Wednesday, July 19, 2006

College football preview: ACC Atlantic Division

This is part one of my college football preview for 2006. Hope you enjoy it. I’ll be posting conference previews sporadically until they are done.

The preseason Top 25 won’t be out for some time...probably another month or so.

I used the following magazines/yearbooks/sources for information that you’ll read in the previews:
Phil Steele
Sporting News
Blue Ribbon
Local newspapers
College websites

I tried not to use blogs. Not because blogs are unreliable (HELLO!), but because many of the blogs I read rely on information found within the sources listed, and I doubt that there will be any earth-shattering information posted in a blog that isn’t accessible elsewhere.

Once I’ve previewed all eleven conferences, I’ll link them on the sidebar for a few weeks so you can get at them more conveniently.

Atlantic Division

1. Clemson Tigers
After that ugly 10-9 loss at Georgia Tech last year, it looked like Tommy Bowden had one foot out the door at Clemson.

Then, for the second straight year, the Tigers got hot late to finish bowl-eligible and save Bowden’s hyde (they were 1-4 to start 2004, and only didn’t go bowling by their own choice after the South Carolina fight).

Now, the Tigers will forge ahead without Charlie Whitehurst, who seemed to hold their starting QB job for about seven years.

In good shape: Offensive line. Bowden has to feel good about trying to break in a new QB behind this group. Unless someone tries to get Clemson up the EDSBS Fulmer Cup board, Clemson will have four seniors and a junior along the offensive front. LG Roman Fry is a versatile player who has settled in nicely at guard, while C Dustin Fry (no relation) should be one of the top linemen in the league. This group allowed just 23 sacks a year ago, and similar protection will be needed this year, as the new starting QB, senior Will Proctor, has thrown just 34 career passes.

Needs work: Proctor. He has the arm. He’s a good athlete. With James Davis running the ball, a good group of receivers, and that offensive line in front of him, Proctor’s job should be easy. But we know how it can be. Can Proctor step in after three years as an apprentice? Until we see Proctor in a game that isn’t against Florida Atlantic (Clemson’s opening foe), we won’t know for sure. But on a team loaded with talent and experience, there aren’t a lot of glaring holes.

Overview: The schedule is tough, and it gets tough in a hurry. After a season-opening layup with Florida Atlantic, Clemson jumps right into the Atlantic Division fire by traveling to Boston College and Florida State. The Tigers can and probably will win at least one of those games, which should put them in good position to make a run at the division title. Proctor benefits from a ton of good, experienced players around him, and Clemson will reach ten wins for the first time under Tommy Bowden.

2. Florida State Seminoles
The Seminoles finished at the top of the relatively weak Atlantic a year ago, and they upset Virginia Tech in the ACC title game. That upset led to Marcus Vick’s college career-ending stomp in the Gator Bowl, and it led to a classic matchup in the Orange Bowl, where FSU met up with Big Ten champion Penn State, and probably should have beaten Penn State.

That can only help this team in 2006, especially given the experience available on the coaching staff. But can they hold off a hard-charging Clemson team?

In good shape: Cornerback. Not many teams can lose a guy to the first round of the NFL Draft without losing a starter from the previous season. That’s what happened at FSU when Antonio Cromartie sat out the 2005 season with a knee injury, and then turned pro. Granted, J.R. Bryant, who should be ready to go this fall, only started the last six games of 2005, but he’s still a returning starter, as is sophomore Tony Carter. The Seminoles also have projected nickel back/track star Michael Ray Garvin returning.

Needs work: Defensive front seven. Star LBs A.J. Nicholson and Ernie Sims are gone, with Nicholson having misbehaved himself out of town, while Sims turned pro. While LB coach Kevin Steele has said he’s optimistic that Buster Davis can lead the group to a great season, the defensive line isn’t as certain. Mickey Andrews has a reputation for being great at reloading along the line, and he has to do it again, because DT Broderick Bunkley and DE Kamerion Wimbley were both top 15 picks in the NFL Draft. Rebuilding both the line and the linebackers at the same time could prove to be a challenge, especially when FSU has to deal with Miami and Clemson in their first three games.

Overview: Bowden has said he likes QB Drew Weatherford, who ended up posting decent numbers as a freshman. He has good size and a live arm, and receivers Chris Davis and Greg Carr combined for 14 TD catches last year, so he has people to throw to. The running game will be better with Lorenzo Booker and Antone Smith running behind an improved offensive line. If the defense rounds into form and Weatherford continues to get better, FSU will be a force.

