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Football Predictions: A Second Slice
ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE
Tier 1: Clemson; Virginia Tech
Clemson's offense returns QB Cullen Harper, WR Aaron Kelly (the Tigers' all–time receptions leader) and RBs C.J. Spiller and James Davis, which makes them one of the better offenses in the nation. One possible Achilles Heel would be the line, where inexperience could slide the offense backwards from last year's high. Fortunately, they have a good defense with the kind of talent to exploit opponents, especially those daring to pass once behind. Clemson is the best team in the ACC, but if the Tigers want to be in the national picture, their few away trips must be treated with caution — they visit Wake, Boston College and Florida State, the latter two in back–to–back weeks. Going to bowls isn't enough of a challenge for a Tigers team this good, and anything less than the ACC Championship Game would be a major disappointment.
Their opponents in the Championship Game would likely be Virginia Tech, who should have an easy life in the Coastal Division. But as dominant as VT might be in the regular season, I have a sense of diminishing returns for a team that seems to be on the edge of the national picture on a yearly basis. The 'Beamerball' mentality is there, but the experience is patchy on both sides of the ball. The running game needs to reestablish itself with the departure of Brandon Ore, and the receivers are unproven. At least the line remains sturdy, and with Tyrod Taylor redshirted in favor of Sean Glennon, Tech is one of the few ACC teams going into the season with the QB dilemma resolved. The defense returns only 4 starters — although they do include star CB Victor Harris — and even special teams aren't what they were. Frank Beamer is still one of the best coaches in the nation, but even if they find the likes of North Carolina and Miami a step behind them in the Coastal Division, none of that will be good practice for the firepower Clemson may bring when they finally match up.
Atlantic Division, Tier 2: Wake Forest; Florida State; Boston College
Wake Forest QB Riley Skinner is a fine example of how teams can win with a freshmen QB (albeit a redshirt freshman). Josh Adams was a redshirt freshman too last season, and if fellow runner Brandon Pendergrass gets in on the act, and WR Jordan Williams continues what he started as a true freshman, Wake Forest could become a long–term fixture in the Top 25. What keeps me from from putting them on equal footing with Clemson, only one year after winning the ACC, is a rebuilding line. There's much to like on defense as well, including Alphonso Smith and Brandon Ghee at the corners and LB Aaron Curry, and the entire back seven returns; this could end up looking more like Beamerball than Virginia Tech, and probably has the better kicking game. Jim Grobe has something going on here.
Florida State won't feel the effect of suspensions too badly when they start the season against 1–AA minnows Western Carolina and Chattanooga, but those games will hardly prepare them for Wake Forest on September 20. Outside of their own division, Virginia Tech and Miami are on the schedule, and Florida awaits them at the end of it all. The good news is that Wake, VT, Clemson, BC and Florida will all be visiting. That may put a Florida State team that isn't all that special (by their standards) into the thick of the ACC Atlantic action. But for that to happen, several people are going have to exceed past standards, including RB Antone Smith taking the next step, Drew Weatherford becoming the passer Wake's Riley Skinner already seems to be, and the offensive line playing beyond their years.
It's always hard to slap a champ down a grade, but this is a Boston College team without Matt Ryan. Sure, senior Chris Crane could be a revelation as his replacement, but Ryan isn't the only thing missing — in all, only ten starters return on both sides of the ball combined. At least Crane will have experienced receivers, including TE Ryan Purvis, who had 54 catches last season. As much as Crane might not be Ryan, it's actually defense that could see the greatest drop–off. Second versus the run last year, the D–line will be good again, but the back seven sees only two starters return, with two of the absentees (DeJuan Trbble and Jamie Silva) doubling as last year's return specialists. With a testing later schedule, the Eagles wouldn't have to be that much less talented a team to slip a long way in the win column. In September they might still be thinking about Clemson; by November they might be looking over their shoulder at Maryland.
Tier 3: NC State; Maryland
It's hard to make a case for North Carolina State this year, and even tougher to place them above Maryland after losing to them 37–0 last time they set foot on the football field. But I'm going to have a go. For one thing, Tom O'Brien's instilled some belief when the Wolfpack rallied from 1–5 to 5–5 late last season, and for another, they may display the most improved rushing game in the ACC. That matters because last year, NC State were blown out in six of their losses, with a profusion of interceptions resulting from game plans that got out of shape. Of course, the same thing could happen again, but the defense has returning tools to suggest things may stay a little closer this time around.
Maryland have been sorting out a problem many more major contenders have been addressing: they return an able offense with an unknown at quarterback. Junior receiver Darrius Heyward–Bey is probably in his last year before playing on Sundays, so somebody better feed him and the rest of the receivers if the Terps are to climb the divisional ladder. Our guess is that doesn't happen with enough consistency, and Maryland spend another year a couple of steps behind the contenders.
Coastal Division, Tier 2: North Carolina; Miami
The Coastal Division isn't the toughest place in football this season, and North Carolina might be in position to look pretty good without being spectacularly good at anything. Most of the offensive starters return, and another step forward by the line could mean a big step forward for the rushing game, balancing a receiver–strong passing game and helping the offense in general. The defense is a little young, although not without some experience, and the second half of the year doesn't feature the cream of their schedule. A late rally could produce a comfortable seven wins, and with a win over Miami that might be enough for the Tar Heels to claim second place in the Coastal.
Miami were simply one of the worst offenses in the nation, but with the continuity that comes with having the same offensive coordinator — Patrick Nix — for the first time in four years, a settled offense should be a better offense. Problem is, things start with redshirt freshman QB Robert Marve suspended (amongst six others). That's not a good omen for a big Miami bounce–back from the four game skid that ended last season. The defense is better, but pass–rushing ends such as Eric Moncur and Allen Bailey, plus a promising set of linebackers doesn't make up for the fact that a lot of the talent on this team is pretty raw. A winning record is by no means assured, and their October 11 match–up with UCF could say a lot about how far up or down the in–state pecking order Miami presently sits.
Tier 3: Georgia Tech; Virginia
Ex–Navy coach Paul Johnson arrives at Georgia Tech with an impressive 107–39 career record, but a year too late to see what Tashard Choice would have looked like in his option attack. It would probably be best not to expect miracles out of the gate, and if Josh Nesbitt can find time under center we might see a glimpse of the future. The offensive line has talent, but for now, Yellow Jacket stories will be about the defensive line, where DE Michael Johnson is very much on the NFL's watch list, and DT Vance Walker also contributes to a formidable front.
Virginia's Chris Long is long gone. So is the rest of the defensive line. In fact, it's hard to find any part of the team that is settled other than linebacker, where everybody is back. QB Jameel Sewell is gone, and so is the middle of the offensive line, and the kicking game. While there is underlying talent here, head coach Al Groh will have a job connecting the dots. The good news from the schedule is that although they open against USC, the September opponents are Richmond, UConn and Duke.
Tier 4: Duke
Poor old Duke, in a tier of their own in the ACC. New coach David Cutcliffe will get ol' misty–eyed if he thinks too hard about how he used to have winning – or at least competitive – teams. This job will be a case of accomplishing small ambitions first, such as winning an ACC game. In fact any more than an opening win against James Madison would be a major step forward. For now, realistic goals must be to hang tough, stay close, and make recruits think about Duke's ACC cellar as a better home than some average mid–major.