Never Dull ACC Gears Up For 2012 Campaign
Florida State is even-money to win the ACC Championship in 2012.
Hardly uneventful times in the Atlantic Coast Conference, alternately accused of being either too passive or too aggressive in the way it has gone about its business lately.
Whatever the label, the ACC is never dull.
Certainly the league has been right in the middle of the recent tectonic shifts in college athletics. Some informed observers, however, believe the ACC should have been more proactive in the past year.
The ACC's place in the new order of college football is still being defined. At one point, the reluctance of the league and commissioner John Swofford to cast a swing vote alongside the SEC in favor of a mini-playoff (or the plus-one model) over the BCS system was retroactively viewed as a mistake by most gridiron insiders. Subsequently, however, developments suggested that the BCS might be a good friend to the ACC as it at least guaranteed entrance for one rep (or two, as a year ago) into the big-money bowl pool, in turn strengthening the loop's TV bargaining position.
And when the college powers-that-be did finally decide this past spring to do away with the BCS and replace it with a 4-team playoff two years hence, some were suggesting it was a death knell for the ACC as one of the high-profile leagues.
The metrics of the playoff subject continue to shift, however, and as the 2012 season approaches, the ACC in fact seems no better or worse placed in the big-bowl equation than it did before. A recent agreement to send its champion to the Miami Orange Bowl (should the league winner not be involved in the four-team playoff) at least keeps the ACC in the equation for a hefty postseason payday.
At the moment, we see the overall impact of the playoff on the ACC as being very neutral.
Still, the ground shakes beneath the conference. Membership will swell to 14 teams next year with the additions of Pittsburgh and Syracuse, continuing the ACC's near decade-long annexation of the Big East's most-valued gridiron assets. Many sources believe the enlistments of the Panthers and Orange are merely the first steps to the ACC becoming a 16-team super conference, which no one in the mid-Atlantic region seems to deny.
Where the ACC moves next, however, is open to much conjecture. Some well-placed insiders have indicated that the loop is keeping those two places open in hopes of luring Notre Dame and/or Texas; the ACC, it is said, would allow each to keep existing school-specific TV deals, something the Big Ten and Pac-12 would not agree upon. But developments since the beginning of the year suggest these options are becoming less likely, with the Longhorns reaffirming their commitment to the Big 12 and the Irish looking to secure their own big-money bowl deal in the new post-BCS re-alignment of college football.
Now, the ACC might have a different set of concerns, as loop football bellwether Florida State has hinted at dissatisfaction with its current situation, and has been openly critical of the ACC's new (and very back-loaded) TV contracts. By extension, some believe Miami could be tempted to move in tandem with the Seminoles should FSU seriously consider other options, which would likely include the Big 12 but could also be expanded to the Big Ten and even the Pac-12 (what do geographic boundaries matter these days in college sports, anyway?).
Although the schools have temporarily backed off with their complaints (and, in truth, it was FSU, not Miami, making the noise in the first place), sources insist that there indeed is some dissatisfaction within the Florida branches of the conference, and suggest to monitor those situations closely over the next 6-12 months.
So, the ACC might have to contemplate the possibility of losing members in the near future. In the meantime the likes of Rutgers and UConn from the Big East wait for their invitations to the ACC, the same ones received at Virginia Tech, BC, Miami, plus Pitt and Syracuse, in recent years.
Stay tuned, because the off-field developments in the ACC are as intriguing as what is happening off the gridiron.
Speaking of the gridiron, it is also where the ACC has fallen behind some of the other power leagues in the current BCS arrangement, which only has two more years to run. No ACC entry has won the BCS title since 1999 (Florida State); no ACC team has as much competed in the national title game since 2000 (Florida State again, losing to Oklahoma).
The past several years haven't been pretty for the ACC in its BCS adventures, either; last January, West Virginia dropped a 70-point bomb on league champ Clemson in the Orange Bowl. The year before, Virginia Tech was hammered by Stanford in Miami. Prior to that, it was Georgia Tech ambushed by Iowa in the Orange. Even when the league got an extra BCS bid last season, VPI conspired to drop a game in the Sugar Bowl vs. Michigan that the Hokies had no business losing. The league hasn't won any BCS bowl game since the 2008 season, when Frank Beamer's troops from Blacksburg beat Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl.
