ACC Atlantic Division Preview: B.C., Maryland, Wake Forest
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 here Part 2.
The likely bottom finishers, though, do have some potential to bounce back from bad seasons a year ago. But all three have a long way to go.
7. Boston College
Why They’re Here: The Eagles won two games last year. One of them was against Maine. The other was against an injury-riddled Maryland team, and even that win came by just three points. But they were at least competitive as last season wound down, losing just 21-6 to Notre Dame and in overtime to Virginia Tech. First-year head coach Steve Addazio has a pretty solid group of starters, but there’s absolutely no room for injury behind them and a lot of the returners were responsible for last year, so there’s that.
Non-Conference Narrative Game: Villanova, Week 1. The Wildcats are an FCS program, but a pretty good one (they won the national title in 2009). But they haven’t beaten an FBS program since 2009, either. Addazio knows Villanova pretty well; his Temple teams played the Wildcats the past few years. But B.C. really needs to win this one as convincingly as possible; a near-loss or even a straight-up loss is a bad look for the ACC. Not to mention a huge blow to the confidence of a BC team that could desperately use some.
Biggest Problem: The offensive line. The most positive thing that can be said about that unit is that it can’t possibly be worse this year. Addazio wants to have a run-first offense, but that will be tough as the Eagles were 115th a year ago in rushing offense (90.9 yards per game). Arguably the best tailback Rolandan Finch left the team suddenly during spring practice. Andre Williams had a good year last year before getting hurt (584 yards), but there’s not much depth behind him. But perhaps the bigger concern is that the line allowed quarterback Chase Rettig to get sacked 36 times last year, including 22 in the final five games. If the Eagles can’t run the ball and defenses can tee off on Rettig, it will be … well, it will be last year.
The Season Rides On: How much the defense can improve. Boston College had SIX SACKS all of last year. Total. That’s it. To put that in perspective, Rettig was once sacked seven times in ONE GAME. So, yeah. But the Eagles do have some experience returning with 10 starters, and while they weren’t the worst defense in the league last year, they weren’t too far away. The young guys in the secondary in particular are going to have to grow up in a hurry; B.C. is not going to have the firepower to stay in a lot of shootouts and the defense is going to need to do their part.
Random Numbers: Rettig is now being coached by a fifth different offensive coordinator (Ryan Day) this year. … In a weird scheduling quirk, Boston College plays five of its final seven games on the road, including three of its final four.
Why They’re Here: The Terrapins have a lot of nice pieces, and it was tempting to slot them at fifth instead of sixth. And honestly, had Maryland won maybe 1-2 more games a year ago, head coach Randy Edsall might have won ACC Coach of the Year, considering all of the injuries. Maryland lost four quarterbacks last year to season-ending injuries (two in one game!) and was forced to start a true freshman linebacker (Shawn Petty) at QB for the final four games of the year. Maryland was still frisky, though, and there’s talent on both sides of the ball when said talent is, you know, not out for the season with some sort of injury. A healthy offense should be able to help what is likely to be a very good defense.
Non-Conference Narrative Game: West Virginia (Sept. 21). That game is in Baltimore at M&T Bank Stadium. Last year, Maryland lost 31-21 in a surprisingly tight game. This year’s team should be better, and the Terps should be going into that game 2-0. All the Terps need to do is at least keep it close like they did a year ago, but if they get blown out, it’s bad news for both Maryland and for the ACC.
Biggest Problem: The schedule. None of Maryland’s non-conference opponents are pushovers (though Florida International is coming off a bad year and Old Dominion is an FCS school). But the other games are at UConn and the aforementioned West Virginia game. Not to mention Division games against Florida State and Clemson and a crossover game at Virginia Tech (and two of those three are on the road). Yikes. If Maryland can gain some confidence by blowing out FIU and ODU in the first two weeks of the season, though, it should pay off as the season progresses. And if they start 3-0 with a win at UConn, then they’re in pretty good shape to make a bowl game. Those are big ‘ifs’ for a young team, though.
