August 4, 2011

Seminoles poised to reclaim heavyweight status

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Virginia Tech left the Big East for the ACC in 2004 and replaced Florida State as the league's dominant program shortly thereafter.

FSU now seems eager to reclaim its former status as the conference heavyweight.

After going 10-4 last season, its first under Jimbo Fisher, Florida State heads into the fall as a prohibitive favorite to win the league championship. The Seminoles also could establish themselves as legitimate national title contenders Sept. 17 when they play host to Oklahoma, which is expected to open the season atop each of the major polls.

"We embrace it," Fisher said. "That's why I wanted to be coach at Florida State and that's why players come to Florida State, to win championships.''

FSU has won plenty of them, just not recently. The Seminoles won at least a share of the ACC title in each of its first nine seasons in the conference, including its 1993 and '99 national championship seasons. But the ACC hasn't been a major player in the national championship sweepstakes Florida State's run of 14 consecutive finishes in the top five of The Associated Press poll ended after the 2000 season, though Virginia Tech headed into the 2007 postseason third in the BCS standings.

But the Seminoles haven't won the league title since 2005, the year of the inaugural conference championship game.

Virginia Tech beat Florida State 44-33 in last season's championship game for its third league title in the past four seasons. The Hokies have won the conference four times in their seven seasons as a league member, and Virginia Tech also is the only FBS program to win at least 10 games in each of the past seven seasons.

This season, Virginia Tech must replace ACC player of the year Tyrod Taylor plus former All-ACC running backs Ryan Williams and Darren Evans, while FSU returns a plethora of talent on both sides of the ball from a team that went 10-4 last season.

"There's an expectation to win here," Virginia Tech wide receiver Danny Coale said. "Each and every year, you expect to win and compete for an ACC championship. While there will be some young guys in new positions, those expectations haven't changed."

Virginia Tech received a huge boost in its bid to win the Coastal Division last week when North Carolina fired coach Butch Davis amid an NCAA investigation into the football program. The move thrusts North Carolina's program into disarray and also should provide a lift to Miami, which is trying to bounce back from a disappointing 7-6 season under new coach Al Golden.

On the field, not much has changed in regard to the ACC. Once again, the league has plenty of star power on defense and plenty of questions on offense.

The ACC boasts last season's FBS leaders in interceptions (Virginia Tech cornerback Jayron Hosley) and tackles (Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly) plus two of the nation's top pass rushers (Florida State's Brandon Jenkins and North Carolina's Quinton Coples).

But there's a serious lack of experience on the other side of the ball. Boston College's Montel Harris is the ACC preseason player of the year and the only guy in the conference who rushed for as much as 900 yards last season. Most of the top teams in the conference - including Florida State and Virginia Tech - also have quarterbacks beginning their first full seasons as starters.

The lack of notable players on offense was obvious when the ACC media voted on their preseason player of the year. Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel finished second in the voting and Virginia Tech running back David Wilson was fourth, even though both are entering their first seasons as starters.

