The ACC has taken a beating nationally in the past decade on the field and in the press due to their lack of signature wins in rivalry games and marquee out of conference matchups. This started to change in 2014 as the league was 7-6 in top 50 head to head out of conference matchups. The conference was also 4-0 in the thanksgiving weekend games that saw wins by Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Louisville over their in state rivals from the SEC. One of the main factors in the improvement of the conference has been the play at the quarterback position. It may be surprising to most and many might disagree, but this season the ACC appears to have the best collection of signal callers in college football.
A case can be made for the Big 10 who returns Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones, Connor Cook, Christian Hackenberg and Tommy Armstrong Jr. The problem is that three of those six happen to play for Ohio State and only one of them figures to get significant playing time. The SEC also has a lot of talent at the position with Dak Prescott, Maty Mauk, Joshua Dobbs, Jeremy Johnson and Kyle Allen all returning. Outside of Prescott and Mauk however, none of the elite returning starters in the SEC has been the starter for a full season. The SEC may be the best league in college football but the conference isn’t usually known for its great quarterback play. The Pac 12 and Big 12 have historically had great college quarterbacks and they each have a top 5 national quarterback in 2015 with Cody Kessler and Trevone Boykin. However, many of the other schools outside of USC and TCU are breaking in new players at the position this season.
There are several reasons why people will squawk at the notion of the ACC having the best group of quarterbacks this season. The most obvious is that the conference is still not respected nationally. Another reason is that several of the good quarterbacks in the league have gone unnoticed because their schools are not national powers and aren’t among the teams in the top 25. However, the more you research, the more you will see that the ACC has the best collection of talent at the position when you factor in playing experience and last season’s numbers. The ACC has six legitimate returning starting quarterbacks this season and should improve the respectability of the league even more this season.
One of the good returning quarterbacks is Jacoby Brissett, who transferred from Florida before becoming the starter at NC State last season. He had to overcome a porous defense that surrendered over 31 points per game in ACC play during 2014. Brissett led the Wolfpack to an 8-5 record with the win over Central Florida in the Bitcoin bowl. Jacoby threw for over 2600 yards and ran for over 500 in his first year as a starting quarterback. The rising senior also had a very favorable 23 to 5 touchdown to interception ratio. The only way he will get any national attention is if NC State can take the next step forward in 2015. It won’t be easy with Clemson, Florida State and Louisville all projected to finish ahead of them in the atlantic division. However, NC State will get two of those three teams at home and will play four easy out of conference games. Wolfpack fans have reason to be optimistic about more wins this season with a manageable schedule, an improved defense and the return of Brissett.
Brad Kaaya was another big performer for the ACC last year and was extremely impressive in his freshman season. Kaaya threw for close to 3,000 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2014. The Hurricanes may have come up short in their big games but Kaaya was not the problem. He passed for over 300 yards and gave Miami a 23-7 second half lead in the loss to Florida State. Kaaya will have to be even better as a sophomore if Miami wants to compete in the coastal division of the ACC. Las Vegas is not giving the Hurricanes much respect and has forecasted 5 to 6 wins for them this season. The Canes will have tough out of conference games against Nebraska and Cincinnati, as well as a grueling ACC schedule that features top 15 matchups against Georgia Tech, Clemson and Florida State. If Kaaya can step up his game even more in 2015, he can help the Canes overcome some of their defensive woes that they are likely to have.
Another quarterback that has had to overcome his team’s defensive problems is Marquise Williams from North Carolina. Williams is one of the top dual threat quarterbacks in the country and he accounted for nearly 4,000 all purpose yards in his junior season. The Tarheels had one of the most inept defenses in college football last year and surrendered almost 40 points per game. Despite that, Williams and the offense were productive enough to get North Carolina into a bowl game. Coach Fedora is hoping that the hiring of defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, will improve that area enough to allow the Tarheels to compete for a coastal division title in 2015. The conference schedule is favorable and North Carolina doesn’t have to play any of the top 3 projected atlantic division teams in Clemson, Florida State and Louisville. If Williams can duplicate or surpass his 2014 numbers, North Carolina should be able to compete with teams like Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Duke in the coastal this season.
One of the more overlooked quarterbacks in the country is Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas. Thomas does not accumulate the stats of some of the other quarterbacks in the league but that is the nature of playing the position in the Paul Johnson offense. Georgia Tech was one of the surprise teams of the college football season in 2014 and were 13 points shy of a perfect season that included a two point loss against Florida State in the ACC championship. Thomas guided the Yellow Jackets to a top 10 finish in both polls that included wins over top 25 teams like Clemson, Mississippi State and rival Georgia. The Yellow Jackets are talented again in 2015 but draw the short end of the stick in the schedule department. They have the unenviable task of playing the two powers in the atlantic division with games against Florida State and Clemson as well as out of conference matchups with potential top 10 teams Notre Dame and rival Georgia. Thomas will need to play great again if the Jackets want to build on their success of last season.
Florida State had a void at the quarterback position after the departure of Jameis Winston to the NFL draft. They were fortunate to have Everett Golson fall into their lap after he decided to transfer from Notre Dame this spring. Golson had an up and down career at Notre Dame. He led the Irish to the national championship game in 2012 but was suspended for the entire 2013 season. Last year he started off strong and propelled Notre Dame to a 7-1 start that included a last second controversial loss to his new team. However, not long after the loss to Florida State, Golson and the Irish had a disappointing end to the regular season, losing their final four games. Those four games and the win against LSU in the music city bowl made Golson expendable to Notre Dame. The bowl win against LSU was a positive for the Notre Dame program but it was Golson’s replacement, Malik Zaire that shined in that game. There is no doubt that Golson is an experienced and talented quarterback. He threw for 29 touchdowns and over 3400 yards for Notre Dame last season. However, he also had problems with turnovers and put the Irish in some adverse situations with his many interceptions and fumbles at the end of the 2014 season. Golson has the ability to lead a high powered offense. Florida State has a wealth of talent and will once again compete for an ACC championship this season. If Golson can eliminate his propensity for turnovers, he can achieve great success this season at Florida State and possibly lead a second school to a national championship game.
The quarterback that is getting most of the attention on a national level is Clemson sophomore Deshaun Watson. There is good reason for that. Clemson will be ranked high in the polls and Watson showed that he has the ability to be dynamic in his injury plagued freshman season and offers the Tigers a true difference maker at a premium position. Watson was not the starter at the beginning of the 2014 season as head coach Dabo Swinney leaned on senior Cole Stouldt against Georgia and the beginning of the Florida State game. It became apparent during the game in Tallahassee that Watson was a special player. He showed a lot of poise for a true freshman playing on the road against the number one team and defending national champions at that time. Watson completed 19 of 28 passes in the game and put the Tigers in position to win if it wasn’t for costly turnovers, bad snaps on the goal line and missed field goals. Unfortunately he was only able to play three full games after that performance because his season was cut short due to several injuries. Those three games saw Watson play extremely well and he led Clemson to convincing wins against bowl teams North Carolina, NC State and South Carolina. The win over the rival Gamecocks was most impressive due to the fact that Watson did it on a torn acl. The schedule is not easy for Clemson in 2015 but the reason that they are favored to win the conference is because most believe that Watson is the best quarterback in a league full of very good ones.