2009 ACC Football Preview: Chopping Up The Competition

Dave WalkerCorrespondent IJuly 24, 2009

TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 06:  Tech fans celebrate after the Virginia Tech Hokies score in the third quarter against the Boston College Eagles in the 2008 ACC Football Championship game at the Raymond James Stadium on December 6, 2008 in Tampa, Florida. Virginia Tech defeated Boston College 30-12.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

The ACC made some strides last year, mainly at the end. An FSU loss to Florida was the only loss for the ACC against the SEC in the last week of the season. Virginia Tech won the Orange Bowl and put an end to the ACC’s eight game losing streak in BCS games. Georgia Tech made major strides with their flexbone offense and have Yellow Jackets fans drooling at their potential.

The bottom line is that the ACC is competitive from top to bottom. Last year anyone could beat anyone at any time, and this year should be no different.

Virginia Tech could be the toast of the conference. Frank Beamer has assembled solid offensive and defensive lines, and look for some big games out of tailback Darren Evans.

Georgia Tech will be right on their heels in the Coastal Division. A solid running game paced by All ACC back Jonathan Dwyer should supply all the firepower needed for the Jackets to run over ACC competition. North Carolina and Miami have the ability to surprise anyone on any given week, and should make it to Bowl games.

In the Atlantic last season it seemed like someone controlled their own destiny about every three hours. This year, I expect Florida State to return to its dominating form. Last year the Seminoles had one of the nation’s youngest offensive lines, and it was productive. This year they will be the anchor of a solid FSU offense. Right behind them will be Clemson. C.J. Spiller will finally get the load at running back; people are excited about the potential of quarterback Willy Korn. N.C. State, Wake, and Maryland will also be headed to bowl games.

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ACC Atlantic:

Florida State 2008 Record 9—4 (5—3)

The offseason has been all about 14 wins that the program may have to vacate due to academic fraud. It is a black eye to say the least for a program that showed signs of being back to its form from a few years back.

Leading the way is the offensive line. Three sophomores and two juniors including All Conference guard Rodney Hudson lead a unit that is athletic and can provide a thump up front. Christian Ponder seems ready to take another big step.

Last year he managed games, and threw for over 2000 yards, and had the ability to move around and scramble when he needed to. The Hurricanes will remember that fondly.

The main issues will be replacing the receivers and Antone Smith at tailback. Look for the ‘Noles to be fine on the outside, and Jermaine Thomas to have huge numbers. Thomas averaged seven yards per carry last year, and with Smith gone, will undoubtedly get between 20—25 carries.

The defense will have to rebuild. Only three starters from last year return. Gone are NFL draftee Everette Brown and Rhodes Scholar Myron Rolle.

Look for linebacker Dekoda Watson to step up and be a leader in the middle. The coaching staff is hoping that Markus White can step up at end and be a pass rushing force that the ‘Noles so badly need.

In the secondary it will be all about who can fill Rolle’s shoes. Look for either Ochucko Jenije or Dionte Allen to step up and take that job. If the defensive unit under Mickey Andrews can get all the parts moving as one, look out for a dominating Seminoles defense in 2009.

The outlook in Tallahassee is bright. A solid line, star potential tailback, and veteran quarterback should be enough to lead them to a division title. Florida State trips up at UNC and the swamp, but earns a birth in the ACC title game. The Seminoles go 11—2 (7—1) and unbeaten within the division, and upset Virginia Tech in the Championship game. Seminoles head down the road to Miami and the Orange Bowl.

Clemson 2008 Record 7—6 (4—4)

Dabo Swinney took over midway through the 2008 season for Tommy Bowden. The season, one most fans would prefer to forget, had its ups and downs, but the Tigers have a lot of potential in 2009 to make a run at another bowl game.

Gone are playmakers James Davis and Aaron Kelly. Also gone is quarterback Cullen Harper. But, the Tigers have two good things going for them on offense.

