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2016 ACC Football: The Struggle is Real

Last week I took a look at the 2015 year that was in the ACC, some good and bad for each school. This week we’re going to put the past behind us and take a look at what 2016 may hold for ACC football.

Boston College

What needs to get better – The passing game and 3rd down conversions. The two go a bit hand in hand. BC had one of the worst passing games in the nation, ranking 125th in yards per game. None of their quarterbacks threw for more than 464 yards on the season. Yes, you read that correctly. The quarterbacks combined to complete 44.6% of their passes. This all lead to an offense that was 126th out of 127 in 3rd down conversion rate, getting a first down on just 26.7% of their third down attempts. If the offense wants improvement in 2016, it’ll need to start here.

What will go well – The run game. Part of the inability to throw the ball has been due to the dual-threat nature of the quarterbacks that the Eagles trot out there. This obviously helps the ground game. After five games of not getting double digit carries, junior RB Tyler Rouse had 24 for 111 yards and two touchdowns in the final game against Syracuse. Hopefully that leads to a big senior year for him. Helping will be the offensive line, which returns three starters that were only underclassmen last year.

What will be a struggle – Passing game. Once again. There really isn’t much hope here. Even if there is moderate improvement it’s hard to see a team jumping from the bottom five in the country to anywhere near average. Last year BC’s leading receiver had 17 catches for 233 yards. If someone approaches 500 yards in 2016 it would be a miracle.

Clemson

What needs to get better – Big plays allowed. Clemson had a great season, but they gave up some big plays in the ACC Championship to North Carolina which allowed the Tar Heels to hang around and stay in the game. Those big plays basically cost them the title, with multiple breakdowns in the secondary resulting in long touchdowns for the Crimson Tide.

What will go well – The offense. I know, I’m a such a genius, but this is about as obvious as it gets. Deshaun Watson was coming off a knee injury and still was a Heisman finalist this season. Now he’ll be further removed from that injury and back with him will play explosive playmakers Wayne Gallman, Artavis Scott, and Mike Williams, who would have been the Tigers’ best WR but was lost for the year in the season opener.

What will be a struggle – The defense. Clemson is going to be in a lot of shootouts in 2016. Brent Venables was able to rebound from losses to the NFL draft going into 2015 to lead one of the nation’s best defenses yet again. It’s hard to overcome that multiple years in a row however, just ask LSU. This time the Tigers lose both starting DEs (who just happened to be numbers 1 and 2 in the country in tackles for loss) as well as 3/4ths of the secondary. They lose seven defensive starters in total, an astonishing five of them early entrants to the NFL draft.

Duke

What needs to get better – The defense. It gave up almost 31 points per game, including 40+ to the explosive offenses that were Virginia and Virginia Tech. They pass defense in particular was a sieve, finishing 73rd in yards allowed, but there is hope. All five secondary starters return in their 4-2-5 alignment.

What will go well – The running game. Duke’s ground attack was pretty versatile in 2015, led by QB Thomas Sirk. Sirk led the team with 803 yards rushing, but they also had three different running backs all rush for over 400. In total the Blue Devils ran for over 2500 yards on the season on almost five yards per rush.

What will be a struggle – The passing game. It’s not all Sirk’s fault, he just doesn’t have much to work with. A measley 6.15 yards per attempt won’t put fear into the hearts of defensive coordinators, and Duke will not see much improvement unless someone steps up and produces some of the play-making that vanished when Jamison Crowder took his talents to the NFL after the 2014 season.

Florida State

What needs to get better – The passing game. You couldn’t expect FSU’s passing to be as good when Jameis Winston left for the NFL. Outside of a couple nice efforts, the it couldn’t be counted on consistently, and certainly not against the better teams on the schedule. Whether Sean Maguire retains the starting job going into 2016 or a younger, more talented signal caller takes the spot, there’s no reason for this area not to improve with the talent the Seminoles have at receiver.

What will go well – Handing the ball off. FSU could probably just do that every play in 2016 and win double digit games. Dalvin Cook averaged 7.4 ypc last year and he’ll be back. He’ll also be running behind an offensive line that returns all five starters. I already feel bad for the rest of the ACC.

What will be a struggle – Kicking game. The Seminoles have been spoiled the last few years with Roberto Aguayo, one of the best college kickers in years. Aguayo never missed an extra point and was almost as automatic on field goals, converting over 90% of them (64-70) from under 50 yards. With Aguayo off to the pros, Seminoles fans will have to hope their kicking situation doesn’t turn into the one present in Gainesville.

