ACC Football | 3 Burning Questions

Three burning questions as ACC football season nears

jgiglio@newsobserver.comJuly 21, 2013 

  • ACC Football Kickoff

    When: Sunday-Monday

    Where: Grandover Resort, Greensboro, N.C.

  • The new ACC

    Syracuse and Pittsburgh join the ACC for the 2013 season.

    Atlantic Boston College Clemson Florida State Maryland N.C. State Syracuse Wake Forest. Coastal Duke Georgia Tech Miami (Fla.) North Carolina Pittsburgh Virginia Virginia Tech

    In 2014 Louisville joins while Maryland departs. Notre Dame will begin playing five games against ACC opponents next season.

    Season openers

    Thursday, Aug. 29

    UNC at South Carolina, 6 p.m.

    Saturday, Aug. 31

    La. Tech at N.C. State, 12:30 p.m.

    N.C. Central at Duke, 4 p.m.

To prove a point to his players, Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney has already thrown away one preseason magazine hyping the Tigers for the 2013 college season.

Swinney will either have to embrace the preseason love on Sunday at the ACC Kickoff, where the Tigers will likely be picked to win the conference title for the second time in three years, or get a bigger trash can.

There is a point to Swinney’s calculated theatrics. Preseason perception is not always reality, and hype does not win football games.

“It doesn’t work that way,” Swinney said last week. “You have to grind and have that blue-collar work ethic every single day.”

There’s a reason for all of the optimism though. Clemson, which went 11-2 a year ago and closed the season with a bowl win over SEC power LSU, returns All-ACC quarterback Tajh Boyd and offensive coordinator Chad Morris.

Swinney, who has gone 21-6 since hiring Morris, could have lost either: Boyd to the NFL or Morris to another school (he talked with N.C. State before the Wolfpack hired Dave Doeren).

The Tigers worked over the ACC’s weary defensive units last season, putting up 542.5 yards and 46.5 points per conference game.

Not that Swinney’s team won’t be challenged. The Tigers have one of the toughest schedules in the country, with an opening date against Georgia and the annual closing grudge match with South Carolina. Both SEC teams will likely open the season ranked nationally in the top 10. Clemson, which went 7-1 in the ACC last season, also has a home date with Florida State in October.

The schedule, and some questions on defense, are the main reasons Swinney has done his best to pump the brakes on the summer buildup. Not that he’s unwilling to talk about the Tigers’ success, just not yet.

“Let’s talk about it in November,” Swinney said.

But it’s July and the first game of the season, North Carolina at South Carolina, is 39 days away. Three ACC questions to mull while we wait:

1. Who will challenge Clemson in the ACC?

Florida State owned the ACC last season, winning coach Jimbo Fisher his first conference title and the Seminoles’ first since 2005.

Then the Noles had an ACC-record 11 players taken in the NFL draft in April, including five of the first 42 picks.

There’s no need to pass the hat for Jimbo – the talent still flows in Tallahassee, but is there enough to topple Clemson?

The Atlantic Division title will probably come down to FSU’s visit to Clemson on Oct. 19. The Seminoles, with 380 passing yards and 102 rushing yards from quarterback E.J. Manuel, beat Clemson 49-37 last season. Seven starters from defense and Manuel, now in the NFL, will be replaced by redshirt freshman Jameis Winston.

The odds are against another Atlantic Division team knocking off either Clemson or FSU during the regular season as N.C. State did a year ago.

The Wolfpack, while in transition with a new coach (Doeren), won’t be much different than Maryland, Boston College, Wake Forest or Syracuse in the quest for third place in the division.

2. Wait, where’s Louisville?

The Cardinals, 11-2 a year ago and Sugar Bowl champions (at Florida’s expense), aren’t in the ACC yet. Heisman hopeful quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and coach Charlie Strong’s team will compete in the American Athletic Conference this season and then join the ACC in 2014 (replacing Maryland, which is leaving for the Big Ten).

Notre Dame’s football relationship with the ACC, five games per year, also begins in 2014. In the meantime, Syracuse and Pittsburgh are here. Will anyone notice?

Both the Orange (8-5 in 2012) and Panthers (6-7) went bowling last season in their Big East finales and both programs have strong histories but neither is going to move the national needle.

The latest ACC expansion will help basketball, significantly, but the effects in football will not be as dramatic (although their additions did lead the ACC to a deal with a bowl game in Yankee Stadium).

Both teams will add to the conference’s healthy, and underrated competitive middle, but neither will challenge the elite.

The ACC was also kind enough to line up Florida State, on Labor Day, for Pitt’s first conference game and Clemson, on Oct. 5 in upstate New York, for the Orange.

Notre Dame, which lost in the BCS title game last season, does face one ACC foe this season. The Irish travel to Pitt on Nov. 9 in a rematch of one of the most memorable games from last season.

3. Can UNC win the Coastal Division again?

The ACC says it didn’t happen but UNC’s 5-3 league finish in 2012 (same as Miami and Georgia Tech), along with league tiebreakers, would have made the Tar Heels the Coastal Division representative in the ACC title game – had UNC been eligible for the postseason.

Eligibility is not a problem this season. The NCAA’s postseason punishment for UNC for transgressions under former coach Butch Davis are complete. That means second-year coach Larry Fedora can print T-shirts and issue rings with ACC approval if the Heels win the division again.

The Tar Heels, 8-4 in Fedora’s debut season, will have one of the best quarterbacks in the conference in senior Bryn Renner and two of the best targets in tight end Eric Ebron and receiver Quinshad Davis.

The offense will be strong, even without running back Gio Bernard and with a makeover on the line, but there’s the matter of defensive improvement after losing the unit’s two best players from 2012 (linebacker Kevin Reddick and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams).

The schedule also sends the Heels to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. UNC wasn’t very good on the road last season (it lost winnable games at Wake Forest and Duke), which could mean the difference in a tight Coastal race with the Techs and Miami.

Giglio: 919-829-8939

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