September 3, 2009

Weekend breakdown of the ACC

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THE SCHEDULE
Thursday
South Carolina at N.C. State, 7 p.m.
Saturday
Jacksonville State at Georgia Tech, 1 p.m.
Northeastern at Boston College, 2 p.m.
Baylor at Wake Forest, 3:30 p.m.
Middle Tennessee at Clemson, 6 p.m.
The Citadel at North Carolina, 6 p.m.
William & Mary at Virginia, 6 p.m.
Richmond at Duke, 7 p.m.
Virginia Tech at Alabama, 8 p.m.
Maryland at California, 10 p.m.
Monday
Miami at Florida State, 8 p.m.
Virginia Tech will try to establish itself as a legitimate national title contender Saturday night when it faces Alabama at the Georgia Dome.

Recent history suggests the Hokies will return home disappointed.

The Atlantic Coast Conference's struggles in early season meetings with SEC teams are well-documented.

Alabama buried 2008 ACC preseason favorite Clemson 34-10 in the opening week last season. That shellacking came two nights after South Carolina trounced N.C. State 34-0.

Moreover, the Georgia Dome lately has turned into the ACC's version of the Bermuda Triangle.

Clemson's debacle against Alabama last year came in the Georgia Dome. The ACC also has dropped its last four Chick-fil-A Bowl matchups with the SEC at the Georgia Dome, including Georgia Tech's 38-3 loss to LSU last season.

The Hokies - and the ACC - have reason to believe things could be different this season. The ACC sent 10 teams to bowls last season, and 10 of its members return quarterbacks with at least some kind of starting experience.

Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said he believes at least 10 of the ACC's 12 teams should be better than they were last year.

"It's up to all of us," Beamer said. "Any time you play out of conference, you want to play well. You want to play the best you can. Certainly with us playing an SEC team that's ranked No. 5 in the country and was ranked No. 1 for much of last year, it would be a big win for Virginia Tech and would be a big win for the ACC if we could get these guys."

While the league returns many of its quarterbacks and has only one new head coach - Boston College's Frank Spaziani - there are plenty of changes in the coordinator ranks that could affect the opening week.

Virginia brought in spread proponent and former Bowling Green head coach Gregg Brandon to spice up its offense. The arrival of former UMass head coach Don Brown as Maryland's defensive coordinator could cause the Terrapins to blitz more often and utilize more man-to-man coverages in their game with California.

Nowhere are the changes more evident than in the Miami-Florida State showdown.

Miami enters that game with a new offensive coordinator (Mark Whipple) and defensive coordinator (John Lovett). The changes in the staff could make it tough for Florida State to know exactly what to expect from the Hurricanes.

"We studied those guys," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. "We know where they coached. We've got film on where they coached. We hope that we have a good enough idea [of what to expect]. It'll be like this. When we go out there and play them, it will be trial and error for about half a quarter. It will be trial and error. They'll do things we didn't expect. We'll do some things they don't expect. We'll be trying to figure each other out. Whoever gets it figured the fastest will have the best chance to win."

Best matchup: Virginia Tech running game vs. Alabama run defense: Alabama set the tone for its 2008 season by holding Clemson to zero net rushing yards in a 34-10 victory. Alabama's chances of winning its 2009 season opener depend on whether the Tide once again can shut down the vaunted running attack of a preseason ACC favorite. Virginia Tech QB Tyrod Taylor isn't a proven passer. Virginia Tech doesn't have any go-to receivers. The Hokies probably can't win unless they establish some kind of running attack against Terrence Cody and Co. The season-ending injury to Orange Bowl MVP Darren Evans makes the job much tougher, but Taylor, Ryan Williams, Josh Oglesby and David Wilson still give the Hokies plenty of running options. The Hokies don't have to run wild to win this game, since neither team figures to crack the 20-point mark. But they can't fumble the ball early and abandon the running game the way Clemson did last year.

Players on the spot: Miami run defense: Miami controlled its destiny in the ACC Coastal Division race last year after shutting down Virginia Tech's Darren Evans, but the Hurricanes never won again because of their inability to stop the run. The Hurricanes gave up an average of 299.3 rushing yards in a three-game losing streak that ended the season. Miami also allowed 310 rushing yards to Florida State in a 41-39 loss earlier in the year. Miami won't improve on last season's 7-6 finish unless it does a better job of handling the run. The Hurricanes will get an early test against Florida State, which should have a potent rushing attack even without the departed Antone Smith in the backfield. All-America candidate Rodney Hudson and center Ryan McMahon lead a Florida State offensive line that returns all five starters. The Hurricanes need DTs Allen Bailey and Marcus Forston to control the line of scrimmage to allow LBs Sean Spence and Colin McCarthy to get to the ball carrier early.

Numbers game: The ACC needs big performances from North Carolina State and Virginia Tech this week to improve the national perception of the league. The ACC split its 12 games with SEC teams last season, but its inability to win head-to-head matchups with the SEC at the beginning and the end of the season overshadowed the way it fared the rest of the year. In the opening week of the season, the ACC went 0-2 against SEC teams and was outscored 68-10. In bowl games, the ACC also was 0-2 against SEC teams while being outscored 54-17. For the rest of the 2008 season, the ACC went 6-2 against the SEC. The ACC's only losses to the SEC in that span came when eventual national champion Florida knocked off Miami and Florida State.

