Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
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While Wake Forest was enjoying its greatest season in school history last year, several other ACC college football teams were enduring their most trying seasons in recent memory.
The result was new coaches at Miami, North Carolina, N.C. State and Boston College. There was also a highly publicized offensive coordinator change at Florida State.
Whether those coaching changes signal an immediate change in the standings remains to be seen. More likely, quarterback play will determine how the ACC stacks up in 2007 because that position is unsettled up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
The Clemson Tigers may look to a true freshman to lead them, and they might not be alone.
Other teams like Virginia Tech, Virginia, North Carolina and N.C. State may be counting on more consistent play from last year's starters.
Wake Forest's Riley Skinner and Boston College's Matt Ryan provided that last season, and that's a big reason their teams posted double-digit victories. The stability they provide is a big reason their teams could do it again this year.
1. Clemson (8-5, 5-3): Running backs James Davis and C.J. Spiller fuel the offense, and an experienced defense returns. Now, if only the Tigers can avoid another late-season collapse.
2. Boston College (10-3, 5-3): Championship caliber teams usually have an experienced quarterback and a solid defense. Boston College fits the criteria. The Eagles feature quarterback Matt Ryan, who could be a Heisman Trophy dark horse, and a tough defense led by an excellent group of linebackers.
3. Florida State (7-6, 3-5): Deciding between Drew Weatherford and Xavier Lee has to be a top priority for new offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher. The Seminoles have a potential star in running back Antone Smith, and receiver Greg Carr is a nightmare to cover. The Seminoles were sound defensively last season and should be again in 2007.
4. Maryland (9-4, 5-3): Replacing quarterback Sam Hollenbach won't be easy, but the Terrapins are strong at tailback with Lance Ball and Keon Lattimore. The offensive line is solid, and the defense will be a strength if new starters in the secondary perform well.
5. Wake Forest (11-3, 6-2): Unlike most of the ACC, Wake Forest's quarterback position is settled with efficient Riley Skinner at the helm. Everything seemed to go right for the Deacons in last year's magical season. Can they count on being as fortunate again? Tailback Micah Andrews' return from injury suggests maybe they can.
6. N.C. State (3-9, 2-6): N.C. State is one of many teams that have issues at quarterback, and there's no shortage of candidates to take over that position. However, more than improved quarterback play is needed to clean up last season's mess. Coach Tom O'Brien obviously won't back down from a challenge.
1. Virginia Tech (10-3, 6-2): Statistically, the Hokies had the best defense in the country last year. With outstanding linebackers Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi returning, they will be stingy again. Branden Ore will lead the running game, but questions about quarterback Sean Glennon persist.
2. Miami (7-6, 3-5): The roster appears to have more talent that the record indicates. We'll see if coach Randy Shannon can jolt the Hurricanes out of their funk. It's more likely to happen if quarterback Kyle Wright returns to the form of his sophomore season.
3. Georgia Tech (9-5, 7-1): The passing game will miss Calvin Johnson, which is a great reason to rely more on tailback Tashard Choice. The quarterback situation could be uncertain, which is another reason to choose Choice.
4. Virginia (5-7, 4-4): Coach Al Groh's chair might feel a tad warm, but he has 19 starters back to help cool it off a bit. Ten starters return from a defense that ranked 17th nationally.
5. North Carolina (3-9, 2-6): New coach Butch Davis made a big splash in recruiting with a top-20 class that included two five-star recruits. Making a similar splash in the conference standings will probably take a little while longer. He inherited a good receiver in Hakeem Nicks, and quarterback Joe Dailey was productive as a starter.
6. Duke (0-12, 0-8): Once again, the cellar beckons. However, Jomar Wright is a fine receiver and quarterback Thaddeus Lewis showed enough flashes to provide hope for improvement. A defense that ranked 105th nationally has to be upgraded.
Taylor Bennett, Georgia Tech, QB: When starting quarterback Reggie Ball was declared ineligible for the Gator Bowl, Bennett stepped in and passed for three touchdowns and 326 yards - Georgia Tech's highest yardage output since 2001. Not bad for a first start. Of course, he won't have Calvin Johnson at receiver next season. Bennett will be dealing with a new offensive coordinator, but he showed he can be an effective passer.
