Aug. 11, 2009

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By Adam Caparell
NCAA.com

The Big 12 may be known as the conference of the quarterback this season, but in the race for that mythical title, the ACC would come in a close second.

Ten teams - incidentally the same number of squads that qualified for bowl games last year, an NCAA record - return their starting quarterback from last season. And it all should make for another interesting year in the ACC.

The conference that has yet to really establish itself among the nation's elite leagues since expansion in 2005 is hopeful that a BCS Championship contender (Virginia Tech) will carry the torch while a number of top 25 caliber teams (Georgia Tech, Florida State and North Carolina) have their own championship aspirations. 

And with the rest of league seemingly on equal footing, the ACC seems poised for a wide open 14 weeks of regular the season, culminating in the conference championship game Dec. 5 at Raymond James Stadium. 


Atlantic Division


Boston College
2008 Record: 9-5 (5-3), Atlantic Division Champs, Music City Bowl
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: After finishing out the season as the Eagles starting quarterback, everyone kind of assumed that Dominique Davis would take over this fall. But Davis has transferred meaning the Eagles plan has been blown up. So new head coach Frank Spaziani has the unenviable task of running an open competition this summer between Codi Boek, 25-year old freshman David Shinskie, Justin Tuggle and Mike Marscovetra. As for the rest of the offense, the former pass-happy Eagles figure to be a much more run-oriented team this season as they revert back to a more conventional offense.
Defensive Keys: The Eagles were going to be led by Mark Herzlich, one of the top linebackers in all the nation. But Herzlich got the unfortunate news this spring that he has Ewing's Sarcoma, a form of cancer that attacks the bone and soft tissue. Herzlich's return to the field is considered doubtful, but they are extremely optimistic about his recovery. So much so that he's expected to be back in classes this fall and helping coach the defense. As for the rest of his teammates, the Eagles will feature a strong and experienced secondary, but will be missing two NFL Draft picks on the front line.
Keep An Eye On: WR Rich Gunnell, RB Montel Harris, CB Donnie Fletcher
All In The Numbers: 10, years Spaziani spent on the B.C. staff before ascending to head coach.
Deciding Game: Oct. 17 vs. N.C. State
Outlook: Few programs have undergone the amount of change that B.C. has since the end of last season. In comes Spaziani, taking over after spending years as the loyal defensive coordinator. Jeff Jagodzinski unceremoniously was let go after flirting with NFL head coaching positions. And the defense will be without three of its best players from last season while the offense will be starting a QB with no experience. Change is in the air up at Chestnut Hill. 


Clemson
2008 Record: 7-6 (4-4), Gator Bowl
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys:  The offense was a big disappointment last season, especially considering all the talent that was back at the three skill positions. But success in football - just like baseball - is all about what's up the middle and the Tigers had big offensive line issues last season that they couldn't overcome. That shouldn't be the case this year as four starters return and as long as they stay healthy they should make up one of the ACC's better front fives. Running behind them will be C.J. Spiller, the dynamic RB who decided to return to school and is one of the nation's fastest backs. Wide receiver is a gaping hole along with quarterback. Willy Korn and Kyle Parker will battle it this summer to determine who takes over for Cullen Harper.
Defensive Keys: There's a new man running the defense and it's a name familiar to many in the south. Kevin Steele, most recently of Alabama, takes over the reins of a unit that was pretty good last year and should be just as disruptive this season. Steele's job is a lot easier when he has DEs Da'Quan Bowers and Ricky Sapp targeting opposing quarterbacks. The run defense, however, is one area that needs work.
Keep An Eye On: WR Jacoby Ford, LB Brandon Maye, CB Chris Chandler
All In The Numbers: 111.5, rushing yards per game last season for Clemson, 50 fewer than 2007.
Deciding Game: Nov. 7 vs. Florida State
Outlook: Clemson has undergone plenty of change since last October when Tommy Bowden stepped down as head coach. Dabo Swinney has officially been tabbed as the new head coach and he's revamped a few things in his short time and hasn't been afraid to learn a few things either. An off-season trip to visit Austin and the Longhorns netted him some ideas that he plans on using this fall with a team that has the potential to flirt with a division championship if things break right for the Tigers.