One; they have C.J. Spiller. Spiller had to split time with Davis the last several season, and now has his chance. Two; they have all five lineman back and are all over 300 pounds. To make a run at FSU, the Tigers will need consistency in the passing game.

Jacoby Ford will be asked to step in as the No.1 target, and others will have to step up behind him. At quarterback it could be one of three guys, but the leading candidate is Sophomore Willy Korn. A former two time South Carolina player of the year has the speed and athleticism to make big things happen in Clemson. Look for the offense to be a solid, run based unit.

The defense looks to be set in place. Eight starters return from last year’s unit. The strength could be in the secondary where both corners return.

Brandon Maye is a solid middle linebacker capable of making big plays in both the passing and running game, and the line is anchored by 300 pound tackles Jarvis Jenkins and Brandon Thompson. If the Tiger defense can get a few big plays in the big games, watch for them to make some noise in the Atlantic.

Many question if Dabo Swinney is the guy in Clemson. This will be his chance to prove the naysayers wrong. Look for big things on the ground, a solid defense, and plenty of wins. Miami, FSU, Georgia Tech, and an upset loss at Maryland will prove to be the only “L”s on the season. Clemson goes 8—4 (4—4) with a 3—2 division mark and earns a trip to the Music City Bowl.

North Carolina State 2008 Record 6—7 (4—4)

Russell Wilson certainly lived up to his potential being named the first team all conference quarterback as a freshman last year. The Wolfpack certainly arrived during the last four games of the year winning all four and earning a trip to the Papajohns.com Bowl. This year expect the Wolfpack to earn it second straight bowl appearance.

Leading the way again will be Wilson. He has the ability to make plays with his feet, and has a strong arm, but does lack some accuracy. Hoping to help him out in that category this season are junior receivers Owen Spencer and Jarvis Williams. The two combines for over 1100 yards and nearly 60 catches last year.

Look for Wilson to lead the team in rushing behind an effective line that returns three starters. If Russell Wilson can continue to mature, look for the Pack to be an offensive force in the ACC for the next three years.

On defense N.C. State looks to continue to make strides in their defense against the run. Up front two big tackles in Alan Michael Cash and LeRoy Burgess hope to plug up holes. Willie Young returns at end after recording six sacks last year. The secondary will have to retool a bit, as they center their efforts in providing DeAndre Morgan with some support.

Morgan has lock down corner ability, and if the Wolfpack can find an equal on the other side, could have a huge season. Look for this unit to play solid all year long.

The Wolfpack play two very tough out of conference games against Pitt and South Carolina. Look for both to come up in the “L” column. In conference the Pack will lose to FSU, Virginia Tech, Clemson, and be upset at Wake. In the end N.C.State goes bowling again at 6—6 (4—4) and 2—3 in the division earning a trip to the Emerald Bowl.

Wake Forest 2008 Record 8—5 (4—4)

Jim Grobe has done a great job of sculpting a consistent bowl contending team each year in Winston—Salem.

This year if the Demon Deacons are to make it a fourth straight bowl game, they are gonna need a big effort from the offense. The offensive line has struggled at times, especially early in the year, and with injuries. The line has eight players that saw action last year and are going to have to be solid.

If they can move the pile, look for a slew of backs to take advantage, including senior Kevin Harris, who had a strong outing in the Bowl game, and Josh Adams. Riley Skinner has to be more consistent at quarterback. If he can manage the game, not make mistakes, and find ways to be effective in the red zone, watch out for the Demon Deacons again in 2009.

The offense needs to be good because no one knows what they are going to get out of the defense. Seven starters are gone from a solid unit in 2008. NFL draftee Aaron Curry leaves the biggest hole at linebacker. The question is who will fill his shoes, and the shoes of the six others who graduated.

The defensive line is expected to be the key. If they can get enough pressure up front, along with good run support that could ease the transition at Linebacker and in the secondary.

