We’re about to make you very unhappy.
The ACC plays its first game of the 2014 football season in less than a month. We begin our extensive preseason coverage with a special project: The top 50 players in the ACC this season.
Our rankings are based on a subjective combination of how well the player has performed in the past and our projections for the upcoming season. That means we didn’t come up with some formula to justify our rankings. We just sat in a conference room and argued for much of the day.
It also means that, without a body of work under their belts, it’s tough for freshmen and transfers to crack our list. Tough, but, as you’ll see, not impossible.
We don’t expect you to agree with us. If someone appears too low, it’s probably because we hate your team. If someone is ranked too highly, it’s probably because we know nothing about football.
In addition to the rankings, the list fell into some clearly defined tiers. There were places where there was a huge dropoff in quality from one spot to the next.
Here are the six tiers as we see them. In an homage to the ACC’s weekly announcement of upcoming game times and networks, we named them based on the hierarchy of TV timeslots.
Tier 1: College Gameday on Campus: The nation is watching, and everyone brings their most obnoxious signs to the gathering. Spots 1-7 on our list.
Tier 2: ABC Primetime: You are looking, live, at some of the best players in the conference. Spots 8-15.
Tier 3: Thursday Night ESPN: Thursday games are a mixed bag. They get the spotlight, just not on the most desirable day. That describes the tail end of the first half of our player rankings. Spots 15-22.
Tier 4: Saturday, 3:30 on either ABC or ESPN: It’s a spot worthy of national attention, we’re just not entirely sure where, yet. These are guys with something to prove this year. Spots 23-35.
Tier 5: Afternoon, regional: You’re on TV, at a reasonable hour, but you’re still not happy. Spots 36-43.
Tier 6: Noon, Raycom: Enough said.
And, of course, our Honorable mentions are available via ESPN3 and the WatchESPN app.
THE HONORABLE MENTIONS, PRESENTED BY ESPN3
Roberto Aguayo, Florida State kicker
Marquise Williams, North Carolina quarterback
Elijah Hood, North Carolina running back
Ermon Lane, Florida State wide receiver
Travis Rudolph, Florida State wide receiver
Corey Crawford, Clemson defensive end
Matt Rotheram, Pittsburgh offensive guard
Niklas Sade, NC State kicker
Quayshawn Nealy, Georgia Tech linebacker
Andrew Brown, Virginia defensive tackle
Charone Peake, Clemson wide receiver
TIER 6: THE NOON ACC NETWORK GAME
50. Jacoby Brissett, NC State junior quarterback — Perhaps there’s no bigger mystery in the ACC this year than what kind of impact Brissett can have on the Wolfpack. The former top-100 recruit played sparingly at Florida before transferring to NC State, where he won the Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year award in 2013. He dazzled during NC State’s spring game, leaving hope that he can be an impact player in the ACC from day one.
49. Dyshawn Davis, Syracuse senior linebacker — Davis isn’t a big name in the ACC yet, but the fourth-year starter will be the centerpiece of a Syracuse defense that should rank in the top half of the conference. His numbers dipped a bit last season, but expectations are that he can return to the 69-tackle, 14-tackle for loss season he put together in 2012.
48. T.J. Logan, North Carolina sophomore running back — Logan will be splitting carries in a loaded backfield with Elijah Hood and Romar Morris, so he might not tally the sort of numbers that put him in All-ACC contention. But Logan’s playmaking ability was evident during his true freshman season, when he rushed for 533 yards and scored six all-purpose touchdowns in just nine games. He’ll be coming out of the backfield and catching passes out wide this season. That sort of flexibility will make him a dangerous weapon in every game.
47. Anthony Chickillo, Miami senior defensive end — Chickillo has plenty of natural talent (a 5-star prospect in 2011) and experience (fourth-year starter). He hasn’t quite produced at the level many have hoped for, though. He made just 3.5 sacks and 46 tackles last season. But it’s common for defensive linemen to break through late in their college careers, and that’s the hope for Chickillo — and the Miami defense — this year.
