Tuesday, August 22, 2006

ACC Preview, Part I - Atlantic Division

As promised here, I give you the beginnings of my somewhat in-depth, yet concise and easy to ponder, ACC preview. Let's get right to it.....

ATLANTIC DIVISION

Predicted order of finish

1. Florida State
Schedule
Offense: A rebuilt - although not very deep - offensive line is the most glaring area of improvement. Injuries and sub-par talent on the line last year destroyed all hopes of the Seminoles establishing any sort of run threat, thereby putting the entire offense into then-freshman QB Drew Weatherford's hands. While far from perfect, Weatherford developed into a fine signal caller and has earned the respect of his teammates, something sorely missing under center since the departure of Chris Weinke after the 2000 season. Weatherford, shifty tailbacks Lorenzo Booker and Antone Smith, along with stud wideouts Chris Davis, DeCody Fagg and Greg Carr provide FSU's best overall offensive talent since 2000 when they last played for a national title, so if there's any struggle whatsoever on this side of the ball in 2006, the blame will lie squarely on the shoulders of the much-maligned Jeff Bowden.
Defense: Cliche alert...these guys don't rebuild here, they reload. Losing 2 linemen and a linebacker in the first round of the NFL draft normally would signify a decline the following year, but not necessarily in Tallahassee. Mickey Andrews rotates so many players in and out during each series that there is nary a starter on opening day without some solid previous game experience. If there is a weak spot, it's the secondary. We'll find out how weak very quickly--on Labor Day in the Orange Bowl.
Miscellaneous: Those who think that Bobby Bowden is merely a figurehead should think again; Jeff Bowden runs the offense he is directed to run, with the players that Papa Bowden tells him to play.....Reports out of practices indicate Weatherford is firmly entrenched and respected at starting QB, and that he's been razor sharp in the passing game......This year's schedule has the Seminoles playing 8 home games, with all of November in Tallahassee; the only road games outside of the state are at NC State (Oct. 5), at Duke (Oct. 14), and at Maryland (Oct. 28)....Upset alert: that College Park trip on Oct. 28, one week after the Boston College game, and the last road game before the 4 game homestand to end the season....FSU bypasses Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and North Carolina from the Coastal Division on this year's slate
Predicted record: 10-2 overall, 7-1 ACC

2. Clemson
Schedule
Offense: With eight starters returning - including all five offensive linemen - and with another year of seasoning under 2nd-year coordinator Rod Spence, this could be a juggernaut. The only real question mark is fifth-year senior QB Will Proctor, who takes the reins as starter for the first time. He played admirably when called upon last year (he beat Duke, and led the Tigers on a game winning drive against Texas A&M), but is obviously still unproven over the course of a season. RB James Davis and wideout Chansi Stuckey are outstanding and could both be 1st-team All-ACC when all is said and done. The league's best kicker in Jad Dean returns as well.
Defense: Last year's unit improved significantly as the season wore on (giving up just 11 points per game over the last 7 games), and seven of those starters return for 2006, led by all-everything DE Gaines Adams. The secondary is the weak spot, if there is one, with the projected starters at CB - Duane Coleman and CJ Gaddis - coming over from the offensive side of the ball, while the two safeties (Michael Hamlin and Chris Coleman) are sophomores with limited gametime experience.
Miscellaneous: If there's a year for Tommy Bowden's program to finally break through, this is it; the talent and experience are there on both sides of the ball.....after a comfy opener with Florida Atlantic, the Tigers hit the road in week 2 (Boston College) and travel again in week 3 (Florida State); that's a tall order for the notoriously slow starting Tigers under Bowden....Clemson's 4 losses last year were by a combined 14 points, with two of the defeats in OT.....Upset alert: after returning from the BC-FSU gauntlet in weeks 2 and 3, a dangerous North Carolina squad pays a call.....The Tigers bypass Miami, Virginia and Duke from the Coastal Division on this year's slate.
Predicted record: 10-2 overall, 6-2 ACC

3. Boston College
Schedule
Offense: The strong suit here is QB Matt Ryan, who won the starting job last season and played quite well. The always stout Eagle O-line returns 3 starters. The skill positions at running back and receiver are points of concern....TBs LV Whitworth and Andre Callender are capable, but not all-conference caliber. 2005's top 2 wideouts are gone, leaving career second-teamer Tony Gonzalez as the #1 target. Up-and-down kicker Ryan Ohliger is back.
Defense: There are some questions on this side of the ball....just 5 starters return, with no proven pass rushers on the line. The linebacking corps, led by junior Brian Toal, is one of the best in the league. The secondary is solid as well, with experienced upperclass-men holding down the fort. 10th year coordinator Frank Spaziani will have one week to get the pass rushing squared away before Clemson pays a visit.
Miscellaneous: This year certainly looks to be a slight step down for the steady Eagles program, with too many unknowns on both sides of the ball; luckily, the cake out-of-conference schedule (at Central Michigan, BYU, Maine, Buffalo) should easily allow BC to cruise to an eighth-straight bowl game.....Media/Blog contrast, exhibit 1: a perusal of college football sportwriters normally finds universal praise and gushing admiration for the job head coach Tom O'Brien has done, while a scan of BC blogs finds a palpable frustration at the O'Brien regime.....the Nov. 23 season finale at Miami is 22 years to the day of the Flutie Hail Mary over the Hurricanes....Upset alert: at Wake Forest (Nov. 4), an always tough game for the Eagles, and this year a game sandwiched between uninspiring contests against Buffalo and Duke.....BC bypasses Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Virginia from the Coastal Division on this year's slate
Predicted record: 8-4 overall, 4-4 ACC

