ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Florida State
2. North Carolina State
5. Boston College
6. Wake Forest
1. Virginia Tech
2. Georgia Tech
6. North Carolina
Top storylines to watch in the ACC
Upheaval in Chapel Hill. Just last week, North Carolina fired coach Butch Davis amid NCAA scandal that could impact this program for years to come. After a season in which 13 players and eight possible starters were suspended for NCAA violations, UNC fans were probably looking forward to a look at what their team could do with a full deck. Instead, Davis is gone, we don't know yet how the roster will be impacted, and fall camp is set to start. It's likely too much for even a potentially great team to overcome, and I didn't see UNC as anything more than a potential mid-major bowl team this year (similar to their 8-5 record last year with a Music City Bowl trip). UNC returns 13 starters, including star defensive end Quinton Coples, and sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner is a promising talent. We'll see if it's enough to override everything going on off the field.
The Wilson Theory? ESPN columnist Bill Simmons popularized the Ewing Theory, attaching it to teams that lost star players and ended up improving overall because other players saw the opportunity to step up into a bigger role. NC State relied heavily on the talents of quarterback Russell Wilson the last three years, riding his arm and athleticism to two bowl bids and 20 wins, including a 9-4 record last year. The Wolfpack lost Wilson, presumably to baseball, but he has now quit baseball and transferred to Wisconsin to play his senior season (he can do this because he earned an undergraduate degree at NC State). While Wilson tries to lead Wisconsin to the Big Ten title, Mike Glennon takes over in Raleigh. Glennon was a top-five prospect in high school, but he has just 326 passing yards in two years with the 'Pack. It's his team now. He's more of a pocket passer -- in the mold of NC State's all-time passing leader, some guy named Philip Rivers -- so he won't play the same as Wilson. But with the distractions of Wilson's budding baseball career no longer Tom O'Brien's problem, Glennon has the chance to be a big-time leader for NC State. With eight starters back on defense, Glennon could be a huge factor if he stays healthy, because that defense should keep the Wolfpack in plenty of games.
Nine wins = new coach. After one of his finer coaching jobs, Maryland pushed Ralph Friedgen out the door after ten years at the helm. Friedgen took the Terrapins to the ACC title early in his tenure, but struggled in recent years before leading Maryland to nine wins last season. Former Connecticut coach Randy Edsall was the choice to replace him. He inherits a strong team with 14 returning starters. Two big players to watch are sophomore quarterback Danny O'Brien, who had 22 touchdown passes as a freshman, and senior running back Davin Meggett, who split time at the position last year with Da'Rel Scott, but was Maryland's most consistent runner. Outside linebacker Kenny Tate's range and athleticism keys the Terps' 3-4 defense. If Edsall can lead a smooth transition, Maryland could be a team to watch in an Atlantic Division that doesn't feature any clear favorites outside of Florida State, which has to replace its starting quarterback.
Logan Thomas = Cam Newton? With 26 passes on his college resume, you sure can't argue that presumed Virginia Tech starter Logan Thomas is anything like 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton of Auburn. But that hasn't stopped some in the hype machine from cranking up the comparisons, largely because Thomas' physical stature is very similar to Newton's. Their games are not that similar, with Thomas more of a pocket passer as opposed to Newton's athletic freakishness. The sophomore takes over at Tech after Tyrod Taylor graduated, and the hope is that he can become the strong passer Taylor never really did until his senior season. Leading rusher Darren Evans is also gone, but the Hokies return almost the whole starting offensive line, and the defense should be strong as always.
The rest of the storyYes, Florida State loses Christian Ponder. But I like this team a lot. They'll run the ball better, thanks to a crop of great young talents and junior Chris Thompson. Leading receivers Bert Reed and Willie Haulstead return, too, so new starting quarterback E.J. Manuel has plenty of targets. ... If Clemson can fill in pieces on the defense, where stars DeAndre McDaniel and Da'Quan Bowers depart, they could be dangerous. Kyle Parker never reached his potential at quarterback, and his departure to play baseball won't be that tough to deal with. Look for sophomore Tajh Boyd to play well. ... No one in the ACC stands to improve as much at quarterback as Boston College, where sophomore Chase Rettig had his ups and downs as a true freshman. As he continues to gain experience, I expect senior Montel Harris to keep carrying the offense. ... I think Wake Forest will be better, but they could still be the worst team in the ACC. Jim Grobe gets the most he can out of this talent, but the Demon Deacons simply don't have a lot of talent. A pair of sophomores in the backfield -- quarterback Tanner Price and running back Josh Harris -- are the keys to Wake's future. ... Despite losing option triggerman Joshua Nesbitt, Georgia Tech could be a surprise team. They execute their offense well, and while Tevin Washington was ineffective last year when Nesbitt got hurt, I think he'll show great improvement running the offense after a full offseason. If Paul Johnson has a quarterback, his team will improve off 6-7 last year. ... Al Golden takes over at Miami, and the transition shouldn't take long. The cupboard isn't bare here, and if Golden can straighten out quarterback Jacory Harris' fundamentals, the Hurricanes should improve. It helps that non-conference opponents Ohio State and Kansas State both visit South Beach. ... They were 3-9 last season, but Duke keeps getting better under David Cutcliffe. Now, they have to build their defense to take the next step. The Blue Devils allowed 35 or more points in five games, going 1-4 in those contests. Cutcliffe is now seeing his own recruits at most every position, and the team keeps getting bigger, faster, and stronger. Quarterback Sean Renfree -- only a junior -- could be a star once he takes better care of the football. ... Mike London did a great job in his first year at Virginia, getting four wins out of a team that probably wasn't that good. A defense that allowed nearly 30 points per game returns ten starters, so it's obvious that the Cavaliers will go as far as that unit takes them. London is recruiting well, so it's just a matter of time before a three-year bowl drought ends.