The ACC struggled through another year of semi-mediocrity in 2007, the third straight year since expansion that the conference has underachieved. In fact, the ACC has actually fallen off since the conference’s first post-expansion year, featuring only two top ten teams in its three years under the current layout! The rise of the 12 team ACC has coincided with the fall of both Florida State and Miami, who were expected to be the conference’s flagship teams. Virginia Tech, the conference’s defending champion, seems to have taken up that banner the last three years and should be good again. The ACC should be a stronger conference this fall, especially if Clemson and North Carolina can live up to expectations.
Putting Clemson on top of this division was not an easy choice, considering their vast history of losing games that they have no business losing. The Tigers’ 9-4 season in 2007 was again marred by a terrible loss to Georgia Tech after starting 4-0, typical of Clemson under Tommy Bowden. However, the Tigers recovered to defeat rival South Carolina and Bowden was awarded a contract extension, temporarily quieting Tiger fans calling for his head. Clemson returns 16 starters from last year’s team.
Senior Cullen Harper returns to lead the Clemson offense a year after throwing 27 TDs and only 6 interceptions. He will be backed up by perhaps the best running back combination in the land; senior James Davis and junior CJ Spiller, who paired for over 1,800 yards last fall. Harper returns his top four receiving options, led by senior Aaron Kelly, who accounted for over 1,000 yards and 11 TDs last fall. The Tigers have to replace three offensive linemen, including both of their starting tackles, so there could be a drop off in Death Valley this year. However, the Tigers are lethal at the skill positions and the Tigers should have a very strong offense.
Clemson will also be very strong on defense, returning most of a unit that held opponents to under 19 points per game. The defensive line will be led by junior Ricky Sapp, who had 5 sacks last fall. Look out for true freshman DE Da’Quan Bowers, rated by most services as one of the top three prospects in the nation, who could see the field extensively this year. Only senior Cortney Vincent was supposed to return at linebacker, but he was kicked off the team in the spring. Bowden has recruited the position well, so any drop off shouldn’t be too bad, but this is a big question mark for the Tigers. The biggest strength of the defense will be their secondary, which returns intact from last year! Senior safeties Chris Clemons and Michael Hamlin should be the backbone of an excellent pass defense. Clemson has one of the strongest defenses in the conference.
The divisional schedule does Clemson no favors, featuring away night games at rivals Florida State and Wake Forest. The Coastal foes for the Tigers are much easier opponents, drawing the bottom half of Georgia Tech, Duke, and Virginia. The Tigers also face a difficult out of conference schedule, opening in Atlanta against Alabama and finishing the year against bitter rival South Carolina. Overall, Clemson has a very good returning offense and an excellent defense. The Tigers’ only questions are at linebacker and the offensive line, but if that group can gel (and Clemson can avoid its yearly unfathomable loss) then Clemson could definitely find itself in the national title hunt. The Clemson Tigers are my pick to win the Atlantic division and are also my choice to win the ACC and represent the conference in the Orange Bowl.
Biggest Games: Aug. 30th vs. Alabama, Oct. 9th @ Wake, Nov. 8th @ FSU, Nov. 29th @ South Carolina
Florida State (Predicted Conference Record: 6-2)
How the mighty have fallen. Florida State’s run of 14 consecutive years finishing in the top 5 ended in 2002 and since then the Seminoles have slowly fallen into mediocrity. This, of course, coincided with Bobby Bowden’s quiet ascension to figurehead rather than head coach. The last two years, the Seminoles have finished a sad 7-6, a far cry from their glory days of the past. However, Bowden has consistently brought in top recruiting classes, so there is plenty of talent in Tallahassee. With the official designation of offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher as ‘Head Coach In Waiting’, perhaps the player development process will finally improve. Florida State returns 15 starters from last year and should be much improved.
On offense, much maligned senior quarterback Drew Weatherford returns for one last go at reclaiming Florida State’s past glory. Weatherford wasn’t nearly as bad as FSU fans would lead you to believe, throwing for over 2,000 years and a 3-1 TD to interception ratio last fall, so if he can stay healthy then Florida State might have solved its quarterback problems. The Seminoles also return their leading rusher; senior Antone Smith will look to become Florida State’s first 1,000 yard rusher since Warrick Dunn in 1996! The Seminoles also return senior Greg Carr, who averaged nearly 18 yards per catch in 2007. However, the big question for FSU will be their offensive line. The Seminoles are expected to start an offensive line composed entirely of sophomores and freshmen! To add insult to injury, expected starter Evan Bellamy (yet another sophomore) will miss the season. In short, Florida State’s skill position players are very strong, but they have to have the youngest offensive line in the entire country and the performance of that youthful group will completely define Florida State’s 2008 season.
