CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The ACC descended on the Queen City on Thursday looking more like college football royalty than it has in recent years.
The league unofficially opened its 2016 season with the first half of the ACC Football Kickoff, the conference’s version of media days, in Charlotte. ACC commissioner John Swofford and representatives of all seven Coastal Division teams took the stage at the Westin for what is a quickly growing event.
The ACC is coming off another strong year on the field, as conference champion Clemson made it to the College Football Playoff national title game. And while the Tigers aren’t heading to Charlotte until Friday, the energy from the league’s 2015 on-field success was evident throughout the day.
“With the best record among our peer conferences in New Year’s six bowls and the College Football Playoffs, Florida State’s national title in 2013, four straight Orange Bowl wins and 31 teams participating in bowls over the last three seasons, I think that we can all agree that what ACC football teams have accomplished has truly elevated our league,” Swofford said.
Between several new big-name head coaches and the star players from the always competitive Coastal Division, there was definitely a lot to talk about from Day 1 of the ACC Kickoff. Here are the highlights from Charlotte.
Meet the new-look Miami
Mark Richt was introduced as Miami’s new head coach more than seven months ago.
But the sight of the longtime Georgia head man wearing the orange and green of the Hurricanes was still somewhat of a shock to the system for some in attendance:
Richt’s presence at the ACC Kickoff as Miami’s head coach wasn’t the only eye-opening thing concerning the Hurricanes on Thursday.
Miami’s defensive player representative was its punter, senior Justin Vogel. Richt defended his uncommon move at the podium, saying he expects Vogel to be a key player for the Hurricanes this fall.
“This guy is super-talented. He’s going to be one of our greatest weapons,” Richt said. “I just think the guy, if he punts like I think he can, like I know he can, I’d be shocked if he’s not in line for a national award.”
Vogel, who averaged 42.48 yards per punt last season, said he was surprised when he received the news from Miami’s media relations department that he would join star quarterback Brad Kaaya in Charlotte.
“I had no idea what [the ACC Kickoff] was,” Vogel said. “Then I looked it up and went, ‘Wow, this is a big deal.’ I was shocked. That’s a lot of respect from my coaches, that they would choose me. Not a lot of kids get picked for this, let alone specialists.”
Vogel joining Kaaya and Richt in Charlotte was just another way the new head coach is doing things differently at Miami.
One of those areas is Miami’s offensive scheme, and Kaaya is embracing the changes as the star leader of the Hurricane attack in 2016.
“One of the things about the scheme is it makes it hard for the defense to be right,” Kaaya said. “We have a lot of different personnel packages. Coach Richt knows how to use the personnel. … Last year I was in shotgun a lot more. This year we’re going to mix it up a lot, a lot of under center.”
Ultimately, Miami hopes the changes from the switch to Richt will lead toward its ultimate goal—something the Hurricanes have never done in their football history.
“You can say all the things you want about Miami and all the championships we’ve won getting back to years past,” Kaaya said. “One thing we’ve never done is won an ACC Championship and a Coastal Championship. That’s our goal for the season.”
No more dancing for the commish
The last few editions of the ACC Kickoff have started with league commissioner John Swofford being evasive when asked about the league’s long talked-about deal with ESPN that would feature a conference network.
Swofford may have been in a ballroom at the Westin on Thursday, but he wasn’t going to show off his moves again.
“Some of you may be disappointed that I’m not going to be able to do the dance that I’ve done the last couple of years, dancing around some questions about television,” Swofford said.
Swofford then happily confirmed the news that was reported by Brett McMurphy of ESPN earlier in the week—the ACC has a massive new media rights deal through 2036 with ESPN that will feature the launch of the ACC Network.
The network will launch next month as a digital channel through ESPN3 and WatchESPN. In 2019, it will become a linear channel much like ESPN’s SEC Network. The league announced that the linear network will feature 40 regular-season ACC football games.
For the ACC, the long-term effects of this network announcement are consistency and cash. The league’s 14 football members are now locked in through 2036. Notre Dame, who is an ACC member in all sports except football, was a part of the unanimously approved deal.
If Notre Dame decides to become a member of a football conference in the next 20 seasons, it has to be the ACC.
With talks of conference expansion cranking back up across the country—the news of the ACC Network deal prompted the Big 12 to pursue adding members this week—the ACC essentially has “dibs” on the best non-power-conference team in the entire country.
