You have questions about the college football season and, lucky for you, we have the answers. Well, at least the answers that make the most sense as things stand now.
With the openers less than a month away – and practices starting this weekend – we rounded up columnist Luke DeCock and our reporters who cover Duke, N.C. State and North Carolina, and asked them the tough questions.
You know – like whether any ACC team can stay within three touchdowns of Florida State. Without further delay, our annual – for at least two years now – preseason roundtable:
Q: Florida State returns no shortage of talent, led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Is it fair to say everyone else in the ACC is playing for second? Will any league team come within three touchdowns of FSU?
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Andrew Carter, UNC beat reporter: Yes, everyone else is playing for second and, no, I don’t see any ACC team coming within three touchdowns of the Seminoles. The gap between Florida State and the rest of the conference is as large as it was during the 1990s, if not larger.
The ACC is a larger league now, and the league’s second tier – Clemson, Louisville and even Duke, this season – is stronger now than then. Still, an all-star team from the other 13 ACC teams might not be good enough to beat FSU, which won all but one of its ACC games last season by at least 27 points.
Luke DeCock, columnist: Yes, some ACC team will come within three touchdowns. Someone always does, even if it isn’t the “Annual Seminoles Upset Specialists” at Wake Forest and N.C. State. But it would be nothing less than shocking if Florida State wasn’t walking away from Charlotte in December with the trophy again. Jimbo Fisher has Tallahassee wired now, and the Seminoles have talent at every position. It’s like the old days, and in the old days, the ACC just tried to keep up.
Joe Giglio, N.C. State beat reporter: The best time to catch an elite team is before or after it plays a “big” game and, usually, the surprise comes on the road. N.C. State, the last ACC team to beat FSU, gets the Seminoles a week after FSU’s game with Clemson. Louisville gets FSU at home on a Thursday night, after the Seminoles play Notre Dame. Those two games and at Miami (Nov. 15) seem like the most obvious choices.
The main issue for FSU is will its defense be as good as last year? The defense, which lost coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to Georgia, caused 35 turnovers and scored eight touchdowns last season. Those numbers will be nearly impossible to duplicate against a tougher schedule and with three All-American defenders lost to the NFL.
Laura Keeley, Duke beat reporter: I think that’s fair. Florida State has entered a territory of dominance not seen since ... well, Florida State in the 1990s. They’re back, those Seminoles.
That said, to beat every single ACC foe by at least three touchdowns ... I wouldn’t bet on it. Last year, FSU wasn’t as sharp at Boston College and won by “only” 14 points. Someone from the trio of Clemson, Louisville and Notre Dame (do the Irish count?) will finish within 21.
Q. Given what Duke is returning after winning the Coastal last season, is Duke not the Coastal favorite simply because it’s Duke?
Carter: Yes and no. Yes, Duke’s abysmal football history – before David Cutcliffe arrived – affects the Blue Devils’ perception and reputation.
That said, parity reigns in the Coastal. Duke returns the vast majority of players who led the team to the Coastal Division title last year, but North Carolina, Miami and Virginia Tech have the pieces to compete, too (at least the Hokies’ defense should keep them in games).
DeCock: Duke should be the top pick in the Coastal Division because of its schedule, if nothing else, avoiding Florida State, Clemson and Louisville and drawing four winnable ACC road games. It’s hard to look past teams like Virginia Tech, Miami and Georgia Tech, because they either have the history of success or the top-25 recruiting classes Duke doesn’t. But Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech are trending down, Miami’s schedule is a nightmare, Pittsburgh is a bit of a wild card and Virginia and Wake Forest will be lucky to beat anyone but each other. The two teams with the best chance to win the division – even if they might not be as talented as Miami – are both in the Triangle. North Carolina isn’t far off, but the Blue Devils are the team to beat.
Giglio: You’re onto something there with Duke, but it goes both ways. Duke’s roster doesn’t get enough credit for being as athletic and talented as it is. On the other side, Duke gets too much credit, and the patronizing variety, for simply being competitive. Like, “Oh, look, isn’t it cute that poor little Duke is good at football!”
