Wednesday, August 19, 2009

2009 NCAA Football Preview: ACC


Atlantic Division

Boston College: A new coach. A new quarterback. A front seven gutted by graduation and injuries. The outlook certainly looks bleak on Chestnut Hill. Former head coach Jeff Jagodzinski was fired after interviewing for a NFL job, despite leading B.C. to ACC Atlantic titles in his two seasons with the team. Enter Frank Spaziani, who was defensive coordinator for Jagodzinski. While the Eagles have boasted strong defenses the past couple of seasons, Spaziani is an unknown when it comes to leading an entire team.

Later in the off-season, incumbent QB Dominique Davis transferred after being suspended earlier this summer for academic reasons. The loss leaves the Eagles with a pair of redshirt freshmen and a JC transfer to battle it out in the fall for the starting job. Whoever lands the starting job should not have to shoulder all the burden of the offense, however, thanks to an O-line returning four starters, a young running back duo full of potential, and a couple of senior wide outs.

B.C. also has questions on the defensive side of the ball. The Eagles lost both starters on the interior of the line to the NFL (B.J. Raji - 1st round; Ron Brace - 2nd round), but also might suffer unexpected losses at linebacker. Reigning ACC Defensive POY Mark Herzlich was diagnosed with a form of cancer found in the bones and tissue, and his career is most likely over. Mike McLaughlin would help stabilize the defense, but he is still recovering from an achilles injury that forced him to miss all of spring practice. The one bright spot on defense is the secondary, where the Eagles return three starters from a unit that tied for the national lead in interceptions last year (26).

Spaziani definitely has his work cut out for him with a young and inexperienced backfield and a defense now void of its stars. However, Boston College has exceeded expectations the past two seasons, capturing two division titles. If an adequate passer emerges to lead the offense, and McLaughlin can get back on the field sooner rather than later, the Eagles have a chance for an 8 win season and a bowl appearance.

Clemson: Much like Boston College, the Tigers also must find a new starting QB. Unlike the Eagles, however, a new signal caller might actually be a good thing. Departing quarterback Cullen Harper was just as bad in 2008 as he was good two years ago. His replacement will be an underclassman, which is obviously a concern, but whoever gets the starting nod (either Kyle Parker or Willy Korn) can't be any worse than Harper was a season ago. Aiding the new QB will be C.J. Spiller, one of the most explosive running backs in the nation. For the first time in his career, Spiller will be the primary back following the departure of James Davis. After receiving the majority of the criticism for the offense's struggles last year, the Tigers' offensive line, comprised of a good mix of under- and upperclassmen, should be one of the most dominant in the ACC. If head coach Dabo Swinney can find some more targets to go along with Jacoby Ford for his new signal caller, there's no reason the offense shouldn't be able to carry its fair share of the load in 2009.

Adding more optimism for the upcoming season is the fact that the defense should, once again, be among one of the better units in the country. As long as the offense limits their mistakes, the defense, which returns 8 starters, should be able to keep the Tigers in most games. The secondary boasts three senior starters (led by CB Chris Chancellor) and is the strength of the defense, while the front-seven has as much potential as any team in the ACC, headlined by DE Da'Quan Bowers (the No. 2 overall high school prospect in 2008) and LB Brandon Maye (87 tackles as a freshman). Despite the talent on defense, depth will be a huge concern until the backups get some experience. Any injury could potentially be devastating. Clemson must replace both their kicker and punter, but the return teams are electric with Spiller taking the majority of the returns.

The Tigers have more than enough talent to challenge for the Atlantic Division title, but key question marks still remain, including the QB situation, as well as how Swinney will handle being a head coach for an entire season (he replaced Tommy Bowden midway through 2008). Clemson's most important game may be Sept. 10 @Georgia Tech, the second game of the year. The matchup will be an early indicator of how good this team can potentially be. If the Tigers can mange the upset, they could be off to a great year. However, if they falter, it could lead to another downward spiral due to the tough opposition that immediately follows (B.C., TCU, @Maryland, W.F., and @Miami (Fl)). Overall, Clemson has a realistic chance at 8-9 victories, and possibly 10 wins and a January 1st bowl bid if they find consistent quarterback play early in September.

