Friedlander: Handing out ACC midseason awards
The ACC couldn’t have asked for a better start to the 2023 season.
Its teams have answered the league’s critics with a series of high-profile nonconference wins, it has at least 1 legitimate contender for a spot in the College Football Playoff and its marquee stars are starting to put up the kind of numbers that gain national attention as we reach the midway point in the schedule.
Positive national attention, that is. As opposed to the kind the league usually gets.
But as we’ve seen, a lot can change in 6 weeks.
In that short timespan, we’ve seen the ACC go from the imminent departure of its 2 most marketable members to adding 3 new schools and becoming bi-coastal. And we’ve seen a preseason favorite fall quickly out of contention only to have an unheralded underdog with a new coach come out of nowhere to become one of the league’s 3 remaining unbeatens.
That potential for fluctuation is why the championships and individual awards aren’t decided until the final games are played. But what fun is waiting?
So just for the sake of argument, or at least friendly discussion, let’s hand out a little hardware to the best of the best in the ACC from the 1st half of the season.
Offensive Player of the Year
Now that Drake Maye finally has his full complement of receivers and has begun to find a rhythm, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that the North Carolina quarterback will eventually separate himself from the pack and win this award.
Based on the first half of the season, however, no one in the ACC has been better – or more impactful – than Louisville running back Jawhar Jordan.
The redshirt junior leads the ACC in rushing with 653 yards on 87 carries with 8 touchdowns. He was a major factor in the Cardinals’ upset of Notre Dame last week by running for a season-high 143 yards and 2 scores.
Jordan has also caught 9 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown while returning a pair of kickoffs for a 31.5-yard average. But those numbers only tell part of the story of why Jordan has been the best offensive player in the league through 6 weeks.
JAWHAR JORDAN IS TOO FAST🔥
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 8, 2023
The Louisville star is a legitimate threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball. No matter where on the field he is. Jordan already has 8 runs and 3 receptions for more than 20 yards this season, including 3 of 72 or more in leading the Cardinals to their surprising 6-0 start.
Defensive Player of the Year
It seems like Payton Wilson has been at NC State forever. In fact, it’s only been 6 years. And a good portion of those have been spent on the sideline nursing injuries. But when healthy, the Wolfpack linebacker has been among the best defensive players in the ACC.
If not the nation.
He’s been healthy this season. And he’s never been better. Wilson leads the ACC with an average of 11.7 tackles per game. He’s recorded 3 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss, 5 quarterback hurries, 3 pass breakups and a pair of fumble recoveries. He’s also run the ball once, gaining a 1st down on a fake punt to extend a drive against Louisville.
Wilson is more than just a game-changer on the field. He’s also the heart and soul of a State defense that continues to excel even after losing several key contributors from last year’s ACC-best unit.
Coach of the Year
Putting the most talented team in the league on the field and watching them win every game they’ve played so far might seem easy. But it’s only been easy for Florida State because Mike Norvell has made it look that way.
First he had to decide whether to add even more talent to the wealth of returning stars he already had. Then he had to find just the right fits from the transfer portal and quickly mesh them all together into 1 cohesive squad.
And he had to do it while managing runaway preseason expectations and a difficult opening month schedule.
Despite all that, Norvell has his Seminoles right where they were supposed to be at the midway point in the season. They’re undefeated, ranked No. 4 in the nation with wins against LSU and Clemson, and in position to earn an ACC title and spot in the College Football Playoff.
Freshman of the Year
Clemson has become almost as synonymous for sending defensive linemen to the NFL as it has been for winning ACC championships over the past 8 seasons. The Tigers have had 13 drafted since 2015, including 8 1st-rounders.
True freshman TJ Parker appears to be the next in a long line of elite pass rushers that includes the likes of 2023 draftee Myles Murphy, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell, Shaq Lawson and Vic Beasley.
The 5-star prospect has made an immediate impact by leading Clemson with 4 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss, a figure that is the most nationally among freshmen. He also has 19 tackles and 4 quarterback hurries while just beginning to scratch the surfaces of his ability.
“He seems to get better and better,” defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin said of Parker earlier this week. “He’s been really productive, heavy-handed, providing some good pass rush for us and (bringing) a great energy and demeanor on game day.”
