Things are looking brighter for the ACC than they have in awhile.
On the field, the league is at its highest point since Miami was a national title contender. Florida State regained its place among the national elite by capturing the league title, winning a BCS bowl, and finishing in the top ten. Clemson knocked off SEC titan LSU in its bowl and finished the year ranked right around the number ten spot. Both are starting the 2013 season in the top 15, with Clemson in the top ten.
Miami, one of the league’s marquee teams, showed signs of returning to prominence, and Larry Fedora led North Carolina to eight wins in his first season. Even perennial doormat Duke made a bowl game for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Off the field, the league solidified its stability amidst the ever-changing landscape of conference realignment. The conference welcomes Pittsburgh and Syracuse this year, and while it suffers the loss of Maryland in 2014, the ACC improved overall by adding Louisville starting next year. Also, Notre Dame announced that it will join the league as a partial member.
Already the nation’s best basketball conference, the ACC is ready to show that it’s closing the gap when it comes to football. Clemson has legitimate national championship aspirations, and Florida State will be good again. The rest of the league is full of solid, but not great, teams, but there is promise at places like Miami and North Carolina.
Cream of the Crop
Clemson, Florida State
Well, that’s one way to start a season, Clemson. In the most marquee game of the opening weekend, the Tigers knocked off fellow-top ten team and SEC heavyweight Georgia 38-35 at home. Clemson has long had a reputation for failing to live up to preseason hype and potential, but this Clemson squad has now knocked off top-ten SEC teams in back-to-back games (the Tigers defeated LSU in their bowl game last season).
This team is loaded on offense. Tahj Boyd was sensational in 2012, completing 67 percent of his passes for 3,896 yards and 36 touchdowns against 13 interceptions, and he picked up right where he left off. The senior accounted for five total touchdowns against Georgia. He loses star receiver DeAndre Hopkins but gets a healthy Sammy Watkins (6 catches, 127 yards, 1 touchdown against Georgia). Clemson will need to develop some other receiving weapons to take the pressure off Watkins, but the talent is there for them to do so. The team also has to replace 1,000-yard rusher Andre Ellington, but Roderick McDowell ripped off 132 yards on 22 carries and averaged 6.0 yards a carry against Georgia.
The defense is by far the weaker of the two units for Clemson, but the unit showed improvement over the course of the season last year. They were susceptible against big plays and gave up some to Georgia, but how much of that is Clemson and how much is the fact that Georgia’s offense is loaded remains to be seen. The defensive line is deep and full of productive players while the linebackers are experienced, but the secondary is a major concern. The top three defensive backs are gone, and depth is an issue. \
Getting past Georgia was huge, as it’s a statement win that really helps boost Clemson in the eyes of the voters. The ACC isn’t held in high regard, so beating a powerful SEC team is crucial to the Tigers’ national championship hopes. Clemson ought to steamroll through most of its schedule with the game against Florida State being the only real test. That game is pretty much the de facto ACC championship game. If the Tigers can avoid a letdown and get past the Seminoles, they should be 11-0 going into the regular season finale against in-state rival South Carolina. If that happens, that game should be a doozy.
A national title is too much to ask for–there are too many teams ahead of Clemson in the standings, and other conferences have better reputations in terms of strength than the ACC. However, an 11-1 or 12-0 season with a BCS berth is quite likely. At worst, Clemson will be 10-2, but if the Tigers play like they did against Georgia, they can beat anybody on their schedule.
Florida State Seminoles
For years, Florida State has been “back.” It became almost a preseason tradition as sportswriters would proclaim that this was the year, finally, that the Seminoles were back among the nation’s elite only to watch Florida State fail to live up to the hype once the season began. Not so in 2012. Sure, the Seminoles were touted as a dark horse national title contender and failed to make the BCS title game, but Florida State did go 12-2, capture an ACC title, and win the Orange Bowl. Can they repeat as ACC champs this year and perhaps go even farther?
