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 taken in the NFL Draft every year for the past eight years – but its teams are just 2-13 all-time in BCS bowls, and the gap between the teams at the top of the conference and those at the bottom is often much wider than in other leagues.
Virginia Tech and Florida State are perennially near the top of the pre-season ACC rankings, though neither has cemented itself as a fixture at the top of the national lists, but the conference 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 Coastal division is shaping up:
Georgia Tech – The Yellow Jackets have 17 returning starters, one of the strongest offensive lines in the conference, and veterans on defense. The team was second in the nation in rushing last year within Paul Johnson‘s triple option offense, but the emergence of one or two downfield threats could be critical to the team’s success. And “veteran” defense doesn’t necessarily mean it’s solid. The team led the conference in rushing for the past five years, but the defense will need to pull its weight if the Yellow Jackets are going to reclaim the ACC title.
Virginia Tech – People say defense wins championships. Frank Beamer‘s Hokies have won four ACC championships in the eight years since they joined the league, and they’re returning nearly every starter from a dominant defense that was 7th nationally in points allowed last year. Defense can’t do it all, though, and life might be a little tougher for the offense, which returns quarterback Logan Thomas but loses four starting linemen, two of last year’s top receivers, and ACC Player of the Year David Wilson.
Virginia – The Cavaliers came back to life in Mike London‘s second year as coach, even challenging for a trip to the ACC championship game. They might not be quite as close this year after losing seven starters on defense. They have a solid quarterback in Michael Rocco and at least one potential 1,000-yard rusher, but with the holes in the receiving corps and secondary, they might need another year to get close to winning the Coastal.
North Carolina – The Tar Heels might have the most potent offense in the conference. Quarterback Bryn Renner threw for more than 3,000 yards last season, and Giovani Bernard had 1,253 rushing yards, including a span of five games in which he ran for 100 or more yards in each. The offensive line has a combined 93 career starts, so they should be in good shape, but they’re also still adjusting to a new coaching staff with a new playbook. The adjustment will be more pronounced on the defense. Five players are returning, but the secondary was among the worst in the ACC last year. The new defensive scheme could also cause depth issues, as it sets a fast pace and constantly attacks, and the Tar Heels might not have enough fresh legs to rotate in and out.
Duke - The season is already off to a tough start for the Blue Devils, who will be playing their hearts out for wide receiver Blair Holliday, who was critically injured in a jet ski accident in July. Unfortunately, it’s not going to get much easier after kickoff. The team returns eight starters on each side of the ball, but last year’s defense was lousy. The schedule’s brutal, too, with a tough final stretch: at Virginia Tech, vs. UNC, at Florida State, vs. Clemson, at Georgia Tech, and vs. Miami.
Miami – This is going to be a rough year for the ‘Canes and coach Al Golden. Breaking in 33 new players any time is a big undertaking, but doing it in the midst of an NCAA investigation has to be even worse. The starting quarterback hasn’t been selected, and the team is rebuilding at receiver. Making matters worse, former star safety Ray-Ray Armstrong, who was removed from the team, plans to file an injunction that will allow him to rejoin the team and practice until the NCAA determines he actually violated the organization’s bylaws. Miami could certainly use his talent, but right now, he’s just another harmful distraction.
Who will the Coastal winner face for the ACC title? Check out the ACC Atlantic Division preseason outlook.