Offensive X-Factors For Top ACC Contenders

The X-Factor is one of my favorite discussion points in sports. Every year, contenders in college football enter the year with positions or players they have few question marks about – proven players who they trust to produce. However, teams that win or compete for championships are generally boosted by that surprise breakout performance, an excellent contribution from a player that wasn’t expected to do so. Without that player, that X-Factor, a championship team simply becomes a really good team, and a really good team can beocme borderline average. So with a game in the books for many teams who we consider to be contenders to qualify for the ACC Championship,. let’s take a look at who the X-Factors are for those squads, on the offensive side of the ball. For the purposes of this piece, we narrowed our list to the four teams with the best current odds to win the ACC.

Clemson Tigers – Braden Galloway, TE

Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne headline a lethal Clemson offense, but their wide receiver corps did have some question marks, as the season-ending injury to Justyn Ross forced Amari Rodgers to become WR #1 for the Tigers. This left an opportunity for someone to step up as Lawrence’s second option in the passing game, and Galloway played the part in the season opener. He tied with Rodgers for the team lead with five catches for 60 yards. After not playing in 2019 and having just five total receptions in 2018, Galloway looks primed for a breakout season that could add another layer to this dynamic Clemson offense.

UNC Tar Heels – Michael Carter, RB

Carter maybe doesn’t fit the traditional ‘X-Factor’ definition, as he is a proven player who has produced for the Tar Heels. However, he is so critical in both facets of the UNC offense that, with a lack of unproven breakout prsoepcts, makes Carter my choice for the X-Factor here. The biggest key for Carter will be an increased role in the passing game. Taking too much from one game is dangerous, but Carter collected six passes for 60 yards in their opening clash with Syracuse. He had more than 2 receptions in a game just once in 2019. Combine that with his seven carries for 78 yards, and Carter averaged nearly 11 yards per touch in his first outing of 2020. He’s explosive, and he looks like he might have added more versatility to his toolkit in 2020.

Miami Hurricanes – Jaylan Knighton, RB

The addition of a freshman playmaker is always exciting, and Knighton looks like he could add another dimension to this Miami offense in 2020. The hype regarding the Hurricanes has largely revolved around the arrival of transfer quarterback D’Eriq King. King is a great dual-threat quarterback, and Miami complements his skills with Cam’Ron Harris, a proven running back. However, Knighton played a significant part in the gameplan during Miami’s season-opening victory against UAB. The true freshman notched nine carries for 59 yards, over 6.5 yards per pop. With the sturdy Harris taking the bulk of the rushing load, Knighton, weighing in 20 pounds lighter than Harris, provides a great change of pace. His arrival in Miami hints at dynamic potential and creativity to the Hurricanes’ playcalling.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish – Michael Mayer, TE

Mayer is currently listed as the 3rd-string tight end for the Irish, but he flashed some of the playmaking ability that enticed the Irish to seek him out as their top target of the 2020 class. He caught three passes for 38 yards, continually racking up yards after the catch and proving very difficult to take down. At 6’5, 235, Mayer is an absolute monster on the field, and Notre Dame offensive coordinator showed an inclination to use tight ends in the passing game, targeting starter Tommy Tremble (5 receptions, 38 yards) frequently. Notre Dame lacks proven playmakers in their receiving corps, and quarterback Ian Book has lost his safety net that was Chase Claypool last season. If Mayer can emerge as a dependable threat, that will be a huge boost for the Irish.

Recent Virus Spikes Should Not Be The Reason To Shut Down College Football

The headlines have been both plentiful and negative this week, as reports of UNC reversing course and shifting to online learning, while Notre Dame did the same, although allowed students to stay on campus – for now. Both situations were caused by significant spikes in COVID-19 cases. UNC reported over 320 cases, with another couple of hundred students quarantined due to contact tracing. Notre Dame’s latest update had 222 confirmed cases as of Wednesday at noon. As with UNC, dozens of other students are currently quarantined. In an email, Notre Dame president Father Jenkins stated that the number of initial cases, just 15 days since freshman arrived on campus, and under two weeks after classes started, exceeded their initial estimates. New campus restrictions were set in place, and the student body is somewhat in limbo regarding their status for the rest of the semester. At UNC, most students are returning home. However, at both schools, sports, notably football, remains largely unhindered.

