ACC Atlantic Preview: FSU, Syracuse, NC State, Clemson

Can anybody in the Atlantic Division catch Florida State and Clemson? Lauren Brownlow doesn't think so.

ACC football. Where anything can happen. Except in the Atlantic Division, which seems pretty straightforward. Famous last words, of course. The more muddled Coastal Division was previewed here, in Part 1 and Part 2

After previewing the projected bottom finishers in the Atlantic Division, we move on to the top dogs, which includes the conference's top two teams last season:

4. Syracuse
2012 Record: 8-5, 5-2 Big East

Why They’re Here: Syracuse lost some key personnel -- oh, and its head coach, Doug Marrone -- after tying its best win total in the past decade last season. The Orange were able to overcome a shaky 2012 start by ending the year with wins over Louisville, Missouri, Temple and West Virginia. Yeah, that’s pretty good. And even though Marrone has gone to Buffalo, Syracuse hired defensive coordinator Scott Shafer to replace him to give the team some sort of continuity on staff. That, combined with some of the key pieces Syracuse returns this season and a solid winning foundation built a year ago, should mean some semblance of continued success. 

Non-Conference Narrative Game: In its own version of the ACC-Big 10 Challenge, Syracuse will play Penn State and Northwestern in the first two weeks of the season. Syracuse went 0-for-Big-10 a year ago (losing to Northwestern and Minnesota). It definitely won’t be a good look for the league if the Orange don’t perform well in both games. It would be nice to win one of them, of course, but this inexperienced Syracuse team might have a hard time with that this early in the year. Still, they need to avoid embarrassment. 

Biggest Problem: An unsettled quarterback situation. Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen will likely be the guy, and that’s probably a good thing since neither Charley Loeb nor Terrel Hunt emerged in the spring. Allen, though, didn’t arrive on campus until the end of June. The former Texas high school standout is talented, but getting to know his new teammates and the up-tempo offense in just a few months seems like a tall order. 

At least Syracuse has its top two rushers back in Jerome Smith (1,171 yards) and Prince-Tyson Gulley (825), which should ease the transition for whoever the starter is. The offensive line lost tackle Justin Pugh to the NFL Draft but returns three starters. As long as Still Unnamed QB runs the offense without turning it over, Syracuse should be fine. Even that is an ‘if’ at this point, though. 

The Season Rides On: How well the inexperienced defense can perform. Syracuse has a pretty good starting lineup, but not a ton of depth. But they have some key guys back at some key positions. All in all, their defense stacks up pretty well with most defenses is the league, which have been mediocre to bad. It doesn’t hurt that their new head coach was their coordinator a year ago, so there won’t be many changes philosophically. Still, the secondary in particular remains a question mark (that group allowed 234 passing yards per game last year) and the defensive line is missing plenty of key pieces as well. 

If Syracuse’s offense gets clicking, it could potentially outscore some ACC foes -- but not until the Orange open their first-ever ACC slate with Clemson, N.C. State and Georgia Tech. The defense will need to find a way to get, you know, a few stops. 

Random Numbers: Syracuse is now the winningest program in the ACC (699 wins). ... In Syracuse’s two winning seasons in the last decade (2010 and 2012), the Orange were 8-4 on the road. In the other eight seasons combined, Syracuse won seven road games (and lost 32). That might be a bad omen for another winning season, considering Syracuse visits Northwestern, N.C. State, Georgia Tech, Maryland and Florida State. 

3. N.C. State
2012 Record: 7-6, 4-4 ACC

Why They’re Here: Frankly, by default. And scheduling. N.C. State arguably has just two games on its schedule that it shouldn’t win (Clemson, Florida State). Even those games are the type that the Wolfpack -- under former head coach Tom O’Brien -- might have won. But O’Brien is gone, and this is former Northern Illinois head coach Dave Doeren’s team now. He wants to institute a more up-tempo, no-huddle offense that should get the fans excited. So even though the Wolfpack lost 20 lettermen (and 12 starters) from a year ago, they should be able to find a way to reach a bowl game fairly comfortably this year. 

