ACC Playlist: Duke’s Jeremy Cash making early case for ACC Player of the Year

Even the best ACC teams have flirted with disaster at times this season, and if it weren’t for a few star players it would have struck the conference by now. Take away Deshaun Watson from Clemson’s offense or Dalvin Cook from Florida State, and it’s difficult to see those teams getting through their early-season close calls unscatched. Along those same lines, quarterback Brad Kaaya is keeping Miami relevant in the Coastal Division, Shaq Lawson is permitting Clemson to forget Vic Beasley and 5-1 Pittsburgh’s offense would be in trouble without Tyler Boyd threatening opposing secondaries.

But Jeremy Cash is The Playlist’s midseason pick for ACC Player of the Year. Duke’s star safety is a one-man demolition derby, and that’s worth recognition alongside the league’s standout offensive performers.

Halfway into a season featuring three surprising ACC defenses ranking among the nation’s best — Clemson, Boston College and Duke — no defender means more to his team than Cash. He has no business being this productive, yet here he is, living in opponents’ backfields and creating a level of disruption rarely seen from defensive backs. The senior leads the conference in tackles for loss and fumbles forced, singlehandedly leading the Blue Devils to the top of the national rankings in scoring defense.

The soft schedule has helped. Cash has helped more.

Duke once again finds itself at the forefront of the Coastal race because of its defense, and no ACC player has provided more value to his respective unit thus far.

The ACC has not crowned a defensive playmaker as its Player of the Year since Maryland linebacker E.J. Henderson in 2001 — Pittsburgh end Aaron Donald won nearly every award imaginable in 2013, but could not beat out Heisman winner Jameis Winston for the league’s top honor — but Cash, a potential first-team All-American, could find himself near the front of the pack at season’s end, especially if Duke lands in its second conference title game in three years.

Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla., Saturday at noon

Clemson finds itself in much better shape at the halfway point — not only in the ACC race, but also the College Football Playoff picture — but little has changed behind center for either team. The Tigers and Hurricanes were expected to be led by the league’s top two quarterbacks … and that’s exactly what has happened.

Watson leads a better team, but Kaaya has been similarly productive.

Kaaya leads the conference with more than 299 yards per game through the air, accounting for 10 touchdowns and just one interception. At 219 attempts, he’s being asked to carry his offense for the second straight year. On the flip side, Watson has self-described himself as a game manager at times, though he’s not far behind Kaaya with nearly 275 total yards per game. Losing top receiver Mike Williams to injury has hurt (a few of his seven interceptions can be attributed to the receiving corps) but Watson leads the ACC with 14 touchdown passes and is the conference’s only quarterback in the top 15 nationally in total QBR.

If Watson is clicking, Clemson can beat just about anybody. That certainly includes Miami. Fingers crossed this turns into a shootout between the longtime acquaintances (and, yes, Cash’s fellow ACC Player of the Year candidates).

Waxahatchee, "Air" — Watson and Kaaya combined for 716 passing yards against quality defenses in Week 7. Expect a aerial show.

Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday at 12:30 p.m.

One thing is indisputable with North Carolina: The defense is in much, much better shape with Gene Chizik running the show. In one season, the longtime defensive guru has transformed a laughing stock into a respectable counterbalance for Larry Fedora’s uptempo attack.

Just how much progress this program has made over the past 10 months depends on the numbers being referenced. North Carolina is tied for 17th nationally in scoring defense — one season removed from the FBS bottom 10 — and it has eliminated many of the explosive passing plays that plagued them in 2014. The self-destructive penalties have been kept to a minimum as well.

There’s room for skepticism, though, which is a primary explanation for North Carolina being the lone one-loss Power Five team outside the AP poll.

The Tar Heels still find themselves outside the top-50 in defensive efficiency (No. 65 in S&P+). Sure, they’ve kept points off the board, but a weak schedule has assisted in this process, and there are concerns moving forward. While Chizik’s unit has cracked down against the pass, it is one of 25 FBS defenses allowing 200 or more yards per game on the ground. The Tar Heels rarely force turnovers (eight in six games), are far from disruptive (119th nationally) in tackles for loss) and struggle to get off the field on third downs. There’s room for improvement.

This North Carolina team would be undefeated were it not for a red-zone meltdown in the season opener against South Carolina, but the Tar Heels have cleaned things up on the offensive side of the ball. The defense has improved significantly, but still has some question marks.

