Thursday, August 8, 2013

Long and Suite Preview: The ACC

After showing tremendous potential as a freshman, much will be expected of Miami's Duke Johnson in 2013.

By Joe Parello  @HerewegoJoe

The ACC enters a new era as it welcomes Syracuse and Pittsburgh, but don't count on either of those two teams making much noise in 2013.

The Panthers were a middle of the pack Big East team last year, and now have to replace three-year starting quarterback Tino Sunseri and star running back Ray Graham. Pitt's heir apparent at running back, stud recruit Rushel Shell, transferred to rival West Virginia, so questions abound for coach Paul Chryst's second season.

The Orange, meanwhile, will be breaking in a new coach. With Doug Marrone now coaching the Buffalo Bills, Scott Shafer will have his work cut out for him in his first year. Non-conference games against the Big Ten's Penn State and Northwestern start the schedule, and having to face Florida State, NC State and Georgia Tech all on the road will present problems, but the biggest problem should be replacing record-setting quarterback Ryan Nassib.

While these two new teams will be a story this year, look for a few more seasoned ACC squads to make national headlines.

Is Clemson a Legit National Title Contender?

That's really tough to say. Talent-wise, the Tigers seem to be as good a bet as anybody to hoist the crystal ball at the end of the season, but Clemson's non-conference schedule could trip the Tigers up. It starts right away with an opener against Georgia, but ends with perhaps an even bigger test at rival South Carolina.
The ACC slate is a bit more forgiving for coach Dabo Swinney's bunch, with no Virginia Tech or Miami on the schedule, and a crucial game against Florida State coming at home.

At home is just where quarterback Tajh Boyd should feel with receiver Sammy Watkins returning for his junior year. Watikins took a bit of a step back last season as a sophomore, only accounting for 708 yards and three touchdowns receiving in a year that saw him miss time for injury and a suspension.

But, with DeAndre Hopkins gone to the NFL, it will be on Watkins to make big plays for an offense that led the ACC in passing, scoring and total yardage.

Clemson wasn't great defensively, but they held LSU to under 220 yards of total offense in last year's Chick-fil-A bowl, so clearly the talent is there. Most of that talent was up front, and the Tigers return six starters from last season's imposing front seven. The secondary was downright awful at times, so maybe it's a good thing that Clemson is replacing three starters there. But, the lone returnee in the defensive backfield, sophomore Travis Banks, did earn freshman All American honors last year, and appears to be a budding star at safety.

Battle for the Coastal

Meanwhile, those two teams that Clemson avoids appear to be the favorites in the Coastal division. Miami and Virginia Tech will each have huge non-conference tests against SEC powers before they get going in ACC play, and those battles should prepare them for what looks like a fairly soft conference slate.

Virginia Tech opens the year in Atlanta against two-time defending national champion Alabama, while Miami hosts Florida in the season's second week. The Hokies should be better equipped to compete with an SEC power due to their tremendous defense, which returns nine starters from a year ago, but Miami might have the most firepower in the division.

The key for the Hurricanes will be quarterback Stephen Morris, who finished last season as one of the five hottest quarterbacks in the country. Now a senior, Morris will hope to build off his final four games of 2012 in which he threw for 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. With Phillip Dorsett and Allen Hurns returning at receiver, the pieces are in place for a fun and gun type of season in South Florida.

Oh, and then there's that Duke Johnson guy, but we'll get to him in a bit.

Virginia Tech has few question marks on defense, but the offense was largely responsible for the program's worst season in over two decades last year. An entirely new offensive coaching staff is now in place, and only four starters return from last year's group. One is senior Logan Thomas, a tremendously talented, but turnover prone quarterback. Thomas' combination of size, speed and arm strength give him the look of a star, but he'll have to drastically reduce his 16 interceptions from 2012 to even give his team a shot at the division this year.

FSU in Transition

Everyone seems to be conceding the Atlantic division to Clemson, but it wouldn't be wise to sleep on the reigning ACC champion Seminoles. Florida State's season will likely hinge on redshirt freshman Jameis Winston's ability to replace E.J. Manuel at quarterback. Winston, a highly decorated recruit, will have plenty of weapons around him, as receiver Rashad Green, tight end Nick O'Leary, and running backs James Wilder and Devonta Freeman all return on offense.

There may actually be some pressure on Winston and the new offensive coaching staff to be better than last season's Orange Bowl winning group. With seven starters lost to graduation and the NFL on defense, the Noles now face the daunting challenge of rebuilding a group that led the ACC in every relevant defensive category.

Look for sophomore defensive end Mario Williams Jr. to get the first crack at replacing first round pick Bjoern Werner, but the strength of the defense should come in the back seven where FSU returns Christian Jones at outside linebacker and star senior Lamarcus Joyner at both safety and corner.

The Noles are surely in transition with head coach Jimbo Fisher having to replace seven assistant coaches in less than four months, along with a new quarterback and new defense. Still, Florida State is talented enough that, even with all that change, they could still win the Atlantic and, ultimately the entire ACC. That is, if a few things break right for them. It will likely come down to whether or not a redshirt freshman quarterback and untested defense can win at Clemson in FSU's sixth game.

Potential Sleeper: Maryland

Maryland was borderline unwatchable on offense last year, but that's largely because a freshman LINEBACKER was playing quarterback due to injuries. If that same injury bug doesn't bite the Terps in 2013, the passing game could be downright filthy with explosive sophomore Stefon Diggs returning at receiver after nearly 900 yards and six touchdowns last year.

