PINEHURST, N.C. — ACC coaches, players, execs and, of course, the media began gathering at the Pinehurst Resort Sunday night to set the stage for the 2015 college football season.
Lots of star power here, but that’s nothing new for this historic venue that served as host for the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open last year.
Each of 14 ACC schools will be represented by its coach and two players over the two-day event, but the most popular attraction may be Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher .
Fisher is coming off three consecutive ACC championships, a national title in 2013/2014 and a College Football Playoff semifinal appearance last New Year’s Day. But that’s not the only reason he’ll be answering so many questions.
Two ugly off-the-field incidents have overshadowed Florida State’s preseason preparations. Two 19-year-old players — running back Dalvin Cook and quarterback De’Andre Johnson – are accused of assaulting two 21-year-old women in bars on consecutive nights last month.
Cook, who was Florida State’s leading rusher last season with a school freshman record 1,008 yards, has been suspended indefinitely. His name is still on the roster.
Johnson, whose assault was caught on video, has been dismissed from the team.
Fisher subsequently banned his players from going into local bars (not a bad idea, coach) as he tries to teach responsibility and accountability.
Meanwhile, with clouds hovering over the program and quarterback Jameis Winston in the NFL, Fisher must figure out a way to beat out Clemson for the ACC Atlantic Division championship. And that won’t be easy — even if Cook does return.
Reporters here are talking about Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who threw for 279 yards and ran for two touchdowns against South Carolina last season — while playing on a torn ACL in his knee.
Another name to watch: Miami running back Joe Yearby. Some who follow the Hurricanes’ program believe he can be as productive as former running back Duke Johnson, now with the Cleveland Browns. Johnson rushed for 1,652 yards last season.
Player interviews begin Monday at Pinehurst after Commissioner John Swofford meets the press at 11:30 a.m.
Pitt will be represented by reigning ACC Player of the Year James Conner and 300-pound senior defensive tackle Darryl Render.
ACC officials also will reveal Tuesday the preseason conference MVP and predicted order of finish, as voted by media members covering each school. The preseason All-ACC team will be announced Thursday after everyone has gone home.
I voted Conner as my player of the year. Plus, I put Conner and Tyler Boyd on my All-ACC team at running back and wide receiver.
Where did I pick Pitt to finish in the Coastal? Second to Georgia Tech, no less.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. But that’s only one more rung up the ladder from where last year’s team finished with a horrible defense.
With Boyd and Conner — two of the best players in the nation at their positions — quarterback Chad Voytik and an experienced offensive line, Pitt will score enough points. I’m eager to talk to Render on Monday to see what tricks coach Pat Narduzzi, who was a genius at Michigan State, has for the Pitt defense.
I believe Narduzzi will coax enough big plays from the defense to make Pitt relevant in the conference title chase throughout the season. Even with a killer three-week stretch from Oct. 3-17 that has Pitt playing at Virginia Tech, home to Virginia and at Georgia Tech.
By the way, Pitt’s non-conference schedule (home to Youngstown State and Notre Dame and on the road at Akron and Iowa) is ranked the 10th-toughest in the nation by Sporting News.
Here’s my order-of-finish ballot:
Coastal: Georgia Tech, Pitt, Virginia Tech, Duke, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia.
Atlantic: Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina State, Louisville, Boston College, Wake Forest, Syracuse.
I predicted Georgia Tech to defeat Clemson in the ACC championship game, based largely on the Yellow Jackets’ incredibly athletic quarterback Justin Thomas and an option offense that is difficult for the opposing defense to simulate in practice. Thomas, who ran for 1,086 yards last season, is my quarterback pick on the preseason team.
If Georgia Tech wins the ACC title, it will mark the first championship for a Coastal team since Virginia Tech won it in 2010.
Here’s my complete All-ACC ballot:
Quarterback — Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas.
Running back — Conner and Boston Colleges’ Jon Hilliman.
Wide receiver — Boyd, Clemson’s Mike Williams and North Carolina’s Ryan Switzer.
Tight end — Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges.
Offensive tackle — Georgia Tech’s Bryan Chamberlain and Florida State’s Roderick Johnson.
Offensive guard — North Carolina’s Landon Turner and Virginia Tech’s Wyatt Teller.
Center — Duke’s Matt Skura.
Defensive end — Virginia Tech’s Dadi Nicolas and Clemson’s Shaq Lawson.
Defensive tackle — Virginia Tech’s Luther Maddy and Georgia Tech’s Adam Gotsis.
Linebacker — Louisville’s James Burgess, Florida State’s Terrance Smith and Boston College’s Steve Daniels.
Cornerback — Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey and Virginia Tech’s Kendall Fuller.
Safety — Duke’s Jeremy Cash and Virginia’s Quin Blanding.
Kicker — Florida States’ Roberto Aguayo.
Punter — Wake Forest’s Alex Kinal.
Specialist — North Carolina’s Ryan Switzer.