The ACC: better than you might expect. For a conference that has won a grand total of one BCS bowl in the last decade and had losing records in bowl play the past four seasons, it seems easy to write off the ACC as a basketball conference. However, that is not the case in 2010 as over half the conference should be ranked most of the year. There are some huge national exposure out-of-conference tests early on, which will improve the battles in October and November. Last year Georgia Tech and Clemson rolled to division titles, but both will not be the favorites in 2010 despite bringing back many returning starters. The ACC is my darkhorse pick to have two BCS berths in 2011, assuming these teams don't beat each other up to the extent they have in seasons past.
After three seasons of mediocrity, Randy Shannon finally put Miami football back on the map with a 3-1 start against four ranked teams in 2009, a great start. This year the Hurricanes at least get a home tune-up against Florida A&M before trying to be world-beaters again at Ohio State and Pittsburgh. Miami also pulls clemson and Florida State from the Atlantic, which makes the schedule brutal. Nevertheless, the team brings back 13 starters and should be better than the team that rolled to nine wins last season. QB Jacory Harris has become the star of the show entering his junior season, and he's got the full complement of returning receivers Travis Benjamin, Leonard Hankerson, and Aldaris Johnson. The defense is stacked with seniors and especially up front on the defensive line. Look for star sophomore DT Marcus Forston to fit right in and anchor the line which will force a lot of pressure on opposing offenses. Miami should be able to outscore most opponents this season, but the key to winning an ACC title will be the much improved defense. Look for big things from Miami including at least one upset of Ohio State or Pittsburgh.
Virginia Tech Hokies
When Virginia Tech started last season in a neutral-site game against Alabama, everyone thought the winner had a fast track to the BCS Championship. Unfortunately for the Hokies, that ended up true for the Crimson Tide, but this seaosn Virginia Tech has another crucial "neutral" opener (Landover is Hokie country) against Boise State. Although Virginia Tech may not be favored, winning that game will go a long way toward setting up a chance for two Coastal division teams in the BCS. The Hokies are stacked on offense with all the skill position talent back along with three strong linemen. It will be interesting to see if Tyrod Taylor can outduel Jacory Harris and the other great quarterbacks lining the ACC this season. Look for sophomore running back Ryan Williams to exceed 1500 yards again this season to take the focus off Taylor and keep defenses honest. The defense and special teams are usually where VT makes their hay, but this year the only returning star is LB Barquell Rivers. A new punter and kicker will likely be good, but look for the Hokies to lose a game or two based on not being able to win the field position battle in the coastal division battles.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Butch Davis has turned North Carolina into more than a premiere basketball school, as the Tar Heels have rolled to two-straight 8 win seasons after a decade of poor results. Davis knows how to build a championship contender, and that is with defense. This season the Tar Heels replace two defensive linemen and one offensive lineman, and they have top 20 recruits plugging each hole. In other words, North Carolina improved every spot where a new man is stepping in. The most interesting battle will be between three-year starting QB T.J. Yates and redshirt freshman Bryn Renner to helm the offense. No matter who wins this spot, expect North Carolina to strongly challenge LSU in the opener and perhaps roll to double-digit victories. The only roadblocks will be tough roadtrips to Miami and Florida State, but splitting these games still likely means their first BCS Bowl in Chapel Hill, a place where Roy Williams and the roundball typically rules in December and January.
Boston College Eagles
The fourth contender slot is a tough one as Florida State and Clemson both may be better suited to the favorite role, but Frank Spaziani has a very experienced team back and these guys were freshmen or sophomores when BC dominated the atlantic division in 2007 and 2008. Although the Eagles have a young sophomore behind center in Dave Shinskie, he will be helped by RB Montel Harris who looks to improve upon 1450 yards last season behind a veteran offensive line. Look for LB Mark Herzlich to snuff out many defensive plays and make a high amount of tackles in 2010. The Eagles will have to win games with their defense, but the schedule is very favorable as BC only plays one of the six other high quality ACC teams on the road (FSU). If Boston College takes care of Virginia Tech and Clemson at home, expect a return trip to the ACC championship and a 50/50 shot against whoever escapes the Coastal division.
IN THE MIX
Florida State Seminoles
As hard as it is to put the Seminoles below the top 4, there's always a hitch when a new coach moves into a spot one man had held for so long, especialy when that man was Bobby Bowden since 1976. Jimbo Fisher has been an integral part of the program though since 2007, so expect FSU to compete for a double-digit win total and a division crown with a whopping nine starters back on offense. QB Christian Ponder may be a darkhorse Heisman candidate if Florida State exceeds expectations and returns to the BCS discussion. Ponder has a veteran offensive line back for another season and should have plenty of time in the pocket to find new receivers Willie Haulstead and Taiwan Easterling. The defense will not be great but they can only improve after last year's disasterous performance week in and week out. Florida State will outscore most opponents, but their defense may wear their offense out. FSU gets BC and Clemson at home, so assuming bullets are dodged against Miami and UNC, Florida State may be back in the mix for another BCS bowl.
