Conference Breakdown: Ranking the ACC

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Conference Breakdown: Ranking the ACC
(Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

Every summer I make do with the monotony and the boring, college football-less Saturdays by doing my best to scout all 120 FBS teams. Plus, as a gambling man and a rabid college football fan, I like to know what I’m talking about.

In this 12-part feature, I’ll break down each conference, including the independents, ranking the teams in order of how good I perceive them to be heading into the season, complete with last year’s W-L record and my predictions for each team’s 2009 W-L record.

Feel free to comment on what a splendid job you think I’ve done and how my analysis and forecast is dead-on. Or you can disagree, whatever.

Part Seven: The deep ACC

12. Virginia Cavaliers | Last Year: 5-7 | My 2009 Prediction: 2-10

It doesn’t look good this year for Virginia as they not only return a mere 11 starters on OFF and DEF, but the losses are significant as they lose all of their top WR’s, their top RB, Cedric Peerman, as well as their top 4 tacklers on DEF. On the plus side, QB Jameel Sewell returns after sitting out last season due to academic ineligibility, which can only help the pass game that combined for 9 TD’s to 20 INT’s last season. 
The OFF will be given a facelift with the new spread OFF being implemented by 1st-year OC Gregg Brandon, and should help elevate the 16.1 points/game posted last year, which was good for last in the ACC. 
The Cavaliers also had 11 starters returning last season and was able to come up with 5 wins, including wins against E. Carolina, NC and GT. They also lost 2 close ones against Miami in overtime and at VT by 3, so there may be some hope yet. 
The schedule isn’t going to do the Cavaliers any favors this year as their non-conference slate includes TCU and Southern Miss, 2 teams that are among the preseason frontrunners to win their respective conference. 
This is Head Coach Al Groh’s 9th season with Virginia and he very well may post his worst record yet as his lowest win total up to now has been 5. With this much player turnover in back-to-back years, I just don’t think Virginia is going to be as fortunate as they were last year.

11. Duke Blue Devils | Last Year: 4-8 | My 2009 Prediction: 3-9

Last season marked the best improvement in the W-L column of the last ten years for Duke football-and they went just 4-8. In fact, over the last 9 seasons, the Blue Devils have only managed a total of 14 wins, including a 23-game losing streak, which started during the 2005 season and ended during the 2007 season. Had it not been for the one win in ‘07, the streak would have extended to 32 and been good for 2nd longest all time. 
Okay, I think I’ve established what a miserable time it’s been for the Duke program and fans, but the question is, will the misery continue or is the 4-8 record of last year the start of some actual growth? 
At least they’ll be some OFF weapons to give them a chance at wining with SR QB Thaddeus Lewis returning, who was 2nd in total OFF in the ACC last year. Also back is RB Re’Quan Boyette who missed all of 2008 due to injury and should give the ground game a boost. 
There are, however, only 11 starters returning on OFF and DEF, so if any team needs to have 2 FCS teams on the schedule, which there are only 7 nationwide this year, it’s Duke. Last year Duke won their first conference game since 2004 and they have enough this year to at least win 2 or more to continue their progress.

10. Maryland Terrapins | Last Year: 8-5 | My 2009 Prediction: 4-8

Maryland was just one of an amazing 10 teams from the ACC that made a bowl game last year, but also one of just 4 that actually won. This year, however, most of that team’s starters are gone, so they’ll have a much less experienced team. 
The OFF only returns five and loses three of their top four WR’s, but does return their leading RB, Da’Rel Scott and their starting QB from last year, Chris Turner. Despite the OFF weapons, the O-line loses a combined 116 career starts and returns just 27 combined career starts, which ranks near the bottom nationally. 
The biggest question mark has to be the DEF, which returns just four starters, and loses four of their top five tacklers. Hit hardest is probably the D-line, where the most experienced starter has only four career starts, and while their leading tackler Alex Wujciak returns to lead the LB unit, they lose their next three best LB’s. 
The schedule’s difficulty level is right around medium with games against Cal to start the season and Rutgers as well, but they also catch the only two teams in the ACC not to make a bowl (Duke & VA) as well as Middle TN and James Madison, an FCS team. 
Although the Terps definitely have talent to work with, I think the overall inexperience will keep them from reaching another bowl this year as they build towards next season.

