The ACC. What can be said about the ACC? It is another year in the league newly reconstructed in 2005 and another year of question marks all over the place. What will come from the two full scale coaching swaps in the league? What will come from the coaching staff moves? How will the new quarterbacks making their big debuts as the man this year? How will teams respond to losing big time defensive talents?
A lot of questions and we won’t get any definitive answers until the season gets rolling. With that said this is set up to be there year where the ACC can push some teams back into the national spotlight.
Yeah, I know, you’ve heard that before. In 2007 when Virginia Tech got served down in Baton Rouge. In 2008 when Clemson got mashed out by Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff. In 2009 when Virginia Tech got punched in the mouth by the Tide. In 2010 when North Carolina had the NCAA atom bomb explode what might have been. In 2010 when Virginia Tech had Boise State sit them in their seat then James Madison embarrassed them five days later. In 2010 when Florida State had their nose bloodied and their pride crippled by Oklahoma.
It is a familiar refrain for those who watch the conference. But, this year, this year folks, this year, it should be different.
Best Quarterback: Danny O’Brien. It was tough to take O’Brien over a guy in EJ Manuel who seems set up so well for success. Manuel has the same staff in place, has four of his top five targets from a season ago returning and a defense on the opposite side to cover any mistake he makes. O’Brien on the other hand is now working with a new staff and will have to make up for the loss his top two targets from a year ago, most notably current NFL-er Torrey Smith.
That said this is a “best quarterback” discussion and even with Gary Crowton calling the shots in College Park Danny O’Brien is the most technically sound quarterback in the league. He’s capable of making all the throws, puts in the work in the film room and he showed that he is well equipped to control the Terps’ offense.
There will be growing pains as Randy Edsall, Gary Crowton and Danny O’Brien work to get on the same page, stretch their legs and grow together but the fact remains, O’Brien is the best in the league and one of the better quarterbacks in the nation. He has all the tools, a solid foundation from James Franklin and Ralph Friedgen’s tutelage and this redshirt sophomore season should be a success, even with the transition the Terrapins are going through.
Best Running Back: Montel Harris from BC. There are some quality backs in the league but Harris is the best of the bunch. He’s quietly put together a hell of a career for the Eagles with back to back 1200+ yard seasons and a freshman campaign that saw him post 900 yards in 2008. The kid is no CJ Spiller type dynamo but he brings his lunch pail to work everyday, is a smart runner and handles his workload like a boss.
This year BC replaces three linemen, most notably left tackle Anthony Costanzo, so Harris won’t have quite the comforting confidence in his line but Boston College is a place that always finds a way to manufacture yards on the ground.
The lone issue with Harris is his injury. He just had his knee scoped and will miss the season opener. Provided the senior comes back strong from this procedure he’ll be poised to break some records. Not only BC’s all time rushing record, he’s 125 yards away from Derrick Knight, but also the ACC’s all time rushing record held by Ted Brown, who Harris trails by 1,002 yards.
Best Wide Receiver: Conner Vernon is a damn good receiver; he put up the third most receiving yards in the league a year ago and posted some 73 receptions. He was 27 yards shy of hitting the 1,000 yard mark and this year with Sean Renfree slinging the ball all over the yard the junior should hit that milestone.
However, the league’s best receiver has got to be Dwight Jones. As a junior Jones posted 946 yards in receptions and finally grew into the beast of a wide receiver folks expected when he came out of high school with the same accolades and hype as Julio Jones and AJ Green. He’s taken longer to blossom than his two NFL classmates but when he burst on to the scene in 2010 he did so in a big way; 198 yards at Virginia and 233 yards in Tallahassee.
Jones has got all the physical tools to be an early round NFL draft pick and he’ll be one of new quarterback Bryn Renner’s big targets on the edge. While not mentioned in the class of Michael Floyd at Notre Dame, Justin Blackmon at Oklahoma State and Alshon Jeffrey at South Carolina, Jones is set to have a year that pushes him towards the upper echelon of the nation’s elite receivers.
Best Offensive Lineman: There are some quality linemen in the ACC and making this pick was a bit tough but when you get sustained excellence that is the guy you go with.
That portrait of sustained excellence?