In order to do so, Florida State must replace first-round draft pick E.J. Manuel at quarterback. Redshirt freshman Jameis Winston won the job in the fall, but he’s unproven. He’s certainly talented and will have help around him, but there are bound to be hiccups along the way. While Winston gets his feet wet and grows into the roll, the Florida State offense will rely on a pair of experienced tailbacks running behind an experienced, powerful offensive line that returns four starters. Juniors Devonta Freeman and James Wilder, Jr. had nearly identical seasons, with both running for over 600 yards on just over 100 carries each for an average just under 6.0 yards a carry. Three of the top four receivers also return, so the situation is about as good as it could be for a new quarterback.
Florida State has long been known for possessing a tough, athletic defense, and 2013 is no exception. Defensive line is a bit of a concern due to turnover, but FSU has recruited well and is stocked with talent. The rest of the defense will be outstanding; linebackers Christian Jones and Telvin Smith wreaked havoc last year, combining for 16.5 tackles for loss.
Aside from Clemson, nobody else appears to be a threat to Florida State in the ACC. However, the biggest opponent will be the Seminoles themselves. They always seem to stumble and drop a game or two that they shouldn’t. Last year, it was against NC State. The year before, it was Wake Forest. With an untested quarterback, the odds of that happening are even greater. Florida State should easily win 10-12 games again–they have to play Clemson and Florida on the road–but the potential for an upset or two is always there with this team.
Middle of the Pack
North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Syracuse
North Carolina State Wolfpack
Under Tom O’Brien, NC State was the picture of mediocrity. The Wolfpack had some nice wins, like last year’s upset of Florida State, but never threatened to move to the upper echelon in the ACC. The school fired O’Brien and brought in Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren, fresh off leading NIU to a BCS berth.
Doeren will have to make do without quarterback Mike Glennon and his 4,000 yards passing and 31 touchdowns. Arkansas transfer Brandon Mitchell won the job but broke his foot in the season opener and is out for a month or more. Colorado State transfer Pete Thomas inherits the job, and while he was a highly-rated recruit, he never lived up to the hype in Fort Collins. The offensive line needs to replace four starters, and the running game needs to find some explosiveness; freshman Matt Dayes provided a nice start to the season with an 84-yard, 3-touchdown effort. On the bright side, the receiving corps is deep.
The defense returns plenty of starters and experienced backups and should be solid against the pass. Rush defense needs to improve, though.
With an easy schedule (eight home games), NC State will make a bowl game, but a suspect offense–especially after losing its starting quarterback–will keep the Wolfpack from ascending higher.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Georgia Tech is the most unique BCS school in the country. In an era of up-tempo, spread offenses, Georgia Tech runs the triple option. Aside from the service academies, they are the only school in the FBS to do so. After some initial success–Tech won 11 games and the ACC title in 2009–the Yellow Jackets have stagnated. The offense has bee consistently good, but the defense hasn’t done its part. Georgia Tech went 7-7 in 2012–the extra game is because they played in the ACC championship game due to Miami’s ineligibility.
The offense should be as effective as ever. Quarterback Vad Lee returns along with a plethora of running backs, and they’ll be running behind an experienced line. The receiving corps is green, but this is a team that doesn’t throw the ball much and relies on play-action. While it’s a concern, it’s not nearly as big of a concern as it would be for pretty much any other team.
Ted Roof has been brought in to fix the defense, and he’ll be changing to a 4-3 scheme. Jeremiah Attaochu moves to defensive end, and he’ll be counted on to repeat last season’s 12 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. The linebacking corps is experienced but needs to make more plays, but the secondary ought to be pretty good.
The schedule is favorable, although a middle stretch against Virginia Tech, Miami, and BYU could present some challenges. Still, Clemson and Georgia are the only games jump out as sure losses. With a suspect defense, it’s unrealistic to expect Tech to win the remaining ten games, but 8-4 or potentially 9-3 is doable.
