The ACC officially kicks off its 2014 season in Greensboro, N.C., this weekend, with plenty of attention being paid to reigning national champ FSU and its Heisman-winning QB Jameis Winston.
Miami's Duke Johnson (left), Florida State's Jameis Winston (center) and Louisville's DeVante Parker project to be a few of the top offensive players in the ACC this season.
Melina Vastola/Steve Mitchell/Jamie Rhodes / USA TODAY Sports
By Zach Dillard
For comparison's sake, the arrival of the ACC Football Kickoff is typically a low-key affair tucked away at the Grandover Resort in Greensboro, N.C., a quieter cousin of the fever pitch that is SEC Media Days a few hundred miles south. Players, coaches and media members swing golf clubs, interact at ice cream socials and, oh yeah, talk a little football along the way.
The event features more star power this time around, though, and with the league's claim to both the reigning national champions and the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner comes broader national appeal. With Florida State and star sophomore quarterback Jameis Winston in town, it will be difficult for the conference to maintain its just-another-day-at-the-course appeal.
Things have changed in both name and quality. With the addition of the Louisville Cardinals -- not to mention controversial (and highly compensated) head coach Bobby Petrino -- to the league's lineup, as well as national powers FSU and Clemson coming off another season of Atlantic Division rivalry and BCS success, expect plenty of news to come out of Greensboro. Much of that news will come out on Monday with questions concerning the NCAA, athlete unions, the divide between the Power 5 conferences from the rest of the FBS and more, but on Sunday the players take the stage. (Or, as the NCAA would have it, the student-athletes.) And it all starts with the reigning Heisman winner. Here are five things to watch for on Day 1 of ACC Media Days:
1. WINSTON/FSU MANIA
For the first time in conference history, the ACC welcomes back the Heisman Trophy winner. Expect waves of media coverage to follow.
Jameis Winston, who joined fellow Florida State quarterbacks Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke as the third ACC player to capture the Heisman last season, returns for his redshirt sophomore season as the talk of college football world. In the short-lived Winston Era, we've seen on-field excellence coupled with an overwhelming amount of off-field controversy -- the least of which came in an offseason incident at a Tallahassee Publix -- and with his appearance at the media free-for-all, he's likely to touch on it all (with an FSU public relations official nearby, to be sure).
Off-field troubles aside, there will be plenty of positive to touch base with Winston, who was nothing short of sensational en route to leading the Seminoles to the final BCS Championship back in January. As a redshirt freshman, he passed for 4,057 yards, 40 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Does that even leave room for significant improvement?
Of particular interest will be how the Seminoles handle some key losses to the offense, including two of Winston's three top receivers (Kelvin Benjamin, Kenny Shaw) and two of his running backs (Devonta Freeman, James Wilder). There are plenty of offensive weapons to work with due to the return of wideout Rashad Greene, tight end Nick O'Leary, running back Karlos Williams and a potentially terrifying offensive line -- not to mention any young standouts that emerge out of coach Jimbo Fisher's highly ranked recruiting classes -- so is it fair to assume Winston and his offense will continue to take steps forward? He is, after all, chasing the same ghost that Johnny Manziel couldn't catch last season. That two-time Heisman talk will loom large throughout the season ... or at least until he's deemed out of the race.
It's pretty clear this is one of the few premier preseason teams in the country, and just which type of tone Winston and his teammate, P.J. Williams, set from Day One will be remembered. Count on that. Count on Winston & Co. dominating this event. Count on FSU being tabbed as the conference favorites. Count on all of that.
(Side note: Keep an eye on Williams, who is considered one of the top cornerback prospects in the upcoming draft. Alongside Ronald Darby, the Seminoles are not only set to feature perhaps the top 1-2 punch nationally at corner but also another smothering defense. Can they be No. 1 in the country again? Williams will have a chance to give the first word.)
2. COMMISH TALK
The conference realignment dominoes have once again fallen, the pay-for-play issue remains in the courts and a college football playoff is now in place to decide the 2014 national champion, and ACC Commissioner John Swofford will follow tradition by standing at a podium to discuss the past and future of his conference.
For the most part, particularly concerning on-field competition, thanks in large part to that aforementioned Florida State contingent, Swofford's league has earned a better foothold on the national stage. It boasts the national champs and another BCS bowl winner (Clemson), so his assessment will undoubtedly kick off on a high note. The ACC has swapped long-time conference member Maryland, which is now in the Big Ten, for Louisville -- an apparent upgrade on both the football field and basketball court -- and looks to be in position to launch its own network in the not-so-distant future should it choose to pursue that venture.
