College Football's New Power League Is Up for Grabs — Here's Why

College Football's New Power League Is Up for Grabs — Here's Why

Florida State Seminoles running back Cam Akers (left) and Virginia Tech Hokies head coach Justin Fuente

SourceDon Juan Moore and Michael Shroyer/Getty

Why you should care

Because the ACC is up for grabs.

Conference supremacy — namely whether the Atlantic Coast (ACC) has unseated the holy Southeastern (SEC) as the nation’s best league — is the hottest debate in college football. Alabama still tops our rankings, but thanks to a dominant top-to-bottom 2016, the ACC has closed the gap.

Clemson’s January national title victory capped a monster year for the ACC. Lamar Jackson (Louisville) won the Heisman, Florida State earned an Orange Bowl win over Michigan, Virginia Tech shockingly dominated the Coastal Division en route to double-digit wins and the league went 10-4 against SEC foes. Two key actors in the ACC’s quest to maintain pace are fairly fresh faces for historic powers. Each plays a wildly different role, but the performance of Virginia Tech’s second-year head coach Justin Fuente and Florida State freshman tailback Cam Akers will have an outsize hand in directing the course of their team’s season.

Justin Fuente Takes Strong Head Start to Year Two

Tensions were high in Blacksburg, Virginia. After 29 successful seasons, legendary head football coach Frank Beamer had stepped down, replaced by an outsider — even as defensive coordinator Bud Foster, the Hokies’ longtime defensive guru who’d worked under Beamer since 1987, lay in wait.

But in November 2015, hiring Fuente was hardly a questionable move. Four straight seasons of eight wins or fewer and no conference titles since 2010 signaled that the ACC was close to passing the Hokies by. Clemson and Florida State had become offensive juggernauts, and Fuente’s innovative work in the spread offense presented a unique opportunity to catch up. The strategy worked too, as Fuente and senior quarterback Jerod Evans led Tech to a 10-win season and Coastal Division title. Now, the 2016 ACC Coach of the Year must replicate that success — a tall order for a team replacing six offensive starters.

Fuente’s ability to fine-tune an offense comes from years of working behind center himself. He was a two-year (mostly) starting quarterback at Oklahoma before breaking several school passing records at Murray State in 1998. After six years on the Illinois State coaching staff, he jumped to TCU, working with Cincinnati Bengals star quarterback Andy Dalton and guiding the offense to an undefeated season in 2011. At Memphis, Fuente’s 26-23 four-year head-coaching record might invoke a “meh”— until you realize 19 of those wins came in 2014 and 2015. By totally revamping a program that enjoyed just three wins in the two prior seasons, he helped unheralded quarterback Paxton Lynch morph into Denver’s first-round draft pick in 2016. “Nobody in the country did a better job than [Fuente at Memphis],” says CBS Sports Network analyst Houston Nutt. “And I’m seeing the same progress at Virginia Tech. It’s going to happen for him.”

Virginia Tech Hokies dumps ice water on head coach Justin Fuente

Defensive end Ken Ekanem dumps ice water on Fuente following the 52-10 victory against the Virginia Cavaliers in November 2016.

Source Michael Shroyer/Getty

In Blacksburg, Fuente inherited an incredibly stable program, but, following Beamer’s four mediocre seasons, expectations were low. Foster has stayed on staff, solidifying the Hokies’ defense while Fuente upgrades the offense. Their immediate success has breathed new life into the program, but now OZY’s No. 18–ranked Hokies must pass the bar. With Evans graduated, Tech has a major absence of experience behind center. Three quarterbacks are battling for starting position, but prolonged inconsistency could crush the Hokies’ playoff aspirations.

At 41, Fuente is still new to this head-coaching thing. His pedigree suggests that Virginia Tech is in terrific hands, but we’ll soon learn if he has the recruiting chops to compete at the big-time. With the ACC on the rise, many of the nation’s best athletes will be intrigued by the chance to play in Fuente’s system, but only time will tell if he can lure them away from the Florida States and Clemsons of the world. If not this season, the ACC title will return to Blacksburg soon. And that’s the moment every athletic director and NFL general manager suddenly becomes very intrigued by Fuente.

First, though, he has a Week 1 matchup with West Virginia to win.

Florida State’s Secret Weapon Is Waiting to Break Out

How did Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher prepare to replace his program’s all-time leading rusher, Dalvin Cook? Well, by recruiting a high school quarterback, of course.

On the eve of the season, the hype surrounding OZY’s No. 4–ranked Seminoles has reached an absolute fervor. The defense is fierce, a surplus of skilled players on both sides of the ball return and sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois looks poised to break out. But the man capable of making arguably the greatest impact is Cam Akers, a highly touted high school quarterback who has converted to tailback and appears ready to be the Seminoles’ full-time backfield starter. He’ll have plenty of competition for playing time and will likely split time with more senior teammates early on, but Akers will play a key role in solidifying a multifaceted attack with which Fisher can tinker. His success, or failure, out of the backfield will directly impact Francois’ freedom to create plays and should be paramount to the team’s final outcome.

Akers graduated from high school last winter, enrolling at Florida State last spring to gain extra preparation for this season. Easily the top recruit in a Florida State freshmen class ranked fifth nationally, Akers was named Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year and U.S. Army National Player of the Year as a senior at Mississippi’s Clinton High School. His 149 career touchdowns as a spread option quarterback smashed the state record, and he was neck and neck with Alabama freshman Najee Harris as the nation’s No. 1 running back prospect. Since arriving in Tallahassee, Akers’ binary talents have teammates wondering how else he can help the club. “Cam can do everything,” star safety Derwin James told reporters at spring practice. “He can play quarterback, receiver. I think he can play defense.”

So, yeah, Akers is not your typical running back. But this is no Jabrill Peppers situation — Akers won’t be asked to play all over the field. Still, his impact will surely be felt catching the ball out of the backfield and in the return game. In a season that should see Clemson’s offense come down to earth, Akers could fill Cook’s role and vault the Seminoles atop the ACC. Still, even the most talented freshman can start slow. Akers clearly has the talent to excel at the collegiate level. The question is, will Fisher trust him enough to put him on the field early and often?

So far, Fisher has sidestepped questions about Akers’ exact role. But come Week 1, when the Seminoles need a tough score against Alabama, he’ll know who’s got the answer.

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