Andrew Datko of the Florida State Seminoles. The senior enters the season fresh off a surgery but is looking to get right back to where he left off for, well, his career. He’s started some 36 games for the Noles and that includes twelve as a true freshman, all at left tackle. Yes, the position that protects the quarterbacks uber-vulnerable blindside. Is he a mauler? No. He’s a technician; a guy that doesn’t often make mistakes or find himself out of position which results in his man very rarely getting to the quarterback.
He’ll be the protector of EJ Manuel’s blindside and that means the first year, fulltime starter, will be in good hands.
On The Spot: While he does have the league’s best offensive lineman watching his backside the fact remains that EJ Manuel is “on the spot” remains. The junior is getting the star treatment early as a dark horse Heisman candidate, the leader the Noles 2011 coming out party and Jimbo Fisher’s hand picked quarterback pupil to push the gang in Tally back into national prominence.
There’s a lot on his shoulders and after playing well in spots over the last few season, including a pair of bowl wins, EJ finally gets his chance to step out of the shadows for real. This season has all the ingredients to be awesome for both Manuel on the individual level and the Seminoles as a whole. The ACC is in transition all over the place and the Noles are the most stable of teams and set up in a damn good way to be the class of the league.
Busting Out: Lamar Miller is the starting running back for the Miami Hurricanes entering this year and while there is plenty of controversy circling the Canes he is one piece of the puzzle that should be in uniform regardless of what the higher ups decide. Last season Miller posted hundred yard games against Maryland and Virginia Tech late in the year and showed flashes of brilliance in spots.
The goal this year is to get consistency out of the back that possesses all the physical skills to be a star. The offensive line is a capable group that should open holes under the run first new head coach Al Golden. Look for Miller to truly bust loose this season should the Canes very fragile ship be held together.
Wildcard: Logan Thomas the dynamic new quarterback for the Hokies takes home this title with ease in the ACC. The hype surrounding the tight end turned quarterback is quietly taking the ACC by storm. With the Hokies relatively easy early schedule Thomas is going to have a chance to ease into things quite well. While the Hokies lose Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Williams, Darren Evans and Andre Smith on offense they do return return a solid offensive line, a full receiving core bubbling over with experience and that is enough to set Logan Thomas up for success.
How he handles the expectations and the spot light will be a telling sign as to what sort of hand this wildcard plays for the Hokies.
Best Defensive Lineman: Quinton Coples is a great pick here but this writer is going to go with Brandon Jenkins. Both players will be All-ACC this season and Coples is a guy whose versatility I love but the more Jenkins film I watch the more I fall in love with the way this kid fits into Mark Stoops’ scheme. He’s getting stronger and stronger and after the season he had last year, putting up 21.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks, the junior is bigger and better equipped to take on the double teams he’ll see this year.
While his improved stamina and conditioning will be his biggest personal reasons to improve this season we can also expect Jenkins to be more active because of the conceptual leap his entire defensive team will make. Year two is the year you see people “stop thinking” and “start doing” from a concepts and scheme standpoint. No more “paralysis by analysis” for the defense, just guys in garnet and gold sinking into their zones and flying to the football.
That means better coverage in the back seven. Better coverage means quarterbacks holding on to the football longer. Quarterbacks holding on to the football longer means more opportunities for Jenkins to put up sacks.
Best Linebacker: The Boston College Eagles put another player on the board in their latest tackling machine; Luke Kuechly. As a sophomore Kuechly posted 183 tackles. Yes, one hundred and eighty-three tackles. Just three tackles shy of doubling up BC’s second leading tackler, Kevin Pierre-Louis who had a respectable 93 stops.
Keuchly isn’t going to wow folks like Vontaze Burfict, he isn’t quite the physical specimen of Don’t’a Hightower but the kid is just a damn good ball player. He plays sideline to sideline and gets down hill well against the run. BC’s standout linebacker is as comfortable running down plays and crashing through cutback lanes as he is shedding blockers and stopping running backs in the hole.
The most interesting thing about Keuchly is his progression in the passing phase of the game in the second half of the season a year ago. In the final half of the season Keuchly got active in the backend; posting three pass break ups and three interceptions. Adding this facet to his already solid tackling game makes him a more complete player and a definite problem for opposing offenses.