Florida State
2008 Record: 9-4 (5-3), Champs Sports Bowl
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 5 defense
Offensive Keys: Does Florida State finally have its quarterback? Potentially with Christian Ponder settling in for another season under center. He doesn't have to worry about any competition this year so Ponder should be very comfortable running the show. But Ponder, who is a very talented and athletic QB, can't continue to turn the ball over like he did last year when he threw 14 TDs and 13 picks. With the offensive line returning intact will this be the year the Seminoles finally get that running game untracked? They weren't bad last year, and they've made strides the past two, but fans are chomping at the bit for more. And they'll need it with a receiving corps that presents a big question mark.
Defensive Keys: The losses are pretty noteworthy: Everette Brown and Myron Rolle. But the cupboard isn't bare in Tallahassee. Sure the Seminoles will feature some younger players than in years past, but the secondary should be strong. Finding an answer to what ailed the run defense last season will be the most important question. It was a little uncharacteristic to see Florida State give up so many rushing yards per game last season. Mickey Andrews' defenses do not normally surrender 132.5 per game. 
Keep An Eye On: TB Jermaine Thomas, WR Bert Reed, LB Dakoda Watson
All In The Numbers: 5, straight seasons FSU has gone without winning double-digit games.
Deciding Game: Nov. 14 at Wake Forest
Outlook: The offense is going to have to carry the defense early on and head coach Bobby Bowden has admitted as much. There figures to be a few growing pains with the defense and it'll be up to Ponder and the offense to lead the way, a role reversal for the Seminoles from the last few years. The window for Bowden is closing. He's getting up in age and offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher - the named coach in waiting - is slated to take over after the 2010 season or the school will pay him several million dollars. It makes for an interesting drama off the field as the Seminoles look to make it back to the ACC Championship game for the first time since 2005.


Maryland
2008 Record: 8-5 (4-4), Humanitarian Bowl
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 4 defense
Offensive Keys: Offense will be the Terps strong suit for sure this season. Even though they don't return a ton of starters, the key pieces are in place for an explosive offense. QB Chris Turner and RB Da'Rel Scott are the names to know. The offensive line has three starters that need to be replaced, but the consensus around Maryland is that if second year offensive coordinator James Franklin can find some suitable replacements up front then his squad could put up some points. Scott is the Terps' best weapon. With game-changing speed he could be on his way to a breakout season.
Defensive Keys: A new coordinator is going to lead to a change in philosophy. Expect the Terps to be a much more aggressive defense under Don Brown who loves to blitz. Maryland is switching up from the 3-4 to the 4-3 and Brown hopes the changeup will better utilize the personnel he's now working with. That should benefit the linebacking corps, especially Alex Wujciak in the middle.
Keep An Eye On: WR Torrey Smith, NT Travis Ivey, CB Nolan Carroll
All In The Numbers: 1,089, kickoff return yards for Smith last season, an ACC record.
Deciding Game: Nov. 21 at Florida State
Outlook: The Terps are going to be on the young side after losing so many upperclassmen following 2009. And while some might think youth corresponds with rebuilding, think again. Maryland will be competitive, but how competitive will depend on what kind of effort it gets out of the defense. Head coach Ralph Friedgen has been rumored to be on the hot seat, but with such a young group to work with this year, and promising talent waiting in the wings, the Terps appear to be targeting the next few years at making a real run at the ACC title.


