I submit that among the reasons the NFL has experienced a recent dip in popularity while NCAA football just keeps growing is that The Shield puts meaningless games on TV for a whole month, while the FBS begins with some of its most important scrums of the season.
The NFL’s Hall of Fame Game will kick off on August 1st, more than 3 full weeks before the opening salvo of Power-5 football. Yet the teams who will be known as “The Denver Broncos” and “The Atlanta Falcons” next Thursday won’t actually be anything of the sort. It’s just going to be a bunch of soon-to-be-XFL players dressed up in Broncos and Falcons uniforms. Even the top draft picks won’t see much action until mid-August.
Week 1 (or “Week Zero”) college football can be sloppy. But at least it’s the real teams…and there’s a whole lot more than “I played in preseason once” bragging rights at stake for the student-athletes.
Miami and Florida will ring-in a fresh season with a neutral-site rivalry game on August 24th. Arizona also visits Hawaii on the same evening, a Pac-12 vs Mountain West clash that could prove to be as fascinating as the ACC vs SEC in Orlando.
I can already tell you how the Hurricane vs Gator grudge match will go. The schools will play similar styles on offense and defense, linebackers will strut around and beat their chests after every tackle-for-loss, and somebody will win 19-16 or 31-24.
Oh, and ESPN will run approximately 500,000 commercials before halftime.
But it could take a lot more than appeals-to-past-history to properly handicap the ACC in 2019.
We’ve never quite seen an FBS landscape quite like this one. Diaper-dandy passers and WRs like Trevor Lawrence and Justyn Ross, clearly NFL-worthy as teenagers, lit up Notre Dame and Alabama and gave Clemson a runaway CFP win in January.
Yet somehow, less-talented teams from the ACC and other conferences are still managing to give Dabo Swinney’s program what-for for 60 minutes at a time, forcing the Tigers to fight to survive in the 4th quarter.
Who in the ACC can battle Clemson for 4 frames in 2019? The defending national champs are almost-prohibitive favorites to win the Atlantic Coast Conference again, taking wagers at (-375) at Bovada Sportsbook.
Miami is the 2nd most-popular wager at (+750). But even though the ‘Canes are happy to have Manny Diaz step in for the unpopular Mark Richt in the head coaching chair, the program still doesn’t have a proven QB.
Florida State is tied for the 3rd-shortest line at 22-to-1.
Is there a worthy sleeper hiding under the Atlantic waves? Let’s take a brief look at some highly-touted teams in the Atlantic and Coastal divisions.
Clemson ((-375 Odds-to-Win ACC Championship at Bovada)
The gridiron has a way of balancing things out. Tua Tagovailoa looked like a perfect QB machine for much of 2017 and 2018 before defenses (like Clemson) figured out how to defend his dual-threat. No offense is unstoppable forever and in every circumstance.
Opposing coaches won’t “figure out” Lawrence and Ross though. That sort of talk is ridiculous, just like when lazy NFL fans dismiss the 11-on-11 running game as something DCs will “figure out” given enough time. As if anyone would ever “figure out” that 11 isn’t a larger number than 10.
Don’t forget Travis Etienne. The 5’10” junior RB was explosive almost every time he touched the ball in 2018-19, with an 8.1-yard average and 24 rushing touchdowns. Sophomore Lyn-J Dixon is a more-than-capable backup and 3rd-down option in the offensive backfield.
With an offensive line led by 6’4” 330 lb. senior John Simpson, a top prospect for the 2020 NFL Draft, it’s safe to say the Tigers will be able to gallop for 300 and 400 yards at a time against lesser foes without asking Trevor Lawrence to break much of a sweat.
If Clemson’s odds-to-win are currently shrunken too short, it’s because a star QB or a star WR will always get more publicity than a defensive front-7. Those “Power Rangers” on the Clemson D-line are mostly gone. There are no likely All-American replacements for Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins. Instead, Swinney will go with a less-experienced rotation of role players up front in ’19.
But even if opposing QBs see clearly to the sideline and to the pylons, there might be an extremely small window of time to throw the ball and not fall prey to a pick. Clemson may boast the most talented crop of defensive backs in the country, led by physical junior Isaiah Simmons and redshirt senior Tanner Muse.
Long-time kicker Greg Huegel is gone after 4 seasons.
Richt turned out to be a 1-trick Bulldog, able to maintain a stacked program at Georgia but unable to rebuild a storied program known for great quarterback and wide-receiver play.
QB wasn’t exactly a “great” position for the ‘Canes last season. The Miami QB controversy remains, with redshirt sophomore N’Kosi Perry, redshirt freshman Jarren Williams, and Ohio State transfer Tate Martell expected to vie for the coveted role. Jeff Thomas is a quality returning WR, but he needs someone to get him the ball.
The bright spot in 2018 was defense, in which the Hurricanes ranked 4th in the FBS. Quick junior DL Jonathan Garvin is a monster for any back to handle, and Shaquille Quarterman is a returning All-ACC linebacker who posted double-digit tackles for loss in his sophomore season.
Willie Taggart’s Seminoles are dealing with a QB conundrum as well, with 6’5” sophomore James Blackman attempting to fend-off a challenge from Wisconsin graduate transfer Alex Hornibrook.