Ricky Sapp, Clemson, DE: The former five-star recruit who was ranked the nation's No. 21 prospect in 2006 by Rivals.com spent his freshman year backing up All-American Gaines Adams. Despite the reserve role, Sapp still managed to post 19 tackles - six for losses - and four sacks. Increased playing time and increased weight (he has already added 22 pounds and hopes to put on another 10 before the season) will result in increased productivity.
Sam Shields, Miami, WR: The speedy Shields had a solid freshman season with 33 catches for 400 yards and three touchdowns in 2006. He could be more productive this season, and may challenge Lance Leggett as the Hurricanes' top receiving threat this season.
Antone Smith, Florida State, RB: The former five-star recruit, ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 1 running back prospect in the country in 2005, rushed for 456 yards and five touchdowns last year as a backup to Lorenzo Booker. Booker is gone, so Smith will get many more carries. He may also benefit from the arrival of new offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, who figures to put more emphasis on the running game.
Willie Young, N.C. State, DE: A part time starter as a redshirt freshman, the former three-star recruit still posted 44 tackles - five for losses. New defensive line coach Keith Willis has compared Young with former Boston College All-American defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka. Though 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Young is so athletic that he placed fourth in the Florida state track meet as a high school senior … in the high jump.
Marvin Austin, North Carolina, DT: Ranked the nation's No. 1 defensive tackle prospect in the country, the 6-foot-3, 295-pound Austin should make his presence felt immediately. Not only does he have immense talent, he is going into a program that's thin at defensive tackle and needs him to play immediately. Austin had 14 tackles for losses and 17 sacks as a high school senior.
Graig Cooper, Miami, RB: A five-star recruit who averaged 12.5 yards per carry last season at Milford Prep, Cooper could share running duties with Javarris James. At the very least, he could be the Hurricanes' next dangerous kick returner. Cooper rushed for 2,123 yards in 2005 as a senior at Melrose High School in Memphis.
Willy Korn, Clemson, QB: The record-setting high school passer could be starting before the end of September. Last year's starter Will Proctor completed his eligibility, and no other quarterbacks on the roster received significant playing time. Korn, a four-star recruit, was ranked the nation's No. 5 high school quarterback prospect by Rivals.com.
Keith Payne, Virginia, TB: Payne is a powerful redshirt freshman who rushed for 2,059 yards and 26 touchdowns as a senior. He drew raves for his performance on the scout team last season. The loss of Jason Snelling, last year's leading rusher, gives Payne a chance to draw raves during games. It doesn't hurt that he'll be behind an offensive line that returns all five starters.
Josh Portis, Maryland, QB: A transfer from Florida, Portis will challenge for the starting quarterback position after sitting out a year. He played in six games as a freshman at Florida and showed the ability to make big plays with his legs. In high school he made big plays with his arm, too. Portis passed for 2,294 yards as a senior.
Clemson, quarterback: Starting a true freshman isn't the most desired scenario, but mid-year enrollee Willy Korn will get a good shot. Junior Cullen Harper threw just 20 passes (completing 14) last season, and junior Tribble Reese threw just three. Freshman Michael Wade was redshirted last season.
Florida State, quarterback: The Drew Weatherford-Xavier Lee debate continues and will likely be hotter than ever after last season's disappointing 7-6 finish. Weatherford passed for 2,154 yards and 12 touchdowns, but threw 11 interceptions. Lee passed for 885 yards and five touchdowns, but is a running threat. There's a new offensive coordinator, so they're both starting from scratch.
Georgia Tech, receiver:Calvin Johnson's departure to NFL fame and fortune leaves a gaping hole at receiver. The return of James Johnson, who caught 39 passes and scored seven touchdowns, gives the Yellow Jackets a proven receiver. No other returning receiver had more than seven catches. Sophomore Greg Smith - who had those seven catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns - will vie with redshirt Corey Earls, Demaryius Thomas and others for the honor of replacing Calvin Johnson.
Maryland, quarterback:Sam Hollenbach left a big void that either Jordan Steffy or Portis will likely fill. Portis hasn't played since his freshman year at Florida. Steffy completed 12 passes in his freshman season of 2004, redshirted in 2005 and did not complete any of his five passes last season. The Terrapins have proven running backs and receivers. They need Steffy or Portis to prove they can be an effective starting quarterback.