Georgia Tech

What needs to get better – Ball security. It might be expected that a team that runs the triple option would have more chances at fumbling. But you’d also think that they’d preach protecting the ball even more. Whatever they do didn’t work in 2015 as the Yellow Jackets lost 14 fumbles (only three teams lost more). Navy, another triple option team, only lost six. Add the Yellow Jackets’ 10 interceptions, another astonishing number considering how little they throw it, and the result is finishing 105th in turnover margin.

What will go well – The run game. Georgia Tech wasn’t able to stay in games with their rush attack like in previous years, but there are plenty of reasons for optimism. The line was extremely young (they had a freshman at center and both tackles spots by the end of the year) so it should improve. Add that to QB Justin Thomas and their stable of running backs returning and the offense should rebound.

What will be a struggle – Pass defense. It wasn’t bad in 2015, ranking 37th in pass yards allowed, but the Yellow Jackets were also 120th in sacks. They now lose all four starters from the secondary. If the front seven can’t find a way to put pressure on the opposing quarterback, the defense could get burnt through the air with a less experienced defensive back corps.

Louisville

What needs to get better – The offense. I can’t believe I’m saying this about a Bobby Petrino team but the offense was pretty disappointing. The quarterbacks were average, finishing 61st in QBR. That is a little more understandable with Lamar Jackson getting so much playing time, but with a dual-threat guy like himself, the Cardinals should have been able to finish better than 81st in rushing.

What will go well – Defense. The Cardinals defense could be one of the best in the country in 2016. They were T-10th in sacks last year and return stud Devonte Fields who was T-10th in individual sacks. As if a ferocious pass rush wasn’t enough, the ‘Ville will also get all their secondary starters back, including NFL prospects Shaq Wiggins and Josh Harvey-Clemons.

What will be a struggle – The passing game. Bobby Petrino can work whatever magic and QB voodoo he wants, I just don’t think he’s going to be able to do what he traditionally has with Lamar Jackson. It doesn’t mean Jackson won’t improve, I just don’t think there will be any game to game consistency, which will frustrate the coaching staff as well as Cardinals fans.

Miami

What needs to get better – 3rd downs. I talked about how bad Boston College was on third downs, but that’s a little more understandable considering their quarterback situation and well, because of the fact that they’re Boston College. But Miami was almost as bad, finishing 107th at 35%. Considering the talent at the skill positions and at quarterback, there’s no excuse for that and Miami needs to see drastic improvement in this area if they want any shot at competing for the division in 2016.

What will go well – Pass attack. The offensive line was extremely young last year, with four underclassmen starters at year’s end. With improvement Kaaya should have time to throw. With talent at WR in Stacy Coley and Braxton Berrios and at TE in Standish Dobard and David Njoku, Kaaya will have plenty of options at his disposal.

What will be a struggle – Pass defense. Miami was 70th last year in sacks, and they have had a non-existent pass rush for years. Last year the pass defense was able to survive because of how good the secondary was. That won’t be the case this year. Miami loses both starting safeties as well as CB Artie Burns, who led the ACC with six interceptions. In 2016, no lead will be safe.

NC State

What needs to get better – Explosive passing plays. Jacoby Brissett had a mediocre yards per attempt, and it showed when you look at the receivers. The Wolfpack’s leading WR averaged under 10 ypc (9.2). That’s embarrassing. And their second leading receiver had just 34 catches. Not the ideal way to keep a defense honest.

What will go well – Run game. At least NC State has this going for them. They have their top three running backs return, and all three averaged over six yards per rush in 2015. But the biggest reason will be the return of Matthew Dayes. Dayes was averaging over 100 yards per game on 6.5 ypc and had 12 touchdowns through just 7+ games. He ended up missing the last five games due to a foot injury but will be back next season.

What will be a struggle – Passing attack. NC State might be able to get some plays off play-action thanks to their run game, but a standard passing game will not be forte. They have limited wide receivers and with Jacoby Brissett no longer around, will have a new starting quarterback as well.

North Carolina

What needs to get better – The defense. It was abysmal the second half of the year. They gave up at least 31 points in 4 of 6 games. The two that they didn’t were against Miami and Virginia Tech, not exactly the Marcus Mariota-led Oregon Ducks.

What will go well – Offense. The Tar Heels’ offense was explosive in 2015 and have most of it returning in tact for next year. 4/5 offensive linemen return along with the top two receivers and stud running back Elijah Hood. While starting quarterback Marquise Williams departs, he’ll be replaced by Mitch Trubisky, who fans have been high on.

