2013 ACC Football: Predictions for the New-Look Conference
College football may be a little more than a month away, but that doesn't mean the sport has left us with any shortage of headlines.
While the SEC is to thank for storylines surrounding Johnny Manziel's off-the-field issues, Jadeveon Clowney's trash talk and a Florida player barking at dogs, the 2013 ACC Football Kickoff drew attention of its own as players, coaches and media gathered in Greensboro, N.C. on Sunday and Monday.
Pittsburgh and Syracuse serve as the fresh faces in the conference heading into this season, but neither is expected to contend for a title in Year 1. While the latter of the two will likely struggle to make a bowl, the championship forecast for the ACC still looks more orange than ever. Here are some predictions for the 14-team league.
1. Clemson: Dabo Swinney is coming off his second consecutive season of 10-plus wins, and his team concluded 2012 with a Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over LSU. The Tigers return reigning ACC Player of the Year Tajh Boyd, who is looking to earn first-team All-ACC honors for a third straight year, a feat that hasn't been accomplished in over four decades.
Boyd isn't alone. Brandon Thomas and Tyler Shatley will be leading a veteran offensive line, and dynamic receiver Sammy Watkins seeks to carry his preseason honors over to the postseason. With personnel like that, combined with offensive coordinator Chad Morris' up-tempo style, Clemson's experienced defense only needs to slow down the opposition for the Tigers to accumulate double-digit wins again. They enter 2013 as the clear favorite to win the division.
2. Florida State: Beating Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl last season certainly doesn't top the list of greatest moments in FSU history, but it was just the third time an ACC program won a BCS bowl game. That 'Noles team also set a school record when 11 of its players were selected in the NFL draft (including three first-rounders) in April.
Despite losing a lot of talent, FSU will be reloading. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston had an impressive spring, and he'll be protected by five O-linemen who registered at least six starts last season. On the other side, senior cornerback Lamarcus Joyner leads a defense that was No. 2 in the country in total defense in 2012.
3. Boston College: The division becomes a bit murky after the top two teams, but the Eagles reserve this spot as they should bounce back from a nauseating 2-10 season. Quarterback Chase Rettig will enter his fourth year as the starter, and after hitting the 3,000-yard milestone a season ago, he enters 2013 as the most underrated quarterback in the league.
BC will be energized by a new coach in Steve Addazio, and the team returns several starters on each side of the ball. More importantly, however, the Eagles have a favorable schedule against conference foes. They draw their most evenly matched opponents (Wake Forest and N.C. State) at home, and it's certainly conceivable that they could steal a win from either North Carolina or Virginia Tech in their crossover matchups.
4. Wake Forest: If not for injuries and suspensions, the Demon Deacons probably would have gone bowling last season. Although they finished 5-7, most of the key parts are back this time around, and barring a repeat of misfortune, there's no doubt that this team will return to the postseason come December.
Tanner Price will line up under center as a veteran four-year starter, and as one of the deadliest receiving threats in the conference, Michael Campanaro will remind you why songs have been written about him. In addition, nose guard Nikita Whitlock highlights a defense made up of many familiar faces, which could be bad news for the opposition.
Coach Jim Grobe has proven in the past that he can win without a talented roster, so he can certainly be dangerous now that he actually has one.
5. N.C. State: With a win over then-No. 3 Florida State and a home loss to Virginia, the Wolfpack may have been the most difficult team to understand last year. They also enter 2013 as the most difficult team to predict.
On the one hand, the Pack lost star quarterback Mike Glennon to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and most of their secondary to other NFL teams. On the other hand, they just hired a coach who won 23 games over the last two years. However, there are few proven game-changers on offense. That said, N.C. State plays eight games at home this year and only has to leave the state of North Carolina twice.
The back-and-forth can kill you all day, but because this team is still facing an unsolved dilemma at quarterback, it falls to fifth in the division.
6. Maryland: It's never a good thing when the guy starting at quarterback for you is wearing No. 31. That was the case for the Terps last year when they resorted to starting true freshman linebacker Shawn Petty at the position after the previous four signal-callers went down with season-ending injuries.
Since Randy Edsall was named head coach before the 2011 season, the program has faced countless transfers. While Stefon Diggs will be back at receiver after a tremendous rookie campaign, his performance was about the only positive that could be drawn from a bizarre year.
With so much inexperience, Maryland won't be able to pull much off this year. The rest of the conference will be looking to send the Terrapins off with a not-so-friendly goodbye in their final season in the ACC.
7. Syracuse: Before Doug Marrone and Ryan Nassib arrived, the Orange were perennial losers in the FBS ranks. With Marrone now coaching the Buffalo Bills and Nassib entering New York Giants training camp, Syracuse will likely struggle to make a bowl.
The Orange are much better off than they were five years ago, and Marrone built a strong foundation of players who are now veteran contributors, but 2012's success is doubtful to be repeated.
Unfortunately for them, they face a challenging road. While drawing Georgia Tech out of the Coastal, they must travel to both N.C. State and Maryland, making otherwise winnable games much tougher. Head coach Scott Shafer has his work cut out for him this year, so don't be surprised if victories are hard to come by for this group.
