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Way-too-early 2014 ACC college football predictions

  • By Chase Goodbread, Mike Huguenin and Bryan Fischer
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Steve Cannon/Associated Press
Expectations for Jameis Winston are sky-high coming off his Heisman-winning 2013 season.

As we take a look at the players that will be charged with replacing the 2014 draftees in the ACC, here are some early (OK, way-too-early) ACC predictions from the College Football 24/7 team for the upcoming season:

ACC Atlantic winner

Chase Goodbread: Florida State. The Seminoles shouldn't have too much trouble taking care of divisional business with a Heisman Trophy winner returning in Jameis Winston, and the division's other top quarterbacks -- Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater and Clemson's Tajh Boyd -- moving on to the Sunday league. Plus, Clemson has to play in Tallahassee this season.

Mike Huguenin: Florida State. The defending national-champion Seminoles have some questions at wide receiver and the depth at tailback is untested. On the other hand, they have what should be the nation's best offensive line, some solid tight ends, an absurdly deep group of defensive backs, some high-level talent in the defensive front and a handful of speedy linebackers. They also have the reigning Heisman winner at quarterback.

Bryan Fischer: Florida State. Hard to go with anybody but the defending national champs given where others in the division are and how much talent Jimbo Fisher has on the roster. Jameis Winston is obviously the focal piece for this team, but I'm interested to see what Charles Kelly (and Sal Sunseri) are going to do with the loaded defense. The skill-position players are off the charts for the Seminoles and the big boys in the trenches are top notch. It's hard to find anybody close to FSU in the Atlantic heading into the season.

ACC Coastal winner

Goodbread: North Carolina. The Tar Heels are as good a bet as any to win this wide open division, particularly with Miami, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh all replacing quarterbacks. While the UNC offense is primed to light up the scoreboard, the rush defense needs a complete and effective overhaul.

Huguenin: North Carolina. The season-ending injury to starting QB Bryn Renner suffered in midseason hurt the Tar Heels in 2013, but helped them get ready for this season. TE Eric Ebron obviously will be missed, as will DE Kareem Martin. But the Heels return eight players on offense and seven on defense that started the bowl game, and they look to have an explosive group of receivers, good-enough running backs and a defense that will only have to be adequate in order to win the division.

Fischer: Duke. I can't believe I selected Duke for this spot, but that's the world we live in for the 2014 season. I'm sure North Carolina will be a trendy pick and Miami certainly has the most talent on the field, but there are still a lot of question marks for both. The Blue Devils will have quarterback Anthony Boone back to team with Jamison Crowder and the defense should continue to be OK overall. They get UNC at home and an early trip to Miami isn't one of the tougher ones in the league, so the schedule is a solid help as well.

Team with best chance to win national title

Goodbread: Florida State. The Seminoles' schedule looks awfully tricky with Oklahoma State, Notre Dame and Florida lined up for non-conference play, but the talent gap between FSU and the rest of the ACC is too great to put any team other than the Seminoles in this category. Despite heavy losses to the NFL draft, Florida State will once again have an elite core of talent to support Winston, including offensive tackle Cameron Erving.

Huguenin: Florida State. The Seminoles' non-conference schedule is tougher than it was last season, with games against Oklahoma State and Notre Dame. And Louisville replaces Maryland on the conference schedule. But the talent is there for another unbeaten season. If an ACC team makes it to the playoffs and it isn't Florida State, that would be shocking.

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Fischer: The Seminoles have a pretty clear path to the first college football playoff and have more than enough talent to capture a second straight title. The non-conference schedule might look tough as Oklahoma State, Notre Dame and Florida are all big-time schools, but only the Irish constitute a huge threat (and that's a home game for the Seminoles). Things can always go wrong, but heading into the season, FSU will likely have the inside track for the No. 1 seed.

Top offensive player

Goodbread: Florida State QB Jameis Winston. It's an easy call here as the defending Heisman Trophy winner returns for his redshirt sophomore season. Winston showed not only a special talent last year, but also a fearless mettle in tough games and big moments. With a year of experience, he should shred ACC defenses even more effectively.

Huguenin: Winston. Winston understandably is being criticized for his off-field behavior. But his on-field play last season led to him winning the Heisman and the Seminoles winning the national title. He threw for 4,057 yards and 40 TDs, and had seven 300-yard games and eight outings with at least three TD passes. He has some mechanical issues to clean up, but he also has played only one season of college football and obviously has a huge upside.

Fischer: Winston. While Miami RB Duke Johnson is electric and could make his case, if healthy, for this award, it's hard to go with anybody but the defending Heisman winner. He put up 40 touchdowns through the air and topped the 4,000-yard mark last season -- he should probably exceed those numbers in 2014 with less depth at the tailback position. If Jimbo Fisher can continue to develop him as a passer, the sky is the limit for him on the field.

Top defensive player

Goodbread: Clemson DE Vic Beasley. As an undersized defensive end who is a spectacular pass rusher, call Beasley the ACC's immediate answer to Dee Ford. Amazingly, more than half of his tackles went for a loss last season (23 of 44), and nearly a third of them were sacks (13). At 235 pounds, however, NFL scouts will scrutinize his ability to contribute in other ways.