Annually, the league continues to be guilty of its own form of fratricide; Cain and Abel are alive and well in the ACC, as member teams routinely destroy the title hopes of others. In truth, however, the league has not produced a legit national power team since Bobby Bowden's last great Seminole teams almost a decade ago.
Looking forward to this season, we suspect that equation doesn't change, as every contending team again looks to have an identifiable weakness or two (or three) that should prevent any serious runs at national honors.
The upside? A wide-open race in both the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions.
Following are brief team-by-team previews, along with any compelling technical notes, and projections on season win/loss "totals" where applicable. Odds to win the conference title are also included next to each team, which are listed in projected order of finish.
Florida State (even money to win ACC): The Seminoles had an Alabama-quality defense last season and should be loaded on the stop end once again, especially since DE Brandon Jenkins decided to skip the NFL Draft to Tallahassee. Along with returning starters on the DL such as DT Everett Dawkins and DE Bjoern Werner, the 'Noles "Sack Patrol" could dominate again this fall. Seven starters, plus several others hungry to make an impression, return from the nation's fourth-ranked defense.
The issue in Tallahassee last year was that while the "D" was Alabama-like, the "O" more resembled Kentucky's. Simply put, Jimbo Fisher needs better work from his offensive line and an infantry that ranked 104th in the country last season. Spring work was hardly encouraging; the OL, with four new starters, barely moved the DL in the spring game, when the Noles gained fewer than two yards per carry. Still, FSU won't be playing against a defense as good as its own this fall, and there is hope of improvement if ballyhooed frosh RB Mario Pender is as good as advertised. Senior QB EJ Manuel, 13-4 as a starter in his career, would figure to benefit the most from an improved ground threat. Sources also say to watch RS frosh WR Kelvin Benjamin; Manuel said it was "like throwing passes to LeBron James" when aiming Benjamin's way in spring.
Technical notes: Jimbo's FSU has been prone to streaks the past two seasons, with four separate four-game streaks, split between wins and losses. The defense minded-theme has also resulted in a 17-8-1 "under" mark the past two years. Various sports books are also quoting FSU's regular-season win total at 10, which might be difficult for the Noles to exceed if the OL can't upgrade. We also aren't sure about the value in that even-money price to win the conference, something FSU hasn't done since 2005.
NC State (16/1): Never underestimate a Tom O'Brien-coached team, especially late in the season. Roaring down the stretch again a year ago, the Wolfpack might have been the ACC's hottest team in November, blowing out eventual league champ Clemson and continuing its late-season uptick with a Belk Bowl win over Louisville.
Along the way, strong-armed QB Mike Glennon tossed 31 TD passes and proved a worthy successor to Russell Wilson, whose departure to Wisconsin for his senior year caused O'Brien lots of grief for a while with the Raleigh fan base. Now, Glennon is on the radar screen of many NFL teams. Like Florida State, however, NC State was imbalanced (its rushing game ranked just 98th in the country in 2011), and star WR T.J. Graham will be catching passes this fall for the Buffalo Bills, but Glennon's presence should compensate.
The defense should retain its big-play bent, especially with all four starters back in the secondary, including the nation's top interceptor, CB David Amerson. The Pack's 27 interceptions last year ranked first in the nation. Mike Archer's "D" also generated a whopping 40 sacks last fall (ranked 8th nationally) despite the DL suffering numerous injury woes. Overall, seven starters return on the stop unit.
Technical notes: O'Brien has been a pointspread force, recording a 35-19 spread mark over his last 54 games on the board. The real time to "buy" on O'Brien Wolfpack has come after game five; since moving to Raleigh from BC in 2007, O'Brien is 26-9 vs. the number down the stretch. Also note O'Brien's postseason prowess, as his teams at BC and NCS have won eight of their last nine bowls outright, covering the spread in each!
NC State's 16/1 price to win the ACC might represent the best value in the loop. The 'Pack, under O'Brien, remains a well-kept secret.
Clemson (9/2): Dabo Swinney was in some hot water in Death Valley when last season began, but quieted most of his critics when the Tigers wound up winning the ACC after a title-game rout of Virginia Tech, the second one-sided romp over the Hokies a year ago.
