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Long-awaited start to the season arrives for ACC football teams
GREENSBORO, N.C. (the ACC.com) – Steve Addazio readily admits it, and Boston College’s head coach has plenty of company among his colleagues as the Atlantic Coast Conference prepares to kick off its 63rd football season.
Excitement, anticipation – and perhaps even a tinge of anxiety – aren’t confined to fans and alumni.
“I feel the same sense of urgency every year wherever I’ve been – high school, college, Florida, here,” said Addazio, whose team kicks off at home against Maine on Saturday afternoon. “You’re totally invested in your program, invested in everything. I carry a lot of anxiety. You’re anxious about the unknowns, the things out of your control. You don’t know what you’re going to see.
“I love opening day because it’s opening day, but I don’t love it because you don’t entirely know what’s going to happen. It’s anyone’s guess – especially when there’s a lot of inexperience.”
A record 14 games involving ACC teams will be played over the long weekend, culminating with Virginia Tech’s battle against defending national champion and consensus 2015 preseason favorite Ohio State on Labor Day evening. The Hokies will have the home crowd advantage; the Buckeyes will have a revenge motive following Virginia Tech’s 35-21 stunner last year in Columbus.
The long wait ends for four ACC teams on Thursday night. North Carolina will be the first ACC team to take the field when it faces South Carolina at 6 p.m. in ESPN’s nationally televised border battle at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium. Georgia Tech (vs. Alcorn State) and Wake Forest (vs. Elon) follow with home games, with Duke’s road trip to Tulane closing out the opening flurry.
While each of the four ACC teams seeing action Thursday night boasts experience at key positions, each will also call on young, untested players at key spots. Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson says patience must be a head coaching virtue, particularly when sending a freshman into his first collegiate game.
“If they are running around and cannot remember their names, we will kind of have to do something,” Johnson said. “But I fully expect that we are not going to be perfect on Thursday night, although that is the goal. I’m not naïve enough to think that it is going to happen. We are going to play some freshmen, and they are going to make some mistakes. You just hope that they do not make enough of them to really cost you and that they learn from it.
“The important thing is that we go out there and start to develop our identity as a team. And when we make a mistake, we do not make the same one over and over again; we learn from it.”
BLUE DEVIL TANDEM
While redshirt junior Thomas Sirk has been designated Duke’s starting quarterback, expect redshirt sophomore Patrick Boehme to take some snaps during Thursday night’s opener at Tulane and beyond.
That would continue what has become a custom for the Blue Devils’ during head coach David Cutcliffe’s tenure, particularly on short-yardage and goal-line situations. While Sirk and Boehme both have the skill sets to be two-way threats (Sirk rushed for 238 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns last season), don’t look for either to get the call for every “obvious” running situation that arises.
“We’ll have to pick and choose spots,” Cutcliffe said. “Parker is ready to play. He has really prepared well. I’m not interested in Parker getting hammered like a fullback. We’ll have to be smart about when, where and what we do. They’ve (both) thrown the ball with extreme accuracy in August. Now they have to do that in a game. They’ll have to make the plays when they count.”
The Blue Devils face the latest starting time of any ACC team this week – kickoff in New Orleans is set for 9:30 p.m. Eastern time – and Cutcliffe prepared by holding practice during that same time slot earlier this week in Durham.
“We’re a morning practice team, but we’ve been trying to flip our biological clocks as best we can in a short period of time,” he said.
NO SURE THING
The week leading up to the first game can be especially trying for coaches of teams perceived by most to be heavy favorites. But as ACC preseason favorite Clemson prepares to face in-state opponent Wofford, head coach Dabo Swinney has recent history on his side as he cautions his players on the perils of looking ahead.
Swinney’s team last faced Wofford in 2011, the same year in which Clemson claimed its most recent ACC championship. The Terriers nipped at the Tigers’ heels throughout the afternoon, and Clemson’s 35-27 win wasn’t secure until it stopped a Wofford drive late in the fourth quarter.
While Swinney doesn’t believe his team looked past the Terriers four years ago, he felt that game displayed what can happen on a given Saturday – particularly one early in the season.
“In 2011, we were a very young team and I thought they had an excellent team coming into that game,” Swinney said. “They executed well, especially in the first three quarters, and we had a few mistakes here and there. But that was a hard fought game.
“It’s good when you have that visual to be able to show your guys. They may not hear the name ‘Wofford’ on ESPN every week, but these guys can play and this will be a huge challenge for us.”
As was the case four years ago, Swinney himself faces the challenge of matching wits with veteran Mike Ayers, who is entering his 28th year as head coach of the Terriers and is closing in on 200 career victories.
“I really can’t tell you how much respect I have for Coach Ayers,” Swinney said. “He is a great football coach. He is a great man, and I just think the world of him. He would win anywhere. He’d win at Clemson, he’d win at Alabama and he wins at Wofford. This guy is as good of a coach as there is in the country, and I really believe that. He is an outstanding person and the epitome of what a coach should be. He represents the game, loves his players, loves his coaches and is just a class act in every regard.”
FACING THE ‘HOME’ TEAM
Pitt will be the home team on Saturday as Pat Narduzzi makes his debut as head coach, but Narduzzi would have been just as familiar with his surroundings had the Panthers gone on the road.
