GREENSBORO, N.C. — The Atlantic Coast Conference got most of its heavy lifting done early Sunday afternoon, kicking off its player-centric media day by running out reigning Heisman winner Jameis Winston and his Florida State teammate, cornerback P.J. Williams, in the opening session. Media members swarmed, but when the session was complete the event returned to normalcy.
The Monday rendition of ACC Media Days will not be so front-loaded. It’s Coaches Day in Greensboro, and the lineup will run from the long-time veterans (Frank Beamer, David Cutcliffe) to the highly quotable (Dabo Swinney, Larry Fedora) to the new faces (Bobby Petrino, Dave Clawson) and up to the very top of the mountain: Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, who is sporting his first national title ring as a head coach.
After an early round of golf, the conference’s improving coaches lineup will take the stage to talk Xs and Os, 2014 expectations and what to make of the ongoing changes within the NCAA model. Here are five things to keep an eye on:
While the conference threw its controversial star attraction out early on Sunday, its newest beacon of controversy will have to wait until early Monday evening to speak. That’s when Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino addresses the collected media contingent for the first time, and other than perhaps Fisher he will be the runaway must-hear interview of the day.
Petrino’s laundry list of past transgressions, both professional and personal, is well-documented, but after spending just one season in relative obscurity at Western Kentucky, the concept of the offensive mastermind being on the open market proved too much for the Cardinals when former coach Charlie Strong took the Texas job. Now, Petrino will be allowed yet another opportunity to discuss how he’s a changed man and how this time it’s different. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But like it or not, by returning to major college football he’s landed on his feet albeit while accepting his role as one of the sport’s preeminent villains — if he wasn’t cast in that light already.
So how does Petrino handle more questions on the same issues he’s addressed time and again? And just how good is his team — almost a side note at this point — after suffering major losses including first-round picks quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, linebacker Marcus Smith and defensive back Calvin Pryor? Strong left plenty of talent behind, but Petrino is breaking in a new quarterback into a new system. How long will that adjustment period take in a loaded Atlantic Division that already features Florida State and Clemson?
For both controversy and intrigue, Petrino is going to be a main attraction.
On paper, Florida State is the ACC’s only legitimate preseason contender for the new College Football Playoff. Jimbo Fisher is to blame.
Fisher has assembled a staggering collection of talent in Tallahassee over the past few years, and after finishing No. 1 in scoring defense and No. 2 in scoring offense just a season ago, there’s talk that the 2014 version could be even better.
Of course, that talk rarely comes to fruition when a team has the type of bulls-eye FSU does on its back, but it’s a testament to the way Fisher has recruited — he’s signed two top-five classes in the past four years, including Scout’s No. 1 overall haul in 2011 — and developed talent that there’s even a discussion.
Last year’s Seminoles squad was one of the most dominant teams of the BCS Era. (One former ACC coach even went so far as to say last season’s FSU team was better than any team Bobby Bowden pieced together in Tallahassee.) And they’re going to be better? Returning Winston, a talented cast of skill position players, a terrifying offensive line and plenty of playmakers on a suffocating defense will have that effect.
Winston sent a confident message on Sunday, but what tone will Fisher set for his team as it looks to follow in Alabama’s 2012-13 footsteps by winning back-to-back national titles? And as the de facto top dog of ACC coaches, what are Fisher’s views on the opportunities potentially presented by autonomy for the Power 5 conferences, by eliminating divisions, athlete rights and benefits, etc.?
Right now, Fisher is a leading voice in this conference. Given his penchant for dishing out quality quotes, that’s not a bad thing.
In the over-packed Atlantic Division, arguably three of the league’s top four teams (FSU, Clemson, Louisville) will duke it out for the top spot. The Coastal Division, as recent history has proven, is another issue entirely.
Three different teams — Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech (by default) and Duke — have won the Coastal in the past three seasons, and the 2014 campaign could easily see a fourth. If there’s a clear-cut favorite among the seven teams, it’s probably Miami, a team that is replacing its starting quarterback and features just 12 returning starters. And even if this Miami roster is the best bet, there’s not much drop-off before coming across, in no particular order, Duke (last season’s surprising Coastal champs), North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.
(Sorry, Virginia and Pitt.)
Does Miami coach Al Golden see his Hurricanes as the favorites? Is it all the more encouraging for other Coastal coaches like Cutcliffe, Fedora or Paul Johnson that there appears to be very little separating these teams on paper? And overall, do the coaches see this as a coin-flip division?
To take ACC commissioner John Swofford at his word, the NCAA steering committee’s proposal to grant more autonomy to the Power 5 conferences (ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12) will pass when put to a vote on Aug. 7. Swofford made that clear on Sunday. What exact changes follow in the coming years — a few potentially as early as this fall, according to the commissioner — is a bit murkier.
With the power to govern themselves within the NCAA model, the most profitable and powerful conferences have discussed altering athletic scholarships to full cost-of-attendance and four-year varieties, offering players greater benefits and a louder voice in the system and loosening up the grip of false amateurism that plagues the current system. At least, those are among the popular talking points that Swofford and other Power 5 commissioners have touched on over the past week or so.
Where do different coaches stand on which rules to keep and which ones to bend, given the opportunity? What about on the recruiting trail or for underclassmen testing out the draft waters? In many ways, this shift in the college landscape affects the coaching elite in college football, creating a greater divide between the financial have and have-not programs. Keep an eye on the likes of Fisher and Swinney, who have become the two talking heads of the conference’s coaching roster at-large, as they will certainly give their two cents on the issue.
The conference returns only three full-time starting quarterbacks, and two of them return to division winners Florida State and Duke (Winston, Anthony Boone). The other is Terrel Hunt, who claimed Syracuse’s starting job midseason last year, and the rest of the bunch will feature either part-time starters, transfers or first-year guys.
After losing the likes of NFL draftees Tajh Boyd and Teddy Bridgewater, many of the conference’s member schools are in flux at the position. There are position battles and there are unknown commodities. In some instances, namely Pittsburgh (Chad Voytik) and N.C. State (Jacoby Brissett), a new signal-caller under center might be a good thing. Others might not be so fortunate.
What challenges lie ahead for coaches prepping their offenses under new leadership as the season approaches?