Notice how we said "most" of the IPTAY crowd was quieted by last season's results; a vocal minority was not pleased when the defense collapsed down the stretch as Clemson lost three of its last four regular season games, then was bombed 70-33 by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. Indeed, Swinney stands on less-firm footing with the Tiger backers than many might suspect.
Still, prospects are encouraging for this fall thanks to the return of prolific junior QB Tajh Boyd and electric soph WR/KR Sammie Watkins (though Watkins will be suspended for the first two games of 2012 following a misdemeanor marijuana and controlled-substance charge). The strike force came alive under new offensive coordinator Chad Morris last fall and almost all of the skill weapons return, including now-healthy RB Andre Ellington, but three key starters along the OL must be replaced.
The "D" has a new coordinator (Brent Venables, Bob Stoops' defensive coordinator for several years at Oklahoma), and the back seven returns almost intact. But there are major questions along a DL that must blood three new starters and was routinely pushed around last season.
Technical notes: Dabo's Clemson teams have tended to start fast and finish slow against the number; they're 14-6-1 vs. the line in the first seven games the past three seasons, but just 6-12 vs. points in their last six games. In other words, the polar opposite of O'Brien's pattern at NC State.
The Tigers are also being quoted at 8½ for a season-win total. Given the question marks along both lines, we're not sure Dabo exceeds that mark. Nor do we believe Dabo's 9/2 ACC win price provides much value.
Wake Forest (28/1): The Demon Deacons at least stopped the bleeding last fall when returning to the bowl mix after two subpar seasons. That bowls are now expected in Winston-Salem is a credit to respected head coach Jim Grobe, although Wake appears a few notches beneath its strongest teams of a few years ago (including the surprise 2006 ACC championship side).
Offensive imbalance, a recurring theme at various ACC outposts a year ago, also reared its ugly head with the Deacs last fall when they ranked a very un-Grobe-like 99th in national rush stats. That is partly explained by star RB Josh Harris' hamstring woes that limited his contributions. Harris, however, looked healthy again in spring, and junior southpaw QB Tanner Price is firmly entrenched as the offensive pilot after passing for 3017 yards and 20 TDs last fall. Don't expect Wake to be as pass-happy this fall, although regional scouts insist that RS frosh wideout Sherman Ragland III could emerge as a human highlight reel and soften the loss of star WR Chris Givens, who declared early for the NFL Draft and was selected by the St. Louis Rams.
The Deacons' defensive improvement last season was relative; they shaved 9.0 ppg off of their 2010 allowance, but still conceded 27.4 ppg. Last year's switch to 3-4 alignments by defensive coordinator Brian Knorr proved a boost, but Wake must improve upon the mere 11 sacks it recorded. Defenders to watch are unblockable NG Nikita Whitlock and CB Merrill Noel.
Technical notes: Although Wake covered its only game (vs. Maryland) when laying 7 points or more last season, that sort of chalk role has been mostly poisonous for the Grobe Deac teams, who have covered just five of their last 24 laying a TD or more.
A back-loaded schedule (Clemson, NC State, Notre Dame, and improved Vanderbilt in four of the last five games) and the defensive concerns make it unlikely the Deacs challenge for Atlantic honors, although another bowl visit is hardly out of the question.
Boston College (50/1): Although we wouldn't want to be the one to tell intimidating Eagles head coach Frank Spaziani that his services might no longer be required (we'll leave that up to AD Gene DeFilippo), ACC sources confirm that the mustachioed BC mentor is in a must-win situation this fall after last season's collapse to a 4-8 mark and first non-bowl season since 1998.
Spaziani's problem area lately has been on offense, where the Eagles ranked in triple digits nationally in scoring and yardage. So conservative is Spaziani that it is said he could be comfy with Pat Buchanan as offensive coordinator, but instead has opted for ex-Kent State coach Doug Martin to reboot the strike force. Unfortunately, Martin inherits few playmakers, and junior QB Chase Rettig has played in fits and spurs the past two seasons, completing only 53.6 percent of his passes a year ago. Moreover, the school's all-time leading rusher, Montel Harris, hampered by knee woes last year before getting a medical hardship redshirt, was booted from the team in spring and ended up transferring to Temple.
