Another season of ACC football is on the horizon, and the nagging question regarding this league remains the same: when will the conference champ win its BCS bowl game? Since Florida State knocked off Virginia Tech (then a member of the Big East) in the 2000 Sugar Bowl, the league champ has lost every BCS tilt. Some by blowout (Maryland's loss to Florida in the Orange Bowl a few years back comes to mind) and others by a narrow margin (Virginia Tech's loss to Kansas in last year's Orange Bowl), but the results remains the same. So, is there an answer in the affirmative for the ACC's BCS woes? There just might be one: Clemson.
The Tigers, who were able to retain the services of head coach Tommy Bowden (he turned down Arkansas to remain at Clemson) and running back James Davis (who flirted with entering the NFL Draft back in January), are the clear team to beat in the eyes of many college football analysts heading into this season. The passionate fans, who've been without an ACC title since 1991 (the year before Florida State joined the league), aren't in the mood to settle for anything less than a conference title this year. But there will be some roadblocks in achieving that goal this season, and for a program with a penchant in recent years for allowing one bad moment snowball and nearly derail their entire season, that's not a good thing.
With Clemson the pick to win the Atlantic Division, the Coastal should once again rest firmly in the hands of defending ACC champ Virginia Tech. The dismissal of running back Branden Ore may be similar to that of LSU quarterback Ryan Perrilloux (read: addition by subtraction), but the Hokies in addition to a lack of experience in the backfield are also without playmakers at wide receiver with four graduating and another (junior Brandon Dillard) going down with a season-ending injury during off-season workouts. But head coach Frank Beamer has gone away from the two-quarterback system (Sean Glennon and Tyrod Taylor) that kick-started the offensive attack and got them to the Orange Bowl, selecting Glennon as starter. The Hokies hope to be able to redshirt Taylor, giving him three years of eligibility starting in 2009.
As for who can challenge these two favorites: in the Atlantic you have to like Wake Forest with the return of quarterback Riley Skinner and defensive playmaker Alphonso Smith. Head coach Jim Grobe has put together one of the greatest program turnarounds in recent college football history, and don't be surprised if the Deacs find their way to Tampa on December 6th. Florida State has to deal with some suspensions in their first three games, two of which are against Championship Subdivision foes. But if they can take care of Wake at home on September 20th, they just might be a darkhorse in the Atlantic Division race, a peculiar position in which to find a program of such prestige.
Maryland and North Carolina State both went into fall camp with question marks at quarterback, but the difference is that Coach Friedgen had a couple of proven commodities from which to choose in College Park. Chris Turner and Jordan Steffy have both played a great deal for the Terps, with Turner finishing third in the ACC in pass efficiency last season. He'll begin in the saddle, but the Terps have a nice insurance policy should he go down. The Wolfpack, on the other hand, will go with redshirt freshman Russell Wilson will begin the year as the starter, beating out incumbent Daniel Evans and Mike Glennon among others. State goes into the season with three capable running backs (Jamelle Eugene, Toney Baker and Andre Brown) that should be able to relieve some of the pressure placed on Wilson.
Boston College will have their hands full in replacing the leadership and skill of Matt Ryan, but at least Chris Crane made it an easy decision as to who the next quarterback would be. Just as pressing a concern is who will help fill the void left by departed running backs L.V. Whitworth and Andre Callender. Josh Haden will get a lot of looks as a true freshman, and he has the athletic ability to turn some heads this season. But they do welcome back defensive tackle B.J. Raji (academics) and linebacker Brian Toal (shoulder injury), both of whom missed last season. The Raji/ Ron Brace combo should make for one of the nation's best tackle combos.
On the other side, inexperience abounds which could mean a rise to second place for Butch Davis' North Carolina Tar Heels. Greg Little hit his stride late in the season at running back, and in Hakeem Nicks the Heels have one of the league's best wide receivers. If the defense, that while young has a wealth of ability, can hold its own the Heels could make their way to Tampa come December. Consistency at quarterback was an issue for Miami all season last year, so it'll be interesting to see if the tandem of Robert Marve and Jacory Harris can combine to provide stability. The two-quarterback system could see its first test on September 6th when Miami head to Gainesville to take on the Gators.
I say "could" instead of "should" because Marve is suspended for the opener, and if Harris plays well enough maybe he takes the job outright for that second game. But in Javarris James and Graig Cooper, head coach Randy Shannon will have one of the ACC's better running back combinations.
Paul Johnson brings the triple option to the ACC at Georgia Tech, but it's going to take some time for the players to get acquainted with the new system. However, the Yellow Jackets will play a role in the Coastal Division race this season, spoiling things for someone late in the year. Virginia had to say goodbye to Chris Long and Branden Albert, both of whom were first round selections. But to watch DE Jeffrey Ferguson and QB Jameel Sewell get dismissed due to academics could mean bad things for the Cavaliers, even with a loaded running back position. The linebackers will also be strong, led by Jon Copper and Clint Sintim.
And lastly, there's a Duke program with a new head coach in David Cutcliffe. It'll take some time for the Blue Devils to get things turned around, but they do have ten starters back on defense and WR Eron Riley is one of the ACC's best. Duke has already surprised some on the recruiting trail, and this should be a more athletic product on the field this season. As for how many more games they can win, I think four wins is a reasonable goal at this point.
The goal of the ACC during their expansion was to create a league that could compete with the nation's elite for national titles and multiple BCS berths. Neither has happened to this point. But to put that pressure on Tommy Bowden and Clemson this season could be a bit much, especially when you consider how much pressure is coming from his own fan base.