By Zac Ellis
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The 2013 ACC Kickoff came to a close on Monday after a newsworthy two days at the Grandover Resort in Greensboro, N.C. The league's coaches finally took the floor for interviews, and we've rounded up the best news and notes from the final day's action:
Tigers on top?
Clemson leads all ACC teams with 14 combined conference championships, but when the media selected the Tigers' as the preseason favorite to win the league on Monday, it marked only the second time since 1991 that the program sat atop the preseason poll. Yet according to coach Dabo Swinney, that designation means nothing when the season kicks off.
"It's so not even worth having a conversation about," Swinney told reporters. "Our focus is on preparation and getting better."
The Tigers return 13 starters from a team that closed last season with an epic Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over LSU. The team's 11-2 record in 2012 was its best since the program's 1981 national championship season, and Swinney believes the program can build on the previous campaign. For now, though, he said he's just happy that Clemson's name comes up when "people make their lists of top 10, 15 teams."
"Hopefully people recognize our brand more," he said. "People perceive us as a consistent program."
The return of quarterback Tajh Boyd -- the media's selection to repeat as ACC Player of the Year -- will further strengthen an already potent offense, though recent headlines have distracted from the passer's upcoming senior season. On Sunday the Tigers' quarterback fielded questions regarding South Carolina defense end Jadeveon Clowney, who at SEC Media Days told reporters that Boyd was "scared" when the two teams met on the field.
Swinney brushed off the comments when asked about it on Monday. "Tajh is not scared of anyone," the coach said. "But we respect Clowney as a player."
While Boyd and the offense return as a fairly established unit, Swinney said he hopes to see an improvement in his defense, which allowed 392.2 yards per game, good for only seventh in the ACC. It's a goal he hopes to continue as the season progresses. "I hope, at the end of the season, people can say the front seven is the strength of the team," Swinney said.
Swinney opined on a handful of other topics during Monday's interview sessions:
• The coach solidified his vote for an eight-game ACC conference schedule. With the College Football Playoff on the horizon, strength of schedule is set to become an even more important aspect of determining the postseason lineup, especially within a selection-committee process. But Swinney said he prefers a smaller conference schedule to make room for premier non-conference matchups, like the Tigers' opener against Georgia on Aug. 31. "It gives us some flexibility for some outside flavor," he said. "If you want to be the best, you've got to do it on the field. You have to remove all doubt."
• Swinney said he isn't convinced that the ACC divisions -- which many consider to have been lopsided in recent years -- should be realigned. "All that stuff is sort of cyclical," he said.
Miami, Golden calmly awaiting NCAA sanctions
On Sunday ACC commissioner John Swofford said he would be "very disappointed" if the NCAA's decision surrounding its nearly two-year-long investigation into Miami isn't handed down before the season begins. Hurricanes coach Al Golden agreed with Swofford's assertion when speaking with reporters on Monday.
"Yes, it would be tough," Golden said, when asked about a situation in which the sanctions were issued during preseason practice. "It's been a very sensational story for the start. Yes, I'd be very disappointed if in the middle of training camp we have to devote six, seven days on something that could be done before."
Golden and the Hurricanes were informed by Miami in June that the process of reaching a conclusion to the organization's investigation should take six to eight weeks. This Friday, July 26, would mark the six-week point.
Still, Golden covets a chance to talk football amid the cloud of NCAA sanctions. His Hurricanes were picked by the media to win the ACC's Coastal Division and play Clemson in the conference title game. Miami returns plenty of key faces from a fairly explosive offense in 2012, including quarterback Stephen Morris and tailback Duke Johnson. Those high expectations -- and the program's return to postseason eligibility -- provide Golden a chance to deviate from NCAA discussion. "This is the most normal six-week period at Miami since I've been here," said the coach.
But Golden knows the program's immediate future sits in the hands of the NCAA. What does he expect from the investigation? "I just hope they aren't as inaccurate as they were a year ago," he said.
ACC Officiating Coordinator Doug Rhoads told reporters on Monday that he would have ejected Jadeveon Clowney for the South Carolina defensive end's hit on Michigan tailback Vincent Smith in last season's Outback Bowl. It was a hit that most people viewed as legal.
Rhoads's admission came in the thick of discussions into college football's revamped targeting rule. The foul, which previously resulted in a 15-yard penalty, will now include the ejection of the offending player from the game in 2013. If the penalty is assessed in the first half, the player will miss the rest of that game, but if the foul takes place in the second half, the player will miss the remainder of that game and the first half of the team's next game.
The targeting rule prohibits a defensive player from initiating contact with the crown of his helmet and/or targeting a defenseless player. Rhoads offered several definitions of what constitutes a "defenseless player," including a player in the act of passing, a player attempting a catch before becoming a runner and even a quarterback at any point after a change of possession.
But the change to the rule, which was approved across all NCAA divisions in March, represents a combined effort to increase player safety, Rhoads said. And it seems a defensive player is not likely to be given the benefit of the doubt when the penalty is assessed in real-time. "In general, when in question, it's a foul," Rhoads said. Still, while the 15-yard penalty cannot be reversed, an ejection can be overturned upon review.
ACC coaches expressed mixed feelings about the new targeting rule. For some, it's an issue of coaching against players' instinct. "There's a lot of grey area in there," Swinney said. "That's the biggest concern ... From a coaching standpoint, it makes coaches a little uncomfortable because you don't know how to teach your guys."
A few coaches felt the decision to automatically eject a player on a first infraction is too detrimental. Maryland coach Randy Edsall said he would prefer the penalty be assessed and the player be allowed to remain in the game. The conference would then be able to review the foul at a later date and determine if a suspension is appropriate.
Golden echoed Edsall's perspective. "There's no reset button on that," Golden said. "One hit, and you're gone ... I would be much more comfortable leaving it up to the conference."