Yes, I’m well aware the season is officially underway. What can I say but that I’m a little lazy and this job doesn’t pay me money.
At any rate, with the big three off the board (SEC, PAC 12, Big Ten), we’ll start getting the lesser conferences into the picture. Today, the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The ACC is a basketball conference, despite attempts to blow it up and rebuild it as a football conference with the inclusion of Miami and Florida State. In fact, the move has so backfired that they’ve essentially lost their control of basketball to the Big East. In this day and age, the ACC is known for a couple good teams in basketball and football along with a wealth of mediocrity around it.
This is a team that hasn’t been in serious contention since Matt Ryan departed for Atlanta. They’ve spent the last few years wading through mediocre teams with some big names appearing on NFL draft boards. The traditional bread and butter of the Eagles has been a strong running game backed by a sound defense. The pieces are slowly beginning to appear for that to take place again. Montel Harris, SR, is back behind an offensive line with a little more experience. Both should help quarterback Chase Rettig, who needs to improve his game dramatically and has been given new coordinator Kevin Rodgers (former Minnesota Vikings assistant) to get him going. The sophomore only completed 51% of his passes for 6 TDs and 9 INTs. If that number doesn’t improve then it’ll be up to Montel again behind a suspect offensive line. WR Bobby Swigert should be a good target for Rettig, and TE Chris Pantale will open up the middle. Both could up their play some, and will need to for Rettig to be able to open up the offense. Three new offensive linemen will cause problems, particularly at left tackle where Junior John Wetzel steps in for departed Anthony Castonzo.
On defense, this team needs to find a way to pressure the quarterback. The unit only recorded 20 sacks last season and Max Holloway, JR DE, was the leader with 4. If Holloway and senior defensive tackle Kaleb Ramsey can’t improve those numbers then the much maligned secondary will be exposed again. Three of the four starters return in the secondary, but the group as a whole struggled last season. Maybe a year of experience will help, but if there’s no pass rush then it may not matter. Boston College has cranked out several good linebackers in the last decade, and junior Luke Kuechly looks like another in the line. Sophomore Kevin Pierre-Louis has the talent to develop into an elite prospect down the road. Both have a nose for the ball carrier and help this unit stay strong on the run.
Dabo Swinney could be in trouble. He entered Clemson and the Tigers roared early taking the Atlantic Division in 2009. Last year Clemson regressed to mediocrity at 6-7. Swinney is in his 4th year and has only gathered a 19-15 record and the fan base that wishes they were in the SEC and craves glory like an SEC team has begun to rumble. In order to bring this team back, they’ve brought in a new offensive coordinator – Chad Morris – who comes from Tulsa and will operate a no-huddle face paced offense. The skill positions are loaded but haven’t made the jump to elite. Quarterback sophomore Tajh Boyd is a stud, but has almost no in-game experience. Running back Andre Ellington and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins are stars in the making but need to progress this year. Clemson also returns their offensive line, including senior tackle Landon Walker. The unit is set to dominate on offense with only the new scheme standing between them and glory. On defense, this unit is loaded…. for three years from now. They signed three top flight linebackers – Stephone Anthony, Tony Steward, and Lateek Townsend – but all are completely inexperienced. Inside linebacker Corico Hawkins looks to return with the new backers attempting to supplant other underclassmen. The loss of Da’Quan Bowers will hurt this unit tremendously. Seniors Brandon Thompson and Andre Branch return but bring only 11.5 sacks between them (Bowers had 15.5 last season). The play of the recruits will do a lot to keep Swinney at the helm next season.
Another program at Maryland bringing in a new head coach, despite ex-coach Ralph Friedgen‘s ACC Coach of the Year Honors in 2009 or his 9-4 record last season. In a play of power politics, the new AD Kevin Anderson has brought in his own guys to coach the teams. New coach Randy Esdall has a proven record at UCONN, taking the program from nothing to BCS contention but this was in the Big East, and while the ACC is not the SEC he should have some growing pains. His pains will be eased by sophomore quarterback, and ACC Rookie of the Year, Danny O’Brian. O’Brian has a decent arm, but shines in pressure situations. Most of his team doesn’t return with him, unfortunately with Da’rel Scott graduating as well as Torrey Smith and LaQuan Williams. The struggle for this unit will be from the offensive line, which has lost a lot of its punch this last year. Left tackle will be held by sophomore Max Garcia. Still, Esdall will bring in a spread offense (similar to Clemson) that features high paced attack plays and attempts to wear down the defense.
