To understand where the ACC is right now on the college football landscape, you must first understand where this league was supposed to be. When league officials raided the Big East several years ago, taking Miami (FL), Virginia Tech and Boston College, the ACC was supposed to become the nations next superpower conference, right along the same lines of the SEC and Big 12.
Quite simply, that hasnt happened. Miami has been a total bust as they have yet to even reach the ACC Title Game. Virginia Tech and BC have both been considerably better, even meeting in last years Championship, but consider that this is a league that placed no team in the Top 10 in 2006 and then had VT at #9 as its highest finisher last year. Compounding the problem is that former league kingpin, Florida State, seems to be stuck in neutral having not won more than eight games in any year since the conference went to two divisions. The Seminoles are just 19-13 in ACC since expansion after capturing 12 of the leagues previous 16 titles.
Therefore, the ACC enters 2008 without a true national title contender, the only league amongst BCS conferences that can make such a claim. Those who follow the ACC closely will point to Clemson as the odds-on-favorite and a potential Top 5 team, but keep in mind that Tommy Bowden still runs this program. Last year, the Tigers were probably the best team in the conference and had the Atlantic Division Crown in its sights before dropping a home game to BC, 20-17, as eight-point favorites.
Clemson does return 16 starters this year, including QB Cullen Harper and RBs CJ Spiller and James Davis. They have not won an ACC Title since 1990 and to do so this year, they must survive road trips to fellow Atlantic contenders Wake Forest and Florida State. We will learn a lot about the Tigers in the opening week of the season when they meet Alabama in a neutral site affair (Atlanta). A win there and a 5-0 start is almost assured.
Florida State has its most returning starters (15) since the 1999 National Title team and essentially plays eight home games this season (7 true + vs. Colorado in Jacksonville), so Bobby Bowden will battle with his son all year long for the right to go to the ACC Title Game.
Wake Forest is another wildcard as the Deacons return 14 starters for what might be Jim Grobes best team yet. Keep in mind that Wake has never posted three consecutive winning seasons since joining the conference in 1953.
Over in the Coastal Division, the race is wide open. Virginia Tech is the incumbent, but the Hokies return just 10 starters from last years conference championship team. Anyone who watched last years Orange Bowl cant be a fan of QB Sean Glennon. Frank Beamer must replace his starting RB, top 4 WRs and top 4 tacklers from a year ago.
Therefore, with so many question marks at the top, the point of this preview will be to identify the one sleeper team to keep an eye on. That team, for us, will be Butch Davis North Carolina Tar Heels. Davis was a pretty sub-par NFL coach in Cleveland, but he has been very successful at this level. This team was a lot better than last years 4-8 record might indicate as six of those losses were by a touchdown or less. They draw Virginia Tech at home this year and last year actually outgained the Hokies 306-241 in a 17-10 setback. Eighteen returning starters is also a cause for rejoice.
The rest of the Coastal Division is loaded with question marks. Miami returns only 11 starters, but that might be a good thing. However, the Hurricanes top 3 QBs on the depth chart have never thrown a pass at this level. Georgia Tech has even less returning starters (9) and must play both Florida State and Clemson, unlike other division foes. Virginia was basically the anti-UNC last year, winning an NCAA record five games by two points or less. In other words, the Cavs werent nearly as good as their 6-2 conference record might indicate. Duke is 0-24 in conference play since the ACC was realigned.
Getting back to the Atlantic, Boston College will obviously take a step back due to the departure of QB Matt Ryan. Maryland did beat both Rutgers and BC last season, so they can be a darkhorse. Finally, we have NC State, who lost a stunning 47% of their letterman from a last years team that won just three conference games.
Overall, the ACC is too close to call and is a conference that wont be sending anyone to the BCS Title Game. However, we really do like North Carolina as a surprise team that could very well wind up in the ACC Title Game and be a solid value wager throughout the season.
Good Luck, Lenny