Louisville fans who spent the past 5 years clamoring for Jeff Brohm to return home to coach his alma mater finally got their wish last December when the local hero was hired to replace Scott Satterfield.
Expectations for the prodigal son were sky high. Yet somehow Brohm has managed to exceed them.
The popular former Cardinals quarterback hasn’t just energized the program by making an immediate impact on the field and in the community. By winning his first 6 games, ending the ACC’s 30-game regular-season losing streak to Notre Dame and catapulting Louisville into the national rankings, he’s taken a team picked to finish 8th in the conference and turned it into an immediate championship contender.
Brennan Armstrong and Phil Jurkovec were 2 of the highest-profile transfers brought in by ACC teams this season. They were hailed as the cure that would fix the broken offenses that held both of their new teams back in 2022. Especially since they were being reunited with their former coordinators.
But both already have been replaced as starters.
The combination of Armstrong and mentor Robert Anae didn’t click at NC State the same way it did at Virginia in 2021, when the left-hander led the ACC in passing yardage. After 5 subpar performances, punctuated by an uninspired 13-10 loss to Louisville, Armstrong was replaced by sophomore MJ Morris.
Things have been even tougher for Jurkovec and Frank Cignetti Jr. at Pittsburgh. The Boston College transfer has the lowest passer rating in the conference and hasn’t led his team to a victory since an opening-week win against Wofford.
Not only has he been replaced by Christian Veilleux as the Panthers’ starter for Saturday’s game against Louisville, but there have been published reports indicating that Jurkovec took some reps at tight end during his team’s open date last week.
The storyline might have been different than expected thanks to Clemson’s opening night loss at Duke. But the Sept. 23 showdown between the Tigers and Florida State turned out to be everything it was cracked up to as the most anticipated game on the ACC schedule.
It had a little of everything.
Keon Coleman WHAT A CATCH 😱
Florida State beats Clemson for the first time since 2014 ‼️
— The Sporting News (@sportingnews) September 23, 2023
One team was playing to catapult itself into the national picture while the other was battling to save its season in an amazing atmosphere. There were big plays on both sides of the ball, including a late, game-tying scoop and score by the Seminoles’ Kalen DeLoach.
There was also the potential for a Hollywood ending when a kicker brought in literally off the street by Dabo Swinney earlier in the week got the chance to win the game for Clemson.
In the end, Florida State pulled out the victory on a touchdown pass from Jordan Travis to Keon Coleman in overtime to become the 1st ACC team since 2016 to escape Death Valley with a victory.
Best individual performance
Syracuse announced that All-ACC tight end Oronde Gadsden II would be lost for the season shortly before its game at Purdue on Sept. 16. Knowing that his primary offensive weapon would no longer be available, quarterback Garrett Shrader took it upon himself to singlehandedly propel the Orange to a victory.
He succeeded by accounting for 379 of his team’s 455-yard total offensive output in a 35-20 win against the Boilermakers.
Shrader threw for 184 yards on 14-of-28 passing. But he did most of his damage on the ground. He set a school record for quarterbacks by rushing for 195 yards while scoring 4 touchdowns.
Garrett Shrader with the fake of the century 😮
If the Syracuse QB didn't slide, it would've been his 5th rushing TD of the game.
By the way, the Orange are now 3-0. pic.twitter.com/NRJZsCWtbR
— Mat Mlodzinski (@MatMlodzinski) September 17, 2023
He could easily have had a 5th. But instead of taking another one to the house, he slid down after a 39-yard gain while running out the clock on a play that went viral because of an incredible bootleg that faked out the entire Purdue defense.
The ACC has done away with its divisional format and with it, the opportunity for our annual celebration of Coastal Chaos. But that doesn’t mean things won’t get crazy before all is said and done. The possibility exists for a chaotic situation not even the dearly departed Coastal Division could ever have dreamed of producing.
Because Florida State, North Carolina and Louisville aren’t scheduled to play one another during the regular season, the possibility exists that all 3 undefeated teams could finish the regular season with perfect 8-0 conference records.
If that happens, there’s a convoluted set of tiebreakers to determine which teams will meet for the league title in Charlotte on Dec. 2. The last one is basically a game of rock, paper, scissors between the 3.
Regardless of which 2 teams get in, someone’s going to be upset. But it’s actually a dream scenario for the ACC, which would all but be assured of getting at least 1 team into the Playoff.