Notre Dame did not practice Wednesday, and they might not Thursday either. The players received tests for the virus, and it is believed that they will wait for results before continuing with practice. Their last set of test results came on August 10, with just 2 of 117 players and staff testing positive. Those who are against schools returning to in-person learning have been vehemently against a college football season. But quite frankly, recent developments show that these athletes may actually be safer with the season ongoing.

The COVID-19 virus remains a relative unknown, and obviously, player safety should be prioritized. However, can it be confidently said that cancelling the football season would make these players safer? I’m not so sure that the case can be made. Throughout the summer, many college football programs practiced, following strict health protocols and keeping case numbers extremely low and even nonexistent at times. These low numbers have been been a major point in the push from many college football players and coaches to keep their 2020 season alive. When seasons were cancelled, many coaches spoke out, discussing the guidelines they had successfully followed in order to earn the chance to play.

Would the numbers increase once the season started? Again, the virus can be a little unpredictable given how new it is, but it seems that if the testing capacity is there, it would not be the case. Look at the case in the NHL and NBA bubbles right now – no cases are being reported despite heavy contact sports being played with no masks and certainly very little distancing. Yet, with increased testing, there have been no cases in recent weeks. While they’re in a bubble, the MLB is not. And yes, the MLB has had some struggles with cases, but every team that has been shut down has been linked to activity that took place off the field, such as a few Miami Marlins’ players visiting a strip club. These sports aren’t particularly conducive to distancing, players aren’t wearing mask, and many of the other general safety protocols regarding COVID are not really in play in these bubbles. Football may be a new test, but it doesn’t appear at this point, given the success of summer practices, as well as the restart of professional sports, that playing sports dramatically increases the chance of infection.

But what about the bevy of Athletic Directors saying they won’t play football without their students on campus? We can only hope they will see sense. While yes, the college’s job is to educate their students, it would be ignorant to ignore the financial ramifications of losing the football season. Notre Dame, for example, uses the money from their contract with NBC to supplment financial aid packages for students. Football is the biggest moneymaker for many universities around the country. It’s not about prioritizing athletes over regular students – it’s about doing their best to dull the financial crisis that will arise out of this pandemic.

As for the recent spikes in cases? To this point, there is no reason to suggest that will be made better by cancelling football. Initial reports from Notre Dame said that the majority of their cases originated with a couple of large off-campus parties. UNC reported a similar situation. The trend has been pretty clear – off campus students, who have housing secured for the year, and non-athletes, with little to lose beyond in-person classes, have been careless and put their schools in tough positions. Notre Dame’s numbers showed that the majority of their cases came from two sources – senior students and business students. Seniors, and particularly seniors in business, often have jobs locked up, or close to locked up, entering their final academic year. Their housing situation would remain largely unchanged, and their future prospects would hardly be threatened by another virtual semester. Meanwhile, a general sense of outrage has permeated the campus, particularly among on-campus underclassmen, who would feel the brunt of the impact of a virtual semester.

There’s a reason that the numbers among football teams have been extremely low – these athletes are playing for their team and their future. Take away that season and all you are doing is adding hundreds of players to a careless student body. That doesn’t seem to lower the risk. The trend is clear – people with something to lose have been more careful, follow the guidelines, and keep the case numbers low. If we’re looking at a pros and cons list, the cons of cancelling football seem to outweigh the pros by a heavy margin right now. Fans or not, colleges need this financially, and if anything, recent events have shown that sports are not really the issue at hand – they’re simply becoming another victim in a hunt to end the virus that feels more and more like a chicken running around with its head cut off. Focus on the issue at hand and give the players the chance to play that they deserve.

And if you’re not an athlete – maybe don’t throw a massive party that gets your school shut down.

