Loaded Clemson could give ACC’s reputation a boost

The Atlantic Coast Conference got bigger. Now it’s time to find
out if it got better.

Syracuse and Pittsburgh are finally in after nearly two years of
Big East purgatory, bringing the ACC up to 14 teams and helping to
solidify its status as a power conference.

The league has plenty of things going for it. It’s wedded to the
Orange Bowl for at least 13 more years with an attractive lineup of
other bowls behind it. The new grant-of-rights agreement makes it
highly unlikely that anybody follows Maryland out the door.

But there’s still work to do as the ACC once again tries to make
itself nationally relevant on the field – and the league’s
preseason favorite, Clemson, has the best chance to raise the
profile of the conference.

The Tigers have the league’s most likely Heisman Trophy
contender in quarterback Tajh Boyd and a schedule bookended by
Southeastern Conference heavyweights Georgia and South
Carolina.

They made people take them seriously by beating LSU in the
Chick-fil-A Bowl last December, and how they deal with the
increased attention that came along with that victory could
determine whether they’re in contention for their second ACC title
in three years – if not a bigger prize.

”I told them last year (that) we didn’t handle success very
good” in 2011, coach Dabo Swinney said. ”We’re going to have
success again, and how we handle that is going to determine our
season. And they did a much better job last year.

”We have to focus on Clemson and our formula for success, our
preparation,” he added. ”That’s what matters.”

5 THINGS TO WATCH:

1. PUT UP OR SHUT UP. The ACC has plenty of early season chances
to raise its profile. In addition to that Clemson-Georgia game,
Virginia Tech-Alabama and Miami-Florida are among the high-profile
matchups that could either make people take notice of the
basketball-first league – or simply shrug their shoulders at
another missed opportunity. It went just 4-11 in 2012 against the
four other heavyweight leagues, and was winless in four final-week
matchups with the mighty Southeastern Conference.

2. CLEMSON’S CHANCE. The Tigers shape up as the ACC’s best shot
at a serious national title contender, with Boyd, the league’s
reigning player of the year throwing to 2011 breakout star Sammy
Watkins. But the last time Clemson was picked to win the ACC (2008)
the Tigers stumbled to a 3-4 start that led to a midseason coaching
change. In the ACC’s neverending fight against its public
perception, the league can ill afford a faceplant from its
preseason favorite. They host Florida State on Oct. 19 in a game
that likely will decide the Atlantic Division race.

3. DARK HORSES. The league’s parity – or is it mediocrity? –
usually means a team or two can come out of nowhere to challenge
for a division title. Duke was in the mix in the Coastal Division
last year, Virginia did it the year before, and it’s hard forget
Wake Forest’s surprise run to the title in 2006. This year it could
be North Carolina, which lost 10 players but has enough talent back
– led by QB Bryn Renner, TE Eric Ebron and DE Kareem Martin – to
make coach Larry Fedora’s second season an interesting one. Or
maybe there’s a surprise coming at Maryland, where all those
injuries in 2012 mean plenty of players got at least some game
experience and WR Stefon Diggs could be one of the league’s top
playmakers. And don’t look past coach Paul Johnson’s triple-option
at Georgia Tech, which returns virtually its entire offensive line.
Former backup QB Vad Lee showed promise last season, rushing for
nine TDs.

4. THE NEW GUYS. Unlike the ACC’s 2003 expansion, nobody’s
expecting much of a football upgrade from Syracuse and Pitt. Those
schools have combined for two 10-win seasons since 1992 and one
outright Big East title in the past 15 years (Syracuse, 1998).
Other new faces to keep an eye on: Boston College coach Steve
Addazio will try to turn around a program coming off its first
consecutive losing seasons since 1997-98, N.C. State coach Dave
Doeren arrives after leading Northern Illinois to back-to-back
Mid-American Conference titles and takes over for the fired Tom
O’Brien – who’s now on Virginia’s staff – and Duke safety Jeremy
Cash, an Ohio State transfer who will look to improve a defense
that allowed at least 41 points to six of its final seven
opponents.

5. COACHING RANKS: None of the ACC’s coaches appear to be in
serious danger of being fired – at least, not yet. Twelve of the 14
schools have changed coaches since 2007, and the other two –
Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer and Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe – are
institutions on their campuses. But that’s not to say they aren’t
feeling any pressure. A fifth straight losing season for Grobe
would make that 2006 Orange Bowl run feel like a lifetime ago, and
all eyes in Blacksburg are on Beamer’s overhauled offensive staff
after last year’s out-of-character 7-6 finish.

Predicted order of finish:

ATLANTIC DIVISION

1. Clemson

2. Florida State

3. N.C. State

4. Wake Forest

5. Maryland

6. Syracuse

7. Boston College

COASTAL DIVISION

1. Miami

2. Virginia Tech

3. North Carolina

4. Georgia Tech

5. Pitt

6. Virginia

7. Duke

Title game winner: Clemson

Online:

AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/

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