2009 Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Football Preview

What a great basketball conference. That’s usually the first thought that springs into most people’s heads when the ACC comes up in discussion. After all, who can blame them? North Carolina, Duke, NC State, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech are all hugely successful on the hardcourt and the expansion to 12 teams in 2005 hasn’t had the expected effect on the conference’s football teams. Miami and Florida State, expected to be the superpowers of the conference, have both fallen on hard times recently and the most successful teams since the merger have been new friends Boston College and Virginia Tech. Needless to say, the ACC needs FSU or Miami to return to prominence because the league hasn’t had a true contender for the National Title in three of the past four years.



2008 was not a strong season for the Atlantic Coast Conference. Preseason favorite Clemson, who debuted in the top ten and was expected to be the league’s national title hope, was destroyed on the season’s opening day before falling into a tailspin that got their head coach fired at midseason and no team in the conference had a better league record than 5-3 at the end of the year. Defending divisional champions Boston College and Virginia Tech met for the second consecutive year in the ACC Title Game after both won tiebreakers to claim their respective divisions and once more the Hokies blew the Eagles out to win the ACC Title, their 3rd in 5 years in the conference. Virginia Tech was the conference’s highest ranked team at #21 in the country entering bowl season and their Orange Bowl victory over #12 Cincinnati was the ACC’s first BCS bowl victory since 2000! A solid bowl season lifted three ACC teams into the final rankings.

This fall could produce major improvement in ACC territory. Seven teams return 14 or more starters and the Coastal Division looks to be one of the toughest in the nation with four teams that could begin the season in the top 25! Meanwhile, the Atlantic doesn’t seem to boast a single elite team but it is equally up for grabs as there are at least four teams with a legitimate shot at making the conference title game. After many teams featured a lot of youngsters last fall, hopes are high that the ACC will have a few teams involved in the National Title chase this season. 2009 could be the conference’s strongest year since expansion.

 

EXPECTED ORDER OF FINISH

COASTAL: 1) Virginia Tech Hokies 2) North Carolina Tar Heels 3) Miami Hurricanes 4) Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 5) Virginia Cavaliers

6) Duke Blue Devils

ATLANTIC : 1) NC State Wolfpack 2) Clemson Tigers 3) Florida State Seminoles 4) Wake Forest Demon Deacons 5) Boston College Golden Eagles

6) Maryland Terrapins

 


COASTAL DIVISION

  • Virginia Tech Hokies (Predicted Conference Record: 7-1)

The Hokies had an up and down year in 2008, beginning with a season-opening upset loss to East Carolina, which dropped them out of the rankings. Losses in three straight road games at midseason appeared to end Tech’s chances at back to back conference titles but wins in their final two conference games and chaos across the league vaulted them back into the ACC Title Game, where they defeated BC. Their Orange Bowl win improved their final record to 10-4, their 5th straight ten win season! In five years in ACC play, the Hokies have 3 championships and another championship game loss, making them by far the conference’s best team since expansion. With sixteen starters back this year, can head coach Frank Beamer’s team win three straight league titles?

The Virginia Tech offense will be led by junior quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who ran for over 700 yards and 7 touchdowns while passing for over 1,000 yards in split duties last fall. Taylor’s skill set is very similar to the school’s greatest player, Michael Vick, and this fall will be his first season fully in charge after splitting time the last two years. If Taylor can remain healthy, he could be a very dangerous quarterback as his top six pass catchers from 2008 return. He will also be aided by a strong running game, led by sophomore Darren Evans, who ran for 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, good enough to be named a 2nd team All-ACC performer. Evans didn’t take over as the full time starter at tailback until the season was a few games old so his numbers could be even better this fall! The Hokie offensive line is a veteran group that brings back three starters, led by senior guard Sergio Render, who will start for the 4 th straight year. This should be one of the conference’s better lines in 2008. Overall, Taylor has yet to really capitalize on his enormous potential and I think that this is the year that he lives up to his recruiting hype. We all know that he is enormously gifted running the football but he needs to develop a passing game. After injuries and ineffectiveness limited Tech to 22 points per game last year, I expect a much better passing attack mixed with a powerful running game to produce a very strong offensive showing in 2009.

Want to know the secret to the Hokies’ three ACC titles? Their defense hasn’t allowed more than 16 points per game in a single season since joining the conference! That trend could easily continue this fall as Tech returns seven starters from last season’s stellar defense. The really interesting fact was that Tech allowed opponents to average over 100 yards per game on the ground for the first time in five years last fall. However, I expect that to change this year as three starters return on the front line, led by junior 2nd team All-ACC defensive end John Worilds, who contributed 62 tackles and 8 sacks last year. The Hokies should have one of the conference’s best defensive lines in 2008, especially if they replace departed Orion Martin’s 7.5 sacks from last season. The linebackers also appear quite solid as seniors Cam Martin and Cody Grimm return after combining for 122 tackles and 9.5 sacks in 2008. Expect both to anchor a very good group that shouldn’t see any drop off. The secondary is also very experienced with three returning senior starters! Despite losing 2nd team All-American Macho Harris to the NFL draft, this could be a fantastic secondary. Cornerback Stephan Virgil had 6 interceptions last year and safety Cam Chancellor is a big time playmaker, so the Hokies will be very tough against the pass. Virginia Tech has fielded the conference’s toughest defense to score on in each of the past five seasons and I see no reason for that to change this fall. This will continue to be the conference’s best defense.

The schedule is a very competitive slate, beginning with the biggest game during the season’s opening weekend as the Hokies travel to Atlanta to face Alabama. The non-conference also includes a home date with Nebraska and a revenge game at East Carolina, so the Hokies will be challenged. However, the conference draw is pretty favorable, featuring a visit to middling Maryland and visits from decimated Boston College and contender NC State. The Hokies also open with four home games and another at a neutral site in the first six weeks, so they’re in good position to start the year strong. If they emerge from September 4-0 after playing Bama, Nebraska and Miami, no one will doubt their credentials as a top 5 team in the country. They host two of the three other major contenders for the division title and their road schedule of Duke, Maryland, Virginia and Georgia Tech should produce no worse than a 3-1 record. Virginia Tech will have a very strong running game and a great defense like usual but the difference this season is that Tyrod Taylor appears primed for a breakout season. If Taylor can begin to capitalize upon his enormous potential, the Hokies are the favorite in the ACC and will be an instant contender for the National Title if they beat Alabama to kick off the year.

Biggest Games: Sept. 5th vs. Alabama, Sept. 19th vs. Nebraska, Sept. 26th vs. Miami, Oct. 17th @ Georgia Tech, Oct. 29th vs. UNC, Nov. 21st, vs. NC State, Nov. 28th vs. UVA

 

 

  • North Carolina Tar Heels (Predicted Conference Record: 6-2)

North Carolina’s hiring of Butch Davis three years ago could turn out to be the best decision in the history of their football program. Davis, the architect of the most recent Miami dynasty, took over a team that had gone 3-9 the year before his arrival and turned it into an 8-5 contender in only two years! Furthermore, Davis has been one of the country’s best recruiters and the Heels are stacked with young talent. This fall there are fifteen starters back as Davis’ top recruits are beginning to see the field and North Carolina is a serious contender for the ACC Coastal division title.