Florida State: FSU will most likely begin another season as a Top-25 squad, but most people feel these Seminoles will not disappoint like the teams of the past few years. Christian Ponder enters his second year as a starter and is firmly entrenched as "the man" at QB - a position of uncertainty in recent seasons. Florida State's return to national glory will continue only with a sustained focus on the running game, and the Seminoles have a couple of good options to focus on in JC transfer Tavares Pressley (who missed last year with a torn ACL) and sophomore Jermaine Thomas, who has drawn comparisons to Warrick Dunn. A seeming trend in the ACC is a lack of legitimate wide receivers, and FSU is not immune to this fact. Additionally, offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher's group of wide outs is so devoid of proven talent that the depth chart currently boasts more production off the field (in the form of injuries, suspensions, and issues with the law) than on it. Fortunately, an ever-improving running game, as well as arguably the best O-line in the conference (and one of the country's best), which includes a couple potential All-ACC performers, is a great building block for the offense to start on until the passing game starts to click.

Opposing passing attacks may struggle in conference play this year, as FSU, like Clemson, has a trio of senior starters in the secondary, although only one returning starter. CB Patrick Robinson has the potential to be one of the nation's best corners, and looks to fulfill that potential after a superb spring. The ability to put pressure on the quarterback is an area of major concern for the defense, as DE Everette Brown chose to skip his senior season to enter the draft. Head Coach Bobby Bowden hopes a couple of newcomers to the starting lineup can replace Brown's 13.5 sacks. Freshman DT Jacobbi McDaniel is the No. 15 overall prospect in the 2009 recruiting class, and he is a very active pass rusher from the interior of the line. Coaches also hope an increased role for JC transfer Markus White will lead to a return to his 2007 form, when he had 24.5 sacks for Butler (Kan.) Community College. The linebacking corps will be the strength of the defense, as the unit combines a good mix of potential, youth, and experience. FSU would be mistaken to overlook the loss of consistent kicker Graham Gano. The return teams might also suffer after personnel losses.

The Seminoles and Bobby Bowden are definately heading in the right direction, despite the controversy involving NCAA violations. FSU finally appears to have a stable QB situation, a legitimate rushing attack, and a great line to support both. The defense may struggle early on, but, as always, Florida State's D will be quick, athletic, and, most likely, very good by mid-season. Unfortunately, the schedule is brutal. Despite having the talent of a Top-25 team, if not better, the potential remains for FSU to only win 2 games - seriously, the slate is that difficult. Contests with Jacksonville State and Maryland are the only "gimmes" on the schedule. More likely, however, Bobby Bowden will lead his team to a 9-win season, an Atlantic Division title, and an ACC Championship Game berth.

Maryland: Writing an accurate preview for the Terps may be like trying to guess the number of beans in a jar - you have a good chance of being wrong. Maryland exceeded all expectations in 2008, going 8-5 and earning a bowl victory. However, they also struggled against the weakest teams on their schedule. Despite losing some key contributors, the Terrapins seemingly have enough pieces in place on both sides of the ball to make a run at duplicating last year's success. Then again, last year's team greatly overachieved, and it will take a similar, if not greater, effort in 2009.

The offense will be fueled by the running back duo of Da'Rel Scott and Davin Meggett, who could potentially form the best rushing attack in the conference. Their success, however, may largely depend on the performance of a vastly inexperienced line, as well as an inconsistent passing game led by QB Chris Turner. Although a senior, Turner has struggled throughout his career, and 2009 will be no easy task either, especially with the loss of top wide-out Darrius Heyward-Bey. The fact remains, however, that Maryland has plenty of talent at the skill positions to stay afloat offensively in most games.

