ACC’s 2012 football favorites look familiar

jgiglio@newsobserver.comApril 28, 2012 

Three out of North Carolina’s four ACC football coaches agree: a healthy spring is a good spring.

While North Carolina’s first-year coach Larry Fedora was busy implementing a new system for the Tar Heels, the ACC’s other in-state coaches were worried about injuries.

Consider these recent declarations:

•  N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien: “Everybody is healthy. That was the good thing for us.”

•  Duke coach David Cutcliffe: “We’re on the mend, and that’s the most important thing to me right now.”

•  Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe: “I think like most coaches will tell you, if you stay healthy in the spring, you’re happy.”

Happy is usually an underlying theme in the spring, as well as hope. N.C. State, Wake Forest and North Carolina all are hoping to build on bowl seasons from 2011, while Duke’s chasing a breakthrough under Cutcliffe.

As usual, Florida State, Clemson and Virginia Tech are the early favorites in the ACC. Here’s a post-spring review of how the conference is projected to stack up as the clock counts down to kickoff on the 2012 season (122 days until N.C. State takes on Tennessee in Atlanta):

Atlantic Division

(In predicted order of finish)

1. Florida State

2011 record: 9-4, 5-3 Returning starters: Offense (8), Defense (9)

Key games: Clemson (Sept. 22), at Virginia Tech (Nov. 8)

Rising star: WR Kelvin Benjamin, Fr.

Bottom line: The Seminoles will open the season in the national top 10 and as the ACC favorite … again. They didn’t fulfill either preseason prediction a year ago, finishing second to Clemson in the Atlantic Division and 23rd in the final AP poll. The health of senior quarterback E.J. Manuel is essential to the Seminoles’ pursuit of their first ACC title since 2005. Manuel missed one game, and parts of two others, with a shoulder injury. FSU lost all three of those games. Still, the defense (which led the ACC in scoring and yardage) is getting back to its 1990s form, in terms of talent and depth. That, plus a favorable schedule, should help FSU finish the season where its predicted to start. Prediction: 10-2, 7-1.

2. Clemson

2011 record: 10-4, 6-2 (ACC champs)

Returning starters: Offense (7), Defense (8)

Key games: vs. Auburn (Sept. 1), at FSU (Sept. 22)

Rising star: RB Zac Brooks, Fr.

Bottom line: It was one step forward (the first ACC title in 20 years) and three steps back (late lopsided losses to South Carolina and N.C. State, followed by West Virginia breaking the scoreboard in the Orange Bowl) for Clemson last season. The Tigers certainly have the glitter, in quarterback Tajh Boyd (38 total TDs) and receiver Sammy Watkins (82 catches, 1,219 yards), to repeat as ACC champions, but they have to rebuild both the offensive and defensive fronts. The defense, which returns eight starters, also might need a lobotomy after the nightmare 70-33 loss to WVU. They’re looking up at FSU in the division race by virtue of the location of their Sept. 22 showdown. Prediction: 9-3, 6-2.

3. N.C. State

2011 record: 8-5, 4-4

Returning starters: Offense (7), Defense (7)

Key games: vs. Tennessee (Aug. 31), at North Carolina (Oct. 27)

Rising star: LB Rodman Noel, Soph.

Bottom line: Even Tom O’Brien, who doesn’t typically offer such optimistic opinions, likes his sixth team, which should be strong on defense (the Wolfpack led the country with 27 interceptions last season) and on the offensive line, which returns six players with starting experience. O’Brien traded one year of Russell Wilson at quarterback for two with Mike Glennon specifically with this season in mind, but State can’t be great until it figures out a way to win more road games. Prediction: 9-3, 5-3.

4. Wake Forest

2011 record: 6-7, 5-3

Returning starters: Offense (3), Defense (7)

Key games: North Carolina (Sept. 8), Clemson (Oct. 25)

Rising star: WR Sherman Ragland, Redshirt Fr.

Bottom line: Jim Grobe’s team was the surprise of the ACC with a 5-3 conference record, including early wins over Florida State and N.C. State. The Deacons will remain competitive with the return of junior quarterback Tanner Price (3,017 yards, 20 TDs), but there are questions on the offensive line, where four starters need to be replaced, and at receiver. Wake finished 2-5 last year, after a 4-1 start. Given the strength of the second half of the schedule this year, that might be a pattern even a coach like Grobe can’t avoid. Prediction: 6-6, 3-5.

5. Boston College

2011 record: 4-8, 3-5

Returning starters: Offense (9), Defense (7)

Key games: Miami (Sept. 1), Notre Dame (Nov. 10)

Rising star: RB Rolandan “Deuce” Finch, Jr.

Bottom line: The Eagles have to replace all-everything linebacker Luke Kuechly (the Panthers’ first-round pick) and likely won’t have All-ACC running back Montel Harris, again, to pick up the pieces on offense. Still, after three of BC’s four wins on the season came in the final five weeks, the Eagles feel good about the 2012 season. Any substantial improvement will have to come on offense, where they ranked 112th out of 120 FBS teams, in scoring and total yards. Prediction: 4-8, 2-6.

6. Maryland

2011 record: 2-10, 1-7 Returning starters: Offense (5), Defense (10)

Key games: at Temple (Sept. 8), N.C. State (Oct. 20)

Rising star: WR Stefon Diggs, Fr.

