It was once thought that the Atlantic Coast Conference would be a football powerhouse with the additions of Virginia Tech, Miami. and Boston College.
Instead, it has been mediocre at best, with Miami and Florida State falling apart, among others who have struggled.
This year seems to be more of the same, with the lone national title contender being Clemson.
The good news is that the bottom of the conference might get better now that Duke has a successful coach in David Cutcliffe.
It will be a dogfight to stay out of the BCS cellar between the ACC and Big East, but I will give the ACC the advantage.
1. Clemson (10-2, 7-1)
The Tigers are the clear-cut favorite in the ACC this year as they return nearly all of their key offensive players.
Senior Cullen Harper had a strong season last year and is expected to be the top quarterback in the conference.
James Davis and C.J. Spiller are back to form the two-headed monster in the backfield. Top receivers Aaron Kelly, Tyler Grisham, and Jacoby Ford also return.
Even the defense returns several key returners, despite the loss of leading tackler Nick Watkins.
The problem under Tommy Bowden has been losing games they shouldn’t, and it is hard to imagine them not doing that at least once this year.
In fact, I have the Tigers losing their first game of the year in Atlanta to Alabama. Clemson finished last year with a loss to an SEC team (Auburn) in Atlanta, and I find the Tide this year comparable to Auburn last year.
Clemson should bounce back nicely with four home games and a bye before going to Wake Forest. The Tigers have had the Deacons' number, and I think that will continue.
The only tough tests the rest of the year should be at Florida State and hosting South Carolina.
I think the FSU game will be the only conference loss of the year because daddy is due to beat son.
Either way, it should be a big season in Death Valley. If not, it may be the end of both Bowdens.
2. Florida State (8-4, 5-3)
It has been a struggle the past few years for the Seminoles, and this year could be more of the same with plenty of suspensions over the first few games.
The good news is that those three games are at home, and two of those against I-AA teams.
The other should be a big game with Wake Forest that could go either way.
Drew Weatherford is finally a senior, and I think he will be improved again.
With Antone Smith and Preston Parker back in the backfield and Greg Carr at receiver, the lone question mark is the troubled offensive line.
Expect that group to make or break the season.
The defense should remain solid with plenty of athletes to go around.
FSU has shown signs of greatness (winning at B.C. last year), so the potential is there to have a big year.
The schedule doesn’t look very daunting either, as the 'Noles get Clemson and Florida at home. The toughest road games will be at Miami and Maryland.
3. Wake Forest (9-3, 5-3)
This looks like another big year for the Demon Deacons, as they have the most talent in program history.
Quarterback Riley Skinner’s big job is to cut down on INTs and give Josh Adams the ball as much as possible on the ground.
Expect to see teams gang up on the run with the loss of Wake’s top receivers.
The passing game will be the difference between a good and great season.
Much of last year’s defense returns, which could lead to a great amount of success on that side of the ball.
You can’t overlook the best coach in the conference in Jim Grobe.
Wake has a pretty easy schedule with Clemson at home and trips to FSU, Miami, and Maryland. All the other games should be wins.
4. Maryland (8-4, 4-4)
The Terrapins have been stuck in mediocrity the past few years, and I expect that to continue this year.
The passing game should be the strength of this year’s team, with transfer Josh Portis and two quarterbacks who split duties last year.
They will be throwing to one of the best in the conference in Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Last year’s strength was the running game, but the Terps lose both Keon Lattimore and Lance Ball, leaving the unit a big question.
The defense loses leader Erin Henderson, but as a whole it should be better with plenty of depth returning from last year.
It should be a fast start for Maryland, as the toughest of its non-conference games is at home against California.
The Terps travel to both Clemson and Virginia Tech, but get FSU and Wake at home.
The potential and schedule are there for a solid season, although visiting the top two teams in the conference will keep them from a conference championship.
5. N.C. State (5-7, 3-5)
The Wolfpack are in year two of rebuilding under coach Tom O’Brien and appear to be a year away after losing many players.
Daniel Evans and Harrison Beck both return at QB, while Andre Brown looks to remain healthy in the backfield. The offensive line has several experienced players, making it better than it has been over recent years.
The big problem will be on the defensive side of the ball, where the Wolfpack lose five of their top six tacklers.
The non-conference slate isn’t easy, with an opening trip to South Carolina and home games with East Carolina and South Florida.
N.C. State also has to travel to Clemson, Maryland, and North Carolina.
6. Boston College (6-6, 2-6)
It is a good thing the Eagles have some wide receivers returning, as that is the only group not hit hard on offense by graduation.
