(Note: Previews for North Carolina-South Carolina and Alabama-Virginia Tech can be found in the SEC edition of Clear Your Schedule.)
When last we saw the ACC, conference champion Florida State was putting the finishing touches on a 31-10 defeat of Northern Illinois in the Discover Orange Bowl. The league has since added two new members, Syracuse and Pittsburgh. One of those new clubs gets to open ACC play right away, as Pittsburgh gets a Monday night showcase on ESPN.
There are a number of interesting story lines around the league, as Virginia lost two quarterbacks this offseason, Virginia Tech tries to rebound from an uncharacteristically tough season and Maryland looks to close out its time in the ACC with a flourish. The conference’s Coastal Division will look to send a team to Charlotte that is not Virginia Tech (five appearances in the ACC Championship) or Georgia Tech (three appearances) for the first time.
Another year of great ACC football — and another year of this weekly feature — is just ahead, but before we can get to any of that, we owe you a trivia question!
ACC trivia, week 1 (answer at the end of the column): Virginia Tech’s victory in the 2012 Russell Athletic Bowl put head coach Frank Beamer in sixth place all-time with 258 victories. With which coach was he tied before that victory?
Top of the Ratings
#5 Georgia at #8 Clemson, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
Last year’s season finales: Georgia 45, Nebraska 31 (Capital One Bowl); Clemson 25, LSU 24 (Chick-fil-A Bowl)
Program guide: 75 simple miles. Those miles are all that separate Sanford Stadium from Death Valley. On one side, the hedges. On the other side, The Hill and Howard’s Rock. Two of the programs that help define southeastern college football will tee it up in southwest South Carolina with far more than regional bragging rights on the line. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney will face off against the school that left him on the short end of a 30-0 score on the first day he ran down The Hill as the wide receivers coach in 2003.
Swinney’s Tigers lose stars Nuk Hopkins and Andre Ellington from last year’s offense, but the cupboard is far from bare for Clemson. Quarterback Tajh Boyd (287-for-427, 3896 yards, 36 TD, 13 INT) keeps the keys to the Tiger offense, with the trio of Roderick McDowell, D.J. Howard and Zac Brooks (712 combined yards) carrying the ball. Hopkins’ loss will be felt, but the electric Sammy Watkins returns, along with Martavis Bryant, Charone Peake and Adam Humphries.
Bulldog quarterback Aaron Murray enters his senior year with a bit of controversy of his own. Granted, this is controversy of the somewhat false variety, but Murray’s selection as the first-team all-SEC quarterback over Johnny Manziel has already drawn the ire of bloggers, Twitter users and national television analysts alike. Manziel may have bested Murray in every passing category last season except for touchdowns, but Georgia’s leader has outstanding credentials in his own right.
Murray led the conference with 36 passing touchdowns last season, and Todd Gurley added 17 rushing scores. Gurley and fellow freshman rusher Keith Marshall combined for 2144 yards and 25 touchdowns last year, and Clemson’s 58th-ranked rush defense will need to get up the field to slow down Georgia’s run game and keep them out of the second level. The Tigers’ 73rd-ranked pass defense also has some work to do if they want to send Mark Richt’s club back down Interstate 85 with an 0-1 record.
Set Your DVR
BYU (8-5 in ’12) at Virginia (4-8 in ’12), 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU
Program guide: We mentioned in the beginning of the piece that the Cavaliers lost two quarterbacks. Former starters Phillip Sims (Winston Salem State) and Mike Rocco (Richmond) departed the program as transfers, leaving David Watford to start as Mike London’s signal-caller. None of London’s current quarterbacks played a snap during the 2012-13 season. Watford put up somewhat pedestrian numbers in 2011-12, however, completing 30-of-74 passes for 346 yards, notching three touchdowns against four interceptions. The newly-(re)anointed leader will have some offensive weapons at his disposal, though, including junior running back Kevin Parks (160 carries, 734 yards, 5 touchdowns in ’12) and quarterback-turned-tight end Jake McGee (28 catches, 374 yards, 5 TD).
Virginia finished eighth in the conference in scoring defense last year, however, allowing 29 points per game. The Cavaliers also finished last in the ACC in turnover margin, and these two outcomes must change in a hurry in order to defeat the Cougars. BYU presents its own challenge to UVa’s defense in quarterback Taysom Hill, who completed 42-of-71 passes for 425 yards with four scores and two picks as a freshman. Hill was also the second-leading rusher on BYU’s club, despite playing in just six games. Hill tallied 336 yards on the ground, finding the end zone four additional times. Virginia’s 33rd-ranked pass defense will also need to account for senior receiver Cody Hoffman, who caught an unbelievable 100 passes last year, going for 1248 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Syracuse (8-5 in ’12) vs. Penn State (8-4 in ’12),
at E. Rutherford, NJ, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2
Program guide: Syracuse gets a break from their new conference opponents this week, but they do get to see a familiar foe in the Nittany Lions. New Orange head coach Scott Shafer slides into the head coach role after spending time as previous head coach Doug Marrone’s defensive coordinator. His first task is the unenviable one of replacing quarterback Ryan Nassib, who attempted 472 of the team’s 474 passes in 2012. The offensive burdens are lightened somewhat by the return of running back Jerome Smith (1171 yards in ’12), who was the Orange’s fifth-consecutive rusher to break the 1000-yard plateau.
