ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE
1. Miami Hurricanes
The Hurricanes have won a national championship and have sported a record of 53-9 under Larry Coker.
So why is he feeling any heat?
40-3. That’s why.
The Hurricanes enter 2006 off the worst bowl loss in the program’s storied history, a waxing at the hands of LSU in the Peach Bowl. One can surmise that Miami’s late-season upset loss to Georgia Tech, a loss that cost them a berth in the ACC title game, left them flat and unmotivated, while LSU clearly had the jump from the opening kickoff. But no matter what you say, Miami doesn’t tolerate such humiliation, and Coker fired four assistant coaches after the bowl game.
This year’s edition of the Hurricanes is strong on athletes, as usual, and should be led, at least early in the year, by its defense, which improved in nearly every statistical category in 2005.
In good shape: Safety. Sophomore Kenny Phillips was a freshman All-American at free safety a year ago. He was one of three true freshmen to see regular action a year ago. Phillips posted 88 tackles and reminded many Miami observers of current Washington Redskin star Sean Taylor (only minus the attitudinal issues, for now). Phillips replaced Anthony Reddick in the lineup after Reddick blew out his knee. Reddick, a freshman All-American in 2004, should be back this season. The strong safety, and unquestioned leader of this defense, is senior Brandon Merriweather, who amassed 13 tackles for loss among his team-leading 115 takedowns a year ago. There might not be a better group of safeties in the country, and their ability will offset a relative lack of experience among the Hurricanes’ cornerbacks.
Needs work: Offensive line. The Hurricanes were not as effective up front as usual last year, allowing 36 sacks and only paving the way for 3.7 yards per carry out of the running game (it was Miami’s second straight year averaging 3.7 YPC rushing after averaging 4.5 or more for seven straight years). Miami will need better play out of a line that returns just one starter (though C Anthony Wollschlager is a good one). Pressure will be on Ts Tyrone Byrd and Reggie Youngblood to keep defensive ends away from QB Kyle Wright, who needs to have time to show off his great arm and playmaking ability.
Overview: Wright got better as the season wore on, and he has to be thrilled that Coker brought back former Miami QB mentor Rich Olson to run the offense. Olson was responsible for tutoring former Hurricane QB and H*i*m*n winner Gino Torretta. Miami should be able to count on Wright for even more in 2006, as he has plenty of talent to work with. As usual, the Hurricanes lost a lot, though they have some great potential on both sides of the ball. They’re in the weaker of the two ACC divisions, in my view, and if they can avoid the upset bug in road trips to Louisville, Georgia Tech, Maryland, and Virginia, they could be in position to challenge for a national title.
2. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Believe it or not, Georgia Tech is one of only six programs to appear in bowl games for nine consecutive years. This program has been steady, even solid, but not spectacular. And their inconsistency is enough to drive even the most patient fans nuts.
Last year, Tech won road games against quality opponents Auburn and Miami, but lost at home to NC State, didn’t play well at Virginia, and were blown out in their bowl game against an average Utah team. It’s a model for the inconsistency that has plagued this program under Chan Gailey, who probably has one more shot to get this team into a major bowl with stud receiver Calvin Johnson around (the junior is almost a sure bet to turn pro after this season).
In good shape: Receiver. Johnson is an All-American caliber player. He posted 54 catches and led his team with seven scores a season ago, and one is left to wonder what kind of numbers he could post with a more accurate quarterback at the controls (more on that in a moment). It’ll be up to the “other” Johnson in the group, sophomore James, to make sure that Calvin Johnson sees some chances to get open.
Needs work: Quarterback. How many times do you see a team with an incumbent three-year starting QB look so shaky at the position? When Reggie Ball won the Yellow Jackets’ job as a freshman, no one thought he would still be struggling mightily after his junior season. Ball has a career TD-INT ratio of 37-41, and he’s only a 50 percent passer during his Tech career. With a talent like Calvin Johnson at receiver, talented running backs Tashard Choice and Rashaun Grant, and five returning starters on the offensive line, the excuses have run out for Ball. He’s on his last chance to lead Tech to something better than the Champs Sports or Emerald Bowls.
Overview: Choice is the next stud runner at Tech, Calvin Johnson is a future NFL star, and the Tech defense has been pretty good under Gailey. It’s on Reggie Ball. If he improves, the offense will do better than the meager 18.5 points per game average of a year ago, and Tech will find themselves knocking on a Gator Bowl invite. Without improvement from Ball, Tech will be back in Orlando or some other bowl outpost before Christmas.
3. Virginia Tech Hokies
No player in college football caused the swarm of controversy that Marcus Vick did last year. And he was just the tip of the iceberg for a program that continues to exhibit a near-embarrassing lack of discipline, both on the field and off.
