The 2019 college football season kicks off in a little under a month. To help gear up, the ACC Sports Journal staff decided to huddle up and look at several key ACC Football questions before things get started.
4. Which ACC coach has the least amount of job security entering the season?
There was plenty of turnover in the coaching ranks after the 2018 season. Could we see more on the horizon in 2019?
Willie Taggart, Florida State.
Once upon a time, a college football coach was given more time to build a successful program. Did you know, for example, that Frank Beamer finished 2-8-1 in his SIXTH season at Virginia Tech? He not only retained his job after that brutal 1992 campaign, he kept it for the next 23 years, too, before retiring in 2015 as the winningest active FBS coach (280 career victories) in the entire nation.
It may seem odd to list any second-year coach as the answer to this question, but remember the extraordinary circumstances here. FSU is a football-first school with an extremely proud, highly prominent program that in Taggart’s first season finished 5-7 and missed the postseason for the first time in 36 years.
Taggart says he thinks the negativity around the program made it harder to sign all #FSU's commits in December.
— Curt Weiler (@CurtMWeiler) February 6, 2019
Some experts believe FSU will have the second-best team in the ACC this season, behind only mighty Clemson. If Taggart’s 2019 record ends up reflecting that, of course, there will be no postseason debate about his future in Tallahassee. A second straight flop, however, would raise serious questions about whether a cash-strapped university such as FSU could afford a massive (reportedly $17 million at the end of the 2019 season) buyout just two years into Taggart’s original six-year, $30 million deal.
Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech
The ACC is in an interesting place right now when it comes to coaching. Four new head coaches enter the league this season, which translates to over 25 percent of the league bring in a new coach. That’s fairly high turnover.
Plenty of other coaches, like Dave Clawson at Wake Forest or Dave Doeren at NC State (despite turnover on his own staff this offseason), have found success and seem to be on solid footing when it comes to job security.
Doeren fell just short of cracking the 10-win ceiling in Raleigh the past two seasons, but the Pack have five straight winning seasons, five straight bowl appearances and continue to put players in the NFL. (It certainly doesn’t hurt that Doeren has won four out of the last five against UNC, including three straight.)
In Winston-Salem, it’s an ideal partnership between Clawson and Wake Forest.
Appears an 8-year contract extension for Dave Clawson, which has seemingly been in the works for months.
— Conor O'Neill (@ConorONeillWSJ) April 30, 2019
The same could be said for Bronco Mendenhall at Virginia; during his four years at UVA, the former BYU head man has turned things around quickly in Charlottesville — winning eight games last season and ranking inside the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2011.
Of course, there’s Dabo Swinney, too, who I’m pretty sure is the King of South Carolina, by this point.
Dabo literally drops his mic upon reflecting on Clemson's smashing of Alabama as the 2018 seniors get their championship rings at midfield.
— Larry Williams (@LarryWilliamsTI) April 6, 2019
On the other end of the spectrum, things approached disaster status last season for Willie Taggart at Florida State. However, Taggart was handed a bit of a mess thanks to Christmas Tree appreciator Jimbo Fisher, and he’s in just his second season of a six-year, $30 million deal. He should be afforded more runway to recruit and try to get things going in a positive direction.
This leaves one more choice: Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech. Perhaps that’s rash for a guy who won 19 games in his first two seasons and has been to three straight bowl games. But the wheels of the program started to get a little rickety in 2018. A plethora of players left the program — starting in the 2018 offseason and intensifying after the 2018 regular season wrapped up — as the Hokies won just six games.
Justin Fuente today: "I’ve never been more optimistic about the future of Virginia Tech football than I am at this moment. …
“I think part of it is, I know we’re doing the right thing. (The transfers) all individual cases. That’s the key to think about."
— David Teel (@DavidTeelatDP) February 6, 2019
Fuente has downplayed the concerns; however, another season like that — with another round of premature player departures — could prove costly for Fuente’s time in Blacksburg.