Head Coach Ralph Friedgen will have to earn his paycheck when dealing with a defense that returns only 4 starters. The major area of concern is linebacker, where the Terps lose four experienced performers. Additionally, while the defense boasts six senior starters, including all four members of the secondary, there are no true stars on this side of the ball, and no underclassmen appear ready to make that leap to stardom. On a brighter note, the Terrapins should boast one of the best special teams units in the country thanks to solid coverage, record setting kick returner Torrey Smith, and one of the nation's best punters.

Friedgen proved once again last season why he is so highly regarded as a head coach, but he may need to do his best job ever to duplicate last season's results. Unfortunately, the ACC looks to be one of the best conferences in the country, and Maryland happens to project as one of the bottom feeders. There is no predicting how Maryland will repsond to their tough opponents (and there are many of them) after last season's surprises, but hoping for anything more than a 6-win campaign is illogical.

North Carolina State: It is all about potential and injuries for N.C. State in 2009. Coach Tom O'Brien has this program headed in the right direction in a hurry, and the only things that may derail this team are the factors mentioned above. The offense is headed by dual-threat QB Russell Wilson, who is on the verge of stardom as a sophomore after posting 17 touchdowns to only 1 INT as a freshman. Wilson's value to the Wolfpack is unmeasurable, as evidenced by the team's collapse in last year's bowl game against Rutgers. Although the talent around him is nothing to get excited about, save for TE George Bryan (who looks primed for a 40-reception, 400-yard season), Wilson has the skills to carry the offense every week. Spring injuries and a lack of experience and depth at guard could derail the chance for any semblance of a running game.

The defense returns 7 starters, but whether those players can stay on the field remains to be seen. DE Willie Young is another in the consistent line of talented N.C. State defensive ends; however, he has been inconsistent during his three seasons in Raleigh. Young will attempt to "put it all together" as he anchors a line that features four senior starters. Nate Irving leads the linebacking corps with consistent, productive play when healthy; unfortunately, he was in a car accident earlier in the summer and suffered a broken leg and collapsed lung. If Irving is 100% by time the season starts, the front-7 will be formidable. Any blow to the first two waves of defenders will greatly hinder a secondary incorporating two new starters (including Clem Johnson, a talented safety who was injured twice last year) and already viewed as the weakness of the D after the Wolfpack were last in the conference in total and scoring defense in 2008. Special teams should be solid across the board.

If everybody stays healthy, N.C. State should challenge F.S.U. and Clemson for the Atlantic Division crown. If the O-line can't consistently keep Wilson upright, and he goes down with any type of significant injury, however, fans can kiss the 2009 season goodbye. The defense will have its moments, but also suffer its fair share of struggles - the ratio of which will be determined by the play of Young and Irving. The schedule is such that O'Brien's squad can start the season 7-0 before venturing into the meat of the slate. A 10-win season is doable, but 8 victories is more likely.

Wake Forest

Returning Starters: 13 (9 Offense, 4 Defense)

Star Players: QB Riley Skinner (entering 4th year as starter), NT Boo Robinson (47 tackles, 5 sacks)

Key Performers for Success: RB Kevin Harris (136 rushing yards in EagleBank Bowl), LB Matt Woodlief (replaces 2009 NFL Top 5 pick Aaron Curry), CB Kenny Okoro (massive potential, replacing INT leader Alphonso Smith)

Strengths: Experienced Quarterback and Offensive Line (returns all 5 starters, including 4 seniors), Interior Defensive Line

Weaknesses: Wide Receiver (only 26 receptions by leading returning wide out), Back 7 on Defense (6 new starters), Kicking/Punting

Outlook: Jim Grobe is a very good coach, but an elite defense covered up a very mediocre offense last year. While Riley Skinner looks to get better production from his unit in 2009, it won't be enough to cover up the gaping holes on defense. The Demon Deacons may match last season's pre-bowl game record of 7-5, but that and another minor bowl bid looks to be their ceiling.