3. Boston College Eagles
Tom O’Brien has built a model of consistency at BC. The Eagles have won six straight bowl games, but it is worth noting, as Blue Ribbon did, that BC has yet to win more than nine games in a season, and while O’Brien has won a school-record 43 games in the last five years, everyone around the program acknowledges that there is still work to do.

If O’Brien and coordinator Frank Spaziani are able to mold a solid defense, the Eagles might be able to break through and steal the conference title this year.

In good shape: Quarterback. Quinton Porter struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness a year ago, which meant that junior Matt Ryan got some playing experience, and he made the most of it. Ryan took over as the starting QB late last season and led the Eagles to wins over NC State, Maryland, and Boise State (bowl game). He finished 5-0 as a starter, and threw eight TD passes while hitting 62.1 percent of this throws. Not bad for a fill-in guy. O’Brien noted that Ryan’s presence seemed to spark the offense after a couple lackluster performances at Virginia Tech and North Carolina. Now, Ryan is the unquestioned starter, and the Eagles’ offense is in good hands as a result.

Needs work: Defensive line. Not only did the Eagles lose DE Mathias Kiwanuka, who was the Big East Defensive Player of the Year in 2004 and who posted 16.5 TFLs as a senior, but they also lost solid starting DT Alvin Washington. The Eagles struggled to consistently defend the pass a year ago, especially down the stretch, as they yielded an average of 257 pass YPG in their last five. If the secondary continues to be torchable (is that a word?), the pressure will really fall on the defensive line to make some plays in the offensive backfield.

Overview: O’Brien has built a very good program at Boston College, and while the focus is still on taking this thing to the next level, it doesn’t appear that he has the personnel for a title run this year. The Eagles should be able to move the ball and score points, but can they stop people often enough to win ten games? I’m not sure, but I do know that nine wins is certainly within reach, and if FSU or Clemson stumble, BC could find themselves in the mix for a BCS berth.

4. Wake Forest Demon Deacons
This is the kind of team Jim Grobe can make some noise with. Wake Forest has a very experienced and deep team returning for 2006, with a whopping 19 starters back, and 48 of 58 letterwinners returning from a 4-7 group last year.

The Deacons lost a large number of close ball games last year (four of seven losses by fewer than two TDs). They’re due some luck, and Grobe is hoping that some veteran experience can push them over the top.

In good shape: The running game. Yes, Chris Barclay and his four straight 1,000-yard seasons are gone. But Micah Andrews is back, and he might be a better fit for Grobe’s misdirection-driven run attack than Barclay was. Andrews started the season opener against Vanderbilt last year when Barclay was suspended, and he ran for 254 yards. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry for the season. Junior De’Angelo Bryant should also get some chances to run the ball.

Needs work: The Deacons’ offense has to take better care of the football. Both Andrews and starting QB Ben Mauk were turnover-prone a year ago, with Mauk throwing six picks to just one touchdown, and Andrews had critical fumbles in games against Nebraska and Maryland last year. It’s tough to win close games if you don’t take good care of the ball consistently.

Overview: Grobe has this program in a great position heading into 2006. The Atlantic Division has a lot of talent, but no clear-cut favorite. Meanwhile, Wake brings back 19 starters and plenty of experienced players. If Andrews can replace Barclay, and the defense can continue to improve, it’s reasonable to suggest that Wake Forest can go bowling.

The key on the defense will be the pass rush. The Deacons only produced 15 sacks a year ago, but Grobe feels that the line will be much improved this year. They’re still not very big on defense, but they have good depth and quickness along the line, and junior LB John Abbate continues to get better. Overall, Wake returns their top nine tacklers from a year ago, so improvement is a must.

Three of the four really tough games are at home, and if the Deacons can win one of them (Boston College, Virginia Tech, Clemson), a bowl game will likely be the reward.

5. Maryland Terrapins
After three straight years of double-digit wins, Ralph Friedgen’s program has come back to Earth. The Terrapins are 10-12 the last two seasons, and the natives are already getting restless in College Park, having apparently forgotten about the futility that preceded Friedgen’s hire.

Friedgen has shaken up the top of his coaching staff, as offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe was fired resigned left the program, and defensive coordinator Gary Blackney retired. Friedgen, who was offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech before moving into the Maryland job, will take over play-calling duties. Chris Cosh is the new defensive coordinator.

