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What we've learned about ACC: Clemson aims to take next step

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A lot of people have beaten up on ACC football. Why? Because that's what happens when you're 3-13 in BCS bowl games.

But the ACC believes things are looking up. They had 31 NFL Draft choices in April, second only to the SEC's 63. Clemson and Florida State appear to be hitting their strides as consistent national powers. In 2014 Notre Dame comes aboard, playing five games annually against ACC schools. That will only help season ticket sales and TV ratings.

So here are just five things we learned about ACC football this spring:

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Swinney wants another "first" for Clemson

Since Dabo Swinney became Clemson's coach midway through the 2008 season, the Tigers have accomplished "some things that have happened for the first time and some things that haven't happened in a long time."

In 2011 Clemson won its first ACC championship since 1991. Last season Clemson beat LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl to win 11 games for only the fourth time in school history. It was the first time in 20 years that Clemson had posted back-to-back seasons with double-digit victories.

Clemson's only losses were to Florida State and South Carolina, which finished No. 10 and No. 8 respectively in the final Associated Press media poll.

"That's all well and good and we are proud to have done all that," Swinney said. "But for all the talk about our tradition here at Clemson we have to remind ourselves what the reality of our situation is."

Here is what Swinney means. In the history of Clemson football only four coaches have won 11 or more games in a season:

 Frank Howard, 1948 (11-0)
 Charley Pell, 1978 (11-1, ACC champions)
 Danny Ford, 1981 (12-0, national champions)
 Dabo Swinney, 2012 (11-2)

Those four coaches have two things in common. First, they are Alabama grads. The second?

"None of them won 11 games again at Clemson," Swinney said.

So with an offense that has some household names (Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins) and a defense that returns nine starters, Swinney has thrown down the challenge for the Tigers to win at least 11 games again.

"It's about the program and we want to be a consistent program," Swinney said. "This is the opportunity to take another step."

Erving could be Noles' next first-rounder

When I visited Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher in late March, he was confident the Seminoles would have a big NFL Draft. He was right.

Four Florida State players were invited to New York and three of them (QB EJ Manuel, DE Bjoern Werner, DB Xavier Rhodes) were taken in the first round. All told, Florida State set a school record with 11 picks in the draft, more than any other school. Alabama and LSU had nine each. It was more draft picks than Florida State had had in the last four drafts combined.

"It took us some time to build up to this draft," Fisher said. "Now you have to sustain it and that's the tough part."

Florida State may not have three first-round picks next season, but it's a pretty good bet that left tackle Erving will go early.

"I think he has a good chance to be a top 15 pick," Fisher said.

Erving played his first two seasons on defense and then switched to offensive tackle last season. At 6-5, 315 pounds with long arms he still has room to grow.

Erving said he expects Florida State to have another good draft in 2014.

"We have always recruited top-notch guys but now we are starting to build a culture around here," said Erving, from Moultrie, Ga. "The older guys teach the younger guys that there is a certain way we do things. We show them how to work."

Erving did, however, say that he would miss Manuel.

"He was a great leader and a great person," said Erving. "But the guys fighting for the position have the same traits."

After his performance in the spring game it looks like redshirt freshman Jameis Winston is the guy. Clint Trickett, who played last season when Manuel was hurt, graduated earlier this month with a season of eligibility remaining. He will transfer to West Virginia for his final season.

Big changes at Wake Forest

I've written it many times: Jim Grobe is one of the best coaches working today. So when he makes a fundamental change in the way he does things it is worth noting.

Grobe came to Wake Forest, which has the smallest student body in the Big Five conferences, in 2001. In 2006 the Deacons won the ACC championship. One of the ways Grobe did it was by trying to redshirt every freshman that came into his program. In 12 seasons at Wake Forest, Grobe has played only 22 true freshmen.

But last season the Deacons went 5-7 and at the end of the year they were really short of healthy bodies.

"The last three or four games we were not a very good team either offensively or defensively," Grobe said. "And the reality was there were a handful of freshmen who could have really helped us get through that time. But when you get to that point in the season you're not going to burn a redshirt."

Wake Forest is bringing in a large class (27) and Grobe has challenged his coaches to identify the freshmen who could be of immediate help and are, quite frankly, better players than some of his veterans.

"Where we really needed help was on special teams and we had some freshmen with good speed," said Grobe. "I'm not going to take a redshirt off a guy just to play special teams, so we will have to study this carefully. We'll see how it works out."

I asked Grobe if playing four or five talented freshmen could make the difference between going 5-7 and 7-5 at a place like Wake Forest.

"Absolutely," Grobe said.

Cut looking for more wins

Duke's David Cutcliffe is one of the best quarterback coaches of his generation. He helped a couple of guys named Manning succeed in the NFL and they still visit him every year to get a booster shot from their former coach. In fact, Peyton and Eli brought several of their wide receiver teammates to Duke in April to get some detailed instruction from Cutcliffe.

Last season his quarterback, Sean Renfree, was taken in the seventh round by the Atlanta Falcons.

So after a career spent developing NFL-style quarterbacks, it is a bit of a surprise to learn Cutcliffe is moving to a spread offense that includes the read option with quarterback Anthony Boone, who has been the backup to Renfree the past two seasons.

Why make such a change? Simple. Cutcliffe loves to develop NFL quarterbacks. But he loves winning more. Duke finally got a taste of it last season when Cutcliffe directed Duke to it first bowl game since 1994.

"We've always tried to use our people in the best way possible that gives us a chance to win," said Cutcliffe, set to begin his sixth season at Duke. "Before we had Peyton at Tennessee we had Heath Shuler and moved the quarterback around. After we had Peyton we won a national championship with Tee Martin. He was a different kind of quarterback."

Duke was fifth in the ACC in scoring last season (31.5 points per game) but finished dead last and No. 107 nationally in scoring defense (36.0 ppg). So Cutcliffe has committed his offense to running the ball, shortening the game, and keeping his defense off the field.

"We know how to throw the football and we'll still throw it a lot," said Cutcliffe. "But it is a numbers game and you have to have the threat of running the football. We've done a lot of studying and we're committed to it."

What next for Hokies' offense?

Despite the return of quarterback Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech's offense simply wasn't very good last season. The Hokies were ninth in the ACC in total offense (376.8 ypg) and eighth in scoring offense (25.1 ppg).

A lot of the blame fell on Thomas (18 touchdowns, 16 interceptions), but the reality is the 6-6, 262-pound Thomas tried to do too much. With the early departure of David Wilson, Virginia Tech did not have the big-time running back that has always been a staple of its offense. The offensive line also struggled.

Enter Scot Loeffler, who was hired at Auburn last season to install the pro-style power running offense. It didn't work and Loeffler was out when Gene Chizik's staff was shown the door after a 3-9 season.

So there were a few eyebrows raised when coach Frank Beamer hired Loeffler and veteran offensive line coach Jeff Grimes to fix the offense. Grimes made a bunch of changes on the line as he installed more of a zone blocking scheme. Needless to say it will still be a work in progress when the Hokies return to Blacksburg this summer.

There won't be a lot of time for experimentation come August as Virginia Tech opens with Alabama, the two-time defending national champions, in Atlanta on Aug. 31.

"Yep, that one has everybody's attention," said Beamer, whose team was 7-6 in 2012 after eight straight seasons of 10 wins or more.


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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