*- Part One - QBs
*- Part Two - RBs
*- Part Three - WRs
*- Part Four - OL
*- Part Five - DL
*- Part Six - LBs
*- Part Seven - DBs
*- Part Eight - Special Teams
1. Maryland – Ralph Friedgen has turned Maryland from a yearly ACC afterthought to a top-notch team. He has elevated the program to contender status. The next step is to start beating Florida State and now Miami. Maryland's on-field success has produced good recruiting classes to replace the talent left by previous coach Ron Vanderlinden. Question: QB coach Charlie Taaffe has turned 3 mediocre quarterbacks into good ACC football players under Friedgen. Can he work his magic in 2004, tutoring Scott McBrien's replacement?
2. Miami – The Hurricanes have been the preeminent college football program over the past 4 years. Larry Coker has taken talent and turned it into on-field production. 2003 was a bit of a disappointment, but the Canes should be in the national title hunt in 2004. Question: Coker has been doing all of his damage with the unbelieveable talent recruited by former coach Butch Davis. Now that Davis's players have cycled out of the program, will we see a talent drop-off?
3. Florida State – You know there are good coaches in the ACC when the all-time Division 1 wins leader is third on this list. The recent incarnation of FSU football have not been up to par with the terrors that Bobby Bowden rolled out in the 1990's. Still, the Seminoles are always mentioned in the preseason title hunt, and 2004 is no exception. No team in the country can out-talent FSU, however, the attrition of assistants in recent year like Mark Richt and Chuck Amato has weakened the overall staff. Question: Now well into his 70's, is Bobby "Papa" Bowden losing his edge?
4. Wake Forest – People malign Wake saying things like, "they finished 6-6" and "they don't have a winning record in the conference", etc… While this is true, one thing those folks can also say is, "Wake Forest always comes to play." Coach Jim Grobe inherited one of the least talented teams in the conference when he came aboard 3 years ago. He instantly started winning games, and giving the big boys some scares. His unorthodox offensive scheme has proved to be a daunting task to prepare for. The biggest thing he has instilled in the Deacon football team is that they can compete with anyone, and they usually do week after week. Question? The Deacons are moving away from their quirky 3-5-3 and 3-3-5 defensive alignments to a more traditional 4-3 scheme. Do they have the personnel to make this change successfully?
5. Virginia – When Al Groh took over 2 seasons ago, he was forced to play true freshmen right away and live with the results. The results were outstanding as many of the players he threw into the fire have developed to rank among the ACC's best at their position. He has done a great job of nuturing talent at several positions, such as running back, offensive and defensive line, and linebacker. The UVA front 7 is as good as any in the ACC. Groh put these players in positions to succeed and they have thrived. Question: For all of his successes, Groh has not scored big at wide receiver and defensive back. With Matt Schaub gone to the NFL, will the offensive skill personnel be able to make up for his absence under center, and will the defensive backs be exposed this year?
6. Clemson – Head coach Tommy Bowden seemed to be on his way out last year. The Tigers had been somewhat underachieving as a team for the previous few seasons. 2003 seemed to be no different. About midway through the season, Bowden's team caught fire, and by year's end, were almost unstoppable. The biggest knock on Clemson from 2000-2002 was that they were not a mentally tough team. If they were challenged, they would fold up the tent and go home. Bowden tried to go to a power-running offense at the beginning of 2003, but was forced to switch back to a shotgun style mid-year. What that power-running scheme did do, however, was instill toughness among the offensive line. When they went to the shotgun, they didn't lose their blocking tenacity, and the offense was off and running (and passing). Question: Clemson ended the year as one of the hottest teams in the country, which earned Bowden a contract extension. If the Tigers start slowly in 2004, will the calls for his head resurface?
7. NC State – There is lots of buzz surrounding the Wolfpack this season. The quality of skill athletes is at an all-time high in Raleigh, and they have a young energetic defense that could break out this season. So why are they ranked this low? For all of that talent, the Chuck Amato coached Wolfpack cannot seem to finish higher than 4th in the ACC. They have supposed great talent and Amato is a defensive guy, yet they have not been good on defense since Amato arrived. Now the best quarterback in the history of the school has graduated. This is a key year for Amato and the State staff. Win without Philip Rivers, and they will have proven their mettle as a coaching staff. Question: Now in his 5th season at NCSU, will Chuck Amato step the State program up towards FSU and Miami, or will they sink into the middle of the ACC pack yet again?
