After falling back to second place in the ACC standings in 2001, the Florida State Seminoles returned to the top spot in 2002, edging out Maryland and Virginia by one game each to claim the title. There are four teams that I feel definitely have a shot at winning the ACC title: the three mentioned above plus NC State. Florida State fell to Georgia in the Sugar Bowl last season to finish with a 9-5 record. Ten of the eleven defensive starters return from last year's team. Four offensive starters return, including junior QB Chris Rix and senior RB Greg Jones who will lead the Noles' scoring attack. Rix accounted for 16 TDs last season while throwing for 1,600 yards. Jones rushed for 8 TDs and nearly 1,000 yards in 2002. The only WR with significant experience is junior Craphonso Thorpe, who caught 4 TD passes last year. The Noles host Colorado and Miami out-of-conference and also must travel to Notre Dame and Florida. Maryland and NC State both travel to Tallahassee in ACC play, but FSU must go to Virginia and Clemson. The non-conference opponents are too tough to expect a national title run, but the Noles should be at or near the top of the ACC standings.
The NC State Wolfpack returns plenty of firepower on offense this season with seven returning starters, including senior QB Philip Rivers, sophomore RB T.A. McLendon, and WR Jerricho Cotchery. Five starters return to the defensive side of the ball. The Wolfpack hopes to again start out the season hot like in 2002, but to this year keep the momentum going throughout. An early non-conference road trip to Ohio State will be extremely difficult. Four of the Pack's last six games are at home, but the last three will tell the tale: Virginia, at Florida State, Maryland. Going into that three-game stretch, the Pack could/should be 8-1 and undefeated in ACC play, setting themselves up for a huge end to the season.
The Maryland Terps have been an amazing success the past few years thanks to the coach who took over in College Park three seasons ago, Ralph Friedgen. "The Fridge" is an incredible 21-5 at Maryland and led the Terps to an ACC title and BCS bowl in 2001. Six starters return on the offense and nine on defense this season. QB Scott McBrien isn't flasy and even looks uncoordinated at times, but he gets the job done. RB Bruce Perry was the conference's offensive player of the year in '01 but missed most of the '02 season with an injury. He comes back this season after rushing for only 341 yards and 1 TD last season. Maryland's defensive secondary is one of the best, if not the best, in the conference. The first two games are tough road trips, to MAC-power Northern Illinois and Florida State. The Terps should then win at least six of the next seven games before finishing the season with a home game against Virginia and road trips to NC State and Wake Forest. UM probably has a slightly tougher road than NC State, but with "Fridge" in control, Maryland will definitely have a say at the top of the ACC.
The Virginia Cavaliers were supposed to be better last season, but I didn't expect a 9-5 season from Al Groh's squad. That season was capped off with a huge blowout win over West Virginia in the Continental Tire Bowl. QB Matt Schaub, a senior, returns to lead an offense that returns all but two starters; all but four return on the defensive side. Early-season road trips out-of-conference to South Carolina and Western Michigan are winnable but won't be easy. The same can be said for conference road trips to North Carolina and Clemson. Florida State travels to Charlottesville before the Cavs must travel to NC State and Maryland. UVA then hosts Big East-power Virginia Tech to conclude the regular season.
Georgia Tech finshed 7-6 overall in 2002 after losing to Fresno State in the Silicon Valley Bowl. Seven starters return on each side of the ball, but the big loss was RB Tony Hollings in the off-season. GT faces two SEC teams, Auburn and Georgia, at home this season as well as traveling to Vanderbilt and BYU. The Jackets host NC State and Maryland; if they can upset those teams at home, Georgia Tech could make a run towards the top of the ACC, but that isn't likely after the loss of Hollings.
The Clemson Tigers were blown out by Texas Tech in the Tangerine Bowl last year and finished 2002 with a 7-6 record. Eight offensive and four defensive starters return this season. Two SEC games, Georgia and at South Carolina, are on the non-conference schedule. The Tigers have one of the toughest conference road schedules in the ACC with trips to Maryland, Georgia Tech, NC State, and Wake Forest.
The Wake Forest Demon Deacons return only three offensive but seven defensive starters. The Deacons finished the regular season at .500 but smoked Oregon out west in the Seattle Bowl to finish off the season nicely. The out-of-conference schedule features a trip to Boston College to open the season and visits from Purdue and East Carolina. If Wake can protect the home field in both non-conference and overall play, they should be able to again have a .500 season.
The North Carolina Tar Heels, after going 5-3 in the ACC in 2002, fell to 1-7 in the conference and 3-9 overall. Eight starters return on each side of the ball, giving UNC fans hope that this team can return to the top half of the conference standings. QB Darian Durant, a junior, threw for over 2,000 yards last year and ran for another 100+ while accounting for 18 TDs. The Heels start out with a murderous stretch of games that really doesn't end until November 8. That's when the last three games for UNC begin: Wake Forest, at Georgia Tech, Duke. With such a tough schedule laid out for North Carolina, .500 will be almost impossible.
The Duke Blue Devils will again be bringing up the rear in 2003. After not winning a game in either 2000 or 2001, the Devils went 2-10 in 2002. All eleven starters on offense return, and all but two starters on defense are back. Coach Carl Franks is an unbelieveable 5-40 in his four years at Duke. I will predict that Duke pulls out a conference win this season, but more than four wins overall is too much to ask.