By Marc Lawrence
One of only two conferences (along with the SEC) with five teams in the pre-season Top 25, the ACC will brace itself in 2010 when they take on the toughest schedule in the nation against opponents that compiled a winning percentage of .604 last year. In fact, only the PAC 10 of the traditional ‘Big Six' conferences faced opponents who won more than 50 percent of their games in 2009.
Let's make this clear: this conference takes a back seat to none when it comes to stocking the NFL as, over the last four years, the ACC has led all conferences in terms of most players selected in the first-round of the NFL Draft (30).
And it doesn't stop there. Miami was one of only two teams (along with Notre Dame) honored this year by the AFCA as having the highest graduation rates in its football program of any schools in the nation, graduating 100% of their players for the class of 2002. It was the first time Miami has been honored.
It's all cash-and-carry in 2010 as, for the first time in ACC history, five 1,000-Yard Rushers return. And with Virginia Tech - the top defensive team in the land since 2004 - anchoring this loop, there is a lot to like about the ACC.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2010 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On' and ‘Play Against' Best Bets follow each team's preview.
BOSTON COLLEGE - *8 / 6 TEAM THEME: FOOL US ONCE
Thanks to a defense that ranked 14th against the run and 19th in total points allowed, the Eagles surpassed all expectations in 2009. Picked to finish last in the ACC Atlantic Division, the Eagles rewarded their backers with an eight-win season and an Emerald Bowl appearance. That was without 2008 defensive player of the year Mark Herzlich, who sat out the entire season with bone cancer. Herzlich is back and he joins ACC defensive rookie of the year Luke Kuechly, who led the conference in tackles per game, to anchor a solid linebacking corps. The defensive effort was really no surprise considering HC Frank Spaziani's roots. In fact, the winning season should have come as no surprise as Virginia Tech is the only ACC team with more wins than BC over the past four seasons. Another winning season in Chestnut Hill? Don't be surprised.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. NC State (10/9
CLEMSON - *7 / 6TEAM THEME - HOPE ‘SPILLERS' OVER
When a team loses a star RB like C.J. Spiller to the 1st round of the NFL draft, along with its top three WR's from the previous season, it generally spells doom. Especially when that team goes toe-to-toe with no less than seven bowlers from the previous season. But Dabo Swinney is not a doomsayer and he refuses to believe his team is primed to take a step back from last year's nine-win effort. Swinney, in fact, sees the glass being more than half full, noting four of his top five tacklers from last year's swarming defense are back. So is QB Kyle Parker, who won nine games as a redshirt freshman last season, including a Music City Bowl win over Kentucky. It's obvious Swinney is from the Brylcreem school of coaching - he believes ‘a little dab will do ya.' Another nine-win season? Now wouldn't that be debonair!
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Florida St (11/13)
FLORIDA STATE - *10 / 6
TEAM THEME: JIMBO-LAYA
It's official: legendary coach Bobby Bowden has finally retired and will now be working full-time on his great-grandfathering skills as he hands the keys over to Jimbo Fisher. Fisher needs to improve on a recipe that has seen the Seminoles go 16-16 in ACC play over the last four seasons. QB Christian Ponder returns for his senior season after a shoulder injury ended his 2009 campaign after nine games. Despite the early exit, Ponder still led the ACC in total offense and with nearly the entire offensive starting cast back, don't be surprised to see the exciting QB on more than a few Heisman ballots. With five Top 25 foes dotting this season's schedule, including road trips to Norman and Miami, it may just take a Heisman-like effort for the Cracker Barrel folks to forget about ol' Bobby.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. Florida (11/27)
MARYLAND - 7 / 5
TEAM THEME: SHELL-SHOCKED
After racing out to a 31-7 record in his first three years, it's been a slow demise for Ralph Friedgen seeing that his Turtles have posted four losing seasons in the last six years. A season-ending seven-loss skein sealed their 2009 fate and as a result, snapped a three-year bowl streak. Despite a scoring and pass defense that was the worst in the ACC last year, half of the Terrapins' 10 losses were by a meager 3.4 PPG. Thus, there's still some hope in College Park - but a slimmed-down ‘Fridge' will have to start serving up more victories in order to satisfy the faithful. The Terps will rely on RB Da'rel Scott (one of five 1,000-yard rushers returning to the ACC this season) to pick up the pace. A mid-season stretch that finds them on the road in four of five games will likely decide if these Turtles can sprint to the finish.
