Is this the year that the ACC finally emerges out of the shadow of the SEC?
No. No, it's not.
The ACC's problem this season is precisely the same problem the league has had for the past few seasons: Though it is home to several good teams, it still lacks a truly great team.
Virginia Tech? Very good. Not great. Georgia Tech? Ditto. Miami, Florida State and North Carolina? Talented, but fundamentally flawed.
In other words, no, the ACC will not produce a national title contender in 2010.
It will, however, offer up a fairly entertaining league title race.
Who will come out on top? Find out here, in my 2010 ACC preview.
1. Virginia Tech Hokies (10-2, 1st Coastal)
It’s a season of great expectations in Blacksburg. In quarterback Tyrod Taylor and tailback Ryan Williams, the Hokies boast not only the best backfield duo in the ACC but possibly the very best in the country. In all, eight starters are back from an offense that put up nearly 32 points per game in 2009. The outlook is not quite as rosy for the defense, however. Bud Foster will have to replace seven starters. It’s a tall order, but if anyone can pull off the feat, it’s Foster, who hasn’t had a defense give up more than 20 points per game since 2003. The season will be on the line right form the start, as the Hokies will take on highly regarded Boise State in Week 1. Win that, and a national title is possible.
2. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (10-2, 2nd Coastal)
Superstar tailback Jonathan Dwyer is gone, but quarterback Josh Nesbitt and tailback Anthony Allen return to lead what should be yet another hard-to-handle Georgia Tech offense. Though the Jackets lose a good bit of talent from last year’s Orange Bowl squad, coach Paul Johnson’s record speaks for itself: At Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech, all he’s done is win, year-in, year-out, no matter what. That’s the beauty of the triple-option offense. As for the defense? Well, it figures to get a boost from new defensive coordinator and coaching veteran Al Groh. The Jackets will battle the Hokies for the league title.
3. Miami Hurricanes (9-3, 3rd Coastal)
This looks like an awfully important season for ‘Canes coach Randy Shannon. Since his arrival in Coral Gables, the recruiting has been good enough. The team has been disciplined enough. The results, though? Not so much. The feeling here is that Shannon has to win, and maybe win big, to keep his critics at bay. Jacory Harris is back at quarterback after an impressive 2009 run (3,552 passing yards, 24 TDs), as are wideouts Leonard Hankerson and Travis Benjamin. The defense should be also solid thanks to the return of seven starters, includng defensive end Allen Bailey and cornerback Brandon Harris. The ‘Canes are probably just a step behind the Hokies and Yellow Jackets, but could make a real statement with a Week 2 win up at Ohio State.
4. Florida State Seminoles (8-4, 1st Atlantic)
OK, yes, I am defintely buying Jimbo Fisher as the new savior at Florida State. Fisher waited patiently for Bobby Bowden to bow out (er, well, get forced out) at Florida State. When his time finally came, Fisher got to work pretty much immediately toward the goal of rebuilding this once-dominant program. Fisher's recruiting has been strong and all signs point to a Seminole renaissance within the next year or two. Quarterback Christian Ponder, though hardly a superstar (no, I'm not buying him as a Heisman candidate), will be steady enough to lead one of the league’s better offenses. If the defense can make any kind of significant strides, the ‘Noles could make a run at the title. But again, I think his program is still a year away.
5. North Carolina Tar Heels (8-4, 4th Coastal)
The Tar Heels would be higher on this list were it not for their ridiculously stormy summer. The NCAA has spent the last few weeks snooping around Chapel Hill, and the investigation has cast into doubt the status of some of the ‘Heels most valuable players—star defensive tackle Marvin Austin among them. This team is talented, without question. In fact, it may be the most talented bunch in the league. But it just wouldn’t be reasonable to pick them to finish atop the league right now—not with all of that nonsense going on down there. Yes, this team could win 11 games. Or it could lose six.