In good shape: Much like Wake Forest, Maryland will be able to run the ball. Lance Ball took over as the featured back late last year, starting four games and running for over 900 yards. Ball has quickness, but he’s more of a bowling ball-type at 5-9 and 225 pounds. He’ll be joined in the backfield by the returning Josh Allen, who missed all of last year with a knee injury. Allen went for 922 yards in 2003 and was over 1,800 yards in his Maryland career before the injury cut short his 2004 season and eventually caused him to sit all of last season. Friedgen has two talented backs to call upon, and with a very good offensive line in front of them, both should be successful.

Needs work: Wide receiver. Simply put, Friedgen has no one he knows he can rely on. The running game should take pressure off the receivers, as should the presence of experienced senior QB Sam Hollenbach. But who will Hollenbach throw the ball to? Top tight end Vernon Davis is gone, as are Dan Melendez and Jo Jo Walker. Drew Weatherly is the top returning pass-catcher among the wide receivers, and he caught just ten passes a year ago.

Overview: The Terrapins have a deep and talented defensive front, and their secondary is going to be pretty good, so the defense should show signs of life after regressing in almost every major statistical category in 2005. With Hollenbach, the offensive line, and a potentially great running game, Maryland has some quality pieces in place. But they lack the depth, talent, or experience of teams like Clemson, Florida State, and Boston College, and Wake Forest appears to have leapfrogged the Terps, at least temporarily.

Maryland should still be in position to make a bowl game, but they may have to pull an upset on the road to make it happen.

6. North Carolina State Wolfpack
Like Friedgen at Maryland, Chuck Amato is starting to feel the heat. An 11-win season in 2002 has been followed, in succession, by years with 8, 5, and 7 wins. And like Friedgen, Amato is a victim of the “What have you done for me lately?” mentality that permeates college football. Amato has spear-headed one of the best six-year runs in school history. In fact, as Blue Ribbon notes, his 46 wins in six years are the most of any previous Wolfpack coach over a six-year stretch. Only former coach Dick Sheridan can claim to have taken NC State to five bowls in six years, and he also was behind a major fundraising drive that led to stadium upgrades.

Phil Steele points out that the 5-1 record NC State posted down the stretch in 2005 was their best finish since 1973, and Amato is behind the only wins posted by an ACC team in Tallahassee (NC State has won at Florida State twice under Amato).

I’m not saying Amato should be retained no matter what happens this year, but Amato is being treated unfairly. It shouldn’t be a surprise, as this same fan base ran a very good basketball coach (Herb Sendek) out of town despite a string of successes that had been unmatched over the last 20 years.

In good shape: Running back. The Wolfpack have a good one-two punch, with Andre Brown and Toney Baker both coming off strong freshman campaigns. The team averaged nearly 160 YPG rushing during their 5-1 finish, and it stands to reason that Amato and offensive coordinator Marc Trestman are going to try establishing the run from the get-go this season. This stable is so solid that Amato moved third running back Darrell Blackman to wide receiver. Considering that Blackman has been a very good kick returner and has elite speed, he’ll have a chance to make plays if he can refine his route-running techniques.

Needs work: Defensive line. Amato loses starting ends Mario Williams and Manny Lawson to the first round of the NFL Draft. The two combined for 25 sacks and 48 TFLs a year ago, and they will be very tough to replace. Amato likes redshirt freshman Willie Young, and he also has JUCO transfer Littleton Wright and senior John Amanchukwu to pick from. The three combined for one tackle at NC State a year ago, so there isn’t really a “sure thing” at the position. Also worth noting here is that DT John McCargo, a three-year starter, left early and was picked in the first round as well. McCargo, however, didn’t have the same kind of impact on the defense that Williams and Lawson did, and junior DeMario Pressley is a pretty good tackle. All in all, Amato has his work cut out for him trying to revamp this defense, especially up front.

Overview: The Wolfpack should be improved on offense. Marcus Stone takes over at QB, and he needs to be more consistent, but the running game will be there, and Blackman is going to be a great WR in a hurry if he can figure out how to run good routes.

The schedule, however, is a killer. The ‘Pack have two winnable non-conference home games to kick things off, but then things get interesting. A trip to Southern Mississippi is followed by a month-long homestand that brings Boston College, Florida State, and Wake Forest to Raleigh. With four road trips in five weeks to follow, NC State better win two of these three huge home games if they want to have a shot at a bowl game.

Simply put: Amato is in serious trouble. Even a minor bowl bid might not be enough to relieve the pressure from a strangely impatient fan base, and that minor bowl bid is going to be tough to come by.

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