The ACC might be one of the premier power conferences in NCAA basketball, but it’s football season now, and Orange Bowl partnership or not, ACC football has something to prove.
The conference is chock full of talent – it’s had more than 30 players drafted into the NFL every year for the past eight years – but its teams are just 2-13 all-time in BCS bowls, and there’s often a pretty substantial gap between the teams at the top of the conference and those at the bottom.
Virginia Tech and Florida State are perennial favorites to win the conference – though neither has cemented itself as a fixture at the top of the national lists – but the ACC is usually good for a few surprises at the season progresses.
The field might look very different by the time November rolls around, but before the season kicks off and the craziness begins, here’s how the ACC Atlantic division is shaping up:
Florida State - The Seminoles are the favorites to win the division, but that’s not unusual – it would be unusual for them to meet or exceed those expectations. They’ll have a good shot this year, with senior quarterback E.J. Manuel among 18 returning starters. The defense should be one of the best, not just in the ACC, but in the nation. The offensive line is still pretty new, and while that youth caused issues in 2011, the extra year of experience might be the missing piece that gets the ‘Noles to the conference championship game.
Clemson - The Tigers got off to a surprising 8-0 start in 2011 before stumbling down the stretch and winning the ACC title but they failed to show up for the Orange Bowl, where they were humiliated by West Virginia, 70-33. Coach Dabo Swinney wasted no time hiring Brent Venables away from Oklahoma to fix the defense. The offense, on the other hand, won’t need much tinkering. In the first year with Chad Morris as offensive coordinator, the team averaged 440.8 yards per game and scored 58 touchdowns. Clemson returns three All-ACC players on offense, although star sophomore Sammy Watkins will be suspended and will miss the big Chick-fil-A Kickoff game vs. Auburn.
North Carolina State - The Wolfpack is getting a lot of attention thanks to quarterback Mike Glennon and All-American cornerback David Amerson. Glennon can’t carry the offense if he doesn’t have a reliable target, and Amerson can’t lead the nation in interceptions again if opponents just go straight for the flimsy defensive line. Five starting O-linemen return, which will hopefully help boost a run game that was 109th last season, but on the other side of the ball, the Pack has to replace all the starting linebackers from 2011.
Maryland - The team was terrible in Randy Edsall‘s debut season. The last time the Terps finished 2-10, back in 2009, they followed it up with a surprising 9-4 year that still didn’t save Ralph Friedgen‘s job. This year’s Maryland team won’t bounce back on the strength of ACC Coach and Rookie of the Year performances, but it will be better than 2011. New OC Mike Locksley is getting the job done on the recruiting trail, and he’ll get it done on the field as well. The veteran defense will carry this year’s team, but the O-line and backfield are inexperienced since so many players transferred out, and the Terps’ second-half schedule is tough. They’ll win enough games to give Edsall some extra job security but not enough to appease his critics.
Wake Forest – The good news: QB Tanner Price, who had more than 3,000 passing yards last year, is back. The bad news: The team’s top rusher and receiver, and four starters on the offensive line, are not. How effective will Price be without those pieces around him? Is someone new going to step up, or is he going to have to try to do it all himself? The defense is more or less intact, and the schedule’s not too scary – they miss Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, so they might not fare too badly.
Boston College – The Eagles are 20-19 with Frank Spaziani at the helm, and that record probably won’t improve after 2012. Injuries and close losses in 2011 cost the team a bowl invitation for the first time since ’98. The defense was pretty good, but BC had to play a lot of young guys last year. Those extra snaps will help this season, but they still need offense. QB Chase Rettig is in danger of losing his job if he can’t improve.
For the rest of the ACC standings, check out the ACC Football Coastal Division preview.