Wake Forest will be good enough to make it four in a row in an ACC full of teams that are equal. Look for the offense to step up, and the defense to get better with each game. The Deacons lose non conference games to Navy and Baylor, and are beaten in the ACC by BC, Clemson, FSU, and Georgia Tech. Wake Forest is bowl eligible at 6—6 (4—4) with a 2—3 division mark and head back to the EagleBank Bowl.

Maryland 2008 Record 8—5 (4—4)

No one has lost more than the Terrapins. Head Coach Ralph Friedgen will have to replace seven starters on defense and five on offense. The Terps do have two big reasons to think they will be fine on offense. Returning at quarterback is Chris Turner. Turner was third in the ACC in passing yards per game.

Turner will have the luxury of throwing to return game specialist and speed burner Torrey Smith. Watch for him to gather a 2000 yard all purpose season.

In the backfield is Da’Rel Scott. Scott amassed 1100 yards last year and was first team All ACC. The big question may be up front. The Terps must replace three starters here.

On defense All ACC Linebacker Alex Wujciak led the way with 133 tackles a year ago. He will have to be continuing this type of production to help ease the younger players into the starting lineup. The secondary will also need to mature, and whether they do or not could be the difference in bowl eligible, and watching the games on TV.

The Terrapins seem to find ways to win games every season. This year should be no exception as the Terrapins will land another bowl bid. Cal will get revenge in the opener, and conference losses to Wake, NC State, Virginia Tech, FSU, and Duke will set them up. Maryland goes 6—6 (3—5) and 2—3 in the division and earn the Humanitarian Bowl.

Boston College 2008 Record 9—5 (5—3)

Rounding out the Atlantic is BC. The Eagles are an example of consistency in the ACC over the past five years with at least nine wins and bowl trip each year. This, however, will not be one of those years. Frank Spaziani takes over as head coach for Jeff Jogodzinski after he was fired for interviewing for the Jets Head Coaching position.

Now, along with a new coach, a new team must rise up and begin the road back. The quarterback position is up for grabs. It could go to either Dominique David, who was erratic at times last year, or, redshirt freshman Justin Tuggle. The offensive line could be a strength, led by All ACC tackle Anthony Costanzo. Montel Harris should continue to build off of his 900 yard season at tailback.

If the Eagles are to make a run at a bowl game, getting Harris the ball is a must.

The defense must rebuild as well. The losses along the front line will be the most impacting. Look for the key to be the play of tackles Kaleb Ramsey and Damik Scafe to step up against the run if the Eagles are to bolster a strong D. Returning ACC Defensive Player of the Year Mark Herzlich provides both leadership, and sure handed tackling ability.

The Eagles should look solid at times, but not for long enough to make a dent in the ACC standings.

In a tough ACC conference you need experience and skill. While there are defiantly players with skill on the team, they lack leadership at key roles. The Eagles will start 2—0 with wins over Northeastern and Kent St, and win their fourth game over Wake, but it will be a goose egg afterwards. Boston College struggles to 3—9 (1—7) with a 1—4 division record and will be looking to build towards the future.

ACC Coastal Division:

Virginia Tech 2008 Record 10-4 (5-3)

The Hokies just win under Head Coach Frank Beamer. Beamer enters his 23rd year with a mark of 177—89—2. This year he will have his chance to add another conference title to his resume. Back is an offensive line that is deep and has experience.

Blake DeChristopher and Ed Wang will be opening holes all season for tailback Darren Evans. Evans ran for over 1200 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, and is just a sophomore. Look for him to have a breakout season.

At quarterback it is Tyrod Taylor’s job. Taylor, a dual threat, can throw it or run it, as combined for 1800 yards last season. Now the Hokies do need to find a target to throw the ball too. Watch for freshman Austin Fuller to stand out in the pack.

Defense is where you win championships when you play Beamer ball. The defensive line will be as good as it gets. End Jason Worilds finds his way in on almost every play, and watch for big tackle Cordarrow Thompson to have an all conference season.