46. Braxton Deaver, Duke senior tight end — Deaver returns for his final season after earning third-team All-ACC honors last year. He caught 46 passes for 600 yards and four touchdowns in 2013 while emerging as one of the best players on a Top 25 Duke team. Another productive season could start to generate some NFL Draft buzz for Deaver.
45. Durell Eskridge, Syracuse junior safety — For some reason, nobody talks about the season Eskridge turned in last year, which earned him third-team all-conference honors. He racked up 78 tackles (four for a loss), five pass breakups and four interceptions. Entering his redshirt junior season, Eskridge has the potential to compete for a first-team All-ACC spot.
44. Mackensie Alexander, Clemson redshirt freshman cornerback — As the only freshman to crack this list, Alexander is an unknown commodity at this level. But the former 5-star recruit has an unbelievably high ceiling, and he’ll get a chance to start for the Tigers.
TIER 5: 3:30 ACC NETWORK
43. Anthony Boone, Duke senior quarterback — We have Boone, one of the few returning starters in the ACC, rated as the No. 2 quarterback in the conference. His numbers weren’t spectacular in 2013 (206-322, 2,260 yards and 13 touchdowns against 13 interceptions), but he was the consummate field general for the Blue Devils’ rise. Without Brandon Connette backing him up this year, Boone will have more pressure to stay healthy and produce in the red zone.
42. Sean Hickey, Syracuse senior offensive tackle — Entering his third year as a starter on Syracuse’s front line, Hickey earned preseason All-ACC honors at the ACC Kickoff. Hickey turned down a shot at the NFL after last season. If he continues to show improvement, he could develop into a top-10 draft prospect at the tackle position.
41. Landon Turner, North Carolina junior offensive guard — Turner has been overshadowed by a handful of great linemen during his time at UNC. Now it’s his chance to step forward as the spotlight player on a young and inexperienced Tar Heel offensive line. By the end of 2013, he was playing just as well as — or better than — James Hurst and Russell Bodine. The question for Turner is how well he can play without as much talent around him.
40. Demetrious Nicholson, Virginia senior cornerback — Nicholson’s true breakout year was derailed in 2013 when he suffered a season-ending injury in the first half of the year. Now, playing alongside safety Anthony Harris and what should be a much-improved pass rush, Nicholson should be able to emerge as a top-tier cornerback in this league. Don’t forget about Nicholson’s sophomore campaign, in which he tallied 15 pass break-ups — good for second in the conference.
39. Trey Edmunds, Virginia Tech sophomore running back — If Virginia Tech can find a serviceable passing game, Edmunds could piece together a whale of a season. In his redshirt freshman season last year, he rushed for 675 yards and scored 12 all-purpose touchdowns. He has sub-4.4 speed, and he’s made plays on the biggest stage (such as a 77-yard touchdown run against Alabama).
38. Kevin Parks, Virginia senior running back — He’s everybody’s sleeper All-ACC pick, although it’s tough to call him a sleeper after garnering second-team honors last year. Parks is the conference’s leading returning rusher after eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark and reaching the end zone 11 times in 2013. He’ll get plenty of carries to make plays this season. He just needs his offensive line to give him some help.
37. Nick O’Leary, Florida State senior tight end — Arguably the nation’s top tight end, O’Leary enters his third year as a starter looking to break even more school records. He needs to stay healthy (he missed much of spring after another moped accident), but with Florida State’s weakened receiving corps, he could have an expanded role in the Seminoles’ offense.
36. Ryan Switzer, North Carolina sophomore wide receiver/returner — Switzer proved to be one of the most captivating players not only in the ACC, but in the entire country after taking five punts to the house in 2013. He can change a game on the drop of a hat, and even if he doesn’t get as many chances to return this season, he’ll still throw a wrench in opponents’ game plans on a weekly basis. Look for him to be more involved in the Tar Heels’ offense, too.
35. Jake Smith, Louisville senior offensive lineman — Smith will be a four-year starter with experience at both center and guard during his Cardinals career. He was a first-team All-AAC player in 2013 and should compete for All-ACC recognition this year. He’ll be invaluable helping break in new quarterback Will Gardner.