Vick’s stomp to the calf of Louisville defensive end Elvis Dumervil marked the end of his Hokie career, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Vick sat a season because of an off-field issue, then proceeded to make an obscene gesture toward West Virginia fans during a game there last season. The Dumervil incident wasn’t penalized, but Tech took 17 penalties in the ACC title game loss to Florida State, and as Blue Ribbon points out, the Hokies were the proud recipients of five personal-foul penalties in the first half of the bowl game, including the ejection of an All-American in CB Jimmy Williams.
If Virginia Tech is going to return to the top of the ACC (and in two years, they have a conference title and a conference title game loss on their resume…not bad), they’re going to have to improve their discipline. Oh, and they’re going to have to replace three All-ACC offensive linemen, Vick, Williams, and five other standout defensive players.
In good shape: Wide receiver. For a team that typically will run the ball upwards of 60 percent of the time (their run-pass ratio was 2-1 a year ago), it’s a luxury to have playmaking receivers. Frank Beamer has that luxury this year. David Clowney, Josh Morgan, and Eddie Royal can all make plays, with Clowney having the most downfield potential. New receivers coach Kevin Sherman will be charged with tapping into Clowney’s immense upside by making him a better every-down player.
Needs work: Quarterback. Vick had his faults, and he was never going to be the energetic face of the program like his older brother was. It’s best for everyone that he has moved on. However, he leaves a gaping hole. Sean Glennon takes over the job for now, but Beamer, according to Blue Ribbon, wants one of his more athletic guys to eventually take over the position. Ike Whitaker and Cory Holt both fit that mold. Glennon was 8-11 in limited duty in 2004, and Phil Steele points out in his preview that all three of Glennon’s incompletions were dropped balls (!). He’s more of a pocket passer, which might not be a bad thing when you consider the talent VT has at receiver. But he has big shoes to fill in Vick, who was solid and durable in 2005.
Overview: Luckily for Beamer, he has recruited wonderfully over the years, so the heavy personnel losses aren’t as big a deal as they could be. However, you don’t lose players like Vick, Williams, LBs Darryl Tapp and James Anderson, RBs Cedric Humes and Mike Imoh, and OL Jason Murphy without feeling some pain. There’s no doubt that Virginia Tech will win nine or ten regular season games, because their non-conference schedule is soft by even Bill Snyder’s standards, but road trips to Boston College, Miami, and Wake Forest, along with a home date with Atlantic Division foe Clemson, will prove too tough to run through unbeaten. Tech takes a bit of a hit this season, but they’re not going anywhere long-term, and they’ll still be a contender for a major bowl bid thanks to their reputation and non-conference schedule.
4. North Carolina Tar Heels
UNC is another team that had serious struggles at quarterback a year ago. Unlike Georgia Tech, however, UNC struggled with an inexperienced starter, as Matt Baker couldn’t get anything going consistently in the place of Darian Durant, who only set 51 school records during his time as a Heel.
Baker is gone, and it’s not possible right now to call the race to be his replacement. Redshirt freshman Cam Sexton is competing with junior and Nebraska transfer Joe Dailey, and head coach John Bunting and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti aren’t prepared to declare a winner just yet.
Whoever does win the job will be charged with improving an offense that averaged only 18 points per game in 2005. While the defense will again be better this year, there’s no way that they’ll be good enough to overcome such shoddy offensive play.
In good shape: Defensive line. Bunting, a defensive coach by trade, has brought this group a long way since they allowed rushing yards-per-game averages of 221, 227, and 218 from 2002-2004. They “only” allowed 138 a game a year ago, and Bunting has six of his top eight linemen back. The interior is anchored by Shelton Bynum and Kyndraus Guy, and Bunting has plenty of depth to call on in the middle, especially with redshirt freshman Cam Thomas showing plenty of promise. I expect that they’ll drop that rushing average again this year, and the defensive line will also produce more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Needs work: Quarterback. Cignetti had a lot of success with Fresno State’s offense, but it remains to be seen if he can coax a quality performance out of one of his new quarterbacks. Dailey was a horrendous flop as the first quarterback to play in Bill Callahan’s West Coast system at Nebraska, throwing 21 interceptions in eleven starts in 2004 before transferring out of the program. Sexton redshirted last year after his spring practice was cut short by a broken ankle. He’s athletic and throws a good ball, and the smart money is that Sexton will start at some point this season, even if Dailey’s experience puts him over the top in the early going.
Overview: Cignetti led Fresno State to top ten national rankings in scoring offense back-to-back years, so he has had success building quality attacks. The personnel doesn’t appear to be in place for such a run this year, even though the running game is in good hands with the powerful Ronnie McGill and the shifty Barrington Edwards. Carolina continues to build the defense, but it’s still not good enough to win the kind of low-scoring games they may be in this year. The Tar Heels have a tough schedule, with non-conference games against 2005 bowl teams Rutgers, South Florida, and Notre Dame. That said, they are strong enough to be bowl-eligible after a year out of the postseason in 2005.