What will be a struggle – The defense. It’s hard to see much improvement from a unit that allowed over 400 yards per game. It was 110th in run defense, stamped off by their embarrassing showing in the bowl game when the allowed a bowl record 645 rushing yards to Baylor. Now they lose a DT and MLB who were defensive captains.

Pittsburgh

What needs to get better – Their “passing attack”. It wasn’t Boston College level putrid, but it left a lot to be desired. Pitt can run the ball, so mild improvement in the passing game is all they need to have a competitive offense.

What will go well – The run game. James Conner was an ACC player of the year candidate before missing basically the whole season. In his place was Qadree Ollison who ran his way to a nice little 1,100 yard, 11 touchdown season in Conner’s place. Both will be back in 2016 to run behind an offensive line that returns 4/5 starters.

What will be a struggle – The passing game. The Panthers need their passing game to be competent, but I don’t see how it improves from last year. It wasn’t good to begin with and now the Panthers are losing WR Tyler Boyd early to the NFL draft. Boyd accounted for 91 of the team’s 212 receptions in 2015.

Syracuse

What needs to get better – The whole offense. They were 119th in yards per game. Brutal to watch and not able to move the ball consistently as evidenced by their 100 ranking in red zone opportunities. But the Orangemen were actually pretty good once they got there, ranking 8th in red zone scoring percentage. If the offense can move the ball a little more, they can put their red zone efficiency to better use.

What will go well – Defense. It wasn’t exactly good this past year, but it was young. They return seven starters so with the experience they should be better just from that. Additionally, the defense played better at home in 2015, not surprising for a young unit. A year older and they should be able to carry some of that success on the road more frequently.

What will be a struggle – Getting to a bowl game. It’s hard as a fan to go into a year knowing your team probably won’t make a bowl. What’s more difficult is seeing how Syracuse gets to one. Along with divisional home games against FSU and Louisville, they have to go on the road in conference to play BC, Pitt and Clemson. Add in non-conference games at Connecticut and with Notre Dame and this year will be about building for 2017.

Virginia

What needs to get better – Performance in close games. Virginia had their chances last year. They had a halftime lead against Notre Dame and a second half lead against Miami, neither of which they could hold. They were also tied at half with North Carolina and tied in the 4th quarter with Louisville. An ability to finish games and the Cavaliers may have not been looking for a new coach.

What will go well – Off-season. If nothing else there will be positive vibes around the Cavaliers before the season starts. Tiquan Mizzell is a player fans can be excited about watching. There’s always hope when a new head coach comes in, which is what Virginia has in Bronco Mendenhall. Throw that in with a senior quarterback and fans may talk themselves into a sneaky good season.

What will be a struggle – The offense. An experienced quarterback returns, yes, but also a limited one. He’ll be looking for new targets as well since the offenses loses its top two receivers from last year. Just like 2015, it appears 2016 will be the Mizzell show.

Virginia Tech

What needs to get better – The running game. As bad as Virginia Tech’s offense has been, you could usually count on a decent running game if nothing else. Last year the Hokies didn’t even have that, ranking 112th in yards per carry. If you’re going to win games by keeping them close and playing good defense, you need a good running game to take pressure off the quarterback.

What will go well – Pass defense. This is one thing you can count on with the Hokies. They were 17th in passing yards allowed per game and return everyone in the secondary besides Kendall Fuller. He can be adequately replaced by Brandon Facyson, the next in line for NFL-caliber Hokie corners.

What will be a struggle – The passing offense. It’s going to be a shock for new coach Justin Fuente going from possible 1st rounder Paxton Lynch to new Hokies starter Brenden Motley. Motley got his feet wet last year when Michael Brewer got hurt and I don’t think fans liked what they saw. He had success in his first couple starts against against Furman and Purdue (congratulations), but the rest of the way was mostly a disaster.

Wake Forest

What needs to get better – Pass protection. Wake Forest is Wake Forest, so they’re going to be playing from behind a lot. Because of this it would be nice if the quarterback wasn’t running for his life every other play. That’s probably what it felt like for Demon Deacons quarterbacks last year, when they were sacked on 8.94% of drop-backs, 113th in the country.

What will go well – “Offensive fireworks”. OK fireworks might be a strong word. But Wake’s offensive should be vastly improved from a unit that was almost last (125th) in scoring at 17.4 ppg. The offense only loses two seniors, one at WR and one at guard, and 7/11 starters last year were freshmen or sophomores. On top of that, QB John Wolford improved his accuracy from 58.3% to 60.9% while also increasing his yards per attempt by over two full yards (5.55 to 7.69). Why do I feel like I’m talking myself into Wake Forest? I can’t wait to look back on this in November when Wake is eliminated from bowl contention and the offense is still a disaster.

