Spring football: Elite team needed, more burning ACC questions
Six teams have a shot at winning ACC title, but that actually hurts league
Georgia Tech lost three of its top players, but option offense is still an edge
Former stars Darren Evans, Nate Irving, Mark Herzlich return to action
The dream of an all-powerful ACC seemed so close to reality when the league played its first 12-team football season five years ago. Top-quality basketball would merge with top-quality football, and teams in each sport would compete for national titles every year.
Basketball held up its end of the bargain, but football has not. Even the football league's divisions, chosen with no regard for geography to match marquee teams in the title game, haven't worked out. That's because with the exception of Virginia Tech, the programs that were supposed to dominate have turned out to be mediocre, or, at best, slightly above average.
Ideally, the league would prefer a championship game featuring Florida State or Clemson coming out of the Atlantic Division and Miami or Virginia Tech coming out of the Coastal Division -- with the winner heading to the BCS title game, of course. That was the hope when the ACC poached Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech from the Big East. FSU beat Virginia Tech in the inaugural title game, but the league hasn't gotten a dream matchup since, and no ACC team has even sniffed the BCS title game.
That's bad, considering the league started negotiations this month for its next set of television contracts. Obviously, ACC basketball remains a valuable commodity, but the expanded league hasn't produced football teams the nation wants to watch. In 2005, Florida State and Miami were marquee draws, but the Seminoles' and Hurricanes' Q ratings have plummeted.
What's the ACC's biggest football perception problem? Here's a list of the teams that have the best chance to win the 2010 ACC title: Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. While it's great that so many programs are above-average, that's too many title contenders. A league needs a few elite teams to contend for national titles. So far, no ACC program has separated itself from the pack. The result: three- and four-loss teams playing for the conference title in a half-empty stadium.
That's not what ACC officials had in mind when they expanded. But hope springs eternal every March. Maybe this is the year an ACC team finally makes the leap.
If an ACC team does become elite, which will it be?
It's impossible to pick one, but five of the six teams I mentioned as conference title contenders have the personnel to compete on the national stage and a major early out-of-conference game to prove that point. They are:
Clemson (at Auburn, Sept. 18): The Tigers may not even be able to answer their biggest question this spring. Will quarterback Kyle Parker return, or will he choose professional baseball? Coach Dabo Swinney has said he expects Parker back, but Parker, in his third season as an outfielder on Clemson's baseball team, is batting .378 with four home runs and 10 RBIs through the Tigers' first 10 games. If he keeps up that pace, he could be a wealthy minor leaguer this time next year. Parker will miss about five spring practices, and redshirt freshman Tajh Boyd will take first-team snaps in his place. C.J. Spiller is gone, leaving speedster Andre Ellington and bruiser Jamie Harper as the new lightning/thunder combo. No matter who plays quarterback, the Tigers will spend the spring trying to find starting receivers from a group that doesn't have a player who caught more than 14 passes last season. Everyone's watching Bryce McNeal, the Minneapolis import who redshirted in 2009.
Florida State (at Oklahoma, Sept. 11): FSU has a fantastic offense that averaged 421.4 yards a game in 2009. The Seminoles return their entire starting offensive line, and quarterback Christian Ponder -- a potential darkhorse Heisman contender -- has recovered enough from November shoulder surgery to participate in spring practice. But can Florida State stop anyone? The Seminoles ranked 108th in total defense (434.6 yards a game) and 94th in points allowed (30 points a game) in 2009. New coordinator Mark Stoops will have to teach a young group to tackle this spring. Sophomore cornerback Greg Reid, Florida State's best athlete, should be on the field for every defensive down from now on.
Miami (at Ohio State, Sept. 11): Miami's young talent isn't young anymore. The core group that includes quarterback Jacory Harris, receiver Aldarius Johnson, linebacker Sean Spence and cornerback Brandon Harris enters its third season. In 2009, the Hurricanes crushed the eventual conference champs and hung around the division race for much of the season. In 2010, Miami has a chance to return to the status it enjoyed at the turn of this century. But first, the Hurricanes have a few issues and a few holes to plug. Harris is out for the spring (Miami began practice late last month) while recovering from surgery on his throwing hand, but his absence could work in Miami's favor. The Canes had no depth behind Harris last season; now, backup A.J. Highsmith can take some quality snaps. Meanwhile, Orlando Franklin has moved from left guard to left tackle to replace NFL-bound Jason Fox.
North Carolina (vs. LSU in Atlanta, Sept. 4): The Tar Heels return 10 starters on offense and nine on defense from a team that went 8-4 before losing by two to a very good Pittsburgh team in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. We've been hearing that the Tar Heels are on the verge of competing for an ACC title since Mack Brown coached in Chapel Hill, but this may really be the year. In an offseason when a ton of key contributors could have gone pro early, everyone came back. Stud defensive tackle Marvin Austin, All-ACC linebacker Quan Sturdivant and the secondary tandem of Kendric Burney and Deunta Williams all chose to return, as did receiver Greg Little, who caught 62 passes for 724 yards and five touchdowns as a junior. With so much settled, the Tar Heels can stress fundamentals and work on a few key positions this spring. For example, will junior defensive end Quinton Coples take advantage of his Mario Williams-esque physique and terrorize ACC passers? Meanwhile, early enrollees James Hurst and T.J. Leifheit will compete to replace Kyle Jolly at left tackle, but the youngsters may just be keeping the position warm for sophomore Carl Gaskins, who should return from an ACL injury in time for preseason camp.
Virginia Tech (vs. Boise State in Landover, Md., Sept. 6): The Hokies will carry into the season the hopes and dreams of every high-major team that doesn't want to let a program from outside the BCS power structure into the BCS title game. Because, frankly, if neither Virginia Tech nor Oregon State beats the Broncos, Boise State is breaking through the glass ceiling. The Hokies will need to make big gains this spring, because they must replace the left side of their offensive line and much of their first-team defense. Look for Nick Beckton to replace Ed Wang at left tackle, unless coaches decide to slide right tackle Blake DeChristopher into Wang's spot. On defense, Jeron Goveia-Winslow and Alonzo Tweedy will compete to replace Cody Grimm at the Whip position.
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