The offense will be in the very capable hands of junior T.J. Yates, who missed half of last season due to injury but still threw for 1,168 yards and 11 touchdowns against only 4 interceptions. In fact, North Carolina was leading against Virginia Tech in the second half when Yates was injured but couldn’t hold on without him, a loss which would eventually cost the Heels a berth in the ACC Title Game. Yates will be backed up by a strong running game, led by juniors Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston, who combined for over 1,300 yards and 11 touchdowns last fall. They’ll run behind an experienced offensive line that returns three starters and Davis’ recruiting should begin to pay off in the trenches. I expect UNC to improve upon last season’s decent rushing totals. The only question on offense is at receiver, where four players, including last year’s starting tight end, were selected in the NFL draft! However, junior Greg Little impressed in limited action at receiver after making a mid-season switch from tailback and he could be a major breakout performer. Falling back to the recruiting theme, Davis has a ton of highly rated receivers ready to step in, so I expect that UNC will once more have a solid passing game though there will certainly be a lot less star power. Overall, the Tar Heels averaged just less than 28 points per game last fall despite losing their starting quarterback for half of the season. With a full year in charge, I expect Yates to guide the Heels to Davis’ best offense yet.

The defense looks even more promising. Nine starters are back from 2008, including four of the top five tacklers. Everything starts up front, where junior tackle Marvin Austin is the headliner of a group that returns everyone from last fall, including the backups! While the starters only combined for 5 sacks last season, I expect this talented unit to become much more dangerous in pressuring the quarterback while anchoring a strong run defense. At linebacker, junior Quan Sturdivant was a 2nd team All-ACC choice last year after racking up 122 tackles, 2 sacks and 2 picks! He should be the star of a solid group which should be strong in all facets of the game. Expect UNC to field a great run defense this season. The secondary should also easily carry their weight despite losing 1 st team All-ACC safety Trimane Goddard, who led the league with 7 picks in 2008. The other three starters are back and they combined for seven picks in 2008 while making a lot of tackles. While they do need to cut down the opposition’s completion percentage and did struggle at times last season, I expect this group of rising juniors to be a much improved unit. Overall, the Heels look like they will be improved in all facets, stronger against both the pass and run. After finishing in the bottom half of the league in points allowed in 2008, North Carolina should rocket up the rankings this fall and field one of the ACC’s best defenses.

The schedule is also fairly navigable, featuring seven home games. The non-conference schedule is highlighted by a trip to Connecticut and a visit from East Carolina, two games that UNC will be favored in, and a 4-0 record outside of the ACC is a strong possibility. In conference, their opener at Georgia Tech will be very telling but the toughest stretch of the year will be later in the year when they play Florida State, Virginia Tech (in Blacksburg on a Thursday night, which is usually death for Hokie opponents) and Miami in a four week span. Their draw from the Atlantic Division is also fairly tough as they have to travel to defending champ Boston College and improved NC State to close the year on top of the FSU game. However, aside from one difficult stretch, the schedule is set up enough for North Carolina to have a great record. With a settled quarterback position and an improved defense, North Carolina could legitimately contend for the ACC Championship in Davis’ third season and a ten win season is a strong possibility.

Biggest Games: Sept. 26th @ Georgia Tech, Oct. 2nd vs. FSU, Oct. 9th @ Virginia Tech, Nov. 14th vs. Miami, Nov. 28th @ NC State

 

  • Miami Hurricanes (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)

Last season was the third consecutive year in which the Hurricanes couldn’t muster a winning conference record. However, their 7-6 finish marked a two game improvement for head coach Randy Shannon in his second year and his excellent recruiting classes are beginning to bear fruit. Miami was a competitor for the division title last season but losses in their final two games knocked the Hurricanes out of the title chase. This fall there are sixteen starters back after Miami played the 2nd highest number of freshmen in the country last fall. Will last season’s baptism by fire provide the experience needed to compete for the conference title?

Things begin on offense with sophomore quarterback Jacory Harris, who was solid in throwing for 12 touchdowns against seven picks as a true freshman. Harris, who split time last fall with the since-departed Robert Marve, is an athletic quarterback who also ran for two touchdowns in 2008 and going through the offseason program and spring practice for the first time should help him immensely. Another big benefit is the return of his entire receiving corps, in which four of the top five are also sophomores who played as true freshman last season! Expect this talented group to improve by leaps and bounds along with their quarterback in their second season of college ball. The running game is a bit more veteran, led by junior Graig Cooper, who ran for 841 yards and 4 touchdowns last season while contributing 29 receptions. With an improved offensive line, his numbers should increase this fall. Speaking of the big men up front, Shannon’s first two teams started a lot of young players on the O-Line, traditionally the most difficult place for underclassmen to successfully start. This season, the Canes should start all upperclassmen and I think that Cooper will have a lot more space to run. Miami only averaged 27 points per game last fall and with nine starters back from last season, most of whom were freshmen or sophomores, I will be surprised if there isn’t strong improvement.

The defense also looks very good as seven starters return. While the Canes surprisingly fielded one of the league’s worst defenses last fall, allowing over 24 points per game, nine freshmen saw significant action in 2008! The Canes were especially hurt on the ground last year, allowing over 150 rush yards per contest, but they should be much better this season. Sophomore linemen Marcus Robinson and Marcus Forston were both Freshmen All-Americans and combined for 60 tackles and 7 sacks last fall! That’s awesome production from true freshmen and both should be much better this season. Factor in junior tackle Allen Bailey’s 5 sacks and a plethora of super-talented young players with a year’s experience and I expect Miami’s line to be downright nasty this year. The linebackers look great as well, led by sophomore Sean Spence, whose 82 tackles, 2 sacks and an interception were enough to garner him ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors. Playing behind an improved line will only help this talented group’s production and they should be among the best in the conference. Miami built its reputation by producing endless lines of talented defensive backs but this year’s crop looks to be a year away from re-establishing the ‘swagger’ of their forbearers. Sophomore cornerback Brandon Harris looks to be a future superstar but he is the only returning defensive back who had an interception in 2008! While there is definitely a ton of talent on hand, the young players in the secondary (outside of Harris) don’t have very much experience and they’ll be counted on early to withstand the country’s toughest opening stretch. While this should be one of the league’s better secondaries by the end of the year, there will be some growing pains early. Despite my worries about the pass defense, Miami’s front seven should be downright vicious this year and the Hurricanes will be much improved on defense. This is one of the conference’s toughest units.