The linebackers have youth and talent and will look to learn from senior backer Cam Martin. In the secondary corner Stephan Virgil is back after picking off six passes last year. Virgil is joined by hard hitting safety Kam Chancellor.

When you look at the schedule, you look no farther than the opener against Alabama in the Georgia Dome. If they win this, and I think they will, watch for them to steam through the ACC. I see only one stumble at Georgia Tech in October, as Virginia Tech will go 11—2 (7—2) with a 4—1 division mark and win the Coastal division.

However I predict the FSU upset in Tampa to keep VaTech out of the BCS. The Hokies will head to the Gator Bowl.

Georgia Tech 2008 Record 9-4 (5-3)

The question going into last season was whether the option would work in the ACC.

Short answer, yes.

The Jackets averaged over 270 yards on the ground per game, ranking them fourth in the country. Leading the attack is Junior back Jonathan Dwyer. A Dwyer posse both power and speed, and led the way with 1395 yards on the ground and was also named the ACC Player of the Year.

Joining him in the backfield is Roddy Jones who ran for nearly 700 yards, and Louisville transfer Anthony Allen. Taking the snaps is Junior Josh Nesbitt. Nesbitt has the ability to turn the corner, and to make the great pitch. The one downfall for the Jackets may be the line, which can be best described as shaky with the loss of both starting tackles.

On defense safety Morgan Burnett is an All American safety that will provide all of the leadership. Burnett was a ball hawker last season with seven INT’s, one of which was taken back. He is joined in the secondary with two returning starters, and am impressive youngster Jerrard Tarrant could be a difference maker.

Derrick Morgan is the only returning starter on the line. Morgan notched seven sacks last year, and will look to add to his totals this year. Look for this unit to be average at best, but good enough to win games.

Paul Johnson will keep the success rolling in 2009. The running game will keep teams on their heels and catch them off guard, and the defense will play just well enough to win. Look for Georgia Tech to get it done against everybody except FSU and Miami. The Yellow Jackets finish 10—2 (6—2) and 4—1 in the division. Georgia Tech returns to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl to get revenge on the SEC.

North Carolina 2008 Record 8—5 (4—4)

Butch Davis has brought the Miami style of recruiting to North Carolina, and that was seen last year with their first bowl trip since ’04. The key on offense is whether quarterback T.J. Yates can stay healthy. Yates missed six games last year, but had a freshman year two years ago.

Gone are the big play receivers from a year ago, but watch for TE Zack Pinalto to get the opportunity to grab 40—50 catches. The offensive line should be okay, but there were some concerns inside the tackle the spring.

The defense is what will make or break the season. Speed best describes this unit. Leading tackler Quan Sturdivant returns, but moves to tackle. Replacing him on the outside is speedster Zach Brown, who ran a 4.28 forty this spring. The secondary is anchored by safety Deunta Williams who can place a hit and cover.

The area that causes the most concern is up front. Can the returning unit from a year ago get more pressure to the quarterback? If they can, watch out VaTech and GaTech.

The Tar Heels are ready for a breakout season. Unfortunately they play in the same division as the VaTechs and GaTechs of the world. Miami gets them in a revenge game from last year’s barnburner and nine wins for the Tar Heels. North Carolina finishes 9—3 (5—3) with a 2—3 division mark and is going to the Champ Sports Bowl.

Miami 2008 Record 7—6 (4—4)

Many last year were talking about how the U was back. At times they looked the part. At other times they looked young and inexperienced. This year new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple will get his chance to inject some offense into the offense.

Sophomore Quarterback Jacory Harris will get the start this year, after splitting time with Robert Marve last year. Harris at times made big throws, and at other times looked like a freshman. The Hurricanes will have to solid backs in Javarris James and speedster Graig Cooper.