Thomas: Best and Worst Atmospheres in College Football

A deafening homefield advantage can make or break a football team – and whether it’s the pure noise, the great traditions, the capacity, or anything else, there are many factors to determining the best atmospheres in college football. Here’s my take on the best and worst atmospheres in each Power-5 conference (full rankings to come another day). These rankings are largely based off the 2019 season and recent years, as some atmospheres are only raucous when the home team is a powerhouse, lowering those teams in our rankings. Without further ado here’s the rankings.

Pac-12

Worst Atmosphere: UCLA
The best game to take place at UCLA is the Rose Bowl, and UCLA is rarely a participant. The Bruins rarely play in a full stadium, failing to reach even 50% capacity in three different games last season, and they don’t boast any great traditions, or even a particularly good team, to make up for the lack of rowdiness in the crowd. 

Best Atmosphere: Utah
Size doesn’t always matter. Utah packs just 45,807 people into their stadium, but nearly every game is sold out, cheering on one of the state’s only relevant teams. When the Utes go into battle on the gridiron, it’s easily the most intense athletic competition in the state throughout the year. Their dominance of the Holy War rivalry is always entertaining, and their cannon fire after every Utah score is a thrilling punctuation mark to a successful possession for the home team. 

Honorable Mention: Colorado, Oregon, Washington

Big 12

Worst Atmosphere: Kansas
Look, it’s hard to blame the Jayhawks on this one. They are most definitely a basketball school, and they rarely, if ever, put a competitive product on the gridiron. Some fanbases can stay dedicated through the bad years – but it’s been a never-ending era in Kansas. They haven’t put up more than three wins since 2009, and they have only three top-10 finishes in the AP Poll in school history. Hard to go crazy here. 

Best Atmosphere: Baylor

Coming off my freshman year in college, I am a sucker for great traditions involving freshmen, and the Baylor Line is one of those. The chosen freshman partake in a mad dash to set up a human tunnel for the football team to run through, and then lead the student section in distinctive gold jerseys. Baylor also frequently packs their 45,000 seat stadium well over capacity. Considering they’re rarely the class of the Big 12, the consistently rowdy atmosphere in Waco is impressive, compared to bigger teams like Texas or Oklahoma, where the atmosphere tends to strictly correlate to the team’s success. Probably an unpopular pick, but this is my list so… Sic em Bears. 

Honorable Mention: Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Oklahoma 

Big 10

Worst Atmosphere: Rutgers
Rutgers is just bad. The team is never competitive, they don’t have a true rivalry game to get hyped up for, and they’re also from New Jersey. I mean, does anything good come out of New Jersey? Shouldn’t be too much explanation needed here. The games aren’t exciting, the crowd isn’t excited, and the scoreboard usually reads something like 42-6 by the end of the game. 

Best Atmosphere: Nebraska
The Big 10 was a brutal decision, but I went with the Cornhuskers and their otherworldly sellout streak. Nebraska has football – and the College World Series – and that’s it. Nothing else relevant happens in Nebraska, and seemingly the entire state turns up for gameday. Nebraska is rarely even relevant in the Big 10, and yet they still pack in some of the rowdiest crowds in the nation. Last year, despite being destroyed by Ohio State after hosting College Gameday, a panorama of the crowd saw virtually every member of the above-capacity game still standing and roaring in a 40-point game in the fourth quarter. Dedication and commitment. Just imagine if the Cornhuskers were good.

Honorable Mention: Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State

ACC

Worst Atmosphere: Pittsburgh
I’m generally disappointed by Pitt crowds, because the Panthers produce a quality football team most seasons, and they just don’t get a lot of love from the home crowd. Being the second best team in the state to Penn State definitely hurts, but it would be nice to see Pitt get a little love. They consistently challenge big-name programs and occasionally deliver with a stunning upset, yet rarely get much hometown support. It hurts that they play home games at Heinz Field, meaning they aren’t even on campus, which probably makes it harder to generate excitement. They’re good, but Pitt is still a middle-of-the-road team, and that clearly isn’t enough for Panther nation. 