Willie Taggart, Florida State
The spotlight is on Taggart in Tallahassee. Under no circumstances should Florida State not appear in bowl games in consecutive seasons.
In 2016, FSU was led by quarterback Deondre Francois to a 10-3 season capped with a win over Michigan in the Orange Bowl. Last season, coming off a season-ending knee injury, Francois looked lost in a new offense and when he didn’t look lost, he was under constant pressure because of an injury riddled offensive line that had nine different starting combinations.
Is there hope for Florida State’s woeful offensive line? We looked for some historical precedent to determine how much better the Noles can be up front in 2019… https://t.co/u6TKNc23Ky
— That's so David (@ADavidHaleJoint) April 29, 2019
The Seminoles went 5-7, leading to some changes this offseason. Kendal Briles was brought in as FSU’s new offensive coordinator. Francois was dismissed from the team in February after a video of a domestic dispute between him and his girlfriend was made public. So now it’s up to sophomore quarterback James Blackman — and an offensive line with a combined 58 starts to protect him — to get FSU back on track.
But if they can’t this year, there will certainly be many who question if Taggart is the right coach for this storied program. In 10 years as an FBS coach (Western Kentucky, South Florida, Oregon and FSU) Taggart has accrued a 52-57 record.
5. In 2018, a 7-win team made it to the ACC title game and the league had just 28 players drafted into the NFL. Is that an aberration or a troublesome sign for the league?
Clemson won the national title last season and had six players drafted into the NFL. After that, though, things thinned out for the ACC.
The ideal college football program would have a well-known head coach whose recent track record proves he can compete for championships and help players realize their NFL dreams, backed by a wealthy, football-first athletic department, quality facilities, mesmerizing game-day atmospheres and huge numbers of passionate fans.
Right now, in the ACC, only Dabo Swinney and Clemson resemble that remark. The other 13 programs either are missing one or more of those foundational elements (some may never find them), or their current head coaches still are seeking to prove themselves — in some cases, re-prove themselves — in one way or another.
Over the past 5 seasons, only 12 P5 teams have a winning record vs. bowl-eligible P5 opponents.
Alabama and Clemson are a combined 78-15 (.839) in such games.
That’s dominance, folks.
— That's so David (@ADavidHaleJoint) August 2, 2018
These perceptions tend to matter a lot in recruiting, which is why only the Tigers (and Florida State before Jimbo Fisher’s departure for Texas A&M) have been signing the sorts of top-10 classes seen consistently at Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas and even elsewhere. Such results don’t guarantee championships or big NFL numbers, obviously, but if they weren’t a vital part of program-building, there would be more titles claimed more often by other programs.
Overall, a slightly down year for ACC Football in 2018 really isn’t much to fret about — yet. I mean, Clemson did just win the national championship. (Granted, when it comes to football, the ACC is putting a lot of eggs in that orange and purple basket.) Seven ACC player went in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft, too.
Clemson coaches running to the elevator: "How bout that ACC baby!"
— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) January 8, 2019
It seems a tad irrational to overreact to a one-year sample — more data needs to be taken into account. Just a few years ago, back in 2016, the ACC celebrated its best season ever as a football league, which included a national championship and Lamar Jackson winning the Heisman Trophy.
However, I can see some of the concerns, especially as the league enters 2019 with only one dominant team. As of right now with the Clemson Tigers, it feels like Florida State in the 1990s, right? There’s a lack of parity and that’s problematic. In a way, the league has balance, but it’s mostly muddled in the middle. That’s not exactly the type of equity a league like the ACC aspires to have.
Since 2012, Clemson is 54-6 (.900) vs the ACC.
Since 2012, Alabama is 5-2 (.714) vs the ACC.
— William Qualkinbush (@QualkTalk) June 27, 2019
Obviously, it’d be a major boon if programs like Miami, Virginia Tech or Florida State could find footing. For whatever it’s worth, these things tend to be cyclical, or so it seems.
I’m becoming more and more concerned about the current state of the ACC. We haven’t seen a gap between the best and the rest in the ACC this large since the league expanded to 12 schools many, many years ago. It’s simply Clemson — then everybody else playing for second.