Just like he did at Temple, Al Golden has done a wonderful job turning around a Miami program that has been dogged by scandal and looming NCAA sanctions. While the NCAA has yet to reveal what punishment it will hand down to Miami, but on the field, things are looking up for the Hurricanes. Miami went 7-5 a year ago as a young team and comes into 2013 having own three-of-its-last-four games.
The strength of this team is unquestionably its powerful offense. Quarterback Stephen Morris returns for his senior year after completing 58 percent of his passes for 3,345 yards and 21 touchdowns against 7 interceptions. Sophomore running back Duke Johnson is a future star after rushing for 947 yards as a freshman and averaging a stellar 6.8 yards a carry. Johnson also caught 27 passes out of the backfield for 221 yards. He’ll be running behind an offensive line that is one of the best in the country. The top three receivers return, as well as tight end Clive Walford. This offense should be one of the best in the ACC.
The offense will have to be good because the defense is suspect. Miami struggled with holding leads and in the red zone. Injuries were a problem last year, but the silver lining is that a ton of players gained game experience. This defense is experienced with some depth, which is a plus. The Hurricanes must develop some semblance of a pass rush and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks to ease the pressure on a secondary that has to replace both starting cornerbacks. Miami is the favorite Coastal Division, but the Hurricanes need to show more consistency.
The Canes catch a break in getting Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech at home (and non-conference rival Florida, for that matter). Best case scenario, Miami goes 10-2, losing to Florida and Florida State. However, this team is too inconsistent, especially on defense, to expect that, so figure 8-9 wins and a Coastal division title.
Virginia Tech Hokies
Most college programs would love to call a 7-5 season a huge disappointment, but then again, most programs aren’t Virginia Tech. Under Frank Beamer, the Hokies have been consistently among the upper echelon of teams in the nation. Tech’s streak of 10-win seasons came to a screeching halt last year, and things don’t like they’re going to get much better this year.
The offense just wasn’t very good. A new offensive coordinator, Scott Loeffler, has been brought in, and his first order of business will be straightening out quarterback Logan Thomas. The senior came into last season as a possible Heisman candidate and potential high NFL draft pick, but he disappointed. He completed only 51 percent of his passes and threw 16 interceptions. He didn’t do anything in the season opener against Alabama to put those questions to rest, completing only 5-of-26 passes for 59 yards with one interception that was returned for a touchdown. Virginia Tech is terribly young and unproven at receiver, but redshirt freshman running back Trey Edmunds had an excellent debut, rushing for 132 yards on 20 carries, including a 77-yard touchdown run, against Alabama’s vaunted defense.
The Hokies’ identity has traditionally come from a strong defense, and that hasn’t changed. Virginia Tech held mighty Alabama to just 206 yards of total offense. The defensive line is deep and experienced. Two starting linebackers need to be replaced, but senior Jack Tyler returns after logging 87 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks a year ago. The secondary is a little thin but has playmakers in Kyshoen Jarrett, Antone Exum, and Kyle Fuller.
Nobody expected the Hokies to take down Alabama, but the complete lack of offense is a major concern. Thomas looked abysmal, especially for a multi-year starter. The schedule is really easy, so despite all their issues, expect 8-9 wins.
North Carolina Tar Heels
North Carolina was a mess in 2011, having to deal with NCAA sanctions and the firing of head coach Butch Davis. Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora was brought in to clean things up, and his debut season was an unqualified success. The Tar Heels were ineligible for the postseason, but they did manage to go 8-4–with three losses coming by a combined nine points–and wins over Virginia Tech and Miami.
The offense loses stud running back and all-around playmaker Giovani Bernard (1,,228 rushing yards; 483 receiving yards) but should still in good shape with the return of quarterback Bryn Renner, receiver Quinshad Davis, and running back Romar Morris. Renner, a senior, threw for 3,356 yards and 28 touchdowns with 11 interceptions a year ago. Davis caught 61 passes as a freshman for 776 yards. Morris rushed for 172 yards and two scores when filling in for an injured Bernard against Louisville, and will be counted on, along with senior A.J. Blue (433 yards, 9 touchdowns), to produce in the run game. Junior tight end Eric Ebron is also a weapon after catching 40 passes for 630 yards in 2012. The offensive is a bit of a concern after losing three starters.