So, about that opening schedule that I just mentioned. Miami opens up the season at archrival Florida State on the Monday after Labor Day, renewing a tradition that had been on hiatus the past two seasons. After an off week, they face Georgia Tech at home, followed by a trip to Virginia Tech and then are visited by mighty Oklahoma! That means that Miami’s first four opponents are virtually assured to be ranked and they begin the season with three of the conference’s toughest teams! The Hurricanes could play great football and still start the year 1-3 or 0-4 against the toughest opening stretch that any team in America will play in 2008. Their draw from the Atlantic is also very tough, featuring trips to FSU and Wake Forest and a home date with Clemson. All three of those teams are expected to be competitors in their division. Finally, the non-conference schedule includes trips to Central Florida and South Florida on top of the visit from OU and both schools will be looking to prove that they’re among Florida’s football elite by beating the traditionally more powerful Canes. Talk about a tough schedule! Miami is definitely going to be a much better team on both sides of the football but I don’t think that they’ll be a competitor for the division title based purely on their very difficult slate, especially early in the year. While I don’ t think that ‘Da U’ is back quite yet, they could definitely win eight or nine games this season in spite of the gauntlet ahead of them and their still youthful squad should continue to get better. Watch out in 2010 because this team could be a player in the National Title chase.

Biggest Games: Sept. 7th @ FSU, Sept. 17th @ Georgia Tech, Sept. 26th vs. Virginia Tech, Oct. 3rd vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 24th vs. Clemson, Oct. 31st @ Wake Forest, Nov. 14th @ UNC, Nov. 28th @ South Florida

 

 

  • Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)

That’s right, I have a team that went 9-4 last year with 18 returning starters predicted to go 5-3 in conference play and finish 4th in the division! That’s how strong the ACC Coastal is this fall! Head coach Paul Johnson’s innovative offense led a major turnaround for the Jackets in 2008, including their first victory over archrival Georgia since 2001. Tech averaged nearly 275 rush yards per game and finished with an identical record to division champion Virginia Tech. However, the Jackets were blown out in their bowl game against LSU, who had a month to prepare for Johnson’s version of the option. Was last year a fluke because of their uncommon offense or does Georgia Tech have staying power as a contender in the ACC?

The big story last fall was how dominant Georgia Tech’s running game was in Johnson’s first year. Granted, it definitely caught teams off guard but as the season went on the Jackets became almost too one dimensional, finishing with a measly 65 passing yards in their final two regular season games. Despite churning out so much yardage on the ground, the Jackets actually averaged two points per game less than the previous year! So, there is still a lot of work to do, especially since the element of surprise is gone on offense now that there is a year’s worth of video for opposing coaches to break down. Junior tailback Jonathan Dwyer was the biggest beneficiary of Johnson’s run happy scheme as he became the 2008 ACC Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 1,395 yards and 12 touchdowns. Along with quarterback Josh Nesbitt (693 yards, 7 TDs) and outside threat Roddy Jones (690 yards, 4 touchdowns), Dwyer spearheaded the best rushing attack in America. With four linemen back up front, the Jackets should once more be vicious on the ground. However, teams are going to be more prepared for the option this fall (LSU held the Jackets to 3 points and half of their season rushing average with time to prepare in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl) so there will have to be a semblance of a passing attack. Junior Demaryius Thomas was the team’s entire receiving game last fall as his 39 catches were five times more than the team’s 2nd leading receiver and his 627 yards through the air tripled anyone else’s production! Thus, Nesbitt is going to have to learn to integrate the pass into Tech’s game AND find another receiving option because Thomas is going to face a lot of double and triple coverage. However, the other major concern is that Nesbitt, who is by far the Yellow Jackets’ best choice to run the option, was hurt a lot last season and I will be surprised if he starts every game this fall. The key to Tech becoming a truly dangerous offense is the ability to integrate a passing attack and I am going to have to see it happen to believe it. That all said, Tech should still outscore last year’s team which only put up 24 points per game and this will once more be the ACC’s top rushing team.

The defense was the unsung hero last fall, allowing 20 points per game and sacking the quarterback 34 times. Even better, the entire back seven returns! However, only one starter is back on the defensive line, which lost three players to the NFL draft, including defensive end Michael Johnson, who was a 1 st team All-American and was such an athletic freak that he was a gunner on the punt team! Junior Derrick Morgan will be relied to lead a young unit after racking up 51 tackles and 7 sacks last year. Despite Morgan’s presence, the line is my biggest concern on Tech’s entire team. The linebackers are a good group but I think they benefited from such strong line play last season. It is much tougher to make plays when you don’t have the big guys up front occupying blockers and I think that they will have trouble living up to last year’s results playing behind a questionable line. The strength of this defense is the secondary, where junior safety Morgan Burnett led the team in tackles with 93 and interceptions with 7! The secondary is so good that sophomore Cooper Taylor was the team’s 2nd leading tackler last year despite playing primarily in nickel situations. Expect Tech to have an excellent pass defense this season. However, I am still concerned up front and the best news with the new set of starters is that they’ll have to battle against their own vicious rush offense in fall camp and that should help toughen them up. I think Tech will struggle early against the run and that’s not a good thing with their tough opening schedule.

Much like the Miami Hurricanes, Tech has a very tough opening stretch. After a D-1AA warm up to begin the season, they face Clemson and Miami on back to back Thursday nights before hosting North Carolina. The season doesn’t let up after that as they travel to Mississippi State and Florida State in back to back weeks before hosting Virginia Tech! Thus, the issue of the Yellow Jackets contenting in the division will be decided by mid-October. Their non-conference schedule features three SEC teams, highlighted by their season-ending clash against archrival Georgia, who will be out for blood after last season’s upset, do they will have to earn every win. Overall, I think that this will be very telling year in Atlanta as it will be a referendum on the lasting effectiveness of Johnson’s system. Will teams be better prepared or is Johnson being honest when he says that he established less than half of his playbook last fall? Another big factor is that Tech played one of the highest numbers of freshmen in America last year. Will all that experience begin to show on the field? I think that the combination of replacing 3 NFL players on the defensive line and a brutal opening schedule will preclude the Jackets from competing for the division title and they will be hard-pressed to match last season’s nine win total.

Biggest Games: Sept. 10th vs. Clemson, Sept. 17th @ Miami, Sept. 26th vs. UNC, Oct. 10th @ FSU, Oct. 17th vs. Virginia Tech, Nov. 28th vs. Georgia

 

  • Virginia Cavaliers (Predicted Conference Record: 3-5)

Virginia head coach Al Groh should teach a course in survival after he finishes his coaching career. Widely rumored to be on the chopping block the last few seasons, Groh has managed to hold onto his job despite fielding two losing teams in the last three year. After losing his quarterback from a nine win team in 2007 to academic issues last fall, Groh’s squad finished 5-7, losing to archrival Virginia Tech for the 5th consecutive season and 9 th time in the last ten years. The lost quarterback returns after a year in the proverbial desert and might be Groh’s best hope to cling to his job for another season. Can the Cavaliers compete despite returning the second fewest starters in the conference?

