First & 20: ACC Atlantic now nation’s best division

Anthony Gimino

September 11, 2016 at 4:55 pm.

Sep 10, 2016; Tallahassee, FL, USA;  Florida State Seminoles wide receiver Jesus Wilson (3) returns a punt for a first half touchdown against Charleston Southern at Doak Campbell Stadium. Photo Credit: Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 10, 2016; Tallahassee, FL, USA; Florida State Seminoles wide receiver Jesus Wilson (3) returns a punt for a first half touchdown against Charleston Southern at Doak Campbell Stadium. Photo Credit: Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

When considering the best conference division in college football, the default answer has been the same for several years: the SEC West.

Alabama is the big bully, LSU and Auburn have won national titles in the past decade, Ole Miss and Mississippi State staked out spots at or near the top of the polls down the stretch in 2014, Texas A&M had the Heisman winner in 2012, and Arkansas … well, the Hogs can and will bloody your nose and steal your lunch money. Ask TCU.

But cast your gaze farther to the east, because the nation’s best division — right now — is the ACC Atlantic, which is where Clemson, Florida State and Louisville reside.

Don’t believe the hype?

Well, Clemson did beat Auburn, Florida State roared back against Ole Miss, and consider the quarterbacks. There is 2016 preseason Heisman favorite Deshaun Watson of Clemson, Week 2 Heisman favorite Lamar Jackson of Louisville and future Heisman favorite Deondre Francois of Florida State. That’s a crazy bundle of youth, athleticism, explosiveness and passing prowess.

It’s going to be a delightfully fun mash-up of firepower in the Atlantic, and it all starts Saturday when Louisville plays host to Florida State. The Cardinals, with Jackson accounting for 13 touchdowns, have scored 132 points in wins over Charlotte and Syracuse.

“They looked awesome,” Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said of Louisville’s win over the Orange on Friday night.

“Very athletic, got playmakers all over the field. … I mean, they’re an excellent, excellent football team. They looked as sharp as anybody to me, little bits I’ve seen.”

Francois has been mighty sharp too, especially for an “accidental” starter who became No. 1 when Sean Maguire suffered a foot injury in fall camp. Francois passed for 419 yards and ran for 59 against Ole Miss, and he was an efficient 25-for-32 for 262 yards in a romp over FCS power Charleston Southern.

The talent level drops off after the Atlantic’s Big Three, although North Carolina State has found a quarterback in Boise State transfer Ryan Finley, Syracuse will rise under new coach Dino Babers and Boston College is still playing grown-man defense. Wake Forest? The Demon Deacons are coming off an upset win at Duke, of the ACC Coastal, on Saturday.

All in all, not bad in the middle and near the bottom.

Settle down, Big Ten fans. We recognize the East division is set with its Big Three — Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan — and maybe Penn State can join the party at some point. The SEC West is Alabama and a rotating cast of challengers. The Pac-12 North, with Stanford, Oregon and Washington, are likely a step behind.

But right now, if you have to answer the question about the best division, answer the ACC Atlantic.

10 things to watch

1. The health of Greg Ward Jr. — Houston’s star senior quarterback sat out Saturday because of a shoulder problem that will be a big point of discussion as the playoff-hopeful Cougars head into Thursday’s night game at Cincinnati.

2. The star power of Rashan Gary — Michigan’s freshman defensive end, the nation’s No. 1 prospect in the 2016 recruiting class, had 2.5 tackles for loss and his first sack versus Central Florida. “Very outstanding,” said Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh.

3. The success of the service academies — Check it out: Air Force, Army and Navy are each 2-0, which hasn’t happened since 1996. (You can hold the Black Knights responsible for the drought, because this is the first time they’ve been 2-0 in two decades.)

4. The quarterback position at LSU — Expecting Brandon Harris to be anything more than about a 54 percent passer seems like insanity. Expecting Purdue transfer Danny Etling to be the savior might be crazy, too, but it should be Les Miles’ upside play after Etling sparked the Leonard Fournette-less offense to a 34-14 win over Jacksonville State, albeit on 6-of-14 passing.

5. The mental health of Oklahoma State — By now, everyone knows that Central Michigan’s Hail Mary Lateral, on an untimed down to beat the Cowboys 30-27, shouldn’t have ever existed because, by rule, the game should have been over. But in college football, all sales are final, so the win stands … and Oklahoma State has to get over it quickly with the next three games being Pitt, at Baylor, and Texas. Meanwhile, the rest of us will marvel for the rest of time about the brilliant execution on The Play That Should Not Have Been Allowed.

6. The sideline gold that is Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin — The Alabama head coach, never taking a second off, was irate with the offense in the final minute of a 38-10 victory over Western Kentucky. Cameras caught him storming against Kiffin, and when Saban was asked later about the argument, he delivered a memorable quote that would make Steve Spurrier proud: “There were no arguments,” Saban said. “Those are called ass-chewings.”

7. The next three years of Pitt-Penn State — The rivalry, renewed for the first time since 2000, was a classic, with the Panthers surviving a comeback to win 42-39 with a late interception in the end zone. The teams meet in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Let’s get another contract done, fellas.

8. The Big 12’s playoff hopes — The league has only three unbeaten teams after two weeks — Texas, Baylor and West Virginia. The fun-to-watch-again Horns might be too young, the Bears too thin and the Mountaineers flat out not good enough to be legit Final Four threats.