9. Wake Forest Demon Deacons | Last Year: 8-5 | My 2009 Prediction: 4-8

Wake Forest certainly had their opportunities last year as 4 of their 5 loses were by 7 points or less. This year the OFF looks to be much more potent, which may help them to open games up a little more so they don’t have to squeak games out. The OFF returns nearly intact as nine starters come back, including their entire stable of RB’s as well as SR QB Riley Skinner, who had an up and down season last year but finished with a 63.9% completion rate. 
The DEF is the biggest question mark, considering they only return four starters and loses all five of their top tacklers including four NFL draft picks. The schedule is fairly difficult with non-conference games against Baylor, Stanford and at Navy, who WF played twice last season-once at home, which they lost, and again in their bowl game, which they won. Now, it’s back to Navy’s turn at home as they catch WF with a much weaker DEF. Wake also catches three other conference games on the road at BC, Clem and GT, which are three of the better teams from the ACC, despite all losing their bowl games last year. 
It remains to be seen if the OFF is potent enough to be able to just outscore opponents and to give their young, talented DEF time to grow.

8. Boston College Eagles | Last Year: 9-5 | My 2009 Prediction: 5-7

Boston College is going on their 3rd coach in 4 years, which is strange considering the amount of success they’ve had (30-11 last 3 seasons). You might expect a team with that much coaching turnover to be one with major problems and one struggling to find answers. 

While BC doesn’t have major problems, they will be searching for a few answers this year as several key players are unexpectedly going to miss time this season. LB Mike McLaughlin and FB James McCluske both went down in the spring with Achilles tears, the projected starter at QB, Dominique Davis, transferred to another school and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Mark Herzlich was diagnosed with cancer and will miss the entire season. It isn’t all bad, though, as the Eagles return 40 of 56 lettermen and eventually McLaughlin and McCluske will return. 
The rush DEF was best in the ACC last year with 91 yards/game allowed and should be solid again this year. The O-line was also great last year with a marked improvement from the previous year paving the way for 143 yards/game, up from 99. A few WR’s are gone, but a very good group of RB’s return and should produce even better numbers from last year. 
Despite an experienced O-line, however, with no clear-cut starter at QB to run the OFF and several good teams in the ACC this year, the Eagles won’t be able to rely on DEF alone, and they may find the road to another bowl game much more difficult this year.

7. NC State Wolfpack | Last Year: 6-7 | My 2009 Prediction: 8-4

Head Coach Tom O’Brien has steadily improved his Wolfpack team, taking them from 3-9 when he took over to 5-7 his first year and 6-7 and a bowl game last year. This year I think he’ll continue with the progression of his team. 
The Wolfpack OFF returns seven and will benefit from a good stable of RB’s and QB Russell Wilson, who as a Freshman, led the conference in total OFF at 213 yards/game and posted the best TD-INT ratio of anyone in the ACC with 17-1. The O-line will have to do their job of helping keep Wilson healthy and off the ground as they gave up 29 sacks last year. The O-line will, however, be more experienced this year as four starters return. 
The D-line will be solid as all four starters are seniors, including future NFL draft pick DE Willie Young. 
Slow starts have killed the Wolfpack the last few years, but this year they have a great opportunity to start strong, but they’ll be tested right out of the gate as they host S. Carolina in a primetime game on ESPN Thursday, Sept. 3rd-a game the entire college football nation will certainly be watching as it is the first game of the season of any significance. 
If NC State can win against SC, who’s down this year and in the bottom half of the SEC, they’ll start the season 3-0 as the next two games are home layup games against FCS teams, and it will give them the confidence they need heading into the meat of their schedule. If they beat Pitt in their 4th contest, I think they’ll start 6-0 and make some noise in the ACC Atlantic.