Tamorrion Terry will be the top target for the starting signal-caller. Terry ran past defenders for a 21.3 yard reception average and 8 touchdown grabs for the Seminoles last year. Meanwhile junior RB Cam Akers looks to return to form after a sluggish 706-yard and 6-touchdown sophomore campaign. Much of Akers’ success will depend on the improvement on an offensive line that struggled in ’18.
Hamsah Nasirildeen and others are ready to shine in the front-7 for a potentially elite defense. But FSU was terrible on special teams in Taggart’s maiden season, a bad omen for a coach who has already offended the Pac-12.
FSU opens against Boise State and must visit Death Valley on October 12th.
6’2” redshirt sophomore Tommy DeVito replaces Eric Dungey’s 2,868 passing yards, 754 rushing yards and 33 total touchdowns for Syracuse last season. Or does he? I never like that trope in the offseason, that so-and-so must replace the “lost” yards of a departing player. As if the team would have gained 0 yards if the former star wasn’t on the field.
The Orangemen will gain more than 0 yards on offense this year. Syracuse is a program that keeps getting better under Dino Babers, whose charges knocked off Clemson in a memorable scrum less than 2 seasons ago. DeVito will be flanked by a skilled crop of running backs, led by senior Moe Neal and junior Abdul Adams.
What I really like about the Orange in 2019-20 is the pass rush. Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman are double-digit sack hounds who often stop to punish opposing ball-carriers in the backfield for good measure.
Syracuse also returns defending Lou Groza Award winner Andre Szmyt who nailed 30 out of 34 kicks in his freshman season.
If Babers’ team can stifle opposing passing games with pressure, move the ball when necessary, and kick field goals in the clutch? That 3rd game of the year against visiting Clemson could turn out to be for a whole bunch of marbles, especially as it is surrounded by cupcakes and off-weeks.
Virginia Tech (+2200)
VT head coach Justin Fuentes guided the Hokies through another disappointing season in 2018, as QB Ryan Willis filled-in nobly for injured quarterback Josh Jackson but could not stem the tide during a killer losing streak in autumn.
Blacksburg is counting on a young OL to provide enough time for the junior to find dangerous receivers in the open field. Damon Hazleton Jr. is an excellent all-around pass catcher, and sophomore Tre Turner is expected to have a monster campaign after recording a 20.6 yard reception average and 4 touchdowns in his debut.
Will the defense play up to the usual Blacksburg standard? Rayshard Ashby is short for a junior LB, but had triple-digit tackles last season. Senior defensive back Reggie Floyd leads the secondary.
VT will should a boost in the Coastal (as will Virginia) from Georgia Tech replacing its Flexbone guru Paul Johnson with new HC Geoff Collins.
Collins will run the same offense 200+ other college programs and has talked about “attracting NFL prospects” to the heavily-restricted academic school in Atlanta. Translated into plain English, that means GT will become Vanderbilt for the foreseeable future.
Virginia Tech plays Georgia Tech on 11/16 and rival Virginia 2 weeks later.
Despite losing All-ACC wideout Olamide Zaccheaus, senior quarterback Bryce Perkins has the Virginia Cavalier attack primed for another lively season. Perkins was fantastic in 2018, passing for 2,680 yards, rushing for 923 yards, and accounting for 34 total touchdowns.
You can’t make an underdog bid for the ACC Coastal crown without a tough defense, though. Charles Snowden has an opportunity to make a real impact in the conference as a towering linebacker with mobility, and DB Bryce Hall is coming off a terrific campaign.
The Cavaliers face a manageable schedule that avoids a match-up with Clemson and affords an off-week prior to a trip to Miami.
North Carolina State (+2800)
I’d have imagined NC State being a lot less-popular futures bet than 28-to-1 considering that Ryan Finley has left campus, and those “Casual Joe” gamblers often glance at the QB position only.
1,000-yard rusher Reggie Gallaspy II has departed as well, leaving sophomore Ricky Person Jr. to carry the load.
Is Las Vegas paying attention to defense for a change? Maybe.
But there’s and little to build on in forming a Clemson-like defense in Raleigh. Senior James Smith-Williams fronts a defensive line that struggled in 2018.
Why I Like Syracuse as a 22-to-1 ACC Pick
Dino Babers’ progress with Syracuse has been almost criminally-overlooked by pundits who forget that the Orangemen are 1-1 against the Tigers over the past 2 seasons.
Perhaps that upset win in 2017 is easy for some to dismiss as a fluke. But a more accurate summation is that when an unheralded school beats a nationally-touted dynamo, the game is set aside as a “Here Be Dragons” no-no for handicappers to pay attention to…almost as if the game never happened.
I promise you, the Clemson-Syracuse game occurred in 2017…and the Orange prevailed.
An elite pass rush is the only thing that will slow Lawrence down as a prolific playmaker for the Tigers. Unlike other ACC teams, Syracuse will not need to send LBs blitzing around the edge or up the middle to get pressure on the young phenom.
That means more bodies available to contain Etienne and force Clemson into 3rd and 4th-down situations when the schools meet again in Week 3.
Is it likely that Syracuse will win the division and advance before defeating Miami, VT or another team from the Coastal in the ACC Championship Game on December 7th?
Not especially likely. It’s a long-shot. But it’s a hell of a lot less unlikely than the 22-to-1 betting line would have us believe.
If you played the season 22 straight times, how often would Syracuse win the ACC? I’m gonna go with “more than once.”
Consider Syracuse at (+2200) to win the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2019.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.