Duke was good and fortunate last season. My main concern is the safety net that was quarterback/touchdown machine Brandon Connette is gone. Connette, who scored 27 touchdowns, saved their bacon in several games, even when Anthony Boone was healthy.
Keeley: If Virginia Tech was coming off a 10-2 regular season with a Coastal Division title, returning 15 starters and playing a favorable schedule, the Hokies would be a unanimous favorite to repeat. Same goes for Miami. Duke was picked to finish second behind a more marquee program with a troublesome defense and an unproven quarterback.
I think offensive lineman Laken Tomlinson got it right when he said voters would be too distracted by the Duke tradition (or lack thereof) to objectively evaluate this year’s Blue Devils. But that’s why they play the games, to separate predictions from reality.
Q: Who wins the Coastal, and why?
Carter: Duke. Unpredictable things, though, have a tendency to happen in the Coastal. UNC, Miami, Virginia Tech and Pitt are likely to be in the mix. But what would be more unpredictable than Duke winning the Coastal two consecutive years?
DeCock: Duke, but there’s every possibility it could come down to the Thursday night game against North Carolina in Durham on Nov. 20.
Giglio: Miami has the most talent but also plays the most difficult schedule. The Hurricanes, who are unsettled at quarterback, crossover with FSU and Louisville (Duke, Virginia Tech and Pitt don’t have to play either of those Atlantic powers or Clemson; UNC gets just Clemson).
Even at 6-2 in the ACC (a loss to FSU and one division loss), I think Miami will still win the division. There just has to be a reason Al Golden turned down the Penn State job.
Keeley: Duke, because they bring back 15 starters and draw Wake Forest and Syracuse from the Atlantic Division.
Q: N.C. State didn’t win a conference game in coach Dave Doeren’s first season. What’s a reasonable expectation this season?
Carter: Beyond the top three of Florida State, Clemson and Louisville, the Atlantic Division seems wide open. Fourth place would be an accomplishment after such a forgettable season in Doeren’s first year. The quarterback position is settled, allegedly, with Jacoby Brissett, the transfer from Florida. And Doeren has expressed optimism in the offensive and defensive lines.
If the Wolfpack can win highly winnable games against Boston College and Wake Forest, it’d likely just need one more conference victory to finish with six victories overall – assuming N.C. State wins at least three games against what has to be the easiest non-conference schedule of any power conference team.
DeCock: Four non-conference wins against pretty weak competition, an improvement on last year’s 0-8 ACC record. By how much? Depends on how well Brissett meshes with the young skill players – and whether those young skill players are ready to make game-changing plays.
Giglio: Any conference win would be progress. The schedule – with four winnable games outside the league – was set up to get the program back to a bowl game, and I think six wins is a realistic goal. The main problem for N.C. State is the most important game – Boston College at home on Oct. 11 – is sandwiched around a probable loss to FSU (Sept. 27), a trip to Clemson (Oct. 4) and a trip to Louisville (Oct. 18).
Keeley: I hope for N.C. State’s sake Brissett has improved since he couldn’t beat out Jeff Driskel at Florida – it’s not like Driskel has torn it up in the Swamp. The media picked N.C. State fifth. The Wolfpack should hope to beat the two teams slotted lower, Boston College and Wake Forest, both of whom travel to Raleigh. Not achieving that would be pretty disastrous.
Q: UNC coach Larry Fedora, entering his third season, recently said “it’s time” for UNC to take a step forward. UNC hasn’t won more than eight games since 1997. How realistic is a 9- or 10-win season this year?
Carter: The talent and depth is there at the offensive skill positions, at least, and if the offensive line comes together the Tar Heels could be as strong offensively as any ACC team other than Florida State.
That’s a big if, though. The Tar Heels lost their two best offensive linemen from last season. It’s the same story on the defensive line, too, where UNC is replacing two key starters.
The Tar Heels’ game on Sept. 20 at ECU should tell us a lot. It’s difficult – if not impossible – to imagine the Tar Heels taking a step forward this season without beating ECU.