That returning quarterback is senior Jameel Sewell, who spent last season away coaching at a Charlottesville area high school to keep his skill polished. Sewell led the Cavs to the best record in Groh’s tenure in 2007 and will be relied upon to improve the conference’s worst offense from last season. He will benefit from playing behind a solid offensive line which returns four starters from last year. However, the Cavs averaged less than a hundred rush yards per game last fall and the linemen will need to step it up to improve that stat this season. Unfortunately, senior Mikell Simpson is the team’s top rusher back after running for only 262 yards last fall, so the Cavs are lacking a proven feature back. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Torrey Mack, who was a highly rated recruit two years ago and could be primed for the job. The receivers are also a gigantic question mark as the top five pass catchers are gone and Simpson is the leading returnee with a paltry 15 catches. While Sewell is a huge upgrade from last year’s signal callers, who threw 20 picks against only 9 touchdowns, there are still a ton of questions to be answered. I expect Virginia to score more than last season’s unbelievably bad 16 points per game but this will still probably be one of the ACC’s most ineffective offenses.

One thing that Groh can hang his hat on every year is that he consistently fields a solid defense. As he doubles as the defensive coordinator, he does deserve a lot of the credit. Last season’s biggest issue was the run defense, which was beaten to the tune of 150 yards per game. With two returning sophomore starters, both of whom should be significantly better with another year in the strength program under their belts, I think that the Cavaliers could be much improved on the line in Groh’s 3-4 defense. Senior linebacker Denzel Burrell is the only starter back after ringing up 48 tackles but the three lost starters were the team’s top three tacklers and Clint Simtim turned out to be a 2nd round NFL draft pick! There are going to be some growing pains this fall and the talent drain is the biggest reason that I don’t think that Virginia will be noticeably improved this year against the run. The secondary is very talented, highlighted by the cornerback pairing of senior Vic Hall (59 tackles, 2 picks) and 2nd team All-ACC junior Ras-I Dowling (43 tackles, 3 picks). Hall moonlighted as a big play runner on offense last fall and this could be one of the stronger pairings in the league. Sophomore safety Corey Mosley was also solid last fall and should be much improved with a year’s experience under his belt. The secondary is definitely the strength of the defense and I’m concerned that all of the lost talent at linebacker will prevent the Cavaliers from fielding one of the conference’s better defenses this fall. Expect another solid but unspectacular performance.

The schedule is interesting. While a visit from perennial doormat Indiana is the only BCS non-conference matchup, the Cavs also host TCU and travel to Southern Mississippi, meaning that they play two of the best non-BCS teams in the country. The conference schedule is much more reasonable as they close with four home games in the final six weeks and their Atlantic division draw features games against Boston College and Maryland, neither of whom is expected to contend. The schedule is set up well enough that the Cavaliers could surprise some teams this fall. The biggest question is whether Al Groh is in the process of becoming the new Tommy Bowden: The head coach who recruits well and wins just enough games to hold onto his job for a decade. While perhaps that isn’t fair to a two time ACC Coach of the Year, it is also the unfortunate truth as he was only saved by a mid-season winning streak last year; much like Bowden was for much of his tenure at Clemson. Groh’s squad should score more points this fall and play solid defense once more but they’re not going to contend for the division title. However, if they can manage to pull a winning record outside of conference play, Groh could continue to do his best Bowden impersonation by earning a bowl berth and another year in charge in Charlottesville.

Biggest Games: Oct. 3rd @ UNC, Oct. 17th @ Maryland, Oct. 24th vs. Georgia Tech, Oct. 31st vs. Duke, Nov. 14th vs. BC, Nov. 28th vs. Virginia Tech

 

 

  • Duke Blue Devils (Predicted Conference Record: 1-7)

David Cutcliffe’s first season in Durham produced a 4-8 record. While that wouldn’t be impressive in most places, it matched Duke’s win total from the last four seasons COMBINED! Cutcliffe had five straight winning seasons as Ole Miss’ head boss before his first losing season somehow cost him his job, so he knows how to turn around a program. Unfortunately, it is going to take more than a year’s worth of recruiting and coaching to fix a team that won a lawsuit decision in 2008 after canceling a series with Louisville by claiming that they were so terrible that ANY opponent would be an upgrade and the judge agreed based on their recent body of work! That’s a true story, look it up! With that in mind, there will be plenty of patience for the new head coach in Durham. Can Cutcliffe’s team continue to make progress this fall?

The offense has one huge highlight: Senior quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, who was a 2 nd team All-ACC choice after throwing for a 62 percent completion rate and 15 touchdowns against only 6 picks. Unfortunately, Lewis might be the only bright spot as there are question marks everywhere else. At tailback, highly touted true freshman Desmond Scott could earn the lion’s share of carries as no one on the Blue Devils ran for 400 yards last fall! The offensive line only brings back two starters after losing three 3 year starters and could start up to three underclassmen at one of the toughest positions for younger players to succeed at. The receivers are plentiful as seven players return with double digit catches from 2008 but no one had more than 350 yards or 2 touchdowns! Led by a group of sophomores, there is potential and I expect someone to emerge as a Cutcliffe offense with a great quarterback will always move the ball through the air. However, with so little proven talent surrounding Lewis, I can’t say much more than that I will be surprised if the Blue Devils top last season’s production.

The defense showed major improvements last fall, cutting ten points per game from 2007’s porous ‘defending’. The strength of this defense is up front, led by senior tackle Vince Oghobaase, who had 51 tackles and 6 sacks in 2008. Senior Linebacker Vincent Rey will also be a leader after making 109 tackles last year to earn 2nd team All-ACC honors. Along with senior defensive end Ayanga Okpokowuruk, there is the core of a decent run defense. The secondary does not inspire much confidence as most of the unit’s production came from now-departed players. In fact, senior safety Catron Gainey is the most productive returnee after making 66 tackles last fall. I’m not filled with confidence after getting a better look at this unit this spring, though there are plenty of young players available. However, Duke’s defense overall looks no better than last year’s unit and this is still a sub-par ACC group.

The schedule is perhaps the biggest reason for optimism in the early going. Outside of a trip to Kansas, the Blue Devils will be favored in all their non-conference games and their schedule has two D-1AA teams on the docket. Their ACC slate only has one brutal three week stretch late in the season and the Dukies could surprise some conference opponents who overlook them. However, I don’t expect to see a much improved team from last fall with a lot of turnover and little experience around their one star on offense. I think that Duke’s most realistic goal this season is to top last year’s four win total but I will be very surprised if they win enough games to be bowl eligible. However, the future appears far brighter than ever before with Cutcliffe in charge.

Biggest Games: Oct. 3rd vs. Virginia Tech, Oct. 24th vs. Maryland, Oct. 31st @ UVA, Nov. 7th @ UNC, Nov. 14th vs. Georgia Tech, Nov. 28th vs. Wake Forest

 

Want to stay up to date on everything college football?

