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ACC Football: 5 Biggest Questions for 2013 Season

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ACC Football: 5 Biggest Questions for 2013 Season

Sam Sharpe- USA Today Sports

The ACC had only two teams in the Top 25 of the preseason USA Today Coaches' Poll released earlier this week. On the surface, it might seem like the ACC got slighted by the coaches, but in reality, the conference has struggled in recent years. Florida State and Clemson have vaulted themselves into the national championship picture the past few seasons, only to slip up and fall out of the race.

Those two teams are highly-regarded once again in 2013, but very few analysts are predicting an ACC team to reach the title game. Ultimately, the lack of depth in the ACC hurts the conference in the polls. While many SEC schools have lost a game and still ended up in the national title game, it’s very unlikely an ACC team could do that in 2013. Instead, there is added pressure on ACC teams because they know they have to run the table in order to have a shot at the BCS Championship game.

With new teams and coaches in the ACC for 2013, there are new questions facing the conference. Can rising teams like North Carolina and Duke win tough early season tests to continue their momentum from 2012? Can formerly dominant teams like Virginia Tech and Miami become relevant once again? And can Paul Johnson and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets stay near the top?

There are many questions the conference faces this year, but here are the five most important questions for the ACC in 2013.

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5. How Will Syracuse Orange and Pittsburgh Panthers Fare in a New Conference?

Marvin Gentry- USA Today Sports

It is always exciting when new teams join a conference because it gives the league some new storylines. In 2013, Syracuse and Pittsburgh will join the ACC, but it’s hard to imagine either of them competing for the championship.

Syracuse had an outstanding 2012 season, but lost all-time leading passer Ryan Nassib and head coach Doug Marrone to the NFL. They will be difficult to replace, so new coach Scott Shafer has his work cut out for him. However, they will be able to rely on workhorse running back Jerome Smith, who ran for 1,171 yards as a sophomore last year.

Pittsburgh will also have to replace a three-year starting quarterback in Tino Sunseri. The front-runners for the job are Rutgers transfer Tom Savage and freshman Chad Voytik, but a starter hasn’t been named just yet. The running game took a hit when Rushel Shell decided to leave the program after 2012. Needless to say, the offense has many holes to fill.

In addition, they face a brutal schedule in their inaugural season in the conference. They play Florida State, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Miami. There aren’t many winnable games in that bunch for a team in transition.

So while it is exciting to see new teams, uniforms, and traditions in the conference, don’t expect much for Syracuse or Pittsburgh in 2013.

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4. Which Logan Thomas Will Show Up for Virginia Tech Hokies?

Greg M. Cooper- USA Today Sports

Last year, much was expected from Thomas after a stellar campaign in 2011. As a sophomore, the 6-foot-6, 257-pounder threw for 3,013 yards and 19 touchdowns, while rushing for another 469 yards and 11 scores.

Heading into his junior year, some people had him on their short list of Heisman Trophy candidates. To say he was a disappointment would be an understatement. While his final statistics weren’t dramatically different from the previous year, two stats stood out. His completion percentage dropped by 8.5 percent and his interceptions went from 10 to 16 — not what Hokies fans were expecting from the much ballyhooed QB.

In 2013, Virginia Tech has a decidedly easier schedule, but that won’t matter if Thomas doesn’t return to form. If he plays like he did in 2011, he’s an incredible dual threat, capable of taking over games with his strong arm and surprisingly quick feet. However, if he plays like he did last year, it will yet again be another disappointing season for the Hokies.

He’s facing about as much pressure as any player in the conference this year, but my gut instinct tells me he will play much better than he did as a junior. The Hokies won’t win the ACC, but they will be back in the thick of things.

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3. Are the Miami Hurricanes Back?

Robert Mayer- USA Today Sports

Let’s face it, college football is better when the Miami Hurricanes are relevant. Love them or hate them, the Canes were must-see TV for the better part of two decades, but haven’t been in the national title conversation in years.

While they aren’t likely to challenge for a national championship in 2013, they could certainly win the ACC and play in a BCS bowl again. They return 19 starters and have one of the more underrated quarterbacks in the country in Stephen Morris. In addition to Morris, Miami has one of the most dynamic weapons in the country in Duke Johnson. Outside of Johnny Manziel, Johnson was one of the best freshman in the nation last fall.