On defense, the Seminoles are stacked. After last year’s unit struggled at times, this year’s group of starters is expected to be compromised entirely of upperclassmen. On the defensive line, junior DE Everette Brown is expected to improve upon his 6.5 sacks from last year and the line is very good overall. At linebacker, senior Derek Nicholson is expected to again lead the team in tackles after racking up 99 last season and will lead a talented veteran unit. Finally, the secondary is expected to be one of FSU’s best since the top 5 run ended. Junior Myron Rolle is expected to be a force at the safety position. Overall, Florida State should benefit from many of this year’s starters having played a lot the past two years and the Seminole defense should be one of the conference’s best units.
Florida State’s conference schedule is pretty tough, drawing rival Miami, Virginia Tech and a trip to Georgia Tech from the Coastal division. The Seminoles also get divisional rivals Clemson and Wake Forest at home, so the schedule sets up well to make a run at a division title. However, the Seminoles begin the year with suspension issues from last year’s academic scandal and as a result the first two games are against D-1AA opposition, which is shameful for such a big program. Overall, Florida State should have its strongest team since 2004, when they finished 9-3. The key to the entire season for the Seminoles will be the performance of their exceptionally inexperienced offensive line, which will have to grow up quickly for the ‘Noles to return to glory. In short, Florida State should be much improved from the last two years’ 7-6 results, but if their offensive linemen don’t play beyond their years, then a conference championship seems unlikely at best. I expect that a true return to glory is another year away.
Biggest Games: Sept. 20th vs. Wake, Oct. 4th @ Miami, Oct. 25th vs. Va. Tech, Nov. 8th vs. Clemson, Nov. 29th vs. Florida
Maryland (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)
The Maryland Terrapins survived a three game losing streak at midseason and rebounded to make a bowl game. The Terrapins’ anemic offense was the culprit during that stretch, but their defense also had their own struggles as well. The Terps return 12 starters from last year’s team and are looking to improve upon their 6-7 season of a year ago.
On offense, Maryland should finally have junior Florida transfer Josh Portis at quarterback. Portis, who missed all of last season due to academics, was a highly thought of prospect and was slated to start last season before his troubles. Portis’ top target will be junior Darius Heyward-Bey, who was Maryland’s lone threat at receiver last year. The Terrapins return four senior starters on their offensive line and should be one of the top lines in the entire ACC! While Maryland graduated both of their top rushers from last season, sophomores Da’Rel Scott and Morgan Green should find plenty of room to run. Overall, Maryland has all the pieces to have a dangerous offense and the Terrapins should be much improved from 2007.
On defense, Maryland will be led by senior Dave Philistin, who recorded over 120 tackles last year. Along with senior Moise Fokou, Maryland has a very strong linebacker group, despite losing last year’s star, Erin Henderson. On the defensive line, senior Jeremy Navarre should be a force a year after recording 5.5 sacks. In the secondary, senior cornerback Kevin Barnes returns as one of the ACC’s top cornerbacks and USC transfer Antwine Perez could be a possible difference-maker at safety. While Maryland doesn’t have a lot of returning starters, they have the personnel to compete on defense.
Maryland has a fairly tough conference slate, drawing Virginia Tech, North Carolina, and Virginia from the Coastal division. Furthermore, road games at Clemson and Va. Tech could prove to be too much for the Terrapins to handle. The Terps also face a particularly brutal stretch near the season’s end where they face Virginia Tech, North Carolina, and Florida State in consecutive weeks. The out of conference schedule’s biggest game features a visit from Pac Ten opponent Cal in early September. Overall, Maryland should be improved on offense and their defense should also be fairly strong. While it would be a surprise to see the Terps compete in the Atlantic division, especially with their tough schedule, the potential to keep themselves in the thick of things all year is certainly there. Watch out for the fighting turtles in 2008!
