This season has been billed in some quarters as the ACC's Year of the Quarterback. It instead may go down as the Year of the Cornerback.
Sure, the ACC's quarterback malaise of the past few seasons mercifully has ended. Florida State has launched a Heisman Trophy campaign for Christian Ponder. Miami's Jacory Harris engineered exciting early-season wins over Florida State and Oklahoma last season. Georgia Tech's Joshua Nesbitt and Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor are two of the nation's most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks. North Carolina State's Russell Wilson threw for 3,027 yards last season and has a 4-to-1 (48 to 12) TD pass-to-interception ratio.
The improvement in quarterback production helped a league known for defense produce a bunch of shootouts last season. But that doesn't mean the ACC has suddenly turned into the Big 12.
For one thing, keep in mind that Nesbitt and Taylor are known primarily for their running ability, though Taylor improved his passing ability as much as just about any quarterback in the nation last season. For another thing, quarterbacks around the conference will be throwing against arguably the nation's best collection of cornerbacks.
The ACC's quarterbacks finally served notice last season that they could bring balance to a defense-oriented league. This season, the defensive backs figure to deliver their response.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Virginia Tech RB Ryan Williams. All he did as a redshirt freshman last season was rush for 1,655 yards and 21 touchdowns. Pittsburgh's Dion Lewis is the only active Division I player who rushed for more yards last season, and Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs is the only active player who rushed for more touchdowns. The return of Darren Evans from a knee injury could prevent him from matching his 2009 production, but Williams should continue to rank among the nation's most dangerous running backs.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: North Carolina DE Robert Quinn. After leading the ACC with 19 tackles for loss and ranking second in the conference with 11 sacks - only first-round draft pick Derrick Morgan of Georgia Tech had more - Quinn heads into his junior season as one of the nation's top pass rushers. He also forced six fumbles last season to rank fourth in the nation in that category. He plays on a defense littered with potential first-round picks, but Quinn's star power shines brightest of all.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: North Carolina QB T.J. Yates. North Carolina's defense will make the Tar Heels the favorite team of any NFL scouting director this fall, but all that talent won't make much of a difference unless Yates rebounds from a disappointing 2009 season in which he threw more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (14). As good as its defense is, UNC must upgrade its offense to have any shot at winning the ACC title. If Yates continues to struggle, don't be surprised if the Tar Heels bench him in favor of redshirt freshman Bryn Renner.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: North Carolina State LB Nate Irving. He's adjusting to a position switch (from outside linebacker to middle linebacker) and a new linebackers coach (former North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta). And he's supposed to immediately upgrade a unit that ranked 11th in the ACC in scoring defense last season. That's a lot of pressure to put on a guy trying to come back from a near-fatal car wreck that knocked him out for the '09 season and left him with a collapsed lung, broken rib, separated shoulder and a compound fracture in his leg.
BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Georgia Tech RB Anthony Allen. Allen, a senior who began his career at Louisville, carried the ball just 64 times last season, his first with the Yellow Jackets, but he averaged a whopping 9.7 yards per attempt. Allen takes over as the "B" back this season in place of the departed Jonathan Dwyer, who rushed for 1,395 yards in each of the past two seasons. Allen might not get all the way to 1,395, but he should cross the 1,000-yard mark and could challenge for the ACC rushing title.
BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Florida State CB Greg Reid. Reid, a sophomore who is the defending NCAA leader in punt-return average, should emerge as a standout defensive performer this season. He already showed his big-play ability last season by scoring on a 63-yard interception return against BYU and picking off a pass against Miami. Reid may lack size (he's 5 feet 9), but he knows how to play pass defense. Reid picked off four passes in one scrimmage this spring.
BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Clemson WR Bryce McNeal. Miami redshirt freshman RB Lamar Miller might have greater potential, but we're not sure how many carries he will get in the Hurricanes' crowded backfield. So we'll place our bets on McNeal, who could get more of an opportunity because Clemson lacks proven receivers. McNeal, a redshirt freshman and former Rivals100 prospect, showed his big-play potential by finishing with more than 100 yards on just three catches in a spring scrimmage. Other newcomers who could make an impact include Virginia redshirt freshman RB Dominique Wallace and North Carolina's Bryn Renner.
BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Boston College LB Kevin Pierre-Louis. We're taking a leap of faith in this true freshman based on his outstanding spring results after he arrived on campus in January. We're not sure how much playing time he will get in a linebacker corps that features Mark Herzlich and Luke Kuechly, but Pierre-Louis will deliver if he gets the opportunity. Perhaps Kuechly's 158-tackle performance as a freshman last season will cause BC coaches to take a chance on another newcomer.
MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers. The highest-rated recruit in Clemson history arrived on campus as the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2008 recruiting class, but he has recorded only four sacks in 955 career snaps. Bowers still has enormous potential, which he showed off with an 11-tackle effort in the ACC championship game. He remains a blue-chip NFL prospect. But he needs to develop into more of a pass-rushing force.
ACC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Virginia Tech over Florida State
COACH ON THE HOT SEAT: Maryland's Ralph Friedgen. After leading Maryland to at least 10 wins in each of his first three seasons on the job, the Fridge has cooled considerably. He now is coming off a 2-10 season and is working at a school that is in the process of hiring a new president and a new athletic director. Friedgen may need to lead Maryland to a bowl to impress his new bosses.
BEST COACHING STAFF: Virginia Tech. You can make a decent argument that Frank Beamer is the best active FBS coach without a national championship. You also can make a good case that Bud Foster is the best defensive coordinator in the business. This staff benefits from its continuity. Beamer is in his 24th season, and he brought Foster with him. Running backs coach Billy Hite started working here nine years before Beamer's arrival.
BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Miami's Mark Whipple. This conference's best assistant coaches are defensive coordinators, but Whipple deserves credit for helping Miami improve its ranking in total offense from 89th in 2008 to 45th last season. Whipple spent 16 years as a college head coach in the lower levels and posted a 121-59 record. He also has experience as an NFL quarterbacks coach.
BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Virginia Tech's Bud Foster. He's one of the major reasons Virginia Tech heads into the season as the ACC favorite despite having only one healthy returning defensive player who made at least six starts last season. The last time the Hokies entered a season with so many questions on defense was 2008. Foster's crew ended up ranking seventh in the nation in total defense and ninth in scoring defense that season.
THE OTHER STUFF
LSU vs. North Carolina at Atlanta, Sept. 4
Boise State vs. Virginia Tech at Landover, Md., Sept. 6
Florida State at Oklahoma, Sept. 11
Miami at Ohio State, Sept. 11
Florida State at Miami, Oct. 9
North Carolina at Miami, Oct. 23
Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech, Nov. 4
Clemson at Florida State, Nov. 13
Virginia Tech at North Carolina, Nov. 13
Virginia Tech at Miami, Nov. 20
TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Florida State. We understand it's hard to label the Seminoles as a potential surprise team when the ACC media have made them the preseason favorite in the Atlantic Division. But the way we see it, whenever a team wins a division title one season after a 7-6 finish, it constitutes a surprise. Florida State's offense is so good that the Seminoles should win the Atlantic as long as their defense is merely average.
TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: North Carolina. Yes, the defense is awesome. It won't matter if the offense is awful. The Tar Heels should be better than usual, but their offense isn't good enough for them to win their first ACC title since 1980. They might even end up with more losses than 2011 first-round draft picks.
GAME OF THE YEAR: Virginia Tech at Miami, Nov. 20. This game matches what we believe are the best teams in the ACC this season. It's a testament to the strength and balance of the Coastal Division that it would come as no surprise to us if Virginia Tech loses this game and still wins the conference title.
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Miami. The Hurricanes have consecutive road games with Ohio State, Pittsburgh and Clemson in the first four weeks of the season. They also have home games with Florida State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and USF plus a trip to Georgia Tech. Florida State's non-conference schedule is slightly tougher, but the Seminoles benefit from a conference slate that doesn't include Virginia Tech or Georgia Tech.
EASIEST SCHEDULE: Boston College. The Eagles play six of their first eight games at home. A home game with Notre Dame is the only potential loss in a non-conference schedule that also includes home dates with Weber State and Kent State plus a trip to Syracuse. Boston College also doesn't have to worry about playing Georgia Tech, Miami or North Carolina.
2, North Carolina State: Owen Spencer led the ACC in yards per catch last season (25.5), and George Bryan is one of the league's top tight ends.
3. North Carolina: Greg Little is the senior leader of a receiving corps with plenty of youth and plenty of upside. If Zack Pianalto stays healthy, he gives the Heels one of the nation's top pass-catching tight ends.
6. Clemson: Who will step up as the Tigers' return man now that C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford are gone?
7. Virginia Tech: The Hokies must break in a new kicker and punter, but history suggests their special teams will be just fine.
8. Boston College: Ryan Quigley is a fine punter, but the Eagles must find a new kicker. Boston College was first in the ACC in kickoff coverage and third in net punting last season.
9. Duke: Will Snyderwine has ended Duke's recent history of kicking frustration, but the Devils ranked last in the ACC in net punting last season.
10. Virginia: Robert Randolph was 17-of-19 on field-goal attempts last season, while Jimmy Howell ranked in the middle of the pack in punting.
11. North Carolina State: Josh Czajkowski went 10-of-12 on field-goal attempts last season, but Jeff Ruiz averaged just 37.9 yards per punt.
12. Wake Forest: Jimmy Newman was 5-of-8 on field-goal attempts from beyond 30 yards out last season with a season-long kick of 44 yards. The Deacons also ranked 110th in the nation in kickoff coverage.
1. Virginia Tech: In a league that has featured plenty of coaching turnover the past five seasons, the Hokies have thrived on continuity.
2. Georgia Tech: Nobody's arguing anymore about whether Paul Johnson's option attack can work in a major conference.
3. Wake Forest: Jim Grobe's job gets even tougher now that he finally must break in a new starting quarterback.
4. North Carolina: Butch Davis has done a great job of upgrading the talent base, but the Tar Heels must stop the late-season fades.
5. Boston College: Frank Spaziani's first season suggests that promoting from within was the right move.
6. Clemson: In his first full season on the job, Dabo Swinney won the division title that always eluded his predecessor.
7. Miami: Randy Shannon certainly has upgraded the Hurricanes' performance off the field, but the on-field product remains a work in progress.
8. Duke: His staff doesn't feature any big names, but David Cutcliffe has helped make Duke competitive. His job should get even tougher without QB Thaddeus Lewis.
9. Florida State: Jimbo Fisher has done a nice job of recruiting and overhauling the coaching staff, but we can't rank his staff any higher until we see what they can accomplish during the season
10. North Carolina State: Injuries and defensive woes have hindered Tom O'Brien's attempts to turn the Wolfpack into consistent winners. If it doesn't happen soon, he could be on the hot seat before long.
11. Maryland: Nobody in the conference is under more pressure right now than Ralph Friedgen
12. Virginia: Mike London won an FCS title at Richmond, but we still have no idea what to expect from him at the FBS level.