However, there are big questions surrounding a defense that ranked 84th in the country in points allowed a season ago. Last season, the Canes were as thin as they were young ... not a great combination. In 2013, Miami is expecting LB Denzel Perryman to continue his outstanding play, and DE Anythony Chickillo to live up to his considerable hype. In the back end, CB Tracy Howard could emerge as a tremendous talent for the Hurricanes.

Some say this team is primed to make a serious run at the ACC crown, while other experts think the defense is too much of a liability. Regardless, Al Golden has instilled a renewed enthusiasm in Miami and their faithful think this is the year they could be in the national spotlight once again.

It remains to be seen, but it’s good for the ACC to have Miami being talked about for something other than NCAA sanctions.

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2. Can Florida State Seminoles Overcome Significant Departures and Repeat?

Melina Vastola- USA Today Sports

If not for a second-half collapse against North Carolina State, the Florida State Seminoles could have been playing for a spot in national championship game when they took on Florida in their annual November showdown. Instead, they had to settle for an ACC Championship and a trip to the Orange Bowl.

It feels as though the Noles are poised to be perennial ACC challengers, but they face many questions as they head into 2013. In April, 11 Seminoles were selected during the NFL Draft, leaving several holes to fill this fall.

Chief among them was QB E.J. Manuel, who was picked in the first round by the Buffalo Bills. Although Seminoles fans were often critical of Manuel’s play, he was a veteran four-year starter who had seen it all during his time at the helm in Tallahassee. His replacement will be a freshman who has only seen playing time as a scout team player during his redshirt year. That leaves many Florida State fans wondering if Jameis Winston can replace the experience and leadership that Manuel provided.

Gone too is former defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, who was named the Kentucky head coach last November. Florida State became one of the best defensive teams in the country under Stoops, and although they didn’t create a ton of turnovers, they also didn’t give up big plays.

It’s rumored that new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will be more aggressive in 2013, but it remains to be seen if that will work with the personnel he inherits with the Noles. He certainly has a loaded secondary to work with, but change is never easy.

Finally, Florida State has to replace several key assistants who left during the offseason as well. Offensive coordinator (in name only) James Coley, who was Jimbo Fisher’s righthand man, departed for rival Miami, leaving behind some big shoes to fill. Ultimately, it’s Fisher’s offense, but Coley plays a significant role in game planning each week.

Florida State wants to build off the momentum they’ve built over the last few years, but it’s going to be difficult given the tremendous amount of change they have had to endure. However, Fisher seems to have built a solid foundation in Tallahassee, so despite the turnover that’s taken place, I’d expect another great season from the Noles.

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1. Can Clemson Tigers Make a Run at a National Championship?

Melina Vastola- USA Today Sports

The ACC hasn’t won a national championship since Florida State did so in 1999, and to put it bluntly, they haven’t even been close. There have been teams that have been hyped as potential national champions, only to disappoint their fan base and an entire conference.

In 2013, the odds-on favorite to win the ACC and challenge for a national title is the Clemson Tigers. The Clemson offense will be led by All-ACC quarterback Tajh Boyd, who turned down the NFL to come back for his senior season. He will once again have supremely talented wide receiver Sammy Watkins to throw to this fall.

However, they too lost a ton of talent on offense: namely, WR DeAndre Hopkins and RB Andre Ellington. There is no clear-cut favorite to win the running back job, but offensive coordinator Chad Morris is creative enough to put his running backs in a position to succeed. Boyd’s weapons might not be as explosive as they were a year ago, but Clemson’s offense will still put up a boatload of points.

The major obstacle for Clemson this year will be their brutal schedule. Not only do they play their usual contests against Florida State and South Carolina, they open the season with no. 5 ranked Georgia this year. That gives them three huge games on a national stage where they much maligned defense will have to shine.

It seems unlikely that they will go 3-0 in those games, and as I’ve discussed earlier, if a team from the ACC wants to end up in the national championship game, they’ll likely have to run the table.

I’d bet the streak of national champion-less seasons in the ACC extends to 14 when all is said and done. Clemson is a talented team, but they face too many questions and too many tough tests to end up in Pasadena.