Coastal Division


Returning Starters: 10 (5 Offense, 5 Defense)

Star Players: QB Thaddeus Lewis (entering 4th year as starter; ACC active leader in passing yards, TD passes, and total offense), DT Vince Oghobaase (career 29 TFL, 11.5 sacks)

Key Performers for Success: RB Re'quan Boyette (leading rusher in 2006 and 2007; missed last year), WR Sheldon Bell (replaces favorite target Eron Riley)

Strengths: Experience (starting 18 upper-classmen), Quarterback, Coaching

Weaknesses: Wide Receiver (must replace top 2 targets), Offensive Line (only 2 returning starters), Defense (last in ACC in pass efficiency defense, 11th in run defense)

Outlook: Coach David Cutcliffe led the Blue Devils to as many wins last year (4) as the previous four seasons combined. His presence has already helped on the recruiting trail, and he should have Duke in pursuit of an annual bowl bid in the near future. Any expectations beyond that, however, would be unrealistic due to the university's strict academic standards, and the fact that Duke is a basketball and lacrosse school. In the best of years, Duke may be able to challenge for a division title, but that won't happen this year, as the team must replace a couple key contributors on each side of the ball. A second consecutive 4 win campaign would be a success.

Georgia Tech

Returning Starters: 16 (9 Offense, 7 Defense)

Star Players: RB Jonathan Dwyer (1,395 yards, 12 TD's; ACC POY), SS Morgan Burnett (team-leading 93 tackles; NCAA-leading 7 INT's)

Key Performers for Success: OT's Austin Barrick and Nick Claytor (new starting offensive tackles), LB/S Cooper Taylor (69 tackles as a true freshman in 2008)

Strengths: Running Game (Dwyer, Roddy Jones, Lucas Cox, transfer Anthony Allen, and QB Josh Nesbitt), Secondary (4 returning starters + Taylor)

Weaknesses: Passing Game (only 74 completions in 2008), Wide Receiver, Defensive Line (must replace 3 starters), Kicker/Punter (12 for 19 FG's, 38.9 yards per punt)

Outlook: I may not be as high on the Yellow Jackets as most others, but there is no disputing that coach Paul Johnson's offense is effective. However, if Nesbitt continues to show a lack of improvement in the passing game, teams will quickly start to put 9 guys up front to stop the run. If the defensive line can hold their own, G.T. will be very solid on defense most weekends, but the lack of a proven pass rusher is a major concern. The schedule sets up very favorably for the Jackets, with a trip to FSU and the annual meeting with Georgia as the primary obstacles to a perfect season.

Miami (Fl)

Returning Starters: 13 (6 Offense, 7 Defense)

Star Players: RB Graig Cooper (all-around threat), LB Sean Spence (freshman All-American last year)

Key Performers for Success: QB Jacory Harris (new starter), T Allen Bailey (third different position), FS Randy Phillips (returns from season-long injury)

Strengths: Depth, Athleticism, and Potential at Running Back and Wide Receiver, Linebacker

Weaknesses: Offensive Line (only 1 proven performer), Tight End, Run Defense (last in the ACC), Creating Turnovers (only 4 INT's in 2008)

Outlook: Randy Shannon hasn't turned around the program as quickly as most would like, but he is on the right track. The Hurricanes are probably still two or three years away from returning to national prominence in a suddenly deep ACC. Breaking in a new QB behind a shaky O-line doesn't help either. The defense has the talent and athleticism to dominate, but the unit couldn't put it all together last season. The first month of the season is absolutely brutal, with Miami facing FSU, G.T., V.T., and OU. If the Hurricanes can escape with a split, they should be on their way to a 9 or 10 win season, but more likely, they'll have to settle for a 7 or 8 win year.

