After last season concluded with the league’s ninth consecutive BCS bowl loss, the ACC is looking for respect and to reverse the league’s declining national reputation. The league has not been able to win a BCS game since Florida State’s win over Virginia Tech in the 1999 Sugar Bowl and has not earned a BCS at-large berth in ten seasons. On the upside, both Boston College and Virginia Tech won eleven games and ended their season ranked in the top ten, while Wake Forest earned its second consecutive trip to the post-season, the first time ever for the Deacon program. The surprise of last season were the Cavaliers of Virginia, who fashioned a nine win season with numerous tight wins in a stunning turnaround campaign. The league had some major turnover since last year, making the upcoming 2008 season one of great interest.
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The Clemson Tigers are the established favorite after a nine win season and the return of a wealth of skill position talent. The main challengers looking to tackle the Tigers are Florida State and Wake Forest in the Atlantic Division, while Virginia Tech, North Carolina, and Miami, Florida are the top teams in the Coastal Division. Still dangerous, talented, and capable of making noise are Boston College, Maryland, and Georgia Tech, while North Carolina State, Duke, and Virginia appear to be in for rebuilding seasons where reaching six wins will be regarded as a success. Overall, the league is balanced, especially in the mid-tier, making for an exciting conference championship chase.
Three Keys | Team-by-Team Analysis
1. Is this finally the year that the Clemson Tigers end their ACC championship drought? The Tigers have not won the ACC since 1991, having come close on numerous occasions but always falling just short. This year’s team is dripping with talent and expectations are sky high to bring the title back to Clemson for the first time in 17 years.
2. Are the former Florida powerhouses ready to re-emerge as legitimate players in the ACC championship chase? Florida State dominated this league for years after their arrival, but the ‘Noles have slipped in recent seasons while Miami fell below .500 last year as new coach Randy Shannon began to put his stamp on the program. Both of these programs are on the rebound and expect to have a major say in how the ACC season plays out in 2008.
3. How will the ACC react to Paul Johnson’s triple option attack at Georgia Tech? This offense is an unknown quantity in this league and will provide a stiff challenge to defensive coordinators. Tech is an inexperienced team overall and look to be in rebuilding mode, but Johnson is a top-notch coach who is capable of preparing his team to be a surprise player in the league race.
OFFENSE: The Eagles top priority is to replace quarterback Matt Ryan, the schools third all-time leading passer and third overall pick in the NFL draft. The responsibility belongs to senior Chris Crane, who has 40 career passes to his credit, but did display a strong arm and good mobility in spring practice. There is no experience at running back, meaning incoming freshman Josh Haden assumes the starting role after competing in spring practice. Assisting Crane will be an experienced receiving corps that returns five of its top seven pass catchers and a strong offensive line, highlighted by three returning starters.
DEFENSE: The Eagles defense did not receive its due credit last season after ranking second in the nation in rush defense and 20th in scoring defense. The strength of this year’s group will be a front seven highlighted by stout defensive tackles, B.J. Raji and Ron Brace, and the return from red shirt of senior linebacker Brian Toal. The major question remaining to be answered is the performance of a rebuilt secondary. Two new cornerbacks will be starting, although reports out of spring regarding sophomore DeLeon Gause have been stellar.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicking is a concern heading into the season as Steve Aponavicius struggled last year, hitting on 12 of 18 attempts, and making only 6 of 12 from beyond 30 yards. The starting punter is not even on campus as of yet with the job likely belonging to incoming freshman Ryan Quigley, who averaged 46 yards per kick in high school. Brandon Robinson will handle both punt and kick return responsibilities, but improvement is needed after he ranked in the bottom tier of the ACC last year.
COACHING: It will be difficult to repeat the performance of his debut season for head coach Jeff Jagodzinski, who guided his Eagles to eleven wins and the schools eighth consecutive bowl win. The remainder of the staff is excellent with Steve Logan in control of the offense for his second season and Frank Spaziani remaining in charge of the defense for a tenth season. One of Jagodzinski’s biggest wins early in his BC career was convincing Spaziani to remain on the staff as he is one of the best defensive minds in the game.
SCHEDULE: The Eagles have a chance to get off to a quick start, with non-conference games versus Kent State, Central Florida, and Rhode Island sandwiched around a visit from ACC foe Georgia Tech. The most challenging portion of the schedule starts with an October 18th visit from Virginia Tech and then is followed by a trip to North Carolina, before BC returns home to host Clemson and Notre Dame.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....The Eagles were thrilled that incoming running back recruit Josh Haden arrived on campus and participated in spring ball. The prep star out of Fort Washington, Maryland made enough of an impact to earn a starting role heading into fall practice. Haden will be utilized in a variety of roles out of the backfield and will be an integral part of the BC attack as the staff is looking for him to balance the offense.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....BC gets off to a quick start with their early season schedule, giving all the new faces time to come together as a unit. Haden makes a big impact in the backfield and Crane’s experience and time working with Matt Ryan makes for an easier than expected transition as the Eagles surprise. The season ends with a ninth consecutive bowl win and a nine or ten win season for this rock solid program.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The return of only ten starters in total makes for a tougher than expected transition, especially on an offense with very limited game experience in the starting backfield. BC is still able to extend their bowl appearance streak but they struggle do so with a six win regular season.
MAKE OR BREAK: Chris Crane is a fifth year senior who will be handed the reigns at quarterback after serving as a back-up for the prior three seasons. Without an experienced running game to rely on, Crane must play big if the Eagles retain ACC championship hopes. Clemson visits Chestnut Hill on November 1st as BC will look to extend their unbeaten streak over the Tigers to seven games. The Eagles will be in the thick of the division chase if they can pull out a win over the pre-season divisional favorites.