Wake Forest has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of Florida State and Miami’s downturn, winning 20 games the past two seasons and the 2006 ACC Title! Wake Forest has beaten FSU in two straight years for the first time in Demon Deacon history! However, with success comes the big question: Can they keep it up? Head coach Jim Grobe and his 14 returning starters are sure to do their best to continue the winning in 2008.
On offense, the biggest revelation for Wake Forest in 2006 was the emergence of Riley Skinner at quarterback. Skinner, who struggled with injuries last year, returns for his junior season with two years of starting experience and will only improve further this year. He will be backed up by sophomore tailback Josh Adams, who ran for 11 touchdowns as a freshman in 2007. Unfortunately, Wake Forest has a bit of a rebuilding job to do at wide receiver and on the offensive line. The O-Line returns only two starters from an underachieving group last year, so it would not be a huge surprise if the Demon Deacons got improved performance! Overall, Wake Forest should have a solid running game and a steady passing attack with Skinner at the helm.
On defense, Wake Forest will be very strong. Last year, the Demon Deacon defensive unit allowed just over 100 yards against per game on the ground and most of that group returns. Junior DT Boo Robinson is a force who will anchor a solid group along the line of scrimmage. At linebacker, Wake Forest is expected to start three seniors, led by Aaron Curry, who recorded nearly 100 tackles last year. Expect Wake to have one of the best linebacker units in the conference. In the secondary, senior safety Chip Vaughn led the team in tackles in 2007 and will be the leader of a pass defense unit which should again be tough against the pass. Senior Alphonso Smith is one of the top corners in the country, picking off 8 passes and scoring 3 defensive touchdowns a year ago. Wake Forest will have a very strong defense this fall.
Wake Forest has a moderately difficult conference schedule, including a conference opener at Florida State. The Demon Deacons also have to travel to play Miami, Maryland, and NC State this fall. The Demon Deacons have two off weeks built into their schedule, but the last 8 games will be played in consecutive weeks. Especially difficult seems to be the three week stretch at the beginning of that eight week run, where the Deacons face Clemson, then travel to Maryland and Miami. Overall, Wake Forest should be close to last year’s team in terms of overall talent, but they face an improved conference and a difficult schedule. It would not be a surprise to see the Demon Deacons take a step back this year, though a bowl game is still probably in the cards from Jim Grobe’s team.
The first year of the Tom O’Brien era didn’t go as hoped in Raleigh last fall, as the Wolfpack struggled to a 5-7 finish. NC State began the season with a 1-5 slide before picking it up down the stretch. O’Brien, the former BC head coach, is in position to make NC State relevant for the first time since Phillip Rivers graduated with a strong start in recruiting but it seems that relevancy is at least a year away. NC State returns only 10 starters from last year.
On offense, senior Daniel Evans will be expected to start at quarterback. However, true freshman Mike Glennon was a very highly rated QB recruit last year and he could push for playing time. NC State returns its top three rushers from last season and junior Donald Bowens should be the top receiver for the 2 nd straight year. However, the offensive line remains a question a year after the Wolfpack dropped to less than 90 rushing yards per game of production. O’Brien moved some defensive linemen over to the offensive side of the ball and the O-Line should be improved, but overall the NC State offense still has some growing to do.
The NC State defense also suffered a major regression last fall, allowing over 28 points per game. That’s a full touchdown more every week compared to 2006! On the defensive line, NC State returns junior Willie Young, who had 6 sacks last year and is expected to be the star of the defense. The secondary should also be solid as both starting cornerbacks return from last season. However, replacing DaJuan Morgan and his 120 tackles from the safety position won’t be easy. The biggest question on defense will be at linebacker, where all of last year’s starters will be gone and the replacements have very little experience. Overall, the Wolfpack defense should be improved, but there are still a lot of holes.
NC State draws Miami, Duke, and UNC from the Coastal division, which isn’t an easy task. Furthermore, road trips to Clemson and Maryland look daunting. However, the Wolfpack will benefit from a 4 game home stretch in the early going, but that stretch is slightly offset by a three week run later on in the season in which the Wolfpack faces off against all three of their in-state rivals! NC State is an improved team, especially on offense, but it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll achieve bowl eligibility, especially when considering the non-conference schedule includes likely top 25 teams South Carolina and South Florida. O’Brien will get the Wolfpack turned around, but that turnaround is at least a year away.
