The ACC has struggled in recent seasons to be relevant on a national stage, as the local competition in the SEC has dominated the recruiting trail and bowl games. However, the two Florida teams appear posied to grow back into nationally relevant powers and Virginia Tech continues to hold up the league banner well. Just like North Carolina a season ago (and the Tar Heels will be adversely affected again this season with the recent firing of Butch Davis), a bombshell and a major NCAA investigation has clouded the skies over Coral Gables as the Miami football program may have serious compliance problems coming to light. Will these recent allegations have fallout on this season for the Hurricanes, or can they overcome the problems to challenge Virginia Tech and North Carolina? Will Florida State live up to expectations as a top 5 team for the first time in nearly a decade? So many questions invite us to dig in to find out how 2011 will play out.
Florida State Seminoles
Second year head coaches are now expected to make great strides in moving a program back towards national prominence, and Jimbo Fisher will be expected to do the same in year two at Tallahassee. Fisher brings back 16 starters from a team that won 10 games a season ago, including an appearance in the conference championship game. The offense returns every starter except for quarterback and two offensive linemen, but the big hole at quarterback will be filled by E.J. Manuel, who gained valuable experience the past two seasons when Christian Ponder was injured. Manuel looked particularly impressive reading the South Carolina defense in the bowl game last year, so Seminoles fans should expect no drop off in the passing game. Chris Thompson returns as starting running back, but look for Jermaine Thomas and true freshman James Wilder to also share the rushing load as FSU is stacked more than any other team in the ACC at that position. The defensive line will have four juniors that stuffed the run well a season ago. The only new starter in the group is transfer Tank Carradine, who is probably the best junior college recruit at any level of the defense in 2011. The defensive backfield returns intact, and look for cornerbacks Greg Reid and Xavier Rhodes to improve on the 7 interceptions from a season ago. FSU has a highly favorable league schedule, with the hardest road test against Clemson and no Virginia Tech game. It will not be surprising if FSU is 8-0 in the conference, but finishing undefeated with non conference games against Oklahoma and Florida at the Swamp will be highly difficult. Nonehteless, Fisher will likely take a step forward to the BCS this season, a welcome sight in Seminoles country.
Virginia Tech Hokies
Owners of the only BCS bowl victory for the conference in the last decade, Virginia Tech has been the most consistent team in college football and the ACC since joining the conference in 2004. Just like seeing Frank Beamer on the sideline in Blacksburg (entering 25th season), you can almost guarantee Tech will win 10 or 11 games every single season at this point. This season the Hokies return fewer starters than any other ACC team, but should still be considered the favorite in the Coastal Division thanks to a highly favorable schedule (the hardest road game is Georgia Tech) and the winning pedigree in Blacksburg. Like so many other fresh faces at quarterback in the ACC this year, sophomore QB Logan Thomas will be expected to jump right into the fire with an offensive line and receiver corps loaded with seniors. Thomas will likely struggle to stay on the same page with his recievers all year, but his running ability reminds some of Cam Newton, who learned to become a great game manager last year in the title run at Auburn. RB David Wilson begins his first year starting but he was an all conference kick returner a season ago and will explode multiple times this year. The defensive line struggled mightily last year but should receive some immediate help from redshirt freshmen Zach McCray and Nick Acree. The only senior on the defense is safety Eddie Whitley, but he will be an emotional leader and spark for this team after racking up 80 tackles and 2 picks a season ago. The special teams units have to reload two new kickers, but David Wilson will ensure that the Hokies always have good field position. Although the schedule has the markings of an undefeated year, Tech will likely stay consistent and drop a couple of games with their inexperience, yet still find themselves with a chance for the conference title against FSU.