OFFENSE: The Tigers return their key skill position talent from last season, led by quarterback Cullen Harper and a pair of running backs in James Davis and CJ Spiller. The combination of Davis and Spiller ran for 1,910 yards on the ground and 13 touchdowns last season and they are considered one of the top duos of backs in the nation. Meanwhile, Harper led the ACC in passing efficiency, throwing 27 touchdowns versus only six interceptions as he directed the highest scoring offense in Clemson history. The receiving corps returns almost entirely intact, with the headliner of the group being Aaron Kelly, who comes into the season off an 88-catch campaign. The one question is an offensive line which must replace three starters and is less experienced than last year’s group.
DEFENSE: On the defensive side of the ball, the Tigers look to be very tough, especially in the front line and secondary. Anchoring the defensive line is the tackle combination of Dorrell Scott and Rashaad Jackson, key ingredients on a defense that allowed only 3.4 yards per carry last season. The Clemson secondary was ranked 13th in the country last year in pass defense, and returns all four starters from the tough unit. The leader is safety Michael Hamlin, who was a second team all ACC performer last year, while Chris Chancellor is a shutdown cornerback who controls half the field. The linebackers are inexperienced but loaded with talent, with an emerging star in Brandon Maye taking over at middle linebacker.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This unit overall is very good, with the one exception being the shaky kicking of Mark Buchholz, who connected on only 22 of his 36 attempts last season. Senior Jimmy Maners handles the punting and he enters this season after averaging 42.6 yards per kick. The return game is outstanding with the combination of CJ Spiller and Jacoby Ford handling both punt and kick returns. One area of concern is the coverage units, which allowed three touchdowns last season, so improvement is needed.
COACHING: Entering his tenth season at the helm, Tommy Bowden has endured an up and down career at Clemson. Bowden has delivered results in his tenure, including eight consecutive winning seasons and having his Tigers eligible for the post-season every year. Both the offensive coordinator in Rob Spence and defensive coordinator in Vic Koenning enter their fourth seasons on the Tiger staff. Both have strong resumes including leading Clemson into the top three in the ACC in total offense and defense last year.
SCHEDULE: The non-conference schedule is an interesting mix, beginning with a huge opener in Atlanta versus Alabama. The remaining non-ACC games are visits from The Citadel, South Carolina State, and rival South Carolina to end the season. Within the ACC, the toughest road games are trips to Wake Forest, Boston College, and Florida State, with Maryland and Georgia Tech highlighting the home schedule.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....Enrolling early and able to compete in spring practice was defensive end Da’Quan Bowers. Reports out of the first weeks of practice were extremely positive and the Clemson coaches think they have a pass rushing terror that they plan on unleashing immediately. Bowers is a tremendous overall athlete and is already physically ready to play and he should be an explosive playmaker as a true freshman.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The rebuilt offensive line comes together quickly and the offense is one of the most explosive units in the country. This program is loaded with talent, both experienced and new faces, so anything less than an ACC championship will result in disappointment. A run at a national title is not out of the picture, but landing the schools first conference title since 1991 is the focus.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The Tigers fall in their opener in Atlanta against Alabama, quickly distinguishing their national championship hopes. Road trips to Wake Forest and Florida State, combined with a visit to Boston College, a place where Clemson has not fared well are too much to overcome and the streak continues as the Tigers fall just short of a title shot. Even in a worst-case scenario, it is difficult to see this team winning any less than nine games.
MAKE OR BREAK: There cannot be a much more important opener for a team with title hopes than a neutral field battle with Alabama. The game is set for 8 PM on the opening Saturday so all eyes will be on this team to see if all the hype is legitimate or if this team will disappoint once again. The offensive line is the only remaining question surrounding this team and if the returning starters can help the new faces develop, watch the huge numbers this offense will put on the scoreboard.
OFFENSE: Expect a great deal more excitement in Durham this season as the Blue Devils unleash a new no-huddle offensive scheme. The leader of the offense and preparing to enter his third season as a starter is quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, who comes off a solid 2007 season that saw him toss 21 touchdown passes. Lewis will work to find his top target in receiver Eron Riley, an ACC second team performer who reeled in 40 passes and nine touchdowns last year. The ground game has been inept for a number of seasons with leading rusher Re’quan Boyette returning and he works behind an offensive line that must improve after struggling in both run and pass blocking in 2007.
DEFENSE: The defense brings back ten returning starters to a unit that should be Duke’s best in years. The strength of the group is up front, led by defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase, an imposing presence who demands double teams. The linebackers are highlighted by last season’s top tacklers, Vincent Rey and Michael Tauiliili, both are run stuffers who are always around the football. The secondary needs some help after the Devils ranked 101st in the nation in pass efficiency defense and yielded a 64% completion rate to opposing quarterbacks.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This unit can be termed a disaster in all aspects last season. Returning at kicker is Joe Surgan, who connected on one of his five attempts before being replaced by Nick Maggio, who was not much better, hitting on two of his five attempts. Kevin Jones will take care of the punting after finishing eleventh in the ACC in net average. Jabari Marshall is a solid kick returner, but Leon Wright struggled on punt returns as the Devils finished tenth in the conference.
COACHING: The Ted Roof era came to an end in Durham after four long seasons that saw Duke win four games in total. Enter David Cutliffe who takes the reigns after spending the past two seasons at Tennessee as the offensive coordinator. Cutliffe had a successful stint as head coach at Mississippi prior to returning to Tennessee and is a well-regarded figure in the collegiate game. Both the offensive and defensive coordinator roles will be held by two individuals with Kurt Roper and Matt Luke maintaining the offense while Mike MacIntyre and Marion Hobby control the defense.