Manuel, who has made four career starts, isn't the only inexperienced quarterback heading into the season amid high expectations. Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas, Clemson's Tajh Boyd, North Carolina State's Mike Glennon and North Carolina's Bryn Renner also have garnered plenty of preseason attention, yet none has started a single college game.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Boston College RB Montel Harris. He wasn't the top running back prospect on his high school team at Jacksonville Trinity Christian. That honor belonged to Jamie Harper, an ex-Clemson running back now with the Tennessee Titans. Nor was he the most highly touted running back to sign with Boston College in 2008. The fanfare instead was reserved for Josh Haden, who eventually transferred to Toledo. Harris, a former two-star prospect, heads into his senior season with 3,600 career rushing yards to lead all active FBS players. Harris is within striking distance of the ACC career record held by North Carolina State's Ted Brown, who rushed for 4,602 yards from 1975-78. He already is Boston College's career leader in carries (756) and 100-yard rushing games (21). He's done all this while playing on a team that hasn't had much of a passing attack for most of his career, allowing opposing defenses to focus on stopping him.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Boston College LB Luke Kuechly. Not only do the Eagles have the leading active rusher in the FBS ranks, they also boast the game's most prolific tackler, at least when it comes to stops per game. Kuechly has delivered an astounding 341 tackles in his two-year career and leads all active FBS players with 13.1 tackles per game. Kuechly had 110 solos and 183 total tackles to lead all players in both categories last season. He also was a finalist for the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation's top linebacker. One year earlier, he produced 87 solos and 158 total tackles to rank second in each category.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: North Carolina State QB Mike Glennon. Although Glennon hasn't started a college game, North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien already has said the former Rivals100 prospect is "as talented as any quarterback that I've had." That's high praise, considering O'Brien coached Atlanta Falcons star Matt Ryan while at Boston College. O'Brien already gave Glennon a major vote of confidence by declaring him the starter this season in a move that caused former All-ACC selection Russell Wilson to transfer to Wisconsin. Wilson last season led the Wolfpack to a 9-4 record while ranking 10th nationally in total offense. If Glennon struggles this season while Wilson stars, O'Brien is going to receive quite a bit of criticism.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: North Carolina CB Charles Brown. Although North Carolina's defense is loaded in the front seven, the Tar Heels lack experience in the secondary. In fact, the Heels don't have a single player in the secondary who made more than four starts last season. Their most proven defensive back is Brown, who made 22 starts before sitting out the 2010 season as part of the NCAA investigation into North Carolina's program. Brown had 66 tackles, three interceptions and nine pass breakups in 2009. He needs to deliver similar production this season.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Virginia Tech RB David Wilson. You could pick any one of quite a few quarterbacks (Florida State's E.J. Manuel, Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas, Clemson's Tajh Boyd, Glennon) in this category). You also could make a case for Miami RB Lamar Miller. But we think Wilson's the safest choice. A star triple jumper on the Virginia Tech track team, Wilson already has shown his big-play ability while splitting time with Ryan Williams and Darren Evans in the backfield. Wilson has averaged at least 5.5 yards per carry each of the past two seasons. He already has gained 2,096 all-purpose yards and has produced 15 touchdowns in a part-time role. He scored 11 touchdowns last season - five on runs from scrimmage, four on receptions and two on kickoff returns. Now that Williams and Evans have turned pro, Wilson takes over as Virginia Tech's No. 1 tailback. Don't be surprised if he rushes for well over 1,000 yards while making several highlight-worthy plays.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Florida State LB Christian Jones. Although this five-star prospect played sparingly on defense as a true freshman, Jones should have an opportunity for a feature role this fall because Nigel Bradham is Florida State's only returning starter at linebacker. Jones made enough of an impression in spring practice to head into preseason camp atop the depth chart. Jones signed with Florida State as the No. 2 outside linebacker and No. 20 overall prospect in the 2010 recruiting class. He is the son of former Florida State defensive end Willie Jones, a second-round pick of the Oakland Raiders in 1979. The Seminoles would love Jones to make the same kind of impact as his dad.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Florida State C Jacob Fahrenkrug. Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett doesn't hand out praise lightly, and he was raving about Fahrenkrug in spring practice. Rated as the No. 4 junior college prospect in the 2011 recruiting class, Fahrenkrug wasted no time making an impact after arriving in Tallahassee from North Dakota State College of Science. He exited spring practice as the Seminoles' first-team center and likely will take over the job from departed four-year starter Ryan McMahon. Fahrenkrug is the safer pick because he already participated in spring practice with his new team, but Clemson WR Sammy Watkins may have the most upside of the ACC's offensive newcomers. Watkins, the No. 15 overall prospect in the 2011 recruiting class, wasn't an early enrollee. But Clemson's lack of proven receivers could allow him to step right into the starting lineup.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Clemson LB Stephone Anthony. This five-star prospect didn't select Clemson until National Signing Day and thus wasn't on campus in time to participate in spring practice, but he still should work his way into the starting lineup at some point in the season. Rated as the No. 3 outside linebacker and No. 24 overall prospect in the 2011 class, Anthony will work out at the weakside position that was weakened when Brandon Maye transferred to Mississippi State. Other newcomers who could make an impact include Clemson true freshman LB Tony Steward, Clemson redshirt freshman CB Bashaud Breeland, Maryland redshirt freshman DT Andre Monroe and Florida State junior college transfer DE Cornellius "Tank" Carradine.

MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: Miami DT Marcus Forston. We're not saying Forston's a bad player. Far from it. One look at our preseason All-ACC team shows how highly we think of him. But it's also fair to say he hasn't lived up to the fanfare that surrounded him throughout much of his prep career. Forston arrived at Miami as the nation's No. 7 overall prospect in the 2008 recruiting class. His name has been mentioned as a potential first-round pick on a number of 2012 mock drafts. Forston bounced back from an injury-riddled 2009 season to deliver 37 tackles - 12 for loss - last season. But he still hasn't delivered the type of wow season you'd expect from a potential first-round pick. And it's worth noting that Miami struggled to stop the run all season last season. Forston started delivering on his star potential late in the 2010 season, as he recorded 7.5 tackles for loss over his final four games of the year. If he builds on that momentum, he could make this pick look foolish by the end of the season.

THE COACHES

Atlantic Division

1. Florida State [ Team Preview ]

2. Clemson [ Team Preview ]

3. Boston College [ Team Preview ]

4. Maryland [ Team Preview ]

5. N.C. State [ Team Preview ]

6. Wake Forest [ Team Preview ]

Coastal Division

1. Virginia Tech [ Team Preview ]

2. Miami [ Team Preview ]

3. North Carolina [ Team Preview ]

4. Georgia Tech [ Team Preview ]

5. Virginia [ Team Preview ]

6. Duke [ Team Preview ]

Championship game

Florida State over Virginia Tech

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Clemson's Dabo Swinney. After Swinney led Clemson to an Atlantic Division title in his first full season on the job in 2009, the honeymoon ended last fall. Clemson dropped three of its last four games and finished 6-7, its first losing record since 1998. Clemson played its typical brand of solid defense, but the offense was dreadful. Clemson was held to 14 or fewer points in four of its last five regular-season games. Swinney definitely can recruit. His 2011 class included four five-star prospects, the most of any school in the nation. But if Clemson doesn't improve this season, somebody else might be coaching those five-star recruits for the majority of their college careers.

