Atlantic Coast Conference Preview
Florida State and Virginia Tech the teams to beat
Aug. 9, 2007
By Adam Caparell
Adam is CSTV.com's football editor and national football writer.
The team picked to finish dead last in the Atlantic Division last year surprised everyone in the country by winning the division, winning the ACC Championship, and then making their way to a BCS bowl.
Welcome to the new ACC, where picking a winner is akin to a crapshoot. From Virginia Tech down to those Demon Deacons, aside from a few teams, a case can be made that this is anyone's league.
Just ask some of the players.
"It's wide open," said Georgia Tech running back Tashard Choice, the ACC's leading rusher last season. "I think it's going to catch a lot of folks by surprise. The big name teams, like Florida State and Virginia Tech, are going to be great this year. But you can never tell because some team is going to play well as a unit and have a chance to compete for the ACC Championship."
Just like Wake Forest last season. Few, if any, are picking a repeat performance out of the Demon Deacons, but their ability to win the conference out of nowhere has created a stigma that the league has slipped a few notches. But no one associated with the 12 teams that comprise the conference buys it. They say it's better than ever with big-time coaches, great defenses and plenty of athletes to boot.
"A lot of people want to say the ACC isn't a great conference," Virginia Tech defensive end Carlton Powell said, "but the ACC is a wonderful conference."
Bobby Bowden could never bring himself to fire his son as offensive coordinator, so Jeff took the decision out of his father's hands and decided to resign last November. And throughout
"One thing about Jimbo is that his record has proven him a good quarterback coach," Bowden said. "He's got a good way of communicating with the players, he's very demanding and he's very sharp and he's a very good play caller. That's the thing I've liked about him through the years."
Weatherford figures to have the inside track, but whoever gets the call to be the starter would be well served by a better running game than the one the Seminoles paraded out there last year. They averaged just 96 yards per game, one reason Bowden brought in renowned offensive line coach Rick Trickett to whip the offensive line into better shape and get the running game going.
"We've got a lot of pressure now because we've got all the coaches," said Antone Smith, who takes over as the Seminoles' go-to running back. "The question is, are we going to win more games or lose like last year. The attitude has changed."
But can they count on the play of the quarterback? Weatherford and Lee have both had trouble hanging onto the ball. They have great talent at wide receiver to work with, and with Fisher doing the teaching, Bowden shouldn't be shaking his head as much this year and in years past. But for all the promise both Weatherford and Lee have shown, it hasn't equated to success. The pressure's on to produce and it's coming from Bowden himself.
The defense returns seven starters from one of the best rushing defenses in the nation last year, so don't expect any dropoff. Bowden sure hasn't - especially since Chuck Amato has resurfaced with the Seminoles.
"The most successful teams we've had at
Only giving up 92 yards per game, the Seminoles' run defense was hard to beat last year and it'll be just as stingy this fall with Andre Fluellen clogging the middle along with Letroy Guion. Basically, this front four is as good as it gets in the ACC. The secondary has considerable talent with Myron Rolle and Tony Carter.
The overhaul of the offensive staff is something that's rejuvenated Bowden and his team to a degree, but the 77-year-old coach stresses winning is still about having the best players. He's close to having them again and he's a lot closer to
Regular Season Prediction: 9-3 Overall, 6-2 ACC
Boston College just may feature the best quarterback in the country who gets the least amount of publicity: Matt Ryan.
Ryan, who had to deal with injuries to his ankle and foot for the better part of last season, should come into the regular season healthy having fully grasped the revamped offense of new head coach Jeff Jagodzinski and offensive coordinator Steve Logan. Fortunately for Ryan, it's going to be tailored around his talents.
"I would say it's different with some similarities, but I'm excited to play in it," Ryan said.
Ryan will have a lot more control over the offense this season, with the ability to change the play at the line of scrimmage at his discretion, a responsibility he rarely had with former coach Tom O'Brien, who is now at
If the new zone-blocking scheme works the way it's supposed to, and with a slimmed down offensive line thanks to the premium Jagodzinski has put on athleticism up front, the passing game could really open up for the Eagles' QB that makes good decisions with his strong arm.
"It's a good fit for
Competing with other top defenses like Virginia Tech,
"We can get lost in the shuffle of defenses in this conference," linebacker Jolonn
The Eagles return their entire front seven and figure to be one of the better run stopping units in the ACC, even though the defensive line will be slimmed down just like the offensive line.
