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Basketball rules the day in the ACC, especially when Duke and North Carolina are dominating the courts. But the re-emergence of Florida State as a national powerhouse has put ACC football back on the map.
With wins against Georgia and Ohio State last year, Clemson also finds itself ascending. If Miami (FL) and Virginia Tech can return to prominence, ACC football could begin to rival the Pac-12 as the country’s second best conference.
Will the ACC’s ascension continue in 2014?
Let’s examine what the conference has to offer from top to bottom.
1. Miami Hurricanes (Projected: 9-3, 6-2 in conference)
Key Players: DE Anthony Chickillo, WR Stacy Coley, RB Duke Johnson, LB Denzel Perryman, TE Clive Walford
Schedule Breakdown: The Hurricanes open the season on the road against Louisville. It’ll be the first ACC game for the Cardinals, so not only will a win create momentum for Miami (FL), but it also makes a statement to the rest of the conference. Of course, all eyes will be on the November 15 meeting against Florida State. Last year, Miami (FL) played the Seminoles well for about a half. This time around, they’ll look to give the defending champs a good game from start to finish.
Analysis: Replacing Stephen Morris at quarterback is the key to the season. It’s still anyone’s guess as to who replaces him, though. Al Golden has yet to name a starter, with freshman Brad Kaaya and transfer Jake Heaps being the frontrunners. Regardless of who is under center, the return of Johnson is a major boon to the offense. The junior running back is a big play waiting to happen. Perhaps even more important than the developments on offense is what happens on defense. The Hurricanes were woeful on that side of the ball, particularly in the second half of last season. If they’re going to win the coastal division, the defense needs to play better.
Bowl Projection: Capital One
2. Duke Blue Devils (9-3, 5-3)
Key Players: QB Anthony Boone, LB Kelby Brown, S Jeremy Cash, WR Jamison Crowder, TE Braxton Deaver, OG Laken Tomlinson
Schedule Breakdown: Duke won’t play Florida State unless the two programs meet in the ACC championship. They also don’t play Clemson, so a potential 10-win season is within the realm of possibility. In fact, their toughest game on the schedule is at Miami, which could decide the coastal division.
Analysis: Crowder leads the way on offense. He is among the conference’s most-exciting players. Expect a buzz (if there isn’t one already) to develop around his draft status. Defensively, Duke is a wild card. They were able to beat down mid-tier programs a season ago, but the top-tier programs (Florida State and Texas A&M) had their way with them. Nevertheless, Duke deserves credit for sticking with David Cutcliffe. It hasn’t always been pretty, but the Blue Devils are a program on the rise, who could very well reach a January bowl.
Bowl Projection: Music City
3. North Carolina Tar Heels (7-5, 5-3)
Key Players: WR Quinshad Davis, LB Norkeithus Otis, LB Jeff Schoettmer, WR Ryan Switzer, QB Mitch Trubisky, QB Marquise Williams
Schedule Breakdown: Road trips to Clemson, Duke, East Carolina, Miami (FL), and Norte Dame will go along ways in determining North Carolina’s season. Taking two of those games could get them to nine wins, if they’re able to take care of business at home.
Analysis: Winning four of their final five games last season gives North Carolina momentum entering this season. Quite a bit of talent from last year’s team moved on, though. The biggest departure was tight end Eric Ebron, but the trenches took major hits as well. As a result, both the offensive and defensive lines enter the year with some ambiguity. Still, Larry Fedora has recruited well, so North Carolina is as talented as any team in the coastal division. They just need some seasoning.
Bowl Projection: Pinstripe
4. Virginia Tech Hokies (8-4, 5-3)
Key Players: QB Michael Brewer, CB Kendall Fuller, QB Mark Leal, DT Luther Maddy, DE Dadi Nicolas
Schedule Breakdown: With four of their first five games at home, Virginia Tech has a chance to build early-season momentum. They do have an uphill climb against Ohio State on September 6, but a 4-1 start would position them well as they enter the meat of their conference schedule. Games against Duke, Miami (FL), and North Carolina are crucial to their conference standing.
Analysis: The off-season buzz in Virginia Tech centers on replacing quarterback Logan Thomas. Inconsistencies plagued his college career, so the Hokies will hope to get more consistency from the position with either Brewer or Leal. Virginia Tech usually features a potent defense and this year won’t be an exception. Maddy, a preseason candidate for the Lombardi Award, is the player to watch. He’ll make the entire defensive line better, particularly Nicolas.