SCHEDULE: The non-conference schedule is manageable for a team looking to build confidence with wins of any kind. The Devils host three non-conference games in James Madison, Northwestern, and Navy, with the fourth being a trip to Vanderbilt. Duke has three brutal ACC road trips having to visit Wake Forest, Clemson, and Virginia Tech, with their best home games featuring visits from North Carolina and Miami, Florida. The toughest stretch is from October 25th through November 22nd, when the Devils play four out of five games on the road.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....Running back Re’quan Boyette has led Duke in rushing over the past two seasons, but has only 820 yards in total to show for his efforts. Coming out of spring ball the reviews on Boyette is that he is ready for a breakout season. He displayed improved decision-making and quickness and the newly installed offense will greatly help him find open space to run. Look for Boyette to have a great deal more carries as he becomes a key player in the game plan and not just a change of pace back.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Blue Devils break through and earn a win or two in the ACC, ending an almost four year long drought versus conference opponents. Duke played numerous opponents tough last season, and with a few breaks going the Devils way this year, this team can match the win total for the past four seasons in 2008.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The storyline continues in Durham as Duke yet again finishes winless in ACC competition and only claims one victory on the season. The newly installed no-huddle offense does not yet have the talent level to be successful and the player’s struggle adapting to the system.
MAKE OR BREAK: The ACC opener is at home versus a rebuilding Virginia team, and if the Devils hope to break their losing streak, this looks to be their best opportunity. Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis has played well in his first two seasons behind center, but now he has to learn a new offense and expand his downfield passing repertoire. Coach Cutliffe is relying on Lewis to be the leader of his offense and if past results are an indication, Lewis will improve and reach his full potential.
OFFENSE: The Seminole offense has struggled for the past few seasons, ranking 90th in the nation in scoring last year. The leader of the group remains quarterback Drew Weatherford, who continues to be erratic after 33 career starts, but he does have one of the ACC’s top receiving corps to work with, highlighted by Greg Carr and Preston Parker. Keep an eye on junior college transfer Corey Surrencey, who will get a chance to immediately make a name for himself at the receiver position while Parker serves a two game suspension. Antone Smith has been a solid back but he will take on a more expanded role this year, and he will look to an offensive line that struggled last season to provide more running room. That could be a difficult task for an offensive front that features all sophomores and freshman.
DEFENSE: FSU was solid on defense but additional production is needed from a unit that has star potential. The leader of the group is a linebacking corps that is experienced and talented, highlighted by Derek Nicholson, the teams leading tackler. The secondary returns four players with starting experience and will feature stars in safety Myron Rolle and cornerback Tony Carter. Expect to see Rolle assume an expanded roll this season as the coaches want to utilize his athletic ability across the entire field. The defensive line has some question marks at tackle that need to be answered after losing two starters but the ends look like a powerful group, highlighted by Everette Brown and his 6.5 sacks from last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The punting and kicking duties belong to one man in senior Graham Gano. Punting is not a concern after Graham averaged 40.8 yards per kick last year, but he has not yet attempted a field goal. The punt return game is solid with Preston Parker returning, but additional yardage will be looked for from Michael Ray Garvin returning kicks after a season in which he averaged 19.9 yards on 35 attempts.
COACHING: Heading into his 33rd year in charge of the FSU program, Bobby Bowden is looking to turn things around before he retires and hands the reigns over to Jimbo Fisher. Bowden’s career at FSU has been stellar, but the past three seasons have been the definition of mediocre as the ‘Noles posted a 22-17 record during that timeframe. Before last season, Bowden hired Jimbo Fisher to run the offense and Rick Trickett to handle the offensive line, with mixed results in year one. The defensive coordinator remains the same with Mickey Andrews back for a 24th season assisting Bowden.
SCHEDULE: The FSU schedule is set up nicely for a return to national prominence, beginning with the first three games at home and the fourth in Jacksonville. The Seminoles open versus Western Carolina and Chattanooga, before hosting league foe Wake Forest, and then wrapping up September by welcoming Colorado. In ACC play, FSU hosts key games versus Virginia Tech, Clemson, and Boston College, with the toughest road trips looking like an October 4th visit to Miami, Florida and a November 22nd trip to Maryland. The season ends as it normally does with a visit from in-state rival Florida, a series in which the Seminoles have now lost four straight.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....FSU went looking for help on their pass rush, and they believe they found their answer in junior college transfer Markus White. Last season at Butler Community College, White set the school record by recording 24.5 sacks in addition to forcing six fumbles. Markus is quick off the edge and with suspensions impacting the defense in the initial two games, he should be an immediate contributor in the Seminole front line.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Seminoles make their way back into the top 25 and win nine games on the season, re-establishing themselves as a national power. Drew Weatherford hits his stride and the FSU offense takes a huge step forward after struggling over the past few seasons.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The youth on the offensive line is too much to overcome for an offense that needs to gain consistency. The defense looks solid, but without an increase in offensive production, the close losses continue. The season ends in similar fashion to the prior two years, another seven-win campaign and more disappointment for the FSU faithful.
MAKE OR BREAK: The third game of the season at home versus Wake Forest sets up as a huge game for this program. Wake has won two straight in the series, including an embarrassing 30-0 shutout of FSU the last time the two played in Tallahassee. A win over the Deacons establishes notice that the Seminoles will be a major player in the Atlantic Division race. The offensive line has a ton of pressure on them, and with a unit that features two freshman and three sophomores, this group will have a major say in how successful this season is for Coach Bowden and his team.
OFFENSE: Tech fans should prepare for a drastic change in their offensive scheme as head coach Paul Johnson brings along his triple-option offense from the Naval Academy. The beneficiary of the new offense is quarterback Josh Nesbitt, a good fit with his speed and running ability. Ready to assume a starring role is running back Jonathan Dwyer, who averaged 5.3 yards per carry last season while backing up Tashard Choice. The receiving corps is a major concern but on the bright side, Tech will be passing much less this season so receivers are not as critical to the game plan as they were in past seasons. The line must replace three starters and is learning an entirely new blocking scheme, making for what could be a long and challenging season up front.