BEST COACHING STAFF: Virginia Tech. Jimbo Fisher's staff at Florida State has done just about everything right so far in his brief tenure, but we have to reward the group that already owns ACC championship rings. Frank Beamer has made Virginia Tech the premier program in the conference, and he has one of the nation's best defensive coordinators in Bud Foster. This staff may have grown even stronger during the offseason when ace recruiter Shane Beamer (Frank's son) arrived from South Carolina to coach the running backs while quarterback coach Mike O'Cain took over play-calling responsibilities from coordinator Bryan Stinespring.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Clemson's Chad Morris. We're clearly taking a leap of faith on a guy who was coaching high school football just two years ago. But the ACC isn't exactly known for its wealth of high-profile offensive coordinators. The best offensive minds in the conference - Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher - are head coaches. The best-known offensive coordinator in the conference arguably is Maryland's Gary Crowton, but he wasn't popular among the LSU fan base during his recent stint in Baton Rouge. Morris doesn't have much of a college track record, but it's hard to argue with the results his no-huddle attack produced at Tulsa last season. Tulsa averaged 41.4 points per game and was the only FBS program to rank among the nation's top 15 teams in rushing offense (15th) and passing offense (13th).

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Virginia Tech's Bud Foster. Virginia Tech's defense is coming off a rare down season, but it did little to diminish Foster's reputation as one of the nation's premier coordinators. He helped the Hokies lead the nation in total defense in 2005 and '06. They also led the nation in scoring defense in 2006. In fact, they had ranked among the nation's top 10 teams in scoring defense for six consecutive seasons before slipping to 26th last season. Even in a season that was relatively disappointing by Foster's lofty standards, Virginia Tech still led the nation in turnover margin.

BEST POSITION COACH: Florida State OL coach Rick Trickett. When he arrived in Tallahassee, Florida State's offensive line had a reputation as one of the most underachieving units in the nation. Not anymore. Trickett has built Florida State's line into one of the nation's best by relying on the same tough-love approach that worked so well for him at West Virginia. Trickett's coaching helped Rodney Hudson develop into an Outland Trophy finalist. Florida State's balanced rushing attack - Chris Thompson, Ty Jones and Jermaine Thomas each gained at least 490 yards in 2010 - is a testament to the strength of the Seminoles' line. Trickett is an old-school disciplinarian whose style doesn't work for every player. But anyone who makes it through four or five years of Trickett's coaching generally is the stronger for it.

THE OTHER STUFF

Miami at Maryland, Sept. 5

Oklahoma at Florida State, Sept. 17

Auburn at Clemson, Sept. 17

Florida State at Clemson, Sept. 24

Miami at Virginia Tech, Oct. 8

Miami at North Carolina, Oct. 15

Florida State at Boston College, Nov. 3

Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech, Nov. 10

North Carolina at Virginia Tech, Nov. 17

Florida State at Florida, Nov. 26

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Virginia Tech. Maybe it's better if we call them the team that might surprise. The Hokies are getting plenty of respect as a contender for the conference title, but they aren't getting the attention they received in the past as a potential threat for the national title. Maybe people should take a closer look at their schedule. Virginia Tech doesn't face Alabama, Boise State or any of the other non-conference heavyweights that have ended their national championship hopes in the past. If the defense rebounds from a disappointing season and Thomas and Wilson are as good as advertised, this team could head into the ACC championship game undefeated. Virginia Tech isn't as talented or experienced as Florida State, but the Hokies' softer schedule might make them the more realistic national title contender. After all, the Hokies don't have to worry about playing host to Oklahoma or playing at Florida.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: North Carolina State. The Wolfpack head into the season with plenty of momentum after going 9-4 and winning the Champs Sports Bowl last season. But they lose their best offensive player (QB Russell Wilson) and defensive player (LB Nate Irving), and they also are breaking in a new kicker and punter, which might not be a good thing for a team that played six games decided by seven or fewer points last season. Florida State's the clear favorite in the Atlantic Division, but not much separates the next four teams (Clemson, Boston College, Maryland and North Carolina State). One of those teams has to finish fifth in the division. We're guessing the Wolfpack draw the short straw.

GAME OF THE YEAR: Oklahoma at Florida State, Sept. 17. The best showdown between conference teams would involve division favorites Florida State and Virginia Tech, but that meeting could only take place in the league championship game. So we instead will go with this non-conference matchup that could go a long way toward improving the ACC's national reputation. Both teams should be unbeaten when they meet at Doak Campbell Stadium. Oklahoma could be ranked first in the nation, while Florida State could be in the top five. Oklahoma trounced Florida State 47-17 last season in Norman. The annual early-season criticism of the ACC will continue if the league's preseason favorite gets blown out at home in this game. But if the Seminoles win, the ACC finally might again have a legitimate player in the national championship sweepstakes.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Miami. This one's pretty much a coin flip between Miami and Boston College. The Eagles may have a slightly tougher non-conference slate (Northwestern, at UCF, UMass, at Notre Dame) than Miami (Ohio State, Kansas State, Bethune-Cookman, at USF). Boston College also plays away from Chestnut Hill for five of its last seven games. But the Eagles do have a potential three-week breather early in the season when they face Duke, UMass and Wake Forest at home in successive games. It's tough to find any breaks in Miami's schedule. The Hurricanes open with a Labor Day night game at Maryland. They face Coastal Division rivals Virginia Tech and North Carolina away from home in back-to-back weeks. When they return home from that tough two-game trip, the Hurricanes must face Georgia Tech's option attack the following week. Miami and Boston College both must travel to Virginia Tech, but the Eagles at least get preseason ACC favorite Florida State at home in a Thursday night game. Miami faces the Seminoles at Doak Campbell Stadium.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: North Carolina State. The Wolfpack's non-conference schedule includes a trip to Cincinnati - which finished next-to-last in the Big East a year ago - and home games with Central Michigan and FCS programs Liberty and South Alabama. The Wolfpack do have to face preseason ACC favorite Florida State in Tallahassee, but they won't have to face Miami or defending conference champion Virginia Tech. We also could have made a strong case for Virginia Tech, which avoids Florida State and doesn't face any of the non-conference heavyweights that have caused the Hokies so much trouble in the past. But the Hokies do go on the road for non-conference games with East Carolina and Marshall.