Best Defensive Back: Every fiber of my being wants to pick one of my favorite players from a season ago for this spot; Kenny Tate. Unfortunately Maryland, new coach Randy Edsall and defensive coordinator Todd Bradford have shifted Tate from his natural safety spot into a hybrid safety-linebacker position for the 2011 season. While we’ve seen it work time and again at Virginia Tech let’s just say I don’t have the same faith in Bradford’s ability to properly utilize Tate as I would Bud Foster’s.
With that said I’ve got to roll with a player from the roster of the aforementioned Bud Foster; Jayron Hosley. Another in the long line of successful corners coming out of Blacksburg, Hosley is set up to have a tremendous year. He is entering off a nation leading nine interceptions a season ago and now makes the transition to boundary corner for the Hokies. The kid has got skills and is fully capable in man coverage, zone drops and against the run so expect to see Bud Foster make use of all of his talents. With some solid receivers in the ACC’s Coastal Division Jayron Hosley will see plenty of tests on a weekly basis to show his skills.
On the Spot: Zach Brown from North Carolina. The Tar Heel is on a lot of draftniks big board as one of the linebackers taken early in the 2012 draft and he is coming off a season where he finished second in tackles for the Heels. A lot of UNC fans are confident in the senior’s ability to step in as fulltime starter and be a real factor as he was filling in for Quan Sturdivant a year ago and in spot duty for the Heels in his previous seasons. Personally, this writer is not so sure.
Brown’s a hell of an athlete, a legitimate beast of a specimen who is talented beyond most folks’ wildest dreams. He can run, he has great lateral quickness and he has serious ball skills when he gets in coverage. However, Zach Brown has not developed into the most technically sound football player. Unlike his linebacking mate Kevin Reddick who is one of the most fundamentally sound and scheme conscious backers in the league Brown is a bit of a freelancer at times.
Zach’s on the spot because without Sturdivant and Bruce Carter to be the steady rules players opposite him Brown will have to stay at home, make his reads and be in the run fit the way he is supposed to be for the defensive scheme to work. That means not tearing across the field to chase down plays from the backside and not running around blocks when a fullback is coming down hill. The potential is there for him to have a solid season; he just has to make it all come together.
Busting Out: Stephone Anthony is a true freshman who has already worked his way into the mix down at Clemson at the linebacker spot. The kid comes in very highly touted as one of the elite linebackers in the nation and Clemson landed him ahead of guys like Butch Davis at UNC and Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech. With the losses the Tigers sustained on every level of the defense from a season ago there door is open for young guys to succeed early in Tiger Town.
Anthony has shown promise and is looking the part for Kevin Steele’s defense and while Steele might choose to slowly get the freshman acclimated to the collegiate game it is going to be tough to keep this young man off the field. He has the size and speed to be successful in Steele’s hybrid 3-4/4-3 looks, the next question will be how he understands the defensives concepts and how he responds to when things go live in Death Valley. If Anthony can put it together for the Tigers they will get a guy that can track down ball players, be capable in coverage and continue that rich Clemson defensive tradition.
Wildcard: Kenny Tate gets the mention here because while he is without a doubt the ACC’s best safety he isn’t playing a true safety position this year. Todd Bradford’s experiment can go amazingly well and see Tate’s versatility aid the Terps in stopping teams from moving the football OR it can blow up in their faces as they lose not only their best defensive back but also get substandard linebacking play.
I’ll be rooting for Tate to succeed and while the mental aspect of the game might not be an issue the physicality that separates the linebacker position from the safety spot is a legitimate concern. Even through adding weight he is light in the pants for a true linebacker and instead of being an alley-fill player coming from depth he’ll be in the box trying to make run fits. That means scraping through the wash to get to ball carriers. That means taking on blockers that aren’t running backs and wide receivers, rather they’re tight ends, linemen and fullbacks whose eyes light up at getting a shot at going one on one with a defensive back.
Hottest Seat: Dabo Swinney is really the only answer here for the ACC. The rest of the league’s coaches are either quite comfortable (Beamer, Johnson, Cutcliffe, O’Brien, Grobe), still young in their careers at the instituation (Spaziani, London, Fisher) or just starting their stint at the school this season (Edsall, Golden, Withers). Swinney is the only guy that has routinely underachieved and has got fans riled up in a way that can show him the door come another 6-6 or 7-5 campaign.