Boston College had one of the best seasons in school history in 2007. Led by star senior quarterback Matt Ryan, the Eagles won the Atlantic division and finished the season with an 11-3 record. However, Matt Ryan is gone and so is much of BC’s defense from a year ago. Head coach Jeff Jagodzinski will have a tough job coming close to last season’s great run. With only 10 starters returning, it won’t be easy.
Boston College has a couple of quarterbacks competing for the starting position, but with Ryan starting four seasons, there is little to no game experience among any of the candidates! Also gone is any player who recorded a positive rushing yard in 2007! Expect true freshman tailback Josh Haden, who impressed while enrolling early, to take the majority of carries this fall. On the plus side for BC, the top two receivers from last season return; Senior Brandon Robinson and junior Rich Gunnell are both solid targets who should make the new QB transition slightly easier. The offensive line returns three starters from last season and should be a much stronger unit than the group that led the way for less than 100 yards a game on the ground in 2007. At most positions, BC’s offense should actually be better, but the loss of Matt Ryan is far too much for them to overcome to come even close to last season’s output.
The Eagle defense will receive a giant boost with the return of part time linebacker, part time goal line tailback and part time campus cult hero Brian Toal, who missed all of last season due to injury. Toal was a force one the field before his injury and should be a mainstay for the defense. On the line of scrimmage, junior defensive end Alex Albright had 8.5 sacks last year and he should anchor a decent group at the point of attack. The secondary will be significantly weaker due to losing star safety Jamie Silva to graduation. Silva was as important to last year’s defense as Ryan was to the offense. Overall, the return of Brian Toal will be a huge addition for BC, but the defense will be no better against the pass than they were last season and the Eagles should be a middle of the conference pack group.
The schedule is definitely manageable for BC and it wouldn’t be a stunner if the Eagles opened up the year 5-0. However, the final seven games are played in consecutive weeks and the first 5 games are at home against Virginia Tech, Clemson, and Notre Dame and on the road at North Carolina and Florida State. That’s a tough stretch. Their offense should be deeper than last year, but there is a gaping hole at quarterback. The defense will be slightly improved thanks to the return of Toal, but the pass defense is a huge question mark. By far the biggest difference this year will be the fact that Matt Ryan is now in the NFL. Ryan was the difference maker in at least five games last year and without him, BC doesn’t come close to their 11 wins last season. Expect BC to take a big step back this fall as they learn to deal with life without Matt Ryan.
Biggest Games: Sept. 6th vs. Georgia Tech, Nov. 18th vs. Virginia Tech, Nov. 8th vs. Notre Dame, Nov. 15th @ FSU
ACC COASTAL DIVISION
Virginia Tech (Predicted Conference Record: 7-1)
The unquestioned star of the ACC since expansion has been the least heralded of the new arrivals, the Virginia Tech Hokies. Since 2004, Virginia Tech has won 2 ACC titles and played in another title game. The Hokies have also finished in the top 10 in three of the last four years and the Hokies are the only team in the ACC to finish in the top 10(2005 & 2007) since expansion. Last year the Hokies defeated BC in the ACC title game and earned a spot in the Orange Bowl en route to an 11-3 finish. Head coach Frank Beamer enters his 22 nd season in Blacksburg with ten returning starters and the Hokies look to be one of the conference’s best teams again.
On offense, Virginia Tech has two capable quarterbacks in senior Sean Glennon and sophomore Tyrod Taylor, who both saw action last year. Glennon is expected to see the majority of the snaps this fall, but Taylor has a ton of potential and the true sophomore should improve in his second season in Blacksburg. Holding down the fort in front of them will be one of the top offensive lines in college football, with four starters returning. The strength of the offensive line should help kick start the running game, which kicked last year’s leading rusher off the team in the spring and the expected replacement was injured as well. Thus, Virginia Tech will be replacing its top two tailbacks and its top four receivers this fall. Though the skill positions are a question mark, Beamer recruits very well and the strength at QB and on the line of scrimmage should allow Virginia Tech to again be a very solid offense.