ACC EXPERT PICKS

We asked our five football writers to answer a few questions about the ACC. Here are their responses:

WHO WINS THE LEAGUE?
Olin Buchanan: Florida State
Tom Dienhart: Florida State
David Fox: Virginia Tech
Mike Huguenin: Florida State
Steve Megargee: Florida State

WHICH TEAM WILL BE THE BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT?
Olin Buchanan: Clemson
Tom Dienhart: Clemson
David Fox: Florida State
Mike Huguenin: Clemson
Steve Megargee: NC State

WHERE DOES THIS LEAGUE RANK IN RELATION TO OTHERS?
Olin Buchanan: Fifth
Tom Dienhart: Third
David Fox: Fifth
Mike Huguenin: Fifth
Steve Megargee: Fifth

THE BEST PLAYER IN THE LEAGUE?
Olin Buchanan: North Carolina DE Quinton Coples
Tom Dienhart: North Carolina DE Donte Paige-Moss
David Fox: North Carolina DE Quinton Coples
Mike Huguenin: Boston College LB Luke Kuechly
Steve Megargee: Boston College LB Luke Kuechly

WHO WILL LEAD THE LEAGUE IN RUSHING?
Olin Buchanan: Boston College TB Montel Harris
Tom Dienhart: Boston College TB Montel Harris
David Fox: Boston College TB Montel Harris
Mike Huguenin: Boston College TB Montel Harris
Steve Megargee: Boston College TB Montel Harris

WHO WILL LEAD IN PASSING?
Olin Buchanan: Duke's Sean Renfree
Tom Dienhart: Duke's Sean Renfree
David Fox: Duke's Sean Renfree
Mike Huguenin: NC State's Mike Glennon
Steve Megargee: Duke's Sean Renfree
WHO WILL LEAD IN RECEPTIONS?
Olin Buchanan: Duke WR Conner Vernon
Tom Dienhart: North Carolina WR Dwight Jones
David Fox: Duke WR Conner Vernon
Mike Huguenin: Duke WR Conner Vernon
Steve Megargee: Duke WR Conner Vernon

WHO WILL LEAD IN TACKLES?
Olin Buchanan: Boston College LB Luke Kuechly
Tom Dienhart: Boston College LB Luke Kuechly
David Fox: Boston College LB Luke Kuechly
Mike Huguenin: Boston College LB Luke Kuechly
Steve Megargee: Boston College LB Luke Kuechly

WHICH SCHOOL HAS THE BEST-LOOKING UNIFORM?
Olin Buchanan: Florida State
Tom Dienhart: Maryland
David Fox: Miami
Mike Huguenin: North Carolina
Steve Megargee: Florida State

WHICH SCHOOL IN THIS LEAGUE IS THE BEST JOB?
Olin Buchanan: Florida State
Tom Dienhart: Florida State
David Fox: Florida State
Mike Huguenin: Florida State
Steve Megargee: Florida State

THE WORST JOB?
Olin Buchanan: Duke
Tom Dienhart: Duke
David Fox: Duke
Mike Huguenin: Duke
Steve Megargee: Duke

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QBDanny O'Brien, Maryland (6-3/215, Soph.)
RBMontel Harris, Boston College (5-10/207, Sr.)
RBDavid Wilson, Virginia Tech (5-10/201, Jr.)
WRDwight Jones, North Carolina (6-4/225, Sr.)
WRConner Vernon, Duke (6-2/195, Jr.)
TEGeorge Bryan, N.C. State (6-5/265, Sr.)
TAndrew Datko, Florida State (6-6/321, Sr.)
TBlake DeChristopher, Virginia Tech (6-5/312, Sr.)
GOmoregie Uzzi, Georgia Tech (6-3/305, Jr.)
GBrandon Washington, Miami (6-4/320, Jr.)
CDalton Freeman, Clemson (6-5/285, Jr.)
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
EQuinton Coples, North Carolina (6-6/285, Sr.)
TJoe Vellano, Maryland (6-2/285, Jr.)
EBrandon Jenkins, Florida State (6-3/265, Jr.)
LBLuke Kuechly, Boston College (6-3/237, Jr.)
LBSean Spence, Miami (6-0/224, Sr.)
LBKenny Tate, Maryland (6-4/220, Sr.)
LBBruce Taylor, Virginia Tech (6-2/252, Jr.)
CBJayron Hosley, Virginia Tech (5-10/170, Jr.)
CBChase Minnifield, Virginia (6-0/185, Sr.)
FSEddie Whitley, Virginia Tech (6-1/187, Sr.)
SSRay-Ray Armstrong, Miami (6-4/215, Jr.)
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
KWill Snyderwine, Duke (5-11/190, Sr.)
PShawn Powell, Florida State (6-4/235, Sr.)
KRDavid Wilson, Virginia Tech (5-10/201, Jr.)
PRGreg Reid, Florida State (5-8/186, Jr.)