The opponent is none other than Youngstown State, where Narduzzi’s father, Bill, served as head coach for 11 seasons (1975-85) and is a member of the school’s Hall of Fame. Pat Narduzzi is a Youngstown, Ohio, native and spent his first collegiate year at Youngstown State as a starter linebacker for his father before transferring to Rhode Island.
On the opposing sidelines will be Bo Pelini, coaching his first game with the Penguins after winning 67 games in seven seasons at Nebraska. Pelini, like Narduzzi, is a Youngstown native.
It sounds like the opening to a well-crafted sports novel, and yet …
“You can’t let the emotions get to you,” Narduzzi said. It’s great to go out against someone and play someone you know. I have a ton of respect for Bo. I went out and visited him, maybe about five years ago, at Nebraska because we’re friends, and talked ball for a couple of days.
“Obviously being from (Youngstown) plays into it, but when it comes down to it, me or Bo aren’t going to play one down. We’ll shake hands, hug pregame, that’s about it and let the players take it over.”
GOLSON GETS THE NOD
Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher coached against Everett Golson last season and watched hours of film in preparation. But Golson’s three solid weeks of preseason camp were the deciding factor in his being named the Seminoles’ starting quarterback for Saturday night’s opener against Texas State.
Golson graduated in May from Notre Dame, where he started 23 games in 2012 and 2014. That included last fall’s 31-27 loss to then-defending national champion FSU in Tallahassee, in which he threw for 313 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions.
Fisher, however, made no assumptions and did not begin evaluating Golson – now a grad student with one year of eligibility remaining – until the Seminoles convened for preseason camp on Aug. 6. Fisher said Golson continued to up his level of play as he received more reps and became familiar with FSU’s system.
“Then you start to see the athletic ability come out,” Fisher said. “I say you never can see what a guy's capable of until he totally understands what to do and how to do it so he can play fast. Knowledge allows you to be fast. You can be the fastest guy in the world, if you don't know what to do, you play the slowest. You hear it all the time. As their knowledge grows, it allows their true athletic ability and instincts to take over.”
Keep the remote handy on Saturday afternoon as a pair of ACC teams travel to take on ranked opponents.
While Louisville ventures to Atlanta to face sixth-ranked Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff at the Georgia Dome (CBS), Virginia makes the cross-country trip to 13th-ranked UCLA (FOX). Both games are set for 3:30 p.m. starts.
The Cardinals will be facing their third straight SEC opponent after closing the 2014 regular season against Kentucky and facing Georgia in the Belk Bowl. The pot for this Saturday’s game is sweetened by the Georgia Dome venue and Auburn’s status as its conference’s preseason favorite.
“I am just anxious to get going,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. “Let’s go play and see where we are at. I am excited at the fact it is a great opening game. We recruit a lot of players out of that area, we will have a great crowd there. I think it will put our players in a huge atmosphere that will help us for the rest of the year.
“To be able to go down there and play in that type of atmosphere, loud … being able to communicate non-verbally, be able to not hear the cadence, it is only going to make us better for the rest of the year.”
Virginia faces UCLA for the second consecutive year following a 2014 season opener in which the Cavaliers pushed a seventh-ranked Bruins squad to the limit before falling 28-20 in Charlottesville. Three UCLA defensive touchdowns spelled the difference.
“We know what happened last year,” Virginia coach Mike London said. “That's last year. Now we're focusing on this year's football team – 2015 with the players that we have with a new mind-set and a new attitude. We are excited about taking a trip out to California … going out west and having an opportunity to play a really good football team that played in a bowl game last year and ended up playing well (as the year went on).”
BURST OF ENTHUSIASM
NC State’s strong finish to last season energized the Wolfpack fan base, so much so that the 2015 home schedule – beginning with Saturday evening’s non-conference test against Troy – sold out.
It is reminiscent of the support shown for Lou Holtz’s NC State teams of the mid-1970s and in the early 2000s under Chuck Amato. Current Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren finds the excitement contagious as he enters his third season.
“We’re very thankful for our fans, for our sellout this season,” Doeren said. “Everywhere you go, you can feel and sense it. I’ve spoken to the students and a lot of different groups throughout the state, and I can tell they’re excited. They obviously loved how we finished the season, they were excited about our recruiting class, the positive things they’re reading about our guys on the team and the direction the program is headed, the new (indoor practice) facility … there are just a lot of positive things.
“Now, for us we’re just excited to play a game and get out there and show them what we’ve got.”
BIG TIME OPPORTUNITY
Virginia Tech made waves last September when it traveled to Columbus and handed eventual national champion Ohio State its only loss of the season.
But for veteran head coach Frank Beamer, this Monday night’s rematch in Blacksburg is bigger for a number of reasons.
“The thing is, it’s a once-in-a-long time thing,” Beamer said. “How often do you have the number one team – by far, unanimous – come into your place on national TV, (the) only game on? How many times does that happen? Not very often. I think our fans understand. If you want to be a part of it, you better jump on in because it’s not going to be around for a while.”
Even so, Beamer said, it is important for his team to remember that any game played on Sept. 7 isn’t make-or-break.
“It’s important that it’s not the end-all,” Beamer said “It wasn’t the end-all for either of us last year, and there’s a lot more football to be played. ACC games are important to us. There are just not as many opportunities that come around like Virginia Tech’s going to have on Monday night. It’s all about Virginia Tech coming off well, the fans and their support, the university … what a great university we have here at Virginia Tech.
“To me, as long as we play well, everybody wins this thing. If we stink the place up, that’s not good.”