TIER 4: 3:30 ABC/ESPN
34. Norkeithus Otis, North Carolina senior bandit — Otis posted prolific numbers last season (13 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, nine quarterback hurries) at the Tar Heels’ hybrid bandit position, but his production was often overshadowed by his hot-headed antics. As a senior and one of the few proven players on North Carolina’s defense, he needs to step forward as a mature leader. He battled injuries for much of last season, but if he can stay healthy, he can be a difference maker for the Tar Heels.
33. David Helton, Duke senior linebacker — The ACC’s leading tackler in 2013, Helton enters his senior season as the No. 7 returning tackler in the nation. There’s nothing flashy to Helton’s game, but he simply makes plays all over the field. He has 19 starts and more than 200 tackles under his belt throughout his career.
32. Eddie Goldman, Florida State junior defensive tackle — Despite starting in 2013, Goldman is yet to put together a dominant season that matches his lofty potential. This could be the year his 5-star talent starts to shine through. He takes on a bigger responsibility after the Seminoles lost Timmy Jernigan, but he appears primed to step into those large shoes.
31. Bobby Hart, Florida State senior offensive tackle — Hart could be the bookend tackle for almost every college football team in the country, but he’s surrounded by such elite talent that we have him ranked as the fourth-best Seminole lineman. Which is actually absurd. Hart returns for his second season as a full-time starter, though he has 23 starts over the course of his career. Hart is also yet to turn 20 years old, hinting that his ceiling could be even higher.
30. Quinshad Davis, North Carolina junior wide receiver — For some reason, it seems like Davis regressed in his sophomore season, but he still posted a line of 730 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s been alarmingly productive in his two years at North Carolina, and with steady quarterback play and a dynamic offensive system, he’ll always be an All-ACC candidate. Without Eric Ebron around, Davis should return to the spotlight this season.
29. Eli Harold, Virginia junior defensive end — Did you know Harold tallied 15 tackles for loss last season? Did you know he racked up 8.5 sacks, making him the second-most productive returning defensive end only behind Clemson’s Vic Beasley? Virginia has the defensive playmakers to make a solid turn-around this season. Harold, and his ability to terrorize offenses from the edge, is a big part of that.
28. Josue Matias, Florida State senior offensive guard — Matias garnered second-team honors from the coaches last season, which is always a more reliable listing of all-conference linemen than the media’s version (where he was third-team). He’s entering his third year starting at left guard for the Seminoles. At some points last season, he graded out better than anyone else on Florida State’s star-studded front line.
27. Shaq Mason, Georgia Tech senior offensive guard — A returning All-ACC performer and a third-year starter, Mason is as solid as they come on the offensive line. He faces the non-glorious double whammy of being an offensive lineman and playing in Georgia Tech’s offense, but he’s a legitimate All-American caliber player.
26. Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville senior defensive end — Mauldin will stand out immediately to ACC audiences for his hair (he dyed his tips red to match Louisville’s colors) and his production (9.5 sacks in 2013). His role changes this year as he moves to the stand-up end spot in a 3-4 defense, but he’ll still be able to make plays in the backfield on a fairly routine basis.
25. Brandon Facyson, Virginia Tech sophomore cornerback — It didn’t take long for Facyson to make an impact in the Hokies’ secondary, picking up five interceptions and breaking up eight passes during his freshman season in 2013. He sat out the spring with a leg injury, but he should be healthy when camp gets rolling this summer. Between him and teammate Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech boasts an imposing set of cornerbacks.
24. Laken Tomlinson, Duke senior offensive guard — A dominant guard in the middle of Duke’s line, Tomlinson returns for his senior season after securing first-team All-ACC honors from the coaches in 2013. He’s a rare fourth-year starter on the offensive line, and with another strong season, he’ll be a high NFL Draft choice in the spring.