Jagwar Ma, "Uncertainty" — The schedule sets up for a Coastal Division run, but advanced metrics are still uneasy about the Tar Heels and these are the types of games they’ve dropped in past years, bookending a solid stretch with a bad loss. Virginia hasn’t been an issue over the past five seasons, though.

Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, Va., Saturday at 3:30 p.m.

It’s extremely difficult to be this good with an offense this bad. Still, Duke keeps getting the job done with its aforementioned defense and, quietly, an excellent special teams unit led by safety DeVon Edwards (five career kickoff return touchdowns, the Power Five’s active leader) and kicker Ross Martin, who is a perfect 12 for 12 on the season.

Among the nation’s top teams, there’s a case to be made for Duke being the most lopsided. (Another ACC school, Boston College, might be the most lopsided team in the country.)

Looking at Football Outsiders’ S&P+ ratings, which uses opponent-adjusted drive data to quantify key attributes like explosiveness and finishing drives, Duke ranks third in defensive efficiency and 92nd in offensive efficiency. Of the top 25 teams in the S&P+ ratings, the Blue Devils are the only team to feature an offense or defense ranked 90th or worse. The closest comparison ahead of them is Michigan, whose top-ranked defense is offset by a mediocre attack.

This, of course, puts pressure on David Cutcliffe’s program to maintain control at all times. This is not a team built for comebacks. It’s a 5-1 record built on defensive playmaking, special teams, field position and avoiding mistakes.

All of this should sound very, very familiar to Virginia Tech — it’s a summary of the past five years’ worth of Hokies football.

Eric B. and Rakim, "I Ain’t No Joke" — The Blue Devils are now the third-highest ranked team in the ACC behind Clemson and Florida State, and while their home loss to Northwestern looks a little worse in hindsight, there might not be a single game left on the schedule that Sutcliffe’s program can not win. The defense is, indeed, not messing around.

Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta, Ga., Saturday at 7 p.m.

It’s not like Everett Golson wasn’t receiving quality coaching at Notre Dame. Brian Kelly, much like Jimbo Fisher, knows what he’s doing when it comes to quarterbacks. Some of Golson’s improvement simply comes from him maturing as a passer. A turnover machine in 2014, Golson is learning a new offense on the fly with a reworked offensive line and inexperienced receiving corps … and he has yet to throw an interception.

Here’s the complete list of quarterbacks that have yet to throw a pick in 2015: Dak Prescott, Anu Solomon, Malik Zaire, Kent Myers, Brandon Harris, Zander Diamont and Golson. One of those names suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2 — Zaire, Golson’s replacement at Notre Dame — and two others have yet to attempt more than 50 passes. That leaves a 2014 Heisman candidate (Prescott), a QB whose offense relies heavily on a 2015 Heisman candidate (LSU’s Harris) and an underrated playmaker in Arizona’s Solomon.

Now, there’s a parallel to be drawn from Harris to Golson: Two signal-callers privileged with the task of handing the ball off to Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook, respectively, but Golson is becoming a difference-maker the longer he plays in the system. Here are his four ACC performances to date:

Cook is still the Seminoles’ driving force. Golson is starting to contribute more and more, though.

FKA twigs, "Two Weeks" — Florida State and Clemson need to avoid letdowns over their next two games in order to set up an undefeated showdown that will, along with LSU-Alabama, steal national attention on Nov. 7.

Papa Johns Stadium, Louisville, Ky., Saturday at 12:30 p.m.

There’s not a bad loss on Louisville’s record right now. Sure, the Auburn loss isn’t near as momentous as it looked in the Georgia Dome and few pictured Louisville losing to Houston in the preseason. But falling to a 4-2 SEC team — Auburn has only lost to LSU and Mississippi State — an undefeated upstart with its sights set on crashing the College Football Playoff picture and the ACC’s two preeminent powers is not a deal-breaker at for an extremely young Louisville team.

The 2-4 start is disappointing, especially given the fact that the Auburn, Houston and Clemson losses were decided by single-digits, but the future remains bright. What Louisville does during the softer back half of this schedule could go a long way into setting the program up for more success in 2016.

The Drifters, Ben E. King, "This Magic Moment" — The schedule finally eases up. Now it’s time for the Cardinals to try and save their bowl chances over the next the few weeks.