GREENSBORO, N.C. — The Atlantic Coast Conference recently has produced a Heisman Trophy winner, a No. 1 overall draft pick, a BCS champion and a playoff team.
OK, that wasn’t the whole league, but just one school — Florida State.
This is shaping up as a pivotal year for a conference that wants to prove it’s more than just the Seminoles and then everybody else.
Florida State doesn’t look quite as much like the group that won the final BCS championship and reached the first College Football Playoff behind 2013 Heisman winner — and current Tampa Bay quarterback — Jameis Winston.
Defensive back Jalen Ramsey says he’s often asked how the Seminoles will remain at a high level with significant roster turnover.
He said his standard response is, “We’re Florida State. We’re going to hold ourselves to a high standard every single year.”
Maybe, but this season could help determine whether the Seminoles’ recent rising tide lifted the rest of the league — or if the ACC as a whole rises and falls with how Florida State performs.
“There’s several teams in this conference that I think have a chance to win the league,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “I think we’re one of them.”
So do the voters. They made his Tigers the league’s preseason favorite and picked sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson as the preseason player of the year.
And maybe Georgia Tech will continue its stealthy climb with returning starter Justin Thomas orchestrating Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense to another Coastal Division title.
Perhaps North Carolina — with 10 offensive starters returning and a national championship-winning coordinator leading a defensive overhaul — will finally break through to its first league title game.
Or maybe a legitimate contender will vault from the pack, much like Duke in 2013 and Boston College in the late 2000s.
Some things to watch in the ACC this season:
NEW FACES: Some big names have arrived in the ACC this season. Gene Chizik, who was fired by Auburn a year after he led the Tigers to the 2010 national title, has resurfaced as the defensive coordinator at North Carolina. Everett Golson, who led Notre Dame to the BCS championship game during the 2012 season, is a graduate transfer at Florida State and is fighting for the starting job.
FAMILIAR FACES: The ACC returns its leading rusher, its top passer and its top two scorers from 2014. Reigning player of the year James Conner rushed for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns for Pittsburgh last season while Miami’s Brad Kaaya had an efficiency rating of 145.9 as a freshman. Conner averaged two touchdowns per game while Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo was responsible for 136 points. And there’s a case to be made that another player — Ramsey — is the league’s best. Said Ramsey: “I feel no one has the resume I have.”
COASTAL CRAPSHOOT: Picking a champion in the Coastal Division has been a fool’s errand — the voters haven’t nailed it since they correctly chose Virginia Tech in 2011. In the previous two years, a total of 232 ballots were cast at the league’s preseason media days and only one picked a winner — the one who chose Georgia Tech last year. That could be a bad omen for the Yellow Jackets, this year’s favorite. Quipped Johnson: “For once, I hope they got it right.”
HOT SEAT: This could be a make-or-break year for a couple of Coastal Division coaches. Mike London is 23-38 in five years at Virginia, and though the Cavaliers improved to 5-7 in 2014, they’ve only had one winning season under him. Al Golden insists he doesn’t feel pressure despite disgruntled fans flying a plane carrying a banner that called for his job.
NEW PLACES: For the first time since the 2004 season, the Orange Bowl isn’t guaranteed an ACC team. That’s because that bowl will host a College Football Playoff semifinal. So, an ACC champion that doesn’t make the four-team field will instead play in either the Fiesta or Peach bowls.
Predicted order of finish:
ATLANTIC — 1. Clemson, 2. Florida State, 3. Louisville, 4. North Carolina State, 5. Boston College, 6. Syracuse, 7. Wake Forest
COASTAL — 1. Georgia Tech, 2. North Carolina, 3. Virginia Tech, 4. Duke, 5. Miami, 6. Pittsburgh, 7. Virginia
Title game winner: Clemson.