The Season Rides On: Health. I mean, it got ridiculous last year. By the final week of the season, Maryland had lost four quarterbacks, its leading rusher, its leading tackler and its second-leading receiver to season-ending injuries. But other than that, it’s going to be how much this defense continues to improve under defensive coordinator Brian Stewart in his second year. If his first year was any indication, things will be just fine. Maryland did lose six starters from that defense though, and two of those (defensive tackle Joe Vellano and end A.J. Francis) were team leaders. But one good thing about all the injuries is a lot of young players (including 15 true freshmen) saw the field last year, so that should pay off this year.
Random Numbers: Maryland failed to score 20 points seven times last year. The Terrapins did put up a season-high 38 points in the regular-season finale against North Carolina, which were more than their previous three game’s totals combined (37). … Expected starting quarterback C.J. Brown was Maryland’s first season-ending injury (out of 10 total) last year, going down with a torn ACL in August. Assuming he starts on Aug. 31, it will have been 644 days since he last played in a college football game.
5. Wake Forest
Why They’re Here: A little over halfway through last season, the Deacs were 4-3 with five games left, needing just two more wins to reach a bowl. Welp. And the biggest issue was that Wake Forest was absolutely crushed in all four of those losses by a combined score of 172-40. Other than maybe Maryland, Wake didn’t really lose to anyone it shouldn’t have last year. But with the exception of a home win against North Carolina, it didn’t beat anyone it shouldn’t have either. And in fact, top-tier teams simply crushed the Deacs. That’s certainly not the mark of a Jim Grobe team that has made its name on upsets. Grobe and Wake are here instead of sixth because of his track record (and the potential of some of the players on this roster), but the fact that the Deacs weren’t competitive at all in a lot of games last year is a huge concern.
Non-Conference Narrative Game: Louisiana-Monroe in Week 3. The Deacs host last year’s favorite FCS team, the Warhawks! Not only do they have a great mascot, but they also knocked off Arkansas last year in one of three games against FBS opponents. They followed that up by losing by a combined eight points to Auburn and Baylor. They’re going to be playing three FBS opponents yet again this year, and the other two are Oklahoma (who they open the season with) and Baylor again (after the Wake game). So they certainly won’t be intimidated. And somehow, I don’t think the ACC would get a pass for dropping a game like that one at home, even considering what ULM did a year ago. Just saying.
Biggest Problem: The offense doesn’t scare you. Head coach Jim Grobe used to do misdirection and trick plays as well as anyone. But those become a bit more difficult if you can’t get a running game going. And quarterback Tanner Price, behind a shaky offensive line and with no run support, averaged a paltry 5.6 yards per pass attempt last year. But he’s a senior, and he has a great weapon in wide receiver Michael Campanaro. If the offensive line can get better and a running back can step up, the Wake offense suddenly becomes dangerous again. Grobe has expressed a desire to get back to his roots of misdirection and even throwing in some option elements as well. The Wake Forest offense is definitely going to need to shake things up to get it going again, and few are as good at finding ways to disguise potential weaknesses as Grobe.
The Season Rides On: The experience returning on this defense (eight starters) amounting to something meaningful. The Deacons will be solid up front, but the secondary was a disaster last year and will have to improve in a hurry. The Deacs were +8 in turnover margin last year, which is pretty solid, but they never really made opponents pay for those miscues like Wake Forest teams of old could. And most of that +8 came in just two games (+3 in a win at Virginia and +3 in a win over BC). None of the turnovers forced matter if the defense is surrendering 7.8 yards per pass attempt (second-worst in the league), though.
Random Numbers: In the Jim Grobe era, Wake Forest is 31-10 against in-state teams (15-5 against ACC in-state teams), but in the last three seasons, that mark against in-state ACC teams slips to just 4-4 (including just 1-2 last year). … Wake Forest has had some success against division rival Florida State, winning two of the last five meetings (the last win coming in 2010). But in Wake’s last two trips to Tallahassee, they were beaten by a combined score of 90-0. Good thing this year’s meeting is in Winston-Salem.