"If it came off it wasn't good weight to begin with," Jagodzinski said. "And those guys have gotten strong with less weight. They should be better players. That extra 20 pounds...I don't know how that helped them unless they're just leaning on someone. And we don't teach that."
The health of Brian Toal will be something to keep an eye on as the regular season approaches. Not having him in the lineup would be a downer, but nothing the Eagles and leading tackler Dunbar can't overcome for a unit that's better than advertised.
The Eagles have the best quarterback in the conference and one of the better ones in the nation. Jagodzinski wants a more explosive offense and Ryan should facilitate that goal. Jagodzinski kept his whole team on campus throughout the summer and he hopes the move will pay big dividends. But most importantly, he has Ryan. Every coach will tell you, Bobby Bowden included, that championships are won with great quarterbacks. Ryan has the tools to be that and should lead the Eagles to a nine-win season with games at Clemson and Virginia Tech holding the key to their ultimate fate.
Regular Season Prediction: 9-3 Overall, 5-3 ACC
The injuries that decimated the Demon Deacons during last year's magical run to the Orange Bowl may just have been a blessing in disguise. Wake returns eight starters on offense with a group that's a year older and a year wiser.
Riley Skinner was nothing but an inexperienced freshman when he took over for the injured Ben Mauk last season. Now he enters this year as the reigning ACC Rookie of the Year and gets to work with Kenny Moore as his wide out exclusively -
Justice and his four linemates should give Skinner time to operate and since the sophomore has proven to be a deft decision maker, Wake's balanced attack should give teams problems when it's rolling.
The real reason Wake went 11-3 last season was its defense. They weren't flashy and didn't always make the big stops, but the Demon Deacons were opportunistic, finishing the season with a +13 turnover margin, sixth-best in the nation.
The biggest loss on the unit is Jon Abbate, the linebacker who declared himself for the draft. He was the Demon Deacons' leading tackler last year, but despite losing him and only returning five starters, Wake's going to feature an experienced group of juniors who should fill in just fine.
But not many are going to give the Demon Deacons respect. The talk of last season being a fluke hangs heavily over the team. They've gotten so used to hearing about it that they've learned to tune things out.
"We're used to the public not thinking very highly of
And one thing Wake definitely isn't discussing is returning to the lofty level they reached last fall. It's the old cliché about taking it one game at a time.
"There's (no talk) about the ACC Championships or bowl games," Thompson said.
Things have changed in
Regular Season Prediction: 8-4 Overall, 5-3 ACC
Sam Hollenbach is gone from
Fortunately, Steffy will be able to hand the ball off to Lance Ball and Keon Lattimore, who combined for more than 1,500 yards last season. They're going to get a lot of work out of the backfield. The offensive line has three starters returning and both wide outs are back for Steffy to throw to. But until he really can see what Steffy has to offer in games, Friedgen certainly isn't going to turn the offense over to the junior. He'll play it much more conservatively than he'd prefer to.
Improvement is needed across the board, especially up front, where the Terps allowed more than 160 yards per game on the ground last season and only managed a sack and a half per game - awful numbers. But it's going to be a group that brings back five of the front seven from last season and feature a much deeper secondary. Losing Josh Wilson hurts, but the Terps can overcome.
After enduring a few up and down seasons before last year's nine-win campaign, the Terps are hopeful this is the year they can break out. They went to the Citrus Bowl and soundly beat Purdue and that momentum has carried over from the spring to the summer.
"We all went through growing pains together and know we all know the game and finally got a taste of winning last season and now we want to win more," safety Christian Varner said.
Friedgen's a coach who doesn't get enough credit for constantly guiding Maryland to respectability and bowl games. He's developed some pretty good college quarterbacks and Steffy figures to be his latest project. If he can develop into a solid signal caller then there's a good chance
Regular Season Prediction: 6-6 Overall, 4-4 ACC
Clemson - 2006: 8-5, 5-3 ACC
It's tough to stop the duo in Clemson's backfield. James Davis and C.J. Spiller play second fiddle to no one in the ACC and with the loss of Will Proctor at quarterback, the Tigers will rely heavily on their ground game to score points. Clemson's just lucky they have Davis and Spiller, who combined to rush for more than 2,000 yards last season.
The differing duo will run behind tackle Barry Richardson, the mammoth, yet soft spoken offensive lineman who is Clemson's best.
