Conference Preview: The ACC  

Posted by Walter

Is this the year the ACC finally makes the jump from full time basketball conference to football powerhouse? Most would say no, but we say........maybe. For years the ACC was Florida State and everyone else. Then came the great expansion and it became FSU, Miami, Virginia Tech and a bunch of basketball schools. So how can it be that the ACC is deeper and better than ever this football season, when two of its traditionally premier programs (Miami and FSU) are in the crapper? Well, having Virginia Tech and its smothering defense around helps, but the real answer lies in the projected emergence of several other programs.

Best Team

Walter: Georgia Tech

What???? No Virginia Tech? What about Beamer, and that defense, and the entire community rallying around the Hokie football team? Nope, nope, and nope. The best team in the ACC this year will be the Yellowjackets, a team not even ranked in the initial coaches poll. Last year Wake Forest proved that a team can win the ACC with a smothering defense, solid running game, and a mistake free offense. Let's call this year's Georgia Tech team Wake Lite. With Reggie Ball (finally) gone from behind center, I fully expect the offense to flourish....even without Calvin Johnson. Taylor Bennett is a far superior passer to Ball, and even without CJ the Yellowjackets have several playmakers on the outside including returning starter James Johnson and incoming freshman Demaryius Thomas (who has been all the talk of summer ball). Add in the ACC's best running back in Tashard Choice and 4 returning starters on the offensive line and you've got yourself the makings of a very solid offensive football team. As good as the offense might be, though, Georgia Tech's defense should be even better. That unit returns 8 starters, including all everything linebacker Phillip Wheeler. While there aren't many guys who are household names yet, this unit should be stifling as they swarm the ball, not unlike Wake Forest of a year ago. While this unit may not be as full of NFL talent as the Virginia Tech unit, remember that while VTech has three touch road games, Georgia Tech gets the Hokies at home.

Frazier: Virginia Tech

Um, yeah. While my esteemed colleague seems determined to go off the reservation for this pick, I'm actually just going to anoint the best team in the conference. They DO have a smothering defense. They also have an excellent coach. They have FSU, Miami and BC at home. I don't care if the Florida teams are "down" those are not places anyone can go and expect a win. They are returning Brandon Ore who may be the best running back in the conference. Also, Sean Glennon may not be a superstar, but in a crop of weak ACC quarterbacks, he should be more than adequate. Having a good crop of wide receivers, led by Eddie Royal, certainly won't hurt. And then, of course, there is the defense. This is a unit that gave up a paltry 11 points/game last year, and should be even better this time around. They have depth all over, and are led by Hall and Adibi at the linebacker position. As always, they will be well-disciplined, and can be expected to make some huge plays on special teams. Their defense was better than the Yellow Jackets last year, and it will be this year. They also have more stability on offense, and the best player on that side of the ball in Ore. The biggest problem for Va. Tech is the fact that they seem to play their worst when the most is expected of them. Add the high expectations to the incredible emotion that will be felt every time they take the field in the wake of last year's tragedy, and it may prove to be a little much for this team to carry. Still, they have to be considered THE elite of the ACC.

Worst Team

Walter: Duke

Is it even a question? There was a nice story to come out last year about how, after yet another 0-12 season, the University pledged its support to the team and promised to provide extra funding to help improve the situation. However, that's all this was, a nice story. One year later and Duke is still a joke, only this time with a tougher schedule. Seriously, I think someone at the NCAA has it out for the Blue Devils (maybe a deranged Tarheel fan?), how else can they justify saddling the worst team in the ACC with a late season 5 game stretch that features three of the top ACC teams at home (VTech, Georgia Tech, Clemson) sandwiched around road trips to Florida State and Notre Dame? For a team that hasn't won a game in over a year, that just seems excessive.

Frazier: Duke

Ouch. Their best bet is either to bring back Steve Spurrier (look, if South Carolina's admissions policy gave him fits, I'd hate to imagine how he'd handle Duke these days) or get Coach K. on the sidelines. At least he could film another Am Ex commercial or something. They are going to be terrible. It will be painful to watch, and many people will once again forget that they really do play 1-A football in Durham. I know, it even SOUNDS weird. I think they should be forced to play Baylor every year to really give one of those teams a chance to win something.