8. Virginia Tech – The ACC is full of good coaches, and new ACC addition Frank Beamer does not detract from that list. Aside from the two-year Michael Vick stint, however, Virginia Tech has been a good, not great football team. They will find life in the ACC much more difficult their the former Big East home. Still, Tech is a solid addition to the ACC, and should give most teams fits. Beamer's trademark has always been great special teams play. In a conference full of good special teams players, lets see if the Hokies can dominate this area. Question: The Hokies' strength of schedule is going to increase significantly, and VT is used to being a big fish in a smaller pond. How will they adjust to the bigger pond of ACC football?
9. Georgia Tech – Coach Chan Gailey has a great resume, winning Super Bowls as an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys in the early 90's, and later serving as a head coach in the NFL. His transition back to college coaching has been mixed. The Jackets usually can fight with the big boys, but are always capable of losing to just about anyone (example, the 2003 Duke debacle). He is going to have his work cut out for him this year, as Tech is perilously thin at wide receiver and linebacker. He is letting his fortunes ride on an enormously talented, yet erratic quarterback. With the George O'Leary recruits now cycling out of the program, it will be soon apparent what kind of recruiter he is. Still, the Jackets will once again come up with a monumental upset of someone in 2004. Question: Will Gailey and his staff be able to avoid another Duke-like performance and gain a measure of consistency?
10. North Carolina - If the Tarheels do not win in 2004, Head Coach John Bunting and his staff will not be retained after the season. There is no way to sugar coat this fact. The Heels were downright abysmal on defense in 2003, and a repeat performance will doom them to the ACC cellar once again. There are a few glimmers of hope for the Tarheel staff. The defensive line is young but talented and the linebackers are solid. Still, Bunting must find a way to improve the bottom line, either through personnel or scheme. The offense will score points, but if the defense can't get the opposing offenses off the field, it will be a long season. Bunting's biggest asset is that his 2003 recruiting class paid immediate dividends. He will need much more out of them and others to be UNC's coach in 2005. Question: If UNC gets off to a 2-4 or 1-5 start, will Bunting be fired mid-season like Carl Franks?
Incomplete: Duke – Head coach Ted Roof has a career record of 2-3 with wins over archrival UNC and 2003 bowl game winner Georgia Tech. He instilled a new sense of confidence among the players and convinced them they could go into Tennessee's stadium and go toe-to-toe with one of SEC's best teams. That was the easy part, as the 2003 team was senior-laden, especially on offense. The defense also lost 3 all-ACC performers, and must overcome the tragic death of starting DE Micah Harris. There is lots to deal with as the 2004 season approaches. Still, Roof has assembled a dynamic group of assistant coaches and will not make excuses about the teams performance. His track record indicates that Duke will be solid on defense, and he has hired former NC State offensive coordinator Marty Galbreath to revamp the offense.
Best assistants: Maryland – Aside from Friedgen, the Terrapins have one of the best in quarterbacks coach Charlie Taaffe. Running backs coach Bill O'Brien has produced some solid ground gainers. OL coach Tom Brattan and DL coach Dave Sollazo make sure that Maryland holds the fort up front on both sides of the ball.
On the hot seat: John Bunting (UNC) – There is no question that the Heels are going to have to improve significantly in 2004 for Bunting to be retained as coach. He inherited a tough situation. The talent base at UNC had eroded dramatically under previous head coach Carl Torbush. Bunting took a great step forward with an outstanding 2003 recruiting class. Some of the players, such as Mike Mason and Ronnie McGill, stepped in and played significant roles right away. If he can get more production from the younger guys along the offensive and defensive lines, he might yet stick around. Unfortunately, the Heels defensive performance of 2003 might have dug Bunting a hole too deep to get out of.
Best chance to surprise: Ted Roof (Duke) - Sure there is nowhere to go but up for Duke, however, the Devils have a young energetic coach who has the backing of the University. That means he was able to hire top-notch assistants and pay them well. This should immediately show itself in on field improvement. This might be a tough year for Duke as there are many question marks, personnel-wise. However, the days of getting blown out by every good team on the schedule are over. Duke is also making waves on the recruiting trail and is on pace to sign their best class in 20 years. Sure the jury is still out on Roof, however, the excitement now surrounding the Duke program has not been seen since 1994, the Devils' last bowl season.
Possible disappointment: Frank Beamer (VT) – Beamer's teams have in the past tended to fizzle out late in the year, especially in the post-Mike Vick era. The Tech spring media guide highlights the following phrase, "Young Tech team strives for improvement, consistency". A wise man once told me that calling a team "young" actually means that your team is not that good. In Tech's case, they sure picked a bad year to be "young". This will undoubtedly be one of the biggest tests of Frank Beamer's coaching career.