Transfers and suspensions can radically alter depth charts. Coaching staffs can change on a dime, witness North Carolina’s purging of Butch Davis last July.
Miami was hit hardest, with five players exiting, perhaps, in part, due to impending NCAA sanctions. Eight of the league’s 12 teams lost players, the exceptions Virginia, Duke, Maryland and Florida State.
Seminoles defensive end Brandon Jenkins and cornerback Greg Reid, the former a second-team All-ACC selection, were among the headliners who elected to remain.
So here we go, starting with the division that’s paramount in these parts. Last season’s records are in parentheses.
Virginia Tech (11-3, 7-1): There are myriad reasons to pick the Hokies lower, among them an offensive line that returns only one starter, Wilson’s departure and a difficult conference schedule that includes inter-divisional games against Florida State and at Clemson. But Virginia Tech always seems to find a quality tailback, quarterback Logan Thomas is a future pro, and the defense that smothered Michigan’s Denard Robinson in the Sugar Bowl figures to return nine starters. Oh, and don’t discount a receiver corps that includes Marcus Davis, D.J. Coles and Dyrell Roberts.
Georgia Tech (8-5, 5-3): The Yellow Jackets lost five of their final seven games after a 6-0 start, a discouraging close to say the least. Despite junior receiver Stephen Hill turning pro, the option offense should purr with quarterback Tevin Washington and the entire starting line returning. So the issue remains defense, coordinated by former Virginia coach Al Groh. Tech started only four defensive seniors in the Sun Bowl loss to Utah. The conference schedule appears manageable with crossover games against Maryland and Boston College.
North Carolina (7-6, 3-5): Pending NCAA sanctions and the hiring of coach Larry Fedora from Southern Mississippi make the Tar Heels a wild card. If the NCAA goes easy and Fedora transitions smoothly, Carolina could win the division with an offense that ought to return eight starters, including quarterback Bryn Renner and tailback Giovani Bernard, and a favorable league schedule (Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and N.C. State at home). If the NCAA drops the hammer and Fedora transitions awkwardly, good luck.
Virginia (8-5, 5-3): Mike London’s third season as the Cavaliers’ coach will be his most challenging to date. First, there are expectations created by last year’s success. Then there’s a more daunting non-conference schedule – Penn State and at TCU are the highlights. Finally, the defense loses seven senior starters, including first-team All-ACC choices cornerback Chase Minnifield and tackle Matt Conrath. But quarterback Michael Rocco and tailbacks Perry Jones and Kevin Parks should assure a second consecutive bowl trip.
Miami (6-6, 3-5): The notion of the Hurricanes going 33-31 in the ACC during their first eight seasons in the league was preposterous in 2004. And now these chronic underachievers have taken a huge NFL hit, with the NCAA poised to sanction over the Nevin Shapiro mess. Second-year coach Al Golden appears first-rate, and there are heralded prospects in the program. But given recent results, there’s no reason to believe in Miami.
Duke (3-9, 1-7): Good as David Cutcliffe is, the Blue Devils are 6-26 in the ACC since he became coach. Moreover, they lost the best player, first-team All-ACC safety Matt Daniels, from a defense than ranked 11th in the league. And finally, they play the Atlantic Division’s Florida State and Clemson, and a non-conference game at Stanford.
Florida State (9-4, 5-3): The Seminoles should have been better last season. A program with national title pedigree and aspirations simply can’t, no offense intended, lose at Wake Forest and to Virginia at home. The biggest issue was the offensive line, which allowed a league-high 41 sacks and wasn’t much better run blocking. But Jenkins and Everett Dawkins lead a deep, talented defensive line that returns intact and should give quarterback EJ Manuel and the offense room for error.
Clemson (10-4, 6-2): Quarterback Tajh Boyd, receiver Sammy Watkins, running back Andre Ellington and coordinator Chad Morris virtually assure a dynamic offense. But what of a defense that ranked 10th in the ACC and was historically bad in the Orange Bowl? Kevin Steele is out as coordinator, and South Carolina media report Oklahoma DC Brent Venables is a candidate to replace him.
North Carolina State (8-5, 4-4): After a dispiriting mid-November loss at Boston College, the Wolfpack was an unlikely candidate to become the only ACC team to win its final three games. But an upset of Clemson, wild comeback against Maryland and bowl victory over Louisville give N.C. State hope, especially with All-America cornerback David Amerson (national-best 13 interceptions), quarterback Mike Glennon (31 touchdown passes) and running Mustafa Greene (expected back after missing last season with a foot injury).
Boston College (4-8, 3-5): The Eagles endured their worst year since 1995 and first bowl absence since 1998. But even with Kuechly heading to the NFL, Boston College figures to return a conference-high 19 starters. Plus, Montel Harris, on pace to become the ACC’s career rushing leader, is expected back for a redshirt senior season after missing 2011 with a knee injury.
Wake Forest (6-7, 5-3): Givens’ draft decision leaves the Deacons with only three returning starters on offense – quarterback Tanner Price among them – placing a heavy burden on a defense that ranked ninth in the ACC in points allowed. Not coincidentally, co-defensive coordinator Tim Billings left coach Jim Grobe’s staff earlier this month. If Grobe wants a sage defensive mind with immeasurable ACC experience, he should turn to Jim Cavanaugh, a former Virginia Tech linebackers coach now working in administration for the Hokies.
Maryland (2-10, 1-7): Absent NCAA or other scandal, it’s difficult to envision a worse first season for a coach than what Randy Edsall experienced with the Terps. After a season-opening win over Miami, the Terps lost their final 10 against Division I-A competition. Attendance sagged, media pounced, and at last check, seven players with eligibility remaining had left the program since season’s end.
Chances are you disagree, as well you should given my forecasting history. Feel free to share how and why.
Spring practice will be here before we know it.
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