23. Andy Gallik, Boston College senior offensive guard — Boston College coach and offensive line guru Steve Addazio thinks Gallik is one of the best centers he’s ever seen. Gallik is one of the top centers in the country by any measure, and in the Eagles’ run-heavy offense, he has one of the most important jobs in the conference.
TIER 3: THURSDAY NIGHT ESPN
22. Jalen Ramsey, Florida State sophomore defensive back — Ramsey’s biggest problem might be that he’s so versatile, making it difficult for him to find a landing spot on preseason watch lists. He likely would’ve been a preseason All-ACC safety, but he was listed at cornerback, where he fell below Fuller and teammate P.J. Williams on the ballot. Nevertheless, Ramsey broke through in his freshman season by starting every game and ranking seventh on the team in tackles. He’s a key cog in the Seminoles’ dominant secondary.
21. Stephone Anthony, Clemson senior linebacker — Anthony returns after posting 131 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and four sacks last season. The Tigers could have the best defense in the conference, and he’s the quarterback of the unit from the middle linebacker position. Playing behind a defensive line that includes Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Corey Crawford, he should have the space to make plays all over the field.
20. Mario Edwards, Florida State junior defensive end — Edwards is supposed to be the breakout star in Florida State’s front seven this season. The task now is discerning whether that’s reality or just wishful thinking in Tallahassee. Edwards was a consensus top-five recruit a few years ago, so his natural ability is obvious. He earned third-team all-conference honors in 2013. The question now is whether he can make the leap into that Vic Beasley tier of linemen. We think we can.
19. Jeremy Cash, Duke junior safety — In his one season at Duke, he was named a second-team All-American, made 121 tackles (9.5 for a loss) and picked off four passes. The Ohio State transfer was a surprise last season with just how productive he turned out to be. For Duke to reach the ACC Championship Game again, it will need Cash to be just as much of a stalwart in the secondary.
18. DeVante Parker, Louisville senior wide receiver — With nearly 2,000 career receiving yards and 28 touchdowns to his name throughout his Louisville career, Parker doesn’t need much of an introduction to the ACC masses. Based on raw ability and prior production, Parker is a top-10 talent in the conference. The challenge for him now is to post similar numbers when Will Gardner is throwing him the ball instead of Teddy Bridgewater.
17. Luther Maddy, Virginia Tech senior defensive tackle — A former four-star recruit, Maddy has grown every year of his college career, finishing 2013 with 55 tackles and 6.5 sacks while blossoming into a standout defensive tackle. It’s tough to make too many splash plays from the interior line position, but Maddy still finds a way to do that. If he can continue to push pockets this season, forcing quarterbacks to rush throws into the Hokies’ daunting secondary, Virginia Tech will boast one of the conference’s best defenses.
16. Denzel Perryman, Miami senior linebacker — Perryman is a returning first-team All-ACC player, and every indication is that he’s set for another monster year in the middle of the Hurricanes’ defense. Miami is getting national billing as a dark horse team to make noise this season. A lot of that buzz centers around Perryman and his ability to change games on the defensive side of the ball.
TIER 2: ABC PRIMETIME
15. Tyler Boyd, Pitt sophomore wide receiver — It didn’t take Pitt long to realize that it had another future superstar in its program. Boyd broke Larry Fitzgerald’s freshman records in 2013 by catching 85 passes for 1,174 yards and seven touchdowns. This should be the year that he leaps into the realm of national recognition. The only factors that could hold him back are that he, much like Parker, has to catch passes from a new quarterback and the fact that Devin Street won’t be around to attract attention off of him.
14. P.J. Williams, Florida State junior cornerback
13. Ronald Darby, Florida State junior cornerback
You can try to separate Williams and Darby, but they’re both similar players, and they’re both spectacular. There shouldn’t be a better cornerback tandem in the country than Williams and Darby. They didn’t put up gaudy numbers in 2013, but they were both lockdown defenders for the nation’s No. 1 passing defense. Both could play their ways into the first round of the NFL Draft with another solid season.