If anything has happened since the last time Swofford met with such a large media gathering at the Grondover, it's a validation: of the league, of its place in the Power 5 hierarchy and of its future.
So ... what's going on with this prospective network? What are the expectations for the conference competitively in 2014 with Louisville now in the fold? Will Swofford alter his stance, as many have, concerning compensation for athletes in revenue-generating sports given the current climate? How hard of a stance will he take on Power 5 autonomy within the NCAA model (SEC commissioner Mike Slive certainly drew a line in the sand earlier this week)?
Swofford has carved himself a nice little niche among college football's power elite, and he'll once again be given the opportunity to shape the discussion -- or, as Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany put it, "change the narrative" -- as it continues moving forward. Only now, Swofford's league looks better than ever.
3. HELLO, LOUISVILLE
Speaking of the conference newcomers, Louisville's official welcome to the conference will not be with Bobby Petrino, who makes his return to major-college football this season, sitting front and center -- and perhaps that's a good thing. Instead, Louisville stars DeVante Parker and Lorenzo Mauldin will put the collective foot forward for the Cardinals. For two key players on a 12-1 team last season, talks of transition to a new conference and a new coaching staff (former coach Charlie Strong accepted the Texas job) will be first on the agenda.
This is not exactly new territory for the ACC, as it introduced Syracuse and Pittsburgh just last season at this event. Still, Louisville, given its recent track record of national success, including a Sugar Bowl win during the 2012 season, and the controversial hiring of Petrino puts the Cards on a different pedestal.
For his part, Parker has the ability to establish himself as the league's best receiver. After logging 885 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns while catching passes from eventual first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater, Parker should immediately jump into the ranks of Greene (FSU), Tyler Boyd (Pittsburgh), Jamison Crowder (Duke) and Quinshad Davis (UNC) when it comes to top receiving options returning to ACC campuses this fall. How different will this offense be under Petrino, one of the top offensive minds in the college game, and what adjustments need to be made without Bridgewater calling the shots? In Parker's eyes, how has new starter Will Gardner looked this offseason?
As for Mauldin, he could develop into one of the conference's best pass rushers. After bypassing an opportunity to test the NFL Draft waters, the senior, who has logged 21 career tackles for loss and 15 sacks while battling injuries, is back to lead a defense that lost plenty of pieces.
4. CLEMSON QUARTERBACK TALK MAKES FOR QUALITY ENTERTAINMENT
First and foremost, Clemson's new starting quarterback has enormous shoes to fill, both on the field and off.
His predecessor, Tajh Boyd, not only finished his career as the greatest quarterback in school history, the conference's all-time leader in passing touchdowns (107) and second-leading passer (11,904 yards), but he was also a bone fide Media Days darling. A superstar behind the microphone -- Boyd opened last year's session in the writer's room by singing an off-beat rendition of Eric Church -- the Tigers' leader now finds himself playing in the NFL.
Hope Cole Stoudt can sing.
Stoudt, the 6-foot-4 senior and career backup behind Boyd, will look to go out on a high note by leading the Tigers to their fourth straight 10-win season and third straight major bowl win. He's played sparingly in his career, completing 72.3 percent of his passes for 742 yards and eight touchdowns. He'll be asked to do a lot more this time around (and with less talent at the skill positions), though, and bringing him to the league's premier media event signifies coach Dabo Swinney and his staff have passed the torch.
There's plenty of intriguing backstory here, too: Stoudt's father, Cliff, was a career backup QB in the NFL and he broke major records at Dublin Coffman High School in Ohio -- records previously held by Notre Dame star Brady Quinn.
And all of that fails to mention the player Stoudt beat for the Clemson job, former top recruit Chad Kelly, who was dismissed from the team this offseason. It's no secret that Stoudt and Kelly were not very fond of one another before Kelly even arrived on campus, so winning the job after Boyd's departure will only mean that much more. How much will he go into situation?
5. THE RETURN OF THE DUKE
In 2013, college football fans were robbed of a full season of watching Duke Johnson, Miami's star junior running back who entered the campaign as a darkhorse Heisman candidate and led the Hurricanes to a 7-0 record before suffering a season-ending injury.
In just under eight full games played, Johnson rushed for 920 yards and six touchdowns. That leaves him 16 career touchdowns in less than two seasons of work -- yes, some weak ACC defenses are partially to blame but he's clearly established himself one of the top scoring threats in college football. And if he can put together another strong season without a setback he's primed to be one of the top running backs taken in next year's draft (should he choose to forego his senior season).
The Hurricanes return just five starters on offense, so Duke Dependence could kick into full gear.