Coastal Winner: Virginia Tech
A week ago, I was picking Virginia Tech to win the ACC, but the loss of running back Darren Evans has me re-thinking. Evans had 1265 yards for the Hokies last season on 287 carries, and, though his 11 trips across the goal line only put him tied for 44th nationally in rushing touchdowns, he was the Hokies leading scorer, and the leading rusher by more than 500 yards—over quarterback Tyrod Taylor's 738.
Taylor really developed into a force of a team leader last year, but he only threw for 2 touchdowns. Without Evans for the defense to bite on, you have to wonder how effective Taylor will remain as a rushing threat.
The Hokies have announced that redshirt freshman Ryan Williams will be the starting tailback in the opener against Alabama, but have also indicated that all three backs (Williams, redshirt sophomore Josh Oglesby, and true freshman David Wilson) will see a lot of field time.
Is losing Evans too much for Virginia Tech to adjust to? Of course not. Frank Beamer is an outstanding coach and there's bound to be a few surprises out of these three backs.
Does the absence of Evans represent a chink in their armor? Yes. But the real question that may lead the Hokies to a BCS bowl is “What haven't we seen out of Taylor yet?” He'll be driving the team on his own this year, and he will have plenty of chances to shine.
Atlantic Winner: Florida State
There is a lot of talk about Clemson this year, and there was a lot of talk about Clemson last year. Honestly, I just don't see it. There are far too many question marks for me to get excited about them this early. That's not to say they won't make good on the hype, but I'm not ready to pick them.
CJ Spiller looks to be a good triple threat as he had over a thousand combined yards rushing and receiving last season for 10 touchdowns, and another 705 return yards, including a kickoff that he took for a touchdown. But those stats aren't good enough to carry a team to an ACC championship.
Clemson's 8 returning starters on defense will bring experience, but they finished fifth in the ACC last season in total defense. That's not a bad place to be, unless you're trying to beat out Florida State for a spot in the title game.
The Seminoles didn't have anyone with a thousand yards rushing or receiving last season, but returning QB Christian Ponder threw for 2006 yards and 14 touchdowns. Florida State finished the season ranked second in total offense and first in scoring offense in the ACC.
However, the better stat is that Bowden's Boys had 8 players with triple-digit receiving yards, and seven of them had at least one touchdown. Five of those eight will be back for the 'Noles, but the important message of those statistics is that Ponder will find his receivers, no matter who gets open.
Florida State was just as generous with its rushing yards last year too: five guys in triple digits, all of them with touchdowns, and four of them returning (one of those is Ponder himself). And here's the best part: they did all of that with the youngest offensive line in the FBS.
Over the last year, and especially throughout the summer, these guys have been getting better and growing closer—becoming a more cohesive unit. I'm saying it now: if these guys are half as good as they could be by game time, Florida State is going to have a scary offense.
How do you plan for a team where pretty much everyone but the offensive line is a scoring threat?
The Seminoles' defense is the only question mark. They've only got five returning starters from a squad that finished 5th in scoring defense, and 6th in rushing defense in the conference. But, they finished 3rd in total defense, and 1st in passing defense.
The real answer for the Florida State Defense is the hunger and the drive. Defensive end Craig Yarborough is a walk-on—and he just got the starting job for the season opener against in-state and in-conference rival Miami. No one does that at a school like FSU without possessing a unique spark; the sort of spark that can ignite an entire unit.
Opposing offenses can't afford to underestimate the impact a player like that can have on a defense that is in transition. Replacing more than half of his starters can give a coach a lot of sleepless nights, and defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews has 13 underclassmen in his top 22 defenders.
But look what the inexperienced offensive line did last year for Florida State. If the special teams can win the field position game, the defense should be able to do their job against any of the other ACC teams.
Florida State will win the ACC Championship and represent the conference in a BCS Bowl.
Key Conference Games:
Miami at Florida State (07 SEP)
Clemson at Georgia Tech (10 SEP)
Georgia Tech at Miami (17 SEP)
Miami at Virginia Tech (26 SEP)
Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech (17 OCT)
Clemson at Miami (24 OCT)
Florida State at Clemson (07 NOV)
Conference Spoiler: Georgia Tech
Can you really call Georgia Tech a spoiler when they're rank 15th in both the AP and the Coaches Preseason Polls?
Besides having dynamite running back Jonathan Dwyer poised for a marquee year, the Yellow Jackets have 10 of 11 starters returning on offense and 8 of 11 on defense. Come on, that's just crazy! How can they not have a great year?
They went 9 and 4 last year with the best rushing offense in the ACC, and the fourth best rushing offense in the nation. If they can beat in-state rival Georgia again and make it through conference play with only one loss, they just might claim the ACC Title and a BCS Bowl. But those are pretty steep ifs.
They only scored 3 points against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last year, while giving up 38. That kind of game won't get them to New Year's Day.