Offensive backfield

1. Florida State: Although junior QB E.J. Manuel is beginning his first full year as the starter, he has made six starts in place of an injured Christian Ponder in the past two seasons. Ty Jones, Chris Thompson and Jermaine Thomas give FSU the ACC's deepest collection of running backs,

2. Maryland: Danny O'Brien is the most proven quarterback in the ACC. Davin Meggett (126 carries, 720 yards, four TDs) and Darvin Adams (67-239-11) combined for 959 yards and 15 TDs last season.

3. Boston College: Montel Harris likely will end his career as the ACC's leading career rusher, but sophomore QB Chase Rettig remains a work-in-progress.

4. Virginia Tech: Based on pure talent, the Hokies probably should be first or second. Based on experience, they should be about sixth or seventh. New QB Logan Thomas has a similar build to Cam Newton, but nobody knows whether he can deliver similar production. New TB David Wilson is one of the ACC's most exciting players.

5. Clemson: Andre Ellington was making a serious run at the ACC rushing title before he got hurt last season. QB Tajh Boyd has plenty of promise, but he lacks experience.

6. Miami: The Hurricanes are loaded with talent at running back, and Lamar Miller (108 carries, 646 yards, six TDs last season) looks like a rising star. Miami's quarterback concerns and interception problems keep us from ranking this group higher.

7. Duke: Sean Renfree is a promising quarterback and Desmond Scott helped Duke's rushing attack finally develop a pulse last season. Renfree must work on reducing his interceptions.

8. North Carolina State: Mike Glennon must back up Tom O'Brien's big talk because we're not excited about the Wolfpack's running backs. Mustafa Greene (134-597-4) will miss the first month of the season with a toe injury, and James Washington and Curtis Underwood Jr. combined for just 277 yards and one TD a year ago.

9. Georgia Tech: Roddy Jones has plenty of experience at running back, and Orwin Smith averaged more than nine yards per carry last year. But the Yellow Jackets have plenty of questions at quarterback, as Tevin Washington didn't look particularly impressive while replacing an injured Josh Nesbitt last season.

10. North Carolina: Bryn Renner is supposed to be good, but he remains untested. Ryan Houston played well two years ago, but he's one of the Heels' few options at running back.

11. Wake Forest: You could make a case for ranking Wake higher just because of Josh Harris (125-746-7), whose 2010 season included a 241-yard performance against Virginia Tech. We still want to see more from Tanner Price, who threw eight interceptions and seven touchdown passes last season.

12. Virginia: Who's the quarterback? We can't rank Virginia higher until that's cleared up. The Cavaliers do have a promising running back in Perry Jones (160-749-1). Jones also caught 31 passes last season.

Receivers

1. Virginia Tech: Jarrett Boykin (53 catches, 847 yards, six TDs), Danny Coale (39-732-3) and Dyrell Roberts (21-303-2) are back, though Roberts has health issues. WR Marcus Davis caught 19 passes last year. The Hokies don't have an experienced tight end, though. The likely starter there is Chris Drager, a starting defensive end last season.

2. Duke: The Blue Devils have a nice tandem in Conner Vernon (73-973-4) and Donovan Varner (60-736-1), both of whom attended Miami's Gulliver Prep. Cooper Helfet (34-380-2) provides production at tight end.

3. North Carolina: New QB Bryn Renner should love throwing to Dwight Jones (62-946-4), Erik Highsmith (25-348-3) and Jheranie Boyd (14-310-3). The Tar Heels lack an experienced tight end.

4. Florida State: Bert Reed (58-614-2) and Willie Haulstead (38-587-6) form a nice duo, but Taiwan Easterling's decision to focus on pro baseball reduces the Seminoles' depth. TE Beau Reliford caught 17 passes last season.

5. Miami: Travis Benjamin (43-743-3) and LaRon Byrd (41-441-1) are nice players, but how will they fare without Leonard Hankerson to take the pressure off them?

6. Boston College: Bobby Swigert (39-504-4) had a solid freshman season, and Colin Larmond (29-596-5 in 2009) returns after an injury sidelined him last season. Chris Pantale (31-338-1) is a solid tight end.

7. Virginia: Kris Burd (58-799-5) is one of the nation's more underrated receivers. The Cavaliers also return Matt Snyder (30-393-0). TE Colter Phillips caught 18 passes and scored three TDs last season. Tim Smith caught 15 passes as a freshman two years ago before missing most of last season with an injury.

8. Clemson: DeAndre Hopkins (52-637-4) is a nice player, and Dwayne Allen (33-373-3) is a solid tight end. Jaron Brown (32-405-3) also is back. But there aren't any playmakers. The freshman class could help quite a bit.

9. North Carolina State: George Bryan (35-369-3) is an All-America candidate at tight end, but he's the Wolfpack's top returning receiver. NC State also returns WR T.J. Graham (25-316-4).

