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Excitement, mystery surround beginning of 2013 season
The first Atlantic Coast Conference Football Weekend of the 2013 season kicks off Thursday evening.
It is the epitome of a long weekend, spanning 13 games and five calendar dates before concluding with Monday night’s ACC opener between Florida State and Pitt.
And no one is complaining.
“There comes a point in time on every team where you are sick of hitting your teammates,” NC State first-year coach Dave Doeren said.
The hitting begins Thursday night in Columbia, S.C., where North Carolina travels to face sixth-ranked South Carolina at 6 p.m. before a national audience on ESPN. It will continue at Wake Forest, where the Demon Deacons open their season against Presbyterian.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Wake Forest defensive end Kriostopher Redding. “A lot of work has gone into this – a lot of preparation, a lot of anticipation. I’m about to jump out of my skin. I can’t wait. I’m not going to say I’m getting tired of my teammates, but it would be nice to go against somebody else so we can go full speed and not have to hold back anymore.”
A sense of mystery and intrigue adds to equation. The ACC sports a pair of additons in Pittsburgh and Syracuse. Along with the Panthers’ Paul Chryst and the Orange’s Scott Shafer, NC State’s Doeren and Boston College’s Steve Addazio will also be making their ACC head coaching debuts. And the mere fact teams are playing their first games of the season creates inevitable questions as they attempt to size up the opposition.
“I've been in a lot of schools the last 20 years, but the first game of the season is always a difficult one to prepare for, because you have more time to prepare than any game,” said Shafer, who takes the reins at Syracuse after spending the last four seasons as defensive coordinator. “You have to kind of make sure that you put your game plan handcuffs on and say, ‘Let's do what we do, let's do it well, and be ready to adjust to what we see, because there are so many unknowns.’ “
North Carolina second-year head coach Larry Fedora didn’t pull punches when asked to evaluate South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
When the Tar Heels line up opposite against the Gamecocks, Fedora contends he will be dealing with the toughest defensive player he has faced – ever.
“I’ve never played against a guy who is 272 pounds and runs a 4.4,” Fedora said. “It’s obvious on film: He plays at a different speed than other guys because he is faster than other guys. He plays hard. You see him – I’m trying to remember which game it was – but you see them hand the ball off to a back on the sweep and he broke it, and I think Clowney caught him 25 yards down the field. So he can run. When you have that kind of speed, it’s always a difficult situation.”
Those not yet familiar with Clowney were introduced in dramatic fashion during last January’s Outback Bowl, when his jarring, fumble-inducing hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith produced a highlight clip for the ages. But according to Fedora, that was just a sample of the havoc the All-American is capable of creating.
“I’m long beyond the one play on Michigan” Fedora said. “That guy makes plays all year and throughout every game.”
The matchup between Clowney and All-ACC left tackle James Hurst will bear watching, but Fedora knows his 6-foot-7, 305-pound senior can’t be a complete equalizer. And the Gamecocks have other weapons.
“First of all, you understand that you’re not going to shut (Clowney) down,” Fedora said. That’s part of it – he’s too good of a football player. And … you’ve got (Kelcy) Quarles on the inside, you’ve got (Chaz) Sutton on the other end. I mean, they’ve got a dang good defensive line. Clowney gets all the talk and all the press, but they’re good up front.
“You can’t plan for everything against Jadeveon Clowney because you’ve got three other guys that will beat you up, too. You have to do the best job you can with your scheme. You have to have ways to protect when you get into problems and you just go from there.”
ACC vs. SEC
North Carolina’s tall task against Clowney and the Gamecocks is one of three battles ACC teams face against top-10 ranked Southeastern Conference opponents this opening weekend. Saturday finds Virginia Tech squaring off against top-ranked and two-time defending champion Alabama at the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta, followed by an evening matchup between No. 8 Clemson and No. 5 Georgia in Death Valley.
“That’s all that’s out there in the media,” UNC’s Fedora said. “It’s the SEC. But we’re not playing the SEC. We’re playing South Carolina. It’s one team in that league – a very good football team in that league, a team that’s ranked No. 6 in the country. But we haven’t talked about league versus league.”
