1. Florida State
2. North Carolina State
4. Wake Forest
5. Boston College
1. Virginia Tech
3. North Carolina
4. Georgia Tech
Fab Four: Top Storylines in the ACC
How will recent scandal affect Florida State on the field? The Seminoles have been through it before, but this particular case seems to have more sticking power than others. It's not so much a knock on coach Bobby Bowden as it is on the school and its athletes, but Bowden has had to answer a lot of questions about an academic scandal that has the football program on the verge of vacating 14 wins. Since last year's FSU team was another on-field disappointment for most of the season, it should be interesting to see how the 2009 version -- one picked by many to win their division and contend for a major bowl -- will respond to the possible distractions.
There's little question that a healthy and focused FSU team is the best of the Atlantic Division. Christian Ponder started to throw the ball better late in the season, and he should get good protection from a stout offensive line. Bowden has another fast and powerful defense, and the only major hangup is that their toughest games (BYU, North Carolina, Clemson, Wake Forest, and Florida) are all on the road.
Can Russell Wilson do what Philip Rivers couldn't? This isn't meant to pick on Rivers, who was an outstanding college quarterback and has been an even better pro. Rivers, though, was unable to climb the mountain at NC State, failing to win an ACC championship in his four years there.
Wilson had to battle through some injuries last year, but clearly established himself as the top young quarterback in the ACC. Only one of his 275 pass attempts fell into an opponent's hands, and Wilson helped lead Tom O'Brien's Wolfpack to a bowl game after a miserable 2-6 start to the season. If Wilson can stay healthy, he has a chance this season to take NC State to the top of the Atlantic Division.
Boston College back in transition. The firing of Jeff Jagodzinski was handled rather clumsily by the BC administration, not totally different from how they pushed out O'Brien two years earlier.
If the desire of this school is to put together an elite football program, they're going to have to settle down a bit. I have no idea if Frank Spaziani can be a head coach at this level, but I do know that Jagodzinski was a good one. It was foolish for BC to let him go, and while I understood their stance on the issue, it was the kind of thing that could easily have been resolved internally.
While the Eagles have a good chunk of starters back, they have to put up with another coaching transition, and their road schedule is quite daunting.
Can Paul Johnson continue to succeed at Georgia Tech? Last year, the buzz was that Johnson's option offense wouldn't work at a BCS school. Now that it has, folks are centering their criticisms around the idea that opponents have a season's worth of film with which to better prepare for this attack.
While Johnson has 18 starters at his disposal this fall, there may be something to the idea that ACC schools will better defend his offense with a year of experience trying. After all, the Yellow Jackets were held to a scant 164 yards rushing -- over 100 below the season average -- in their 38-3 Chick-Fil-A Bowl loss to LSU.
Jonathan Dwyer was five yards short of 1,400 last year, and he's back to lead the offense. They'll unquestionably need more out of junior quarterback Josh Nesbitt. No, Johnson doesn't like to throw much, but he has to have his quarterback hitting more than 44 percent of his throws for the offense to be effective on a consistent basis.
Georgia Tech should be good enough to make a bowl game again this season, but it likely won't be anything like the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. To repeat that nine-win season, Tech needs more out of a defense that was pretty effective a year ago, and wasn't really to blame for the bowl debacling.
Best of the rest
Dabo Swinney gets his shot as the full-time coach at Clemson this fall. Swinney went 4-3 after Tommy Bowden was (finally) fired. It's up to sophomore Willy Korn (likely starter) to keep the offense going after the graduation of Cullen Harper. ... Last year, Wake Forest struggled more than expected on offense. This year, the Demon Deacons better score some points, because defensive stars Aaron Curry, Stanley Arnoux, Alphonso Smith, Chip Vaughn, and Kevin Patterson are all gone. ... Thanks to senior quarterback Chris Turner and exciting junior running back Da'Rel Scott (pictured), Maryland should field a much-improved offense in 2009. If linebacker Alex Wujciak can help the defense be at all consistent, the Terrapins could surprise. ... Virginia Tech has no more excuses. They have to start Tyrod Taylor, and they have to stick with him. Now, can Taylor reward coach Frank Beamer by finally becoming a more consistent passer? The Hokies might be able to win the Coastal, but they aren't a player nationally until Taylor can make more plays with his arm. With a load of experienced skill-position players, this shouldn't be too much to ask. ... Don't sleep on Miami this year. The Hurricanes solved their quarterback controversy by decisively picking Jacory Harris over the now-transferred Robert Marve. Randy Shannon could have his best defense yet in his third year as head coach, thanks to returnees like linebacker Sean Spence and tackle Marcus Forston, both top freshmen in the ACC last year. ... Despite the loss of star receiver Hakeem Nicks, North Carolina has reason for hope. One-half of last year's quarterback, Cameron Sexton, has transferred, leaving the job for T.J. Yates. If Greg Little, who caught only 11 passes last year, can emerge as a top target, the Tar Heels may improve off their eight wins of a year ago. ... While David Cutcliffe instilled a sense of pride and got the team to play a lot better in conference play, Duke won just four games a year ago. A measurably tougher schedule -- roadies to Army and Kansas in non-conference play -- could keep the Blue Devils from contending for a bowl game, despite the presence of quarterback Thaddeus Lewis and running back Re'Quan Boyette. ... Virginia lost their last four games in 2008, going from 5-3 to a bowl-less season. For that to change, the Cavaliers have to find a way to run the football. Virginia averaged under 100 yards on the ground per game, and leading rusher Cedric Pearman has departed.
ACC Preseason Honors and Notables
Offensive Player of the Year: Russell Wilson, QB, North Carolina State
Defensive Player of the Year: Morgan Burnett, S, Georgia Tech
Coach of the Year: Tom O'Brien, North Carolina State
Coach on the Hot Seat: Al Groh, Virginia
Best non-conference game: Alabama vs. Virginia Tech (at Atlanta), September 5
Worst non-conference game: Coastal Carolina at Clemson, October 31