Bowl Projection: Sun
5. Pittsburgh Panthers (7-5, 3-5)
Key Players: RB Isaac Bennett, WR Tyler Boyd, OT T.J. Clemmings, RB James Conner, S Ray Vinopal, QB Chad Voytik
Schedule Breakdown: A favorable early-season schedule will get Pittsburgh off to a fast start. It’s within reason to expect them to be 5-1 or 6-0 when they host Virginia Tech on October 16. It will be all down hill from there, though, as three of Pittsburgh’s final five games come against Duke, Miami (FL), and North Carolina
Analysis: Because of their schedule, the Panthers are a dark horse in the coastal division. Paul Chryst has done a nice job with recruiting, evident by Conner’s performance (799 yards and 8 touchdowns) last season. The team does need to replace quarterback Tom Savage and defensive tackle Aaron Donald, but the foundation is in place for Pittsburgh to make some noise.
Bowl Projection: Military
6. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (5-7, 2-6)
Key Players: DT Adam Gotsis, S Isaiah Johnson, RB Zach Laskey, OG Shaquille Mason, LB Quayshawn Nealy, QB Justin Thomas
Schedule Breakdown: The Yellow Jackets’ quest for bowl eligibility may come down to their final two games. On November 15, they hose Clemson, who dropped 55 points on them last season. Two weeks later, they travel to Athens to play instate rival Georgia.
Analysis: Defending Paul Johnson’s triple-option is always tricky for opponents, but Georgia Tech enters this season having lost a ton of experience, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Whether the new crop of players can operate Johnson’s offense sufficiently will determine if the Yellow Jackets qualify for a bowl game.
Bowl Projection: None
7. Virginia Cavaliers (2-10, 0-8)
Key Players: DT Andrew Brown, DE Eli Harold, S Anthony Harris, CB Demetrious Nicholson, RB Kevin Parks
Schedule Breakdown: Virginia will find itself as underdogs a lot in ’13, especially on the road against Duke, Florida State, and rival Virginia Tech. The Cavaliers also have a challenging non-conference schedule. They open the season home against UCLA and travel to Utah to play BYU.
Analysis: Recruiting rankings don’t mean a thing if the players don’t produce on the field. Virginia hasn’t recruited badly, according to most experts, but the Cavaliers have won just six games in two seasons. Unfortunately, because of a difficult schedule, another two-win season could be in the cards.
Bowl Projection: None
1. Florida State Seminoles (12-0, 8-0)
Key Players: DE Mario Edwards Jr., OT Cameron Erving, WR Rashad Greene, OG Tre’ Jackson, WR Ermon Lane, TE Nick O’Leary, RB Karlos Williams, CB P.J. Williams, QB Jameis Winston
Schedule Breakdown: Not only is Florida State favorite to win all their games, but they’ll be favorite to win most (if not all) by double-digits. The Seminoles play seven of their games at home, and their road schedule is certainly manageable, with Miami (FL) posing as their only real threat.
Analysis: Good doesn’t begin to describe the 2013 Florida State Seminoles. Simply put, they were special. They averaged 51.6 points per game and didn’t play in a game decided by less than 14 points until the national championship. They stocked the NFL with seven draft picks from last year’s team, and their best two players (Winston and Edwards) are actually returning. Jimbo Fisher has put together a team so talented that they may rival the Miami (FL) teams from 2001-02. However, as talented as those Hurricane teams were, they failed to win back-to-back national championships.
Bowl Projection: Sugar
2. Clemson Tigers (9-3, 7-1)
Key Players: CB Mackensie Alexander, LB Stephone Anthony, DE Vic Beasley, DT Grady Jarrett, QB Cole Stoudt, QB Deshaun Watson
Schedule Breakdown: Clemson faces a brutal start to their season, with road games against Florida State and Georgia. They also finish the regular-season against South Carolina. It’s the middle of their schedule, however, that’ll determine whether they reach a major bowl game.
Analysis: This will be a telling year for Dabo Swinney’s program. Clemson lost a lot of talent to the NFL last season, so replacing them won’t be easy. However, there’s a reason why the top teams stay on top for so long. They don’t rebuild. They reload. A spot in the Orange Bowl will open up with Florida State presumably heading for the college football playoffs. If Clemson reloads, they’re a good bet to fill that void. If they’re rebuilding, then you can expect Duke or Miami (FL) to receive the bid.