10. Wake Forest: Chris Givens (35-514-4) is the only Demon Deacon who caught more than 11 passes last season.

11. Maryland: This area may be the Terps' biggest concern. Top returning players include Quintin McCree (16-188-1), Kevin Dorsey (15-187-2) and Ronnie Tyler (13-149-1).

12. Georgia Tech: The only receiver of note is Stephen Hill, who caught 15 passes for 291 yards and three TDs last season.

Offensive line

1. Miami: The Hurricanes have four returning starters in All-ACC G Brandon Washington, G Harland Gunn, C Tyler Horn and T Seantrel Henderson, although Henderson's status is up in the air after it was announced Aug. 2 that he would have preseason back surgery. Miami ranked third in the ACC in rushing and second in sacks allowed last season.

2. Virginia Tech: The Hokies return Ts Andrew Lanier (15 career starts) and Blake DeChristopher (37) and Gs Jaymes Brooks (28) and Greg Nosal (14). DeChristopher and Brooks are All-ACC candidates. The Hokies ranked 10th in the ACC in sacks allowed last season, but they were second in the league in rushing. DeChristopher has a strained pectoral muscle that could cause him to miss the start of the season, but the Hokies have enough depth to withstand his absence.

3. Clemson: The Tigers also return four starters, though the lone new starter is at left tackle. Three of them (C Dalton Freeman, RG Antoine McClain and RT Landon Walker) have combined for 84 starts. Clemson ranked seventh in the ACC in rushing and third in sacks allowed last season.

4. Florida State: The Seminoles must replace Outland Trophy finalist Rodney Hudson at guard and four-year starter Ryan McMahon , but they do have three veterans (Andrew Datko, David Spurlock and Zebrie Sanders) who have combined for 101 starts. Spurlock's history of concussions is a concern. FSU ranked fourth in the ACC in rushing and sixth in sacks allowed last year.

5. North Carolina: The Heels return two-year starters Cam Holland at guard and Jonathan Cooper (a second-team All-ACC pick) at center, as well as James Hurst, who started 12 games at left tackle as a true freshman last season. For all that experience and star power, though, Carolina ranked 10th in the ACC in rushing and 11th in sacks allowed last season.

6. Virginia: Senior G Austin Pasztor - a fourth-year starter - leads a line with four returning starters. Virginia ranked sixth in the conference in rushing and fifth in sacks allowed last season.

7. Maryland: Maryland has three returning starters in Andrew Gonnella (21 career starts), R.J. Dill (21) and Bennett Fulper (11). The offseason dismissal of Justin Lewis could hurt. Maryland ranked fourth in sacks allowed and eighth in rushing last season.

8. Georgia Tech: Georgia Tech's linemen have combined for only 34 total starts, though G Omoregie Uzzi is a good one. The Jackets led the ACC in rushing and sacks allowed last season, but how much of that is a product of the scheme and how much is sheer talent?

9. North Carolina State: The Wolfpack have three returning starters, but this is a team that allowed the most sacks in the ACC - and that was with a mobile quarterback. North Carolina State also was only 11th in the conference in rushing last year.

10. Wake Forest: This could be the Deacons' biggest strength. They return four starters - all seniors - in Dennis Godfrey, Doug Weaver, Joe Looney and Michael Hoag. Wake ranked eighth in sacks allowed and fifth in rushing last season.

11. Boston College: The Eagles have only two returning starters and must replace first-round pick Anthony Castonzo, a four-year starter. BC ranked ninth in the conference in rushing and sacks allowed last season.

12. Duke: Senior LT Kyle Hill is a four-year starter and the leader of a line that returns four starters. But Duke ranked last in the conference in rushing and seventh in sacks allowed last season.

Defensive line

1. Florida State: The Seminoles return All-America E Brandon Jenkins as well as two-year starter Jacobbi McDaniel at tackle. They also return Anthony McCloud and Everett Dawkins, who shared the starting job at one tackle spot last season. Florida State's 48 sacks matched Boise State for the highest total in the nation.

2. North Carolina: Quinton Coples and Donte Paige-Moss are potential first-round draft picks. Tydreke Powell is a quality tackle. It's a coin flip at the top between FSU and UNC.

3. Miami: The Hurricanes return E Olivier Vernon, T Micanor Regis and T Marcus Forston. Adding depth are E Adewale Ojomo, T Luther Robinson and E Marcus Robinson. All these guys have plenty of experience. The Hurricanes led the nation in tackles for loss last season, but they were only ninth in the ACC and 84th nationally in run defense.

4. North Carolina State: The Wolfpack return T J.R. Sweezy (11.5 TFL and five sacks last season) and E Jeff Rieskamp. NC State ranked second in the ACC in sacks and run defense last season.

5. Maryland: The Terps return second-team All-ACC T Joe Vellano as well as NT A.J. Francis and E Justin Anderson, but they exited spring practice with redshirt freshmen atop the depth chart at two spots on the line.

6. Boston College: The Eagles return E Max Holloway and T Kaleb Ramsey, but they must replace Damik Scafe and Brad Newman. BC led the nation in run defense last season, but didn't have much of a pass rush.

7. Clemson: Tigers return E Andre Branch and T Brandon Thompson, but the departures of E DaQuan Bowers and T Jarvis Jenkins leave big holes to fill.

8. Virginia Tech: The Hokies don't have much experience here, but their reputation keeps us from ranking them lower. The move of E Chris Drager to tight end leaves T Antoine Hopkins as Virginia Tech's only returning starter on the line.