DEFENSE: There is no question in regards to the strength of this group as the defensive line is loaded, led by defensive tackle Vance Walker. Keep an eye on ends Michael Johnson and Derrick Morgan, two athletic and challenging players who will spend a great deal of their time in the opponent’s backfield. The linebackers are inexperienced, returning only one starter in Shane Bowen, who recorded 34 tackles in ten games as a starter last year. The secondary is young with only one starter returning, but the defensive staff has a lot of talent to work with, especially cornerback Morgan Burnett. Clearly, the defensive line will need to perform at their highest level because inexperience highlights the back seven.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Tech has to rebuild the kicking game after losing stars Durant Brooks and Travis Bell. Both the punting and kicking duties look to be a battle between Scott Blair and Mohamed Yahiaoui in an interesting scenario. Last years punt returner, Tyler Evans, is likely to miss the season due to injury, so his job remains open, while Jonathan Dwyer is likely to give up kick returning duties with Jamaal Evans taking on an expanded role.
COACHING: Brand new head coach Paul Johnson arrives from Navy, where he guided the Midshipmen to five bowls in six seasons, and was named the 2004 National Coach of the Year. Johnson also assumes the role of offensive coordinator as he installs his version of the triple option, which includes portions of the wishbone, I-formation, and the run and shoot. Joining Johnson as defensive coordinator is Dave Wommack, who spent last season coaching linebackers at Southern Miss.
SCHEDULE: This schedule was not set-up for immediate success in Johnson’s debut season. The non-conference schedule is manageable including Jacksonville State visiting in the opener, Mississippi State heading to Atlanta, and the season finale at rival Georgia. The ACC schedule is brutal, with trips to Boston College, Virginia Tech, Clemson, and North Carolina. Highlighting the home schedule are visits from Florida State and Miami, Florida.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....After spending his freshman season in a back-up role to star running back Tashard Choice, Jonathan Dwyer is now ready to make a name for himself. Dwyer is a tremendous combination of power and speed who will now be the feature back in a running offense. Expect huge numbers out of Dwyer this season and for him to be relied upon as the Tech offensive players become more familiar with their new offense.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The consecutive bowl streak is stretched to twelve games as the Jackets sneak into the post-season in what is expected to be a rebuilding season. The players become familiar with the new offensive and defensive schemes early in the season, and the new Jacket offense causes major problems for ACC defensive coordinators.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....With only nine starters returning, along with a new coaching staff, and combined with new game plans on offense and defense, the Jackets struggle with all the changes. Tech battles their way to a four win season as the current personnel on hand does not yet fit for the new schemes.
MAKE OR BREAK: Josh Nesbitt is the clear starter at quarterback but he has the toughest job ahead of him in learning Coach Johnson’s new offense. If Nesbitt struggles, so go the Jackets fortunes as strong quarterback play is required in this scheme. The November 20th game at home versus Miami, Florida could easily be the difference between earning a bowl bid or Tech staying at home for the holidays. Tech has won three straight in the series and what looks to be a much-improved Miami team is focused on ending the streak.
OFFENSE: The Terps are in desperate need of a quarterback to emerge from a crowded pack to take control of the offense. The battle is ongoing entering fall practice with Jordan Steffy holding the slightest of edges over Chris Turner, with former Florida quarterback Josh Portis looking to add his name to the mix. The good news for the quarterback is that the Terrapin receiving corps is dripping with talent, led by second team ACC member Darius Heyward-Bey, who comes off a season in which he caught 51 passes. The offensive line returns four starters and is a huge unit with the potential to be the best group in the ACC. The running backs are inexperienced but talented, with Da’Rel Scott and Morgan Green battling for the starting nod.
DEFENSE: The Terps have a great deal of talent at the linebacker position and will utilize a four-backer set to take advantage of the team strength. The new star of the group is Dave Philistin, a tackling machine who always finds his way to the football. The secondary is inexperienced, but does have talent to work with, led by cornerback Kevin Barnes, but a new star may emerge this season in USC transfer Antwine Perez, who sat out last season but is now ready to wreak havoc in the defensive backfield. The major shift in the off-season occurred on the line where star defensive end Jeremy Navarre was moved to tackle as the Terps will employ a three man front line. Trey Covington will take on a rush linebacker role and will need to find his way to the quarterback on a more regular basis.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This unit appears to be set with the return of kicker Obi Egekeze and punter Travis Baltz. Egekeze connected on 17 of his 23 attempts while Baltz averaged 40.9 yards per kick. Danny Oquendo is a steady but not spectacular punt returner, while Da’Rel Scott is a talented kick returner who should improve upon his 21.8 average from last year.
COACHING: Head coach Ralph Friedgen is beginning to feel the heat after seven seasons in charge of the Terp program. With three losing seasons in the last four, this is a critical year for Friedgen to produce results if he hopes to continue his tenure in College Park. Added in the off-season was offensive coordinator James Franklin, who arrives from Kansas State, as Friedgen has relinquished his play calling responsibility. The defensive coordinator remains Chris Cosh, who is now entering his fourth year in charge of the defense.
SCHEDULE: The Terps will be looking for a quick start with three of their four non-conference games at home, highlighted by a visit from California, the school’s first meeting. The remaining games are Delaware and Eastern Michigan at home and a trip to Middle Tennessee. The ACC road schedule is tough, with trips to Clemson, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Boston College while the home schedule highlights visits from Wake Forest and Florida State.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....With the departure of the running back combination of Keon Lattimore and Lance Ball, the Terps need a new headliner to emerge. They look to have found their man in Da’Rel Scott who last season rushed 14 times for 135 yards in his limited action. Scott has tremendous speed and is a key element of the Terrapin game plan, both on the ground and through the air. Maryland must find another playmaker to assist star Heyward-Bey and Scott looks to be the answer.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The offense increases its scoring punch as the Terps earn their third consecutive bowl bid and finish the regular season with an eight win campaign. Maryland looks to be a step behind the top guns in the Atlantic Division but this is a dangerous team that will have its say in the division race.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The Terps only earn a split in their non-conference games and then are dominated in their ACC opener at Clemson, falling to 2-3 before heading into October. This team has too much talent and experience to fall to far, but another .500 season is possible if the same issues surface again this season on offense.