Non-Conference Narrative Game: Week 1, Louisiana Tech. The frisky Bulldogs beat two BCS programs on the road (a 52-24 win at Illinois and a 44-38 win at Virginia) a year ago, not to mention losing a 59-57 shootout to Johnny Football and Texas A&M. This isn’t the same team as last year with just seven returning starters, but it’s still a name people remember and a nice potential win for the Wolfpack in Doeren’s debut. Also, not a good loss. 

(Honorable mention: East Carolina on November 23. Fans of the ACC's North Carolina schools continue to claim playing the Pirates is a lose-lose situation: win, and you’re supposed to, so who cares? Lose, and it’s embarrassing. Obviously, it’s not that simple, but it could potentially be a tricky game for the Wolfpack.)

Biggest Problem: A lot of question marks on offense, particularly at quarterback. It is early in Doeren’s tenure, but if the spring game was any indication ... yikes. Manny Stocker and Pete Thomas were battling (using that word loosely) for the starting quarterback spot and while each had some nice moments, the offense looked pretty bad. Recently-added Arkansas transfer Brandon Mitchell might be the guy if neither Stocker nor Thomas can step up, but it will take fall camp to sort all that out. 

N.C. State is replacing most of its starting offensive linemen, but all four wide receivers on the two-deep have experience and are good players, as is tight end Asa Watson. (Of course, someone has to throw it to them.) N.C. State returns its top two rushers, and Doeren’s teams at NIU built their identity on running the ball. But if line play is bad and quarterback play is shaky, the Wolfpack might lose even some of the games they are supposed to win. 

The Season Rides On: The defense making the leap it is poised to make. One of the go-to phrases in coachspeak after a spring game or scrimmage when the offense looks horrendous is: “The defense is ahead of the offense." Well, that’s certainly true of N.C. State, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Wolfpack return just four defensive starters, but plenty of others like safety Jarvis Byrd and cornerback Justin Burris have experience. The other corner, Dontae Johnson, is a returning starter, and he quietly had a great season last year. Defensive tackle T.Y. McGill is a potential game-changer and there are some solid players at defensive end. N.C. State lost three starting linebackers, but sophomore M.J. Salahuddin emerged in the spring as a possible breakout star. So this defense will be fine -- that is, if it is not on the field for the entire game. 

Random Numbers: At 41, Dave Doeren is the youngest head coach in the ACC (and 23 years younger than his predecessor). ... N.C. State was 99th in the country in turnover margin last year, forcing 24 turnovers but committing 33. Only four FBS teams committed more last year. 

2. Florida State
2012 record: 12-2, 7-1 ACC

Why They’re Here: This division is going to come down to Florida State and Clemson. Last year, the Seminoles got the best of the Tigers in a close one, and this year, it seems like it’s Clemson’s time. (It doesn’t hurt that the game is at Clemson this year, either.) But certainly if these two teams were in different divisions, they’d each be picked to meet in the ACC title game. Unfortunately for the league and these two teams, they’re not. While Florida State will look a lot different after 11 players from last year’s team were picked in the NFL Draft, but the Seminoles have plenty of talent waiting in the wings, including intriguing dual-threat quarterback Jameis Winston. 

Non-Conference Narrative Game: The Seminoles really don’t play a great non-conference game until the season finale against SEC rival Florida. And FSU’s loss to Florida's BCS-bound team last year was supposedly just more proof that both the ACC and the Seminoles were not “back”. Circle this one on the calendar.

Biggest Problem: Jameis Winston and the QBs. Sounds like a band name, no? Not that the redshirt freshman is really a problem, yet. (Although he might be for opponents.) If he ends up being as great as advertised, Florida State fans will tell their children the story of his collegiate debut in April. He threw a 58-yard touchdown pass ON HIS FIRST PLAY. His spring game performance was so good that expected starter Clint Trickett transferred four days later. After the spring game, Winston headed over to the diamond to suit up for the FSU baseball team. THE SAME DAY. (He got a hit, by the way.) 

Winston was the No. 1 QB prospect in his class, and his 12-of-15, 205-yard performance in April got the Seminole faithful excited. With good reason. He’ll have some elite wideouts and running backs to help make his transition easier. But he still has yet to take a collegiate snap. If he struggles early on, FSU doesn’t have too many great options behind him. 