9. Virginia: The Cavaliers return three linemen - T Matt Conrath, T Nick Jenkins and E Cam Johnson - with a combined 84 starts. Virginia was 11th in the ACC in run defense last season.

10. Georgia Tech: The Jackets return all three starters - E Izaan Cross, E Jason Peters and T Logan Walls - from their 3-4 defense. They believe their line will be a strength, but neither the run defense nor the pass rush was that good last season.

11. Wake Forest: There's plenty of experience here, but not much production. Returnees include E Tristan Dorty, NT Nikita Whitlock and E Zack Thompson. Wake Forest was 10th in the ACC in run defense last season.

12. Duke: The Blue Devils were last in the ACC in sacks, tackles for loss and run defense last season.

Linebackers

1. Boston College: Butkus Award candidate Luke Kuechly is the most prolific tackler in the nation, and Kevin Pierre-Louis averaged 7.2 tackles per game as a true freshman last season. The new starter will be either sophomore Steele Divitto or junior Nick Clancy.

2. North Carolina: The Tar Heels return their top two tacklers from last season in Kevin Reddick (74) and Zach Brown (72). Brown has been rated as a potential first-round pick.

3. Florida State: Nigel Bradham made 98 tackles last season. He's the only returning starter, but the Seminoles have plenty of talented underclassmen such as Christian Jones, Vince Williams, Jeff Luc and Telvin Smith.

4. Miami: Sean Spence made 110 tackles - 16 for loss - and earned second-team All-ACC honors last season, while Ramon Buchanan had 55 tackles, including eight for loss. The other starting spot is up for grabs.

5. North Carolina State: The Wolfpack return Audie Cole (86 tackles, 10 for loss) and Terrell Manning (75 tackles, 10.5 for loss), but they could have a tough time replacing Nate Irving.

6. Maryland: Kenny Tate, one of the nation's best safeties last season, should make a successful transition to linebacker. The Terps also return Demetrius Hartsfield, who made 87 tackles last season.

7. Georgia Tech: Steven Sylvester made 60 tackles last season, and Julian Burnett had a team-high 89. Both are back.

8. Virginia Tech: The Hokies have plenty of talent but not much experience. Bruce Taylor made 91 tackles last season to earn second-team All-ACC honors. The Hokies need a successful comeback from Barquell Rivers, who made 96 tackles in 2009 before struggling with injuries last season.

9. Clemson: This area has been a problem at Clemson for years. The Tigers are hoping for an immediate impact from true freshmen Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward, both five-star prospects.

10. Wake Forest: Kyle Wilber's a nice playmaker, and the Deacons also return Joey Ehrmann.

11. Virginia: The Cavaliers return LaRoy Reynolds and Ausar Walcott, who both started last season. They combined for 115 tackles. There are no real standouts here, though.

12. Duke: Kelby Brown led the nation in fumble recoveries per game last season, but he's the Devils' only returning starter.

Secondary

1. Florida State: CBs Xavier Rhodes - last season's ACC defensive rookie of the year - and Greg Reid are both on the Thorpe Award watch list. The Seminoles also return their two starting safeties in Nick Moody and Terrance Parks. FSU was 37th nationally and sixth in ACC in pass efficiency defense last year.

2. Virginia Tech: Jayron Hosley led the nation in interceptions and Eddie Whitley made 80 tackles as a starting free safety. The Hokies also return SS Antone Exum, who made five starts and had nine pass deflections last season.

3. Miami: The Canes are loaded at safety with Vaughn Telemaque, JoJo Nicholas and Ray-Ray Armstrong, but cornerback is a concern without Brandon Harris and Ryan Hill around anymore. Nicholas appears likely to move to corner this season. Miami was first in the ACC and fifth nationally in pass efficiency defense last season.

4. Virginia: CB Chase Minnifield is an All-America candidate. The Cavaliers also return CB Devin Wallace plus Ss Rodney McLeod and Corey Mosley.

5. North Carolina State: The Wolfpack return all four starters, and that quartet has a combined 65 starts. But the Pack ranked just 10th in the ACC in pass efficiency defense last season.

6. Maryland: The move of Kenny Tate leaves the Terps without any experienced safeties, but they return each of their starting corners, Cameron Chism and Trenton Hughes.

7. Boston College: The Eagles return CB Donnie Fletcher, SS Jim Noel and FS Okechukwu Okoroha, though Noel and Okoroha only have a combined 15 games of starting experience.

8. Clemson: The Tigers must replace two starting corners as well as All-America SS DeAndre McDaniel, but they do have a two-year starting free safety in Rashard Hall. CB Xavier Brewer made 10 starts last season.

9. North Carolina: Charles Brown is back after starting for the Heels in 2009 - he missed all of last season as part of the NCAA investigation - but he's the only guy with any real experience. The Heels also return CB Jabari Price, who made four starts last season.

10. Georgia Tech: The Jackets don't have any defensive backs who made at least six starts last season. CB Rashaad Reid did make 14 starts in 2008 and '09. The Jackets also are confident in sophomore S Isaiah Johnson.

11. Wake Forest: The Deacons return CB Josh Bush, SS Cyhl Quarles and FS Daniel Mack from a defense that ranked 11th in the league and 98th nationally in pass efficiency defense.