1. Miami: For the first time since the Hurricanes joined the ACC in 2004, the preseason hype surrounding Miami is warranted. Stephen Morris is the best quarterback Miami has had in at least a decade, and he took the first step to proving so by throwing for 3,345 yards and 21 touchdowns last year while tossing only seven picks.
Duke Johnson will take over full-time rushing duties for the Canes this year and is expected to be one of the best running backs in the conference after dazzling Miami fans as a freshman. Despite the looming NCAA ruling, Al Golden did an excellent job last year in leading this group to a first-place tie in the division. With all of the returning talent, expect this team to be even better.
2. Georgia Tech: If the Yellow Jackets didn't have to make trips to both Miami and Clemson this year, they could easily be at the top of this list. With all five starters on the O-line back for 2013, growing pains should be minimal for the offense.
Redshirt sophomore Vad Lee will take over as the starter at quarterback after seeing a substantial amount of playing time as a freshman. His two 100-yard rushing performances gave fans a preview of what is to come, and he will likely be an upgrade as the signal-caller.
Jeremiah Attaochu will be looking for double-digit sacks for a second straight year (10 in 2012), and Tech's defense rounds out what is one of the most complete teams in the conference.
3. Virginia Tech: It's OK to rely on defense and special teams to win football games...that is, as long as your team thrives in those areas. Last year's Virginia Tech squad was not your typical Frank Beamer team, as the Hokies struggled defensively throughout the entire season.
Beamer's approach looked outdated when his team gave up 48 points to North Carolina and allowed 38 against Clemson. Fortunately for those in Blacksburg, Jack Tyler and James Gayle return to help improve upon last year's numbers.
Quarterback Logan Thomas has a lot to prove this year, but his team's conference schedule is set up favorably. If the Hokies can take care of business against Boston College and Maryland out of the Atlantic, they can be right in the hunt for a shot at the championship.
4. North Carolina: Larry Fedora did in one season what Butch Davis was unable to do in four: win five conference games and finish first in the Coastal Division. Because of a bowl ban, the Tar Heels were barred from postseason play, but they are now eligible to compete for the title in 2013.
Giovani Bernard was responsible for much of North Carolina's success a year ago but declared for the NFL and became a second-round pick by the Cincinnati Bengals. However, quarterback Bryn Renner returns after surpassing the 3,000-yard mark in each of his first two years as a starter while throwing 28 touchdowns to seven interceptions as a junior.
Fedora's team has arguably the most explosive offense in the division, but it also had one of the most atrocious defenses in 2012. Having to make up for the departures of first-round pick Sylvester Williams and all-conference linebacker Kevin Reddick doesn't help matters. Unless someone unexpectedly steps up, it's hard to imagine things getting better for the Tar Heel defense.
5. Duke: Many people were caught off guard when the Blue Devils won six games and advanced to a bowl game last season for the first time since 1994. Those same fans should not be surprised again if Duke can accomplish the feat in back-to-back years.
The Blue Devils' conference schedule remains the same this season, except instead of facing Florida State and Clemson, they play N.C. State and Pittsburgh at home. It's tempting to predict a drop-off at quarterback with Sean Renfree now in the NFL, but according to the New Bern Sun Journal, every starting quarterback David Cutcliffe has coached at Duke, Ole Miss and Tennessee has gone on to the NFL.
So I like Anthony Boone's chances.
Cutcliffe also returns the vast majority of his 2010 recruiting class, meaning this team is loaded with juniors and seniors. Don't make the mistake of putting Duke at the bottom of your rankings.
6. Pittsburgh: Paul Chryst will be beginning his second year as the head coach of Pitt and his first season in the ACC. After a rocky start to 2012, he led the Panthers to notable W's over Virginia Tech and Rutgers before finishing a losing season with a defeat to Ole Miss in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Losing a 1,000-yard rusher in Ray Graham going into 2012 could prove to be somewhat of a setback, but the nine returning starters on defense should help ease the burden. Safety Jason Hendricks is one of the best players coming into the ACC with the addition of Pitt, and former Rutgers quarterback Tom Savage will play a big role as a starter for the Panthers.
Florida State coming to town to open the season against Chryst's team means there's even less room for error this season. If the Panthers want to finish near the top of the Coastal, they need to be more consistent in 2013.
7. Virginia: The Cavaliers were a bad football team in 2012. Plain and simple. After losing standout offensive tackle Oday Aboushi to the NFL, as well as their top two quarterbacks who transferred, it's hard to justify putting this team above last place in the Coastal.
Morgan Moses, while not the same player as Aboushi, is a great player to have up front, and Darius Jennings is a quality receiver, but with no quarterback and few playmakers, head coach Mike London would have to make something out of nothing to find success with this group.
To add insult to injury, Virginia faces Clemson as one of its crossover matchups. If London can get six wins out of this team, he absolutely deserves consideration for ACC Coach of the Year.
Follow me on Twitter at @MarkCCarroll
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