6. Florida State Seminoles | Last Year: 9-4 | My 2009 Prediction: 7-5

Every year is “the year” when FSU finally gets back to its former self. While I don’t think they’ll be fully restored to their national powerhouse designation, they’re certainly on their way. What FSU needs to do is not just win, but win without all the extra headlines and side-stories. Time will heal the wounds with wins serving as band-aids. 
With that being said, the Seminoles will have an improved team this year, but an awfully difficult schedule. The strength of the Seminoles is a more experienced O-line, which returns entirely intact. Behind the line is 2nd-year starter Christian Ponder at QB, who wasn’t great last year with a 14-13 TD-INT ratio. Ponder did throw for over 2000 yards and added 423 and four scores on the ground. 
The backfield loses their leading RB Antone Smith, but returns Jermaine Thomas, who played nicely spelling Smith last year. The depth behind Thomas is questionable, though. 
Hit hardest by losses is the DEF, which returns five, but loses their top three tacklers as well as Everette Brown, last year’s ACC leader in sacks (13.5) and tackles for a loss (21.5). 
The schedule has to be among the most difficult in the country as at least half of the Seminoles’ games are against teams that will most likely be in the top 25 at the start of the season. My predicted record for FSU doesn’t necessarily speak of how good I think they’ll actually be. I just don’t think the Seminoles have enough yet to be able to play against this many good teams and continue to come up with wins.

5. Miami Hurricanes | Last Year: 7-6 | My 2009 Prediction: 7-5

Miami returns 15 starters from last season including most of their playmakers on Off. The WR corps is young, as all three starters are sophomores, but experienced considering they all played as true freshmen. There’s good depth at RB and will produce better numbers this year. 
The O-line loses a few starters from the right side, but with some reshuffling, all starting linemen will have had plenty of game experience. 
The D-line and LB’s should be solid, but the secondary needs to do a better job at takeaways as they came up with just four all of last year, the lowest total in the ACC. 
The schedule is also among the more difficult nationwide and the ‘Canes do not get any time to warm up as their first 4 games are at FSU, home against GT, at VT and back home to face Oklahoma. That’s 4 straight games of teams most likely to be ranked in the top 25, and back-to-back games against 2 consensus top 10 teams just to start the season. 
Miami could be the best 0-4 team in the country after week 5, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if they were 3-1 either. So, even if Miami doesn't match or exceed their win total of last year, they’re still a better, more experienced team heading in the right direction. Look out next year, though.

4. North Carolina Tar Heels | Last Year: 8-5 | My 2009 Prediction: 9-3

Butch Davis has made considerable improvement in his short tenure as Head Coach at NC by doubling the win total of year one to year two from four to eight. Expect the progression to continue this year as NC looks to be not only well-balanced, but loaded with experience and talent. 
The DEF remains mostly intact as they return nine, including four of their top five tacklers. The O-line returns just two starters, but have a total of four that have 9+ starts each. 
Despite the losses at the O-line, the biggest loss on OFF has to be at WR, where they lose their top three targets, most importantly, Haseem Nicks, who was by far the Heels’ most valuable player holding 14 NC records. Nicks had several spectacular grabs last year, caught everything that came his way and was huge in the bowl game against WVU with 217 yards. The replacements at WR were very highly recruited so the production may not fall too far, especially if QB TJ Yates can remain healthy. 
The schedule is somewhere between medium and difficult despite North Carolina being one of seven teams nationwide and one of three in the ACC to schedule two FCS teams. Games against GT on the road, FSU at home, followed by VT on the road a week later, Miami at home and BC on the road a week later are what’s going to determine what kind of season the Tar Heels have. 
So, although difficult and unlikely, the Heels really do control their own destiny as they have the potential to win them all.

3. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets | Last Year: 9-4 | My 2009 Prediction: 9-3