What will be a struggle – Speaking of bowl games, making one will be tough for Wake Forest next year. The first month of the season is manageable but with a road slate that includes games against Florida State, Louisville, NC State, and Duke, it’s going to be a nail-biter for fans the second half of the season.

E-mail Jason at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JLindy87.

Featured image courtesy of Thomson20192

Washington State and Miami Tangle in the Sun Bowl

Spending Christmas in El Paso, Texas on purpose? Are you kidding me? Well, in the case of the Washington State Cougars and the Miami Hurricanes I am serious. The Cougars and Hurricanes get a chance to end their season on a high note when the two teams tangle the day after Christmas in what could be a most interesting matchup for college football fans to watch.

This will be the first time the two schools have met in football but, there is a little connection between the two schools. Back in the late 1980’s Dennis Erickson, then the head coach for Washington State took over the program at the University of Miami after some guy named Jimmy Johnson left for some football gig in Dallas.

What do these teams need to do for a win?

Let’s start with the Cougars. The first thing you should know about Washington State is that they love to throw the ball around the park quite a bit. Luke Falk, the Cougar quarterback, has had an excellent season by ranking fourth in the nation in passing. In 2015 he has thrown for 4,266 yards, 36 touchdowns, and only eight interceptions. However, the statistic that stands out to me is Falk’s completion percentage which is an astounding 70.7%. For Miami to have a chance for a win they have to make life difficult for Faulk and that will be something to watch for as the game progresses.

With gaudy stats like that, Faulk has to be thanking his lucky stars that he has the receivers that he does. In a wide-open offense like Washington State has it just isn’t one or two receivers that get the ball, it’s everybody. Falk does spread the ball around to his receivers which is one of the concepts of the “Air Raid” style of offense. The one downside for Head Coach Mike Leach is that his top receiver, Gabe Marks, will be out with an injury he suffered in the game against Washington. The number two receiver Dom Williams will certainly take up the slack for the offense.

Bottom line, the Cougars are going to throw the ball like 40-50 times and the response from the Miami Hurricanes will be something to watch. If people were to look at this game from the outside they would probably be a
bit worried about Miami.

Miami, as usual has athletes in the program, but they can be temperamental. When the offense is rolling and they are engaged in the game things tend to go well, but things can go to the dark side for them in a blink of an eye. How can they avoid things going sour on them?

Like I said, Miami has some pretty good athletes. The Hurricanes have a good three-headed monster developing for them on offense and with new head coach Mark Richt taking over the program after the season it could be something to grow on for 2016.

Quarterback Brad Kaaya has had a solid season by throwing for 3,019 yards, 15 touchdowns, and only four interceptions. When Kaaya isn’t throwing the ball around, he turns around to hand the ball off to Joe Yearby who can not only run the ball, but can also catch the ball out of the backfield. Yearby’s stats were pretty good. He ran for 939 yards, had 273 receiving yards, and had eight combined touchdowns. The third head of this monster is junior Stacy Coley who had 645 receiving yards and had a nice bounce back season after a very disappointing 2014 season.

With all this potential offense, what will be the thing to watch for?
I believe the difference will be whether or not Miami’s defense can hold this air raid attack down. As stated earlier, Washington State will throw the ball 40-50 times, but if the total yardage is around 250 yards, then Miami has a pretty good shot at winning this game. If the Cougars throw for about 400 yards or more, then Washington State wins the game, probably in convincing fashion.

In the end, I think Washington State wins this game by about 10 points. Mike Leach is out to prove some things after their embarrassing Apple Cup loss to Washington, so the Cougars will be motivated to show the rest of the country that should be taken a little more seriously. Not that Washington State is close to be national championship material, but that they could make things in the Pac-12 and maybe nationally more interesting in 2016.

To do that, it all starts in El Paso, Texas.

Spring Keys for the Canes

It was a difficult year for Canes fans. The team went from nine wins in 2013 down to six in 2014. Yet despite that it still feels like there is more hope and optimism than you’d expect from a team that dropped three wins from the previous year and is coming off a bowl loss. I guess that’s a testament to the change in expectations when your top two quarterbacks on the depth chart get injured or kicked off the team before week one. Brad Kaaya did an amazing job given his situation and for the first time in a few years the defense wasn’t an embarrassment. But with that hope comes new expectations and certain things between now and the end of spring practice will determine if the 2015 Canes can build upon 2014.