"We've got one that's fast and one that can get in there in the trenches and get you those extra yards,"
Whoever eventually settles into the position, the hope is that Clemson can open the offense a little more, throwing it downfield and balancing out the offense - the Tigers averaged 217 yards per game on the ground and only 193 through the air. With a new quarterback and those two backs, teams are going to dare the Tigers to beat them through the air. Whoever settles in at quarterback is going to have to win Clemson some games late when the running game inevitably hits a rough patch.
Clemson is no exception in a conference chock full of great defenses, but there are big, big losses to address. Gaines Adams is gone and so are the Tigers' starting cornerbacks from last season.
Phillip Merling anchors the defensive line in place of Adams and while he admits it's a little different not having his former teammates out their on the field, last year's 13th-best defense in the country can bank on having an experienced group at linebacker and safety.
But bottom line, it's going to be impossible filling
Clemson's a team that could go either way. The pressure is on Tommy Bowden to win this year, even more so than his father. But how much can you expect from a team that brings in a new quarterback and a team that looked so horribly bad during last season's final five games after looking so breathtakingly good? It's been over 15 years since Clemson last won an ACC Championship and that doesn't figure to change this season.
"I think there is a little more pressure,"
They have a manageable schedule, playing in-state rival South Carolina as their only non-conference game of any significance. It helps a little that their toughest games come at home, but are they really going to be all that good?
Regular Season Prediction: 6-6 Overall, 3-5 ACC
Eight starters are back on the unit that struggled to put points on the board last season. The Wolfpack averaged just 17.5 points per game, the worst mark in the Atlantic Division.
Daniel Evans emerged as the leading contender to take over the Wolfpack's quarterbacking duties, but the position seems yet to be determined. Battling Evans will be Justin Burke and Harrison Beck, a transfer from
Returning at wide out are John Dunlap and Darrell Blackman, two seniors with talent who O'Brien will be begging to utilize. But at the expense of not making too many turnovers again (State's turnover margin was -11 last season) the focus will be on running the ball with Toney Baker and Andre Brown, two guys who can run. The offensive line has needs that must be addressed, but they're capable of improving on that rushing mark of 119 yards per game last season. Plus, O'Brien's more of a grind-it-out kind of coach. He runs first and passes second. With this squad, he may only be passing on third down.
A paltry five starters are back for
For a team that's relied on a solid defense the past few seasons, expectations will need to be lowered. Scattered among juniors and seniors are plenty of sophomores and freshmen, especially on the second team defense where few seniors are to be found.
The secondary, which generally played well against the pass last season, should be the strongest unit on defense. But a change in scheme - switching from man-to-man to zone coverage - could foul things up in the early goings.
O'Brien's bringing a new sense of discipline to the Wolfpack, something they lacked under Chuck Amato. His military background and organization is in stark contrast to the Amato regime and the players have taken to it.
"That made us feel good as a team that we'd have a coach who would pick up the pieces and make sure everything is in line," Blackman said, who also serves as the Wolfpack's kick and punt returner and is one of the best in the nation. He should provide a few sparks on special teams.
Blackman said frequently that the Wolfpack would just go out and play off their talent under Amato, rather than relying on technique and preparedness. And that meant they lost games - they were just 25-31 in ACC play under Amato. One thing is for sure down in
Regular Season Projection: 5-7 Overall, 2-6 ACC
Virginia Tech - 2006: 10-3 Overall, 6-2 ACC
The Hokies' offense may not be as strong as their defense, but it's certainly more than serviceable and should be good enough to take them to the heights they're hoping to reach.
Everything is going to ride on Sean Glennon's ability to take care of the ball for Virginia Tech. His Chick-fil-A Bowl performance aside, he's the Hokies' quarterback - despite some reservations from fans. As long as he doesn't turn the ball over and the Hokies can really get their ground game going, with Brandon Ore returning for his junior season, Virginia Tech should be in fine shape.
The offensive line has undergone some changes, most notably Duane Brown switching from the right to left side where he'll be protecting Glennon's blindside. But that's music to Glennon's ears. Depth is the biggest question for an offensive line that wasn't spectacular last year. If it shows any marked improvement, and can really open holes for
Don't expect fireworks, but do expect production out of
Can the Hokies end the season as the No. 1-ranked defense for the third straight season? It'd be an unprecedented accomplishment and Tech is certainly more than capable of pulling it off. With eight starters back on defense, including the best linebacking tandem coach Frank Beamer has ever had in Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall, a loaded defensive line and experience in the secondary led by Brandon Flowers, there's no reason why the Hokies won't be the best in the conference - and the nation.