Offensive Player of the Year

Walter: Matt Ryan, QB Boston College

Yes I am homer. Yes I recently bought BC season tickets. And yes I believe this is the best returning BC team in quite some time. But no this is not a selection simply to give my boy some props.....well not entirely. The bottom line is that Matt Ryan is clearly the best quarterback in the ACC and he should put up awesome numbers. However, if not for the presence of two studs in the Clemson backfield, one of them would be taking home this award. James Davis and CJ Spiller are both outstanding talents, but they are each going to take away carries, yards and touchdowns from the other. Since I refuse to choose both of them to win this award, it dutifully fell to Ryan. Ryan quietly had an outstanding season as a Junior, playing most of the games on a bum ankle. With his leg finally healthy, and a new coach who has vowed to open up the playbook, everything is lining up for Ryan to steal the show this season. And that's a good thing for the Eagles. Although their top 2 rushers return (Andre Callender and LV Whitworth), BC lost a lot on the outside and really need Ryan to step up and make plays with mostly unproven receivers. Kevin Challenger is a keeper on one side, but either Brandon Robinson or Clarence Megwa need to step up. With three starters returning to form what should be a dominant offensive line, Ryan should be able to spread the ball around enough until someone emerges opposite Challenger.

Frazier: CJ Spiller

What can I say, I have a soft spot for running backs who go for 1,000 yards and 7.3 yards/carry. At least at first they'll have him split carries with Davis, but at some point he's simply going to pull away from the pack (as he does on many of his runs). As a Freshman last year, Spiller was simply untapped potential. But he's got a year of seasoning now, a year of conditioning, and he's going to be bigger, and stronger, and he'll still be able to pull away from defenders and turn on a dime. As much as anything, Tommy Bowden will be desperate. Which means he won't be afraid to use his best player as much as possible in an attempt to save his job. In a league of crummy quarterbacks (Matt Ryan included) it's a running back who's going to be the most important player in the conference. CJ Spiller is definitely the most talented one, it's only a matter of whether Clemson let's him run wild.

Defensive Player of the Year

Walter: Calais Campbell, DE Miami

Simply put Calais Campbell is a man child. He is the rare defensive lineman who can completely take over a game (as Campbell did against Boston College last season, nearly single handedly winning that game for the Canes). Still "learning the ropes" as a Sophomore last season, Campbell was able to register 10.5 sacks and an utterly absurd 20.5 tackles for a loss. At 6'8'' and 280 lbs. Campbell has the size to be productive against the run as well as rushing the passer, and the scariest thing is he still has room to grow. Well perhaps the scariest thing is that teams simply aren't going to be able to double and triple team Campbell all day, thanks to the presence of pass rushing end Eric Moncur. Last year Campbell was flanked by Baraka Atkins, a solid player, but certainly not someone with the explosion and pass rushing potential of Moncur. Thanks to his presence, Campbell should see his fair share of one-on-one matchups, which, frankly, are mismatches no matter who the offensive lineman is.

Frazier: Chris Long

I talked about him last year, and you can be sure you'll be hearing plenty about him this year. A big, 6'4 284 lb. DE who has a great motor, and a high football IQ. Chris isn't some glory end making sacks and forgetting his responsibilities against the run. He is a disruptive pass rusher, with long arms, great size and strength and a nose for the football. He's also a running back's worst nightmare. As a first-team preseason All-American he's been getting plenty of hype, but being the son of Hall of Famer, Howie, probably doesn't hurt either. Last year Virginia had the 20th best defense in the country, and Chris led them there without a ton of help. He's easily the best player on an underrated defense, and instead of going for glory he's the kind of guy willing to get down and dirty to help his team win. If you're looking for him on the highlight reel, he may be difficult to spot, because he'll be covered in mud, at the bottom of the pile.

Sleeper Team

Walter: Clemson

If not now for the Tigers then when? Again, this is one of those teams that seems to do much better when the hype just isn't there. After shattering their faithful's high hopes last year, Clemson returns a team that, while not as star laden, has a better overall chance to make some good things happen in the ACC. Starting QB Will Proctor is gone (I think that's a good thing), and while the Tigers need a successor to step up, the talent is there in Junior Cullen Harper and super recruit Willie Korn. And frankly, the situation couldn't possibly be better for breaking in a new QB. Clemson returns the best left tackle in the ACC in Barry Richardson, and by far the most lethal backfield tandem of James Davis and CJ Spiller. This is just a gut feeling, but I think Spiller is going to be a monster this year. In the past we've seen spurts from him, but his vision and quickness is just so good that despite the presence of Davis, Coach Tommy Bowden is going to have to get him the ball. Regardless of how the carries are split up, Davis and Spiller should be able to carry the load until a new QB settles in. On the defensive side of the ball, Clemson returns 7 starters, and while none of big names, this should be a very tough unit. Linebackers Nick Watkins and Antonio Clay should be all ACC caliber, and the front seven should still be amongst the best in the conference despite losing Gaines Adams to the NFL. Perhaps even more important, though, is the way the schedule breaks for the Tigers. Although they have a tough opener against Florida State, they get them at Death Valley. If the Tigers can get past that game, they should be 4-0 when they travel to Georgia Tech for their only tough road game of the season (Virginia Tech, Wake, BC and South Carolina all have to come to Clemson).