The first step is also the first chronologically. National Signing Day is less than two weeks away and it could go really well or really poorly for Miami. They are currently sitting at 20th in the ESPN recruiting class rankings. So far the class is solid with numerous offensive linemen which will add depth, but aside from one receiver, the two impact players are running backs, which Miami already has two of good quality at that position. The school is still in the Top 3 or 4 on about five or six top end recruits. Snagging one or two could vault them to another Top 15 class and add playmakers to a defense that sorely needs them, but coming up empty would likely see them drop out of the Top 25. It’s an important day for Coach Al Golden, not just for the future but for the present as well.

One key element for Miami once spring rolls around is replacing Duke Johnson. You would think replacing the best running back in school history statistically would be quite the challenge, but it in all likelihood it’s the least of the Canes worries. Joe Yearby is almost a carbon copy of Duke Johnson at 5’9’’ and 190 pounds. It remains to be seen if he can come close to being the player Johnson was but his freshman year showed glimpses of a potential star, with Yearby going for over 500 yards on 5.9 ypc. If Yearby isn’t running around defenders, Gus Edwards (at 6’2’’ 230 lbs) will be running through them. He battled injury at the end of the year but rushed for six touchdowns and had 5.7 ypc. These two should give Miami a formidable 1-2 punch, softening the loss of Duke.

Going hand in hand with the running game will be a restructured offensive line. The team only returns one member of the line who started all season. The returning players are a mixed bunch who varied from a few starts to at least a few appearances. Having to find two new starters at tackle is rough, making potential 1st round pick LT Ereck Flowers’ early departure hurt that much more. It would be nice if both did, but at least one of Miami’s 2014 highly touted recruits needs to break through. Trevor Darling and KC McDermott both got playing time last year so they shouldn’t come into 2015 wide-eyed. Regardless of who ends up as the starting five, hopefully it will be settled by the end of spring. Competition is good and all, but continuity is also important, particularly on the o-line.

Sticking with the offense, the receivers are currently a mystery. Kaaya’s top three targets from a year ago are all gone, so multiple guys will need to step up. Herb Waters and Malcolm Lewis are veterans but likely offer little upside at this point. Braxton Berrios got a fair amount of playing time as a freshman and developed a decent rapport with Kaaya. Miami will have to hope JUCO TE Jerome Washington lives up to the hype to replace TE Clive Walford who was the team’s most reliable receiver. But the potential of the receiving corps really comes down to Stacy Coley. Coley was electrifying as a freshman, collecting 600 yards receiving to go with 7 touchdowns on 17.9 yards per catch while also recording touchdowns via rushing, punt return, and kick returns. Coley was mostly M.I.A. last season. He has good size to go with great speed and needs to have a breakout junior year for the offense to reach its full potential.

Don’t think I forgot about the defense, it certainly has areas of concern as well. One is replacing All-American and leader of the defense Denzel Perryman. Perryman was the rock of their defense and will be hard to replace from a leadership standpoint but there are talented guys ready to take their shot. Raphael Kirby may replace Perryman at middle linebacker but Jermaine Grace is the guy to look out for. One of the two needs to step up in the spring and take the reins of the front seven, if not the whole defense.

Many Canes fans have been clamoring for overall changes on defense as well. They seem to get little out of their talented defensive players and compound that with questionable game-day tactics. The defensive coaching needs to step up and figure out a way to get the most out of its players and not resort to playing what seems to be vanilla defenses time after time with little adjustments. One strategy could be to blitz more this year. A deep and experienced secondary should be the strong point of the 2015 Miami defense, which should allow them to take more chances going after the quarterback.

In the end however, the most important position in football is quarterback, so a lot of the team’s success (or failure) will be the result of Brad Kaaya’s development. Kaaya threw for 26 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions and averaged 8.46 yards per attempt as a true freshman. He was first in the conference in QBR, yards/attempt, and touchdowns. On the flip side, he only completed 58.5% of his passes. That contributed heavily to an offense that ranked 95th in the nation in 3rd down conversions and has to increase to over 60 this year, if not closer to 65%.

Nobody can expect the Hurricanes to contend for a playoff spot next season, but if they don’t improve to 8/9 wins Al Golden could be looking for another job. Golden has been putting together Top 10-15 recruiting classes but it hasn’t translated to on-field success. These steps are crucial to laying the groundwork for an improved Hurricane team. If they can successfully accomplish most of them, along with having arguably the best QB in the conference, they should compete for their first ACC championship in a year with no dominant team to stand in their way.