Maryland’s defense returns a lot more, but lacks the talent that Friedgen could recruit on offense. Kenny Tate is the star (a term for a hybrid linebacker/defensive back) for this unit, but they look to be dropping him from safety to linebacker. It’s a bold move that should increase the overall speed (and make this unit look more like Rich Rodriguez’s 3-3-5). If Tate can be physical in the run game then they should look more like a traditional 4-3. The Terps will also feature a Rock (hybrid defensive end / linebacker) in David Mackall and Isaiah Ross. Both need to provide more pressure if this unit is to improve. If anything, Esdall should keep opponents guessing simply through his ability to move players. Opposing quarterbacks will need to find these big name players pre-snap which is another thing for them to worry about.
Jimbo Fisher has stepped in perfectly to replace Hall of Fame coach Bobby Bowden. Going 10-4 in his first season, he brings in a dominant recruiting class and looks poised to bring FSU back to the promised land. Add in big wins over rivals Florida and Miami and a great performance over South Carolina in their bowl game and you see why Florida State fans are chomping at the bit to get this season going. This team has the best defense in the ACC built from the back-end up. Safety Lemarcus Joyner is neck and neck with Kenny Tate for best safety, and should be unchallenged this year with Tate’s move. At corner, Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid have a shot at playing on Sundays. Factor in junior defensive end Brandon Jenkins and this unit should be primed for a big year.
On offense, this unit is loaded, but hinges on the play of first year quarterback E.J. Manuel, who takes over for long-term starter Christian Ponder. Manuel was highly recruited and posses a ton of talent, but could see some growing pains his first couple of years. He should be well protected by a dominant offensive line, a trademark of the FSU program that wins the war in the trenches. This unit is led by senior tackle Andrew Datko who’ll be protecting Manuel’s blind side. He’ll be a bookend with senior Zebrie Sanders and that should be enough to keep Manuel comfortable most of the year. We’ll see how good this team is week 3, when the big bad Sooners come rolling into town in what should be one of the best games of the season.
N.C. State returns a very good team, but allowed quarterback Russell Wilson to head to Wisconsin and must replace his abilities if they want to have another 9 win season this year. Fortunately, head coach Tom O’Brian features a strong running game that should protect the new signal caller. Mustafa Greene is just a sophomore but is highly touted and fits nicely into this offense. The offensive line needs to improve on a 3.4 yards per carry last year, but with a year of experience and Greene healthy it is doable. Speaking of the new signal caller, Mike Glennon has some work to do in his first year. If the running game doesn’t carry this team, it’ll be up to Glennon to make plays. Tight end George Byran will help as a safety blanket and features to be a high draft pick in 2012.
On defense the Wolfpack intend to bring the heat early and often. They need to get into the backfield quickly because their pass defense has been atrocious the last few years. The secondary doesn’t bring a lot to the table so it’ll be up to linebackers Audie Cole and Terrell Manning to bring heat via the blitz. Still the unit is too thin and lacks top end talent to really be expected to keep this group together. The team as a whole is well coached so they could surprise, but look for this year to be a growing pain year.
Wake Forest appears to have come down from cloud nine. After surprising many by taking the ACC by storm for a couple of years, the Demon Deacons fell down hard last year – going 3-9. Part of the problem was an inability to bring enough talented replacements in during their run and so Wake Forest was forced to play a lot of underclassmen. The good news is that those players now have a year under their belts. Sophomore Tanner Price leads the group but needs to show great strides this year if he wants Wake to give him the keys. His partner in the backfield – sophomore Josh Harris is an exciting weapon and can bust a big run any time. He beat out several upperclassmen last year to win the job so it’ll be on his shoulders to carry this team. Price also needs someone to step up in this receiving corp. This teams passing attack was simply horrendous last season. Price has had a year to develop some chemistry with junior Chris Givens but someone else stepping up wouldn’t hurt. The defense is a better unit. Sophomore nose tackle Nikita Whitlock was a beast last season generating 10.5 tackles for loss. Behind him is the leader of the unit, linebacker Kyle Wilber, who anchors their 3-4. He tacked on 14.5 tackles for loss and 6 sacks last year. These two would also like some help on defense, but the two of them should keep this unit respectable so long as the offense can keep opposing defenses on the field a bit longer.