Diggs and junior Marcus Leak should give the Terps one of the ACC's best receiving duos, and senior quarterback C.J. Brown will also benefit from the entire left side of his offensive line returning.

All things considered, defensive coordinator Brian Stewart was successful in his first year installing the 3-4 in College Park last season. Still, Maryland could afford to get better on that side of the ball. Nose tackle Darius Kilgo is a monster against the run, but the Terps will need to find somebody to rush the passer, as the front seven will largely be rebuilt around Kilgo and junior inside linebacker Cole Farrand.

If Maryland can find some answers up front on defense, expect big things from a Terps team that should be dramatically improved on offense in 2013.

Players to Watch

Duke Johnson (So.), RB, Miami. Stefon Diggs (So.), WR, Maryland. Nikita Whitlock (Sr.), DT, Wake Forest

Johnson wasn't a full-time starer for the Canes last year, but that didn't stop him from smashing Clinton Portis' school record for rushing yards by a freshman. Johnson's 947 yards and 10 touchdowns have fans in Coral Gables excited about the direction of Al Golden's program, primarily on the offensive side of the ball, and with all five starters returning on the offensive line, look for Johnson to be an All American candidate this year.

I touched on Diggs briefly when discussing Maryland's offense, but it bears repeating that Diggs may be the second coming of Percy Harvin. Heck, that's why Florida and the entire rest of the country wanted him coming out of high school, but the Maryland native chose to stay close to home and help rebuild the program at his state school.

Diggs is lethal in the open field, and can turn a bubble screen into a 60-yard touchdown without thinking about it. If Maryland can stay healthy at quarterback, Diggs could become a household name this year.

Whitlock may be a little undersized for a defensive tackle, but being under six-foot isn't stopping this bulldozer from wreaking havoc on opposing backfields. Wake Forest returns eight starters on defense, and none are more important than this nose tackle, who demands a double team against nearly every run play to free up the Demon Deacons' speedy linebackers. He won't get a lot of national pub, and he isn't cut in the mold of a traditional NFL DT or NT, but the guy can play.

Projections for 2013

Here is how I see the ACC shaking out this year.

Insider Opinion: Heidi Leach  @heidileach

Our good friend Heidi talks ACC and SEC football at 100.3 The Team in Myrtle Beach. Being a southern girl, Heidi is obviously stoked for the return of college football, and the fact that she is well versed in everything about the Carolinas helps as well. While I'm sure everybody is talking about the Gamecocks in her neck of the woods, we're thrilled to get her opinion on "that other South Carolina team," and the rest of the ACC. -JP

South of the Mason-Dixon you’ll be hard-pressed to convince many people that college football exists outside of the SEC. But, alas, other conferences play football too.  One of those has been a bit of a surprise lately. The ACC was always known as a basketball powerhouse, but don’t completely overlook them on the gridiron.

The ACC is pretty simple when it comes to football. There are really only a couple schools in each division that stick out as leaders, and only one or two that have a chance to garner national attention.  In the Coastal division, you should be paying attention to Miami and North Carolina. In the Atlantic division, it is quite simply down to Florida State and Clemson. You can count on those schools for decent competition during football season.

That said, the only team with real BCS Championship potential this year is the Clemson Tigers.  Tajh Boyd is the reigning ACC offensive player of the year, and is back for more this year. He says he isn't scared of anyone, not even South Carolina and their explosive defense.  Wide receiver Sammy Watkins and left tackle Brandon Thomas are also back this season for their third year of Chad Morris’ powerful offensive scheme.  After an 11-win season in 2012 and with several of their best players returning, the Tigers are set up for what could be a very impressive season. 

The Tigers don’t have the hardest schedule this year, but they do take on two of the best SEC teams.  They book-end their season with the Georgia Bulldogs and the South Carolina Gamecocks. Ouch.  Talk about pressure.  

Clemson kicks off 2013 with the team that was a play away from the National Championship game last year.  After that, they could very well run the table until they see the Gamecocks. As always, they will finish their season against their biggest rival, South Carolina, and the Cocks' terrifying defense.  Jadaveon Clowney can take down an offense single-handedly, as well as a few heads along the way.  In order to do what Clemson expects to do, they must win at least one of those games, in addition to all the ones in between. It may be an undertaking, but I wouldn’t count them out. 

The nice thing about the ACC is there really isn’t much hype surrounding the teams. The pressure isn't on like it is in the SEC. There is room for anything to happen. Clemson is a slight exception to that rule, but really only to Clemson fans.  

The rest of the country is not waiting, eyes peeled and baited breath, for ACC teams to run straight into the championship game. Honestly, neither am I. But, if you are going to tune in, you will certainly see some great games. Watch that Gamecocks vs Tigers game on November 30th.  No doubt you will be watching some future NFL playmakers and one of the greatest rivalries in college football. Trust me, I live in South Carolina, and you have not experienced hate until you sit in a bar during that game in this lovely state.  

Everyone thinks Southerners are nice, but you’ll see another side when that kickoff happens. 

No matter who you are rooting for, we can all agree on one thing: We are all freaking thrilled it’s almost football season again. Only 21 more days until the ACC's North Carolina Tar Heels kick off the season on the road against the Gamecocks. 

Bring it on.

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