ACC Media Days 2019: Five key storylines to keep an eye on this week in Charlotte
Clemson arrives at the ACC's Football Kickoff as heavy favorites to win the league
All 14 of the ACC's football programs will be represented this week in Charlotte, North Carolina, for the league's annual kickoff event. Every team brings its own set of questions, concerns and points of intrigue as we prepare for fall camp and the 2019 season, but no team is going to draw attention quite like the reigning national champion Clemson Tigers.
With their 44-16 drubbing of Alabama in the College Football Playoff title game, Dabo Swinney, Trevor Lawrence and the rest of the returning coaches and players from that 15-0 team signaled a potential changing of the guard in college football. At the very least, it confirmed Clemson's arrival as a true peer and rival for the Tide, who prior 2016 carried an undefeated 4-0 record in national championship games under Nick Saban.
Now the tally between these two modern titans of the sport is level at 2-2, with many preseason prognosticators already penciling in both Clemson and Alabama at least into the College Football Playoff field. Dabo Swinney won't engage in too much discussion about another rematch with the Tide at the ACC Football Kickoff, but it's to be expected that the two-time title-winning coach will gladly accept the adoration that he and the Clemson program are going to receive at this event.
Here now are five storylines to watch in Charlotte this week, beginning with the reigning champs in a new role.
1. Clemson as one of the bullies in college football: With Swinney at the forefront serving as chief salesman and marketing officer, Clemson clawed its way to the top of the ACC as an underdog. Swinney uses messages like the "R.O.Y. Bus" -- meaning "Rest of Y'All" -- to separate the outsiders who didn't believe and the insiders who willed Clemson's success into existence. In the process of this climb, Swinney and his program overcame a losing streak to rival South Carolina, killed "Clemsoning," supplanted Florida State as the standard of excellence in the ACC and now enter 2019 as a challenger to Alabama for a claim as the top program in college football.
Clemson's success, to this point, has been built not just with some good recruiting trail victories but with elite talent development. Things have changed now after the second title of this era, and now we're seeing the Tigers go head-to-head with the likes of Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State to land the top talent from across the country. Swinney was able to get the Tigers to this point by first closing the resources gap, and now he's shutting down the talent gap. Don't let the smile and country pleasantries fool you: Clemson is no longer a heartwarming story. The Tigers are one of the modern bullies in college football.
It's been a long journey from West Virginia hanging 70 points on Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl to taking down the Tide in two of the last three national championship games. To note that this program-changing success has all occurred in less than a decade brings to light the newness of Clemson's role as top dog. No longer a feisty program on the rise, it will be interesting to see how Swinney -- and Clemson -- play the role of undisputed favorite alongside its ACC peers.
2. Who's next in line?: Clemson's title odds in the ACC are so absurd that it's not even worth a wager, listed as 1/6 favorites to win the conference again. The Tigers probably won't be a unanimous pick to win as you can always count on at least a few media members to get bold with their ballots, but it's certainly going to be the result when the preseason poll is released at the conclusion of the event. But what can we make of the rest of the league? Maybe more importantly: What does that mean for the way the league is perceived nationally?
The No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the ACC heading into 2019 are probably Syracuse and Virginia. Both Dino Babers and Bronco Mendenhall saw their programs take massive steps forward in Year 3 and return enough talent to assume that Year 4 will be a continuation of that work rather than a regression. Their work should be complimented and noted -- taking programs from the bottom tier of the league and leading them to the front of the pack in just a couple years. But how are those programs going to stack up to the more traditional football brands like Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech when the pulse of the preseason is revealed in the media poll? Our record as the voting media at this event is pretty bad (see: picking Florida State to win the league in 2017), but it at least will provide a glimpse into the perception of how the rest of the league -- the real "Rest of Y'all," -- is expected to shake out in 2019.
3. State of Florida State: When considering the possible outcomes for Willie Taggart's first season at Florida State, Seminoles fans probably didn't have "worst season in 36 years" outlined in their expectations. Jimbo Fisher left somewhat unceremoniously but he did bring a national championship back to Tallahassee and field one of the best college football teams of the modern era in 2013. Taggart arrived at last year's ACC Football Kickoff with a lot of talk about accountability and changing the culture, but when the season got underway, it became clear that getting Florida State back to ACC title contention is by no means a quick fix.
Taggart's moves to address the shortcomings of 2018 include the hire of Kendall Briles as offensive coordinator and bringing in Alex Hornibrook as a graduate transfer from Wisconsin to provide some depth at a quarterback position that thinned out with the transfer of Deondre Francois. Defensively, there are eight starters back from a group that mostly held its own amidst offensive ineptitude, but there's still plenty of "wait and see" on both sides of the ball before we start talking about the gap shortening between FSU and Clemson in the Atlantic Division.
4. New faces: The league lost a few of college football's most well-known characters during the post-2018 season coaching carousel, but it's welcoming a trio of rising stars and a Hall of Famer as the "new" faces for 2019. Gone is "I'm not amused" face of Paul Johnson, Bobby Petrino, Larry Fedora's proclamations that football is under attack and Mark Richt's detailed explanation on the proper way to eat a sandwich.
But there is plenty of intrigue with this new group, as Scott Satterfield looks to put the pieces back together at Louisville and Manny Diaz hopes he can take Miami to the next level in a job he has coveted for much of his life. Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins has already drawn attention for his personality, and will likely let it shine when the Coastal Division gets the spotlight on Thursday. But none of the new coaches are as much of a surefire bet to entertain quite like Mack Brown. Since arriving back at North Carolina, Brown has held press conferences that feel like TED Talks and showcased how his natural comfort with public speaking has only been more polished thanks to his time as a member of the media.
5. The Network: The ACC has taken a more patient approach to building out its conference network with ESPN and finalizing the details of its digital strategy. This year's football kickoff was always going to have some ramped up hype because of the ACC Network's impending launch, but after both Clemson and Virginia earned national championships within the past year, the event is sure to carry a celebratory mood. Clemson's rivalry with Alabama is a fitting backdrop for the launch of the ACC Network as it begins to fill the airwaves with highlights, stories and debates about ACC football.
Both teams have carried the national championship contention portion of their league's football reputation throughout the College Football Playoff era. But throughout that time, the SEC Network has had dedicated time, resources and messaging tied to the promotion of the SEC. Now the ACC has its own promotion tool to match, and I know it sounds nonsensical, but that matters in a big, dumb, lovable sport driven by opinions and debates. After 44-16, the debate of whether Clemson has closed the gap with Alabama mirrors the debate the ACC Network would love to have on its airwaves: whether the ACC has closed the gap with the SEC on the football field.
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