Likewise, says Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who notes that Saturday night’s meeting with Georgia is the first step down a long road.
“It would be great to win the game, but all we’re going to do is check off our first goal if we do win – ‘Win the Opener,’“ Swinney said. “Everybody will talk about it being an SEC team, and they can talk about it for a couple of weeks, but we have 12 games on our schedule. Every game is critical.
“This one game is not a win-all, lose-all type of thing. Alabama has lost two years in a row in November, but they kept themselves in the National Title game by focusing on what they can control. That’s what you have to do. Let it all hang out and know that you gave everything that you had. We have to ask ourselves: How do we compete? How do we prepare? The season is a long race and anything can happen.”
Veteran coach Frank Beamer of Virginia Tech believes there are benefits in playing an early game against a program the caliber of the Crimson Tide.
“When you’re getting evaluated against the best team in the country, you get a really good idea of what kind of football team you have,” Beamer said. “When you have runaway wins to start the season, you don’t really get to find what you need to work on, sometimes that’s not as clear. Playing a team like Alabama, you become a better football team. We understand what kind of task it is to go in and play Alabama, but it’s not often you get a chance to beat the best team in the country. It’s certainly a challenge, and we know what kind of game you have to play to have a chance.”
Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas has put in extensive preparation for his senior year following a 2012 season that failed to meet his expectations. Beamer, however, said Thomas was put into difficult situations at times due to penalties and other circumstances beyond his control.
“I don’t know that it’s as much Logan (who must improve this season) as it is people around Logan and how we can stay even with the down markers,” Beamer said.” When you have a lot of long-yardage situations, that’s hard on any quarterback.
“But I think Logan’s a year older. Sometimes he tried to force things, do too much and take the team on his shoulders. I think he’s certainly learned from that. We have to play to our strengths as a football team and I think Logan will help us do that.”
It has been nearly three weeks since Wake Forest’s Josh Harris had his eligibility reinstated following an appeal to the NCAA. Still, don’t be surprised if the senior running back attacks Thursday night’s game against Presbyterian with a sense of renewed purpose.
“He's certainly a guy right now that appreciates a second chance – I don't think there's any question about it,” Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. “I think most young people take their ability and playing football for granted. But when it's about to be taken away from you, it tends to be a good wake‑up call, and I think it's been that way for Josh. He's been nothing but great (in) his effort, his attitude. Just seems to be a guy that's really having fun right now, and that's a good thing.”
Grobe said the Demon Deacons were preparing for this season under the assumption that Harris would not be back with squad. His return to the playing field, however, has not caused any difficulties or distractions.
“He came back and just worked his way back in the mix, and I think our players accepted him and it was just really never a big deal for our football team either way, “ Grobe said. ”I think they were ready to move on, and certainly would feel sorry for Josh if he couldn't be a part of it. But when he came back, I think our kids were happy to have him back and I think, more importantly, he was happy to be back."
Miami will be the only ACC team in action on Friday night, when the Hurricanes play host to Florida Atlantic before a national television audience on ESPNU.
Halftime ceremonies will honor Miami’s 1983 national championship team. The Hurricanes were coached that season by Howard Schnellenberger, who also oversaw the establishment of football as a varsity sport at FAU, coached the program for its first 11 seasons and remained involved afterwards as a fund-raiser for the school. The 79-year-old Schnellenberger is slated to be among Friday night’s attendees.
“That was the genesis of the game, that we would celebrate what he has done for both programs – and really starting both programs at the end of the day,” said current Miami coach Al Golden. “He is a man who owes me nothing but treats me with great respect, imparts great wisdom every time I see him, (and is) really approachable. We’re blessed to have him in our family - I know FAU probably feels the same way. What a great moment for him on Friday, certainly as the guy who really got this kicked off here in South Florida.”
On Saturday night at Clemson, Danny Ford will be inducted into the school’s Football Ring of Honor. Ford finished his Clemson career with a 96-29-4 record and coached the Tigers to the 1981 national championship.
“I think it’s a great moment,” said current Tigers coach Dabo Swinney. “Obviously, I wasn’t here in the 80s, but I think it’s long overdue. He’s gone above and beyond to try to help Clemson. I’m glad this is finally taking place. The man won the National Championship and five ACC Championships. He did a lot for our program.”