Al Golden has to be wondering what kind of mess he just walked into as the tabloids and investigative reporters swarm Croal Gables coming into this season thanks to the allegations against the past decade of Miami players. However, Golden will have to get his players to ignore the turmoil as well as possible because Miami doesn't want to lose a great opportunity to take advantage of an inexperienced Virginia Tech team and another team broiled in controversy in Chapel Hill. Jacory Harris enters his senior year at quarterback with a real battle on his hands after splitting time with Stephen Morris a season ago. Harris has thrown for a lot of yards but continues to make a lot of poor judgement calls, undermining his great potential. Harris loses his favorite target Leonard Hankerson but returns three senior receivers with a lot of experience in Travis Benjamin, Laron Byrd, and Aldarius Johnson. Golden will also expect a lot from his offensive line, which returns nine of the ten in the two-deep. Speaking of improving lines, Golden is a master of getting the most out of his men in the trenches, so the defense should quickly improve from their 173 yards per game surrendered on the ground in 2010. As long as the defense shores up against the run, the Hurricanes have more than enough talent to shut down opposing offenses enough to give their offense a good opportunity to win most games. Miami has a brutal schedule with VT, UNC, FSU, and Maryland on the road. However, Miami may rally around "the U" in spite of the looming controversy and pull a couple of upsets on the road. If one of those is in Blacksburg, then Miami could ifnd itself in the conference championship.
Despite making another consecutive bowl game in 2010, Clemson finished with a losing record for the first time in over a decade with a loss to USF in the bowl. Dabo Swinney will be looking for a lot of improvement in his offense this season, especially with 9 starters back. After losing the starting quarterback job two seasons in a row to Kyle Parker, Tajh Boyd will now be the new quarterback in his redshirt sophomore season. Quarterbacks tend to do well right from the start at Clemson, and Boyd should be no different with a talented young crop of receivers to throw to, including sophomores Bryce McNeal and DeAndre Hopkins. The offensive line tends to be a bit larger than the usual ACC zone blocking line, but they have had good success protecting the quarterback and opening rushing lanes the past two seasons with this setup. Clemson may be successful for the same reason Wisconsin is in the Big Ten, that being a dominant offensive line. The defense will see a lot of new faces rotate into starting positions this season, but Swinney is confident that the Tigers will improve against opposing passing games. Xavier Brewer will be the new lockdown corner, which will put a lot of pressure on senior Cody Sensabaugh to hold the slack on the weak side of the backfield. Also watch for true freshman LB Stephone Anthony to make an immediate impact. Unlike Florida State, Clemson pulls UNC and Virginia Tech out of the coastal. Thus, Clemson could defeat Florida State to start conference play and still not win the division. Clemson will be in the hunt with another winning campaign no matter how that game goes against the Seminoles.
IN THE MIX
NC State Wolfpack
Many questioned if Tom O'Brien made a career folly when he jumped across the conference to Raleigh from BC five years ago and started with three losing seasons. However, O'Brien put it together finally last year with a 9-4 mark and a winning record in the ACC. This year hopes will continue to be high as eight starters return on a defensive unit that only allowed 21 points per game a season ago. The only notable loss is LB Nate Irving, but the next seven players with the most tackles in 2010 will lead the defense this year. Of those returning players, the most impressive group may be the three juniors and one sophomore in the defensive backfield, led by CB David Amerson. The Wolfpack played well above expectations against the run a season ago, but the defensive backfield is so good that they should be able to afford a small step back in that department this season. Like the other major contenders in the Atlantic Division, NC State will be starting a new quarterback in 2011. Mike Glennon finally gets his turn as a junior after losing out two seasons ago to the more mobile Russell Wilson. Glennon has been working out with his wide recievers this offseason and may surprise some defenses early with decent running ability when he is flushed from the pocket. Mustafa Greene led the team in rushing last year as a freshman, so expect big things from him this year behind an experienced offensive line. NC State should be able to run the ball more than they ever have before in O'Brien's tenure, which is a good sign for being competitive in the conference. With the exception of a trip to Tallahassee, the schedule is manageable and could see NC State as a darkhorse contender should the Seminoles or Tigers slip.