North Carolina

Returning Starters: 13 (4 Offense, 9 Defense)

Star Players: QB T.J. Yates (1,168 yards, 11 TD's, 4 INT's in 6 games last year), LB Quan Sturdivant (NCAA-leading 87 solo tackles), CB Kendric Burney (second-team ACC)

Key Performers for Success: WR Dwight Jones (former 5-star prospect; likely starter), K Casey Barth (10 for 15 FG's; became starter mid-way through the season)

Strengths: Quaterback, Wide Receiver Talent and Potential, Offensive Line (led by LT Kyle Jolly), Front-7 on Defense (returns 6 starters and has great depth)

Weaknesses: Wide Receiver Experience (only 11 receptions by leading returning wide out), Pass Rush (22 sacks in 2008, 11th in ACC)

Outlook: Butch Davis has the Tar Heels on the fast track to annual success thanks in large part to his recruiting efforts. The offense may struggle at times this season, but it has the look of a high-powered attack in the coming years. The defense is loaded at every position and should be able to bail out the offense a majority of the time. Special teams will be more important to UNC than perhaps any other team in the ACC. North Carolina plays its three toughest games (@G.T., FSU, @V.T.) in a five week stretch that will probably define their season. The health of Yates and the ability to pressure the QB will determine if the Tar Heels can win 10 or 11 contests. More likely, however, they will go 9-3, play on January 1st, and take another step forward.


Returning Starters: 11 (5 Offense, 6 Defense)

Star Players: OT Will Barker, CB Ras-I Dowling

Key Performers for Success: QB Vic Hall (started season finale at QB last year after starting at corner), CB Chris Cook (returns after missing 2008; must replace Hall's production)

Strengths: Offensive Line (returns 4 starters), Corner Back

Weaknesses: Inconsistent and Unproven Passing Game, Wide Receiver (must replace top 4 options), Linebacker (must replace 3 solid contributors), Kicker

Outlook: Any success for the Cavaliers has to start with a revamped offense. However, having a converted corner at QB with nobody to throw to in a stacked conference doesn't bode well for coach Al Groh's squad. Additionally, the defense won't be as "strong" as last year after being gutted in the middle. All signs point to another long season, but Groh always seems to work his magic at the most unexpected times. Even with Groh at the helm, Virginia has the talent to only win 5 games, while 3 or 4 victories is more probable.

Virginia Tech

Returning Starters: 15 (8 Offense, 7 Defense)

Star Players: QB Tyrod Taylor (738 rushing yards), DE Jason Worilds (second in ACC with 18.5 TFL)

Key Performers for Success: RB Ryan Williams (No. 47 prospect in 2008; must replace injured Darren Evans), LB Barquell Rivers (started 2008 bowl game; new starting middle linebacker)

Strengths: Running Game (Williams and Taylor), Secondary (led by Stephan Virgil)

Weaknesses: Inconsistent and Unproven Passing Game, Lack of a Pass Rush Outside of Worilds

Outlook: Frank Beamer's Hokies have lost their luster in recent years, as they have slowly dropped off the list of elite programs in football. Despite some concerns regarding the passing attack, this program should shine again this season behind one of the best running games in the country (despite losing star Darren Evans to a torn ACL) and yet another terrific defense. V.T. has to survive a first month that includes games with Alabama, Nebraska, and Miami (Fl), as well as a road-laden stretch run with trips to ECU, Maryland, and Virginia. Coach Beamer should get this team to double-digit wins yet again, but a slip-up in a tough conference will cost them a National Title berth.

John's Predictions:

Atlantic Division Champion: Florida State

Coastal Division Champion: North Carolina

ACC Champion: Florida State

Bowl Bids: 9

BCS Berths: Florida State

Ian's Predictions:

Atlantic Division Champion: NC State

Coastal Division Champion: Georgia Tech

ACC Champion: Georgia Tech

Bowl Bids: 8

BCS Berths: Georgia Tech

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