In the ACC Atlantic, there is little doubt that Florida State or Clemson will emerge on top -- both teams were 7-1 in league play last year, and FSU's win over the Tigers in Tallahassee proved the difference. Granted, this is the ACC, and just about anything can happen, but if a similar scenario doesn't develop this season it will be a mild shock. Clemson has the home-field advantage this time around.
The Coastal Division was a complete mess in 2012, which is far from the natural order of things -- for the most part, Virginia Tech has owned that half of the league since coming on board in 2004. The Hokies stumbled last year, though, leaving the door wide open for somebody else to claim the top spot.
For that reason alone, it was a strange year in the Coastal, and this is setting aside the fact that both Miami and North Carolina were ineligible for postseason play for various NCAA-related reasons. Virginia Tech may reasonably be expected to reclaim division supremacy this year, given Frank Beamer's track record, but the Hokies have been hit hard by the preseason injury bug.
Miami returns a ton of major contributors, Georgia Tech has a schedule that could get it back into the ACC title game, and North Carolina has enough talent left over from the Butch Davis era to have a big year. This is the conference's most compelling big-picture storyline.
There is also Pittsburgh and Syracuse, which could prove to be some variety of monkey wrench or X-factor in their first ACC season. Either is a bowl-caliber team capable of a solid debut, though they haven't figured into the division title discussion.
Seven games to watch
North Carolina at South Carolina, Aug. 29
As an NC State fan, it does pain me a bit to say this, but I think UNC is being undersold by just about everybody. The Tar Heels opened as double-digit underdogs to the Gamecocks, and I'm not seeing it. This is an incredibly tough task for UNC, don't get me wrong, but I'm not sure they're as far behind South Carolina as popular opinion suggests.
Georgia at Clemson, Aug. 31
Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech, Sept. 26
The Yellow Jackets play both UNC and Virginia Tech in September, meaning their division chances might be sunk before they get to October. They received a scheduling favor in this case, because the Hokies will be coming off a short week for this Thursday-nighter in Atlanta. Depending on how the game against UNC goes for Georgia Tech the week prior, this could be a must-win situation.
Miami at North Carolina, Oct. 17
It's impossible to pin down a pivot point within the Coastal Division before the season begins, but this could be it. By this stage of the season, the Heels will have played Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, and the Hurricanes will have played the Jackets. No matter what the standings look like, this contest will provide some clarity.
Florida State at Clemson, Oct. 19
There is essentially no other game between Atlantic teams that matters on a conference-wide scale; FSU and Clemson are clearly the class of the division, and unless Jim Grobe gets Wake Forest to produce an unprecedented and preposterously positive turnover margin -- no other Atlantic coach is capable of this -- the drama begins and ends right here.
Virginia Tech at Miami, Nov. 9
Did the Hokies survive the injury bug to remain in contention this deep into the season? If not, this game becomes an afterthought. If so, well, let's just say it's unfortunate this one won't be played in Blacksburg.
Florida State at Florida, Nov. 30
There aren't many landmines on FSU's schedule prior to this contest, so it is at least conceivable that the Seminoles could be in a position to earn a national title game berth when they play the Gators. This game is always fun anyway, but when the stakes are potentially high for both teams, it's that much better.
Six Twitter accounts to follow
Follow @ACCSports Jim Young, a veteran ACC scribe, is the man behind this account, and his feed is a great mix of both news and humor. It's often mistaken for an official league account, with hilarious results -- usually the confused parties are complaining about officiating.
Follow @InTheBleachers Michael Felder is a former defensive back at UNC, and he'll make you smarter about football.
Follow @jwgiglio There isn't a sports writer in the league better than Joe Giglio. His beat lies in North Carolina, but he has plenty of insight to offer about the entire conference.
Follow @martinrickman A man, a movement and a consistently hilarious stream of jokes. #goacc
Follow @TomahawkNation Bud Elliott is a Florida State partisan but has as good a grasp on the overall ACC picture as anybody. And few know the national recruiting landscape as well as he does.
Five spots to visit
(With a major tip of the cap to Patrick Stevens.) Let us know what we've missed, in the comments.
- Angus Barn in Raleigh
- Boudreaux's in Blacksburg
- The Clermont Lounge in Atlanta
- Esso Club in Clemson
- Marathon Deli in College Park
Four Players to Love
Tajh Boyd, Clemson QB
Boyd is the landslide ACC player of the year pick, and a potential Heisman candidate depending on how well Clemson's season goes. The conference is actually pretty deep at quarterback this season, which makes the accolades all the more impressive.