Boston College Eagles
Boston College failed to have a winning record in ACC play for the first time last year since coming from the Big East, but the Eagles still finished 4-4 and went to a bowl game. Frank Spazziani will be looking for some serious improvement from his offense this season after a disappointing 2010. Sophomore Chase Rettig appears to be the choice for starting quarterback after limited playing time a season ago, but the Eagles have plenty of options should Rettig be injured again or have a few bad games to start the season. The star of the show should be RB Montel Harris, who is within 125 yards of the school rushing record and may set the conference rushing record before the 2011 season is complete. Like most great running backs, Harris has an underrated talent sharing the carries with him in sophomore Andre Williams. Opposing defenses will not be able to relax when Harris comes out this season, as Williams proved he is explosive enough to blow through defenses last year. Defense has been the hallmark of BC's success the past few seasons, but this year the unit has to reload a bit. LB Luke Kuechly recorded an amazing 183 tackles a season ago and will once again be all over the field in one of the best linebacker units in the country. The key to the Eagles seaosn may be how well the new starters plug in at defensive line and in the defensive backfield. The schedule includes road games at Clemson, Virginia Tech, Miami, and Notre Dame, so BC may struggle to keep up with the division leaders down the stretch.
Although Maryland had not had much success under Ralph Friedgen since the early part of the decade, the Terrapins sent him out well with a 9-4 record a season ago. Now Randy Edsall comes in from a great season of his own at Connecticut and walks into a great situation with a high number of starters returning. One of those returning starters is sophomore quarterback Danny O'Brien, who had some ups and downs as a freshman but still threw for 22 touchdowns and 2436 yards. O'Brien will be happy to see a new deep threat weapon in freshman WR Adrian Coxson, although senior Ronnie Tyler could still be an important target. Edsall will look to keep TE Matt Furstenburg involved in the passing game, which will put more pressure on opposing defenses. The defensive line improved dramatically to allowing only 124 rushing yards per game a season ago. Expect this number to improve further with tackles AJ Francis and Joe Vellano back for another season. A big question mark for the Terrapins will be whether the defensive backfield can hold the line with top safety Kenny Tate moving up to star linebacker. The special teams could also be an issue with Nick Ferrara taking over the kicking and the punting duties to start the season. Look for a step backwards in 2011, but Maryland should still be bowl bound by the end of the season.
North Carolina Tar Heels
A month ago, North Carolina looked like a surprise team that could reverse the disappointment from 2010 and perhaps take the Coastal Division. Then Butch Davis is fired right before fall camp and further suspensions may be looming for the team most hit by the NCAA a year ago. The quarterback competition is still heated two weeks before the season, but either sophomore Bryn Renner or junior Braden Hanson will likely have a decent season assuming they continue to pushe ach other to top potential during the practice weeks. Senior RB Ryan Houston was unexpectedly lost for the season a year ago, but will be back and should receive most of the carries. Receivers Jheranie Boyd and Dwight Jones will stretch defenses out assuming whoever wins the quarterback job can deliver the ball accurately, and UNC's offensive numbers should remain strong like last year. The defense will look to rebound after the suspensions racked them a season ago. The stars are up front in the defensive line, as four starters return that should end up playing on Sundays. Quinton Coples and Donte Paige-Moss are each threats on the ends of the line and will be very disruptive for opposing quarterbacks. UNC has a highly favorable schedule with the exception of a trip to Blacksburg, so even with the turmoil of a new coach, a winning season should be expected.