4. Maryland
Schedule
Offense: My oh my, where to begin? The bane of Ralph Friedgen's offenses in 2004 and 2005 - QB play - doesn't appear to have settled much in 2006. Senior starter Sam Hollenbach returns, but so does his penchant for throwing costly interceptions. Backup Jordan Steffy has earned positive notes in practice, but he looked unimpressive in gametime last year. The offensive line is solid and capable. Stud RB Josh Allen returns from a knee injury that cost him the 2005 season. The group of receivers is talented, but when the top returning receiver is RB Lance Ball, that has to qualify as a big question mark. And oh by the way, the Fridge has taken over offensive coordinator and playcalling duties this season.
Defense: A veteran cast of players form the bulk of his year's Terp defense, and while there's no EJ Henderson or D'Qwell Jackson to grab the headlines, this unit may be more cohesive than the last few editions of the Maryland defense. The strong suits appear to be the linebacking corps and Josh Wilson at cornerback. Chris Cosh takes over as defensive coordinator for the departed Gary Blackney.
Miscellaneous: Aside from possibly Josh Allen, this may be the only team in the ACC outside of Wake Forest and Duke totally devoid of any true big-name stars; and that may not be a bad thing, considering Friedgen's 2001 ACC champion Terp team was a blue-collar workhorse club.....Don't count Maryland out against West Virginia in game 3 this season; after destroying Rich Rodriguez's Mountaineers to the tune of an average score of 39-13 over 4 games from 2001-2003, the Terps dropped two relatively close contests their last two 5-6 seasons (31-19 in '05, 19-16 OT in '04); if Friedgen can get back in Coach Rod's head, there go WVU's national title hopes early....Must win: at Virginia (Oct. 14); this is the easiest of a brutal 7-game stretch that includes @Georgia Tech, N.C. State, Florida State, @Clemson, Miami and @Boston College....The Terrapins bypass Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Duke from the Coastal Division on this year's slate
Predicted record: 7-5 overall, 4-4 ACC

5. Wake Forest
Schedule
Offense: The infamous flexbone returns yet again, albeit without the services of RB Chris Barclay, one of Wake's all-time greats. Ben Mauk returns to the starting QB position after being benched last season (1 touchdown and 6 picks), however freshman Riley Skinner has made some waves in practice. The skill positions at running back and receiver are up in the air--there are plenty of capable players (i.e. De'Angelo Bryant, Willie Idlette), but no true standouts yet.
Defense: Eight starters return on a solid but injury-plagued unit. The good news is that there's quite a bit of depth, especially among the linebackers, and the secondary - especially CB Alphonso Smith - is not to be overlooked. After being ranked 69th in total defense nationally last year, look for this unit to possibly halve that in 2006.
Miscellaneous: There's a possibility - albeit a smallish one - that the Demon Deacons could head into October at 5-0; Syracuse, Duke, @Connecticut, @Ole Miss, and Liberty are those first five matchups.....The 2005 season never got it's footing after the heartbreaking opening loss to Vanderbilt and the weird, quirky follow-up loss at Nebraska (3 Husker defensive TDs); upsets of Clemson and NC State were impressive considering a bowl-bid was basically out of the question by mid-September.....Must-win: at NC State (Oct. 14), since the loser of this one is on track for last in the division; Wake has been a thorn in the Pack's side lately and 5th place in the Atlantic this year still means a possible bowl-bid.....The Deacs bypass Miami, Georgia Tech and Virginia from the Coastal Division on this year's slate
Predicted record: 6-6 overall, 3-5 ACC

6. NC State
Schedule
Offense: This will take some time. The offensive line and the ruuning backs are good - but not great - while the QB play of Marcus Stone last season involved simple short passes and hand-offs. The receiving corps is entirely inexperienced and unproven. This unit struggled all-season in 2005 trying to fit into 2nd-year coordinator Marc Trestman's west-coast philosophy, with generally below-average results (outside of last year's game against 1-AA Eastern Kentucky, the most the Pack scored in any game was 24 points).
Defense: The core of the unit largely responsibile for 2005 being a 7-5 bowl winning year rather than a 3-8 disaster is gone. Three...count 'em three...studs off of last year's defense went in round one of the NFL draft. NCSU isn't at the level where they can just survive that. The ends are now completely unproven and the linebackers are a work in progress. The secondary at least looks capable.
Miscellaneous: A 2-0 start looks assured, with 1-AA Appalachian State and Akron paying visits to Raleigh; after that, every game is losable.....Chuck Amato deserves a lot of credit for raising the profile of Wolfpack football, but at it's peak - the 11-3 season in 2002 - State finished just 5-3 in the old-ACC, good for 4th place that year; and that was with Philip Rivers at his best.....As shaky as the Pack look this season, expect them to give Florida State all they can handle on Thursday night, Oct. 5; Amato is 3-3 against his mentor Bobby Bowden.....Must win: at home vs. Wake Forest (Oct. 14); coming off probable consecutive home losses to Boston College and Florida State, a third-straight home defeat, to the Deacons no less, would spell disaster heading into road games with Maryland and Virginia.....NC State bypasses Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Duke from the Coastal Division on this year's slate
Predicted record: 5-7 overall, 2-6 ACC

Coastal Division preview coming up in the next few days.

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