The Tigers join their ACC Championship counterparts GT down here in the middling category, but Dabo Swinney will be looking for a repeat division crown in the weaker Atlantic division despite pulling FSU and BC on the road. However, there's only two seniors on the offense and RB C.J. Spiller is being replaced by Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington. Sophomore QB Kyle Parker should be improving though, which may be just enough to carry the Tigers considering they have the best defense in the division. The defensive line is stacked with future NFL talent including superstar junior Da'Quan Bowers. The defensive backfield has some new faces but one of those is LB Justin Parker, who is fast enough to sniff out plays at this level even as a freshman. Look for Clemson to be right in the middle of things despite having a tough schedule.
Georgia Tech Yellowjackets
Sometimes when new coaches come in a program, it takes time for the benefits to pay off. However, Paul Johnson has turned the Yellowjackets into an option powerhouse in two years with 20 wins in those two years and an ACC title, and now he adds Al Groh to run a strong 3-4 defense. The target is now fully on Georgia Tech's back, and with a brutal schedule in 2010 including road games at UNC, Clemson, and Virginia Tech, this might not be a repeat championship year. The offense loses RB Jonathan Dwyer but a stable of running backs and QB Josh Nesbitt will still test defenses every week with an unconventional attack. However, four of the five regular starters on the offensive line need to be replaced, and after Iowa's strong defensive line dominated the Yellowjackets, the blueprints are there for ACC schools like UNC to slow the Yellowjacket attack. On defense the Yellowjackets will be better with 8 returning starters, but the unit has a long way to go before being considered dominant. Georgia Tech may be the fourth-best team in the Coastal, which tells you just how good that division is in 2010.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
The Demon Deacons will be transitioning back to the option attack on offense after slipping from the ACC title back to a losing season in 2009. Jim Grobe knows what he is doing in his tenth year at the helm, and expect new QB Skylar Jones to fit in nicely with an experienced crew of wide receivers to bail him out on non-option plays. The defensive backfield did not perform up to par last season, but more turnovers could make the difference between a losing season and a winning season this year. Roadtrips to FSU and Virginia Tech will be tough, but the home schedule is manageable and I expect Wake Forest to go to a bowl and perhaps have a say in the Atlantic division race.
ALL THE REST
Duke Blue Devils
After winning 10 games from 2000-2007 total, David Cutliff came in and has quickly become the best Blue Devils coach since Steve Spurrier as Duke nearly broke even last year at 5-7. Duke did it last year with a wide-open passing attack, but look for more balance this season with solid sophomore RB Desmond Scott looking for big holes behind an experienced offensive line led by Bryan Morgan in the center. The defense needs to replace five starters and there may be even more turnover than that as Duke looks to improve in a very touch Coastal division. Duke does draw Wake Forest and Maryland and so should flirt with bowl eligibility and their first bowl since 1994 if Duke manages to at least split a solid out-of-conference slate (includes Army, Navy, and Alabama). Even if Duke does not reach the promised land, Cutliffe is moving the program in the right direction and should do the ACC proud for a so-called bottom tier team.
The Terrapins suffered through a 2-10 slog last year but somehow coach Ralph Friedgen is back for at least one more season. The offense should be vastly improved with seven returning starters, although new QB Jamarr Robinson may take a few games to learn the ropes. The Terrapins did pull the easiest possible schedule in the Coastal with Duke and Virginia alongside Miami. The defense will be rebuilding from the 2009 version, but all things considered, that means improvement is in the works for Maryland. The Terrapins should be better but that may not mean bowl eligibility, which is likely necessary for Maryland to keep their coach and keep to his long term plan.
NC State Wolfpack
Ever since Tom O'Brien made the move from Boston College to NC State, the fortunes of the Wolfpack have been unfortunate with an 0-3 record against the Eagles and seven losses every season. The Wolfpack are improving on defense, but they pulled a murderer's row from the Coastal with road games at Georgia Tech and UNC and a home date against Virginia Tech. QB Russell Wilson threw for over 3000 yards last season and should have much more success with senior receivers Darrell Davis, Owen Spencer, and Jarvis Williams. Look for Williams to burn opposing defensive backfields if the others receive any double-team attention. NC State may be middling again this season, but O'Brien has things appearing to move in the right direction and should see improvement in 2011 and 2012.
After three losing seasons in four years, Virginia went a new direction by hiring FCS coach Mike London, who brings a pro-style offense and a 4-3 defense to change it up in Charlottesville. Unfortunately for Virginia, the ACC schedule is brutal being in the Coastal and drawing the best two teams in the Atlantic FSU and BC. Furthermore, the Cavliers will have at least five new starters on both sides of the ball led by true freshman OL Morgan Moses. While the offensive line will be upgraded overall, there will be growing pains switching your skill position players from a spread attack. There's not much hope to escape a rebuilding year, but Virginia fans hope this new beginning is just what the doctor ordered for the next decade of football. After all, the Hokies cannot dominate the state forever.
Boston College and Miami is the selection for the 2010 ACC Championship game, and Randy Shannon will return the 'Canes to the BCS. North Carolina should also be in the BCS mix, especially if both the Tar Heels and the Hurricanes end up with ten wins. If Virginia Tech defeats Boise State, the race will be on as Georgia Tech will not go down without a fight. However, Florida State could be the story of the season if Jimbo Fisher returns the Seminoles to glory, let alone if they happen to beat Florida or Oklahoma. Look for the ACC to be much better than normal this season, but the true test will be how they fare out-of-conference against huge matchups like Ohio State, Oklahoma, Florida, and Notre Dame. Look for big things in the ACC this season.