Atlantic Coast Conference
1. Florida State
3. Boston College
4. North Carolina State
6. Wake Forest
2. Virginia Tech
3. Georgia Tech
4. North Carolina
Stories to Watch in the ACC
The transition is complete. Well, sort of. Bobby Bowden is out -- whether he likes it or not -- at Florida State, and Jimbo Fisher has taken command. You knew this was coming, as Fisher had a sizable chunk of money due him if he wasn't head coach by 2011. The good thing about this is that there has been plenty of time for Fisher to get to know his players and involve himself in the recruiting. We don't have to overthink this. The Seminoles should be very good. The offense Fisher coached last year averaged 30 points for a second straight year, and he gets every key player back outside of leading receiver Rod Owens, who only scored three touchdowns. Christian Ponder is a legitimate Heisman contender, one who I expect will build off his 2009 season. If he can stay healthy (missed four games last year), he will easily throw over 20 touchdowns and may top 70 percent completions. They brought in a Stoops (Mark) to replace Mickey Andrews as defensive coordinator, so I'm not worried too much about that side of the ball. They allowed 30 points per game for the first time in forever last year, and that won't happen again.
The U is back. Some people are really bullish on these Hurricanes. I have a few concerns, mainly revolving around their awful schedule. Miami plays three hideously tough road games (Ohio State, Pittsburgh, and Clemson) in their first four games, and they also have to deal with Florida State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and South Florida all visiting Miami. Throw in a road date with Georgia Tech in November, and you have one of the toughest schedules anywhere. Of course, there's the football team itself, which will be the best Miami has fielded since Larry Coker coached Butch Davis' recruits to a national title. They got whipped around a bit by Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl, but they hope the addition of sophomore Marcus Forston to the defensive tackle rotation will give that unit a bit of punch they lacked a year ago. Meanwhile, Jacory Harris will grow more as a quarterback, you can count on a huge year from senior receiver Leonard Hankerson, and the Hurricanes will get better at blocking in front of Harris. If they survive the early gauntlet, Miami can win the ACC. They're that good.
Is North Carolina ready for prime time? Davis hopes so. The former Miami and NFL coach has engineered a turnaround with the Tar Heels, leading UNC to back-to-back 8-5 seasons and two bowl bids. Now, it's time for the next step. The Heels return 19 starters from last year, including every key skill position player, and their entire defensive back seven. There are a few things that stand out with this team, besides the large number of returnees. Former Minnesota defensive coordinator Everett Withers did a superb job with the Heels defense last year. UNC was stout against the run, with the high point being a great effort in a late-season blowout win at Boston College. The Heels allowed just 270 yards (96 on the ground) per game, and they gave up only 17 points per game. The other key is at wide receiver, where they recovered a bit from the loss of 2009 first-round pick Hakeem Nicks with improvement from Greg Little and Erik Highsmith. Both should have big years with quarterback Tyler Yates, who will need to fend off a camp challenge from Bryn Renner, a redshirt freshman.
How good is Russell Wilson going to be? After a great season for North Carolina State -- albeit in a 5-7 effort -- last year, Wilson had a super run with the Wolfpack baseball team. He was good enough to get selected in the first round of the baseball draft by the Colorado Rockies. He has signed a deal and will play baseball until fall camp, at which point he plans to rejoin the football team. So how good will he be? The junior threw for over 3,000 yards last year, with 31 touchdowns and only 11 picks. It certainly wasn't his fault that the 'Pack struggled to a losing record for a fourth straight year. He's one of the best quarterbacks -- if not the best -- in the ACC, but how much will his baseball aspirations hurt him? Wilson missed spring practice, and while his teammates are working out in preparation for fall camp, he's playing minor-league baseball. As long as he isn't rusty, guys like Owen Spencer, Jarvis Williams, and Darrell Davis will make sure Wilson has another superb season. The question is: Will NC State play enough defense to get Wilson to a bowl game before he pursues his baseball career?
Best of the Rest
Wilson isn't the only two-sport star prepared to lead his team to glory. Clemson sophomore Kyle Parker had a huge spring for the Tigers, who made the College World Series. Now, he's back with the football team in hopes of improving on their 9-5 record last year. Parker needs to be more accurate (55.6 percent completions as a freshman). ... There are some pieces in place for Boston College, who went 8-5 under Frank Spaziani after a tumultuous offseason. Now, with quarterback Dave Shinskie back, along with top running back Montel Harris, the Eagles will be better offensively. The defense has some holes, but they should be buoyed by the presence of senior linebacker Mark Herzlich, who missed last season while recovering from cancer. ... Veteran coach Ralph Friedgen could be on his last legs at Maryland, but he's going down swinging. The defense will improve, especially against the pass, but if quarterback Jamarr Robinson doesn't get the job done, none of that will matter. ... After seemingly lasting in college for a decade, quarterback Riley Skinner has departed from Wake Forest after leading the Demon Deacons to three bowl games and the 2006 ACC title. Expect Wake to revert to more of an option look with new starter Skylar Jones, though the Demon Deacons still have talented receivers available in Marshall Williams and Devon Brown. ... It's been almost a quarter century for Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech. If the Hokies win 13 games, they'll get him to 200 career wins. That's not likely, but you never know with the Hokies. Tech does have to rebuild a defense that lost seven starters, but they do get the services of linebacker Barquell Rivers. On offense, Tyrod Taylor gets one more shot at quarterback. The senior has leading rusher Ryan Williams back, and he was good enough to top 1,650 yards and score 21 times last year. ... Defending ACC champ Georgia Tech lost leading rusher Jonathan Dwyer and leading receiver Demaryius Thomas, but will forge ahead with the option offense of Paul Johnson. Quarterback Josh Nesbitt topped 1,000 yards rushing and accounted for 28 touchdowns (18 rushing). Anthony Allen should be the leading rusher in Johnson's attack. The defense will improve, but it has a lot to make up for thanks to heavy losses on offense. ... This could be the year David Cutcliffe leads Duke to its first bowl in 13 years. They lost star quarterback Thaddeus Lewis to graduation, but return some solid pieces on defense, top receivers Donovan Varner and Connor Vernon, and four starters on the offensive line. Now, Cutcliffe just has to find a way to get the Blue Devils better at running the ball, because without that, they won't go anywhere with their tough schedule (Alabama, Miami, Boston College, North Carolina at home; Virginia Tech, Navy, Georgia Tech on the road). ... Former Richmond coach Mike London takes over at Virginia, where the Cavaliers fell to 3-9 last year after being in the Gator Bowl only two years prior. A 3-3 start fell apart amid a six-game losing streak that cost Al Groh his gig. London has to rebuild, thanks to heavy skill position losses, and the defense is likely to struggle again. Unless London can work some magic, it's going to be a long 2010 in Charlottesville.
Preseason ACC Superlatives
Best QB: Christian Ponder, Florida State
Best RB: Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech
Best WR: Owen Spencer, North Carolina State
Best offense: Florida State
Best defense: North Carolina
Best coach: Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech
Coach in the most trouble: Ralph Friedgen, Maryland
Best non-conference game: Miami at Ohio State/Florida State at Oklahoma (tie), Sept. 11
Worst non-conference game: Presbyterian at Clemson, Sept. 11