12. Kelby Brown, Duke senior linebacker — The leader of Duke’s stout defense, Brown racked up 114 tackles and 11 tackles for loss last season. He earned high praise from Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who said he makes the correct decision almost every time he’s on the field. Between Brown and fellow linebacker David Helton, the heart of Duke’s defense is as solid as they come.
11. Grady Jarrett, Clemson senior defensive tackle — Jarrett quietly posted a very productive season in 2013, tallying 83 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and 14 quarterback hurries from the defensive tackle position. Part of his problem is that he has to play alongside Vic Beasley, who makes so many plays that Jarrett didn’t receive as much buzz as he could have. But by playing alongside Beasley, Jarrett should be able to avoid as many double teams that would normally be thrown his way. He appears positioned for a breakthrough year.
10. Karlos Williams, Florida State senior running back — The former 5-star recruit has finally found a home at running back, where he’ll be the starter following the departures of Devonta Freeman and James Wilder. Taking back-up reps in 2013, he averaged 8.0 yards per carry and scored a touchdown every 8.27 rushes. Taking more snaps and running behind a dominant offensive line should allow Williams to post prolific numbers in 2014.
9. Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech sophomore cornerback — The reigning defensive rookie of the year made a statement that he’s a top-tier defensive back last season, picking off six passes and breaking up 11 others. His family pedigree suggests he won’t be just a flash in the pan, either. Fuller will be a strong candidate for conference defensive player of the year for at least the next two seasons.
8. Tre’ Jackson, Florida State senior offensive guard — A returning first-team All-ACC performer and second-team All-American, the Seminoles know what to expect out of Jackson. He’s entering his third year as the starter at right guard, providing even more experience and continuity to the Florida State offense. It’s difficult for guards to climb into the first round of the NFL Draft, but Jackson has the talent to do it.
TIER 1: COLLEGE GAMEDAY
7. Rashad Greene, Florida State senior wide receiver — Greene has been a big-game, big-play receiver throughout his career. Though he led the Seminoles in receiving last year, he was still somewhat overlooked due to the presence of Kelvin Benjamin. While he might receive more attention from opposing defenses until another weapon or two emerges in the Seminoles’ receiving corps, it’s difficult to imagine him falling short of another 1,000-yard season.
6. Anthony Harris, Virginia senior safety — If the Cavaliers didn’t struggle so mightily last season, Harris’ junior campaign would’ve gotten more recognition. As it was, he received All-American honors for leading the nation in interceptions (eight). Playing behind an improved front seven this year, Harris has the potential to match that total again.
5. Cameron Erving, Florida State senior offensive tackle — Erving will be gunning for consensus first-team All-American status this season after receiving a mix of first- and second-team honors in 2013. He protects Jameis Winston’s blind side, making him the second-most important player on the team. He won’t get as much publicity as Winston, Greene and the rest of the Seminoles, but he’s a true superstar in college football.
4. Jamison Crowder, Duke senior wide receiver — The single biggest catalyst for Duke’s astonishing turnaround, Crowder ranks among the nation’s elite at the wide receiver position. He’s passed 1,000 yards in each of the last two years, scoring eight touchdowns in both seasons, as well. He’s also a weapon on special teams, where he’s an All-American punt returner. No receiver in the country has posted as prolific a career as Crowder, and that sort of production shouldn’t drop any this season.
3. Duke Johnson, Miami junior running back — Johnson was almost a 1,000-yard rusher last season, and he missed the final five games with an ankle injury. Assuming he’s healthy, Johnson is one of the most dynamic playmakers in the country. Opposing defenses will stack the box until Miami proves it can throw the ball, but Johnson dazzled in his first two years without a star quarterback anyways.
2. Vic Beasley, Clemson senior defensive end — With the emergence of passing offenses, a pass-rushing defensive end has become one of the most important positions on the football field. And Clemson has, arguably, the best one in the nation. Beasley registered a gaudy line of 13 sacks and 23 tackles for loss last season, leading the way for Clemson’s much-improved defense. He was a first-team All-American in 2013, and he should find his name on that list at the end of this year, too.
1. Jameis Winston, Florida State sophomore quarterback — He’s the Heisman.