Last year’s defense was a solid unit for the Hokies, allowing just over 16 points per game. However, that’s actually a step down from the year before, when the defense allowed a mere 11 points per game! For the Hokies to avoid another step back, their defense will need to replace some of their top players from last season. The biggest name on the defense is senior cornerback Macho Harris, who had five picks last year and actually declared for the NFL draft before withdrawing his name. Junior safety Kam Chancellor is also a star and will help the secondary remain an impressive unit despite the loss of star cornerback Brandon Flowers. The defensive line is a question for the Hokies, returning only senior DE Orion Martin and his 6.5 sacks from last year. The defensive line should still be a good unit, but it may be difficult to hold opponents under 100 rushing yards per game for the 4 th straight year. Martin’s brother Cam also returns at the linebacker position and will be counted on to offset the loss of stars Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi. However, there is great depth so the loss of two star linebackers shouldn’t be a huge impact. Overall, Virginia Tech has a lot of unknowns on defense, but there is a bunch of talent and a few key returning starters should help shepherd this defense towards the top of the conference.
The Hokies have a moderately tough conference draw, hosting Maryland and traveling to face Boston College and Florida State. The Hokies also face divisional rivals Miami and North Carolina on the road, so they face a pretty tough slate away from home. However, the Hokies’ two bye weeks are built well into their schedule, so the toughest stretch seems to be back to back games at BC and Florida State sandwiched between bye weeks. The Hokies also face a tough non-conference game in late September, traveling to Lincoln to face the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Overall, Virginia Tech has a lot of gaps to fill, especially on defense. However, they return a lot of talent and Frank Beamer has recruited well. Virginia Tech’s combination of good experience and talent makes the Hokies the odds-on favorite to win the ACC Coastal division.
It was three short years ago that Miami entered the Peach Bowl ranked #9 in the country, less than three years removed from an overtime loss in the National Title Game. All seemed well for one of the new ACC’s flagship programs. Then, Miami lost in spectacular fashion (40-3!) to LSU and it has been all downhill since then. Last year, new coach Randy Shannon struggled in his first season as the Hurricanes fell to a 5-7 record, including an embarrassing 48-0 loss in the last game in the Orange Bowl with dozens of former Hurricane greats watching. However, Shannon was Mr. February, finishing with the highest rated recruiting class this past year. Furthermore, Miami returns 11 starters from last year’s team and will be looking to have plenty of success in their first year in Dolphins Stadium.
The Miami offense will play two quarterbacks this year, at least in the early going. Freshmen Robert Marve and Jacory Harris are expected to split time and both were highly touted recruits the last two years. Marve has the slight edge since he spent last year as a redshirt, but the competition is wide open. Miami has the foundations of a good running game in junior Javaris James and sophomore Graig Cooper, both of which had plenty of carries last year. Miami will have to replace both guards and their starting center on the O-Line, but last year’s unit performed well below expectations and the new starters, led by Shannon’s son Xavier at center, should be a big improvement. While Miami has to replace most of its receivers from last year as well, the Hurricane offensive attack should be much improved from the last two seasons’ dismal performances.
Miami’s biggest strength in its glory days was the caliber of their defense. Last year’s group allowed over 11 points more per game than the previous season and more than a touchdown more than their previous high for the decade, so improvement is a must. Miami lost a lot of production from their defensive line, including 19 sacks from departed players! However, the Hurricanes were very poor against the run last year, so senior DE Eric Montour will have to be a stalwart this year at the point of attack. Miami has a ton of talent to fill in along the line, so the defensive line should improve from last year. Junior Colin McCarthy is the top returning tackler from last year’s group and there are a ton of young talented linebackers looking to win playing time. The secondary should also be strong as the starting cornerbacks return. Expect Miami to be much improved against the pass. Overall, Miami’s defense should be significantly better this fall and the Canes could see a lot of young players earn significant playing time.
Miami has a fair conference draw, drawing traditional rival Florida State and Wake Forest from the Atlantic division, though both games are in Miami. In fact, the Canes’ most difficult conference games are all at home this fall, so the schedule sets up for Miami to win a lot of games. Nemesis Florida is back on the non-conference schedule this fall as well, as is rising power UCF. Overall, Miami should be a much better team than last year, improved on both offense and defense. However, the Canes have enough questions in the passing game and in terms of general youth that a conference championship run is likely a year away. However, if things break right and the large youthful contingent can play with some consistency, a nine win season is not out of the question this fall in Coral Gables.
Biggest Games: Sept. 6th @ Florida, Sept. 27th vs. UNC, Oct. 4th vs. FSU, Oct. 25th vs. Wake, Nov. 13th vs. Virginia Tech
North Carolina (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)
Much like Miami, North Carolina struggled under their new head coach last year. In fact, UNC and Miami are going to be tied together for a very long time, since the new UNC head man is none other than former Canes coach Butch Davis, who assembled much of the talent that led to the Canes’ successful run around the turn of the century. Davis, whose first year’s highlight was clearly an upset victory over the Hurricanes, will be looking to continue growing the Tar Heel program a year after finishing 4-8. To that end, North Carolina returns a whopping 18 starters and should be a much better team than they were in 2007.