6. Boston College Eagles (8-4, 2nd Atlantic)
Year-in, year-out we underestimate Boston College. I know this. And yet, looking at this team on paper, I still can't bring myself put them any higher than this. The question, then, is obvious: When will I ever learn? Linebacker Mark Herzlich returns after conquering cancer, and his presence alone figures to offer a massive life to the Eagles' defense. Meanwhile, massive offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo will serve as the anchor of what's sure to be another solid-but-not-at-all spectacular offense that will score just enough points to win … and likely pull an upset or two. It's what Boston College does.
7. Clemson Tigers (7-5, 3rd Atlantic)
We'll find out out plenty about this Clemson squad in Week 3, when they travel out to Auburn for a game that will go a long way in shaping their season. Until then? Well, we won't know much. As always, the Tigers a tough squad to figure out. Even with the loss of all-everything tailback C.J. Spiller, this team returns some quality talent—quarterback Kyle Parker, strong safety DeAndre McDaniel, defensive tackle Jarvis Jenkins and others. The defense should be better than last year, and the special teams are solid. Without Spiller, though, one has to wonder where the points are going to come from. And then there's the fact that it's just awfully hard to trust Clemson.
8. North Carolina State Wolfpack (6-6, 4th Atlantic)
5-7. 6-7. 5-7. Those are the records Tom O’Brien has posted in his first three seasons with the Wolfpack. And while 2010 probably represents O’Brien’s best chance at finally gaining bowl eligibility, O'Brien remains a long ways from jos ultimate goal bulding N.C. State into a true ACC contender. The talented Russell Wilson is back to lead an offense that also returns its four top pass catchers from 2009, and so this unit could actually be even more prolific in 2010 after putting up more than 30 points per game in 2009. The defense, however, is a problem. Only five starters are back. This unit couldn’t’ stop anybody last season. They won’t stop anybody this season, either.
9. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (5-7, 5th Atlantic)
Riley Skinner is gone, Skylar Jones will like take over for him and how Jones fares as the Deacs' new quarterback will be the story of the season in Winston-Salem. Skinner was the face of the Demon Deacons program for the past four years, and his arrival on the scene ushered in pass-heavy offensive philosophy. With good reason, too: By the time Skinner was done, he was the third-leading passer in ACC history. As for Jones? Well, he’s no Skinner. Much more suited to the run than the pass, Jones will find himself running a much different offense than Wake ran during the Skinner era. It’s bound to be a rocky transition, and playing behind a retooled offensive line won’t make life any easier for Jones. It’s rebuilding time for Jim Grobe.
10. Duke Blue Devils (5-7, 5th Coastal)
Nine starters are back on offense. So that’s good. Six starters are back on defense. That’s hardly cause for alarm, either. But here’s the bad news for the Devils: Quarterback Thad Lewis, who almost-single handedly carried the team last year, is gone, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone of note waiting in the wings to replace him. Oh, and here’s the really bad news: The Devils have got to play ‘Bama, Miami, Virginia Tech, Navy, Boston College, Georgia Tech and North Carolina. Seven almost guaranteed losses right there. A bowl, once again, seems out of reach.
11. Maryland Terrpains (3-9, 6th Atlantic)
Time has just about run out on Ralph Friedgen at Maryland. The Fridge’s once-promising tenure at his alma mater has devolved into a sad malaise, and there’s no signs of this slide ending anytime soon. The Terps went 2-10 last season and don’t figure to improve much in 2010. Twelve starters are back, but outside of underrated wideout Torrey Smith and hard-nosed linebacker Alex Wujciak, none of them are playmakers. The offense is bad, the defense is worse and only a weak Atlantic schedule will allow them to improve on last year’s disaster.
12. Virginia Cavaliers (3-9, 6th Coastal)
Mike London has been hired to save the Virginia program in the wake of the lackluster (at best) Al Groh era. London certainly seems qualified: He went 24-5 in the past two seasons at Richmond and won the FCS national championship in 2008. He knows the Virginia recruiting market, too. So there’s hope, Cavaliers fans. In the short term, though, there figures to be a lot of growing pains. Just 12 starters are back from last year’s 3-9 train wreck of a team, the offense boasts no playmakers and a defense that gave up more than 26 points per game last year doesn’t figure to get any better. Three wins actually might rightfully be considered an achievement.