The defense struggled learning a new system last year and loses two of its best players in linebacker Kevin Reddick and defensive tackler Sylvester Williams, a first-round NFL draft pick. The unit got lit up by Maryland (with a converted linebacker at quarterback), NC State, Georgia Tech, and Duke. Plenty of players saw playing time last year, so depth and experience aren’t an issue, but this defense needs to generate a pass rush and make more plays.
The first half of the season is the most difficult with visits to South Carolina Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech followed by a home game against Miami, but it’s hardly daunting. If the Tar Heels can get through that in good shape, they ought to have a good season as the second half is pretty easy. Eight or nine wins is a pretty good bet.
Head coach Paul Chryst’s debut season started off disastrously with a two-touchdown loss to FCS Youngstown State, but the Panthers got better as the season progressed and went 4-2 down the stretch to qualify for a bowl game that they lost to Ole Miss. Pitt beat Rutgers and Virginia Tech, and the Panthers nearly defeated national runner-up Notre Dame. A move to the ACC represents a fresh start for the Panthers, and they are looking to have a nice debut season in their new conference.
The offense was clearly the weaker unit in 2012, and that won’t change in 2013 as much-maligned quarterback Tino Sunseri, running backs Ray Graham and Rushel Shell, and the top three receivers all gone. Former Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage won the job in camp, so Pitt will have an experienced signal-caller running the show. The skill players are green, however. Graham rushed for over 1,000 yards, and Shell added another 600. Number one wideout Devin Street returns after catching 73 passes for 975 yards, but the next most-experienced receiver had a whopping 5 catches for 68 yards last year. The line returns four starters, but Pitt is woefully inexperienced at the skill positions.
The defense is expected to carry the team, and it is a solid unit. The line is anchored by defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who 18.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and an astonishing 53 tackles. That was good enough to rank him third on the team in tackles, a remarkable feat for an interior lineman. The linebackers and secondary are experienced; strong safety Jason Hendricks picked off six passes in 2012. Pitt should be good against the pass, but the run defense needs to get better.
Pitt gets most of its toughest opponents at home, and all of its road games are winnable. A rebuilt offense will hold the Panthers back, but Pitt should return to a bowl game.
In one of the more surprising moves of the offseason, Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone left to take over the Buffalo Bills of the NF after leading the Orange to an 8-5 record. Marrone didn’t set the world on fire at Syracuse, but he did do some promising things, and it’s now time for Scott Shafer, promoted to head coach from defensive coordinator, to continue the momentum in Syracuse’s first season in the ACC.
Shafer will have his work cut out for him as he’ll have to find a new quarterback, replace his top two receivers, and deal with the loss of two top starters on the offensive line. Quarterback Ryan Nassib threw for 3,750 yards with 26 touchdowns while Alec Lemon (1,067 yards) and Marcus Sales (870 yards) were big weapons on the outside. Number three receiver Jarrod West returns after catching 43 passes for 598 yards, but the rest of the receivers are unproven. Running backs Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley return after combining for nearly 2,000 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns, and they figure to be the focal point for the offense.
The Orange defense plays an attacking style that produces a lot of big plays, albeit for both teams. Three starters on the defensive line have departed, but the linebackers ought to be solid. The secondary returns a wealth of experience, but considering how they struggled last year, that may not be a good thing.
The opening slate of Penn State and Northwestern is tough–the Orange will likely be 0-2–but aside from the Clemson and Florida State games, none of the rest are particularly daunting. The questions at quarterback and along the lines are concerns, but Marrone raised the talent level at Syracuse before leaving. Another 8-win season isn’t in the cards, but this team should make another bowl game.
