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Social Media Presence: Williams does maintain a Twitter presence, @Karlos_Sr, but it’s too late to go looking now. As of 2012, all Seminoles are required to stay off social media until after the season.

Career Highlight: In that very first game at running back, with FSU hosting Nevada, Williams recorded a 65-yard run early in the third quarter. That was nice and all, but in the ACC championship game, THIS happened:

Should We Know Him? This is not the first time this sentiment has been expressed in this space, but really: He’s not going to give you a choice.

Breakout Hits

These lesser luminaries are destined for bigger star turns in 2014.

• Will Gardner, QB, Louisville. Not tab Petrino’s new pet gunslinger as a high-potential sleeper pick? We’d sooner install our mistress on a state-funded payroll! Confined to sponge-up duty that was sparing even for Teddy Bridgewater’s backup, Gardner attempted all of 12 passes in 2013, recording eight completions and two scores. He may not have live-snap experience to speak of, but he gets to throw to DeVante Parker, who excels at making all manner of flung objects look readily catchable:

• Kendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech. This is cheating, because true sleepers don’t rate the Phil Steele ACC cover in preseason chatter, but Fuller’s floor just starts higher than average. Think of this as a moment to marvel at Fuller’s true freshman campaign — in which he was a second-team All-ACC pick with six interceptions and 11 pass breakups — and to marvel at how he might follow up that debut this year and next.

• Ryan Switzer, WR/PR, North Carolina. Y’all remember Ryan Switzer.

Switzer, as a true freshman return man, made SO MANY PEOPLE so VERY ANGRY last year. A repeat record campaign is tough to expect, but more Ryan Switzer doing things with a football is a net gain for viewers like you.

Impact Freshman

Patrick Amara, S, Pitt. That’s emotional impact. Homeless at 16 and now suiting up for his first season with the Panthers, Amara has the potential to see lots of playing time this fall, but what a journey he’s made already.

Toastiest Coach

Virginia’s Mike London, who’s staring down an 18-31 record (8-24 in conference!) through four seasons in Charlottesville, has one postseason appearance to his credit in that time (a pantsing by Auburn in the 2011 Chick-fil-A Bowl) and happens to also be facing a 2014 schedule that is not in any way set up to engineer his success. The Cavaliers extend an admirable streak of Pac-12 scheduling by hosting UCLA in the opener, then get Louisville in Week 3, and must travel to BYU, Duke, Florida State, and Virginia Tech.

Early Must-Watch Game, Conference Category

The first game in Notre Dame’s ACC rotation sends the Irish and Syracuse to MetLife Stadium (September 27), and we’ll get our first look at the rebooted Petrino regime on Labor Day, when Miami wades through the garlic butter–slick concourses of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium to play the Cardinals — but let’s not pretend it’s not all building to Clemson at Florida State on September 20 (Week 4). If this matchup goes anything like it did last year, the Noles-Tigers tilt could have an anticlimactic effect on the balance of league play.

Early Must-Watch Game, Nonconference Category

Some lovely high-profile SOS-padding contests lurk in August and September — Clemson-Georgia and Florida State–Oklahoma State in Week 1, Virginia Tech at Ohio State in Week 2, Miami at Nebraska in Week 4, Virginia Tech and UNC against East Carolina in consecutive weeks9 — but lordy, that opening Thursday’s looking particularly appetizing this season. The ACC’s finest offering? Sending Wake Forest to Louisiana-Monroe. DON’T YOU DARE TOUCH THAT DIAL: They’re doing a camo-out. There’s a blooper reel for the ad campaign for the camo-out:10

In an unpaid plug for ULM athletics, we will even put a link here to tell you where to get tickets to this thing. The Warhawks seem like precisely the kind of people around whom you’d want to kick off the season.

Inexplicably Thrilling Uniform Change of 2014

Miami’s new helmets are mesmerizing. Like if Daft Punk did an outdoor show at Ultra? And somehow vaguely erotic? And the names for them are the worst, which somehow makes them all the more appealing? Can we credit the Canes with one (1) unearned upset victory in advance, based solely on the bewitching power of these orbs?

Outlandish Prediction

Georgia Tech takes the Coastal Division with sheer triple-option bullshit. The Coastal is setting up for another crab-bucket season, with all crabs equally weighted and pinchy, and when the swirling sand and bits of shell and innards settle, who stands astride that pile wielding a two-by-four? Paul Johnson. You can see it in your minds, can’t you? The future tastes like nails.

This story has been updated to reflect that the Notre Dame-Syracuse game will take place at a neutral site.

Filed Under: 2014 College Football Preview, College Football, College Football Preview, ACC, Florida State Seminoles, Jameis Winston, Karlos Williams, Who's That Guy, Clemson Tigers, Miami Hurricanes, Duke Johnson, Louisville Cardinals, Bobby Petrino, Virginia Tech Hokies, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, Paul Johnson, Duke Blue Devils, Quarterbacks, Freshmen, Holly Anderson

Holly Anderson is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ HollyAnderson