9. The Clemson offense — The Tigers, returning the major offensive pieces from last season’s national runner-up, keep hitting the snooze button. They are averaging 4.99 yards per play, ranking 102nd nationally — and that number wouldn’t change even if Ray-Ray McCloud hadn’t dropped the ball at the 1-yard line as he was going in for a touchdown.

10. A return to Bristol Motor Speedway — It was a spectacle. An event. An I-was-there kind of game. A crowd of 156,990 — the largest ever, by far, to ever see a football game — packed the track to watch Tennessee beat Virginia Tech 45-24 on Saturday. Love or hate the concept of playing at a major raceway, if there is money to be made, this won’t be a one-off affair.

5 running backs to know

1. Donnell Pumphrey, San Diego State. The senior ran for 281 yards against Cal and broke the school rushing record, held by some guy named Marshall Faulk. The Aztecs cleared their biggest nonconference hurdle and could be headed to a 12-0 regular season.

2. Kalen Ballage, Arizona State. He tied the FBS single-game record with eight touchdowns in a 68-55 shootout victory over Texas Tech, doing so on just 15 touches. He is big and explosive, and it would be an upset if he and tag-team backfield mate Demario Richard don’t each reach 1,000 yards for the season.

3. Denarion Grant, Rutgers. Technically, he’s a receiver by trade and a return man by reputation, but Grant does it all, including running the Wildcat and taking handoffs. He rushed for scores of 58 and 21 yards against Howard, to go with an 84-yard kick return. This is hard to gauge, but he might be the nation’s best playmaker on a bad team.

4. Lamical Perine, Florida. The true freshman is an intriguing new option in a backfield-by-committee, rushing for a team-high 105 yards against Kentucky and turning a screen pass into a 28-yard touchdown.

5. Royce Freeman, Oregon. “Rolls” rushed for 207 yards against Virginia, including a career-long 85-yard TD run. Next up for Freeman and the Ducks: Saturday at Nebraska.

5 games to watch in Week 3

1. Florida State at Louisville (noon ET). ESPN’s College Football GameDay will be making its first appearance in Louisville. Keep an eye on the news of Florida State All-American safety Derwin James, who suffered an undisclosed knee injury while the ‘Noles were up 42-6 on Saturday.

2. Ohio State at Oklahoma (7:30 p.m. ET). How have these programs only played twice? The first meeting was Woody Hayes vs. Barry Switzer in 1977. Most recent was in 1983. Series tied at 1.

3. Alabama at Ole Miss (3:30 p.m. ET). The Rebels have won the past two matchups with Alabama and have the kind of athletic quarterback, Chad Kelly, that has been known to give the Tide fits.

4. Michigan State at Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET). This slobber-knocker is happily back after a two-year hiatus, and the Irish will be ready after reaching the inevitable conclusion that DeShone Kizer is their full-time quarterback.

5. USC at Stanford (8 p.m. ET). USC hopes a win over Utah State begins to right its ship while Stanford hopes it has a full tank to take on USC, UCLA, Washington, Washington State and Notre Dame in consecutive weeks.

Bonus game: Oregon at Nebraska (3:30 p.m. ET). This is the win Mike Riley needs in Lincoln. Film Room Review

Analyst Rob Rang’s prospect takeaways for this week. Players listed including position, school, year (Height, weight and current overall rating and by position).

–Pittsburgh OT Adam Bisnowaty, 6-5, 300, rSr. (#37 overall prospect, #4 OT): With his broad shoulders, long arms and higher-cut frame, Bisnowaty possesses the athletic, almost TE-like build scouts are looking for in today’s modern offensive tackle. The Panthers’ dominating ground game against Penn State didn’t allow for a lot of looks at Bisnowaty in protection, but the entire O-line put on a clinic in run-blocking.

–Pittsburgh OG Dorian Johnson, 6-5, 300, Sr. (#63, #3 OG): A big part of Pitt’s success on the fly-sweeps and shovel passes against Penn State was a direct result of Johnson’s ability to pull and block on the move. Showing light feet and good balance, Johnson quickly slipped out of his stance, climbing to the second level.

–Tennessee CB Cameron Sutton, 5-11, 186, Sr. (#66, #8 CB): In his marquee matchup against Virginia Tech wide receiver Isaiah Ford, Sutton gave up only five catches for 51 yards. The 5-foot-11, 186-pound preseason All-SEC pick demonstrated his agility and acceleration as a returner, as well, helping to spark Tennessee’s sluggish offense with some flashy moves.

–Virginia Tech WR Isaiah Ford, 6-1, 190, Jr. (#33, #3 WR) While limited to five receptions, Ford did get behind Sutton for a potential big play but Hokies quarterback Jerod Evans failed to deliver the ball on time. Ford had few opportunities in this contest but showed off the intriguing blend of agility, speed and body control that has him rated just behind Southern Cal’s JuJu Smith-Schuster and Clemson’s Mike Williams among wide receivers by

–Tennessee LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, 6-0, 225, Sr. (#104, #9 OLB: A week after he was tossed out of the Appalachian State game for targeting, Reeves-Maybin was fortunate to not draw a personal foul for a questionable hit on a Virginia Tech player standing around the pile. Though the speedy and passionate defender made several impressive tackles, too often they came as a result on his lunging at ball carriers. At times, his over-aggression got the better of him, including on a cut-back run from Virginia Tech’s talented redshirt sophomore running back Travon McMillian during the first half, when the game was still competitive.