At quarterback, sophomore TJ Yates returns a year after throwing for over 2,600 yards, 14 TDs, and 18 interceptions. However, Yates will be pushed by freshman Mike Paulus, who redshirted last year and was the gem of Davis’ first recruiting class. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will have all of last year’s top receivers back, led by junior Hakeem Nicks, who caught 74 passes and 5 TDs last fall. The Tar Heels return a veteran offensive line that features four starters from last year, all of whom are now upperclassmen. The line’s improvement bodes well for sophomore Greg Little, who is expected to take on much of the rushing load after last year’s starter, sophomore Johnny White, moved to cornerback. North Carolina’s offense improved slightly in Davis’ first year and despite the quarterback controversy, they seem to be in for yet another step forwards this fall.
North Carolina also returns a ton of players from last year’s much improved defense, but the losses include last year’s top 2 tacklers and last year’s leading pass rusher. The defensive line should be strong, despite losing two NFL draft picks. Returning to lead the line will be junior EJ Wilson and sophomore Marvin Austin, both of whom impressed in extended action last fall. They should be the anchors of a solid group. At linebacker, sophomore Quan Sturdivant has all the making of a future star and played extensively as a true freshman. Look for Sturdivant to have a big season leading a very solid linebacker group. North Carolina will also have a very solid secondary, returning all four starters from last season! Though the secondary was good in 2007, three of the returning starters were playing as freshman last year and look to take a big step forward in their sophomore years. Overall, North Carolina has a young but talented defense. It would not be a surprise to see this group improve a great deal from last year and become one of the ACC’s best units.
North Carolina also has a great conference draw, avoiding Clemson, Wake Forest, and Florida State from the Atlantic division! The Tar Heels also host Virginia Tech in divisional play, so their schedule sets up well for a big improvement this year. Out of conference play features an early season matchup with Rutgers and a midseason visit from Notre Dame. Unfortunately for the young Tar Heels, their season begins with a tough stretch, beginning with the trip to Rutgers. That game is followed by back to back games against Virginia Tech and Miami, so UNC had better grow up quickly if the Tar Heels are going to compete in the Coastal division this fall. North Carolina has a very solid base of talent to build on in Butch Davis’ second season at the helm. However, this is a very young team and while they will be much improved, a division title is probably too much to ask of them this year. Look for a solid season in 2008, but 2009 will be the year that UNC will become a true contender for the conference title.
Biggest Games: Sept. 20th vs. Virginia Tech, Sept. 27th @ Miami, Oct. 11th vs. Notre Dame, Nov. 29th @ Duke
Georgia Tech (Predicted Conference Record: 3-5)
Georgia Tech will be one of two Coastal division teams welcoming a new head coach this fall. After six years of slightly above average play under former head coach Chan Gailey, Tech shifts to former Navy boss Paul Johnson, who brings his unique form of the triple option with him to Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets finished Gailey’s last season with a final mark of 7-6, a disappointment a year after winning the Coastal division. Only 9 starters return from last year’s team and there are expected to be growing pains during the transition back to a much more run-heavy attack.
Georgia Tech’s new system is expected to be turned over to mobile sophomore quarterback Josh Nesbitt, who ran for over 300 yards last year as a freshman. He should double or triple that total this year in the new offense. Sophomore Jonathan Dwyer should have a lot of carries and last year’s top receiver, junior Greg Smith, was also moved to a running role as well. The best news for Tech is that this transition will take place behind one of the ACC’s better offensive lines, which returns three starters from last year’s group. Another advantage that the Tech offense will enjoy is the uniqueness of the system that they run; since the option offense has long since gone out of vogue in college football it wouldn’t be a surprise to see teams have trouble defending against it. The Yellow Jackets will struggle at times, but this remains an offense capable of scoring a lot of points.