New coach Al Golden was looked at as a great hire for a program still trying to find the right man to bring them back into the prime time lights. Then Shapiro happened, and now this program is simply clinging to existence. Eight players suspended for the first game and a wealth of NCAA investigators swarming South Beach won’t help this team find its way into an ACC title game. Golden’s experience at Temple, where he took an unheralded program into recognition should translate well to Miami where he can coach up elite talents into superstars. His first task will be deciding on a quarterback and getting the best out of him. Jacory Harris‘ Heisman talk has disappeared and is part of the suspended group. Stephen Morris was his replacement last season, but didn’t spark this offense that was loaded with skill position talent and an impressive offensive line.
On defense, Miami brings a lot of talent and girth to the front 7, but the back-end has some concerns. Ray Ray Armstrong is a stud at safety and his opposite Vaughn Telemaque is solid, but they lost both starting corners last season without much to replace them with. Apparently they’ll run former safety JoJo Nicolas and converted running back Lee Chambers at corner, but expect that to change and change quickly. Up front defensive tackles Marcus Forston and Micanor Regis will stuff the run while Olivier Vernon hits the quarterback. The defense hasn’t returned to the glory days of Miami, but they have a lot of talent and play well. Turnovers will be key on both sides (Editors note: as shown in their opener loss to Maryland) and they need to settle on a quarterback. Frankly, they probably need to recruit someone else to step in which will be next to impossible if sanctions come down like expected.
Virginia Tech continues to be the work horse of the ACC. While the rest of the programs flounder in mediocrity, Virginia Tech continues to churn out 10 win seasons and championships. They haven’t quite managed to be in serious play for a national championship and there are rumblings that Frank Beamer is the Andy Reid of the college world, but Beamer ball has kept this teams trophy case pretty full. This is a season that will qualify as a ‘rebuilding effort’ for the Hokies. They have to replace starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor with Sophomore Logan Thomas (great name) who only has 26 attempts in his college career. He’s a prototype quarterback in this day and age – 6’6 245 and mobile. Likewise, Ryan Williams is in the NFL and junior David Wilson will have to step up for him. Wilson brings a bit more experience to the table and is a burner. Both these players will be protected by an offensive line that returns 4 of 5 starters and should dominant like last season. Likewise wide receivers Jarrett Boykin and Marcus Davis return, though Boykin is the only one bringing big game experience back. The offense is scary and talented, but like Florida State, they’ll have to work in their new quarterback.
On defense only half the unit returns from last year – one defensive lineman, 2 linebackers, and 2 defensive backs. This will mean that a lot of new blood is worked in. It also means that there will be 5-7 2nd year players stepping in. Virginia Tech always recruits well and brings a lot of talent in, but experience always counts. Expect some struggles on defense particularly at defensive line where pressure is very limited. Someone will step up, but it’ll depend on how quickly they do for Virginia Tech’s BCS hopes.
David Cutcliffe has brought Duke into the realm of relativity, but without them generating wins the progress will continue to seem minimal. The offense has begun to shine. Cutcliffe said he’d develop a quarterback and has in Sean Renfree who has blossomed into one of the ACC’s best quarterback. Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner continue to make plays at receiver, but its tight end Cooper Helfet who has really shined as a pass catcher. The offensive line is unspectacular, but does enough to allow Renfree to make all the plays he needs.
Sadly, all the progress made on offense has not been mirrored by the defense. This unit continues to be a sieve. They were last in the ACC in sacks last season and had to score 43 points a game to win 3 games last season. Unfortunately this unit gets phenom quarterback Andrew Luck week 2 and that will not be pretty as the most pro-ready quarterback since Peyton Manning tears this defense a new one. Still there are some talented players here. Nose guard Charlie Hatcher has been productive and could find himself on Sundays if he improves this season. Matt Daniels at safety is frequently around the ball carriers (because they’re everyone in the secondary). Cutcliffe is the best coach Duke has had, and while his offensive recruiting is impressive, he needs to improve the talent he gets on defense in these next few years. Duke will be patient with him because he is such a good coach, but they need to show more progress than 43 points a game and 60 allowed.