MAKE OR BREAK: The November 20th battle at home versus Florida State could be a huge contest in the Atlantic Division race. Maryland has won two straight versus the Seminoles at home and extending the streak to three may have the Terrapins in the middle of the divisional chase. Whoever emerges from the Da’Rel Scott/Morgan Green running back battle will need to put up huge numbers for this to be a successful season for the Terps. The quarterbacks are solid, but they need help from a powerful running game in order for the offense to click.
OFFENSE: The key question for Miami entering in the season surrounds the quarterback position. The current projected starter is red shirt freshman Robert Marve, but the race is not yet decided as Jacory Harris impressed in spring practice. Whoever does emerge has an excellent stable of running backs to hand the ball to, highlighted by Javarris James and Graig Cooper. The receiving corps is mostly inexperienced but talented, with Sam Shields ready to take over as the number one target after catching 27 passes last season. The offensive line needs to replace three starters on the interior, but has a pair of excellent bookends to build around in tackles Jason Fox and Reggie Youngblood.
DEFENSE: Overall Miami was solid on defense last year, but they struggled mightily in the last few weeks of the season, including yielding 92 points in back-to-back games versus Virginia Tech and Virginia. The best unit of the group are the linebackers, highlighted by Glenn Cook, who returns from injury, and leading returning tackler in Colin McCarthy. Keep an eye on true freshman linebackers Sean Spence and Arthur Brown, they may be too talented to keep off the field this season. The line returns only one starter, but he is a good one in end Eric Moncur, the Canes leading returning sacker with six. The secondary is a concern as the cornerbacks are unknown quantities, but there is experience to work with as seven players have past starting experience.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicking duties may belong to true freshman Jake Wieclaw, a big time talent, but who was inconsistent in the spring. Matt Bosher is back to handle the punting after a solid freshman season which saw him average 40.2 yards per kick. The return duties return both starters, with Graig Cooper handling punt returns and Ryan Hill taking care of the kicks. For being such an explosive talent, Cooper needs to improve on his 4.8-yard average from last season.
COACHING: Randy Shannon is a well-known quantity on the Miami campus, entering his 15th year of involvement with the Hurricanes. This is only his second season as a head coach, but he spent the prior six seasons as the defensive coordinator. Shannon oversaw Miami’s first losing season since 1997 last year, but he brought in one of the top recruiting classes in the nation to restock the shelves. Patrick Nix is back for a second season as offensive coordinator while Bill Young arrived from Kansas to handle the defense.
SCHEDULE: The season begins with a lay-up versus Charleston Southern, but then the schedule quickly turns with trips to Florida and Texas A&M to follow. Within the ACC, the Canes host Florida State, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina, and have key road challenges versus Georgia Tech and North Carolina State.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....After suffering through a season which saw him battle through a neck injury, running back Javarris James is healthy and capable of having a huge season. James dropped to 582 yards rushing last year after a stellar freshman season, and he is poised to return to his earlier form and become the leader of the offense.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Canes receive major production from their top-notch recruiting class and earn seven or eight wins to return to the post-season after a one-year absence. With all of the key players in the Coastal race having to go through Miami, the schedule sets up well as this program begins its return to national prominence.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The inexperience at quarterback and on the interior of the offensive line continue the trend from last season as the Canes have major struggles in putting points on the scoreboard. Even in a worst-case scenario, this team should be able to reach a .500 record, as there is too much talent in Coral Gables to miss out on the post-season again.
MAKE OR BREAK: The Tar Heels of North Carolina visit Miami on September 27th in the Canes ACC opener. These two teams are expected to be battling for position and chasing Virginia Tech in the Coastal Division, a win in this one will put the Hurricanes in position to be the Hokies main challenger. Quarterback Robert Marve has emerged as a team leader as a red shirt freshman and he will be relied upon to upgrade a position that has been troublesome at Miami for years. If Marve can continue the playmaking skills that he demonstrated in spring ball, he can energize this team and provide a spark that has been missing.
OFFENSE: The Tar Heels are looking for an offensive spark to reenergize a unit that ranked 97th in the nation in scoring. Back for his sophomore season is quarterback TJ Yates, who threw for a school record 2,655 yards last year, but he also tossed 18 interceptions versus only 14 touchdowns. The good news for Yates is that a talented and experienced receiving corps returns, led by Hakeem Nicks who reeled in a Tar Heel record 74 passes in 2007. Former receiver Greg Little was moved to running back towards the end of last season and he delivered immediately with 247 yards in the last two games. The offensive line returns four starters and looks to be a much-improved group after struggling through last season.
DEFENSE: Carolina was solid on defense and returns eight starters to build on the established base. The new star of the unit looks to be defensive tackle Marvin Austin, who will combine with Aleric Mullins inside to form one of the ACC’s top tackle duos. The entire secondary returns and will look to improve upon last years results, which had UNC ranked 11th in the ACC in pass efficiency defense. The star of this group is free safety Deunta Williams, who was named the ACC defensive rookie of the year. The linebackers return five players with starting experience and are a group loaded with speed in what should be a much improved unit.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Heels lose four-year starting kicker Connor Barth and will look to red shirt freshman Jay Wooten to fill Barth’s large shoes. Terrence Brown will handle punting duties again after averaging 41.4 yards per kick and doing a nice job pinning opponents deep. Brandon Tate is a tremendous return man and he again should handle both the punt and kick return responsibilities. Tate has five returns for touchdowns in his career and is the schools all time leader in kick return yardage.