North Carolina State
2008 Record: 6-7 (4-4), Papajohns.com Bowl
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: Head coach Tom O'Brien says there will be a quarterback competition between Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon, but it's going to awfully tough to unseat Wilson after the freshman season he put together last year. Wilson became the first QB in ACC history to be named first team all conference and for good reason. Throwing 17 touchdowns to just one interception along with having a knack for making a big play out of seemingly nothing is what made Wilson one of the top young QBs in the nation last year. And he'll be one of the top sophomores this year. The offensive line in front of him is a concern - more specifically its depth - but as long as Wilson stays healthy then the Wolfpack are going to be dangerous.
Defensive Keys: It's tough to top the kind of experience the Wolfpack should feature up front. All four projected starting linemen are seniors. The run defense that improved over the season should be very stout this year. Secondary is where the Wolfpack need to focus this summer. Three starters are gone from a unit that allowed 248.7 yards per game last season, 96th in the nation.
Keep An Eye On: WR Dwayne Maddox, DE Willie Young, LB Nate Irving
All In The Numbers: 249, completions in a row Wilson has thrown since his last interception.
Deciding Game: Oct. 31 at Florida State
Outlook: The Wolfpack are going to challenge for the Atlantic crown. They seem too talented not to, especially with Wilson running the show. O'Brien quietly goes about his business as one of the most underrated head coaches in the country. He gets results and after a six win season in 2008, expect the Wolfpack to increase that total and possibly end up with a New Year's Day Bowl with a few bounces of the ball in their favor.


Wake Forest
2008 Record: 8-5 (4-4), EagleBank Bowl
Returning Starters: 9 offense, 4 defense
Offensive Keys: When you have the most accurate passer in ACC history, that's a pretty good starting point. Wake can once again rely on QB Riley Skinner to lead the way and his 67.3 career completion percentage. What will bear watching is the offensive line. The Demon Deacons want to establish a strong running game and they struggled mightily doing that last season. The offensive line returns almost entirely intact so that should translate into better numbers from the backs. Josh Adams and Kevin Harris return in the backfield. 
Defensive Keys: The losses are pretty staggering. No Aaron Curry. No Alphonso Smith. So how will Wake deal with their departures? Head coach Jim Grobe still likes what he has and believes this could be one of the fastest units he's ever coached. But talent wise it won't be the same squad that finished 16th in total defense a year ago.
Keep An Eye On: RB Brandon Pendergrass, DT John Russell, CB Brandon Ghee
All In The Numbers: +17, Wake Forest turnover margin last season, fifth best in the country. 
Deciding Game: Nov. 14 vs. Florida State
Outlook: The offense might have to pick up more of the slack this season and that's something the Demon Deacons aren't necessarily accustomed to. Grobe's teams are usually the old school type: run the ball and play solid defense. But with Skinner under center, expect the offense to take a step up after last season's rather pedestrian numbers. It won't be an easy slate for Wake with their bye week not coming until November.


Coastal Division


Duke
2008 Record: 4-8 (1-7)
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 5 defense
Offensive Keys: The offensive line returns just two starters and that will be a big cause for concern, but with a senior under center in Thaddeus Lewis, those concerns have been muted somewhat. Under the tutelage of David Cutcliffe for the second season, Lewis should take a step up and elevate the Duke passing game that averaged just slightly less than 200 yards per game last year. And considering that Cutcliffe was the driving force behind Peyton and Eli Manning when they were in school, and Lewis spent time working at the brothers' off-season camp, Lewis is definitely on the up. 
Defensive Keys: There's experience on the line, but not so much at linebacker and in the secondary. The Blue Devils put up some nice numbers in '08, allowing just 23.4 points per game, including holding Vanderbilt and Virginia Tech to just 7 and 14 points, respectively. But will the progress shown last season be all for naught thanks to the relative inexperience set to be featured this fall?
Keep An Eye On: WR Donovan Varner, LB Vincent Rey, S Catron Gainey
All In The Numbers: 1994, the last year Duke made a bowl game.
Deciding Game: Oct. 24 vs. Maryland
Outlook: Duke took a big step forward last year, winning four games after some very, very lean years. Cutcliffe has come in and totally changed the attitude around the program. Now can they take the next step toward greater respectability and reach the .500 mark? The schedule is not overly taxing so it's not without question that with a little luck and some improved play on offense that the Blue Devils could surprise some people with another win or two this season.