ALL THE REST
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
The ACC appeared to make an adjustment to Paul Johnson's option attack last year, as Tech struggled to a 6-7 finish. Georgia Tech rushed for more yards per game (323) than ever before but had trouble punching the ball into the end zone. The offense may not have the same woes this year as three starters return on the line, including juniots Omoregie Uzzi and Phil Smith. Two redshirt freshmen take over the option attack with QB Syniyn Days and RB Charles Perkins, but Johnson will rotate many players into the mix to keep the legs fresh. On defense the Yellow Jackets return all three starters on the line and two linebackers Steven Sylvester and Julian Burnett. Expect the defense to play significantly better against the run thean they did last year thanks to all this returning experience. The one key to attacking Georgia Tech's defense may be testing the youth and inexperience in the defensive backfield. No starters return from last year, but that may not be a big issue considering the struggles the backfield had at times last year. Tech actually has a manageable schedule, but serious improvement needs to be made before Tech competes for a league title again. Bowl eligibility should be the goal this year in Atlanta.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Despite some successful seasons in 2006-08 and a conference championship five years ago, Jim Grobe and the Demon Deacons have fallen on hard times in the Atlantic Division once again. The silver lining for 2011 may be that 17 starters return to improve on a 3-9 year, which is similar to 2006 when WF improved from 4-7 to 11-3. Last year the defense fell apart, giving up over 430 yards per game while the offense supttered to 302 yards per game themselves. This year, the freshmen who led the offense (QB Tanner Price and RB Josh Harris) should improve dramatically, especially behind a veteran offensive line. The defense only needs to replace one lineman and one linebacker, which is a welcome change from the previous two seasons. Expect huge improvements from the defense against opposing passing games, as the backfield should come down with far more than the 7 interceptions total from a year ago. The Demon Deacons do return a great placekicker in Jimmy Newman, who was only one missed field goal away from perfection a season ago. Newman could be critical to the team pulling some upsets as Wake Forest attempts to return to a bowl for the first time in three seasons. With Virginia Tech and North Carolina being in cross division games, a winning season is not likely. However, the Demon Deacons will be improved.
Mike London enters his second season at Virginia and may have the Cavaliers back on the road to being competitive after pulling in one of the best recruiting classes in the conference this offseason. Although some of those recruits may jump into the mix right away, London will have a veteran unit back with 18 returning starters thanks to his cycling of players last season. A new quarterback will lead the loaded offense, and it appears that sophomore Michael Rocco will win the job. Rocco fits London's offense better than Marc Verica did last year, so he should be able to succeed right away. Look for newcomer receiver Darius Jennings to test defenses deep many times this season. Perry Jones will take the majority of the carries after splitting time a season ago, but Virginia may not need to rely on a huge running game to move the ball. The defense returns 10 starters and should improve dramatically from a poor showing in 2010. The defensive line features three returning seniors with Matt Conrath, Nick Jenkins, and Cam Johnson, who will be expected to bring the 203 rushing yards per game in 2010 back down towards 140 or 150. The defensive back seven will need to tackle better to avoid the big plays that happened against this unit last year. Virginia should be improving but they do pull one of the hardest schedules in the conference with road games at Maryland, UNC, FSU, and Miami. It may be difficult for Virginia to reach a bowl, but they may flirt with it.
Duke Blue Devils
David Cutliffe has brought Duke football back to being competitive in his first three seasons, although the Blue Devils have not broken through to a bowl game since 1994. Cutliffe has improved the offense dramatically over the past three seasons, and those numbers could improve with 8 starters back this season. Sean Renfree threw for 3100 yards a season ago but will need to cut down from the 17 interceptions he threw as a sophomore. RB Desmond Scott has the talent to easily break 1000 yards as long as his offensive line gives him some decent holes to run through. Scott should find the going a little easier behind tackles Perry Simmons and Kyle Hill. The defense returns only three starters in the front seven, but those new starters could be a welcome sight after the unit gave up over 200 yards pe rgame on the ground last season. The defense also struggled to stop opposing passing games, and will need cornerbacks Ross Cockrell and Zach Greene to shut down top receivers to keep plays in front of the defense. Duke has the most talent they have had in Cutliffe's tenure, but bowl eligibility may be a stretch considering how much this team needs to improve from the 2010 season. Duke may need to win two of their final three games (at Virginia, GT, at UNC) to have a chance to reach their first bowl game in nearly two decades, but that probably will not happen.
There's a moderate chance that Florida State and Virginia Tech could have zero or one loss total between them if they meet in the ACC Championship for a rematch of the 2010 version. If that comes to pass, the ACC will certainly have the attention of the BCS, as a winner in this league cannot be brushed aside as usual in the BCS games this season. Perhaps this will be the year the conference finally breaks through with two teams in the BCS bowls, although that certainly depends more on how other big conference races and non-BCS conference busters turn out this season. As long as the storm clouds of the NCAA hovering over the Coastal Division do not dump on UNC and Miami, Virginia Tech could be in for a dogfight. But at the end of the day, Tech and Florida State return to the championship, and I expect Florida State to make a triumphant return to the BCS this season.