Spaziani's specialty is defense, but last year's Eagle stop unit slipped from the one that led the nation in rush "D" the previous year. And that was with do-everything LB Luke Kuechly (a first-round draft choice of the Carolina Panthers) in the fold. The platoon still looks formidable up the middle, especially with DT Kaleb Ramsey having returned from injury, but there are questions in a secondary that contributed to a lowly 81st ranking in pass defense last fall.
Technical notes: Despite last year's downturn, Spaziani's BC continued to excel in an underdog role, one in which it has covered nine of its last 11 chances. Conversely, Alumni Stadium has proven no benefit to Eagle spread fortunes lately, as Spaziani is just 3-10 vs. the number at Chestnut Hill the past two seasons.
Unless Spaziani gets to .500 and back to another bowl (and we're having trouble identifying more than five wins), and the offense emerges from its recent horse-and-buggy mode, BC might be looking for a new coach in December. If so, we're just glad we're not going to be the ones who have to tell Spaziani.
Maryland (80/1): What is it they say about the best laid plans of mice and men? They often go awry, which perfectly described Maryland's meltdown a year ago to a 2-10 disaster in Randy Edsall's forgettable first season in charge at College Park.
Indeed, the Terps deserved it after their tactless treatment of predecessor Ralph Friedgen, who got the boot despite leading Maryland to a 9-4 mark and a bowl win in 2010. Moreover, James Franklin, designated the coach-in-waiting for the Terps during Friedgen's tenure, skipped town for Vanderbilt, where he became an overnight sensation when leading the 'Dores to a rare bowl bid.
Nothing seemed to go right last fall for Edsall, who among other things has run off at least 25 of the players Friedgen left behind and reportedly dealt with a mutinous squad last fall. Recruiting is said to have improved, but we are skeptical about Edsall's new coordinator hires, especially new offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, who when last seen was destroying the New Mexico program.
Locksley will be installing an up-tempo, no-huddle, pro-style attack with a spread-option emphasis geared around junior QB C.J. Brown, who performed with some flair on occasion last fall. But among those departures were some possible key contributors at RB, and remember that Brown completed only 49 percent of his passes in 2011. Thus, we're not sure how much ballyhooed frosh WR Stefon Diggs might help. The offensive line was also gutted by transfer, and only one starter returns. We are also unconvinced that Locksley is an upgrade from previous offensive coordinator Gary Crowton.
Defense was even worse than the offense, and new coordinator Brian Stewart (recently at U of Houston; previously with the Dallas Cowboys) is hoping a change to 3-4 alignments will help.
Technical notes: Edsall, whose UConn teams were often formidable vs. the number (indeed, they were 32-18 vs. the line during his last four years at Storrs), suffered badly against the spread as well as straight up a year ago when the Terps covered just two of 12 on the board. By the end of the season, Maryland might have been the premier go-against in the country, dropping its last seven SU and vs. the line.
There are reports from some ACC sources that Edsall could even be in trouble this fall if the Terps flounder once more, citing recent examples at Kansas (Turner Gill) and Akron (Rob Ianello) where coaches were cast adrift after just two seasons. The Terps should improve enough to give Edsall another year to turn things around, but a bowl bid looks very unlikely.
Virginia Tech (3/1): If it seems like Frank Beamer has been around forever at VPI, well, he has; Beamer, entering his 26th season in charge at his alma mater, is now the winningest (251) and longest-tenured head coach in the country following the changes at Penn State.
Don't be dissuaded by the fact that Beamer returns only two starters on this year's Hokie offense; one of those junior QB Logan Thomas, who matured into a force by the end of last season. Moreover, ACC scouts report that true frosh RBs J.C. Coleman (a scatback who provided lots of ooh and ahh moments in spring) and Trey Edmunds, along with RS frosh Michael Holmes, will compensate nicely for departed RB David Wilson, a first-round draft choice of the NY Giants. The receiving corps is similarly filled with promise and a bit more experience than the new-look RBs.
As usual, however, it's on defense where VPI excels, and longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster might have one of his better platoons (and that's saying something) this fall with eight starters back n the fold. Foster's stop unit allowed only 17.6 ppg in 2011 (7th nationally) and returns plenty of playmakers, Foster's entire DL returns, led by gap-plugging DT Luther Maddy, while CB Kyle Fuller is regarded as VPI's best DB since DeAngelo Hall.