Georgia Tech’s Vad Lee flashed his big-play potential last season as a redshirt freshman in 2012, but head coach Paul Johnson believes his young quarterback’s leadership qualities will be just as valuable as he steps into the starting role this season.
“You’ve got to be a leader, because if you’re the quarterback and you throw a couple incompletions and you start stepping on your lip and pouting, then everybody in the huddle starts doing that,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to be the guy that’s upbeat and leading and doing those things. And that’s a learning progression.
“Now, the good thing about Vad Lee is that Vad has all of those characteristics naturally. He’s got some charisma, and he carries himself very well. He carries himself as a leader and very confident guy. He’s got to be Vad, but he’s also got to realize that at the end of the first quarter on Saturday everybody’s not going to love you the same way they did before. If they do, that’s great. But don’t let it bother you. Set the standard for yourself and try to achieve that. Don’t try to live up to everybody else’s hype. You’ve got 10 other guys out there playing with you. You don’t have to do it all.”
Maryland wide receiver/return specialist Stefon Diggs put up eye-opening numbers as a freshman in 2012, and head coach Randy Edsall believes the Gaithersburg, Md., native just scratched the surface.
“The sky’s the limit for Stefon,” Edsall said of Diggs, whose 1,986 all-purpose yards last season were the second-most in school history.
“The thing I like about it is he’s gotten bigger and stronger,” Edsall added. “ He’s put on 10 pounds; he’s gotten bigger and thicker.”
And according to Edsall, Diggs has grown in other ways.
“The growth and maturation from last year to this year has just been enormous,” Edsall said. “You talk about a young man who I put in a leadership position and somebody who’s really grabbed it and taken a hold of it and is out there being even more of a leader than what he’s been before and doing the things that great players are supposed to do. He’s not a prima donna. He’s a team guy, not an ‘I’ guy. To me you talk about a guy who’s got a chance to be unbelievable in whatever he does. He’s got the whole package.”
NC State coach Dave Doeren is counting heavily on his freshman class as he begins his first season with the Wolfpack, and running back Matt Dayes could be among those leading the youth movement.
The Weston, Fla., native is coming off a senior season at Cypress Bay High in which he rushed for nearly 1,900 yards and 31 touchdowns en route to being named the Broward County Player of the Year.
Doeren did not hesitate when asked how much playing time he anticipated Dayes receiving in Saturday’s opener against visiting Louisiana Tech.
“You will see a lot of Matt Dayes,“ Doeren said. “(I am) not sure how many carries yet, but he is going to play. The better he plays, the more he will play. I like what Matt has done, I like the way he is preparing.
“I like what the coaches have done, not just for him but for (fellow running back) Tony Creecy, in terms of the type of plays they are getting and how they are getting to their strengths. I look forward to watching that in his first game."
Those who watched Pitt defensive lineman Aaron Donald perform the past few seasons aren’t surprised to see his name on a slew of preseason national award watch lists. They might be mildly surprised, however, not to see his name on an NFL roster.
Donald passed on last spring’s NFL Draft, opting instead to return for his senior year with the Panthers. The 6-foot, 285-pound Pittsburgh native led the Big East and ranked 12th nationally in tackles for lost yardage last season and looks to make similar waves during the Panthers’ inaugural ACC campaign.
“I don’t know if I can put a value on having Aaron back,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “He’s very important to us. Obviously he’s a good player, but he’s also one of our leaders. Aaron and every senior should play the best football of their career.”
Donald and his teammates on the defensive front will be called upon to play a key role in Monday night’s opener against Florida State.
“We count the defensive line as one of the strengths of our program, and Florida State certainly has a great offensive line,” Chryst said. “In most football games, whoever controls the line of scrimmage is the team that has the advantage. Aaron is one of our leaders and one of our better players. If we’re going to be successful, he needs to play well.”
Virginia faces a challenging task as it opens Saturday against visiting BYU and then plays host to Oregon on Sept. 7. At the same time, head coach Mike London notes that the two-game set against nationally successful program is attractive to Cavalier fans and has generated a buzz around Scott Stadium.