Miami, quarterback:Kyle Wright performed very well in 2005, but last year struggled at times. He missed the final four games of 2006 after fracturing a thumb. Although backup Kirby Freeman wasn't overwhelming in Wright's absence, he played well enough to get a shot at maintaining the starting job. New offensive coordinator Patrick Nix is taking the approach that Wright and Freeman are co-first teamers going into the spring. Finding out how they rank coming out of the spring will be of keen interest.
North Carolina, tailback: The running game has been the Achilles' Heel of late. North Carolina has produced just one 1,000-yard rusher since 1994.
The top returning rusher – Barrington Edwards – gained only 330 yards a year ago. The starting tailback spot is up for grabs, and about a half dozen will be reaching for it. Edwards might still be the most likely candidate for the staring job, but he must hold off the challenges of redshirt freshmen Anthony Elzy and speedy Johnny White. Sophomore Richie Rich, ranked No. 5 among all-purpose running back prospects in 2005 by Rivals.com, is also in the mix. Former walk-on Justin Warren will probably get a shot, too.
North Carolina State, quarterback:Marcus Stone and Daniel Evans played last season, but neither distinguished himself. They each threw more interceptions than touchdowns. They have more than each other to worry about this spring. Redshirt Justin Burke, who passed for 3,789 yards and 62 touchdowns as a high school senior, will offer a strong challenge. Another player to watch is Harrison Beck, a transfer from Nebraska who was rated the nation's No. 3 pro-style quarterback in 2005 by Rivals.com. Any changes won't come as a surprise after N.C. State ranked 81st nationally in pass offense and 109th in passing efficiency during last season's 3-9 ordeal.
Virginia, quarterback:Jameel Sewell was predictably inconsistent as a redshirt freshman starter last season. He threw more interceptions (six) than touchdowns passes (five), but the real concern is a wrist injury that required offseason surgery. Sewell might not be ready for spring football, which would result in Marc Verica and Scott Deke getting most of the snaps. The real competition might not begin until August when Sewell will be available and highly touted freshman Peter Lalich arrives. Lalich is a four-star recruit who passed for 3,134 yards and 33 touchdowns as a senior.
Virginia Tech, quarterback:Sean Glennon struggled in the second half of the season, particularly in the Chick fil-A-Bowl when he threw three interceptions in a loss to Georgia. He must redeem himself to maintain the starting job over Ike Whitaker, who has strength, speed and off-the-field issues. Whitaker appeared in five games and threw just 16 passes last season, but those numbers could spike dramatically. Should neither Glennon nor Whitaker distinguish themselves, five-star recruit Tyrod Taylor - ranked the nation's top dual-threat quarterback by Rivals.com - could get on the field. However, the Hokies would prefer to redshirt their prize freshman.
Wake Forest, linebacker: Middle linebacker Jon Abbate's decision to declare for the NFL Draft left the Deacons needing to replace their leading tackler. Hunter Haynes and Matt Woodlief will vie to take over that role, but each will have trouble matching Abbate's 120 tackles.
Duke: Coach Ted Roof will oversee the defense and is reportedly switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3. He's supposedly more comfortable with the 4-3, and that may be a better fit for the Blue Devils' personnel.
Florida State: The Seminoles are expected to remain in a pro style set, but they're expected to run more often under new offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher.
Miami: The Hurricanes are expected to maintain a pro-style set but will work in some elements of the spread offense. They also may move the quarterback around more with bootlegs.
North Carolina: Expect the Tar Heels' offense to become more vertical with the hopes that stretching the field will enhance the running game. Defensively, they will play less zone coverage and more man-to-man as they strive to be more aggressive.
North Carolina State: New defensive coordinator Mike Archer reportedly prefers a 3-4 alignment, but personnel may dictate the Wolfpack remain in the 4-3 for now. Offensively, coach Tom O'Brien's teams at Boston College were known for powerful offensive lines and a pro-style set. The Wolfpack will likely look for more running and play-action passes than it did under Chuck Amato.
Virginia: The Cavaliers are expected to open up their West Coast offense. They may show fewer tight end sets and go with three receivers in an attempt to get the ball downfield more.