What they're saying:

"This team should be a bowl team. I've been doing this a long time. It has the ingredients. It has enough experience in the right places. If the coach puts them in the right position, then we'll get there. I know that throws a lot of pressure on Duke. I know people look at me sometimes like I'm crazy. I just say what I really believe, and I don't have a problem with doing that. I just like to say the truth." - Duke coach David Cutcliffe to the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal. Duke hasn't earned a bowl bid since closing the 1994 season with a 34-20 loss to Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame Bowl.

"Vic is our best punt returner. That's all that's at issue. We have a chance to score on that play, and we'll put our guy back there who gives us the best chance to win. We want to handle the ball cleanly. To do otherwise, we jeopardize our chance to win. Every time a ball is punted to us, the game is on the line, so we're going to have the best player back there who is available." - Virginia coach Al Groh to The Roanoke (Va.) Times on the listing of QB Vic Hall as the Cavaliers' main punt returner on the depth chart. Groh hasn't indicated whether Hall or Jameel Sewell will be the starting quarterback for the Cavaliers' season opener Saturday against William & Mary.

"He's the guy. He's the franchise. He's a Vince Young-type athlete. He even wears No. 10. It's kind of spooky seeing him out there." - Wake Forest DT John Russell on Baylor QB Robert Griffin.

"When I go out into the community, they're saying, 'You're the person that's got to lead us to victory and lead us to a national championship.' It makes me feel like I'm sort of the savior. Being the starter, all the pressure is [increased]. But I'm the type of person that flourishes off of pressure. Whenever the pressure is there, I want more of it." - Miami QB Jacory Harris to The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post.

"I haven't coached a long time - about 10 years, but I haven't seen a guy, going back to my playing days, who's as hard to tackle as this guy. I remember the LSU game [last season] when it took about five or six guys to bring him down on one play. He's just strong. He has a will and a desire that he's not going to go down." - Virginia Tech defensive backfield coach Torrian Gray to The Roanoke (Va.) Times about Alabama WR Julio Jones.

Etc.: Boston College will probably start QB Justin Tuggle in Saturday's game with Northeastern, though Dave Shinskie also will play. Shinskie, who is relaunching his football career after playing seven years of minor league baseball, hurt his chances of winning the starting job by cracking a rib in practice two weeks ago. Tuggle is the son of former Atlanta Falcons LB Jessie Tuggle. "We'll probably be playing two quarterbacks only because we don't have one right now," Spaziani said. ... Although QB Kyle Parker will start Clemson's season opener Saturday against Middle Tennessee, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has indicated backup Willy Korn also will play. "It's not something going into the game where it's the third or second series," Swinney said. "It's based on the flow of the game." ... The Clemson-Middle Tennessee game represents something of a homecoming for several members of the Blue Raiders' staff. Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill worked as a Clemson assistant from 1989-2002, while defensive line coach Les Herrin worked as the linebackers coach for the Tigers' 1981 national championship team. Middle Tennessee running backs coach Willie Simmons and receivers coach Justin Watts played for the Tigers during Stockstill's Clemson tenure. Middle Tennessee safeties coach David Bibee worked on Clemson's staff from 1997-99. Middle Tennessee head trainer Robbie Stewart graduated from Clemson, and strength coach Russell Patterson worked at Clemson from 1998-2003. ... Georgia Tech enters its season opener with Football Championship Subdivision program Jacksonville (Ala.) State as a heavy favorite, but Jacksonville State actually has the edge in former five-star prospects. Jacksonville State has two five-star prospects with national championship rings: former LSU QB Ryan Perrilloux and former Florida DT Torrey Davis. Perrilloux won't be playing against Georgia Tech as he serves a one-game suspension. ... Maryland RB Da'Rel Scott rushed for 1,133 yards and earned first-team All-ACC honors last season, but he won't be the Terps' only weapon in the backfield. Sophomore Davin Meggett has won raves in the preseason for his weight loss and improved speed and vision. "Meggett has improved probably as much as anybody," Maryland offensive coordinator James Franklin told The Baltimore Sun. "I think we've got two No. 1 tailbacks, and we're going to use them as such." ... North Carolina State QB Russell Wilson enters the season having thrown 249 consecutive passes without an interception. Wilson was picked off just once in 275 attempts last year to lead the nation in interception avoidance. ... The only suspense in North Carolina's season opener with The Citadel figures to be how the Tar Heels shuffle their receivers as they attempt to replace first-round draft pick Hakeem Nicks, third-round pick Brandon Tate and fifth-round selection Brooks Foster. Junior Greg Little and sophomore Dwight Jones are listed as the starters for Saturday's game, with junior Johnny White and freshman Joshua Adams on the second team. ... Florida State's schedule includes 11 teams that played in bowl games last season. The lone exception is Jacksonville State, which comes to Doak Campbell Stadium on Sept. 12. Florida State's 12 opponents combined for 101 wins last season. No other team in the nation plays 12 opponents that had that many combined victories a year ago. ... How much of a concern is Florida State's pass rush following the departure of second-round draft pick Everette Brown? Consider that the Seminoles head into the Miami game with walk-on Craig Yarborough, a former quarterback and linebacker at Glen Saint Mary (Fla.) Baker County High School, as one of its starting defensive ends. Miami has its own concerns at defensive end. The Hurricanes will be playing Florida State without injured DEs Eric Moncur (groin) and Adewale Ojomo (broken jaw).

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



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