Frazier: Virginia

Yes, I'm a homer too. But I am actually a little excited about this year's team. We DO have the 20th ranked defense returning, and Chris Long will be our anchor. We are returning 19 players, and have a coach who HAS to win now. We also have a schedule as soft as could possibly be expected. With a cushy first few weeks, the offense may be able to get its' sea legs and Jameel Sewell can be expected to show great improvement over a shaky freshman season. With all five linemen returning on the offensive side, Cedric Peerman and the other running backs will have some opportunities. If the offense can grow, the defense has a chance to be very good, and the schedule is definitely in their favor. Oh, what the hell, GO HOOS!

Disappointing Team

Walter: Virginia Tech

I just don't see what the big hype is around this team. Yes they have a great defense. Yes Frank Beamer is a great coach. And yes it would be a great story in light of the tragedy that occurred on campus this past year. But maybe I'm wrong, but don't you have to score some points to win football games. Look, we all love Beamer ball (most of all the media), but I think Virginia Tech has proven that you simply cannot win consistently when you rely on blocking kicks as your primary source of points. In fact, for as many kicks and returns as VTech has scored on over the years, the one time they actually went somewhere was the one season they had what you would call a dynamic playmaker on offense (maybe you remember Mike Vick). The 2007 Hokie edition seems just more of the same. The defense will be great, but the offense is built around a shaky quarterback in Sean Glennon, and a solid but unspectacular back in Brandon Ore. Ore is solid, don't get me wrong, but he is NOT a gamebreaker. He is a grinder, someone who belongs in the Big 10. While Ore will do his job to move the chains, Glennon and his receivers are not good enough to make the big plays this offense will need in their biggest games. Sure the Hokie defense and special teams will steal a few games, but I simply cannot see this team going anywhere without consistent production from its offense, especially given the schedule. Virginia Tech has a nice team, but there is no way, and I mean NO WAY, they are going to go into LSU, Clemson, and Georgia Tech and win all three games with that offense. It just ain't gonna happen. Not to mention the murderous stretch of schedule they have in the second half of the year. If they lost to LSU they will be 4-1 when they head to Clemson to start the second half of the year. After that game they go to Duke before having to deal with Boston College, @ Georgia Tech, Florida State, Miami and @ Virginia (rivalry game) the next 5 weeks. Are you kidding me?

Frazier: Boston College

I share Walter's concerns that the Hokies may spit the bit. They certainly have a history of doing that. On the other hand, I'm more worried that BC will blow a golden opportunity. They are the proud owners of possibly the only worthwhile quarterback in the entire conference. Matt Ryan is head and shoulders above the rest (not too difficult when surrounded by those other midgets). They also return both of their solid running backs, and nine starters on defense. After a 9-3 campaign, expectations are deservedly high. Things may even start well, if they can get past an early battle with Georgia Tech. However, the back end of the schedule is a killer. They travel to Notre Dame and Virginia Tech in consecutive weeks. Than they face FSU, which may have figured themselves out by that time. Then it's back on the road against Maryland (a team no one in the ACC relishes facing, especially with the Fridge mixing things up) followed by a trip to Death Valley. Then they end the year against Miami (another team who may struggle, but should have enough talent to be dangerous especially at the end of the season). It's a killer stretch, and BC hasn't shown a ton of mental toughness the past several years. I can see them come storming out of the gates, on their way to a great year, and then stumble horrendously down the stretch. Just like last year when they choked against NC State and then again at Miami, I am predicting not only a disappointing season in general, but an actual let-down in the middle of a season that will seem so promising halfway in.

Of course this prediction probably just cost me a couple of games with the big man. Oh well, at least now he knows not to get his hopes up in early October.


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