Posted: Thursday August 11, 2005 11:20AM; Updated: Friday August 12, 2005 11:00AM
The Hokies hope Marcus Vick, who missed all of 2004, can lead them to another ACC title.
Team on the rise
Team on the decline
Most favorable schedule
Coach on the hot seat
Tommy Bowden, Clemson
Newcomer to watch
Willie Williams, LB, Miami
Game of the Year
Miami at Virginia Tech, Nov. 5
By Stewart Mandel, SI.com
When ACC officials decided to expand to 12 teams and stage a conference championship game in Jacksonville, Fla., visions of a season-ending, Miami-Florida State showdown surely danced in their heads. Now that their creation is a reality, the biggest question hovering over the conference is, will the two longtime powerhouses live up to their end of the bargain, or will they show more of the cracks in the armor they exhibited last season when Virginia Tech outdid both of them?
The guess here is that the Hurricanes, devastated by injuries last season, will improve on last year's 9-3 finish, while not quite reaching the same dominant level as they did earlier this decade, while the Seminoles, having endured the most tumultuous offseason of Bobby Bowden's career, are in for a tumble. FSU's offense can't get any worse, even with a freshman starting at quarterback, but the defense, having lost both star cornerback Antonio Cromartie and nose tackle Clifton Dickson for the season, won't be dominant enough to withstand the offense's growing pains.
The two programs' vulnerability opens the door for potential title-game appearances not only by the Hokies, which return the bulk of last year's title team but are facing a huge question at quarterback, but any number of other potential sleepers like Virginia, Georgia Tech, N.C. State or even newcomer Boston College. ABC, presumably anticipating a Miami-FSU or FSU-Virginia Tech matchup on Dec. 3, bumped the Big 12's title game from prime time to show the ACC's. Will the network still feel good about that decision if it's N.C. State vs. Virginia?
Stewart Mandel's Projected Standings (Overall record in parentheses; ties are broken by projected head-to-head outcome)
Embattled offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden will probably rely heavily on sturdy RBs Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker while freshman QBs Xavier Lee and Drew Weatherford develop, meaning an inexperienced offensive line will need to gel quickly. There's still plenty of talent on defense, led by star LBs A.J. Nicholson and Ernie Sims, but a shaky front four may put undue pressure on the new cornerbacks.
The Wolfpack managed to go 5-6 last year despite fielding the nation's top-ranked defense (221.3 yards per game). Any improvement at all from the quarterback position should be enough for Chuck Amato's team to return to a bowl game, though it remains to be seen whether Mario Williams, Manny Lawson and the rest of the defense will be quite so successful without coordinator Reggie Herring, who left for Arkansas.
Ninth-year coach Tom O'Brien brings what could be the strongest squad of his tenure to the ACC, led by All-America DE Mathias Kiwanuka and game-breaker Will Blackmon. But the Eagles were always good, not great in the Big East, and it remains to be seen whether they can handle the step up in competition. BC's passing game is its biggest question following the departure of QB Paul Peterson and both starting receivers.
Innovative new offensive coordinator Rob Spence, formerly of Toledo, should help cure the mysterious ills that befell previously promising QB Charlie Whitehurst last season, but the Tigers' running game remains a mystery. Their defense was very good a year ago and should remain fairly strong, though replacing LB Leroy Hill and CB Justin Miller -- particularly Miller's impact in the return game -- will be a challenge.
The Terrapins' dip from 10 wins in 2003 to five a year ago had everything to do with a dreadful offense and special teams. Expect improved QB Sam Hollenbach and up-and-coming RB Keon Lattimore to emerge as potential answers, but Ralph Friedgen's team still won't run over people. The defense loses several veteran stars but has at least one remaining in LB D'Qwell Jackson, and should continue to keep the Terps in games.
The Deacons are the ACC's reigning wild-cards. They won just one conference game last season but lost five others by a touchdown or less. If touted sophomore QB Ben Mauk lives up to his billing, he and veteran RB Chris Barclay will be dangerous in Jim Grobe's unique misdirection offense. The Deacons' defense, however, remains highly suspect. At least they have one of the top punters in the country, Ryan Plackemeier.
The Hokies will go as far as QB Marcus Vick takes them. Bryan Randall was their undisputed heart and soul last season, and while Vick has more athletic ability, he needs to be a better passer than he was two years ago. Proven commodities occupy nearly ever other spot, with a deep backfield and receiving corps, and a dominant defense led by star DE Darryl Tapp and CB Jimmy Williams.
A healthy offensive line, including the return of All-America T Eric Winston, should benefit new QB Kyle Wright and help lift a sagging running game, particularly if phenom RBs Charlie Jones and Derron Thomas are the real deal. The Canes' receiving corps still lacks an all-out game-breaker, though. Their linebackers and secondary are deep and loaded, but the D-line needs to improve from last year.
The Cavaliers' running game was dominant a year ago, and that shouldn't change with the return of TB Wali Lundy and an experienced offensive line. The question is whether anyone can replace departed TE Heath Miller as a reliable receiving target for QB Marques Hagans. The linebacking corps, led by Ahmad Brooks, is an obvious strength, but Virginia needs to develop a more formidable front line.
There's a lot to like about the Yellow Jackets, most notably the return of stalwart RB P.J. Daniels and electrifying WR Calvin Johnson, but road trips to Auburn, Virginia Tech, Miami and Virginia might make it tough to improve on their win total. Third-year QB Reggie Ball looks ready to take the next step, but a rash of offseason suspensions and injuries raise questions about Tech's defense.
John Bunting got off the hot seat last season with a bowl berth and win over Miami, but he may find himself right back on it playing a non-conference slate that includes Utah, Louisville and Wisconsin, and doing it without four-year QB Darian Durant. LSU transfer Barrington Edwards should boost the running game, and the defense can't get any worse than it has been.
The problem for perennial cellar-dweller Duke is that while the Blue Devils are slowly getting better (they beat Clemson in coach Ted Roof's first full season last year), their conference keeps getting tougher. New offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien could help third-year QB Mike Schneider become decent, but Roof's defense needs better athletes up front to be able to stop ACC running attacks.