FOLLOW MATT BAXENDELL ON TWITTER!: @MattBaxendell

 



ATLANTIC DIVISION

  • North Carolina State Wolfpack (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)

2008 was a big step forward for the Wolfpack. A tough 2-6 start was forgotten after a four game winning streak to close out the year earned their first bowl berth in three seasons. Even more impressive, their winning streak was responsible for ending the conference title hopes for no less than three different teams! Head coach Tom O’Brien was highly respected during his tenure at Boston College as he took the Eagles to 8 straight bowl games before coming to turn around the NC State program. Expectations are very high entering his 3rd season as there are fourteen returning starters and the Wolfpack might have their best team since San Diego Chargers starting quarterback Phillip Rivers was breaking records in Raleigh.

The biggest reason for optimism is the presence of sophomore quarterback Russell Wilson, who threw for 1,955 yards and 17 touchdowns against only ONE interception! He also contributed 388 yards and 4 touchdowns on the ground to earn 1st team All-ACC honors and was recently named the 2009 ACC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year by the media covering the conference. Russell’s importance is paramount as the Pack was leading Rutgers in their bowl game by ten points at half but an injury prevented his return and Rutgers roared back for the victory. His health is by far the biggest key to a strong season after missing parts or all of four games last year. However, Russell’s supporting cast is also talented, led by junior receivers Owen Spencer and Jarvis Williams, who combined for 57 catches, 1123 yards and 9 touchdowns last fall. With some solid depth behind them, expect Russell to spread the wealth around a talented group. Up front, three starters are back and the depth and experience is significantly better than it was at this time last year as O’Brien had to move a few defensive linemen to bolster their flagging depth. I expect the line to be even better this fall. The big question is who will carry the load of the running game after Andre Brown moved on to the NFL? There are a lot of options, the most experienced of which is senior Jamelle Eugene, who ran for 442 yards last year and also caught 26 passes. However, perpetually injured senior Toney Baker was hugely touted out of high school and could provide an infusion of talent and skill along with fellow blue chipper Brandon Barnes, a redshirt freshman. I think the pieces are in place for the Wolfpack to field an improved running game by committee. Overall, the Pack should have one of the conference’s best passing attacks with Wilson in charge. While it would be ludicrous to assume that Wilson will only throw a single interception this fall, he is probably the league’s best quarterback when healthy. Factor in an improved running game and NC State could see a big jump in offensive production.

The defense should also be much better after giving up more than 26 points per game last fall. The defensive line returns three senior starters, led by end Willie Young, who racked up 6.5 sacks in 2008. In fact, the Pack was actually pretty solid against the run last fall and I expect this veteran-laden unit to also provide an improved pass rush. At linebacker, senior Ray Michel led the team in tackles last fall and should be a major playmaker along with junior Nate Irving (80 tackles and 4 picks in 2008!) behind their stout line. The Wolfpack allowed 50 rush yards per game less last season and should improve even further this fall with so much experience back in the front seven. The big question will be the secondary, which was beaten to the tune of 250 yards per game last year while allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete over 62 percent of their pass attempts! Junior cornerback DeAndre Morgan appears to be the star of the group after making 60 stops and snagging 2 picks last fall. However, a lot of young players saw significant action and that could simultaneously explain their poor performance and give hope for improvement this season. Another important statistic is that during the Pack’s four game winning streak to close the year, their defense only gave up 18 points per game! That means that there was significant improvement as the year progressed and I am confident that O’Brien’s third defense will be his best at NC State.

The schedule is somewhat difficult, beginning with the non-conference portion. The Wolfpack hosts South Carolina and Pittsburgh but their other two games are against D-1AA opponents! Their four home games outside of ACC play gives them a whopping eight home games this fall, tops in the country! The Pack has to travel to Wake Forest, Florida State, Boston College and Virginia Tech, but they don’t face any back to back road games and finish with three of their final four games at home, though their final three games are against tough opposition. Much like O’Brien’s tenure at Boston College, his first two teams here struggled to get their feet underneath them. However, his third team at BC won eight games and I think that he could duplicate that feat this season in Raleigh. North Carolina State looks improved on both sides of the football and should be brimming with confidence after their strong close to the 2008 season. I expect the Wolfpack to be a strong contender to reach their first ACC Title game and this team could have eight or nine wins this season.

Biggest Games: Sept. 3rd vs. South Carolina, Oct. 3rd @ Wake Forest, Oct. 31st @ FSU, Nov. 14th vs. Clemson, Nov. 21st @ Virginia Tech, Nov. 28th vs. UNC

 

 

  • Clemson Tigers (Predicted Conference Record: 5-3)

The bubble finally popped for Tommy Bowden last fall. After being ranked in the top ten to enter the season and flush with highly recruited talent, the Tigers’ opening 3-3 flop was too much for Clemson’s administration to endure and they fired Bowden before he could mount his usual 2nd half comeback to cling to his job. Interim coach Dabo Swinney led the team to a 4-2 finish in the regular season and impressed enough to earn the head job as a full time gig. An energetic recruiter and good offensive mind, Swinney is one of the youngest head coaches in the country and brings a much-needed breath of fresh air into the program. With 15 starters back and a settled coaching situation, can the Tigers surprise?

Last season, I glossed over Clemson’s young offensive line and that was a big mistake. The Tigers’ expected powerful rushing attack never materialized and only mustered half of their production from just two years ago despite featuring two of the country’s best tailbacks! On top of that, their quarterbacks were sacked 34 times, second worst in the conference! However, the picture is much brighter up front this fall as all five starters return, including three sophomores who really picked up their play in the second half last season. Senior guard Thomas Austin was a 2nd team All-ACC selection and will be the captain of one of the conference’s strongest units. At tailback, the thunder of James Davis is gone but the lightning of senior CJ Spiller returns after earning 2nd team All-ACC honors in a part time role. Sophomore Jamie Harper will see some carriers but Spiller should be the feature back and he should run wild this season. Despite losing the ACC’s career leader in receptions, the wideouts look very good as well. Senior Jacoby Ford had 55 catches for 710 yards and 4 touchdowns last year and he will be the top option, though there is plenty of young talent waiting in the wings. The only concern is who will deliver the ball to them as two year starter Cullen Harper has departed. Local high school folk hero Willie Korn, baseball star Kyle Parker and highly touted true freshman Tajh Boyd are the top candidates for the job. However, Boyd tore his ACL during his senior year of high school, Korn has been injury prone and Parker has been splitting his time with baseball, so there are some big questions. However, Clemson didn’t have much luck health-wise at quarterback last fall and threw as many interceptions as touchdowns so I think that this group should at least take better care of the ball. With a very good offensive line, a dynamic running game and a solid set of receivers, I think that anyone stepping in under center will be in great position to succeed. I think that the Tigers should have a much better offense this year.