What we'll want to see is if Beamer can reinvigorate his trademark special teams that, among other shortcomings last fall, didn't record a kick block vs. a BCS foe for the first time in Frank's 25 years as head coach.
Technical notes: Interestingly, despite last year's 11-3 record, the Hokies recorded their worst-ever spread mark (4-10) under Beamer. That was likely an aberration (VPI was 10-4 vs. the line in 2010), and note that the Hokies have been overachieving vs. the number away from home for almost a decade, as a 34-18 spread mark since 2004 would indicate.
VPI is also being quoted at 9½ for a season-win total, which we believe the Hokies can exceed. The 3/1 win price in the ACC is also worth a look...because we project VPI as the likely winner of the loop.
Georgia Tech (12/1): We've been fans of Paul Johnson since his days at Georgia Southern, prior to his stint as Navy's head coach, so we're not surprised he has been winning consistently since arriving in Atlanta, with bowl visits each of the past four years.
We wonder, however, if Johnson's Yellow Jackets are bumping their head against a ceiling that is unlikely to move up with the ground-oriented option offense that Johnson employs. As has been the case the past few years, the option provides real headaches for most foes, but the better, quicker, lateral-pursuit stop units on the schedule have been able to slow the Johnson option in its tracks.
Expect more of the same this fall with seven starters back on offense, including QB Tevin Washington, a legit big-play threat who can stretch the field with his arm. But the passing game must grow from its 122nd national ranking last season if Tech wants to make a serious run up the rankings and perhaps at the BCS. The option should move again on the ground (the Ramblin' Wreck ranked 2nd in national rush stats last year) with four starters back along the OL and David Sims ready to assume feature-back duties.
The switch to a 3-4 defense under veteran coordinator Al Groh had mixed results last season, but seven starters are back in the fold, and Groh has high hopes for a linebacking crew that features plenty of potential playmakers, led by OLB Jeremiah Attaochu. Three starters also return in the secondary, where junior Lewis Young has emerged as a shutdown corner.
Technical notes: The word has gotten out on Johnson, whose teams at Navy and first two years at Tech were notorious spread overachievers. But with that success came spread premiums, and Johnson's Jackets have recorded losing spread marks (5-7-1 and 5-8) the past two seasons. Tech also lost seven of its last eight vs. the line last year.
The 12/1 ACC win price looks interesting, but note the difficult road trips to Virginia Tech (in the opener) and Clemson.
Virginia (18/1): Cavs coach Mike London has suddenly become very in-demand after last year's 8-5 breakthrough in Charlottesville. Expect London, who said no to Penn State last December, to continue to be pursued by suitors, although the Virginia job is much better than most imagine, especially since the Cavs have been able to slip more special admits through the admissions office since the early days of AL Groh's regime. Not to mention the proximity to the talent-rich Tidelands and metro D.C. areas.
The main questions London must answer in 2012 revolve around his defense, which lost seven starters and requires big-time rebuilding on the DL and secondary. This fall will provide the first real test of London's supposed recruiting inroads, as most of the replacement parts have arrived since London took the job in 2010. Getting DE Billy Schautz back from injury ought to help a pass rush that ranked a poor 90th in sacks, while ACC sources say to keep an eye on touted frosh DE Eli Harold.
The "O" figures to upgrade after junior Michael Rocco established himself as the QB last fall when passing for 2671 yards in his starting debut. The Cavs are loaded at RB, with TB Perry 'Superman" Jones the featured performer after recording 1458 yards worth of offense last fall, although new go-to receivers must emerge after the graduation of last year's top target Kris Burd.
Technical notes: London's teams have played mostly good defense the past two years, partially accounting for a 10-3-1 'under' mark the last 14 games since late in the 2010 campaign, although we suspect that might change this fall with the stop unit in rebuild mode and the offense prepared to engage in shootouts if needed.
The Cavs are not likely to sneak up on anybody this fall and might even slip back from last year's eight wins. Also note the eight straight losses vs. hated VPI.
North Carolina (no ACC win odds due to probation): Larry Fedora arrives from Southern Miss to clean up a Tar Heel program that ran into all sorts of trouble during the Butch Davis years and was hit with stiff NCAA penalties in March, which include a bowl ban this fall. Subsequent transgressions have been uncovered that could further stiffen the penalties, hardly what Fedora or new AD Bubba Cunningham need as they break into their jobs.