Paul Johnson declared that the option offense had not been ‘retired’ because it had been defeated by defenses, but that it had grown out of favor. Thus he arrived from Navy proclaiming that he would bring it into the limelight again. Several good years finally ended in a 6-7 campaign last season, but they have been reinstalling the offense around new pieces. Quarterback Josh Nesbitt and running back Anthony Allen have graduated and replacing them will be Johnson’s first task. Junior Tevin Washington and red shirt freshman Synjyn Days have competed for the job. Washington will likely get the call first, but I expect Days’ to take over relatively early. The running backs always take a committee approach in this offense. Returning backs Orwin Smith and Roddy Jones being about 1000 yards, but the hopes spring on Charles Perkins stepping in as the workhorse sooner rather than later.
On defense, coordinator Al Groh operates a 3-4 defense which returns the entire defensive line. This should be a big bonus because the entire secondary is new and half the linebackers. While the secondary is fresh on starters, all have played some snaps in the last few years, but it will take some time to work together before they gel. The pieces are in place for the future, but the defense will need to be overhauled by the time the offense is rolling again. Still Johnson will keep this program in line and competitive every year.
Well that’s two programs Butch Davis has rebuilt and then been forced to leave due to various NCAA infractions. The late departure won’t help this program transition either. Davis’ abilities to recruit top-tier talent has been evident for years and the talent still resides in Chapel Hill, but most of it cannot stick to the field. Last season was supposed to be the culmination of his work with a good shot at an ACC championship. Losing so many players to suspension derailed the season. Now they have a wealth of positions to replace and no long-term head coach. Offensively, quarterback T.J. Yates has departed for greener pastures, but blue chip recruit Bryn Renner will step in. He’s a pro-style quarterback that should fit in well if they maintain the offensive scheme. Senior Ryan Houston fills in at running back. He’s a hammer in this offense but has had difficulties holding up over a season. There aren’t many play-makers for Renner to target at this point. Receiver Dwight Jones is the best of the group, but as a senior, he won’t be able to develop as good a repertoire with Renner as a younger player.
Defensively this team is loaded. They lost four members of their front seven and yet no one is concerned. Quentin Coples and Tydreke Powell front line the defensive line and Coples is already being talked about as a 1st round pick. Linebacker Zach Brown is also in the high draft pick mix. Besides them are linebacker Kevin Reddick and defensive end Donte Paige-Moss who will be eligible for the draft after this year. Expect this group to be dynamic this year, but the whole group could go without hope for future success. Frankly, even a top name coach, big recruiting class, and a terrific year from Renner might not keep Reddick and Paige-Moss who could be 1st or 2nd round prospects. This team is still under the NCAA microscope, but it looks like the worst has passed. It’s now up to the school to bring in a big time coach to keep the momentum they have gathered from Butch Davis and not flounder like Miami did and has since his departure.
2nd year coach Mike London continues to rebuild the Virginia program. The defense is solid, led by star cornerback Chase Minnifield. He’s the son of former pro bowl corner Frank Minnifield and is already living up to his dad’s name. Factor in defensive end Cam Johnson and linebackers LaRoy Reynolds and Steve Greer and this defense is ready to roll. London will work in underclassmen alongside veteran leadership. On offense this unit Sophomores Ross Metheny and Michael Rocco have been competing for the starting job with Rocco winning the job for the first week. It may not be a lasting job if he struggles, but London will likely give him a bit longer of a leash as he’s a sophomore. He’ll be protected by an elite offensive tackle following the recent history of NFL caliber offensive tackles – Morgan Moses. Mosses has played RG and RT, but figures to be RT this season and perhaps left tackle. A solid running game is boosted by the play of senior WR Kris Burd who had 58 receptions, almost 800 yards and 5 scores last season. If he can improve those numbers and draw more attention from defenses, it’ll open things up for the running game and protect the young quarterbacks.
1. Florida State
3. Boston College
5. N.C. State
6. Wake Forest
1. Virginia Tech
2. North Carolina
4. Georgia Tech