Defensively, things look great. New coordinator Kevin Steele was hired away from Alabama after running one of the country’s top defenses last fall and his first Clemson unit is stacked with eight returning starters. Despite the drama surrounding the program, the defense was excellent last fall, allowing only 17 points per game and that number could be even better this season. Up front, sophomore Daquan Bowers is one of three returning starters and is expected to break out in a major way after coming to Clemson as ESPN’s #1 overall recruit a year ago. Bowers contributed 47 tackles and 2 sacks as a true freshman last year and he could be a breakout superstar in his 2nd year. The Tigers fielded their worst run defense in four years last season and I expect that to change as two starting linebackers return as well. Senior Kavell Conner and sophomore Brandon Maye are the team’s top two returning tacklers and they combined for over 200 stops last fall. Expect a strong rush defense this season in Death Valley. If the good news up front wasn’t enough, the Tigers fielded one of the best defensive backfields in the conference last year and three starters return, led by seniors Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor, both of whom picked off 4 passes in 2008. Front to back, I can’t find a flaw with this defense and the Tigers could have the best defense in the ACC with Steele in charge.

The conference schedule is not going to be easy. Their Coastal draw includes road trips to Miami and Georgia Tech (on a Thursday night) and they also have to visit favored NC State in division play. The good news is that they have three home division games and a decent but unspectacular non-conference schedule, highlighted by TCU and a visit to archrival South Carolina, against whom they’ve won four of the last five. Frankly, things needed changed last year with Bowden’s removal. Clemson routinely brings in one of the top recruiting classes in the conference and had underachieved for years. This season’s big concern will be finding a quarterback who can protect the football because the Tigers look deep and talented at every other position. While I made a big mistake last fall picking the Tigers to win their division, I wouldn’t be shocked if the new Clemson Tigers under Dabo Swinney started living up to their fans’ lofty expectations in the seasons to come. Clemson is very much a contender for the Atlantic division title and should be one of the surprise teams in the country this fall.

Biggest Games: Sept. 10th @ Georgia Tech, Oct. 17th vs. Wake Forest, Oct. 24th @ Miami, Nov. 7th vs. FSU, Nov. 14th @ NC State, Nov. 28th @ South Carolina

 

 


  • Florida State Seminoles (Predicted Conference Record: 4-4)

2008 was a rebound year of sorts for the Seminoles. After three consecutive disappointing years, FSU finished with a 9-4 record, including a blowout bowl win. The Seminoles also posted their first winning conference record since 2005. Much like rival Miami, I’m loathe to pronounce that the Noles are ‘back’ but there sure is a lot of talent on hand. As legendary head coach Bobby Bowden’s career winds down, can Florida State make one more run at a conference championship?

The offense is the biggest reason for optimism. After years of frustration since the departure of Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke, the Noles finally fielded a consistently dangerous offense in 2008. Junior Christian Ponder was the triggerman of a unit which averaged nearly 33 points per game and he turned out to be a multidimensional threat, passing for over 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns while running for over 400 yards and 4 scores. Ponder does need to do a better job protecting the football after throwing 13 picks last fall but he should be much improved this season, especially with a more experienced line. All five starters return from a unit which didn’t boast an upperclassman in the entire two deep last season! After performing surprisingly well under fire for such an inexperienced unit, I expect nothing less than the best line in the conference despite still being one of the youngest. With a stronger line comes an improved rushing attack and sophomore Jermaine Thomas is expected to take over this fall as the primary ball carrier. Thomas averaged seven yards a carry last fall and scored 3 touchdowns so he could be a gamebreaker. The major concern for the Seminoles is that their receivers seem to continue to live up to the school’s unfortunate ‘Criminoles’ nickname. After having way too many suspensions and arrests, I’m not sure who is going to step up because sophomore Taiwan Easterling, the team’s leading returnee after Preston Parker was kicked off the team for his 3 rd DUI since arriving at FSU, ruptured his Achilles tendon in the offseason and is a big question mark entering the year. On top of that, veteran Corey Surrency was denied a final year of eligibility by the NCAA, leaving sophomore Bert Reed as the team’s top option after catching a meager 23 passes, 3 of which were touchdowns, in 2008. So experience is a major concern and Ponder might have to use his legs extensively once more this fall. However, I still expect FSU to have a strong rushing game and that should give Ponder time to develop a rapport with his receivers. Expect Florida State to once more field a fairly strong offense.

The defense was very good last season, outside of allowing 45 points to archrival Florida in the season finale. Florida State fielded the conference’s toughest pass defense and held six opponents to 17 points or less. This fall, there are some big shoes to fill as only five starters return. Up front, the Noles could start all seniors, though only two starters are back and no one had more than a single sack. They will have trouble replacing NFL 2 nd round draft pick Everrette Brown’s 13.5 sacks. At linebacker, senior Dekoda Watson is the team’s top tackler back from 2008 after making 46 stops. However, I’m more confident in the Noles ability to replace their losses here than on the line because Bowden has recruited far better at linebacker and there is some experience from last season. That’s a far cry from the line, where the top backups will include at least two freshmen! That said, I still think that FSU will field a solid but unspectacular run defense this fall. In the secondary, seniors Jamie and Patrick Robinson combined for 53 tackles and 2 interceptions last fall and are the only two returning starters. With three year starting safety Myron Rolle off to Oxford to study medicine, there are some gaps to be filled. Surprisingly, FSU only picked off nine passes last year, a low number that I can’t imagine them repeating. While they’ll definitely allow more yards per game than 2008, I think that the Noles might have more big play potential this season. Overall, this has all of the makings of a solid defense. However, for a group which could start eight seniors there is a serious lack of experience. I expect the Seminoles’ defense to be balanced, not really particularly strong nor weak against both the pass and run, and allow somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty points per game.

The schedule is fairly challenging. The non-conference portion features in state rivals Florida and South Florida along with a cross-country jaunt to visit a very good BYU team. The conference run is also fairly difficult as they recommence their tradition of opening the season against Miami. Their Coastal draw of Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Miami is perhaps the toughest in the entire league! Furthermore, four of their final six games are on the road. Overall, Florida State is an improved team from last year with a bunch of talented young players who are much better after a year’s experience. However, the Seminoles face a tough schedule and the pressure of producing one more championship team before Bowden calls it quits. Unfortunately, Florida State will need to pull a few upsets to compete for the Atlantic division and certainly will not be a national player. With their schedule, I can’t see the Seminoles winning more than eight or nine games this season.

Biggest Games: Sept. 7th vs. Miami, Sept. 26th vs. South Florida, Oct. 10th vs. Georgia Tech, Oct. 22nd @ UNC, Oct. 31st vs. NC State, Nov. 7th @ Clemson, Nov. 14th @ Wake, Nov. 28th @ Florida

 

 

  • Boston College Eagles (Predicted Conference Record: 3-5)

Boston College has been one of the league’s best teams since joining the ACC. With two consecutive Atlantic division titles and 30 wins in the last three seasons, only Virginia Tech has been better in league play! However, the Eagles have had difficulty keeping head coaches in place and enter this season with their 3 rd head coach in the last four seasons! Former head coach Jeff Jagodzinski was fired for interviewing for an NFL position and longtime defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani is now the man calling the shots. With so much turnover at the top and a few unfortunate losses on the field, Boston College could be at risk of missing their first bowl game in 10 years.