Georgia Tech
2008 Record: 9-4 (5-3), Chick-fil-A Bowl
Returning Starters: 9 offense, 8 defense
Offensive Keys: Everyone was wondering whether Paul Johnson's offense would work in the ACC. Well he emphatically proved any doubters wrong last year when the Yellow Jackets finished the year fourth in the nation in rushing yards per game and averaged 24.4 points per. The passing game, however, left something to be desired and expect the Yellow Jackets to throw it a lot more this year with QB Josh Nesbitt back under center. But the ultimate success of this unit will depend on two things: the offensive line and RB Jonathan Dwyer, the reigning ACC Offensive Player of the Year.
Defensive Keys: Tech was a very good defensive team last year and living up to the standards set by the '08 squad will not be easy. For starters, the Yellow Jackets lost three NFL Draft picks from the line. However, linebacker should be a decided strength of this unit and the secondary returns entirely intact. The Yellow Jackets are going to be a pretty good defense, but just how good remains to be seen with those three big holes to fill up front.
Keep An Eye On: WR Demaryius Thomas, LB Kyle Jackson, S Morgan Burnett
All In The Numbers: 43.9, completion percentage for Nesbitt last season.
Deciding Game: Oct. 17 vs. Virginia Tech
Outlook: Georgia Tech will not surprise anyone this year. They crashed the ACC Coastal Division race last year and they're going to fight it out neck and neck with Virginia Tech this fall. The offense should not miss a beat and if Nesbitt can get that completion percentage up past the 55 percentile then the Yellow Jackets are going to be one of the most dynamic and dangerous offenses in the country. Tech has all the makings of being a top 25 fixture the entire season and potentially a conference champion.


Miami
2008 Record: 7-6 (4-4), Emerald Bowl
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: There will be no quarterback competition in Coral Gables this fall. It's Jacory Harris' team and the Hurricanes should feel confident in his ability to ratchet up the offense a few levels. It helps Harris that he should have a strong running game to rely on with Graig Cooper and Javarris James who will run behind an offensive line that's shaping up to be pretty stout. The pro-style attack should suit this team very well as Harris is not the most athletic of quarterbacks, but he's got the makings of a steady starter.
Defensive Keys: The big play - especially via the interception - eluded the Hurricanes last year so the hope is new defensive coordinator John Lovett can improve on the disappointing -10 turnover margin they posted last year. That could be tough considering the secondary is a big question mark, returning a pair of starters. It helps that the defensive line should be the unit's strength. 
Keep An Eye On: WR Aldarius Johnson, DE Eric Moncur, LB Sean Spence
All In The Numbers: 19-19, Miami's record over the last three seasons.
Deciding Game: Nov. 14 at North Carolina
Outlook: Talent doesn't seem to be an issue with Miami. Shannon continues to bring in some of the best athletes in the country. But continuity is another thing. Miami is now on its third defensive coordinator and second offensive coordinator in three years. Change like that only makes it harder on the players and Shannon hopes that he's now found the right mix on the sidelines. And if those concerns weren't enough to keep Shannon up at night than surely the Hurricanes' schedule will cause him to lose some sleep. Miami's early season slate is the toughest in the country as the Canes open on the road at Florida State, home against Georgia Tech, on the road at Virginia Tech and then home for Oklahoma Oct. 3.


North Carolina
2008 Record: 8-5 (4-4), Meineke Car Care Bowl
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 9 defense
Offensive Keys: The receiving corps has been decimated. Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate will no longer be catching balls in Chapel Hill so QB T.J. Yates will have to find a new go-to receiver. Yates, for his part, has to stay healthy as injuries have been his nemesis through his first two seasons on campus. Running the Tar Heels pro-style offense when he is healthy, however, shouldn't be a problem. Offensive line is a bit of an issue, but the Tar Heels are happy they seemingly have their QB good to go right from the start. 
Defensive Keys: Head coach Butch Davis produced some of the best defensive players in the nation during his days at Miami and he's looking to do the same at North Carolina. The defense put up some decent numbers last season, but not what Davis is used to. This year, with another season under their belt, expect the unit to take bigger strides toward becoming one of the ACC's better defenses. With nine starters back it's going to he hard not to, especially with the talent up front.
Keep An Eye On: RB Shaun Draughn, DT Marvin Austin, LB Quan Sturdivant
All In The Numbers: 8, games the Tar Heels will play this season against 2008 bowl teams.
Deciding Game: Nov. 14 vs. Miami
Outlook: In Davis' third year, many people aren't sure what to make of North Carolina. Are they on the verge of becoming one of the ACC's best or are they still a few years away? One thing's for sure with this group: the defense will be a force and offensively there could be a few issues early on as Yates tries to establish rapport with his receivers.


