Five things about the ACC: September is put up or shut up month

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Think September isn't a big month for the ACC?

College football's four-team playoff arrives in 2014, which means the ACC has a couple of years to reverse the nagging narrative that it is not ready to play with the four big boys (SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12) on the national stage.

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The ACC has placed 15 teams in BCS games since 1998. After Clemson lost to West Virginia (70-33) in the Orange Bowl and Virginia Tech lost to Michigan (23-20 OT) in the Sugar Bowl, the ACC is now 2-13 in those games. That's a lot of bad history to overcome.

"The way you do that is by playing big games and winning them," N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien at the recent ACC media days in Greensboro, N.C.

The ACC will certainly get a chance to do that. Here are the non-conference highlights of the September schedule:

Aug. 31: North Carolina State vs. Tennessee, Atlanta
Sept. 1: Clemson vs. Auburn, Atlanta
Sept. 8: Duke at Stanford
Sept. 8: Miami (Fla.) at Kansas State
Sept. 8: Penn State at Virginia
Sept. 15: Boston College at Northwestern
Sept. 15: North Carolina at Louisville
Sept. 15: Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh
Sept. 22: Maryland at West Virginia
Sept. 22: Virginia at TCU
Sept. 22: Virginia Tech vs. Cincinnati (FedEx Field)

"We're close," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "But you don't get points for being close. We have to win."

Here are four more things we learned at ACC media days:

1. Duke's Connor Vernon is the best player you never heard of: Think about all of the great wide receivers who have played in the ACC. Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson and Florida State's Peter Warrick quickly come to mind. Now realize that with 35 catches Vernon, a senior from Miami, will become the conference's all-time leader. He currently has 198 career catches. The ACC record is 232 held by Clemson's Aaron Kelly.

"I've coached some great players in my career," said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who groomed a couple of pretty good quarterbacks named Manning. This kid [Vernon] is in my Top 10 ... easily."

With quarterback Sean Renfree (23 career starts) returning, Vernon is expected to have a monster year. Last season he caught 70 passes for 956 yards. For his career he has 2,675 total receiving yards, which is 842 short of Warrick's career mark of 3,517.

Duke returns eight starters on offense.

"We were so close last season [Duke lost three games by a total of seven points] and what I want to do is go to a bowl game," Vernon said. "We're going to be a lot better than people think."

2. Sammy Watkins -- 'No assembly required': Clemson center Dalton Freeman (36 career starts) said it didn't take him long to figure out last year that wide receiver Sammy Watkins would have a big impact as a freshman.

"From the moment he walked onto the campus you could tell he was special, that he was going to be a difference-maker," Freeman said. "Some guys have to work their way into becoming a game-changer. Not Sammy. As soon as they took him out of the box he was ready to go. No assembly required."

Watkins broke both the Clemson and ACC records for receptions (82 catches, 1,219 yards) last season.

Freeman said he knew Watkins was really special after the second play of the first game against Troy. Watkins took a pass in the flat, made two defenders miss, and raced 33 yards for a touchdown.

"I'm blocking my guy so I didn't really see it when it happened," Freeman said. "When I saw the film, I just went 'Whoa!'"

3. Beamer on the new kickoff rule: During his 26 years at Virginia Tech, nobody has coached special teams better than Frank Beamer. Beamer said he and his coaches have studied the new kickoff rules and are still developing their strategy.

The NCAA Rules Committee will move kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35 this season. After touchbacks the offensive team will be given possession at the 25 instead of the 20. The intent of the rule is to have fewer kickoff returns and thus improve player safety.

"I can see some situations where you might do a directional kick into the corner and try to stop them short of the 25," Beamer said. "But right now I'm thinking if my kickoff guy is good, I'll just tell him to kick it deep into the end zone and give them the ball on the 25. That is probably the best percentage play."

The NFL went to kickoffs from the 35-yard line last season and had a huge spike (from 18.8 percent to over 45 percent of kickoffs) in touchbacks. About 16.4 percent of kickoffs in college football resulted in touchbacks last season. It will be interesting to see if there is a similar spike.

"But you have to remember that the 32 best kickers in the world have those NFL jobs," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said.

4. Three reasons N.C. State can beat Tennessee on Aug. 31 in Atlanta:

 QB Mike Glennon is a fifth-year senior. With the departure of Russell Wilson to Wisconsin, Glennon felt a lot of pressure when he took over the position last season. He completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 3,054 yards and 31 touchdowns.

 Glennon's offensive line returns four players who have combined for 96 career starts. "It helps my mother sleep better at night," Glennon said.

 Tennessee will throw the ball a lot. N.C. State returns its entire secondary, led by junior cornerback David Amerson, who led the nation with 13 interceptions. No other player in FBS had more than eight. "It is very difficult to throw against these guys," Glennon said. "David is a first-round draft choice."

The Tony Barnhart Show begins Aug. 28 on The CBS Sports Network.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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