Bowl Projection: Orange
3. Louisville Cardinals (8-4, 5-3)
Key Players: RB Dominique Brown, CB Charles Gaines, QB Will Gardner, LB Lorenzo Mauldin, WR DeVante Parker, WR Eli Rogers
Schedule Breakdown: Entering their first year of ACC play, the Cardinals won’t have to wait long to get a taste of what the ACC is all about. They open the season at home against Miami (FL). The Cardinals did thump the Hurricanes in last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl, but conference games bring out a different demeanor, so expect a tighter contest this time around. Other key games include at Clemson, versus Florida State, and at Norte Dame.
Analysis: Good talent left behind by Charlie Strong and a manageable schedule will make Louisville’s transition to the ACC go well. Perhaps the biggest obstacle in front of the Cardinals is they play in the stacked atlantic division, which features Clemson and Florida State. Moreover, you don’t replace Teddy Bridgewater’s production overnight.
Bowl Projection: Belk
4. Syracuse Orangemen (7-5, 4-4)
Key Players: WR Brisly Estime, OT Sean Hickey, QB Terrel Hunt, LB Cam Lynch
Schedule Breakdown: The beginning and the end of Syracuse’s schedule is the key to their season. Syracuse starts the year with winnable games against Central Michigan, Maryland, and Villanova. They end the year with road games against Pittsburgh and Boston College. They should reach a bowl game if they only lose one of those games. Losing two, however, and things could get dicey.
Analysis: Having an established quarterback (Hunt) should help Syracuse, especially if they play more up-tempo on offense. The defense should also continue to grow under Scott Shafer. They’re still not quite on the level of the mid-tier ACC schools, but another bowl win, and Syracuse would position themselves well for 2015.
Bowl Projection: Detroit Lions
5. N.C. State Wolfpack (6-6, 2-6)
Key Players: QB Jacoby Brissett, LB Brandon Pittman, DT Thomas Teal, RB Shadrach Thornton, WR Bryan Underwood
Schedule: An easy non-conference schedule could propel N.C. State into a bowl game. The Wolfpack should start the season 4-0 before playing Florida State on September 27. The Seminoles will thump them, setting off a chain of losses for N.C. State, before they finish the year with games against Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, and North Carolina. If they can take two of those games, they’ll reach bowl eligibility.
Analysis: Just winning a couple of conference games will be progress for N.C. State, as they went 0-8 in conference a year ago. They should get two or three, as long as their offense plays up to its potential. The onus will be on Brissett, a transfer from Florida, to lead the charge. The defense -- especially against the run -- needs to show improvements, though.
Bowl Projection: Independence
6. Boston College Eagles (4-8, 2-6)
Key Players: LB Steven Daniels, C Andy Gallik, OG Brandon Vardaro, OG Harris Williams, RB Myles Willis
Schedule Breakdown: Non-conference games against Colorado State and USC could cost Boston College bowl eligibility. If they lose those games (and I think they will), then they’ll need to make it up in conference. Pittsburgh and Syracuse are their best bets.
Analysis: How do you replace a 2,000-yard rusher? You hope he was the product of a very good offensive line. Boston College returns three of their offensive line starters and welcomes Ian Silberman (a Florida transfer) to the mix. Still, Williams carried the Eagles on his back last year, so they’ll need a runner to emerge. The Eagles play with good fundamentals on defense. If the offense falters, the defense should be able to keep them competitive.
Bowl Projection: None
7. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (2-10, 0-8)
Key Players: S Ryan Janvion, CB Kevin Johnson, CB Merrill Noel, RB Orville Reynolds, QB John Wolford
Schedule Breakdown: I found just two wins (Army and Gardner-Webb) on Wake Forest’s schedule. Non-conference road games against Louisiana-Monroe and Utah State are going to be difficult. Winning more than two conference games would be surprising.
Analysis: The good news for Wake Forest fans is Dave Clawson wins wherever he coaches. He left Bowling Green in excellent shape after guiding them to their first 10-win season since 2003. The bad news, however, is that it’s going to take time to turn the Deacons into a winner.
Bowl Projection: None
Florida State over Miami (FL) -- The Seminoles should have no problem marching through the ACC en route to an appearance in the inaugural college football playoff.
Update: Due to the injury to Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, certain bowl projections have changed. The current update reflects these changes.