To an even greater extent than the Big Ten and the Big East conferences, the ACC has been maligned during the BCS football decade for not showing up on the national stage. Last year the competitive parity of the race allowed a rebuilding Virginia Tech squad to take their second-straight conference crown, but the prospects looked poor to improve on the dreadful 1-9 BCS bowl record. However, the Hokies took care of business against Cincinnati and all of a sudden, the ACC has a chance to be important on the national stage again. Most of the programs are improving and legitimate contenders are starting to emerge again, so perhaps the ACC will finally start to drop the "basketball conference" moniker in 2009.
Virginia Tech Hokies
The two-time defending conference champion has become the biggest steal from the old Big East, and Virginia Tech is hoping to proudly carry the ACC banner to the BCS Championship for the first time in a decade when Florida State won a championship. The defense is always good for a Frank Beamer team and this veteran unit has absolutely no holes to speak of. Look for the defensive line to force a lot of bad plays from the opposition, led by DE Jason Worilds. The only thing stopping the Hokies from being a BCS frontrunner is a young offense that has plenty of talent but has not proven they know the forward pass. QB Tyrod Taylor needs to become the dual-threat quarterback he was recruited to be, especially with a bunch of young speed at the wideout positions. The season should come down to two games, the opener against Alabama in Atlanta and the mid-October battle at Georgia Tech. Win both of those games, and there's no excuse for anything less than Pasadena.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Hello Tar Heel football, and welcome to the big time. Coach Butch Davis has brought in recruiting classes perhaps even better than Florida State and Virginia Tech the past two seasons, and all this young talent is just waiting to burst out after eight wins in 2008. The offense was awful last season and does not bring much to the table now, as RB Shaun Draughn may be the only bright spot in a questionable unit. The good news is that the defense has a lot of outstanding upperclassmen being pushed to greater heights by the young guns Davis has brought in. Road games at Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech will likely derail any hopes for a conference crown, but the Tar Heels could win every other game on the schedule and make the conference race very interesting of the Hokies slip up. Lots of low-scoring slugfests should be expected, but that's right where Butch Davis wants a game.
Florida State Seminoles
After a brief hiatus, the opener against Miami is back to start an exciting slate of games for the 2009 Seminoles. Florida State has not been in the conference championship for four seasons, but the team has enough talent as always to raise the bar to that level. QB Christian Ponder now has two seasons to be the superstar he's groomed to be, and look for much more in passing to balance the offense. If Ponder turns out to be the real deal, Florida State will run away with the Atlantic division. The defense has some holes to fill on the line, but Bobby Bowden has been working hard with the new starters in fall practice to be ready. There's enough questions to make this interesting, but Florida State should be playing Virginia Tech at the end of the season. The only thing stopping the Seminoles might be the bad draw of a Coastal division schedule in Georgia Tech, UNC, and Miami.
NC State Wolfpack
Here comes the surprise of 2009, your NC State Wolfpack. Coach Tom O'Brien proved he can turn a program around given 3-4 years at Boston College, and the Wolfpack have more than enough talent now to win the weaker Atlantic division of the ACC. QB Russell Wilson had a good freshman season and will become one of the better quarterbacks in the league in just his sophomore season. The only question on offense is whether the offensive line can give the Wolfpack enough time to make plays and establish a ground game. The defense will be solid, with only a few minor questions in the secondary to address. Assuming NC State can defend the home front with 8 wins, then simply stealing the game in Talahassee should be more than enough to find NC State playing for a shocking BCS berth this year.
IN THE MIX
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Paul Johnson brought his unique option attack from Navy and the Yellow Jackets exceeded everyone's expectations with 9 wins in his first season. Now Johnson will continue to bring the right kind of talent to run his offense in Atlanta and the ACC will soon have major problems containing this team. However, 2010 is probably still a little too soon to expect the building blocks to overcome the defenses in Chapel Hill and Blacksburg. Look for running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Roddy Jones to rack up ridiculous numbers and bruise defensive linebackers and secondaries all year. The defense has quite a few holes to fill, but the young talent should be very good by the end of the season. Even though UNC and Virginia Tech come to Atlanta, both games are in the front part of the season when the Yellow Jackets may not have it quite figured out. No doubt this team could be in the ACC championship, but this team appears to be more of a preparation for a huge national splash in 2010.