COACHING: After only one season in charge, Butch Davis has the Carolina program on the upswing. Davis is an energetic and tireless recruiter who has already increased the talent level significantly in Chapel Hill. John Shoop returns to lead the offense while Everett Withers joins the staff to run the defense after spending last year at Minnesota in the same capacity.
SCHEDULE: The ACC schedule sets up nicely for the Tar Heels as they miss having to play the top teams in the Atlantic Division. UNC does play host to Virginia Tech in their conference opener and welcomes, Boston College, Georgia Tech, and North Carolina State to Chapel Hill. The toughest conference road games look to be trips to Miami, Florida and Maryland. The non-conference slate is a good mix and features only one road game, a trip to Rutgers, and three home contests versus McNeese State, Connecticut, and Notre Dame.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....After shifting to running back from wide receiver with two games remaining in last season, Greg Little showed glimpses of potential greatness. Little averaged 5.1 yards per carry in his limited role and he now enters this season as the Heels top running back. Expect to see Little earn 25 carries per game this year and to establish a much more consistent ground game for this developing UNC offense.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Tar Heels return eighteen starters and are clearly talented enough to make a run at the Coastal division title. The schedule is not overwhelming and a return to the post-season after a three-year absence is expected with a seven or eight win campaign generating major excitement.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The Heels continue to lose close games and stumble to a 1-3 start with tough games against Rutgers, Virginia Tech, and Miami of Florida. The uphill climb after a tough start is too much for this group and UNC falls just short of the post-season with a five-win season. Although the offense returns ten starters, the group had trouble scoring points in big games last year and the defense needs more help this season.
MAKE OR BREAK: The conference opener could not be any bigger with Virginia Tech visiting Chapel Hill on September 20th. The Tar Heels are 0-4 versus Tech since they joined the league, but a win in this one puts UNC in the Coastal division driver’s seat in the early going. UNC ranked 107th in the nation in rushing last season, a statistic that cannot be repeated if this team wants to reach the post-season. Enter Greg Little, who will provide a spark to the ground game and energize the Heel offense.
OFFENSE: The top priority this season is to settle on a starting quarterback, with the leading candidate being senior Daniel Evans. If State is going to improve on last season, Evans will need to cut down on his interceptions after he tossed 13 versus only 12 touchdowns. The running game should show a high level of improvement, with Jamelle Eugene highlighting a deep group. Donald Bowens will be the top receiving target, but a key aspect is the return from injury of tight end Anthony Hill, who will be a huge asset to the passing game. The line struggled last season and with two defensive tackles shifted to offense and projected to start, this group is the biggest question mark.
DEFENSE: The Pack defense has questions to answer on a group that struggled last year in yielding 28.3 points per game. The defensive staff will rely on the front line, highlighted by two major talents in end Willie Young and tackle Alan-Michael Cash. The secondary returns the starting cornerbacks, but needs to find two new safeties that can help to shore up the run defense. The major question is at linebacker with all three starters gone from last year, but Nate Irving appears to be a rising star and will be the new leader of this group.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Pack will be breaking in a new kicker in Josh Czajkowski, who arrived on campus two seasons ago as a highly touted prep star. Returning to handle punting duties will be Bradley Pierson, but more production is expected this year after Pierson ranked last in the ACC in yards per punt. The loss of Darrell Blackman opens both return positions, with Donald Bowens likely to handle kicks after returning 20 last season while punt return duties still remain open.
COACHING: Tom O’Brien had a difficult debut season as the Wolfpack struggles continued with their third losing season in the past four years. The good news for O’Brien is that his team played much better in the second half of the season, building momentum heading into 2008. Dana Bible returns for his second season as offensive coordinator and has been with O’Brien for the past nine seasons. Mike Archer also enters his second season leading the defense after coming to NC State from Kentucky.
SCHEDULE: The Pack tackles an interesting non-conference schedule, which begins with the challenge of playing at South Carolina in the opener. The remaining out of conference battles are at home in Raleigh as William & Mary, East Carolina, and South Florida visit. In ACC play, the Pack host Boston College, Florida State, Wake Forest, and Miami, Florida with their toughest road battles at Clemson, North Carolina, and Maryland.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....After not starting last season, running back Jamelle Eugene stepped up and took over the starting assignment about midway through last year. Eugene is also talented as a receiver and provides a multiple threat out of the backfield. Now that Jamelle is established as a starter, expect a huge increase in his offensive numbers and for him to be the leader of the Pack offense.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Pack returns ten starters and will be improved in Coach Tom O’Brien’s second season, but this looks like a season where a five win campaign is the best that can be expected. If State can avoid the injury bug that plagued the program last season and a solid quarterback emerges in the fall, this team will be much more competitive and be ready for a return to the post-season in 2009.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The Pack offensive struggles continue and with a tough schedule, State can only muster three wins and a last place finish in the Atlantic Division. The rushing defense was a disaster last season and with only four starters returning on the defense, the struggles continue in the front seven. With questions on offense lingering, the lack of a strong defense make wins hard to come by in Tom O’Brien’s second season.
MAKE OR BREAK: The November 8th battle with Duke is a key game in the Pack’s goal of reaching the post-season. The division championship is out of reach, and if this team harbors any hopes of earning a bowl bid, a win on the road at a vastly improved Duke team is required. Quarterback Daniel Evans has to reduce his interceptions and increase his completion percentage to make the passing game a legitimate threat. The running game looks stronger, but without Evans showing improvement, the offense is likely to struggle.