Cooper ran for over 800 yards last year. If the Hurricanes are going to challenge in the ACC, the offensive line must be more physical and start knocking guys off of the ball like the old days. It will be up to them as to whether the Canes make a bowl this season.

On defense the U is back. They showed signs of dominance last year in big games, but played down to their opponents in others. Sean Spence at middle linebacker will be a name that everyone knows when the season is over.

Spence had 7.5 tackles for a loss last season as a freshman. The defensive line has three or four NFL type talents including Marcus Robinson. Watch for him to hit double digits in sacks. The secondary also looks strong with quick athletic guys all over. This is a deep, speedy, athletic unit that must stop opponents and put up points for the Hurricanes to break through this year.

The schedule this year is a monster. Oklahoma, USF, and the ACC. Enough said. Miami will have the defense to win, but I just don’t see the offense being able to get enough done. FSU, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Wake, and USF all get wins over the Canes. Miami finishes 7—5 (5—3) with a 4—1 division mark and head to the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

Virginia 2008 Record 5—7 (3—5)

Change is in the air in Charlottesville. There are a slew of new assistants and a new spread offense being worked out on offense. Who will take the snaps in the new system could be up for grabs. Jameel Sewell appears to be the favorite after missing last season due to academics.

Their returning leading receiver from last year had only 12 catches, and they are still hoping that running back Mikell Simpson can give them some pop on offense. The strongest part of the offense may be the line that returns four starters from last year’s club.

On defense the Cavaliers are weak at linebacker. They are hoping that either of their inside backers can step up, whether it be Darnell Carter or Darren Childs. Senior Denzel Burrell will hope to aid them as he is a strong outside backer.

The defensive line and secondary both look to be in good hands. Watch for a kid named Rodney McLeod to emerge as the leading INT and pass break up man. He is athletic and has the quickness to defend anyone in the ACC.

The Cavaliers have the benefit of playing some weak non—conference opponents, except for CU. They will develop offensively and improve throughout the year. Look for them to get six wins. Cavaliers beat William and Mary, upset TCU at home, win at Southern Miss, win over Indiana, Duke, and BC. Virginia finishes 6—6 (2—6) with a 1—4 division mark. Unfortunately I see no Bowl game for them.

Duke 2008 Record 4-8 (1-7)

Can David Cutcliffe turn things around at Duke?

Last year they showed some signs of improvement. They nearly beat both Wake and Northwestern, which would have earned them bowl eligibility. Senior quarterback Thaddeus Lewis leads the attack that spreads it out and looks for big chunks of yardage.

Other than Lewis, the offense doesn’t look to have many parts in place. They will need someone to emerge in the backfield, and have to find someone to provide Lewis with a target. The O—line is also lacking depth and experience, returning just two starters. Watch for Desmond Scott to step up at back and be an all purpose weapon for the Blue Devils in ’09.

On defense the Blue Devils have one of the best lineman in the conference in Senior Vince Oghobaase. He should be able to be a force in both the pass rush and run defense. The good news is that front four should be solid; the bad news is that may not matter with the inexperience at Linebacker and in the secondary.

Matt Daniels returns to safety after an injury sidelined him for much of last season, and the Devils do have an experienced outside backer in Vincent Rey. The bottom line for this unit is that they have to step up from the start to compensate for the inexperienced offense. If they don’t, it will be a long year in Durham, yet again.

When you have to rebuild off of a successful 4—8 campaign, you can’t expect to make many strides. Duke will win some games, gain some experience, and scare a team or two, but they won’t get six wins.

Duke loses to Richmond in the opener, then beats Army, North Carolina Central, and upsets Maryland. Duke goes 3—9 (1—7) and winless in the division with hopes to get six wins next year.

In the ACC nothing is a given. FSU could be as good as many think they are, they may not?

Then again maybe the U is back in Miami?Are the Hokies primed for a National Title shot? All are good questions. What do you the ACC fan think?

Who are your sleepers and disappointments? Do you see a National power emerging from the ACC in 2009?