This should’ve been a tough offseason for Virginia Tech. The two-time defending ACC champs have rebuilding to do on defense, with six sophomores projected to start, and were licking their wounds off a four-touchdown thrashing at the hands of Stanford in the Orange Bowl, a game that again raised the question of whether Tech is the power of a mediocre conference or a genuine national contender. In a normal offseason that would’ve been the story. Then the crazy offseason that was 2011 hit.
Virginia Tech’s two biggest threats for the ACC’s Coastal Division are North Carolina and Miami. Scandal nailed each one. UNC fired head coach Butch Davis five weeks before practices started. The Hurricanes, with a potentially very good defense and solid new coach in Al Golden, have been hammered with the sins of the program’s past. In theory Miami could show extraordinary focus, get great defensive play and see either Jacory Harris or Stephen Morris reduce their mistakes at quarterback and become a contender. In practice, that’s a lot of focus to ask from college kids as reasonable people debate whether Miami’s lack of institutional control is so great as to merit shutting the program down.
Thus, by default, the Hokies are again a favorite to return to the ACC Championship Game in December. Georgia Tech should be a good team, with a defensive front seven that should be improved over last year, but they have the look of a midlevel bowl team. Duke projects ten sophomores into starting jobs, and while I like the direction Mike London has Virginia going in, and think he’ll get 6-7 wins, the Cavs need more in the cupboard to compete at the conference’s top level.
Florida State was the team that fell to Virginia Tech in last year’s title battle and the Seminoles are ranked in the Top 10 this time around, favored to win this conference and grab an Orange Bowl berth. Jimbo Fischer’s team indeed looks loaded for bear. Though E.J. Manuel is technically not a returning starter at QB, he got the bulk of the playing time down the stretch, including the championship game, when Christian Ponder was hurt. The offensive line is experienced, and the defensive front, while lacking in seniors, doesn’t lack starting experience. Defensive end Brandon Jenkins leads a unit that pressures the quarterback relentlessly and with all four secondary starters back, the ‘Noles defense should be smothering.
The Atlantic Division in which FSU resides has been the conference’s weaker half for several years, but that looks different this time around. The Atlantic has teams that could threaten Virginia Tech, but look a couple steps behind Florida State. I like Clemson and N.C. State a lot. Both have very good offensive lines and good returning running backs, in Andre Ellington and Mustafa Green respectively. The Wolfpack merit a slight edge for second place thanks to a superior secondary and defensive line. And the lower half of the division should all push for bowl eligibility. Maryland’s going to throw the ball very well, with a good protection and sophomore quarterback Danny O’Brien already having a year’s experience under his belt. Wake Forest went through a lot of growing pains last year, but the return of both lines and QB Tanner Price should enable them to double their 3-win total of last year and get back to a bowl. Boston College is going to struggle with youth in both lines, but they return talented running back Montel Harris, the best back in the ACC, a good secondary and sophomore quarterback Chase Rettig, whose insertion into the lineup midway through last year sparked a turnaround that landed the Eagles in a bowl.
As we sit here in August, Florida State is the favorite. But the league championship won’t be settled until a neutral site game in December and by that point, Virginia Tech should be up to speed defensively. I look for a rematch of last year’s championship game, and will still lean to FSU to prevail. But the peculiar circumstances of the past summer make a three-peat in Blacksburg a better possibility than one might have guessed.
RED SOX ROLLING RIGHT ALONG
Two days the Notebook noted the strong play of the Yankees of late. New York's rival to the north in Fenway Park hasn't been too shabby themselves, as Boston has nudged back into first place in the AL East (at this writing Thursday night, the Sox lead Texas 6-0 in the 7th, which would keep them a game up)The Red Sox, like the Yanks, have pulled away in the wild-card race, so the playoffs are all but assured even as the battle for the division title stays neck-and-neck. Boston has won because of its offense is hitting on all cylinders and they are gradually addressing the problem of pitching depth.