Virginia
2008 Record: 5-7 (3-5)
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 5 defense
Offensive Keys: Say hello to the spread. Al Groh and the Cavs are adopting the popular offensive scheme this year in hopes of improving on the disappointing numbers put up last year. The Cavs finished 105th in the nation in total offense so Groh decided to switch things up. The question now is who is going to lead the offense? A three way battle between Jameel Sewell, Marc Verica and the most intriguing candidate, Vic Hall, will commence during fall camp. Hall, who posted all kinds of records as a high school QB in Virginia, played the last three seasons at defensive back before stepping under center against Virginia Tech last season. But Groh likes what the dynamic Hall brings to the table and considering he was one of the Cavs representatives down at ACC media days in July, it looks like it could be Hall's job to lose. 
Defensive Keys: Even if Hall is playing on the other side of the ball, Virginia will still have one of the better secondary units in the conference, led by the underrated Ras-I Dowling. The line will be solid, but with a 3-4 set, the Cavs could struggle at times because of a lack of depth at linebacker. No matter what happens on defense, the onus will fall on Groh this season after he took up the title of defensive coordinator as well.
Keep An Eye On: WR Jared Green, CB Chris Cook, S Corey Mosley
All In The Numbers: 2, coaches to lead Virginia to bowl games. Groh and former coach George Welsh.
Deciding Game: Nov. 28 vs. Virginia Tech
Outlook: It seems every year that Groh is on the hot seat, and entering his ninth season at his alma mater, expectations aren't overly high thanks to the transition occurring on offense. But Groh always seems to field competitive teams and have them hovering close to .500 at the worst. The Cavs have been known to spring a few upsets under Groh and if Hall really takes off at QB then the Virginia will surely surprise a team or two at some point this season.


Virginia Tech
2008 Record: 10-4 (5-3), ACC Coastal Division Champs, ACC Champs, Orange Bowl
Returning Starters: 9 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: Tyrod Taylor is officially, unquestionably, the quarterback for the Hokies. There's no looking behind him anymore. And as long as the dynamic signal caller stays healthy, the Hokies should be in good shape. Taylor will have a powerful running game to lean on - when he's not running it himself. Taylor just needs to improve on his passing game. The offensive line should be able to clear holes for Darren Evans and company in the backfield while the receiving corps is relatively young, but not entirely inexperienced. 
Defensive Keys: The Hokies have been successful with defense and special teams. The defense will be among the strongest in the ACC - if not the strongest - returning some boldface names. The secondary will be tough to crack after allowing just 175 yards per game via the air last year and returning three starters. True, Macho Harris is no longer around back there, but his departure shouldn't hold the Hokies back. While the front four should be strong, the linebacking corps will present some worries for longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster.
Keep An Eye On: LT Ed Wang, DE Jason Worilds, FS Kam Chancellor
All In The Numbers: 3, teams that have won 10 games each of the last five seasons. USC, Texas and Tech.
Deciding Game: Sept. 5 vs. Alabama (Atlanta)
Outlook: To have a deciding game so early in the season seems illogical, but for a team with BCS Championship kind of expectations, a lot will be on the line when the Hokies meet the Tide in the Georgia Dome opening weekend. Virginia Tech appears to be top 10 material with an offense that should be more potent and its typical excellent defense and special teams. Frank Beamer continues to do wonderful things in Blacksburg and the Hokies will have to carry the flag for the ACC as the league looks to bolster its national image.