Georgia Tech had a decent defense last fall, but the strength of that defense returns this year in the form of one of the best defensive lines in the conference. Defensive tackle Vance Walker had 8.5 sacks last year and is one of the best in the country at his position. He pairs with fellow senior Darryl Richard to form the ACC’s best DT tandem. At linebacker, the Yellow Jackets have to replace their top two tacklers and their expected replacements are both sophomores. In the secondary, another large group of sophomores is expected to have the opportunity to play, making the back seven one of the youngest in the conference. Overall, the Tech defense will benefit greatly from a very solid defensive line, but there could be some growing pains on the back end.
Georgia Tech has a tough conference draw, earning Clemson and Florida State out of the Atlantic division. However, the Yellow Jackets do welcome Florida State and Miami to Bobby Dodd Stadium, so perhaps some home cooking will help spawn an upset. The Yellow Jackets also face two SEC schools in the non-conference slate; Mississippi State comes to town in September and Tech makes the trip to Athens at the end of the year to face traditional rival Georgia. Overall, the cupboard is not bare in Paul Johnson’s first year. However, the rest of the conference is improving and the Yellow Jackets are a very young team learning a new system. While it wouldn’t surprise me to see this team bowl eligible, it is a better bet to expect Tech’s eleven year bowl streak to end this fall. But Paul Johnson will make Georgia Tech a contender in a relatively quick amount of time. He was an excellent hire and already is recruiting well.
Biggest Games: Sept. 6th @ BC, Oct. 25th vs. Virginia, Nov. 1st vs. FSU, Nov. 20th vs. Miami, Nov. 29th @ Georgia
Duke (Predicted Conference Record: 2-6)
The Blue Devils are the second ACC Coastal team breaking in a new coach. Former Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe, who was fired in 2004 in one of the more mind-boggling decisions made in the zaniness that is the college football coaching carousel, comes to Durham to try and raise Duke above laughingstock status for the first time since Steve Spurrier was head coach nearly 20 years ago. Duke won only one game last year and has only beaten two D-1A teams in the last four years! However, 17 starters return for Cutcliffe’s inaugural year and Duke should find itself in position to win a few games this fall.
On offense, junior quarterback Thaddeus Lewis quietly had a very good season, tossing 21 TD passes against only ten picks. With Cutcliffe’s reputation as a quarterback guru (see: Manning, Peyton and/or Manning, Eli) it isn’t unreasonable to expect Lewis to improve further this year. It also helps that senior wide receiver Eron Riley returns after catch 9 TDs in 2007. Duke’s offensive line returns 3 starters from last year, but the offense only averaged 64 yards rushing per game in 2007, so the line needs to improve if the Blue Devils are going to take a step in the right direction. Senior Re’quan Boyette is going to get the first crack at establishing a running game after carrying the ball over a hundred times last year. Overall, Duke’s offense should improve in Cutcliffe’s first year, but a lot depends on the play of the offensive line.
Duke stunk on defense last year, allowing over 33 points per game! Luckily, the Blue Devils return their entire front seven on defense, so hopefully they will cut down on the 180 yards per game rushing that they allowed last fall. Look for junior linebackers Vincent Rey and Mike Tauilili to help lead the way. Duke’s pass defense was equally bad last year, allowing nearly 250 passing years per game! However, most of the secondary returns and it is reasonable to expect that an extra year of experience will only help the Blue Devils.
Duke’s conference schedule is fairly tough, drawing road games at Clemson and Wake Forest from the Atlantic division. However, the Blue Devils find themselves with three winnable games at home; NC State, Virginia, and rival North Carolina all come to Durham this fall. The non-conference schedule features visits from Navy and Northwestern, teams that Duke should have a shot at beating. Overall, Duke should be much improved from last year. Cutcliffe inherits a senior-laden team with a decent amount of talent and a favorable schedule. While the Blue Devils certainly won’t compete in the ACC, it is perfectly possible for Duke to end up with four or five wins this fall, which would match or exceed their win total from the last four years! David Cutcliffe did a fantastic job when coaching Ole Miss, turning the program around and taking the Rebels to bowl games. Expect the same from him in the future at Duke.