12. Duke: The Blue Devils have three returning starters in CB Ross Cockrell and S Matt Daniels and S Lee Butler. But Duke was 108th nationally and last in ACC in pass efficiency defense.

Special teams

1. Florida State: Dustin Hopkins went 22-of-28 on field goals - including a 55-yarder to beat Clemson - and led the ACC with 119 points last season. Shawn Powell helped FSU lead the ACC and rank 15th nationally in net punting. Greg Reid is one of the nation's most dangerous return men.

2. Clemson: Chris Catanzaro was 14-of-22 on field goals last season, while Dawson Zimmerman is one of the ACC's top returning punters. Clemson was among the top 41 FBS teams last season in each of the four major return/coverage categories (punt returns, kickoff returns, punt coverage, kickoff coverage).

3. Boston College: Nathan Freese was 22-of-25 on field goals last season, though most of his attempts were from close range. The Eagles also have an experienced punter in Ryan Quigley. But the Eagles ranked just 104th in punt returns and 118th in kickoff returns last season.

4. Duke: Will Snyderwine went 21-of-24 on field goals last season and is one of nation's top kickers. Alex King is back as the Blue Devils' punter. Duke was 117th nationally in punt coverage last season.

5. Virginia: Robert Randolph was 17-of-19 on field goals two years ago, but he wasn't as effective last season (though he did make 10 of his last 11 attempts). He's 30-of-37 in his career. Jimmy Howell is back as the punter after helping Virginia rank sixth in ACC in net punting last year. Chase Minnifield is a solid return man.

6. North Carolina: Casey Barth was 19-of-22 on field goals last year and C.J. Feagles is back as the punter, but UNC ranked 11th in the ACC (and 116th nationally) in net punting last season. The departure of Da'Norris Searcy will hurt the return units. UNC ranked just 86th nationally in kickoff coverage and 92nd in punt coverage last year.

7. Virginia Tech: The Hokies always seem to find quality kickers and punters, but they'll have to find two new ones this year. They have two excellent return men: Jayron Hosley on punts and David Wilson on kickoffs.

8. Wake Forest: Jimmy Newman was 12-of-13 on field-goal attempts last season, but the Deacons must find a new punter. Michael Campanaro is a decent return man.

9. Maryland: The Terps are looking for a new kicker and punter, though they do have one of the nation's top punt returners in Tony Logan. They'll miss departed kickoff returner Torrey Smith.

10. North Carolina State: The Wolfpack will have a new punter and a new kicker, though T.J. Graham is a solid return man.

11. Georgia Tech: The Jackets are breaking in a new kicker. Sean Poole is back as the Yellow Jackets' punter, but Georgia Tech was 10th in ACC in net punting last year. The return units won't be quite as good without Jerrard Tarrant.

12. Miami: The Hurricanes are looking for a new kicker and punter. Miami has a history of great return men, but the Hurricanes ranked just 102nd in kickoff returns and 105th in punt returns last season.

Coaching staff

1. Virginia Tech: This staff traditionally has thrived on continuity, but Frank Beamer's offseason shuffling may have made this group even stronger. The biggest change is that quarterback coach Mike O'Cain has replaced coordinator Bryan Stinespring as the chief play-caller.

2. Florida State: It's hard to argue with the results Jimbo Fisher's staff has delivered so far.

3. Georgia Tech: Paul Johnson's stock fell a bit last season, but he's still an outstanding tactician. Georgia Tech didn't improve much last season in Al Groh's first year as defensive coordinator, but the Jackets might fare better now that they've had time to adjust to the 3-4 switch.

4. Maryland: Randy Edsall reached a BCS game with Connecticut, so he must be a quality coach. How good an offensive coordinator is Gary Crowton? He wasn't well-liked at LSU, but he also won a national championship ring there before falling out of favor.

5. Wake Forest: Jim Grobe's star has fallen a bit the past few seasons, but he remains one of the best coaches in the country. But there have been quite a few defections on his staff of late.

6. Miami: Al Golden did great work at Temple. Instead of hiring big-name college coordinators, he brought in Jedd Fisch (offense) from the NFL and Mark D'Onofrio from Temple. The jury's still out on those moves. Brennan Carroll, Pete's son, helps the recruiting, and offensive line coach Art Kehoe's return pumps up the fan base.

7. North Carolina State: The Wolfpack have been up and down during Tom O'Brien's tenure, but they've done a great job against in-state opponents.

8. Clemson: Keep in mind we're rating the entire staffs - not just the head coach - and Clemson has a good coordinator duo in Kevin Steele and Chad Morris. Dabo Swinney's a great recruiter, but he still must prove he can get it done on the field.

9. Duke: David Cutcliffe has done a nice job of making Duke competitive again, though he still has a lot of work to do. If we were only rating the coach, Duke would rank higher on this list.

10. Boston College: The program has slipped a notch since Frank Spaziani took over, though the defense remains solid under Bill McGovern. How will the retirement of offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill change things?

11. Virginia: Mike Londo n's staff seems to be doing all the right things, but let's see more progress on the field before we move them up the rankings. It's a testament to the improved coaching across the ACC that they're near the bottom of this list, though.

12. North Carolina: The firing of Butch Davis so soon before the season leaves this staff facing arguably the toughest challenge in all of college football this season.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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