PLAY ON: as DD dog vs. Clemson (10/16)
NORTH CAROLINA STATE - *7 / 5
TEAM THEME: DANCING WITH THE STARS
Along with Buffalo, NC State is the only FBS team in the nation that improved its numbers on both sides of the ball while declining both SU and ATS in 2009. That almost always signals improvement the following season. Thus, we'll be dancing with these Wolves - especially with QB Russell Wilson donning the cleats. The junior has tossed for 48 TD's and run for eight others in his two seasons at Raleigh and is on course to break all of Philip Rivers' records. His dance partner is WR Owen Spencer, who broke the ACC record for the second straight year in yards per reception (25.5 - tops in the nation). The choreographer of this group is HC Tom O'Brien. O'Brien, himself, has stepped on some toes along the way, posting an 84-65-2 overall ATS mark, including 56-38-1 ATS in conference play and 17-2-1 ATS versus foes off back-to-back ATS wins. We like those moves.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. Florida St (10/28)
WAKE FOREST - 6 / 7
TEAM THEME: TURNOVER IS FAIR PLAY
After four consecutive winning seasons in which they averaged more than eight wins per year, the Demons fell below the surface with a 5-7 effort in 2009. That makes them a genuine ‘Mission Team' in 2010 and we'll be more than anxious to support them in this revenge year. Unfortunately, we'll be doing so without the services of 4-year starter QB Riley Skinner, who totaled nearly 10,000 yards of offense in his career. An even scarier thought is that no QB on the roster has completed a collegiate pass. However, there's more than one way to ‘skin' an opponent and the stat that grabs our attention is quite simple: in 2009, the Deacons were a negative -5 in turnovers after being +13, +9 and +17 the previous three seasons. Skinner or not, look for the Deacons to ‘Wake' up in 2010.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. Florida St (9/25)
DUKE - 9 / 6
TEAM THEME: DEVILS GET THEIR DUE
Like it is for the devil down below, things are looking up in Durham. Three conference wins in 2009 were one more than Duke had won the previous three years combined. In fact, the nine wins tallied in two years under HC David Cutcliffe is only one less than the Blue Devils won the first eight years of the decade. The loss of QB Thaddeus Lewis, only the second signal caller in ACC history to toss for more than 10,000 yards, will hurt. However, nine other offensive starters return from a unit that averaged over 25 PPG, including three wideouts who accounted for over 2,400 yards and 15 TD's. Not to play Devil's advocate, but one fact is certain if these cellar-dwellers expect to surface: Cutcliffe will need to avoid a perpetual season-ending slide that has seen Duke go 3-37 in each of the final four games of the season since 2000.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Army (9/25)
GEORGIA TECH - *6 / 8
TEAM THEME: RUSH TO JUDGEMENT
With Al Groh handling the defensive coordinator duties, the Jackets coaching staff now boasts the last three ACC Coaches of the Year. Offensive-minded HC Paul Johnson, winner of the last two awards, will rely on Groh to shore up a defense that allowed over 25 PPG and almost 5 yards per rush. Despite the defensive deficiencies, the Jackets still recorded 11 wins - the most since their 1990 national championship season. The offense has no such concerns as QB Josh Nesbitt is back at the helm. Nesbitt is the perfect caretaker for Johnson's triple-option offense, becoming only the second QB in ACC history to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season. Despite losing Jonathon Dwyer, last season's second-ranked rushing attack (295 YPG) shouldn't miss a beat as Roddy Jones (7.7 YPC) and Anthony Allen (26 career TD's) return to Atlanta. Looks like another ACC title ‘run' for the Ramblin' Wreck.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Virginia Tech (11/4)
MIAMI, FLA - *6 / 8
TEAM THEME: PUNCH AND JACORY
A Canes conundrum occurred last year when QB Jacory Harris evolved as the full-time starter and, despite playing hurt throughout the 2nd-half of the season, proceeded to lead Miami to a 9-4 record, their most wins since 2005. What Randy Shannon learned is that there is little-to-no depth behind Harris and the fate of this season lies within his rail-thin frame. Like last year, the Canes will be tested early as three of Miami's first four games will be on the road against teams that won bowl games last season. In fact, UM will take on no less than eight bowlers in 2010. Shannon will need to rely on the strength of this team - a defensive line that returns three starters along with 2009 projected starter Adewale Ojome, who missed the season with a broken jaw after a taking a punch from a teammate. If Harris can stay healthy, the Canes may deliver a few more knockout blows.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. Clemson (10/2)
NORTH CAROLINA - *10 / 9
TEAM THEME: WELL-HEELED
While our favorite meaning of the word ‘loaded' comes courtesy of our local watering hole, we'll use Webster's version to describe the 2010 Tar Heels: containing bullets or other ammunition and ready to fire. And ready they are! Ten starters are back on offense, including virtually every OL starter that went down at one time or another to injuries. Nine starters are back from a defense that has combined to make a total of 234 starts and held 13 opponents to 94 YPG below their total offensive average. Included in those not-so ‘baby' blues are all four senior DB's and DE Robert Quinn, the ACC leader in sacks. In fact, five all-star defensive candidates decided to forego the NFL draft to return to Chapel Hill. If this team stays healthy and can overcome a top-heavy schedule ‘loaded' with nine winning opponents, they might force Webster to create a few new adjectives.
PLAY ON: vs. Georgia Tech (9/18)
VIRGINIA - *6 / 7
TEAM THEME: LONDON BRIDGE
Back-to-back losing seasons spelled the end of the line for Al Groh. His replacement, Mike London, will try to bridge a winning season despite returning only six starters on each side of the ball. London coached the Richmond Spiders to a 24-5 mark the last two years, including a FCS championship in 2008. Ironically, the former UVA assistant makes his Cavaliers' debut at home against the Spiders. He'll need improvement out of senior triggerman Mark Veria, who started eight games last season - a not so proud accomplishment considering the Cavs' offense finished dead last in the ACC in overall yardage and in scoring in 2009. A tough opening six-game schedule (4 bowlers, 1 FCS playoff team) and a treacherous five-game road slate (foes a combined 43-22), likely means the bridge keeps crumbling in Charlottesville.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Maryland (11/13)
VIRGINIA TECH - *8 / 5
TEAM THEME: AT-TEN-TION
Gobblers' 10-plus wins in each of the last six seasons puts them in select company as only Texas can claim as many double-digit win seasons during that span. It's been no surprise that it's been the defense leading the way, allowing a nation-low 268 YPG since 2004. Thanks to the smothering ‘D', the Hokies have amazingly not lost a game by more than 10 points in their last 39 tries. However, with only five defensive starters back, it may be the offense that actually carries the load in 2010. And loaded they are. QB Tyrod Taylor (5th in the nation in passing efficiency) returns along with RB's Ryan Williams (1,655 yards - 3rd most by a freshman in ACC history) and Darren Evans (top back in the conference heading into 2009 before a season-ending knee injury). A season-opening victory over Boise State should put Beamer's boys in the center of the BCS map.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. Miami Fla (11/20)