The Boyd-Sammy Watkins connection is easily the league's most exciting quarterback-wide receiver tandem and should result in a number of big plays.
Duke Johnson, Miami RB
Johnson averaged 6.8 yards per carry last year, and he was only a freshman. The Hurricanes have a wealth of experience surrounding him, which could lead to a huge sophomore campaign.
He's a good bet to eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark if he stays healthy; he also might lead his team to a conference title.
Stefon Diggs, Maryland WR
He possesses the rare combination of speed, agility and skill that makes him a threat to score whenever he touches the ball, whether he is returning kicks or catching passes.
Last season he racked up nearly 850 receiving yards even though Maryland couldn't keep a quarterback healthy, and he also returned a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns.
Jameis Winston, Florida State QB
Winston hasn't played a down of college football, but he's already something of an ACC legend. Part of that has to do with his personality -- the kid is a great quote. The other part has to do with his raw tools, which can be awe-inspiring. He might be a bit volatile this year considering he's a redshirt freshman; he also figures to be all sorts of fun.
Three Coaches to Know
Dabo Swinney, Clemson
There aren't a lot of colorful personalities within the ACC coaching ranks; sometimes it feels like Swinney knows this and is trying to make up for it all by himself.
Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech
Paul Johnson might attempt a fourth-down conversion at any time at any point on the field, and while that philosophy may partially be facilitated by his offensive system, he is a refreshing break from the punt-by-numbers group that dominates his profession. The fact that his Twitter persona is completely incongruous with his sideline demeanor is just a bonus.
David Cutcliffe, Duke
Accepting the challenge of coaching at Duke and maintaining a sense of humor along the way is no simple thing. Cutcliffe has done that with the understated confidence of a man who's been just about everywhere and seen just about everything football can throw at you. He has no shortage of press conference gems, and oh by the way, he led freaking Duke to a bowl game last year.
Two Things to Treasure
The triple option still lives here
We love the forward pass in the ACC, we really do. But there is also no other power conference that features a team running the triple option like Georgia Tech, and we love that, too. College football is great in part because of the diverse schemes found around the country. Paul Johnson's deft handling of a simple playbook that has to be seen in order to be fully appreciated is one thing that makes the league compelling.
It was Matt Hinton who originally coined the phrase "ACC roulette" about a half-decade ago to describe the head-scratching nature of the conference. We're still at a point where you could offer up any farfetched ACC scenario, and the typical response would be a shrug followed by, "yeah, I could see that."
Ain't a thing wrong with that.
One Thing to Remember (about each team)
A glance at each of Bill Connelly's ACC team previews...
Florida State was really, really good in 2012. For 46 of 48 regular season quarters, this may have been one of the two or three best teams in the country. A fourth-quarter lapse versus NC State led to a jarring, unlucky upset, and an outright fourth-quarter collapse against Florida handed the Seminoles a second loss. But again, the quality was ridiculously high at the beginning of the season -- yes, FSU's first three opponents were quite bad, but the Seminoles still played like an elite team against bad opponents -- and remained high throughout.
There is still some talent in Blacksburg, but there might be one more year of tumbling before we get a good glimpse of it. The offense lost its direction last year, and it is now run by a coach who was the coordinator of a directionless offense last year. The defense should hold steady in the nearly elite fringes but probably won't improve enough to drag the offense back toward the suburbs.
I can't really get too worried about the running back position. For one thing, as long as he's healthy, Boyd will play a role in the running game. For another, the line should be rock-solid -- four-year starting center Dalton Freeman is gone, but six players with starting experience return (64 career starts), as do a wealth of exciting freshmen and sophomores. And for another, Andre Ellington was good but reasonably replaceable. He wasn't incredibly explosive last year, at least not any more explosive than presumptive new starter Roderick McDowell, and depth should be nice with "a bigger, bulkier Andre" (Tyshon Dye) coming off of the bench. So yeah, a solid running game (26th in Rushing S&P+ last year) should be reasonably solid again.
There is indeed optimism in Chapel Hill, but I'll say this: if there is still optimism after six games, then this season is shaping up to be an all-timer. With trips to South Carolina, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech followed by a visit from Miami in the first half of the slate, UNC will have to prove its bona fides from the opening kickoff. It will take a top-40 team to start better than about 3-3, and it might take a top-30 team to start even 4-2.