Bottom of the Barrel
Duke, Virginia, Maryland, Boston College, Wake Forest
Duke Blue Devils
Duke had its best season in nearly 20 years in 2012, qualifying for a bowl game for the first time since 1994. Amid the celebration, however, is cause for concern. The Blue Devils started the year 6-2 then lost their final five games. The offense was loaded with seniors and must break in a new quarterback. An offense that’s likely to regress combined with a defense that hasn’t gotten any better in David Cutcliffe’s tenure does not bode well for Duke’s chancing of returning to a bowl game for a second-straight year.
Quarterback Sean Renfree was pretty effective, completing two-thirds of his passes for 2,755 yards and 18 touchdowns while only throwing 8 interceptions. Anthony Boone gets first crack at replacing him and performed well in the season opener against NC Central. The backfield is deep but devoid of stars, but the receiving corps is just the opposite. It has a star in junior wideout Jamison Crowder, who is coming off a 76-catch, 1,074 yard season, but there is little depth beyond him. The offensive line is strong, which will help immensely.
Duke brings back plenty of starters on defense, but this unit was pretty terrible in 2012. Experience helps, but only if there is talent to go along with it. The secondary is a concern, as only one starter returns.
Duke has little to no margin for error and will be hard-pressed to make it back to a bowl game this season. The Blue Devils are going to need plenty of luck because Memphis is about the only sure-thing left on the schedule in terms of victories. Troy and Navy aren’t intimidating, and neither is Wake Forest, but Georgia Tech and Pitt could be tough. A bowl berth is possible, but 3-5 wins is more reasonable.
The 2012 Virginia Cavaliers were a disappointment. After going 8-5 in 2011, the Cavs fell apart and stumbled to a 4-8 season. A major staff overhaul has brought in a number of noted and experienced assistants, but will that be enough to change Virginia’s fortunes?
Virginia has made inroads in recruiting, but those highly-touted youngsters are raw and inexperienced. New offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild will have to break in a completely new quarterback, but he had some good success with that at Colorado State. There will be growing pains, but the good news is that the offense has some nice weapons. Junior running back Kevin Parks returns after rushing for 734 yards and five touchdowns last season, and he’ll be joined by five-star recruit Taquan Mizzell. The receiving corps is devoid of stars but features a lot of experienced players who were thrown into the fire last year as young guys and should be much-improved with a year under their belts.
Depth is an issue for the defense after losing several key players, but there is talent on this side of the ball. Virginia was pretty good against the run in 2012 but couldn’t rush the passer, and it will be counting on some young, inexperienced players in the front seven. The secondary should be really good, though; cornerback Demetrious Nicholson broke up 15 passes last year, and every starter returns this season.
The non-conference schedule is less daunting than it looks. Virginia will have no chance against Oregon, but the Cavaliers upset a solid BYU squad boasting a ferocious defense. VMI and Ball State are certainly winnable games, so Virginia should, at the very least, be 2-2 heading into conference play, and 3-1 is pretty likely. Finding another 3-4 wins on the schedule is dicey, though. Virginia’s just not that good, and there are always growing pains with youth. Four to five wins sounds about right.
Maryland had a season for the ages in 2012, and not in a good way. A team that was already painfully young had to deal with four quarterbacks going down for the season due to injury. Presumptive starter C.J. Brown tore his ACL in August, then backup Perry Hills tore his ACL in October. Hills’ replacement, Devin burns, suffered a foot injury in the same game and was out for the year. The next week, quarterback Caleb Rowe went down with a torn ACL. That left the Terrapins with having to resort to true freshman linebacker Shawn Petty, and that went about as well as you would expect. Still, Maryland managed to double its win total from the previous year and won four games. All of those young guys are seasoned now, and all four quarterbacks are healthy.
The offense will be better in 2013, mainly because it will have an actual quarterback at the helm. Stefon Diggs was a freshman sensation at wide receiver, and he’ll be joined by fellow former five-star recruit Deon Long. Diggs put up phenomenal numbers, especially considering who he had throwing the ball to him, and with the arrival of Long, defenses won’t be able to concentrate solely on Diggs. The run game has some talented sophomores, but the offensive line is a concern.
