ACC Football Preview

July 22nd, 2009

Quantity and quality for contenders

By Raphielle Johnson


The 2008 season saw the Atlantic Coast Conference begin with what many thought was a clear favorite in the Clemson Tigers. Boasting a loaded backfield and playmakers all over the field, Tommy Bowden’s team was expected to be a serious threat to end the league’s losing streak in BCS games.


Alabama took care of those ideas in less that one half.


The avalanche began with the ill-fated decision to promise freshman Jamie Harper the first carry of the season, and his fumble sent the Crimson Tide on their way. Clemson never fully recovered from the opening game stinker, resulting in the removal of Bowden and offensive coordinator Rob Spence, and Dabo Swinney taking over on an interim basis (at the time). With the Tigers falling by the wayside and the remainder of the league embodying the word “parity”, it looked like the ACC would go another year before winning their BCS game.


Luckily for the conference, Frank Beamer’s Virginia Tech Hokies were more than up for the challenge in knocking off Cincinnati in the FedEx Orange Bowl. A young team thought by many to be a year away from conference title contention, Virginia Tech recovered from regular season road losses to Boston College, Florida State and Miami to earn a trip to Tampa, where they beat BC to take the league crown. Four losses this season would be a serious disappointment for a team thought by many to be a possible national title contender, much less the favorite to win the ACC.


But if you think a three-peat will be a walk in the park think again; Virginia Tech could have a hard enough time simply making the ACC Championship Game. Year one of the spread option under Paul Johnson was a success at Georgia Tech, resulting in nine wins and their first win in their last seven meetings over rival Georgia. Reigning ACC Offensive Player of the Year Jonathan Dwyer is back in Atlanta, as are quarterback Josh Nesbitt, running back Roddy Jones and eight defensive starters led by hard-hitting defensive back Morgan Burnett.


North Carolina will look to mount a challenge as well, with Butch Davis’ team going into the 2009 campaign with nine starters back on defense. Quarterback T.J. Yates will lead the offense, but if the Tar Heels are to be a factor in the Coastal Division race they’ll need to find some continuity along an offensive line that replaces three starters from a season ago.


Miami should also be improved under Randy Shannon, but the Hurricanes may still be a year away from a serious challenge for the ACC title. Quarterback Jacory Harris now knows that he is the man with Robert Marve transferring to Purdue, but will be play well enough to keep the job for the entire season?


Duke may not get the pub that the other schools in the division, but they do have one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Thaddeus Lewis. All Lewis did last season was finish second in the ACC in total offense, earning Second Team All-ACC honors. But David Cutcliffe’s team returns just ten starters, something that will test the improved recruiting of the Duke program.


Virginia, the lone victim of the Blue Devils in league play last season, is still looking for a suitable answer at quarterback. Jameel Sewell is back in the fold after missing all of last season due to academic issues, but he’s no shoo-in to reclaim the job with 2008 starter Marc Verica and Vic Hall both in the fold. Hall is one of the best athletes in the ACC, a player who you could end up seeing at just about any position on the field at any given time. The Cavaliers do return four starters on the offensive line, so they should be in decent shape there.


Of the two divisions, the Atlantic may be the one that most closely resembles last year’s ACC. It’s anyone’s guess who will represent the Atlantic in the ACC Championship Game. The trendy pick of some has been NC State, which boasts arguably the league’s best quarterback in sophomore Russell Wilson. Tom O’Brien’s Wolfpack squad returns fourteen starters this season, but they’ll need players like WR Owen Spencer to step up and make plays if they’re to end up in Tampa.


Florida State may not be at the level many grew accustomed to seeing them at in the prior decade, but they’re still a threat to win the ACC. Quarterback play will be the key, as it has for years in Tallahassee, and Christian Ponder will need to show signs of progress if the Seminoles are to challenge for a BCS berth. Mickey Andrews’ defense lost a lot of talent after the 2008 season, beginning with defensive lineman Everette Brown. Eight starters will need to be replaced, but defense has never really been a problem at FSU.


Wake Forest, Clemson and Maryland could finish just about anywhere in the Atlantic Division standings this season. Riley Skinner is back for what seems to be his tenth year in Winston-Salem, but Jim Grobe’s most important task will be to replace defensive stars such as Alphonso Smith, Aaron Curry and Stanley Arnoux. Of the four starters back on defense, three are up front with John Russell and Boo Robinson leading the way. The offense should be up to its usual tricks with nine starters back on that side of the ball.


Dabo Swinney was rewarded for keeping the Tigers together as interim head coach with the full-time gig, and luckily for him C.J. Spiller decided to stick around for one more season. Spiller is a threat to go to the house every time he touches the ball, and Jamie Harper should be ready to step in and earn some more work in the backfield. The question: quarterback.


Kyle Parker left spring camp as the frontrunner for the job, even though he was also a mainstay on the Clemson baseball team. Willy Korn, the “chosen one” in the eyes of some fans when he first stepped on campus, worked on skills under the tutelage of offensive guru Jerry Rhome. And incoming freshman Tajh Boyd will also look to earn some snaps this season. Jacoby Ford is another of the eight returning starters on offense, and with all five linemen back Swinney could hit the ground running. But are the Tigers mentally tough enough to handle adversity? The answer will have a direct impact on how good of a season the Tigers have.


Maryland is an interesting team to look at heading into the 2009 campaign, with their entire backfield returning to College Park. But just ten overall starters return, so while Ralph Friedgen has talent at his fingertips does he have enough to be a serious threat in the ACC? The same goes for Boston College and new head coach Frank Spaziani, who finally gets the keys to the program after being an institution in Chestnut Hill for over a decade. The Eagles do not have a quarterback that has taken a snap at the collegiate level with the departure of Dominique Davis, but running backs Montell Harris and Josh Haden are back.


Four starters return up front, and solid offensive line play has been a constant at BC since the Tom Coughlin years. But the defense will miss the presence of 2008 ACC Defensive Player of the Year Mark Herzlich, who will miss this season while undergoing treatment for Ewing’s sarcoma (a form of bone cancer). Middle linebacker Mike McLaughlin will need to lead the BC defense if the Eagles are to reach bowl eligibility, much less win the Atlantic. Then again, Boston College tends to find themselves in the middle of the title hunt no matter how much (or how little) people talk about them in July and August.


Storyline: Quantity and quality. Just like last season the ACC won’t be short on conference title contenders. But unlike last season the candidates will be of higher caliber, thus garnering a little more respect for the conference on the national level.


Players of the Year: RB Jonathan Dwyer (Georgia Tech) and FS Kam Chancellor (Virginia Tech)


How they’ll finish:

Atlantic:          1. Florida State             Coastal:          1. Virginia Tech

                        2. Clemson                                                       2. Georgia Tech

                        3. NC State                                                      3. North Carolina

                        4. Wake Forest                                                4. Miami

                        5. Maryland                                                      5. Virginia

                        6. Boston College                                             6. Duke


Next: ACC (Atlantic and Coastal) Ultimate Schedules