The offense was decent last season as the Eagles began life without former star quarterback Matt Ryan. Chris Crane and youngster Dominique Davis split time and both were up and down. However, the Eagles have to start from scratch this season once more as Crane graduated and the promising Davis was kicked off the team! There is some good news though, as four starters are back on the offensive line, led by 2nd team All-ACC tackle Anthony Costanzo. Whoever is calling the signals should have solid protection from one of the conference’s better units. The running game should also be quite good as sophomores Montel Harris and Josh Haden combined for nearly 1,500 rush yards, 33 receptions and seven total touchdowns last season! Expect a big emphasis to be placed on their production with all of the concern under center. The receiving corps should also be solid as seniors Rich Gunnell and Justin Jarvis will be the starters. Gunnell has over 1,600 career receiving yards and should be the number one target. However, I’m very concerned about the quarterback position and I definitely can see a very similar scenario playing out compared to last season. The Eagles will play a few different quarterbacks and rely heavily on their run game while never really mounting a dangerous passing attack. That means that BC’s offensive production won’t go up and this could be one of the conference’s most predictable units.

Defensively, Spaziani has fielded some excellent groups in his12 years in charge. Unfortunately, now that he’s the head coach he’ll have to evenly split his time between both sides of the ball and I’m worried that the unit could suffer for it. On top of that, 2nd team All-American linebacker Mark Herzlich was diagnosed with cancer after spring practice and he will miss the season. As Herzlich was the team’s most productive player with 109 tackles, 3 sacks and 6 interceptions and the defense’s heart and soul, he is simply irreplaceable and Boston College’s defense will suffer for it. While I expect Herzlich to be a big part of the team from an emotional standpoint as he remains a student and the prognosis for his recovery is good, he is far less effective as a cheerleader than he would be at linebacker. As for the players who will be on the field this fall, middle linebacker Mike McLaughlin will be counted upon the most to make an impact after racking up 89 tackles, 4 sacks and an interception last year. Unfortunately, McLaughlin suffered an Achilles injury during the offseason and he could be slowed entering the fall! Even without Herzlich, this should be a good group of linebackers if McLaughlin can remain healthy but all bets are off if he can’t go. Up front, senior defensive end Jim Ramella should be the leader of a solid group that has to replace two highly drafted defensive tackles in BJ Faji and Ron Brace. Both were drafted in the first two rounds! With so the loss of all of the top end talent in the front seven, I think teams will find it easier to run the football this season against the Eagles. The secondary looks to be the bright spot as three starters return from a unit which held opponents to under 180 pass yards per game. The four expected starters combined for ten interceptions last season and I think that teams will definitely try to beat the Eagles on the ground instead of through the air. Overall, I’m worried that BC will be susceptible to the run and they could really be in trouble if McLaughlin can’t return at full strength. Boston College will be weaker defensively this season.

The schedule is a bit of a saving grace. Their non-conference schedule features only one BCS level opponent, archrival Notre Dame. Their first two games are at home against weak opposition and four of their first five at home so their young quarterbacks will have a chance to get their feet wet in a familiar environment. They also have three home division games and could take advantage of seven total home games as they are 18-3 at home since joining the ACC. Overall, both losing Davis and Herzlich unexpectedly is really a big blow for the Eagles. There will be issues with inexperience at quarterback, defensive tackle and linebacker and for a team which relies upon protecting the football and playing stout defense, those are really bad losses. I haven’t even included another coaching change among the bad things that happened this offseason in Chestnut Hill! I actually had the Eagles picked to finish even worse before revising my estimate based on the expected strength of the running game. Overall, Boston College will be average on both sides of the football and will take a big step back from their excellent finishes of the past three years. However, I still think that the Eagles will keep their bowl streak alive this season, though more than seven wins seem highly unlikely.

Biggest Games: Sept. 19th @ Clemson, Sept. 26th vs. Wake Forest, Oct. 3rd vs. FSU, Oct. 10th @ V-Tech, Oct. 24th @ Notre Dame, Nov. 21st vs. UNC

 

 

  • Wake Forest Demon Deacons (Predicted Conference Record: 3-5)

Wake Forest continued their recent run of success under head coach Jim Grobe as they finished with an 8-5 record last fall. In fact, their 28 wins in the past three seasons is 3rd among ACC teams! Last season’s success can be credited in large part to a solid defense but Grobe’s ability to rebuild will be tested this year after a lot of graduation losses. However, Wake Forest still brings back 13 starters and could once more be a player in the conference chase.

The offense will be led by four year starting quarterback Riley Skinner, who threw for 2,347 yards and 13 touchdowns last season against only 7 picks. While the offense’s production dropped by nearly a touchdown per game last fall, Skinner’s care with the football allowed the Demon Deacons to finish with a conference-best plus 17 turnover margin! Skinner is one of nine returning starters and I expect a much improved offensive attack in his final go-round. The line returns four starters and gets back senior tackle Chris DeGeare, who missed last season due to academics after starting in 2006 and 2007. That means that Wake probably has the conference’s most experienced offensive line! The top two rushers are back from last year as well and junior Josh Adams, who was banged up last year, could be in line for a big season. The only question mark is at wide receiver, as departed DJ Boldin had 55 catches MORE than the team’s second leading receiver last season! Junior Marshall Williams had 26 catches for 390 yards and he will be counted on to step up this season. Overall, the Deacs look like they should have a much more balanced offense with a healthy Adams and that should only mean more scoring.

The defense is a big concern as last season’s top five tacklers are gone and only four starters are back. The good news is that three starters are back on the line and all three were very productive last fall, combining for over a hundred tackles and 12 sacks! Expect this strong unit to only get better this year. The bad news is that the rest of the defense is beginning from scratch. Their linebackers lost two NFL draft picks, including Aaron Curry who was drafted in the top 10. Junior Hunter Haynes has the most experience but he only made 24 tackles last year as all three departed starters played every game. With a dearth of experience, the linebackers are a very big concern. Their secondary also experienced a similar talent drain as two more of last year’s starters were selected in the NFL draft, including the ACC’s all time leader in interceptions! Senior cornerback Brandon Ghee is the only returning starter and he is highly athletic. However, there is very little experience elsewhere and there will undoubtedly be a step back after losing so much talent. Wake Forest lost four high NFL draft picks from last year’s unit and while I really like their front four, I can’t see this year’s unit being nearly as productive.