That gap was massive last season and I’m convinced it has widened this year. NC State is rebuilding after losing three-year starting quarterback Ryan Finley, his top receivers, offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz and other key coaches and starters.
FSU is down at the moment; Miami and Georgia Tech are bringing in new coaches and Virginia Tech is coming off its first losing season since the George H. Bush administration. I don’t think believe it’s time to press the panic button by any means, but it should be a concerning trend for Commissioner John Swofford and the league.
6. Who is the ACC’s top NFL prospect and why?
The ACC is home to the best NFL prospect in the country. Here’s the catch, though: it will be a while before he plays on Sundays.
David Glenn Show
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Yes, he’s only a sophomore this season, but if you gave any NFL team that needs a quarterback the choice between taking ANY THREE draft-eligible ACC prospects in 2020, or “only” Lawrence (who likely will go No. 1 overall after his junior year) in 2021, they all would wait for the latter.
A Sports Illustrated profile this summer on Lawrence carried this title: “The NFL Awaits The Arrival Of Trevor Lawrence.” Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, who coached Lawrence at the Elite 11 camp, said: “There’s nothing he can’t do.” In the same article, others with NFL coaching and/or playing experience described Lawrence as “perfect” and essentially flawless on and off the field. Wow.
Among the ACC players who will be (as seniors) or could be (with early entry) eligible for the 2020 draft, NFL scouts at this point are most intrigued by Virginia cornerback Bryce Hall, Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons, Clemson running back Travis Etienne, Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins, Florida State defensive tackle Marvin Wilson, Boston College running back AJ Dillon, FSU running back Cam Akers and FSU wide receiver Tamorrion Terry. Hall is the only senior in that group.
Well, there are two ways to answer this question. First off, let’s start with the correct application: the league’s top NFL prospect, and it’s not even close, is Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. In fact, there’s a very good chance that if eligible, Lawrence would’ve been the No. 1 overall pick in this 2019 draft.
Trevor Lawrence had A GAME for the Tigers against Alabama. Oh yeah…hes a true freshman. pic.twitter.com/9q7UGIxqh2
— PFF College (@PFF_College) January 8, 2019
He’s young, talented and shines at the sport’s most important position. Positional scarcity is a huge factor here, too.
However, he’s at Clemson for at least two more seasons due to the NFL’s byzantine draft rules. Assuming things go well: Lawrence throws for 8,000 more yards and looks the part while leading Clemson the College Football Playoff two more times. After that, Lawrence is the sure-fire No. 1 pick in 2021. It all feels too easy.
If we’re to focus on players eligible for the 2020 draft, however, there are a handful of names to keep in mind:
- Bryce Hall, UVA: 22 passes broken up, two interceptions, 3.5 tackles for loss
- Tee Higgins, Clemson: 16 receptions of 20+ yards
- Isaiah Simmons, Clemson: 9.5 tackles for loss
- Travis Etienne, Clemson: 12 carries of 30+ yards
In order to best answer this question, I feel like I have to give you more than one name (sorry!). I believe the ACC’s two best prospects are Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and wide receiver Justyn Ross. The only problem with making either one of them my answer here is that they are both sophomores, which means they aren’t eligible for next spring’s draft.
I’m a big believer in Tigers running back Travis Etienne, who rushed for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2018. But to give you a non-Clemson prospect to watch for, I’d keep an eye on Florida State tailback Cam Akers. He is easily one of the fastest running backs in the country. Coming out of high school, he ran a 4.41 40-yard dash and according to reports in the spring, he’s now 100 percent after dealing with a nagging ankle injury last season.
Bryce Hall topped ACC cornerbacks in coverage with his 91.4 grade. pic.twitter.com/DOGDqFUTns
— PFF College (@PFF_College) February 20, 2019
On defense, I’d venture to say Virginia cornerback Bryce Hall will be in the running for All-America considerations and he has many of the tools NFL scouts are looking for in the secondary.