I know the headline above seems like an annual rite of passage but the upcoming NCAA Basketball season could be one of the most successful campaigns the ACC has seen in quite some time.
It is a pretty safe bet that the conference could send 10 or more teams to the NCAA Tournament. That may sound crazy, but you need to look no further than the initial USA Today Coaches Poll to see the potential. The ACC placed five teams in the top 25 and has six more in the “also receiving votes” column.
As expected, Duke is leading the way. The Blue Devils enter the season as not only the favorite to win the ACC, but also the top threat to unseat reigning champion Villanova. For Duke, it all starts with Grayson Allen. The junior averaged 21.6 points per game last season and is the leading candidate for the Wooden Award. In addition, the Blue Devils have Amile Jefferson back after he missed most of last season to injury. The 6-9 forward averaged a double-double before said injury and provides veteran leadership so many big programs lack these days. Duke also returns Matt Jones. As if that wasn’t enough, Duke’s incoming recruiting class contains four of the top 15 players in the country, which includes four five-star recruits and a four-star recruit, headlined by power forward Harry Giles and small forward Jayson Tatum. The class also includes point guard Frank Jackson, center Marques Bolden and power forward Javin DeLaurier.
North Carolina will throw a load of experience at Duke. The starting five will likely consist of two seniors and three juniors, and North Carolina returns six players who played significant minutes in last season’s run to the National Championship Game.
Joel Berry leads the Tar Heel backcourt while getting help from Nate Britt and incoming freshmen Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson. The frontcourt looks to be a strength for UNC, as returning players Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks anchor the frontcourt. Losing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson hurts, but North Carolina is poised to make noise come March as per usual.
Virginia has become a perennial contender in the ACC and 2016-17 will be no different. The Cavaliers should once again be right in the mix at the top of the ACC. After earning No. 1 seeds in each of the last two NCAA Tournaments, Virginia wants to take that next step and put disappointing tournament showings behind it.
And you know Rick Pitino will have a talented team at Louisville. Other likely NCAA Tourney teams will be Syracuse, N.C. State, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Florida State, Miami, Clemson, and Pitt.
Players to watch for me along with Allen include Jaron Blossomgame of Clemson. Bloosomgame is a talented player who flirted with the NBA before deciding to return for his senior season. Last year the 6-7 forward averaged 18.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. He shot 51 percent from the floor and an impressive 45 percent from three. Blossomgame finished third in scoring in the ACC. He is a first-team All-ACC talent who will be key as Clemson looks to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six seasons.
The top freshman may end up being Dennis Smith Jr. of North Carolina State. He could carry the Wolfpack to the tourney.
Chip Kelly has to have put some thought on his decision to leave college football to be a head coach in the NFL. He did not last long in Philadelphia and is now coaching the San Francisco 49ers, one of the worst teams in the league. After the 49ers gave up nearly 600 yards to the New Orleans Saints in a 41-23 loss, Kelly is coaching a team that is in the midst of a seven-game losing streak. Over the course of those seven games, San Francisco is yielding nearly 36 points and 212 rushing yards per game. Those numbers are historically bad.
Speaking of bad, this was supposed to be the season Jacksonville made the playoffs. But quarterback Blake Bortles is holding this franchise back. He is on pace to throw 20 interceptions while completing less than 60 percent of his passes this season. As a result, a talented Jaguars team finds itself at 2-6 halfway through the season.
The Minnesota Vikings were unbeaten just a few weeks ago. Now the Vikings are 5-3 after losing three straight contests. The latest setback came against the Detroit Lions and it was a heart-breaker. After Minnesota took a 16-13 lead with less than 30 seconds left following a 13-play touchdown-scoring drive, it looked like the Vikings’ mini slump was drawing to a conclusion. The very next possession saw Matthew Stafford lead the Lions down to Minnesota’s 40-yard line in just 23 seconds and with no timeouts remaining. Lions kicker Matt Prater would then nail a 58-yard field goal to force overtime. Then, to kick off overtime, Detroit drove 87 yards on 11 plays, culminating in this game-winning touchdown strike from Stafford to Golden Tate. All said, Stafford completed 7-of-9 passes for 108 yards in those two final drives. That should not happen to what looked like the best defense in football just a few short weeks ago.
I am still trying to figure out what Los Angeles Rams head coach Jeff Fisher is doing with this quarterbacks. It seems like he is not giving his team an opportunity to win by continuing to throw quarterback Case Keenum out there. The only reason I can come up with is that No. 1 pick Jared Goff is just not that good. While Rams fans calling for Goff to take over for Keenum Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, Los Angeles’ defense stopped up big time. It held the Panthers to just 13 points and sacked Cam Newton five times. That wasn’t nearly enough as Keenum led the Rams to a total of three points before a garbage-time touchdown late on the game.
Rams fans probably wish their team would have spent the number-one pick on another position and drafted Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott in a later round. Prescott threw just six incomplete passes while tossing three touchdown passes in the Cowboys 35-10 victory over Cleveland. Dallas has now won seven consecutive games and Prescott has recorded 16 total touchdowns and jus two interceptions through eight games. As I have said in these pages, I just don’t see how the Cowboys could go back to Tony Romo.
How about those Raiders? The Oakland Raiders made quite a statement in the AFC West on Sunday. They dominated the defending champion Denver Broncos by the score of 30-20 in a game that was nowhere near as close as the final score indicated. Oakland held on to the ball for over 41 minutes while tallying an amazing 30 first downs and nearly 400 yards of total offense. All this coming against a Broncos defense that headed into Week 9 as the best unit in the NFL.
Photos: Casey Keenum; Grayson Allen; Chip Kelley