This is a last ditch effort for the Tigers’ coach who was a “player favorite” hire after Tommy Bowden was shown the door following an embarrassing 2008 loss to Wake Forest. The coach got the Tigers to their first Atlantic Division title and lost a tight one to Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship game but along the way he’s had head scratching (Maryland 2009), uninspired play (South Carolina 2009, 2010) and “what the hell was wrong with your team” (UNC 2010,) losses.
He’s bet the farm on new offensive coordinator Chad Morris from Tulsa and scheme that he hopes helps him showcase some of the talent the Tigers have on the edge. With Florida State coming to prominence under Jimbo Fisher the league’s “anyone can win” window is starting to close.
Up & Coming: Jimbo Fisher gets the nod here. Mike London would be a great choice from within the league as a guy that has a chance to really see his coaching spotlight bloom but I’m thinking big picture. Jimbo Fisher has been a hot name for quite sometime in the college football world and now he’s running his own program. In year two Fisher is set to go from a “could be” to an “is” on the ladder. He isn’t just going to be an ACC name, he has the potential here to be a household name with a big year and that’s not only what the Noles faithful want but what the ACC needs.
Top Technician: A lot of ways to go here with guys like Bud Foster, Kevin Steele, Mark Stoops and Al Golden all looking to field solid defensive squads. However, I’m going with Paul Johnson. No one has a plan and sticks to their plan quite like the Georgia Tech head man. He runs a scheme that is detail intense and his players believe in the system fully.
Sure, with Josh Nesbitt they didn’t throw the ball tremendously well in the last few seasons. Oh well. Watching his team run the triple option out of the flexbone is a thing of beauty from the cut blocks that infuriate defensive linemen to the quick reads his quarterbacks make on whether to give, keep or pitch. Hell, even the continuous false starts that his team gets by subtly rocking in their stances is a technical design that helps give his squad an advantage.
Cupcake City: North Carolina State was in the running here but they lose out to Virginia Tech this season. The Hokies replace marquee match ups with teams like Nebraska, LSU, Alabama and Boise State with the likes of Arkansas State this year. No knock on the Hokies for scheduling Marshall or East Carolina or even App State, that fits the bulk of their scheduling protocol for the last few seasons but Arkansas State as opposed to another BCS big boy does not.
You throw that in with the home dates against their biggest league competition on the schedule; North Carolina, Clemson, Miami and Boston College all being at home and what you get is a comfortable outline for how the Hokies can climb in the rankings.
Their toughest road test this year?
At a Georgia Tech squad that has so many question marks we can expect Beamer’s boys to be favored down in the ATL.
Death March: Much has been made of the Florida State schedule this year and while it can be casually dismissed the fact remains that it does set up to be the league’s toughest twelve games. Not just because of whom they’re playing but due to when. The Noles get Oklahoma at home which is no small task as the nation’s number one team comes down to Tallahassee with images of last season’s manhandling of Florida State in their mind. Then Florida State heads to Clemson, one of the top talented squads in the ACC the following week making for a stretch where the team must regroup and refocus quite quickly.
Later in the year the ACC’s favorites play host to NC State, one of the dark horses to win the Atlantic Division, before taking off on the long trip to Chestnut Hill to play Boston College on a short week’s rest. Throw in a date with a talented Florida squad and you’ve got quite a challenge. All in all the schedule is doable but it will take focus from a Noles squad that has plenty to prove.
Game of the Year: We don’t get a Virginia Tech and Florida State match up in the regular season so looking through the schedule it is a bit of a hunt to find the one game of legitimate national relevance in the preseason. It doesn’t help that Clemson is in a tailspin, Miami and UNC have their preseason issues, Georgia Tech is full of question marks and North Carolina State is still breaking in a massive unknown at the quarterback spot.
Taking that into account the game of the year is only half ACC as the Noles and Sooners have to get the label as the most important and nationally relevant game on the league’s slate. For Florida State this is a chance to show folks they are for real. For the league this game will either be a statement that they do have a team capable of contending for a national title. Lose and the ACC tumbles back down outside of the Top 10, somewhere the conference has been living for the last decade essentially.