DeCock: If Fedora can cobble together offensive and defensive lines without the benefit of Butch Davis’ NFL-caliber recruits at those positions, and if Marquise Williams or Mitch Trubisky can clearly claim the quarterback job, and if the defense continues its improvement from the second half of last season, it’s very realistic. But that’s a lot of ifs.
Giglio: Fedora hit on something here with this quote and good for him for putting it out there.
Going back to 2008, UNC probably should have averaged 10 wins per season over the past six seasons, instead of the 7.6* (*-the NCAA says some of those wins don’t count but the games really happened).
The issue this season is, while the skill-position talent is there, the defense remains a general weakness and the attrition of talent on both lines is a specific problem.
There’s also the matter of this being the toughest schedule – the ECU-Clemson-Virginia Tech-Notre Dame-Georgia Tech stretch will define the season – UNC has had since opening with LSU in 2010.
Keeley: The only two games I would definitely expect the Tar Heels to lose would be at Clemson and at Notre Dame. So, if Fedora believes this is the Tar Heels’ time, then he should be expecting them to win nine or 10 games. But UNC hasn’t yet proven under Fedora it can beat the teams it should (see Wake Forest and Duke in 2012 and East Carolina, most notably, in 2013). Until the Tar Heels get over that hump, collecting more than eight wins will remain a challenge.
Q: Last season some national stars emerged. Jamison Crowder at Duke. Ryan Switzer at UNC. Who could have a breakout season?
Carter: Elijah Hood, the UNC freshman running back from Charlotte, is expected to play from day one. He has generated rave reviews from coaches and teammates already. He seems to be as good of a breakout candidate as any player.
DeCock: If Brissett is half as good as Doeren and his teammates say he is, Brissett has a chance to be a star in a year when the ACC isn’t blessed with a surplus of quarterbacks. (The best in the state might be East Carolina’s Shane Carden, who threw for 4,139 yards and 33 touchdowns last year while completing 70.5 percent of his passes. He could be in position for a monster year.)
Giglio: The legend of Bo Hines began in the spring game for N.C. State. The freshman receiver from Charlotte will have a cult following from the Wolfpack fan base by October.
Keeley: I’ll stick to the team I know best and nominate Shaquille Powell, a junior, and Duke’s starting running back. The rotation will be smaller this year, so Powell will have the opportunity to put up numbers that catch attention not just in Durham, but beyond.
Q: Which game involving Duke, N.C. State or UNC are you most looking forward to this season, and why?
Carter: UNC at Notre Dame on Oct. 11. There are few events and places left on my sportswriter bucket list anymore, but spending a fall Saturday covering a game at Notre Dame Stadium would be among them.
DeCock: A Thursday night football game at Duke, potentially with the Coastal Division title in the balance? It’ll be the biggest game Duke has played since … the last time North Carolina was at Wallace Wade.
Giglio: UNC’s trip to ECU might be the most entertaining game, but both UNC and Duke could be in line for the Coastal crown when they meet on a Thursday night in late November.
Keeley: North Carolina at Duke on Thursday night, the penultimate week of the regular season. School will be in session, so the Duke students will be out in full force at Wallace Wade, with ESPN and the nation turning to Durham as the center of the college football world for the night.
Q: No Triangle team has won an ACC championship since Duke won a share of it in 1989. Will it happen in our lifetimes?
Carter: If Wake Forest can win an ACC championship, and if Duke can win 10 games and win the Coastal Division, then anything is possible.
Barring the kind of parity that allowed those accomplishments, though, I don’t see an area team having much of a chance. Will it happen in our lifetimes? Yes – but Florida State and Clemson have to be down. Way down.
DeCock: Miami and Florida State have both won ACC basketball titles. Anything is possible. And soon.
Giglio: Let me answer a question with a question: What if Jimbo Fisher replaces Nick Saban at Alabama in the next five years and we take FSU-as-default-champion out of the equation?
If, yes, then sure. Give me the under by 2020 – the 40th anniversary of the last outright ACC title among the three schools.
Keeley: Yes, I think Duke continues its upward trajectory – the Blue Devils’ recruiting class for next year is currently ranked 24th nationally – essentially becoming the Stanford of the East, and gets itself an ACC title during David Cutcliffe’s tenure. Take that to the bank.