The Season Rides On: The defense under new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The man behind last year’s fantastic FSU defense, Mark Stoops, is now the head coach at Kentucky. Pruitt was Alabama’s defensive backs coach for three years, so he has some idea of what good defenses look like at the very least. And like FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher, Pruitt is a Saban guy. The FSU defense did lose a lot -- eight starters, and its entire defensive line from last year (to the draft) -- but they have athletes stacked on athletes waiting in the wings. FSU’s defense allowed just 14.7 points per game last year and was top-10 nationally in nearly every category. That won’t likely be repeated. If the offense is as good as advertised, the defense could take a slight dip and it won’t matter much. But against this backloaded schedule, the defense had better be good (and healthy) as the year winds down. 

Random Numbers: Florida State had a great offense last year. And EJ Manuel only threw ten interceptions (to 23 touchdowns). But the Seminoles were near the bottom of the nation in turnover margin, gaining 21 and losing 27 (-6). Only two other teams in the ACC last year committed more turnovers than that. A ridiculous 17 of those were lost fumbles, some of which is just bad luck ... which might explain why Maryland led the league in that category with 18. 

1. Clemson
2012 Record: 11-2, 7-1 ACC

Why They’re Here: Quarterback Tajh Boyd, in a somewhat surprising decision, decided to come back to school. And that basically solidified that Clemson’s offense should be just as explosive as it was last year. While college football fans nationwide kept waiting for the Tigers to “Clemson” last year (it’s a verb, look it up), it didn’t happen. Yeah, Clemson lost 27-17 to South Carolina. The Gamecocks happened to be pretty good last year, so that doesn’t really fit the definition. All season long, Clemson responded to adversity within games by bowing up and getting tougher rather than folding (which is sort of what Clemsoning used to mean). And with 12 returning starters (and 55 lettermen overall), the Tigers should be that tough-minded team this year, too. 

Non-Conference Narrative Game: Georgia, Week 1. A national audience will watch the Bulldogs travel to Death Valley in primetime on the first Saturday night of the college football season. SEC vs. ACC, storied program vs. storied program and each with something to prove. (Try not to get excited for college football season after reading THAT!) Clemson will likely be the favorite to win the ACC, and if they can’t take care of business at home against a very good SEC team (with one of the best home-field advantages in college football), then maybe it’s not the ACC’s year. Again. This is arguably the most important non-conference game the ACC will play.

Biggest Problem: The defense needs to make a huge jump. Like, now. This will be Brent Venables’ second year on the job, and he helped a dreadful Clemson defense looked better each week last season. After allowing Florida State, Georgia Tech and Boston College to put up 111 points in three games, the Tigers had just one more bad defensive performance all year (allowing N.C. State to score 48). Even in those four bad defensive games, Clemson won three because the offense put up 191 points. Clemson returns a lot up front, but the secondary is filled with youth and question marks. For a defensive unit that has been susceptible to big pass plays, that’s a concern. The Tigers aren’t going to sniff a national title if the defense doesn’t clamp down significantly. They can outscore ACC teams, but not big-time national opponents. 

The Season Rides On: Not losing a game it shouldn’t. That seems obvious, but it happens to the Tigers seemingly every year except last year. In 2011, Clemson went to N.C. State in November ranked No. 7 and were beaten soundly by a so-so squad. In 2010, after losing heartbreakers to (ranked) Auburn and Miami, they lost on the road to fairly mediocre North Carolina and Boston College teams. In 2009, Dabo Swinney’s first year, it was a similar pattern: two close losses to ranked teams (Georgia Tech, TCU), followed by a loss to a team it should beat (Maryland), with the losses always coming on the road. 

None of Clemson’s road games until South Carolina are particularly daunting. But that’s where the Tigers have been tripped up in the past. Just one silly loss to an N.C. State or a Syracuse, or even a Maryland or a Virginia, will derail any national title hopes Clemson might hold. 

Random Numbers: Clemson went 4-1 against ranked opponents in 2011, but in all other full seasons in the Swinney era combined, the Tigers are 3-9 against ranked foes (including 1-2 last season). ... Clemson is 26-5 at home under Swinney. He lost his first game as a head coach after taking over midseason in 2008 (to an unranked Georgia Tech team). Since then, Clemson has only lost four home games, all four to ranked opponents -- half of those losses coming against South Carolina. In the past two seasons, Clemson is 13-1 at home with the only loss coming to South Carolina.  

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