Bill O’Brien’s Penn State club enjoyed far more success than many predicted last season, winning eight games despite a disastrous week two 17-16 loss at Virginia. The Nittany Lion defense can be thanked for much of that success, allowing just 19.1 points per game, good enough to tie them with conference foe Wisconsin for 16th-best in the FBS. Equally impressive was their rushing defense, allowing just 3.54 yards per carry. Though quarterbacks Matt McGloin (graduation) and Steven Bench (transfer) are no longer with the program, Penn State will look to win this game with ball control and defense, which have become the hallmarks of their program.
#11 Florida State (12-2 in ’12) at Pittsburgh (6-7 in ’12)
8 p.m. ET Monday, ESPN
Program guide: While Syracuse doesn’t immediately jump into conference play, the same cannot be said for Paul Chryst’s Panthers. The Seminoles’ first trip to Heinz Field draws the ESPN cameras and bright lights on Monday, and Pitt will welcome former Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage to the huddle to take over the reins for veteran Tino Sunseri. Savage will find three high performers gone from the 2012 Panther offense, with Mike Shanahan, Ray Graham and Rushel Shell having moved on. The friendly target of receiver Devin Street will return, though, looking to build on a season in which he caught 73 passes for 975 yards and five scores.
Highly-regarded redshirt freshman Jameis Winston comes off a successful spring on the Florida State baseball team to take over the Seminole offense in the absence of Bills first-rounder EJ Manuel. Winston brings much of the same athleticism offered by Manuel, but is largely untested. Running backs Devonta Freeman and James Wilder shouldered much of the rushing load for Jimbo Fisher’s club last year, combining for 221 rushing attempts and 19 touchdowns. The consistency of the Seminole running game will look to pay early dividends if Winston struggles, as some expect. FSU only returns four starters from a unit that finished second in the nation in total defense last year (253.8 YPG), so their evolution will also be worth watching.
The Fast Forward feature will return next week, but let’s channel surf around the rest of the conference action using the Info Button!
Presbyterian (2-9 in ’12) at Wake Forest (6-7 in ’12), 6:30 p.m. ET, Thursday, ESPN3
Info button: The Blue Hose suffered through a 2-9 record in FCS play last season, finishing in last place in the Big South Conference. Their two ventures into FBS play saw them lose back-to-back games at Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt by a combined score of 117-3. Presbyterian has won just four of their 38 games away from their Clinton, South Carolina home since becoming a Division I school six years ago. Redshirt sophomore Kaleb Griffin completed 117-of-200 passes last season for 1074 yards, throwing five touchdowns and six interceptions. The Deacons return their primary offensive weapons that led the school to a 2012 Music City Bowl appearance, with quarterback Tanner Price (228-for-410, 2300 yards, 12 TD, seven INT), running back Josh Harris (137 carries, 608 yards, five TD) and receiver Michael Campanaro (79 catches, 763 yards, six TD) all taking the field against PC for this game. These two teams have met once before, with Wake Forest defeating Presbyterian 53-13 in 2010.
FAU (3-9 in ’12) at Miami (FL) (7-5 in ’12), 8 p.m. ET, Friday, ESPNU
Info button: Carl Pelini’s first season in Boca Raton was a tough one, as the Owls defeated just two FBS-level opponents. The Owls finished 101st in total offense in 2012, while ranking 71st in total defense. Pelini’s club was outgained 422-214 in games against FBS opponents in 2012, which looks to make the odds rather long for FAU in this game against the school many derisively call their “big brother”. Miami finished last season with another self-imposed postseason ban. Despite this end to the season, the Hurricanes return all but three starters from last season, and running back Duke Johnson is one of those talented returners. Johnson finished third in the conference in all-purpose yards in 2012 (171.7 YPG), behind only Maryland receiver Stefon Diggs and current Cincinnati Bengal running back Giovani Bernard of North Carolina.
Elon (3-8 in ’12) at Georgia Tech (7-7 in ’12), noon ET, ESPN3
Info button: The Phoenix open on the road against an ACC opponent for the second straight year, having suffered a 62-0 defeat at the hands of North Carolina in Chapel Hill last September. Junior linebacker Jonathan Spain is a player to watch for Elon, having registered 120 tackles during a stellar 2012 season. Elon returns only four offensive starters, which looks to make the odds even longer against the Yellow Jackets. Georgia Tech, for their part, has established themselves as a power running team during Paul Johnson’s tenure in Atlanta, and that relentless pressure may serve to wear down an undermanned Phoenix defense. Tech ran for 4357 yards in 2012, tallying 48 touchdowns on the ground. Quarterback Tevin Washington has graduated, leaving Vad Lee to run the Tech offense. Lee completed 27-of-56 passes for 596 yards as a freshman, with four touchdowns and three interceptions.