Fedora at least isn't inheriting a carcass of a program from last year's interim head coach Everett Withers, who fashioned a 7-6 mark and a bowl bid. Fedora imports his up-tempo spread offense from Hattiesburg and thinks he has a proper offensive pilot in junior QB Bryn Renner, who completed 68 percent of his passes last fall and hit on 23-of-28 tosses when running the new offense in the spring game. Soph RB Gio Bernard was also a revelation in 2011 when he became the Heels' first 1000 yard rusher since 1997, although Fedora enters fall looking for multiples of reliable receiving targets beyond rangy deep threat Erik Highsmith (51 catches LY).
The Heels have also switched their defensive alignment to a 4-2-5 under new coordinator Dan Disch, but have some reloading to do on the front line after DE Quinton Coples (Jets' first-round pick) and DT Tydreke Powell (spending summer in the Minnesota Vikings camp) departed after last year. Tre Boston, however, is one of the ACC's top DBs.
Technical notes: Fedora's Southern Miss teams usually offered good spread value as an underdog (9-5 in role).
Miami (12/1): Al Golden might be wondering what he got himself into with the 'Canes, whose off-field problems regarding the Nevin Shapiro scandal have yet to be resolved. NCAA penalties might be coming later this season; the Hurricanes are hoping their self-imposed bowl band last season might grant them some leniency with the NCAA, but similar self-imposed sanctions by North Carolina didn't seem to help the Heels in their recent issues with the governing body.
Spring football didn't accomplished much for the 'Canes, either, with so many offensive contributors out with injury, including QB Stephen Morris (who should be ready for fall practice), although even when healthy in the past, he's been inconsistent. The offense was also thinned by early defections to the NFL by RB Lamar Miller, WR Tommy Streeter and OL Brandon Washington.
The defense must do some shoring up in the secondary after allowing 66 percent completions last season, although playmakers should abound in an experienced DB crew that features three seniors led by safeties Vaughn Telemaque and Ray-Ray Armstrong. Up front, keeping 300-lb.DT Curtis Porter (who has NFL potential) healthy will be key.
Technical notes: Golden has been mostly "golden" vs. the number in recent years at Temple and even with the Hurricanes last season, when they recorded a decent 7-5 spread mark. Since 2007 with the Owls, Golden is 30-18 vs. the line, including a solid 17-9 mark as an underdog.
But with offensive issues galore and NCAA penalties on the horizon, we are hardly bullish regarding Miami's chances this fall.
Duke (80/1): While expectations are lower in Durham, the Blue Devils don't want to lose forever. Which is why David Cutcliffe is reportedly under the gun this fall to at least get Duke to .500 and into a bowl for the first time since his arrival in 2008, not to mention for the program since 1994.
The Blue Devils don't appear as outmanned as usual this fall, however, with 15 starters back in the fold from a team that wasn't far from a breakthrough last fall despite its 3-9 record (four of those losses were by 7 points or fewer). Still, Cutcliffe's specialty is supposedly on offense, but he doesn't have former pupils Peyton and Eli Manning at his disposal in Durham. Instead, he had Sean Renfree, whose NFL stock could rise if he gets a bit more help from an annually anemic ground game that ranked a lowly 115th in national rush stats last fall. Expect Cutcliffe to also make added use of his other QBs, versatile Brandon Connette and Anthony Boone, with all three QBs likely on the field at times this fall.
Defense, or lack thereof, remains Duke's Achilles heel after ranking 92nd in total "D" and 90th in scoring defense last fall despite a switch to 4-2-5 alignments by defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. The platoon returns eight starters but remains short on impact performers. A healthy return of DE Kenny Anunike from a knee injury early last season could goose the pass rush.
Technical notes: Despite the failure to crack .500, Cutcliffe's Duke teams have offered decent value as an underdog, covering 10 of their last 15 getting points. Surprisingly, Cutcliffe has yet to post a losing spread mark in his four years as Duke's coach and is 25-17-3 vs. the line overall in that span.
But Cutcliffe has to post a winning straight-up record sooner or later to continue drawing paychecks from Duke. We're not sure he'll get another mulligan if he falls short again (as expected) this season.
Follow Don Best throughout the preseason as we preview each and every football conference: ACC ...