ACC Football Preview

The ACC usually isn’t known for its football and given that the last sighting of such involved Clemson getting seventy points hung on them in the Orange Bowl against West Virginia, perhaps that’s understandable. Whether the conference can legitimately compete with national powers this year remains to be seen, but if nothing else, the league has a lot of experienced teams and the push to be in Charlotte on December 1 when the championship is settled should be a good one. TheSportsNotebook offers a brief overview of the ACC football landscape…

Florida State & Clemson look to be head and shoulders above everyone else coming into the season. Each has a similar profile—they bring all their skill position players back, have solid experience on defense and each have to rebuild their offensive lines. But beneath that surface similarity are considerable differences.

To simply note “all skill players are back” does a disservice to Clemson, as a talent collection of Tajh Boyd at quarterback, Andre Ellington at running back and Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins at the wideouts is considerably better than what Florida State has. Seminole coach Jimbo Fischer is going to still cross his fingers and hope E.J. Manuel can be consistent behind center and the backs and receivers are competent, but not spectacular.

The reverse is true on the defensive side. The returning starters might be roughly equivalent, but FSU is loaded, and can attack from both ends in the pass rush with Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner. A lockdown corner in Xavier Rhodes keys the secondary. Meanwhile, Clemson should be better, but the defensive disaster they put on in the Orange Bowl was no fluke. The team was winning shootouts all year. And even acknowledging the experience should make them better, will there be any kind of psychological fallout after getting hammered that badly by West Virginia? We’ll have to see.

These two teams are both in the Atlantic Division, so there’s open room for someone else to sneak in through the Coastal Division entryway. That conversation always begins with Virginia Tech, where Frank Beamer has put the Hokies in the title game. In the seven years since the ACC split into divisions, Tech has won the Coastal five times. But they’ve got nine new starters on offense. Eight are upperclassmen, which speak to the depth Beamer has in his program, and the defense will be tough, keyed by an experienced front four. Still, if the conversation in the Coastal has to begin with Virginia Tech, I think it ends somewhere else this season and that somewhere is Georgia Tech.

Georgia Tech is loaded up front, with a veteran offensive line, and the triple option coached by Paul Johnson should be positively explosive, on a par with the 2009 team that won the ACC. Tevin Washington has experience running this offense and the athletic ability to match, and his backs are solid. Defensively, the team may be a little soft in the trenches, but with it being a 3-4 scheme, a veteran linebacker group will compensate for a lot and the secondary is in good shape. Georgia Tech meets Virginia Tech on Labor Day night, a circumstance that clearly works in the Yellow Jackets favor, given the experience gap between the two teams.

Last year it was Virginia that made a Cinderella run at the Coastal title, winning four straight in November, including road games at Miami and Florida State. The Cavs are the only team who can hope to break in amongst the twin Techs. Head coach Mike London has the veterans in the offensive front, especially offensive tackle Oday Aboushi, who is highly regarded by NFL scouts. With Perry Jones running behind this line, junior quarterback Michael Rocco can continue his steady improvement in a relatively pressure-free environment.

The Atlantic Division has three teams that could hope to compete for first place in the Coastal and could even spring an upset on Florida State or Clemson. But Boston College, N.C. State and Wake Forest are not good enough to win the division over the long haul, though all three should be aiming for an 8-4 or 9-3 type season. BC finished strong in November, beating NC State and Miami and only losing by two at Notre Dame. With four starters on the offensive line back and a top tight end in Chris Pantale, returning QB Chase Rettig should be able to run a well-managed offense. N.C. State, other than the BC loss, also played well down the stretch. They’ve got a senior quarterback in Mike Glennon, a veteran offensive line, experience in the secondary and a head coach in Tom O’Brien who’s got to be hungry for something more than mediocrity. Wake Forest will have its best defensive team in recent years, with six of their front seven back. While there’s not a lot returning on offense, quarterback Tanner Price is one of those who are back in Winston-Salem and head coach Jim Grob has certainly competed with a lot less than this.

North Carolina, Maryland and Miami are all schools with some recent history of success, especially Miami, but all three are looking at challenging years ahead. UNC got a new head coach in Larry Fedora to start over after the Butch Davis recruiting scandals. Fedora’s got a nice track record from Southern Miss and this is a good hire. He’s got some possibilities on offense, with quarterback Bryn Renner and a good offensive front. But even if Renner eliminates the mistakes, the defense has problems. Linebacker Kevin Reddick and defensive end Kareem Martin might get NFL attention, but the depth beyond them is awful.

Maryland got the Randy Edsall Era off to a stirring start last Labor Day when they beat Miami, but the Terps only won one more time the rest of the season, have an inexperienced offensive line and have seen 25 players leave the program, including quarterback Danny O’Brien who fell out of favor with the new boss. Edsall did a great job at UConn and I have every reason to think he’ll succeed in College Park, if given the time. But it bears wondering, why it was necessary to get of Ralph Friedgen, who directed the school’s only recent ACC champion (2002), went to bowls consistently and was coming off an eight-win season when he got canned after 2010. Some program purgations are necessary, others are not. This one wasn’t.

As for Miami, Al Golden won six games in his first year, while on probation, but more was expected and now a major rebuilding job is ahead. Mediocre quarterback Stephen Morris is surrounded by seven underclassmen on the offensive side, while the defense is average at best. I like Golden, but he’s a northeast guy (coached at Temple, assistant at Penn State). He might be a fish out of water down in Coral Gables, and it’s not like this program is known for patience.

Duke is the only team for whom reaching a bowl game is completely out of the question. The Sean Renfree-Connor Vernon passing duo is entertaining, but David Cutliffe’s tenure here has produced 15 wins in four seasons. Some improved defense will help, but eight sophomores in starting roles spell another fall waiting for basketball season to start in Durham.

PREDICTION: I’m usually very skeptical of Florida State, because I think the media is in such a rush to put them back on the 1990s pedestal, that the ‘Noles are considered about a notch higher in the pecking order than normal. That’s the case again this year, where they are getting some attention as a national title contender. But that means I can still pick them to win the ACC and still consider them overhyped. FSU will defeat Georgia Tech in the conference title game.

The ACC’s biggest non-BCS bowl prize is the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, which pits them against an SEC school in Atlanta. Clemson will get that opportunity, and N.C. State will get the next rung down, in the Russell Athletic Bowl (formerly Champs Sports). Not until the Sun Bowl, fourth on the ladder, will Coastal champ Georgia Tech appear.