OFFENSE: The loss of quarterback Jameel Sewell due to academic issues means that strong arm sophomore Pete Lalich will assume the leadership role in the Cavalier offense. Running back Cedric Peerman was lost midway through last season while having a strong year and leading the conference in rushing at the time. Peerman is back and healthy and he will team with Mikell Simpson to form a strong running back combination. Another impact player returning from injury is receiver Kevin Ogletree, who was out for the entire 2007 season. He immediately takes over as the top target for Lalich as he looks to regain his prior form that accounted for 52 receptions in 2006. The line is inexperienced, with only 48 career starts, but there are building blocks to lean on in tackles Eugene Monroe and Will Barker.
DEFENSE: The defensive line lost a ton of talent with Chris Long and Jeff Fitzgerald departing and taking their 21 sacks with them. There is no starting experience to speak of, so the staff will look for end Sean Gottschalk to step up and be a pass rushing force. The linebackers are the clear strength of this group, led by tackling machine Jon Copper and pass rushing terror Clint Sintim, and with question marks up front, the linebackers will see plenty of action. The secondary returns two starters and there is talent, but this group will need the line to generate a strong pass rush, otherwise it will be a long and challenging season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This group needs to be rebuilt, beginning with new faces handling the punting and kicking duties. The kicker will be highly touted red shirt freshman Chris Hinkebein while the punting belongs to the inexperienced John Thornton. Vic Hall is back to take care of punt returns after averaging ten yards per return last year, while the running back duo of Peerman and Simpson will step in to try and upgrade the kick return results.
COACHING: Head coach Al Groh led his team to a surprising nine win season last year, a campaign which included five wins by two points or fewer. The nine wins were the most since 2002 and took some of the increasing pressure from Groh as he prepares for his eighth season in Charlottesville. The coach’s son, Mike Groh, is back again to lead the offense while Bob Pruett was hired in the off-season to direct the defense. Pruett is the former Marshall head coach and he led the Herd for nine very successful seasons.
SCHEDULE: The non-conference schedule is challenging, beginning with the home opener as UVa meets Southern Cal for the first time ever. The remaining non-ACC games are visits from Richmond and East Carolina and a trip to Connecticut. Within the conference, the Cavaliers host league favorite Clemson in addition to Maryland, North Carolina and Miami. The toughest road challenges are visits to rival Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER.... Receiver Kevin Ogletree had a breakout season in 2006 and was preparing for a huge 2007 when he injured his knee and was lost for the year. The Virginia passing game dropped to 90th in the nation without their leading downfield threat. Entering 2008, Ogletree is healthy and ready to re-emerge as a much needed Cavalier deep threat, and with a new quarterback under center, having the experience of Ogletree is a huge lift to this team.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The most that can be expected out of a team that lost a great deal of talent is to earn a bowl bid of any kind. The Cavaliers won numerous close games last year and to expect the same results in back-to-back seasons is unrealistic. To achieve a post-season berth, new quarterback Pete Lalich must meet the great expectations that he arrived on the Charlottesville campus with two seasons ago.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The struggles on offense continue and the Cavaliers go from a nine win season to last place in the Coastal Division. If UVa does not find more playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, this team could easily plummet to four wins and be surpassed by conference rivals on their way up.
MAKE OR BREAK: The ACC opener is a road trip to Duke, normally a nice way to start the conference schedule with a guaranteed win. The Cavaliers need to be careful, as this Duke team is much improved and a loss in the ACC opener will make for a long season for Al Groh’s bunch. Pete Lalich was not supposed to be the starter this season, but due to Jameel Sewell’s academic difficulties, he enters the fall as number one on the depth chart. Lalich will get plenty of opportunity to throw the ball this season and his performance will play a huge role in this team’s success or its struggles.
OFFENSE: The main question heading into the season for this unit is whether or not the Hokies will continue on with a two quarterback system. Sean Glennon enters the season as the starter, but last season Tyrod Taylor provided a nice change of pace option as a dual threat option. Taylor may be red shirted if the staff feels that Glennon has taken the next step in his progression. With injuries hitting the projected starting running backs in the spring, red shirt freshman Darren Evans may be the main weapon on the ground to start the season. The receiving corps was gutted due to graduation and there is a desperate need for new talent to step in and play well. Four starters return on the offensive line, but the line had major struggles last year, so major improvement is needed.
DEFENSE: The leader of this group is a secondary that has two replace two starters, but returns two all-star caliber players in Victor Harris and Kam Chancellor. The defensive line needs to be rebuilt after three starters departed from a group that led the Hokies to a fifth place ranking in rush defense. Keep an eye on sophomore Jason Worilds at defensive end, as he has the potential to be the next star player on the Hokie front line. The linebackers are a solid group, with only one returning starter in Cam Martin, the Hokies second leading returning tackler. Overall, this unit is very inexperienced and it will be a major challenge to match last year’s results.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking game is wide open with senior Dustin Keys and Penn State transfer Matt Waldron the leaders heading into the fall. The punting is rock solid with Brent Bowden returning after averaging 42.5 yards per kick last year in 88 attempts. Replacing Eddie Royal on both punt and kick returns is likely to be veteran Victor Harris. Special teams has always been strength at Virginia Tech, expect the newcomers to perform well in 2008.
COACHING: Frank Beamer is gearing up to enter his 22nd year in charge of the Hokie program. Beamer has won 167 games during his Tech tenure and ranks only behind Penn State’s Joe Paterno and Florida State’s Bobby Bowden in years at their current school. Bryan Stinespring has been in charge of the offense since 2002 while Bud Foster has been guiding the stellar Tech defense since 1995.