5. Virginia Cavaliers
The Cavaliers have seen an increase in NFL-bound players out of their program since Al Groh took over the coaching duties. However, what Virginia hasn’t seen is any remarkable increase in the level of play in the program.
Virginia is just 21-19 in conference play under Groh, and they were a disappointing 7-5 a year ago. Like Georgia Tech, UVA has been noticeably inconsistent, with wins last year over Florida State and Georgia Tech, but losses to Maryland and North Carolina, and a thrashing at the hands of Virginia Tech.
Groh has to replace offensive coordinator Ron Prince, who left to take over at Kansas State, and defensive coordinator Al Golden, who took the Temple job. Not only that, but Groh lost LB Ahmad Brooks and S Tony Franklin to disciplinary suspensions (Brooks went to Cincinnati in the NFL Supplemental Draft).
In good shape: Secondary. Three starters are back, with Franklin being the only departure. Corners Marcus Hamilton and Chris Gorham are very talented, and they are joined in the backfield by junior safeties Jamaal Jackson and Nate Lyles, who should both see plenty of playing time. The pass defense regressed badly in 2005, and it was a big reason why the UVA defense allowed a touchdown more per game on average, but the pieces are in place for a nice run in 2006.
Needs work: Inside linebacker. Brooks and Kai Parham are both gone, leaving two gaping holes in the Cavs’ 3-4 defense. Groh has always been a defensive guy, and he’s confident that sophomores Antonio Appleby and Jon Cooper will emerge as solid contributors. This is a very young group (Appleby and Cooper by both be backed up by redshirt freshmen), and Brooks and Parham will be very tough to replace.
Overview: Groh has, generally, done a pretty good job with the Virginia program. But the glass ceiling that existed under George Welch (plenty of seven-win seasons but hardly any elite bowl appearances) is still in place. Unless Notre Dame transfer Christian Olsen can replace athletic QB Marcus Hagans, the offense may bog down and have trouble generating any points. The defense will struggle, especially up the middle with Brooks and Parham gone. Virginia still has a ton of young talent (Groh’s biggest strength overall has been his recruiting), but they’re probably a year away from having a chance to make a significant impact in the ACC.
6. Duke Blue Devils
Steve Spurrier left Durham for the Florida gig in 1989. Since then, Duke’s football program has floundered, only posting one season with more than four wins in 16 tries.
When Carl Franks was ousted in 2003, defensive coordinator Ted Roof took over on an interim basis, including posting Duke’s only win over North Carolina since Spurrier left. Roof has recruited hard, but the results have not been good, as Duke has won just five games under Roof (5-22 record).
The talent level is slowly improving, but Duke has a long way to go before they’ll be able to compete in the ACC.
In good shape: Defensive line. This shouldn’t be a surprise, given Roof’s defensive pedigree. What might be a surprise is that I would pick this position when the Blue Devils allowed over 200 rushing yards per game a year ago. Roof signed three very good defensive line prospects for 2005, and all three missed the season with injuries. This year, they’re all expected to play. DT Vincent Oghobaase is the best of the bunch, but DE Ryan Radloff will contribute. Veteran players Eli Nichols and Casey Camero have a combined 46 starts, so there is some experience up front, too. The pass rush, especially from the interior of the line, has to get better, but the talent is there for Duke to have a decent defensive front. Also worth noting here is the three-headed monster Duke has at running back, with Justin Boyle, Ronnie Drummer, and Re’quan Boyette all battling for carries.
Needs work: Quarterback. Not since 1995 has Duke gotten quality play out of the quarterback position. The latest to try to turn around the offense is Zack Asack, who got some time as a freshman and showed promise. While the coaches were encouraged, their hopes for a good sophomore season out of Asack were blown apart when he was suspended for the season for plagiarism (hey, we can’t all be Ann Coulter). Luckily, Roof has recruited well around Asack, and he hopes that an improved running game and the development of the receivers will combine to make whoever starts at QB in Asack’s place into a solid player (smart money is on Marcus Jones to start, though that’s not a certainty). It had better, because Duke isn’t going anywhere without quality quarterback play. The lack of it is a big reason why Duke hasn’t averaged more than 19 points per game in a season since before Franks took over.
Overview: This is a program that has been in constant rebuilding mode for about 15 years now. The talent is there at certain positions, including running back and linebacker (sophomore Michael Tauiliili is a very good player), but the depth isn’t good enough, and Roof is constantly battling to reverse the culture of losing that has owned this program since Spurrier left.
It’s not going to happen overnight, but improvement should be there this season. The problem is that the schedule, which includes non-conference dates with Navy and Alabama (bowl teams a year ago), is deadly. It will be tough for Roof to get more than two or three wins out of this team.