Preview: ACC is up for grabs
The Atlantic Coast Conference will once again struggle to produce a legit national title contender. Big whoop. The league wears its parity well and hasn’t been this healthy or deep in many years.
While the ACC doesn’t harbor an Alabama or Ohio State these days, it will boast as many as seven members with a legitimate shot of finishing the season in the Top 25. In place of a single powerhouse, it has a bunch of quality programs that produce tight games, cozy divisional races and plenty of NFL talent. While no one is confusing the ACC with the SEC, it’s working for the conference, especially now that one-time juggernauts Miami and Florida State are poised for mini-revivals.
If Georgia Tech is to get from defending champion to repeat champion in 2010, it’ll have plenty of heavy lifting to do. Paul Johnson’s program, while healthy, paid the price for success by losing four terrific all-stars to early entry in the NFL Draft. Plus, the Jackets reside in a rough neighborhood, a Coastal Division filled with quality teams. While the defense regroups, Virginia Tech will be led by a loaded offense featuring Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Williams and Darren Evans in the backfield. After three seasons and a lot of youthful mistakes, Randy Shannon has the maturing ‘Canes on the brink of something special, provided QB Jacory Harris cuts down on his mistakes. Carolina has the best starting defense in America. If the offense starts carrying its weight, look out. Duke and Virginia pull up the rear, with the Blue Devils inching closer to that elusive first postseason game since 1994.
Over in the Atlantic Division, the race will be equally competitive from wire-to-wire. Florida State, Clemson and Boston College are a virtual toss-up heading into summer. For the first time since 1975, Bobby Bowden won’t be on the sidelines for the ‘Noles. His coach-in-waiting tag finally removed, Jimbo Fisher takes over a team that’ll be dynamite on offense and in need of a turnaround on defense. The Tigers’ chances of winning back-to-back division crowns could depend on QB Kyle Parker, who recently signed as the first-round draft choice of the Colorado Rockies but hasn't given up football. The Eagles might be this year’s big surprise in the ACC. After surviving all kinds of off-field distractions in 2009, BC is on stable footing again, with LB Mark Herzlich poised to author the feel-good story of 2010. While Wake Forest and N.C. State will be seeking bowl eligibility, Maryland is just looking for silver linings after a dreadful 2-10 season.
A favorite? Take your pick from as many as a half-dozen viable contenders. In the ACC, you’re never too far from contention, one of the charming and entertaining characteristics of an underrated league that looks rejuvenated heading into 2010.
Team that'll surprise
Boston College: Last season was a mess. There was an awkward coaching change, the loss of defensive star Mark Herzlich to cancer and a 25-year old former major league baseball player behind center. Yet, despite all of the chaos, the Eagles still managed to win eight games. What is this ultra-consistent program capable of now that Frank Spaziani has settled in on the sidelines, Herzlich is eyeing a return and the quarterbacks have a much-needed year of seasoning? If Dave Shinskie or Mike Marscovetra can spark the passing game and a pass rush is located before the opener, there’s enough talent for Boston College to cop a third division title in the past four years and make a serious run at its first ACC championship.
Team that'll disappoint
North Carolina: The Tar Heels defense is phenomenal. The offense? Not so much, and therein lies the concern this year. Expectations are soaring in Chapel Hill, but they’ll go unmet if Carolina continues to sputter with the ball and struggle to keep drives alive. While the D is literally national championship caliber, at some point QB T.J. Yates and Co. will have to deliver late against quality opponents, or else Carolina might be stuck on eight wins. Oh, and he’ll be tested plenty of times by a rugged schedule that begins with LSU, Georgia Tech, Rutgers, East Carolina and Clemson.
Game of the year
North Carolina vs. LSU (Atlanta), Sept. 4: No, the opener won’t have any bearing on the ACC title chase, but it sure will matter to the league as a whole. For years, the conference has suffered from an inferiority complex in football, a situation exacerbated by the past two Chick-fil-A Kickoff games. The Tar Heels and their vaunted D get a national audience and a rare opportunity to carry the ACC banner at the expense of a power program from the SEC. This is the type of match-up that could provide a bump that resonates from Tobacco Road all the way down the Eastern Seaboard.
5 big-time players who deserve a bigger spotlight
1. DT Jarvis Jenkins, Jr., Clemson
2. CB Kendric Burney, Sr., North Carolina
3. WR/KR Torrey Smith, Jr., Maryland
4. TE George Bryan, Jr., N.C. State
5. WR Devon Brown, Jr., Wake Forest
Coach on the hot seat
Ralph Friedgen, Maryland: After suffering through a steady decline, the Terps located the bottom floor a year ago, yet Friedgen somehow survived. He won’t be so lucky in 2010 if Maryland can’t elevate well beyond last season’s miserable 2-10 mark. The program is in the midst of a nosedive, and the current collection of talent has way too many holes to expect an about-face. Not only has the coach gone 35-40 over the past six seasons, but his surly demeanor also has worn thin, creating an unmistakable smell of lame duck in the College Park air.
5 nonconference games the ACC had better take very, very seriously
1. N.C. State at UCF, Sept. 11
2. South Florida at Miami, Nov. 27
3. Middle Tennessee State at Georgia Tech, Oct. 16
4. William & Mary at North Carolina, Oct. 30
5. Richmond at Virginia, Sept. 4
Bold prediction: Senior Christian Ponder will contend for the Heisman Trophy while giving Florida State its best threat behind center since Chris Weinke graduated. Just as he was beginning to peak in 2009, he separated his shoulder in the ninth game and was lost for the year. However, he looked better than ever in the spring, arriving in fantastic shape and performing with the focus of a wannabe 2011 first-round draft choice. Not only does he have a great arm and outstanding feet, but he’ll also be surrounded by all of last year’s supporting staff, including his entire offensive line. In a salary-drive season, he’s poised to become one of the nation’s breakout stars of 2010.
5 best pro prospects
1. DE Allen Bailey, Sr., Miami
2. OT Anthony Castonzo, Sr., Boston College
3. DE Robert Quinn, Jr., North Carolina
4. DT Marvin Austin, Sr., North Carolina
5. QB Christian Ponder, Sr., Florida State
5 biggest shoes to fill
1. RBs Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper for C.J. Spiller, Clemson
2. DE Izaan Cross for Derrick Morgan, Georgia Tech
3. WR Stephen Hill for Demaryius Thomas, Georgia Tech
4. LB Jeron Gouveia-Winslow for Cody Grimm, Virginia Tech
5. OT Orlando Franklin for Jason Fox, Miami
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