SCHEDULE: Tech begins the season with a game at Charlotte versus East Carolina and then host two straight home games versus Furman, and Georgia Tech. The road schedule is tough with trips to North Carolina, Nebraska, Boston College, Florida State, and Miami of Florida. The Hokies will be solid favorites in their remaining home games versus Western Kentucky, Maryland, Duke, and Virginia.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....Running back Darren Evans was expected to play this season but the plan for him was to enter the season as the third back in the rotation. However, after the dismissal of Branden Ore and injuries to Kenny Lewis and Jahre Cheeseman in the spring, Evans enters the fall as the projected starter. Darren is a powerful back who is talented enough to take over the starting job and never look back as he quickly becomes a key element in the offensive game plan.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....The Hokies are capable of reaching double digit wins for the fifth consecutive season and claiming their second consecutive ACC championship. Even though Tech lost a great deal of talent from last year’s team, this group remains the most talented in the Coastal Division as the Hokies look for a third ACC title in their fifth season in the league.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The huge losses on offense which include the leading rusher and top four receivers is too much to overcome for a defense that only returns four starters. Tech has too much talent to tumble too far in the conference standings, but an eight win regular season would be a disappointment for this top-notch program.
MAKE OR BREAK: The main challenger to the Hokies title in the Coastal division could very well be the Tar Heels of North Carolina. These two teams match-up on September 20th in Chapel Hill, as Tech will look to increase its winning streak against UNC to five straight. Tech will need running back Darren Evans to step in and play big this year to give opponents another weapon to focus on in the backfield. Without a legitimate rushing attack, Tech does not have enough firepower in the passing game to achieve their established goals.
OFFENSE: The key for this unit is rebuilding an offensive line that loses four starters and will rely heavily on tackle Joe Birdsong to lead the new group. The star of the offense is quarterback, Riley Skinner, who led the nation in completion percentage last year at 72.4. Skinner is 18-6 as a starting quarterback and is the clear leader of the offense, but he has to focus on reducing his interceptions after tossing 13 last year. Assisting Skinner on the ground will be ACC rookie of the year, Josh Adams, who churned out 953 yards last season after beginning the season as the second team back. The receiving corps has for the most part been wiped out, with the leading returnee being Chip Brinkman, the definition of a possession receiver who only averaged 8.3 yards per catch.
DEFENSE: The Deacon defense returns nine starters from last seasons strong unit, led by All-American candidates Aaron Curry at linebacker and Alphonso Smith at cornerback. Curry and his big play ability highlight the return of all three-linebacker starters from a deep unit. The secondary looks even better than the linebackers with Smith and his eight interceptions returning to one of the ACC’s top units. This unit gave up numerous big plays last season, but with everyone returning, quarterbacks will find it tough going against this group. The main concern is a front line that lost its best player and needs to find a pass rushing threat. The leader of the line is tackle Boo Robinson a 325 pound run-stuffer who as all league potential.
SPECIAL TEAMS: With senior Sam Swank returning, this unit looks to be in very good hands. Swank has connected on 60 out of 76 field goals in his career and he has a powerful leg. The area he needs to focus on his punting, where he only averaged 39.8 yards per attempt last season. Both return games need replacements and expect to see Alphonso Smith become a key player on both punt and kick returns. The coverage units were mediocre last year and improvement in this group will give the Deacons an excellent special teams unit.
COACHING: Jim Grobe returns for a seventh season at the helm of the Wake program after hearing from suitors in the off-season. Grobe has rebuilt Wake into one of the top ACC programs, recording a 20-7 record over the past two seasons including an ACC championship. The offensive coordinator is Steed Lobotzke who enters his sixth season while Brad Lambert enters his first season in charge of the defense. Lambert coached the Wake linebackers for the prior seven seasons.
SCHEDULE: The Deacons schedule sets up nicely for them to make a run at an ACC championship. Wake does not play Coastal division favorite Virginia Tech and hosts division favorite Clemson. The remaining ACC home games are visits from Duke, Virginia, and Boston College, while the toughest road challenges are trips to Florida State, Maryland, and Miami, Florida. The non-conference schedule features home games versus Mississippi, Navy, and Vanderbilt and the season opener at Baylor.
IMPACT/BREAKOUT PLAYER....Although Josh Adams is the established starter at running the back, the Wake staff was thrilled with the play of red shirt freshman Brandon Pendergrass in spring ball. Brandon is the perfect combination of speed and power and will combine with Adams to give Wake a top-notch one-two punch in the backfield.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL....Wake Forest will be right in the midst of the Atlantic Division chase, winning nine or ten games and competing in a third consecutive bowl. Since joining the ACC, the Deacons have never had three straight seasons over .500, this team is poised to end the streak. Quarterback Riley Skinner improves his decision-making and reduces his interceptions, allowing the offense to improve on last year’s solid results.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL....The Deacons were out gained last year and benefited from a +9 turnover mark on the season, results which may be difficult to match. Wake is not likely to slip to far as the talent level has been significantly upgraded, but this team could fall to seven wins if the breaks that went their way last season go the opposite way in 2008.
MAKE OR BREAK: On Thursday evening October ninth, the Deacons welcome league favorite Clemson to Winston-Salem. If Wake has any hopes of capturing the Atlantic Division, they will need to defeat their nemesis at home. Clemson has dominated this series, including last season’s 44-10 thrashing, so Wake will be poised for revenge. The Deacons need to find a deep play threat at receiver, and they may have found their answer in Jordan Williams. Last year in limited action as a freshman, Williams only caught nine passes but he demonstrated enough ability to become a key weapon in 2008.
Clemson has gained all the pre-season publicity and rightfully so as the Tigers are the clear favorite to win the Atlantic Division and to take the ACC crown and BCS berth. In the Coastal Division, Virginia Tech will look to repeat and earn a berth in the ACC championship game and the Hokies have enough talent to achieve their goal. Both Florida State and Miami of Florida look to be on their way back to prior glory, while Wake Forest has now established itself as a year-in and year-out contender in this league. North Carolina, Maryland, and Boston College are dangerous and all should earn post-season bids. The remaining teams, Georgia Tech, Duke, Virginia, and North Carolina State are in rebuilding modes and if any break through to earn a bowl bid, it will be a major achievement for their program.