The defense held up fairly well last season, but it loses a number of key players like defensive end Joe Vellano. Plenty of players saw playing time last year, but there are a lot of young guys here. There will be some growing pains.
Maryland will be better this year, mainly because having a quarterback will help, and the schedule is favorable. A bowl game is certainly not out of the question. Call it 5-7 wins for Maryland.
Boston College Eagles
Boston College has been in decline since firing Jeff Jagodzinki in 2009, and former Temple coach Steve Addazio has been brought in to turn things around. That’s a tall order as the Eagles were a lowly 2-10 last season, with their only wins coming against FCS school Maine, and quarterback-deprived Maryland.
Serviceable quarterback Chase Rettig returns after throwing for over 3,000 yards last year, but he needs to improve his accuracy (54 percent completion percentage) and cut down on turnovers (13 interceptions against 17 touchdowns). An atrocious run game needs to improve, but Andre Williams showed flashes of potential last year before succumbing to injuries. The biggest weapon for the BC offense is senior receiver Alex Amidon, who caught 78 passes for 1,210 yards. All-name team receiver Spiffy Evans is the only other experienced wideout, however, so depth is a concern.
The Eagles’ defense returns plenty of depth and experience across all position groups, but the unit absolutely must get better at rushing the passer. Boston College recorded an unfathomably low six sacks in 2012. If BC can get pressure on the quarterback, this defense has the potential to be decent.
The schedule doesn’t help much, as the Eagles face USC on the road and Florida State at home in back-to-back weeks to close out September. They also have to travel to Clemson and North Carolina and finish the season with two more road trips. Four or five wins is about as much improvement as could reasonably expected.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Wake Forest struggled in 2012, going 5-7 and ending the season with a three-game losing streak. The offense was not up-to-par, and the defense was not good enough to make up for it.
Senior quarterback Tanner Price returns, but leading rusher Josh Harris was ruled ineligible for the year. With Wake transitioning to more of an option attack, the loss of Harris hurts. Sophomore Deandre Martin had 126 carries for 490 yards last year, but the only other running back on the roster with experience ran for a whopping -6 yards on 5 carries. Receiver Michael Campanaro caught 79 balls for 763 yards a year ago, but no other receiver had at least 25 catches or over 300 yards. The offensive line is in better shape as plenty of starting experience returns, but it must improve its performance for the new ground game to be effective.
The Wake Forest defense was beset by injuries, but it was still the strength of the team. Led by Nikita Whitlock, a 5’10” 250 pound defensive tackle, the defensive line held up pretty well and ought to do so again this year as everyone returns. There some holes to fill at linebacker, but if the secondary is healthy, it should be pretty good with cornerbacks Merrill Noel and Kevin Johnson. Wake doesn’t have any margin for error, but if the bounces go their way, the Demon Deacons will be back in a bowl game.
Atlantic Division Champion
The Atlantic Division is going to come down to Florida State and Clemson. These two teams are the class of the conference, and it’s not even close. Florida State got the edge last year, and while its defense is vastly superior to Clemson’s, it’ll be breaking in a new, unproven quarterback. Clemson is loaded on offense with Boyd and Watkins, and the Tigers were able to put points on the board against Florida State last year.
With an improving defense and more experience on offense, Clemson beats the Seminoles this year and makes it to the ACC championship game.
Coastal Division Champion
The Coastal Division is clearly the weaker of the two divisions, but it offers more parity. Most of these teams are about even, and all have substantial questions and flaws. Virginia Tech has no offense, and Georgia Tech has no defense. Miami has the most talent and a championship pedigree, but the Canes are inconsistent. Still, they are the best team of the bunch and would have won the division a year ago had they been eligible. Provided there are no postseason bans, the Hurricanes will represent the Coastal in the ACC title game.
The winner of the Atlantic division will win the ACC, and this year, it’ll be Clemson. The Tigers are a national championship contender and just have too much on offense for Miami to handle.