James Conner is dark-horse candidate for ACC Player of the Year

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This past July, the ACC media voted to predict the 2014 ACC Player of the Year. Of the 108 voters, 99 of them had reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston at the top of their ballot. No surprises there.

Winston's performance has been fine over two games, but more off-field issues have him suspended for the first half of this week's Clemson matchup. This is not exactly a good look for the sophomore quarterback, considering it's the biggest game of the ACC season.

While the incumbent is yelling profanities around campus, another name has shot to the forefront of the ACC POTY talks: Pittsburgh's sophomore running back, James Conner.

The 250-pounder has been nearly unstoppable so far. Through the first three weeks of the season, Conner leads the nation in rushing yards, 544, and rushing touchdowns, eight. He also put his name in the Pittsburgh record books, topping Pro Football Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett's mark of 487 yards in three games.

Conner possesses a terrifying combination of size and speed, and he finishes every single run with power. His agility and quickness are exceptional for his size, making him one of the hardest players to bring down in the country.

Expectations were high coming into the season, but nobody expected this. Maybe we should have. Conner capped off his freshman year with a purely dominant showing against Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Bowl. He ran for 229 yards and a touchdown in the victory, setting a Pittsburgh record for most rushing yards in a bowl game.

While his efforts out of the backfield were impressive, they didn't stop there. Conner also contributed as a pass-rushing specialist, drawing a key holding call on Bowling Green's final offensive possession. There really isn't much this kid can't do.

Pittsburgh's offense has been centered on the sophomore back so far this season. He's efficiently averaging just under seven yards per carry and has rushed the ball 81 times in three games. With that, the Panthers are off to a 3-0 start for the first time since 2009.

In Week 2, Pitt earned a huge road victory against ACC rival Boston College. Conner ran wild for 214 yards and a score in the win. Considering how Pittsburgh has looked up to this point, it's probably safe to say that it's the team to beat in the ACC Coastal Division.

Conner's outstanding play has definitely planted him at the top of the list of ACC POTY candidates. Some would even say he's a favorite to be a Heisman finalist. It's a little too soon for that, but if the season ended today, there's no reason why he wouldn't be in the running.

More importantly, if Conner continues to dominate like this, the Panthers could be on the fast track to an ACC Championship meeting with Florida State. Winston versus Conner, with the ACC title and Player of the Year award on the line? Sounds like a good deal to me.

There's clearly way too much football left to make that assumption, but James Conner and his Panthers are definitely a story to watch throughout the season.

Ted Gioia is a junior at Syracuse University with majors in Finance as well Television, Radio, and Film. Born in North Buffalo, he is an avid Bills and Sabres fan. Follow him on Twitter: @Ted_Gioia ​​
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