“I believe the mood is upbeat,” London said Wednesday. “I believe the fans have responded well. I think two days ago there were a little over 3,000 tickets left. There's a huge outpouring of support. People are interested in watching us but also interested in watching the competition.“
By the time this Saturday’s game kicks off, London hopes the remaining tickets will have been sold and the momentum will carry over into the following week.
“As we prepare going into the last couple days here for BYU, the excitement and energy continues to ramp up a little bit,” he said. “We're hoping that Scott Stadium will be filled on Saturday and to the culmination of the type of energy that these guys who have been waiting to play in a football game for a while to have some success. So we're excited about getting ready to play.”
WARY OF WILDCATS
After spending the previous two seasons at Temple, Boston College head coach Steve Addazio was keenly aware of Philadelphia neighbor Villanova and the competitive teams the Wildcats traditionally field at FCS level.
Addazio was fortunate enough to come out on the winning end of two “Mayor’s Cup” games against Villanova in 2011 and 2012, but his guard remains up as he prepares to lead the Eagles onto the field for the first time on Saturday.
"Villanova is one of the top FCS teams in America,". "Two years ago they had a veteran team, and they were just dynamic. They have been rebuilding with young players who are now all veterans. This is going to be another one of those really good Villanova teams. You'll see. They have a very good football team and our kids know it."
ALL ABOUT DURHAM
Duke opens its season late Saturday afternoon against crosstown opponent North Carolina Central, which will be making one of the shortest road trips (a shade over three miles) in all of college football this season.
The Durham, N.C., universities have met twice previously at Wallace Wade Stadium (2009 and 2012), but Saturday will mark the first time that the “Bull City Gridiron Classic” has opened the season. Duke head coach David Cutcliffe likes the placement on this year’s schedule and would like to see it repeated in future years.
“We would like to do this as an opener for Durham,” Cutcliffe said. “It precedes any other game we both will have. It makes both of us better. I certainly hope Durham responds (and) we get the crowd that we expect. And they don’t have to be fans of either institution – it’s a celebrate Durham day. That’s what the Classic is about.”
ATTENTION TO DECAL
Student-athletes from Florida State and Pitt will wear a special ‘I Fight Fanconi’ Kidz1stFund decal on the back of their helmets during their nationally televised ESPN game on Monday night.
In the spring of 2011, Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher and his wife, Candi learned that their youngest son, Ethan, had been diagnosed with Fanconi anemia, a rare and serious blood disease. The Fisher’s began Kidz1stFund to raise awareness and FA research dollars at the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital in hopes of finding a cure. Pitt coach Paul Chryst, whose team will be playing its first-ever ACC game when it plays host to the 11th-ranked Seminoles, suggest the decals as a way of promoting those causes.
“I thought it was a tremendous gesture by Coach Chryst and the University of Pittsburgh for suggesting that we wear the decal,” Fisher said. “Candi and I and our foundation can’t be any more thankful as this will continue to bring awareness for the fight against Fanconi anemia that affects many. I can’t thank the University of Pittsburgh enough for such a great idea.”
Chryst noted that the national television stage – the Panthers and Seminoles will essentially be the “only game in town” on Monday night – should help push their message to a wider audience.
"In talking to Jimbo this summer, we felt our ESPN nationally televised primetime opener was the perfect opportunity to help build awareness about Fanconi,” Chryst said. “Awareness and education will hopefully lead to more impactful research and funding that will eventually lead to a cure. College football really is like an extended family and we are proud to team with fellow ACC member Florida State on this tremendously important effort."
CHAMPIONSHIP GAME TICKETS ON SALE
With the long road to the Dec. 7 ACC Football Championship Game looming directly ahead, fans planning ahead can already to purchase tickets to the ninth annual event, which will once again be held at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
Fans may purchase tickets through the ACC’s official website, theACC.com, through Ticketmaster at ticketmaster.com, or locally at the Bank of America Stadium Ticket Office. Ticket prices are $25 and $40 for Upper Level, $70 and $90 for Lower Level, and $150 and $175 for Club Level.