Best Atmosphere: UNC

Cue all the hate I’ll get for not picking Clemson. Little-known fact: UNC actually filled their stadium more than Clemson did last year. The Tar Heels play in a smaller stadium (50,500) but played every game in front of a capacity crowd. The sheer lack of excitement in many of Clemson’s conference affairs contribute to the Tigers missing out on the top spot. The Tar Heels nearly beat Clemson behind their home crowd last season, and Tar Heel nation consistently turns out for their squad, despite being known as a basketball school, even featuring some underrated traditions – like this fourth quarter hype video which the entire crowd rocks to.

Honorable Mention: Clemson, NC State, Virginia Tech

SEC

Worst Atmosphere: Vanderbilt

To be fair, the Commodores probably get some rowdy baseball crowds. But that’s their best sport far and away, and it’s pretty clear that many students, alumni, and fans have better things to do than watch Vandy get smacked by Alabama, LSU, and the rest of the SEC on a weekly basis. 

Best Atmosphere: Georgia
I love Georgia’s stadium, which turns out in a big way for primetime games. Remember when they forced Notre Dame into a dozen false start penalties? Absolutely ridiculous noise levels are reached in Sanford Stadium, and from the call to attention with the trumpet and iconic highlight reel video at the beginning of the game, to the fourth quarter lights tradition, to their well-known bulldog mascot, Georgia produces an electric gameday atmosphere. 

Honorable Mention: Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU

ACC Coastal Quarterback Rankings

The ACC Coastal division, as it has been for several years, is both the little brother of the ACC and completely wide open. The division has sent all seven of its teams to the conference title game in the past seven years, although none of them have emerged a winner. That trend figures to continue, as the winner of this division will have an uphill battle against Clemson, assuming the Tigers hold serve in the Atlantic Division. However, this should make the regular season highly interesting, as no team is truly incapable of making a run within the division. A key part of each team’s ability to make such a run will hinge on their quarterbacks, so let’s take a look at the rankings for the ACC Coastal signal-callers.

7. Chris Katrenick, Red-shirt Junior, Duke

Katrenick was a true backup in 2019 behind senior Quentin Harris, who started all 12 games for the Blue Devils. The former three-star recruit is a 6’3 red-shirt Junior from Algonquin, Illinois. He is just 8 for 25 passing in his collegiate career and is not in the best situation to succeed in Durham. Duke was 114th in total offense in 2019 and just 5-7 on the year. The sample size is very small for Katrenick, but with a lack of experience and not much offensive talent around him, it might be an uphill battle in 2020.

6. Brennan Armstrong, Red-shirt Sophmore, Virginia

Another guy who spent last season servicing as a backup. Unlike Katrenick, Armstrong is getting put into a good situation, as the Cavaliers spent most of 2019 ranked inside the top 25 and played in the ACC championship game. The former three-star is a  6’2 southpaw from Shelby, Ohio, and he looks to pick up right where last season’s starter Bryce Perkins left off. Perkins threw for 3538 yards in 2019, breaking the school’s passing record. Armstrong showed promise in his limited action in 2019 completing 15 of 20 passes for 196 yards. He could succeed in 2020 but he finds himself at #6 on the list largely due to his lack of experience. 

5. James Graham, Red-shirt Sophmore, Georgia Tech

Graham and the rest of the Yellow Jackets really struggled in their first season away from Paul Johnson and the triple option. In his red-shirt freshman season, Graham was the main guy under center in Atlanta. He came to Tech as a four-star commit out of Fitzgerald Georgia with big upside as a dual-threat QB. After a red-shirt year, he only completed 45% of his 193 passing attempts in 2019. He finished second on the team in rushing with 290 yards. Graham will look to make a jump in his second full year under center for the Jackets.

4. Hendon Hooker, Red-shirt Junior, Virginia Tech

After injuries left starting QB Ryan Willis sidelined, Hooker was forced into action in his red-shirt sophomore year making eight starts for the Hokies. At 6’4” the former four-star for Greensboro, North Carolina, is a very dangerous dual-threat quarterback who was second on the team in rushing a season ago with 520 yards. Hooker is also a very accurate thrower who completed 61% of his passes while only getting picked off twice. Coming into the season as the starter, Hooker is set up for success with more control of the offense on a team that is favored to win the ACC Coastal. 

