Feldman: Virginia Tech Hokies. Their non-conference schedule is rough with a game at Ohio State followed by a visit from a very potent East Carolina squad. However, the ACC part of the schedule shapes up pretty favorably — no FSU or Clemson, but they do get Wake Forest and BC from the Atlantic Division and Miami has to come to Blacksburg. The D, under the outstanding Bud Foster, again should be the headliner, led by stud DT Luther Maddy and play-making CB Kendall Fuller. There’s also plenty of experience at the skill positions to help ease Michael Brewer’s transition, which should be good enough in the much easier of the two ACC divisions.
Mandel: Pittsburgh Panthers. The staff feels good about sophomore QB Chad Voytik, who will throw to one of the nation’s top receivers in sophomore Tyler Boyd (1,174 yards as a freshman). Meanwhile, 6-foot-2, 250-pound sophomore James Conner is a workhorse running back who will also play some defensive end.
Feldman: North Carolina Tar Heels. I was surprised to see the Tar Heels ranked in the preseason Top 25. I think Larry Fedora will have a solid team, but not one that will be that good. UNC does have some dynamic young skill guys but expect no better than a 3-3 start with three tricky road games (at ECU, at Clemson and at ND) and a visit from a tough VT squad. The schedule softens in the second half, but I’m skeptical they’ll be good enough in the trenches on either side of the ball to be better than 7-5.
Mandel: Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. The Jackets have never finished lower than third in their division under seventh-year coach Paul Johnson but the program is littered with questions, most notably on both lines of scrimmage. And sophomore QB Justin Thomas was pressed into duty after Vad Lee inexplicably transferred.
Feldman: Jacoby Brissett, QB, NC State. If the Florida transfer was eligible last year, a team that went 3-9 might’ve made a bowl game. Coaches were so impressed by the 6-4, 230-pound former prep basketball star’s pocket presence and his accuracy. Brissett doesn’t have a cannon for an arm, but he’s very bright and his feel for the offense should do wonders for a team that ranked No. 100 in the nation in yards per play at just 5.12 and was No. 93 in QB ratings.
Mandel: Will Gardner, QB, Louisville. Teddy Bridgewater’s successor is bound to put up big numbers if for no other reason than he’s now playing for Bobby Petrino, who, for all his considerable faults, remains a renowned offensive coach and QB guru. He also has the good fortune of throwing to weapons DeVante Parker and James Quick.
Feldman: Chad Thomas, DE, Miami. The former five-star is up to 260 pounds after arriving last winter at 6-5, 240. He is a slick pass-rusher with a good first step and has a knack for making plays in the opposing backfield. Thomas figures to be a big help for what has been an underwhelming D-line and a defense that was ranked just No. 90 last season in total defense.
Mandel: Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina. Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora has heaped praise on his five-star recruit throughout the preseason, marveling at how quickly he’s picked up the offense and not bothering to temper expectations. He’s versatile enough to play a factor in all facets of UNC’s attack right from Week 1.
HOT SEAT COACH
Feldman: Mike London, Virginia. On paper, he’s recruited pretty well, especially last season pulling in a couple of blue-chippers. But in ACC play his team is just 2-14. They also got thumped at home last season by Ball State from the MAC. Overall, he’s 6-18 the past two seasons. Starting the season with No. 7 UCLA could get ugly fast. Also in the non-conference schedule is a visit to a good BYU team, and beyond that are road trips to FSU and Virginia Tech. At least they miss Clemson. Then again, they also miss Wake Forest, who should be the worst team in the league this fall.
Mandel: London. He gave a little tease when the Cavs went 8-5 in his second season, but since then it’s been a woeful 6-18 overall and 2-14 in conference. However, London’s recruited well recently. He’ll need those young players to help produce a significant turnaround or this will be his last year.
1) Miami QBs: The Canes may have the fastest receiving corps in the conference, and in RB Duke Johnson they have a spectacular talent, but the quarterback play at UM has been spotty for a long time. Expected starter Ryan Williams is still working back from a torn ACL and the Canes had misfired on a bunch of their past QB recruits. They rolled the dice bringing in transfer Jake Heaps, who had starting stints at BYU and Kansas. He’s smart and a better passer than most give him credit for, and freshman Brad Kaaya is a big, strong, very poised kid whose future looks bright. One of these two needs to step up fast or else Al Golden may end up on the hot seat very soon.
2) Clemson O-line: The Tigers already had to replace All-ACC tackle Brandon Thomas and then lost OT Shaq Anthony plus OG Tyler Shatney, so the group has limited depth as OC Chad Morris breaks in new starter Cole Stoudt.
3) Duke Linebackers: A D that was only 12th in the ACC in total defense lost the heart of the unit when MLB Kelby Brown suffered a torn ACL a few days ago and is done for the year. He made 114 tackles last season. That puts even more pressure on David Helton, who’ll have to become the Duke leader at linebacker although redshirt senior C.J. France did start for much of 2012. Converted safety Chris Holmes, a redshirt freshman, also will be counted on to become more of a factor.
1) North Carolina at Clemson, Sept. 27: All eyes will be on the Tigers’ road trips to Georgia and FSU in the first couple of weeks, but this one comes the week after the game against the Seminoles. If the Tigers don’t get refocused or they come home too banged up, they could be looking at a 1-3 start.
2) Miami at Louisville, Sept. 1: Bobby Petrino’s first game back is against the Miami team that the Cardinals whupped in the Russell Athletic Bowl, 36-9. The Canes hobbled down the stretch, dropping four of their final six games in 2013, and lost those four by an average of 22 ppg. Another loss to U of L, especially since this will be on a Monday Night national TV stage, would put Golden squarely on the hot seat.
3) East Carolina at Va. Tech, Sept. 13: This is the Hokies’ follow-up game after the trip to Ohio State, and if Foster’s D can’t handle the talented Shane Carden and Lincoln Riley’s dangerous offense the Hokies could be staring at a 1-2. Last season, Tech handled ECU 15-10 and picked off Carden three times and notched seven sacks. After that game, though, Carden led the Pirates to wins over ACC opponents UNC and NC State as they scored 97 points.
MORE ACC INTEL
* Va. Tech’s receiving corps has been pretty unspectacular the past few years, but that may be about to change. True freshman Isaiah Ford — a 6-2, 175-pounder who may also play hoops for the Hokies — has turned heads in camp with both his smarts and his playmaking ability.
* Clemson lost home-run hitter Sammy Watkins, but the Tigers still have a pretty good way of stretching defenses. That’s because rangy Charone Peake — a 6-3, 210-pounder coming off a knee injury — has regained all of his burst and clocked a 4.31 40, according to Dabo Swinney.
* Pitt freshman DB Avonte Maddox has caught the eye of teammates who like his strength, athleticism and grit, which should translate into some needed depth at cornerback.
* According to one ACC coach, FSU is so stocked with talent across its depth chart that he believes about half the league’s teams do not have one player who would start for Florida State this year based on what he’s seen on film.
* Rookie RB Joseph Yearby gives Miami some intriguing options, especially as a one-two punch with Duke Johnson, who is also a terrific receiver out of the backfield. UM will try to use both tailbacks on the field at the same time, putting one of the two at receiver in hopes of exploiting mismatches.