Biggest Games: Sept. 13th vs. Navy, Sept. 27th vs. Virginia, Nov. 8th vs. NC State, Nov. 29th vs. UNC
Virginia (Predicted Conference Record: 1-7)
The Cavaliers had one of the best seasons in school history last year, but their 2007 season was also fraught with disappointment. Despite their 9-4 finish, Virginia began the year with a terrible loss at Wyoming and finished the year by blowing a sizeable lead late in the Gator Bowl after losing the regular season finale to rival Virginia Tech with a berth in the ACC title game on the line. Since the season ended, the Cavaliers have had five players arrested and five more have been thrown off the team for academic failures, including starting quarterback Jameel Sewell. Head coach Al Groh began last year on the hot seat and if he can’t get past the troubles that have plagued his team this offseason, then he could find himself right back on it again. Groh’s Cavaliers return 11 starters from last year’s team and could be in for a very disappointing year.
On offense, the Cavaliers were not a strong team in 2007, but their 24 points per game marked a TEN point improvement from 2006! This fall, the quarterback position is expected to be manned by sophomore Peter Lalich, who played a fair amount as a true freshman last year. Joining Lalich in the backfield will be Virginia’s tailback duo of senior Cedric Peerman and junior Mikell Simpson, both of whom had exactly the same number of carries last fall. Simpson is also a very good pass receiver, leading the 2007 team in catches. They will be running behind a decent O-Line which only returns two starters after losing three multi-year starters. However, senior tackle Eugene Monroe is one of the best in the country at his position. At wide receiver, Lalich will have to find a rhythm with a largely unproven group of starters, led by senior Maurice Covington. Overall, Virginia’s best chance to be a solid offense will be to hope that Lalich develops further and the new starters on the offensive line can protect him up the middle. The wide receivers will need to step up as well. Virginia’s offense looks weaker than last year’s average group, so don’t be surprised if the Cavalier offense takes a step back in 2008.
The biggest reason that Virginia won nine games last year was their solid defense, which allowed a shade over 100 yards rushing per game last year. However, that defense was anchored by All-American Chris Long, who has since graduated. In fact, the entire defensive line will be comprised of new starters! What was a strength last year is now a huge question mark for the Cavaliers. Luckily, the linebackers look a lot more promising, as the entire group of starters returns, led by senior Clint Sintim, who recorded nine sacks last fall! The linebackers will unquestionably be the defense’s strength. The secondary is fairly inexperienced, but Virginia’s pass defense was no better than average last year so there shouldn’t be a big drop off. Senior safety Byron Glaspy will be a solid defender against both the pass and run for the Cavs this fall. Virginia’s defense will not be nearly as good as last year’s group, owing largely to the departure of the entire starting defensive line. However, the back seven should be fairly decent and Virginia shouldn’t get blown out in many games, at least.
The Cavs have a pretty touch conference schedule, drawing Clemson, Wake Forest, and Maryland from the Atlantic division. Road trips to Wake, Georgia Tech and rival Virginia Tech are also daunting. The only bright side is that five of the first seven games are at home. The Cavs also have a difficult non-conference schedule, playing powerhouse USC in Charlottesville and traveling to play defending Big East co-Champ UConn. Virginia has been a program in disarray since the end of 2007 and the dismissal of Jameel Sewell will hurt them a lot. Already racked by graduation losses, Virginia has showed all the signs of a team in trouble and the inexperience at quarterback, interior offensive line, wide receiver, and the defensive line will hurt a lot. Virginia’s great 2007 will be quickly forgotten as 2008 should be a very tough season for the Cavaliers and they’ll be lucky to win four games.
Biggest Games: Aug. 30th vs. USC, Oct. 25th @ Georgia Tech, Nov. 8th @ Wake Forest, Nov. 22nd vs. Clemson, Nov. 29th @ Virginia Tech
The Bottom Line for the ACC in 2008
The ACC is growing, albeit in baby steps. The conference currently still lags behind the rest of the BCS conferences, aside from the Big East, mostly due to the continued slumber of Miami and Florida State. Who would have thought that Virginia Tech, not Miami, would be the biggest addition back in 2005? The Hokies look to be the class of their division again and should be one of the nation’s top teams. However, Miami and North Carolina are improving teams and could surprise. In the Atlantic, Clemson is by far the favorite, but can they finally shed their label as choke artists and play for the conference title? In my opinion, this is the year, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Florida State or Maryland surprises the Tigers and plays for the conference title. However, it is my prediction that Clemson will defeat Virginia Tech to win the ACC Title and represent the conference in the Orange Bowl.
Matt Baxendell is collegesports-fans.com’s newest staff writer. If you’d like to join his college football therapy group, email him at matt.baxendell @ gmail.com with all your questions, comments, and anything else you would like to share.