ACC settles into period of strength, stability


PINEHURST, N.C. — The Atlantic Coast Conference has entered a period of strength and stability. Nobody’s coming in anytime soon, and nobody’s leaving.

The league has won three straight Orange Bowls. It placed its champion into the inaugural College Football Playoff.

And it continues its consideration of a revenue-generating cable network that would rival those in the Southeastern Conference and Big Ten.

“We have a lot of consistency right now in ACC football,” Commissioner John Swofford said Monday during the league’s preseason media day. “And we’ve got some solid bases to build from, because of the successes of the last several years.”

Swofford said the league continues to discuss the possibility of an ACC-specific channel with ESPN and within the league. Swofford said the conference is “being very deliberate and thorough” in the decision-making process.

“We’ve positioned ourselves very well as a league for future options,” he added, “whatever those future options may be.”

On the field, there’s really no clear-cut preseason favorite.

That certainly hasn’t been the case in the past few years. Jameis Winston and Florida State earned a Heisman Trophy and a national championship in 2013 and then a berth in the playoff last year.

Winston’s gone, off to the NFL. Leading rusher Dalvin Cook was suspended from the team after he was charged with striking a woman at a bar. And while the defense — led by All-America cornerback Jalen Ramsey — is loaded, only three offensive starters return.

Ramsey said the question he was most frequently asked Monday was “how our team will cope, how we will go about things, without some key guys that we had last year.

“The response to that is, you know, Florida State,” Ramsey added. “We’re going to hold ourselves to a high standard every single year, year in and year out. We’re going to do what we have to do as a team to continue to be at the top.”

The three-time reigning ACC champion Seminoles haven’t lost a conference game since 2012, but they figure to receive more of a test from the rest of the deep Atlantic Division than in recent years.

Maybe their top challenger will be Clemson — which returns several key players at skill positions in addition to quarterback Deshaun Watson, a promising sophomore who’s back after having knee surgery late last year.

“Everybody expects him to be all-world, all-this — he’s just a kid,” Clemson defensive tackle D.J. Reader said. “He puts high expectations on himself. I don’t think he really cares what other people’s expectations are.”

Or perhaps North Carolina State could follow last year’s late-season surge with a push for its first division title behind redshirt senior quarterback Jacoby Brissett. The Wolfpack won four of their last five games in 2014, keyed by a 35-7 rout of rival North Carolina, to spark optimism for coach Dave Doeren’s third year.

“I think the next step is (for) us to really watch what we did last year and work toward fixing those errors, and once we do those things, everything will take care of itself,” Brissett said. “I felt we needed to be a more consistent team, know who we are and be who we are and just play our game every game, no matter what the (other) team is.”

Added defensive end Mike Rose: “If we won the ACC championship, Raleigh would shut down for a little while.”

Or maybe Louisville will make a strong push in the second season of Bobby Petrino’s second go-round with the Cardinals.

If nothing else, they’ll be more comfortable than they might have been when they made their first loop around the conference in 2014. The addition of Louisville to replace Big Ten-bound Maryland brought an end to realignment, at least for the time being. For more than a decade, that topic hovered over the league in some form or fashion.

Swofford said “the first-year relationship couldn’t be better” with the Cardinals.

“Going into it, yes, you’re still studying film but even moreso, you’re getting yourself ready,” Louisville defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins said. “You’re not (as) worried about the mental aspect. You’re worried about, ‘OK, are my legs under me? And was my body feeling good?’ Because you know exactly what they’re going to do and now it’s just a matter of playing and making plays.”

By Joedy McCreary

AP Sports Writer

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