Conference championship: Florida State defeats Virginia Tech
Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
2013 stats: 4,057 passing yards, 40 passing TD, 10 interceptions, 219 rushing yards, 4 rushing TD
2014 projected stats: 3,985 passing yards, 36 passing TD, 6 interceptions, 320 rushing yards, 6 rushing TD
It couldn’t be anyone else, could it? The reigning Heisman Trophy winner is back to lead the nation’s top-ranked team. Winston was spectacular in his first year as the Seminoles' starter. While there are still off-field matters to ponder, there is only one question Winston has left to answer on the field: What does he have planned for an encore?
Kendall Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
2013 stats: 58 tackles, 6 interceptions, 2.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble
2014 projected stats: 73 tackles, 4 interceptions, 5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
While linemen such as Florida State’s Mario Edwards Jr. and Clemson’s Vic Beasley should put up monster numbers, Fuller’s big-play potential could define Virginia Tech’s season. The next great Fuller brother (following Vincent, Corey and Kyle) has great natural instincts and a knack for finding the ball. He may be even better as a sophomore than he was in his terrific freshman year.
John Wolford, QB, Wake Forest
2013 stats (high school): 3,317 passing yards, 38 passing TD, 7 interceptions, 931 rushing yards, 14 rushing TD
2014 projected stats: 2,832 passing yards, 19 passing TD, 16 interceptions, 360 rushing yards, 4 rushing TD
It’s rare a team names a true freshman the starting quarterback in early August. It’s even more unusual if that freshman wasn’t an early enrollee. That’s how bad things are at quarterback -- and elsewhere -- for first-year Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson. With a thin receiving corps and a questionable line, Wolford could struggle, but the kid can play. The Bishop Kenny (Fla.) High product broke Tim Tebow’s Florida Class 5A record with 126 career touchdowns.
Mike London, Virginia
2013 record: 2-10 (0-8)
Record at Virginia: 18-31 (8-24)
Virginia would have been well within its rights to let London go after last year’s disastrous campaign, but the Cavaliers coach got another shot, largely for his ability to draw top talent to Charlottesville. Safety Quin Blanding was the fifth-ranked prospect in the 2014 recruiting class, and Andrew Brown was the top-rated defensive tackle in the country, according to Rivals.com. It’s a lot of pressure to add “save your coach” to incoming freshmen’s load, but if the Cavs struggle again this season, London’s ouster would seem imminent.
College Football Preview: Breaking down the ACC
Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples and Martin Rickman analyze the ACC entering the 2014 season.
Three key nonconference games
Clemson at Georgia, Aug. 30 (ESPN)
Coming off a thrilling Orange Bowl win over Ohio State, the Tigers could have momentum heading into this test against the Bulldogs. Clemson needs its defense to play the way it did the last few weeks of 2013. Meanwhile, the offense -- without Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd -- must click early.
RICKMAN: Clemson is No. 16 in SI's Preseason Top 25 rankings
Virginia Tech at Ohio State, Sept. 6 (ESPN)
A revamped Buckeyes’ defense is likely licking its chops to face an untested and unproven Hokies’ offense. While Virginia Tech’s defense was one of the best in the country a year ago, it should have its hands full against dual-threat quarterback Braxton Miller and Urban Meyer’s speedy skill-position players.
Cincinnati at Miami, Oct. 11 (TBD)
There’s no doubt Tommy Tuberville’s teams know how to score. If quarterback Gunner Kiel (finally on the field again) plays up to his pedigree, the Bearcats could be a force in the American Athletic Conference. The Hurricanes can’t afford to sleepwalk in this one.
RICKMAN: After long journey, Gunner Kiel finally where he wants to be
Three key conference games
Miami at Louisville, Sept. 1 (ESPN)
A rematch of last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl, this game also serves as an ACC welcoming party. The Cardinals would probably rather play an opponent not motivated by revenge, but this is a telling first test under Bobby Petrino.
Clemson at Florida State, Sept. 20 (TBD)
This matchup settled the ACC Atlantic last season, and it’ll likely do the same this year. Clemson’s Beasley told SI.com during ACC media days that he would rather beat Florida State than break the program's losing streak against South Carolina. That's easier said than done -- especially against a team as talented as the ‘Noles.
North Carolina at Duke, Nov. 20 (ESPN)
In-state rivalries are always intriguing, but this one could mean even more this late in the fall. Both Duke and North Carolina may be in position to capture the ACC Coastal Division, and the Tar Heels will want to avenge last year’s 27-25 loss.
Five key questions
Can Florida State march through another season unscathed? Ask this question to any Seminoles fan and the answer is absolutely, positively yes. Still, going undefeated for two straight seasons is no easy task, no matter how dominant a team appears on paper. Florida State has loads of talent at every position, and it will be favored in games against Oklahoma State, Clemson, Notre Dame, Louisville and Florida. But all it takes is one slip-up to put a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff at risk.
How will Duke fare with a target on its back?
How will Louisville and new (old) coach Bobby Petrino adjust to the ACC? The Cardinals deserved admission into the ACC given the amount of money they've poured into athletics and the success they’ve had across multiple sports. Now, it’s time to see if the Cards can avoid the initial struggles that have followed other recently realigned programs, such as West Virginia and Utah. Having a familiar face and offensive-minded coach in Petrino -- and a talented defense -- should help ease the transition.
Coming off a surprise ACC Coastal Division title, things are already a little different for the Blue Devils. Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is off to Florida, and Brandon Connette, part of the team’s two-headed quarterback monster, transferred to Fresno State. Duke also lost senior leader Kelby Brown, an All-ACC linebacker last season, for the year with a torn ACL. It’s impressive what coach David Cutcliffe has built in Durham, but the program’s foundation will be tested.
How long can Clemson quarterback Cole Stoudt hold off Deshaun Watson?
Stoudt waited for three seasons to earn the Tigers' starting job. At 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, he looks the part of a big-time quarterback. However, Watson was the prize of Clemson’s 2014 recruiting class and enrolled in January. Stoudt seems capable and confident, but don’t be surprised to see Watson get his shot.
Will Miami’s Duke Johnson stay healthy?
Johnson was a difference-maker last year, rushing for 920 yards and six touchdowns before breaking his ankle in the team’s 41-14 loss to Florida State on Nov. 2. All signs out of fall camp are that the junior running back has bulked up without losing any speed. The 'Canes need him to stay that way if they hope to rise to the top of a crowded Coastal Division.