3. Kenny Pickett, Senior Pittsburgh

It took us all the way to number three on our list to find a guy who has not taken a red-shirt season in his college career. In his true junior season, Pickett’s number took a massive jump, turning himself into one of the top passers in the conference. Pickett went from averaging 140 yards per game passing in 2018 to nearly 260 yards per contest in 2019. He was a three star-recruit coming out of Oakhurst, New Jersey, and tossed for nearly 3,100 yards in 2019, the fourth-most in the ACC. If Pickett’s numbers continue to raise he could be a late-round steal in the 2021 draft. 

2. D’Eriq King, Red-shirt, Senior, Miami

Don’t look now, but the U has a quarterback. King said enough with the University of Huston just four games into the 2019 season and decided to red-shirt to keep a year of eligibility, before choosing Miami in January. He is a very dangerous dual-threat QB who rushed for 674 yards in 2018 to go along with 2,982 passing yards. He accounted for 50, yes 50, Cougars’ touchdowns in 2018, the most in a single season in school history, and he also sat out the last 2 1/2 games with an injury. If King can put up anywhere near the production for his historic 2018 season, the Hurricanes will get what the so desperately crave: national relevancy

1. Sam Howell, Sophomore, North Carolina

Sam Howell had one of the best true freshman seasons in the history of college football in 2019. He was second in the ACC in passing with 3,641 yards, and he set the FBS freshman record as well as the UNC school record with 38 passing touchdowns. He was the 2019 ACC Rookie of the Year and took the Tar Heels from two wins in 2018 to seven wins in 2019, punctuated by a 55-13 beatdown of Temple in the Military Bowl. The sky is the limit for Howell in 2020, as the sophomore will look to build off of his incredible first-year campaign.

March Impact Player Profile: Cole Anthony, UNC

One of the biggest disappointments of this basketball season may be not being able to watch future top-10 draft selection Cole Anthony in the NCAA Tournament. Because, barring a miracle, Cole Anthony’s UNC Tar Heels will not be going dancing this year. A large part of that is due to Anthony’s extended injury-related absence, as the star freshman guard missed eleven games, a span in which the Tar Heels went just 4-7. They haven’t been dynamite with Anthony, going just 6-5 in those games, but UNC’s tournament chances dipped below 1% while Anthony was gone, and barring a miraculous run at the tail-end of their conference season, the Tar Heels will be fighting for a NIT bid the rest of the year. 

Despite this, our March Impact Player Feature series will include Cole Anthony, as he is undoubtedly a star talent who can take over March, even if it’s not in the tournament we all wanted to see him in. Normally, blue bloods in the NIT have limited motivation to compete, but Cole Anthony should have plenty of personal motivation after missing the first half of the ACC season. He’s got a lot of opportunity for his draft stock to rise, and Anthony undoubtedly makes the Tar Heels a different team. He’s averaging 19.5 points per game, and, almost more impressive, he has nabbed 6.5 rebounds a game, including four games of eight or more. As a 6’3, 190-pounder, Anthony scraps for rebounds many of his size and position would not go for. Combined with his ability to get blazing hot from beyond the arc, Cole Anthony is an incredibly exciting talent.

Anthony burst onto the scene when the Tar Heels hosted Notre Dame in the opener, as he went 6-11 from 3 and 12-24 overall while pouring in 34 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in their win. As UNC started 5-0, he added in 28 and 20-point performances, along with a do-it-all 13-point, 7-rebound, 7-assist performance in a tight win versus Alabama. UNC started to slump, and they were 6-3 when Anthony went down with injury, and their spiral continued as they lost several games as heavy favorites, leading to coach Roy Williams calling them the ‘least talented group’ he has ever coached. 

Anthony returned for the last two games, and although rust has been evident, he is still putting UNC on his back, albeit without much success yet as the Tar Heels have lost both games since his return. That’s hardly due to Anthony, however, who scored 26 points in his first game back and 16 points in a road top-10 match-up at Florida State. 

Anthony is the type of shooter that can carry a team when he gets hot, so as he rounds back into form and UNC heads towards (hopefully) the NIT, it’ll be exciting to watch the star freshman put on his final clinic for NBA scouts as he skyrockets towards a lottery draft selection.