Life after Matt Ryan will be tough, but at least they have a senior signal caller in Chris Crane to throw to the receivers.
The offensive line and running backs will have to do a much better job to keep the pressure off the passing game.
Last year’s defense was one of the best against the run, and there is still a decent amount of returning talent. B.C. will also get back Brian Toal at linebacker.
It is a good thing the Eagles have an easy non-conference schedule, because that is their best hope to reach another bowl game.
The Notre Dame game on Nov. 8 will likely be the make-or-break game for the Eagles’ bowl chances.
1. Virginia Tech (10-2, 6-2)
This is a down year for the Hokies, but a decent schedule and bad conference will keep them around the top 10 yet again.
The two-quarterback system of Sean Glennon and Tyrod Taylor was inconsistent last year, but another year of experience could help greatly.
Va. Tech will be looking for playmakers this year to make up for the losses of Branden Ore and the top four receivers from a year ago.
It will also be a different look on defense as many key players have left the program.
However, this defense is known for reloading, so that side of the ball shouldn’t be a problem.
One may wonder how a team with this many questions wins 10 games, but there is no game on the schedule that screams loss.
Road trips to UNC, Nebraska, B.C., Florida State, and Miami won’t be easy, but it's almost certain that the Hokies will win at least two of those games.
The toughest home game will probably be against Maryland, which shows how easy the home schedule is.
2. North Carolina (8-4, 5-3)
This is the year to beat Virginia Tech for the Coastal title, but it appears that UNC is a year away under Butch Davis.
There are plenty of returners on both sides of the ball, particularly on offense, to make the Tar Heels a much better team.
If T.J. Yates can get the ball out to Hakeem Nicks often, this could be a dangerous offense.
After having a great defense in the late '90s, the Heels have struggled on that side of the ball, but they should be good enough to keep the team in games this year.
The Heels have a tough three-game stretch early with trips to Rutgers and Miami surrounding a home game with Virginia Tech.
I think they will beat the Hokies, but it still might not be enough to top them for the title.
The best chance for that to happen is if UNC can win at Virginia, a place it has lost 13 straight times.
Make that No. 14 this year, even though the Wahoos are down.
3. Miami (6-6, 4-4)
Expect one more tough year for the Hurricanes before they get back on track.
Javarris James and Graig Cooper make a solid one-two punch in the backfield, but yet again there are major questions at QB.
It looks like a bunch of freshmen will be competing for the job, which is trouble. However, it can’t be much worse than what they have had there recently.
The defense loses many players, but the newcomers are better and should play with more passion.
Early season trips to Florida and Texas A&M will have this team on the ropes early.
It will be very important to win the following home games against UNC and FSU to keep the team from quitting this year.
The Canes also get Virginia Tech and Wake at home, so the potential for a good season is there. However, it is hard it imagine much of a home field advantage.
4. Georgia Tech (5-7, 3-5)
It seems like everyone but UNC is having a down year on this side of the conference.
The big problem for the Jackets is the adjustment to an option offense under Paul Johnson, which will take a couple years.
Losing Tashard Choice won’t help that process.
Everything on the offense will have a new look, and it will be up to running back Jonathan Dwyer to keep the team afloat.
The defense loses its top four tacklers and coordinator, making it a rough year on both sides of the ball.
That said, there is still enough talent for a possible bowl push.
It doesn’t help that Tech has to go to VT, Clemson, UNC, and Georgia.
Home games with Mississippi State and FSU aren’t easy either.
5. Duke (4-8, 2-6)
This will be a much improved Duke team with David Cutcliffe at the helm and many returning starters.
QB Thaddeus Lewis has been up and down over his career, but expect QB guru Cutcliffe to make him much better.
It will also help to have Eron Riley to throw the ball to—he averaged over 20 yards per catch a year ago.
Although the defense was bad last year, having nearly everyone back means that they should be at least decent this year.
While I don’t think they will win many games, the first seven are all winnable and should be at least competitive.
Road trips to Wake, Clemson, and VT are the only unwinnable games in my opinion.
6. Virginia (4-8, 2-6)
It has been an up-and-down ride for UVA the past few years, and that should continue.
The Cavs won several close games last year, but that will be much harder to do without much of their defense and a new signal caller, since Jameel Sewell was ruled academically ineligible.
The running game should be the team’s strength, but that won’t get them far enough to reach a bowl game.
After opening with USC, there are some winnable games throughout the season before closing with Wake, Clemson, and Virginia Tech.
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