Huguenin: Beasley. He is undersized (6-foot-2, 235 pounds) for an end and likely will move to outside linebacker in the NFL, but Clemson coaches would be wise to leave him at end and unleash him on opposing quarterbacks this fall. Beasley led the ACC last season and was tied for third nationally with 13 sacks, giving him 21 in his career. He also had 23 tackles for loss in 2013, raising his career total to 31. Beasley is quick off the ball, but he also has a nice spin move and a surprisingly effective bull rush. Beasley redshirted as a true freshman in 2010, barely played as an end in 2011 (16 snaps in nine games), served as a pass-rush specialist in 2012 and became an every-down end in 2013.

Fischer: Beasley. The Tigers are known mostly for their explosive offense, but Beasley will be the latest in a nice line of defenders the program sends to the league. He's small by NFL standards, but a terror in college as a rush end with a very quick first step. He led the ACC in sacks last season and is a good bet to do so again in 2014.

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Coach of the year

Goodbread: Florida State's Jimbo Fisher. Fisher should take home another ACC title this year and it might not be close. The days of Florida State dominating the ACC on a consistent basis, as it did when it first joined the league, are officially back under Fisher's watch.

Huguenin: North Carolina's Larry Fedora. UNC hasn't won the ACC title since 1980. The Tar Heels aren't going to win it this season, either, but they have a great chance to at least play for the title, and Fedora's offense will be what gets them to the title game. He took over a program in turmoil (but with talent) and looks to have righted the ship quickly.

Fischer: Duke's David Cutcliffe. With all due respect to all of the other coaches in the ACC, Cutcliffe should win this award anytime he gets the Blue Devils into the ACC title game. It will be especially impressive if he keeps the offense operating at a high level despite the departures of quarterback Brandon Connette and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.

Breakout player

Goodbread: North Carolina QB Marquise Williams. OK, so Williams made nine starts last season, but a TD-INT ratio of just 8-6 in conference play doesn't exactly qualify as a breakout year. Expect much bigger things from Williams this fall, including a division title and an improved completion percentage.

Huguenin: FSU RB Karlos Williams. Williams was a national top-10 prospect in the 2011 recruiting class out of high school near Orlando and played safety in his two first seasons with the Seminoles. But while he is an excellent athlete, he didn't have the necessary instincts to start at that position, so he was moved to tailback early in the 2013 season. He runs with a mean streak and possesses breakaway speed. FSU will have a tailback-by-committee approach again, but the committee "members" beyond Williams? They're a question mark.

Fischer: North Carolina WR Quinshad Davis. You could probably take your pick between FSU's Karlos Williams, Miami's Stacy Coley or Davis. I'll go with the Tar Heels' wide receiver as he's shown flashes of being one of the best receivers on the East Coast. With the absence of Eric Ebron in the passing game, Davis should easily be the No. 1 option for Marquise Williams and they both work in a wide-open attack that should see plenty of passes target the 6-foot-4 receiver. Don't be surprised if he finishes with 20-plus touchdowns.

Top returning senior

Goodbread: FSU OT Cam Erving. A fifth-year offensive tackle, Erving could be the first ACC player drafted next year. He has the requisite size and length at 6-foot-6, 302 pounds and provides Winston with outstanding pass protection. Erving was a first-team All-ACC pick last season.

Huguenin: Erving. He toyed with the idea of turning pro, but wisely returned. Rather than being one of the top six tackles in the 2014 draft, he should be one of the first two or three tackles off the board in the 2015 draft and could go in the top 10. Plus, he still is learning how to play tackle; he was a defensive lineman in high school and in his first season at FSU before being moved to the offensive line in 2012. Erving has some lapses in concentration and technique, but when he is at his best, there might not be a better tackle in the nation.

Fischer: Erving. Between Erving, Rashad Greene and Tre Jackson, the Seminoles might lay claim to three of the top returning seniors in the league. Erving is the best of the bunch for most NFL scouts and should continue to polish his game as he's still relatively new to his position. He likely would have been a first-round pick had he come out early, but he has a chance to prove he should be the first tackle taken in 2015 with a strong showing for the defending national champs.

Player with most on the line

Goodbread: Duke WR Jamison Crowder. Even though Crowder has been a dominant receiver for the last two seasons, at 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, scouts will be looking for reasons to doubt him, not believe in him. His draft status will depend heavily on whether he can put forth another season of big-time production.

Huguenin: Winston. Sometimes, it's tough to mature in the glare of the spotlight, but Winston needs to do so. And quickly. The Heisman winner has some mechanical issues he needs to fix on the field, but it's his public persona off the field that has taken the big hit. The bottom line: He needs to prove he can be a solid citizen.

Fischer: Winston. You can ask Johnny Manziel how tough it is to follow up a Heisman-winning season, but Winston is facing even more pressure than Manziel did. The off-the-field incidents are much more troubling than Manziel's, so staying out of trouble off the field for the remainder of his college career might be just as important for Winston as what he does on the field. There are some mechanical issues he needs to work through, but the bottom line is Winston has to prove he can handle the spotlight.

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