Pitt now moves to the ACC perhaps in better shape than we think. Perceptions were already less positive than reality before Wannstedt left. At 9-4, Pitt indeed ranked 15th in F/+ in 2008, ahead of 10-3 Oregon and 10-3 Georgia. At 10-3, Pitt indeed ranked 12th in F/+ in 2009, ahead of 10-3 Oregon, 10-3 Wisconsin, and a 12-1 Cincinnati team that barely beat the Panthers in a late-season classic. And in 2010, when Wannstedt was let go, Pitt still ranked 24th in F/+, ahead of 11-2 Michigan State and 13-1 Nevada. The Panthers fell victim to a 1-3 record in one-possession games that year but were still competitive and interesting (well, maybe not aesthetically, but you know what I mean) overall. And at the very least, the Panthers maintained a top-50 level recently.
We don't know Dave Doeren's ceiling yet because he hasn't reached it. He grew into previous jobs, and he didn't take long to do the same in his first head coaching position. He is tasked with taking NC State somewhere it really hasn't been in a while. The Wolfpack have had randomly good seasons -- 9-4 in 2010, 11-3 in 2002, 34-14-1 from 1991-94 -- but haven't been consistently strong for a while. He inherits a roster that is intriguing but thin, and it's conceivable that, before successfully bringing MACtion-level excitement and wins to Raleigh, he's in for another growing-into-the-job experience.
Somehow, against the odds, the long-term is looking pretty decent for Miami. The devastation that was assumed when the Shapiro revelations hit could still unfold, but it seems less likely. For all of the kudos that Bill O'Brien has received for both taking the Penn State job and making something of it despite sanctions, Golden could be receiving similar praise soon. You've got to respect a man who likes a challenge; now we just have to see if the third-year traction actually comes as expected.
Tech's offense briefly tumbled in 2010 following the loss of stars like Jonathan Dwyer and Demaryius Thomas from the 2009 conference title team. But the Yellow Jackets' No. 49 ranking in Off. F/+ that season was the exception to the rule; Tech has ranked between sixth and 29th in the category in Paul Johnson's other four seasons. His stuff works, and it's fun to have it around at the BCS level.
Steve Addazio has been seen as a coach with loads of potential for quite a while. His "hybrids on hybrids" description of his ideal offense is tantalizing. He's ridiculously charismatic. And for all we know, he has just the CEO skills needed to be a successful head coach over the long haul. But the actual results and stats on his résumé are not very impressive. As with recruiting, upside and production are two different things; BC is betting on upside. We'll see if it pays off.
It's hard to know what to make of this team. There are potential stars at running back and linebacker, and there is at least one stellar receiver in the rotation, but the quarterback position is a question mark, the offensive line loses its two best players, the defensive line got thinned out quite a bit, and the secondary is still a bit of a mystery. (The special teams unit is experienced but wasn't that good last year, either.)
Virginia's top three cornerbacks combined to defense 25 passes, a lovely total considering they combined for about 101.0 tackles (which is not too many, and not too few, for a set of corners). You want that PDs-to-tackle ratio pretty high because it hints at quality on-ball defending (or awful tackling ... but probably the former). Virginia corners had ball skills.
They just didn't have holding onto the ball skills. On average, 25 defensed passes should result in five to six interceptions; UVa CBs had two.
The 2012 Wake defense certainly wasn't very good, but it wasn't that bad either. The Deacs were reasonably efficient on standard downs, and a light but active line was able to make quite a few plays in the backfield. But even if the defense could leverage opponents into passing downs, the back seven wasn't able to make enough stops. Injuries were a hindrance -- each of the top three linemen all missed time, as did three of the top six defensive backs -- and the unit certainly regressed as the season went on.
We probably didn't actually learn much about the Maryland line in 2012. On runs, it was blocking for freshmen and one-legged quarterbacks. On passes, it was blocking for linebackers. The Alabama line would have struggled to produce meaningful numbers with this set of skill position players last year.
Still ... the line stats above are really terrible. Awful. And some of that has to have been on the line, one that must now replace its three most experienced starters.
Duke ranked 123rd -- second to last in FBS -- in Adj. Line Yards, 121st in Standard Downs S&P+, and 115th in Rushing S&P+. That's horrendous. The Blue Devils never got anybody in the backfield without blitzing, allowed more passing-downs line yards (while selling out on the blitz) than anybody in the country, and constantly allowed opposing runners to get to the second level of the defense. The front six was neither big nor particularly fast, and while experience is good, athleticism is better.