"We've got all the great components," defensive end Carlton Powell said. "We've just got to put them together."
Depth is the only issue the Hokies and Beamer need to concern themselves with. Other than that, Beamer and Hokies fans should be able to sit back and watch this defense dominate. Another No. 1 finish is going to be tough, but their soft non-conference schedule - aside from LSU - should help them reach their goal.
Clearly the class of the ACC, the conference is Virginia Tech's for the taking. But the one thing that will weigh heavily on the Hokies throughout the fall is last April's tragedy. The horror and memories of the worst school shooting in
"A lot more people are going to look toward what Virginia Tech is going to do after the great tragedy that happened," Powell said. "What's this team going to do? Are they going to have a great season or just fall apart? I just want to tell everybody right now that we're going to play every game the best we can and do what he can for everybody."
That Week 2 matchup with LSU could really set the tone for the Hokies. Win in
Regular Season Prediction: 11-1 Overall, 8-0 ACC
Georgia Tech - 2006: 9-5 Overall, 7-1 ACC
It's addition by subtraction for the Yellow Jackets with Reggie Ball exhausting his eligibility and the patience of his former teammates and Georgia Tech fans.
Ball's inconsistency was frustrating to no end and ever since Taylor Bennett filled in for the suspended Ball in the Gator Bowl against West Virginia and sparkled, Chan Gailey and his staff have been waiting anxiously to see what the Jackets' offense can do with Bennett under center all season.
Of course there's no Calvin Johnson to throw to anymore, but Bennett and new offensive coordinator John Bond can rely on the ACC's leading rusher last season in Tashard Choice to rack up the yards - especially with an experienced offensive line coming back. Bond's going to focus more on the running game, which in turn will hopefully open up the passing game for Bennett, who will be throwing to James Johnson, among others. He may not be Calvin, but Johnson is more than capable of stepping his game up.
"I think we have a lot of receivers coming back, ones that can make plays," Choice said. "They really want to show themselves. They think they can be pretty good."
The Yellow Jackets bring back eight starters from a very good defense that figures to be one of the better units in the conference.
Phillip Wheeler and Jamal Lewis are the leaders on the unit that will be very solid up the middle. With two senior defensive ends and a pair of linebackers in Wheeler and Gary Guyton, the Yellow Jackets will be blitzing plenty. How much defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta is able to do that, with a few concerns at one of the cornerback slots, remains to be seen. One thing's for sure, for the Georgia Tech defense to be great, they need "to get better in the passing game," Wheeler admitted. The Yellow Jackets allowed almost 100 yards more in the air than the ground.
With three seniors returning in the secondary, much more will be expected of the group - Wheeler included. The senior actually considers himself as much a part of the secondary as anyone and the unit will certainly utilize the talents of one of the ACC's top defenders.
Tech's got a very good defense and a good offense. Special teams might leave something be desired with the return game and some inconsistency with kicker Travis Bell. But the offense has the potential to be very good if Bennett blossoms like he's expected to. The Yellow Jackets' schedule is also manageable. Opening with Notre Dame and getting Virginia Tech and
Regular Season Prediction: 9-3 Overall, 6-2 ACC
The quarterback conundrum revolves around Kyle Wright and Kirby Freeman. So just who is new head coach Randy Shannon going to pick?
"If we have to use both quarterbacks, we will,"
Of course he'd like to settle on one and Wright figures to be the clubhouse leader, but if he continues to be inconsistent and throw the ball away,
But whoever is the Canes' quarterback would be well served with a more productive running game. The offense wasn't anything special last season and the running game didn't help with Javarris James, a freshman last season, taking the reins and running for 802 yards - nearly breaking the
Wright or Freeman won't have an abundance of talent at wide receiver. Unless Wright can take the Canes on his shoulders, this doesn't figure to be a
Regular Season Prediction: 8-4 Overall, 5-3 ACC
It should be simple with the Cavs this season: they're going to pound away at the run.
With an offensive line that's deep and widely considered to be very talented, Virginia should be able to run the ball effectively and improve on a dismal performance last year, where the Cavs failed to average 100 yards per game on the ground.
