NCAA Football Fall Practice: Top ACC Story Lines
Though the ACC has not had a team finish in the top 10 of the polls since Virginia Tech finished ninth in 2007, it would be inaccurate to say that the conference does not have elite talent and potential.
The depth in the ACC has been one of the main reasons for a lack of a championship contender, as lesser teams such as Virginia and NC State have often played spoiler to favored opponents.
While Florida State is expected to take the Atlantic division, you can never count out the Boston College Eagles, who silently seem to win eight or nine games every year.
Meanwhile, the Coastal division is a complete toss-up heading into the season, as slight favorites Virginia Tech must be wary of North Carolina, Miami, and Georgia Tech if it is to find itself in the ACC Championship game.
Heading into the 2010 season—in which several teams are on the verge breaking into and staying in the national spotlight—let's take a look at some story lines that will be interesting to follow through the preseason and into the regular season.
Can Virginia Tech's Defense Keep It in National Title Talks?
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster probably hasn't slept too much this offseason.
There are question marks throughout his defense, even at the five positions where he has starters returning. Question marks, or any type of second-guessing, will be unacceptable in the Hokies' season opener against Boise State, a top five team with experience all across the offensive front.
Though Foster says this is the fastest group of defenders he's coached while at Virginia Tech, the inexperience could result in his speedsters being over-aggressive, nullifying any advantage of having such speech.
Virginia Tech's offense, on the other hand, will be one of the best in the country. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor is perhaps the most electrifying player in the conference and has a stable of receivers with experience and skill.
In the backfield, the Hokies feature perhaps the best running back duo that's not in Tuscaloosa. Ryan Williams and Darren Evans are both threats to take it to the house each time they touch the ball.
While the offense is certainly of a championship caliber, the defense has too many question marks right now for this author to see the Hokies playing for the BCS championship. In fact, a loss to Boise State in the opener could prove demoralizing enough to allow another Coastal division team to play its way into the conference championship.
Who Will be UNC's Quarterback?
With perhaps the top defense in the nation, the Tar Heels will go as far as their offense is able to take them. And their offense will go as far as their quarterback can take them.
Senior T.J. Yates enters training camp as the favorite to start under center on September 4th against LSU, though several fans in Chapel Hill have hopped on the bandwagon of red-shirt freshman Bryn Renner, who led his team to a 17-0 victory in its annual Blue-White scrimmage game.
Yates is a game-managing quarterback who is rumored to throw one of the best deep balls in recent history for the Heels, though last season several of these attempts fell harmlessly to the ground out of the reach of his receivers. He took a lot of flak from fans for some poor decision-making in the most inopportune of times, but a depleted offensive line and a wholly inexperienced receiving corps also played a large role in Yates's mistakes in 2009.
Renner is a gun-slinging quarterback who is also mobile out of the pocket. After winning accolades for his accuracy at elite quarterback camps while in high school, head coach Butch Davis chose to redshirt him last year so he could add some bulk and learn offensive coordinator John Shoop's pro-style playbook.
Though Yates may trot onto the field to start the LSU game, you can be sure that his leash will be one of the shortest of any starter in the nation.
At the same time, Davis has not declared a starter and Renner could emerge from training camp as "The Guy."
Either way, expect to see both quarterbacks under center this fall as the offense tries to match the intensity of the Tar Heel defense—or at least keep the offense on the field long enough to give the "D" a rest.
Can Jacory Harris Stop Throwing Interceptions?
Though he threw for over 3,000 yards last season, Harris doomed his team in multiple games with errant passes that resulted in interceptions—17 of them, to be exact.
Harris will enter the season undoubtedly as one of the nation's premier quarterbacks and should spend some time on Heisman watch lists, but any chance of such an accolade would be blown away with Hurricane force winds with another 17 interception campaign.
Granted, four of these interceptions came against North Carolina, but that was no accident. Tar Heels' defensive coordinator Everett Withers was content to let Harris sit in the pocket and throw for 319 yards, knowing that his secondary would be able to wreak havoc on the oft-inaccurate quarterback.
And it did. While he connected for one touchdown against the Heels, two of his four interceptions were returned for defensive touchdowns. If teams made note of this strategy (they have), than the Hurricanes could face trouble when matched up against a solid secondary.
An early season matchup at Ohio State should allow Harris to showcase just how well he can perform under pressure, as the Buckeyes will be sure to pressure Harris all night hoping to capitalize on errant passes. But it is not hard to get rattled at The Horseshoe, and a lackluster performance in the national spotlight would certainly cool any talks of post-season hardware for the junior quarterback.
But should Harris tighten up his accuracy, the depth at running back for the Hurricanes should open up some passing lanes and deep routes, especially on play-action plays. If Harris is able to make better decisions in throwing the ball and keep it in the hands of the players with The U on their helmets, the Hurricane offense could be one of the more high-flying units in the league.
How Will Wake Forest Fare Without Riley Skinner?
With four-year starting quarterback Riley Skinner lost to graduation, Wake Forest will be hard-pressed to replace the school's leader in both touchdowns thrown and completions.
The quarterback position is still very much in the air, with junior Skylar Jones, sophomore Ted Stachitas, and redshirt freshman Brendan Cross battling for the job despite the fact that none of them have thrown pass in a collegiate game. Therefore, you can expect whoever the Demon Deacons' quarterback to have the same strategy in every game: Get the ball out of my hands.
Running back Josh Adams will receive a bulk of the carries, though a thin offensive line may cause the coaches to be wary of becoming a run-heavy team.
So what to do?
Get it to your receivers. However possible.
Sophomore Chris Givens, junior Devon Brown and senior Marshall Williams are all speedy, reliable, and have a high football IQ. Whoever replaces Skinner as quarterback will be able to list each of these three guys as his best friends on his Facebook.com page, as they will make life much, much easier for the Wake Forest signal-caller.
Offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke will also look to shake up his playbook a little bit, throwing in some more speed-option-type plays to utilize the mobility of whoever is under center—a contrast to the pass-heavy offense that was implemented while the not-too-fleet-of-foot Skinner was under center.
Though there is some depth at both running back and wide receiver, Deacon fans will certainly have reservations about their quarterback entering the 2010 season.
Will anyone challenge Florida State for the Atlantic crown?
In head coach Jimbo Fisher's first year replacing the legendary Bobby Bowden, the Seminoles enter the season as favorites to win the Atlantic division.
Senior quarterback Christian Ponder is back after a shoulder injury kept him from testing the NFL Draft waters, and his name should be found on some preseason Heisman watch lists. Meanwhile, returning all five offensive linemen should provide Ponder with the time needed to locate speedster Bert Reed downfield.
An inexperienced defense learning a new scheme under newly hired defensive coordinator Mark Stoops could leave some question marks on that side of the ball, and could potentially leave the Seminoles vulnerable to an upset or two.
Boston College does not have much in terms of elite talent, but then again the Eagles always seem to find a way to win at least eight games regardless of who is on the field.
Clemson will have a tough time replacing the electrifying CJ Spiller, but quarterback Kyle Parker has experience despite being only a redshirt sophomore, and his offensive line returns four of five starters.
Also, anyone who has been following my Darkest of the Darkhorses columns knows that the Maryland Terrapins should not be counted out quite yet...