PINEHURST, N.C. — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney hopes Deshaun Watson takes another step forward this season.
The voters think the other Tigers will, too.
For the second time in three years, Clemson is the favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Tigers’ quarterback is the league’s preseason player of the year.
“I appreciate people having respect for our program and our players, but really it truly is about the performance,” Swinney said Tuesday. “And hopefully, when all is said and done in December, whoever voted for it, we can make them look real smart.”
In voting results announced during the final day of the ACC’s preseason media blitz, the Tigers and Georgia Tech were picked to meet in the league championship game.
Clemson was voted first on 101 of 158 ballots in Atlantic Division-specific voting to 56 for three-time defending champion Florida State and one for Louisville.
The Tigers also received 84 votes in a separate vote for the overall ACC champion to 41 for Florida State and 20 for Georgia Tech. And in an odd voting peculiarity, North Carolina State received a vote to win the overall ACC title — but no first-place votes to win the Atlantic Division.
Watson threw for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns with just two interceptions while playing eight games as a freshman for the Tigers, who last won the ACC in 2011. And in the breakout moment of his debut season, he nearly led them to an upset at Florida State, taking the Seminoles to overtime.
In 2013, they were picked to win it and quarterback Tajh Boyd was the preseason player of the year. Florida State went on to win the national championship that year behind Heisman Trophy-winning freshman Jameis Winston.
This time, Watson had 69 votes for the individual award to 46 for Pittsburgh running back James Conner, the league’s player of the year in 2014.
“He’s as advertised,” Swinney said of Watson. “(Voters) are picking him to be the preseason player of the year and all that stuff based on what y’all have seen. He’s beyond what you’ve seen.
“It’s pretty easy to watch this kid play and say, ‘Wow, this is a rare guy,’” he added. “But what you don’t know, he’s only been in college a year. What you don’t really know is who he is. … When he’s out there, we got a chance each and every play for something good to happen. That’s a good thing.”
The ACC’s preseason polls usually look the same each year: Since it split into divisions in 2005, the voters picked either Clemson or Florida State to win the Atlantic Division and — until now — either Miami or Virginia Tech to win the Coastal.
In a Coastal Division that spawned a Twitter hashtag dedicated to its chaotic nature, those predictions are even more meaningless: the voters haven’t gotten the winner right since 2011 (Virginia Tech).
And of the combined 232 ballots that were cast in 2013 and ’14, only one correctly predicted the Coastal champ: the one who picked Georgia Tech last year.
“For once,” Tech coach Paul Johnson said, “I hope they got it right.”
His Yellow Jackets certainly received a lot more love this time.
They received 96 first-place votes in divisional balloting, ahead of 44 for Virginia Tech, seven for Miami and four for both Duke and North Carolina. Virginia — the last-palce pick for the second straight year — was the only Coastal team not to receive a first-place vote.
“The mindset of the (leaders) that are on this team currently are guys that have a can-do attitude,” Cavaliers coach Mike London said. “We focus on the positive. We let the negative speak for itself.”