Just like Georgia Tech and UNC, the Hurricanes are back on the rise as a program and will make life tougher for Virginia Tech this year. Coach Randy Shannon has brought in a lot more blue-chip talent, but there still needs to be a lot of work on the defense to get the Hurricanes back to the elite status of the early part of the decade. The offense includes one of the best athletes in the country in WR Aldarius Johnson. The major problem holding Miami back is a brutal opening schedule that reads Florida State, then Georgia Tech, then Virginia Tech, then Oklahoma. If Miami is better than 1-3 to begin the season, that would be quite a steal. Nevertheless, the Hurricanes should not be disheartened with a bad start, as the schedule is ripe for a rebound and perhaps an 8 game winning streak to end the season. That would be the spark the program needs to be a national power in the near future.
Clemson should probably be a perennial member of "in the mix" because they always have more than enough talent to run away with conference crowns but never have the focus to do it. Now Dabo Swinney has taken over the coaching reins and will try to remove this underachiever label. The offense has some star power as always in RB C.J. Spiller and WR Jacoby Ford, but the quarterback will be new. This would not be a concern if the offensive line was great, but they need a lot of work too if this team is to compete. The defense will be solid, but the key is definitely the offense in 2009. The schedule is not easy but if the Tigers say focused, ten wins is definitely possible.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Now the country will see just how far Wake Forest has come under Jim Grobe, as they try to replace seven starters off a great defensive unit including two high draft picks. The offense has been a real struggle in past seasons and the offensive line must come together to lead this team in 2009. Every lineman is young and has a year of experience, which bodes well. The defensive backfield will need to reload though for this program to stay in the conference championship mix for the next few years. Bowl eligibility should happen with four easy non-conference games and some winnable games in the division, but this may not be the Wake Forest from the past three seasons.
ALL THE REST
The seat is getting mighty warm for Al Groh, who does not appear to have the Cavaliers headed upward while the rest of his conference and division is improving quickly. The offense has been very mediocre and needs an unproven quarterback to step up quickly to make the passing game a threat. The defense is replacing most of the starters as well and will have issues with inexperience. If Virginia manages bowl eligibility that would likely be a good season.
Duke Blue Devils
It may be blasphemy in ACC country, but the Blue Devils will be legitimate threats for bowl eligibility now with David Cutliffe bringing in nice talent for the program. The non-conference schedule is very winnable outside of Kansas, and this team could steal a few in conference play. Look for the defensive line to be the key to success, as there needs to be a pass rush or else the poor secondary will be exposed and leave the Blue Devil offense with way too much to do.
Ralph Freigden started as a hero at the helm with three straight ten-win seasons, but now the Terrapin program has just fallen into irrelevance and mediocrity. Look for more unpredciatbility this season, as Maryland replaces over half their starters and most of the offensive and defensive lines. Expect the foundation to be laid for the next regime the next year or two, but there will be some tough days ahead while rebuilding.
Boston College Eagles
How is it that a team that made the past two conference championship games ends up in the trash heap in one season? Perhaps the worst offseason in program history as random injuries, rare cancer, transfers, and a canned coach is the explanation. For Boston College to overcome all of these problems and turmoil in coach Frank Spaziani's first season would be an absolute miracle. Look for the Eagles to play with bowl eligibility but no more in 2009.
Whether or not this is the year the ACC breaks out and gets some respect nationally, there are too many programs on the rise to let the doldrums of the 1-9 BCS Bowl game start continue to be the modus operandi of the conference. While the Atlantic will be a lot like last year, there are four teams in the Coastal to tak every seriously, headlined by national title contender Virginia Tech and option attack Georgia Tech. Knowing the ACC, there will be some surprises along the way before the conference crown is determined. 2009 is the beginning of a new era for the ACC, an era where they will be considered amongst the elite conferences in the country. We now stand less than two weeks away from kickoff, but there's one big elephant in the room left to cover, the beloved SEC. Join us on Wednesday for the SEC Preview as we wrap up the conference previews for 2009.