Bottom line: Save for a season-opening win over a suspension-ravaged Miami team, Randy Edsall’s first season in College Park was an unqualified disaster. The Terps lost games (10), lost players (25 have left the program since Edsall replaced Ralph Friedgen), lost fans and overall interest in the program in a 2-10 transition from Friedgen’s 9-4 finale in 2010. In theory, the house-clearing leaves only players that want to be there, and it gives Edsall a fresh start. However, after such a miserable debut, Edsall is going to have to put on his work boots to dig the program out of the self-induced rubble. Prediction: 3-9, 1-7.

Coastal Division

1. Virginia Tech

2011 record: 11-3, 7-1 (Coastal Division champs)

Returning starters: Offense (3), Defense (9)

Key games: Georgia Tech (Sept. 3), FSU (Nov. 8)

Rising star: RB Michael Holmes, Fr.

Bottom line: Does it say more about Virginia Tech, and its superb coach Frank Beamer, that it’s the favorite in the Coastal despite the glaring loss of personnel on offense? Or does it say more about the quality of the rest of the division? The Hokies have to reload on the offensive line, and, more importantly, at running back, but quarterback Logan Thomas showed enough flashes of brilliance to believe that Beamer and coordinator Mike O’Cain will figure it all out in time to get back to the ACC title game for the sixth time in eight years. Prediction: 10-2, 6-2

2. Georgia Tech

2011 record: 8-5, 5-3

Returning starters: Offense (7), Defense (6)

Key games: at Virginia Tech (Sept. 3), Virginia (Sept. 15)

Rising star: WR Darren Waller, Soph.

Bottom line: In four seasons at Georgia Tech, coach Paul Johnson is 34-19, 21-11 in ACC play. Fine numbers, and an upgrade from predecessor Chan Gailey, but there’s a perception that Johnson and his unusual option offense have hit a glass ceiling. After a 6-0 start last season, it looked like GT could break through for more, in the league and nationally. It fell back to Earth with a 2-5 finish, which included a fourth straight bowl loss. The Yellow Jackets will run for a billion yards (again), and get to a bowl game (again), but there’s little to suggest it’s anything more than running in place. Prediction: 8-4, 5-3

3. Virginia

2011 record: 8-5, 5-3

Returning starters: Offense (7), Defense (4)

Key games: Miami (Nov. 10), at Virginia Tech (Nov. 24)

Rising star: RB Khalek Shepherd, Fr.

Bottom line: Coach Mike London out-kicked his coverage with eight wins in 2011, double the total of his first team. But pipes started to leak at the end of the season with a 38-0 loss to Virginia Tech, with the Coastal Division title on the line, and a 43-24 loss to Auburn in the Peach Bowl. The defense needs to be remade, and the passing game needs an upgrade, but London has shown the chops to keep the Cavaliers moving in the right direction. Prediction: 8-4, 5-3

4. North Carolina

2011 record: 7-6, 3-5

Returning starters: Offense (7), Defense (5)

Key games: N.C. State (Oct. 27), at Virginia (Nov. 15)

Rising star: WR Sean Tapley, Soph.

Bottom line: There’s still talent in the program, there’s no doubt about that with running back Gio Bernard, left tackle James Hurst and linebacker Kevin Reddick tops on the list. But the Tar Heels could be in for a tough transition from former coach Butch Davis’ pro-style offense, and base defense, to new coach Larry Fedora’s spread offense and multi-schemed defense. Fedora has the unenviable task of jamming a round peg into a square hole; plus, there’s the motivational issues of being ineligible for a bowl game because of previous NCAA transgressions. Prediction: 6-6, 3-5

5. Miami

2011 record: 6-6, 3-5

Returning starters: Offense (4), Defense (6)

Key games: FSU (Oct. 20), Virginia Tech (Nov. 1)

Rising star: WR Rashawn Scott, Soph.

Bottom line: Any sense of normalcy will be the first for coach Al Golden, whose first season was interrupted before it even started by the Nevin Shapiro-fueled NCAA investigation. The Canes still found a way to win six games, but there’s a ton of rebuilding to do for Golden, who for all intents and purposes, returns a starting right tackle and right guard on offense and that’s it. There’s a nice throwback touch to Miami’s schedule, with a meeting with Notre Dame in Chicago, but it will take more to restore the glory days of “The U.” Prediction: 5-7, 3-5

6. Duke

2011 record: 3-9, 1-7

Returning starters: Offense (7), Defense (7)

Key games: at Wake Forest (Sept. 29), North Carolina (Oct. 20)

Rising star: TE David Reeves, Redshirt Fr.

Bottom line: David Cutcliffe loves coaching quarterbacks so much, he says he’s going to use three this season. Watching Greg Boone or Brandon Connette take over the offense in the red zone and vulture touchdowns isn’t exactly conducive to starter Sean Renfree’s confidence, but there’s a method to Cutcliffe’s genius. Turnovers, the kicking game and the running game hurt Duke more last season than any crowded quarterback rotations. Until the Blue Devils can solve some of those perennial issues, a bowl trip (since 1994 and counting) will remain elusive. Prediction: 5-7, 2-6

Giglio: 919-829-8938

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service