Dustin Pedroia has led the way offensive in the second half, with a .400 on-base percentage and .529 slugging and he's likely to get some MVP votes if this keeps up. Adrian Gonzalez was once the clear front-runner for the award and may still get it, but his power has dipped since the break, with only four home runs–though two of them came Tuesday, a sign that the first baseman's power stroke may be regaining form. David Ortiz continues to hit the ball well, and the strong at-bats given by Marco Scuator (.358 OBP) and Darnell McDonald (.370 OBP, .565 Slg in part-time duty) have been another jewel added to an overflowing treasure chest.
What's most surprising though is where Boston's power has come from. Leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury has hit 12 bombs since the All-Star break, twice the amount of any one else in the team. With six home runs is catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. If anyone had told you these two players would lead the Sox in second-half home runs at the end of August, you've have figured an Indian summer swoon must be underway in the Fens.
Josh Beckett continues to anchor the rotation, dominating the Rangers last night and his ERA is sitting on 2.16. Jon Lester has been solid and steady at #2. As to the rest of the rotation, I won't say it's a strength, but John Lackey has been at least tolerable in his recent starts, while Erik Bedard's 4.09 ERA in four starts since his acquisition at the trade deadline make him a serviceable back-end starter. Where depth has really come through is in the bullpen. Alfredo Aceves has been an absolute horse in the bullpen, and along with Matt Albers has given the Red Sox reliable help in the 6th and 7th inning. And the 8th-9th inning combo of Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon keeps getting better as the season rolls along.
The Red Sox aren't without flaws, but every team outside the confines of Philadelphia has some things you can pick nits with. It's the same thing the Notebook said about the Yankees, which makes for an interesting AL East race and potentially dynamite ALCS in October if the teams can survive the Divison Series.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS PREVIEW
In a city where every pro team is winning championships, it's surprising to think that the Patriots have been the longest out of the money, since it was all the way back in 2004 they last won the Super Bowl. But they've been at that level consistently, including last year's 14-2 team that suffered a surprising defeat in the second round of the playoffs against the Jets. At another level though, perhaps the defeat wasn't as surprising as it seemed, because New England needs more players capable of making the kind of explosive plays that win big games.
They clearly have one such player in Tom Brady, whose MVP season added to a resume that his among the best quarterbacks of all-time. But they need more weaponry to help. The Pats tried to upgrade in the offseason adding Chad Ochocinco, who might have been the best choice available and might assist in the short passing game, but as a downfield threat, I don't see where this adds a lot. Brady does have a lot of choices underneath, including Wes Welker, running back Danny Woodhead and the tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Herandez, but who stretches the field?
The same problem exists on defense. Here the "playmaker" is on the sidelines in Bill Belichick, who manages to fit everyone into the right role and has brilliantly overseen a transition period where his team has been a mix of either too young or too old. But he needs someone whose presence can overshadow a game. Signing Albert Haynesworth on the defensive front was an effort, but like the Ochocinco signing I think that's likely to have a modest impact, but not what New England really needs. The best hopes for a star to emerge on this defense are with second-year corner Devin McCourty who could become a true lockdown corner and give his coach more flexibility in devising blitz packages.
Belichick and Brady are a pair unmatched in their brilliance and its more astounding they won 14 games with the rather pedestrian talent around them than it is that they lost in the playoffs. The supporting cast is gradually improving and they'll be in the mix for another Super Bowl shot. Just don't overlook their shortcomings in big-time talent when it comes time to assess postseason chances.
*It's a big weekend in horse racing coming up. At Saratoga on Saturday, the biggest race of the summer, the Travers Stakes is set to go. Known as the MidSummer Derby, the Travers features Preakness winner Shackleford and Belmont champ Ruler On Ice, along with Coil, who recently won a $1 million purse in the Haskell Stakes. Then on Sunday, Del Mar hosts the Pac-Classic, the biggest event of the year on the prestigious SoCal circuit. Visit Bloodhorse.com for updates on the doings here and at major tracks around the country.
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