Georgia Tech returns 18 starters this year, most in the ACC. The OFF looks to be loaded as almost everybody is back, most importantly, ACC Player of the Year, RB Jonathon Dwyer, who also lead the ACC in rush yards/game at 107.3 and posted a ridiculous seven yards/carry average. He’ll be joined by another fantastic back, Roddy Jones, who was equally impressive moving the ball at an 8.5 YPC average. 
Although HC Paul Johnson’s OFF doesn’t throw the ball too often, all of the WR’s return along with QB Josh Nesbitt, who totaled a mere 808 pass yards last year, but rushed out of Johnson’s triple option OFF formation for 693 yards, good for 2nd most on the team. 
You would think a team this lopsided offensively would be much easier to stop, but not when Paul Johnson is your coach. The triple option offense Johnson brings is very difficult to stop as evidenced by his former team Navy leading the nation in rushing three of the five years in which he was coach. So, no this is not the weakness of the team, but rather the strength, if you didn’t already know. 
The question for this year’s GT team is at the D-line where they lost three to the NFL.  It would be difficult for any team in the country to replace a line like that, so don’t expect them to be back to a top 10 DEF right away. 
This schedule is no doubt difficult with one warm up game to start the season before the ACC cream of the crop games begin. The Yellow Jackets get VT and NC and home, but have to travel to Miami and FSU. GT must also face their in-state rival Georgia to end the season, a team they were able to beat last year for the first time since 2000. 
With a difficult schedule and an inexperienced D-line, we’re going to see just how good this Yellow Jacket OFF is and if it’s good enough to carry the team to an ACC title.

2. Clemson Tigers | Last Year: 7-6 | My 2009 Prediction: 9-3

The Tigers lose their starting QB, Cullen Harper, top RB, James Davis, and top WR, Aaron Kelly from the team that was the ACC preseason favorite to win the conference last year. The Davis loss may not be so tough as the Tigers have RB C.J. Spiller, who had a better yards/carry average (5.4) than Davis (4.4), and is the highest ranked kickoff returner back from last season with 27.2 yards/return. 
The Kelly loss won’t be a big deal either as WR Jacoby Ford, the team’s second leading WR, returns and supposedly has 4.2 40 speed. The Harper loss, however, may be a little harder to swallow as he was the 2008 preseason ACC OFF POY, although he didn’t play up to the hype battling injury all season. 
Harper’s backup looks to be Willy Korn, who is in his 3rd year with the team and redshirted in 2007 after injuring his shoulder. He played sparingly last year, but was able to connect on 68.4% of his passes. 
Whether it’s Korn or someone else, the QB will benefit from lining up behind an experience O-line with a combined 79 career starts. The D-line is one of the better lines in the ACC with names like Da’Quan Bowers and Ricky Sapp, but they’ll have to do better than the 14 sacks the unit posted last season, which ranked dead last in the ACC by a lot. 
The schedule isn’t bad, but the Tigers do catch GT, Miami and a much-improved NC St team on the road. The pieces are there and the schedule is manageable, but can the Tigers finally live up to their talent, exceed expectations and make their first ever ACC title game?

1. Virginia Tech Hokies | Last Year: 10-4 | My 2009 Prediction: 10-2

VT was picked to win their conference by the ACC media for the 4th time in six years and the Hokies even return a much more experienced and better team from last year when they won the ACC and a BCS bowl game. 
The Hokies have all of their OFF weapons back, including RB Darren Evans, who rushed for over 1200 yards with 11 scores, the entire WR corps, and most importantly, QB Tyrod Taylor, whose rushing stats (738 yards, 7 TD’s) looked much better than his passing stats (1036 yards, 2 TD-7 INT, 57.2% completion) last year. 
The O-line will start several ex-TE’s in an attempt to get more athletic and reduce their sacks allowed, which was 42 and worst in the ACC last year. The DEF returns seven and should once again be very solid with DC Bud Foster, whose DEF has ranked top 10 nationally the past five years, including No.1 in ‘05 and ‘06. 
I think the success of the Hokies this year will rely on Tyrod Taylor’s overall effectiveness and the O-line’s ability to provide better protection. Taylor has to first stay healthy and also become a better, more consistent passer. 
The schedule is definitely challenging with several tough matchups, but only 2 of which are at the opponents home field (GT, E. Carolina). The Hokies will know where they stand right away as they travel to play Alabama at the neutral site of the Georgia Dome. 
If VT doesn’t get past Alabama in the season opener, they'll have no shot at a national championship, but could very well win out, win the ACC and play in a BCS bowl. But if they do beat Alabama, they’ll gain tons of confidence and will no doubt have their sights set on Pasadena all season long.

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