The schedule is an interesting mix. The non-conference slate features visits from Baylor and Stanford and a trip to the Naval Academy, giving Wake three competitive but very winnable games. In conference, a three week stretch where visits from FSU and Miami bookend a trip to Georgia Tech will be the toughest of the year. The Deacons have seven home games this season after boasting a 14-5 record the past four years and should take advantage. Overall, I think that the Demon Deacons will be better on offense and weaker on defense. However, that doesn’t mean that I expect them to play in a lot of shootouts! Wake Forest will try to control the ball with the running game and should have plenty of success. While I will be surprised if the Demon Deacons make a legitimate run at the conference title game thanks to that brutal three game stretch late in the year, Grobe’s team will probably make their 4th consecutive bowl appearance.

Biggest Games: Sept. 26th @ BC, Oct. 3rd vs. NC State, Oct. 17th @ Clemson, Oct. 31st vs. Miami, Nov. 7th @ Georgia Tech, Nov. 14th vs. FSU, Nov. 28th @ Duke

 

 

  • Maryland Terapins (Predicted Conference Record: 1-7)

I had Maryland pegged pretty well last season, predicting them to finish 4-4 and 3rd in the division. Well, that’s exactly what they did! Terps fans better hope that I don’t have the same success picking their team this year because I don’t like a lot of what I’m seeing in College Park. Their eight returning starters are the lowest in the ACC and there are major questions along both lines of scrimmage. After beginning his career with a 31-8 mark in his first three seasons, can head coach Ralph ‘The Fridge’ Friedgen avoid a 3rd losing season in his last six years?

Offensively, things look fairly decent at the skill positions. Senior quarterback Chris Turner is solid but unspectacular and threw for 2,500 yards and 13 touchdowns last fall against 11 picks. Backfield mate Da’Rel Scott was a 1 st team All-ACC choice after running for 1,100 yards and 8 touchdowns and also added 21 catches. However, the offensive line returns only two starters and could feature a lot of sophomores and freshmen this season. Ask Clemson how well that worked for them last year. Furthermore, they lost three of their top four receivers from last fall, two of which were NFL selections. Sophomore Torrey Smith will have to step up after making 24 catches as a freshman. Simply put, I think that the Terps will have trouble protecting Turner and opening up holes for Scott. Furthermore, there is no deep threat like 1st round pick Darius Heyward-Bey on this year’s squad. That means that the Terps will struggle to move the ball this season and I think that this could be their worst offense in the last five years.

Defensively, there are only three starters returning from last season’s solid unit. Up front, senior tackle Travis Ivey was solid with 26 tackles and a sack before being injured in the second half last season but he is the top returning player on the line! Uh oh. The Terps will probably start at least two sophomores next to him and that could be trouble. This might be one of the thinnest lines in the ACC. Junior middle linebacker Alex Wujciak is the team’s top returning player after he earned 2nd team All-ACC honors last fall and lead the team in tackles with an impressive total of 133! He will have to hope for some help on the line and at ‘backer for him to repeat those impressive numbers. The Terps gave up nearly 150 yards per game on the ground last fall and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were beaten for even more this season. In the secondary, seniors Terrelle Skinner and Anthony Wiseman are solid contributors and combined for 112 tackles last season. However, Maryland has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete over 60 percent of their passes in each of the past two seasons while barely picking any off so I think that they could actually be improved this fall with as many as four senior starters in the lineup. Overall, I’m very concerned about Maryland stopping the run but their pass defense looks somewhat improved. Expect Maryland to finish in the bottom half of the league defensively.

The schedule is a mixed bag. The non-conference portion features a trip to Cal and a visit from Rutgers, two very tough opponents, though the other two are very winnable games. In conference play, their Coastal draw includes Virginia and Duke, both of whom aren’t expected to be very strong this fall. However, they have three division road games and a stretch in early November against NC State, Virginia Tech and FSU looks very difficult indeed. Simply put, when a team is expected to field sub-par lines on each side of the ball, they usually aren’t very successful. Maryland probably has the least experienced lines in the entire conference! I simply don’t think that the Fridge is going to be able to avoid a losing season this fall, though my one win prediction would be the worst season during his tenure. I don’t expect Maryland to compete in their division or earn a bowl berth this season.

Biggest Games: Oct. 3rd vs. Clemson, Oct. 10th @ Wake Forest, Nov. 7th @ NC State, Nov. 14th vs. Virginia Tech, Nov. 21st @ FSU, Nov. 28th vs. BC

 

 

THE BOTTOM LINE

The ACC was the most even league in the country last year as nine different teams were in the conference title hunt during the season’s final two weeks! With such parity, it was no surprise that the ACC didn’t have a single team in the national title chase.

This fall, things look to be different. First off, there is a clear separation in the caliber of the divisions. The Coastal division is loaded up top and I think that any of the top four teams would be the favorite if they were in the other division. Meanwhile, the Atlantic division has five different teams with a legitimate shot at competing for the title and I expect a very similar year to 2008 in that no one will be out of the race until very late.

The Coastal division race is fascinating with four definite entries in the preseason top 25 but I think the most talented team is the Virginia Tech Hokies. On top of that, the Hokies host two of the other three top competitors and have the most favorable draw from the Atlantic division. With a veteran team that should be ready to play from the start, the Hokies are my choice to win the Coastal division and if they defeat Alabama to open the year then they are a legitimate national title contender.

The Atlantic division race is equally interesting but there is no clear-cut top choice and I don’t expect to see more than one ranked team in the preseason. NC State has the conference’s best quarterback, Clemson has an excellent defense, Florida State might have the most talent, Boston College is flush with recent successes and Wake Forest has a 4 year starter at quarterback! However, I think that Clemson and NC State have the best chance to emerge from the division and I am picking the Wolfpack to win the Atlantic division on the strength of their quarterback play.

The ACC Championship game will match up Virginia Tech and North Carolina State. I expect the Hokies to be ranked higher and favored in this matchup and I expect that their strength defensively will give NC State’s excellent quarterback some trouble. In the end, a multidimensional Virginia Tech attack will be too much for the upstart Wolfpack to handle and I expect the Hokies to win their 3rd consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference Championship.

 

 

CONFERENCE PREVIEW SCHEDULE

 

 

Matt Baxendell is collegesports-fans.com’s football writer. Keep an eye out all fall for his multiple weekly articles discussing everything college football. If you want to get in touch with him, email him at Matt.Baxendell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @MattBaxendell

 

 

 


Dash Fans Network Home | About the DFN | Sports Writing Positions | College Sports Fan Sites | College Sports Articles

Big 12 Sports | Big Ten Sports | Conference USA Sports | MAC Sports | Football Bowls | SEC Sports

 

 

Directory of College Sports Message Boards & Forums

 

College apparel including sports furniture, clothing, hats, jerseys, cheap books, gear, tickets, Fathead sports murals and other sports merchandise has arrived!

 

Copyright 2005-2009, CollegeSports-fans.com and the Dash Fans Network of Independent College Sports Fan Sites.