Jameel Sewell should be Al Groh's quarterback after the freshman started nine games and distinguished himself enough to warrant the job as a sophomore. Questions seem to remain about his wrist after off-season surgery, but he did practice during the spring.
The tight end position will be a strength for the offense, with Tom Santi and Jonathan Stupar back. And Santi, for one, is expecting bigger things out of the unit this year.
"With this offensive line coming back, it's going to be fun to see them working together," Santi said. "They're going to have a huge opportunity to have a huge impact on the running game."
The line will look to open holes for some relatively inexperienced tailbacks, starting with Cedric Peerman, but the leading returning rusher on the team is Sewell.
How about returning 10 starters on defense? That's what
Aside from one cornerback spot, the whole defense is back and it will be led by the defensive line and Chris Long. The son of Howie Long will team up with a freshman All-American who led the teams in sacks last season in Jeffrey Fitzgerald.
The linebacking corps is deep and the secondary is no exception. The Cavs finished 17th in total defense last season and there's no reason why they won't be just as good, if not better, in 2007.
Groh should be feeling some heat in
"There's a little attitude about the whole operation," Groh said. "There's a little attitude everybody has toward performing the way this team can perform."
For all the negatives that came out last season, the camaraderie and experience the team gained will go a long way toward the Cavs competing for a potential bowl bid. Their non-conference slate is very manageable and if the Cavs really take advantage of missing
Regular Season Prediction: 6-6 Overall, 3-5 ACC
Expect a healthy dose of the run with the new Tar Heels. Former
The first thing that must be determined is who the quarterback is. It's between a number of candidates, but the leader right now figures to be T.J. Yates. Mike Paulus is the hot shot freshman who could vie for some snaps, but
The Tar Heels are also painfully young at running back where there's one sophomore to hand the ball off to - Richie Rich. Three starters return to the offensive line and the right side should be a strength for the Tar Heels.
One area they won't be concerned with is wide receiver. Four of the top five pass catchers from last season are back, Joe Dailey chief among them. But bottom line, watching the Tar Heels operate isn't going to be pretty this season. There will be growing pains - many of them.
Just as bad as the Tar Heels' offense will be, the defense could be worse. Five starters are back and there's going to be a huge infusion of young, but talented, players to fill in the holes.
The defensive line is going to be very deep. Included in that group should be Marvin Austin, the prize recruit
"It makes a statement about our program,"
Regular Season Prediction: 3-9 Overall, 1-7 ACC
Duke - 2006: 0-12 Overall, 0-8 ACC
The Blue Devils hope a new offensive coordinator can bring success to an offense that was absolutely woeful last year. All 11 starters are back for Duke and Peter Vaas, Notre Dame's quarterbacks coach last season who came on board with hopes of trying to change the losing ways around
"Schematically there are no changes," fullback Tielor Robinson said. "Philosophies are a little different. Coach Vass is a little more wide open, little more aggressive down the field."
Robinson and his teammates are just glad Vaas didn't come in and orchestrate another major offensive change, considering Duke's still searching for its first win in 20 games. Vaas has changed some roles - he wouldn't be opposed to having Lewis just throw the ball up for his receivers and let them go get it - but the changes are nothing dramatic.
If the offensive line can handle the pass rush thrown at it every week in the ACC - no easy task - then Lewis has the potential to be successful in the new offense.
Head coach Ted Roof is taking over the defense this season, one that will be missing some talent in the secondary but feature a deeper line than in years past. Only five starters are back. One of them was linebacker Michael Tauiliili, but he's been suspended indefinitely while tackle Vince Oghobaase now takes over the title as the Blue Devils' best defensive player.
Duke got scored on like crazy and was equally bad against the run and the pass in 2006. They don't figure to be any better this year, especially considering how young the unit is. Expect a whole lot more 40-plus point games from Duke's opponents.
Another 0-12 season isn't without question. With no Division I-AA opponents on the schedule, their only potential wins come in the opener against Connecticut and maybe the finale with
Predictably, the losing is getting to the players.
"We want to win for ourselves," Robinson said. "We put in a lot of work and to come up empty every week is pretty taxing."
Unfortunately for Robinson, they're going to come up empty more often than not this season. They could win one somewhere - they almost upset
Regular Season Prediction: 0-12 Overall, 0-8 ACC