Clemson and Miami haven’t clashed on the football field since 2010 and aren’t scheduled to play again until 2015. Here’s forecasting they’ll meet in the interim – at the ACC championship game Dec. 7 in Charlotte, N.C.
The Hurricanes have never won the league title. The Tigers ended the longest drought in their history, 21 years, by hoisting the hardware in 2011, and with quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins returning from the most potent offense in school history (41 points per game), they rate the favorites to win again.
At least that’s how my ballot will read at the ACC’s annual football kickoff July 21-22. I offered a preseason all-conference team Monday, and now the order of finish, with last season's record in parentheses.
CLEMSON (11-2, 7-1): Boyd and Watkins are the league’s most-gifted offensive talents. Almost as important, the Tigers play Florida State at home, where they’ve bested the Seminoles five consecutive times. Biggest questions: Will the defense continue to progress under second-year coordinator Brent Venables? How will Clemson fare in non-conference tests against SEC East Division powers Georgia and South Carolina?
FLORIDA STATE (7-1, 12-2): No team in the ACC, and few nationally, lost as much as the Seminoles — 13 starters, including four defensive linemen and six assistant coaches. But the talent base is there — four starters on the offensive line return — for the Seminoles to contend for a second consecutive ACC title, especially if redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston is a capable replacement for EJ Manuel, the 16th pick of the NFL draft.
MARYLAND (4-8, 2-6): Unless John Swofford has paranormal connections, the Terps’ two-year injury plague can’t continue. Can it? In its final ACC season, Maryland should improve an offense that ranked 100th or worse nationally in every major statistical category. Receiver Stefon Diggs has Sunday skills, and quarterback C.J. Brown is back after missing last season with a torn ACL. That said, I have zero faith in the Terps, this pick or any other remaining team in the division.
WAKE FOREST (5-7, 3-5): Fans are restless after four consecutive losing seasons, but 18 returning starters and a manageable schedule should end that skid. Jim Grobe, who guided the Deacons to the 2006 ACC title and 28 wins from ’06-08, hasn’t forgotten how to coach, and he has quality skill people in receiver Michael Campanaro and running back Josh Harris.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE (7-6, 4-4): New coach Dave Doeren from Northern Illinois inherits a league-low five returning offensive starters but a schedule that should translate to a fourth consecutive winning season. The Wolfpack leaves the state only twice, for dates at Florida State and Boston College, and plays eight home games. Colorado State transfer Pete Thomas topped the quarterback depth chart after spring but is far from certain to replace the graduated Mike Glennon.
BOSTON COLLEGE (2-10, 1-7): Steve Addazio’s maiden season as the Eagles’ head coach – he arrives after two years at Temple, where he replaced Miami’s Al Golden -- will be trying if they don’t improve an offense that’s ranked below 100th nationally in scoring two years running. Quarterback Chase Rettig has started 21 games and returns the ACC’s most productive receiver in Alex Amidon, but BC must discover other reliable weapons.
SYRACUSE (8-5, 5-2 Big East): The Orange, in case you’ve forgotten, shared the Big East title last season with Rutgers, Cincinnati and Louisville and thumped West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl. Rookie head coach Scott Shafer, formerly the program’s defensive coordinator, can lean on Jerome Smith, the ACC’s top returning rusher (1,171 yards) but must find a successor to Ryan Nassib, who started 38 games at quarterback. Terrel Hunt and Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen are among the candidates.
MIAMI (7-5, 5-3): The Hurricanes’ failure to reach an ACC championship game, let alone win the title, is astonishing given their pedigree. But with 10 starters back on both sides, and barring the NCAA infractions committee going nuclear, that could well change. Running back Duke Johnson, receiver Phillip Dorsett, quarterback Stephen Morris and a line intact from 2012 give Miami plenty of offense. The task is to upgrade a defense that fell from 17th to 82nd nationally in points allowed. A considerable advantage for the ‘Canes: playing Virginia Tech at home for the second straight year.
VIRGINIA TECH (7-6, 4-4): The Hokies’ worst season in 20 years cost Bryan Stinespring his offensive coordinator title and three other assistant coaches their jobs. But does new coordinator Scot Loeffler have the personnel to improve a group that ranked 81st in scoring last year? Quarterback Logan Thomas, second-team All-ACC in 2011 and ordinary in 2012, provides a foundation, but there’s little proven talent around him, further burdening a defense that should be top-shelf.
NORTH CAROLINA (8-4, 5-3): In their first year running Larry Fedora’s spread last season, the Tar Heels averaged 40.6 points, the program’s highest norm since the ACC’s creation in 1953. Absent receiver Erik Highsmith, guard Jonathan Cooper and tailback Gio Bernard, matching that production is unlikely. But an experienced defense and favorable conference schedule give Carolina a legitimate chance to reach its first ACC title game.
GEORGIA TECH (7-7, 5-3): Odd doesn’t begin to describe a 2012 in which the Yellow Jackets went 6-6 in the regular season, back-doored into the league championship contest, went bowling at 6-7 and upset Southern California to end a seven-game postseason losing streak. Four returning linemen and three running backs who gained at least 430 yards should ease the transition for Vad Lee, the likely replacement for quarterback Tevin Washington.
PITTSBURGH (6-7, 3-4 Big East): Skittish much? The Panthers opened 0-2 last season, including a two-touchdown loss to I-AA Youngstown State, before routing Virginia Tech. They also extended Notre Dame to overtime on the road. All-Big East tackle Aaron Donald leads an experienced defense than ranked 23rd nationally in points allowed. But Pitt has no established running back or quarterback, with Rutgers transfer Tom Savage and freshman Chad Voytik competing to replace three-year starter Tino Sunseri.
VIRGINIA (4-8, 2-6): Coach Mike London replaced all three of his coordinators after another down year and then in June parted ways with the program’s most acclaimed quarterback: Alabama transfer Phillip Sims. Continued uncertainty at quarterback and a thorny schedule that includes BYU, Oregon and Clemson dampens enthusiasm created by seven returning starters on each side, plus the expected emergence of defensive end Eli Harold.
DUKE (6-7, 3-5): The Blue Devils lose only four starters from an offense that keyed their first bowl season since 1994, but that foursome, led by receiver Conner Vernon and quarterback Sean Renfree, started 159 games combined during their careers. Receiver Jamison Crowder and All-ACC cornerback Ross Cockrell headline the returnees but aren’t likely enough to prevent a decline. Anthony Boone succeeds Renfree and is surrounded by an experienced line.
As always, ridicule early and often, and do not bet accordingly.
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