Prediction: With the previously mentioned off the field issues at UNC and Miami, the quarterback issues at UNC, Georgia Tech and the lack of true talent at Duke and Virginia the Coastal is Virginia Tech’s to take. Taking that division is something the Hokies have done quite well since the teams split in 2005, missing out on the ACC Championship just twice in six seasons. Punch their ticket to Charlotte folks.
On the other side there is a lot of confidence around Florida State who, a season ago, needed help from Maryland to make their first ACC Championship Game since the inaugural contest in 2005. The pieces are lined up but on any given Saturday the threesome of Boston College, North Carolina State and Maryland have the pieces to rise up and make a push towards the Atlantic Title. If Bobby Bowden or any of the other ACC’s coaches not named Frank Beamer were coaching this team the chances of them finishing the drill would be as good as them finishing in second or third. However, Jimbo Fisher is the coach and Jimbo Fisher believes in the process. That means his boys will finish the drill and get back to the ACC championship for the second time in as many years.
A rematch in Charlotte should be exciting as the city rolls out the red carpet for the Hokies and Noles except this time, Florida State should be the story of the game and possibly be toting a Top 10 ranking and perhaps a BCS title shot. Gimme the Noles, I can’t preach about The Process enough, once a coach of Fisher’s caliber is “Saban-ized” it is tough to bet against them.
Here's what the rest of the Crystal Ball Run has to say:
We could waste time talking about the other teams in the ACC. (Like the previous sentence.) But, to me, the favorites in this conference are as easy to spot as any in the country: Virginia Tech in the Coastal; Florida State in the Atlantic.
(Honestly, the division names in the ACC make as much sense to me as Leaders and Legends.)
That sets up a showdown in Charlotte in December that could potentially have tons of implications for the national title. The Seminoles have more talent than any team in the nation, save Alabama. The Hokies have a dream schedule. No one should be surprised if this game steals the SEC championship's thunder by pitting two undefeated teams for the right to play for the national crown.
Who wins? On a neutral field, give me the 'Noles. They'll have a personnel advantage at nearly every position.
As I've mentioned many times (on this website and others), when I'm evaluating college football teams and how they might perform in a given year, I look at their schedules. Good ones can vault a program, and bad ones can end season's before they begin.
In the case of the two favorites in the ACC, you couldn't ask for much better than what they got. Forget all the ancillary stuff going on at North Carolina and Miami, Virginia Tech will win the Coastal, because they might not play a team that makes a bowl game on the road this year. Their road ACC schedule is as follows: At Wake Forest, Duke, Georgia Tech and Virginia. They get Miami, Clemson, Boston College and North Carolina at home, and for the reasons Mike listed, they will be at the very least, favored in all those games. Even with a loss or two, they should still take the division.
And in the Atlantic, I love Florida State. Their schedule is a little more tricky, in specific a two week stretch where they get Oklahoma at home, then have to travel to Clemson. A loss in one of those two games wouldn't surprise me.
What would surprise me is if they lost any game (With the possible exception of a season-finale trip to Florida) after that Clemson game. They get their two toughest Atlantic opponents (Maryland and NC State) at home, in addition to Miami at Doak-Campbell too. They don't play Virginia Tech and North Carolina out of the Coastal (until a potential conference championship game), with road trips to Wake Forest, Duke and Boston College. As far as I'm concerned, they should be a touchdown favorite in each.
In the championship game, I'll take the Seminoles. They're more talented, and for whatever "big game chops," they might lacking, it'll all be made for after a 12-game regular season. Simply put they're more talented and more experienced, giving more the reason to like them to represent the ACC in a BCS game.
I'll keep this short and simple, because there is no point in bringing anyone else in to the conversation here.
You've heard the expression "drinking the Kool-Aid," right? Well I'm drinking the Tallahassee Tea right now. Quite simply, Florida State is once again the class of the ACC, but they still have to get by Virginia Tech. I think this year they will. The bigger question to me is whether or not they can get by Oklahoma, and run the table after that. I don't think Florida Sate is quite rear to do both of those tasks yet but I do believe they will be there in 2012. Barring any significant injuries, this is another Florida State vs. Virginia Tech ACC championship game, and I give Jimbo Fisher the advantage this time around.