In addition to all that stability, the network deal is expected to be a major financial boost for the ACC. The SEC’s shared revenue has exploded since the launch of its own ESPN-backed network, and both the ACC and ESPN expect the new network to be a similar success.
The viewership has the potential to be even greater than the SEC Network once men’s basketball enters the equation (Swofford announced the ACC basketball schedule would expand from 18 to 20 conference games to support the linear network, but there was no news of a move to a nine-game football schedule).
“We know that cumulatively ACC football and men’s basketball regularly generates more viewers on an annual basis for ESPN than any other conference,” Swofford said. “Having fans that follow our schools and our conference at this level is a very positive indicator, I think, of the overall popularity of our content.”
As Swofford said early in his address Thursday morning, the ACC is “reveling in the best football stretch in its history.” Thanks to the new network deal, things shouldn’t slow down for the league anytime soon.
Tar Heels looking to stay on top
Defending ACC Coastal Division champion North Carolina brought a lot of energy to the middle portion of Thursday’s media days action.
Head coach Larry Fedora, who was sporting a new beard, had a booming introduction that tested the power of the speaker system at the Westin:
“We’re excited about this 2016 season. No, we really are,” Fedora said. “We’re excited about the ’16 season. … We’re fired up. We’ve had a great summer, and we’re really looking forward to it.”
Fedora’s loud welcome was a perfect introduction for a North Carolina team still shouting for more respect in the ACC and throughout the country. The Tar Heels, represented by Des Lawrence and wide receiver Ryan Switzer, took Clemson down to the wire in last season’s conference title game and almost crashed the College Football Playoff.
Lawrence kept things lighthearted with his sock choices and his dreams of becoming a reality show star:
But Lawrence got serious when asked about his and several of his teammates’ absences from the round of preseason national award watch lists. He believes the Tar Heels are still overlooked, even after the successes of 2015.
“I think since the years when [UNC] had so much talent and people expected so much more, they’ve kind of put the brunt of expectations not being met on the guys now instead of just respecting the skills and talents they put forward on Saturdays,” Lawrence said. “I do feel like we have as many playmakers as the teams who had several players on those watch lists. … We’re going to make them respect us.”
For North Carolina to stay on top of the quickly improving Coastal in 2016, it will have to make a smooth transition to new starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky. The junior is replacing Marquise Williams, who put up more than 4,000 yards of offense and 37 touchdowns last season.
The early reviews of Trubisky as the new leader of North Carolina’s big-play offense are glowing as the Tar Heels move closer to their opener in Atlanta against Georgia.
“I feel like Marquise would even tell you that Mitch’s arm talent is unique and very rare,” Switzer said. “Everything that he brings to the table…he’s very composed, he’s a very team-first kind of guy. I’m looking forward to seeing his talent displayed this year, especially with the guys that he has around him.”
- Count Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson among those who are “not a big fan of what [college football] does with the Playoff.” Johnson wants to “take more of the subjectivity out of it” by seeing the CFP go to eight teams with the five power-conference champions, the top non-power conference champion and two wild cards.
- Duke wide receiver DeVon Edwards, who is one kickoff-return touchdown away from tying the all-time FBS record, said he doesn’t agree with the talk that college football could take the kickoff away in the future. “I would think the returner is the person that would take the most punishment at the end of the day, and I don’t really have a problem with it. I like kick returning, and I don’t think it should go away.”
- New Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente said he believes the Hokies‘ quarterback battle will be won by either senior Brenden Motley or JUCO transfer Jerod Evans. “That’s not to say I’m disappointed with the younger kids or don’t reserve my right to change my mind if we get in the middle of fall camp and the younger kids pass up the older kids. My evaluation so far is it will probably be one of those two.”
- Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi said he expects “nothing but the best performance” out of running back James Conner, who was recently declared cancer-free and is coming off a torn MCL. “I know when you look at him in strength and conditioning, our program this summer, he’s measuring his body up to where it was. Based on our measurements, he’s close to prime condition right now. I think he’d like to lose a few more pounds. But we’ve got him back to where we want to.”
- Virginia center Jackson Matteo gave a simple statement on preseason projections and the uncertainty of the upcoming college football season: “No one knows anything. … All those ratings, those rankings, they’re nice. They look great on paper. At the end of the day you have to put your helmet on and go out and play the game.
Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.
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Source: Bleacher Report-ACC Football