Villanova (8-4 in ’12) at Boston College (2-10 in ’12), noon ET, ESPNews
Info button: It is not very common that an FCS-level program leads off the season against an FBS opponent with a reasonable shot of winning the game, but that is the position in which Villanova finds itself. The Wildcats were a playoff team in 2012, and despite losing to Stony Brook, they start the season ranked ninth in the FCS polls. Wildcat defensive tackle Antoine Lewis was named a first-team All-America by The Sports Network, and he will look to create problems for a Boston College team playing their first game under new head coach Steve Addazio. The Eagles were outscored by almost ten points per game during the 2012 season, while giving up a yard and a half more per carry than they averaged. Star quarterback Chase Rettig returns for BC, though, and he will look to build on his 3055-yard, 17-score season from 2012.
FIU (3-9 in ’12) at Maryland (4-8 in ’12), 12:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network/ESPN3
Info button: Everyone remembers Maryland’s concerns at quarterback from the 2012 season, right? The Terrapins finished the season with a freshman linebacker, Shawn Petty, under center. Petty managed to complete 39-of-84 passes for 500 yards and six scores, but he will hand over the reins to veteran quarterback C.J. Brown. Brown missed last season due to injury, but he does return Diggs, whom we mentioned earlier, despite Marcus Leak missing the season for personal reasons. It is imperative for Maryland to get more out of their run game, as their leading returning rusher, Brandon Ross, ran for just 390 yards in 2012. FIU enters its first season as a member of Conference USA with Ron Turner at the helm, having fired popular coach Mario Cristobal last season. Jake Medlock is far and away the star for Florida International. The junior quarterback completed 57.8 percent of his passes last season, passing for 2127 yards and 13 touchdowns. Look for FIU to throw early and often — and they may need to do even more throwing if they quickly get behind against the Terps.
Louisiana Tech (9-3 in ’12) at NC State (7-6 in ’12), 12:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network/ESPN3
Info button: Everyone remembers the compelling story of Louisiana Tech in 2012, particularly the amazing 59-57 game against Johnny Manziel’s Texas A&M Aggies in Shreveport. The Bulldogs also became known for not going to a bowl, despite having won nine games. Sonny Dykes’ Bulldogs were allegedly invited to the Independence Bowl, but asked for more time to make a decision, and were eventually ousted in favor of Ohio. Dykes has left for Cal, and his star quarterback Colby Cameron and receiver Quinton Patton have also left for the pros. Former South Florida coach Skip Holtz takes over for Dykes, and he will face off against another new coach in NC State’s Dave Doeren. Doeren comes to Raleigh from Northern Illinois, and though he will be without Mike Glennon, he looks to bring an exciting brand of football to Carter-Finley Stadium. Wolfpack wideout Bryan Underwood battled former Clemson star Nuk Hopkins for the conference lead in receiving touchdowns throughout 2012, eventually hauling in 44 grabs for 620 yards, making ten trips to the end zone. Keep an eye on NC State’s rushing game, as well, as Doeren and offensive coordinator Matt Canada love to focus on this aspect of the game. State has three highly-qualified ball carriers in Shadrach Thornton, Tony Creecy and Mustafa Greene.
NC Central (6-5 in ’12) at Duke (6-7 in ’12), 4 p.m. ET, ESPN3
Info button: The Eagles and Blue Devils tee it up again for the Bull City Gridiron Classic on Saturday, with the Blue Devils having defeated NCCU 54-17 last season. Duke represented the Eagles’ only FBS opponent during their 2012 season, and this will again be the case in 2013. NCCU takes on Duke having just terminated their head coach, Henry Frazier. Dwayne Foster will lead the team in his absence. Eagle quarterback Jordan Reid completed just over 62 percent of his passes in 2012 (a single-season school record), throwing for 1594 yards and 13 touchdowns. Reid will likely need to throw the ball quite a bit against Duke. Duke’s pass defense ranked 104th in the FBS in 2012. Veteran stars Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon have graduated from the program, but Anthony Boone and Jamison Crowder will look to fill their roles. Duke’s running game experienced its share of struggles last season, averaging just 3.71 yards per carry. David Cutcliffe’s team figures to get plenty of chances to get running backs Jela Duncan, Juwan Thompson and Josh Snead plenty of carries in this contest.
Trivia answer: I asked earlier: Virginia Tech’s victory in the 2012 Russell Athletic Bowl put head coach Frank Beamer in sixth place all-time with 258 victories. With which coach was he tied before that victory?
Long-time BYU coach LaVell Edwards was tied with Beamer at 257 victories before the Hokies defeated Rutgers 13-10. Beamer is the all-time leader in wins among active FBS coaches.