With Miami getting bounced from the College World Series yesterday, the 2015/16 ACC athletic year officially lowers the curtain on a season that brought the league about as close to being successful as you can get without actually being successful. Clemson lost in the college football national championship. North Carolina lost in the college basketball championship. And though the ACC certainly had a fairly good showing in college baseball’s postseason when compared to expectations, it’s difficult to get too excited about the league’s performance when coming off of national titles in two of the three major college sports a year ago. 2015/16 was far from a failure, thanks to the continued success the the ACC finds in Olympic sports in the form of individual and team national championships, and also thanks to actual failures of other power conferences like the Big 12 and the PAC 12. If we’re handing out season grades, the ACC would get a solid B.
We all know what happened in 2015/16, so let’s look ahead to what I’m most excited about in the upcoming ACC season:
The end of the UNC scandal
So what we know right now is that the NCAA feels like it’s an academic issue outside of their jurisdiction, and the accrediting body feels like it’s an athletics issue that doesn’t warrant their involvement anymore. UNC athletics either orchestrated or took advantage of fraudulent courses and doctored grades to keep athletes eligible, and any attempt to dispute that is simply an exercise in burying one’s head in the sand. The only drama left is how do you fairly punish the school for those actions, and the answer very well might be “you can’t”. So what ends up happening to UNC? Who the hell knows, and potentially nothing at all, but at least we’ll (fingers crossed) finally find out some time over the next 12 months and can put this story to bed.
The end of the ACC Network speculation
Another “please God end this now” topic of conversation is the endless speculation about an ACC Network. Will there be one? Will it be on cable/satellite or is that industry dead thanks to cord-cutting? How much money will the ACC get? And the greatest question of all … who the f*ck cares? Genuinely all I care about regarding an ACC Network is what programming they’ll offer if and when it happens, so come get me when we’re having that conversation. Unless that conversation starts with “we need someone like Danny Kanell to be the ACC’s Finebaum”, and in that case, don’t talk to me at all. Very few (if any) media outlets have successfully demonstrated the ability to grasp ACC culture, so color me skeptical that a network would survive without forcing fans to subscribe to it by limiting access to our teams’ games on more traditional networks. That sounds horrible. But please, let’s rush into this because other conferences have one.
Deshaun Watson’s Heisman campaign
He’s going to be sooooooooo good this year, and ACC football season is a ton of fun when the best player plays in our league. Hopefully Clemson doesn’t wear him out by running him between tackles when he doesn’t have to, because a Watson injury could turn a really promising football season to crap fairly quickly.
The Coastal race
Yes, Clemson and Florida State are the best two programs in the ACC, but man, the Coastal has the potential to be the best top-to-bottom division in college football. New coaches at Miami, Virginia Tech and Virginia. Duke and North Carolina as established, credible contenders. Pitt on the verge with a capable coach and legitimate star power to get them over the hump. Georgia Tech is probably the only team entering the season more nervous than hopeful. Sure, the national story will be the tongue in cheek “Coastal Chaos” when 5 or 6 teams are within a game or so in November, but the depth of the division is undeniable. It’s going to be fun.
The Battle for 2nd Place in ACC basketball
Duke isn’t going undefeated in the league, the conference is too good for that. But there are so many good teams and good players in the tier behind Duke that it will be extremely difficult for anyone to be consistently good enough to keep pace with the Blue Devils in the race for the #1 seed in the ACC Tournament (sorry, I can’t bring myself to write regular season champion). UNC, Louisville, Virginia, Miami, FSU, NC State, maybe even Notre Dame and Clemson, there’s such a great mix of either veteran talent or elite newcomers that the ACC is going super deep this year. This is absolutely the new golden age of ACC basketball, and especially in North Carolina where three of the four team (sorry Deacs) have something really special brewing at the moment.
Coach K’s rotation
This is easily the most unique roster Duke has had since that well-known 1998/99 season that yielded just two losses. Grayson Allen, Matt Jones, Amile Jefferson and Luke Kennard might be the best group of returning players in the league, and then you add in the nation’s best recruiting class on top of that. There are 9, potentially 10 ACC-level players on the roster, but how do they all see the court? How does K manage that throughout the year? And how does he even decide who plays where? It’s a series of problems that pretty much any coach in America would love to have, but that doesn’t make it any less of a problem, and it’s going to be fascinating to see it managed by the best coach in the game.
Y’all. We’re going to Brooklyn in March for the ACC Basketball Tournament. New York. And not even “sort of New York” like Syracuse … actual New York City. It’s either going to be an incredible success like DC was this past year, or it’s going to be a complete fish out of water story that’s going to really turn off fans and ACC media alike for the return trip in 2018. This is a critical week for the league that’s incredibly exciting, in theory, but we’ll have to wait and see how it’s executed.
A scandal-free 2017
If we’re to learn anything from the academic scandal at UNC, or the tragedy that’s going on at Baylor right now, it’s that bad things can happen at our favorite schools, no matter how much we feel like they’re doing things the right way. My wish for 2016/17 is that the ACC will lead the charge in being committed to “the right way”, and we don’t find ourselves enduring a year of fans defending the indefensible like we’ve seen at Tennessee and Baylor, and like we continue to see at Penn State. We’re on day #1 of the season right now, let’s hope that slate stays clean all year and our players stay out of trouble and our students and locals remain safe on and off campus around our athletes.
New blood in ACC media
We’ve said a million times how great the ACC media is, and we’ll continue to celebrate the treasures we have in this conference across TV, radio, print, web, photo and so on. We’re also excited for what we have planned as a media organization this upcoming year. There are going to be some big shoes to fill, especially here in North Carolina, as James Curle and Brian Barbour move on to reprioritize their time and step away from covering NC State and UNC, respectively. James was the host of the long-running “Riddick & Reynolds Podcast”, and Brian was the managing editor for SB Nation’s TarHeelBlog. Both guys were early to the “new media” game and helped to put down a great foundation for bloggers and podcasters in North Carolina. We definitely want to wish them both well and thank them for their great work, but we also look forward to someone out there picking up the challenge of taking their spots. If you’re a sports fan out there who has the itch to write, write. If you’re curious about recording a podcast, do it. Start a YouTube channel. Tweet. Periscope. I’m looking forward to whatever you put out.