Strengths: Defensive back, Quarterback
Weaknesses: Defensive line, Defensive front-7 depth
Schedule: The Tigers got no favors in the first year on the 11-team ACC. They play both ACC superpowers Miami and Florida State on the road on top of a road date at Virginia. The rest of the games on the schedule look very winnable however, with Maryland, NC State, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech all coming to Death Valley.
Question mark: Two key members of the 2003 team, WR Derrick Hamilton and DT Donnell Washington both opted for early-entry into the NFL. Both entries weakened positions that were going to suffer graduation losses anyway. Will the younger players at WR and DT step up?
Outlook: Clemson has arguably the conferences' best player at the most important position in quarterback Charlie Whitehurst. Couple that with possibly the nation's best secondary on defense, you get a very formidable opponent. If the Tigers had either Miami or FSU at home, they would have a chance against them. If the defensive front 7 can just be average, the Tigers will be fine.
Final record: 8-3 (overall), 5-3 in the ACC.
Strengths: Offensive Line, Wide receiver
Weaknesses: Youth on defense, Leadership
Schedule: The Noles are ripe for a championship run, IF they can defeat Miami on September 6th. They have two possible trip-up road games on the road against Maryland and NC State, but Clemson, Virginia, and Florida all have to come to Tallahassee. The NC State game will be scrutinized for two reasons. One, it is a Thursday game on the road after playing the previous Saturday. Two, NC State defeated FSU the last time they met in Raleigh.
Question mark: The defense returns only 4 starters, so there will be an adjustment period for the new guys to get acquainted with the starting lineup. The process better happen quickly with Miami looming as the opening game. Will the defense be up to the challenge so soon?
Outlook: The Seminoles needs a MVP-type performance from the talented yet enigmatic QB Chris Rix. The offensive line should be one of the best in recent FSU history, and the skill positions are well-manned. If Rix puts it all together, the Noles could be scary on offense. If he doesn't, however, too much pressure will be put on the talented but inexperienced defense. Regardless, expect them to be in the title hunt yet again.
Final record: 10-1 (overall), 7-1 (in the ACC).
Strengths: Offensive backfield (QB and RB), Secondary.
Weaknesses: Wide receiver, Linebacker
Schedule: After the season-opener against Samford, there are no sure bets left on the schedule. They have a brutal stretch in the middle of the season, with Miami, at Maryland, Virginia Tech, and at NC State. The only reprieve during this run is a home game against Duke, which whipped them 41-17 last year. Needless to say, the Jackets will not overlook this game. The season then concludes with a home game against Virginia, followed by a trip to their in-state rival, Georgia.
Question mark: The fortunes of the Georgia tech offense will rise and fall with the play of Sophomore QB Reggie Ball. He has the arm and the scrambling ability to be one of the scariest match-ups in the conference. He was inconsistent during his freshman season, and will need to be steadier for Tech to succeed in 2004. Can Ball take the next step in his maturation?
Outlook: The Jackets are a very tough team to judge. If everything falls into place, they will be solid on both sides of the line and should be able to control the tempo with the ground game. However, Ball is going to have to prove that he can throw the ball downfield. Teams will put 8-9 guys in the box and make Tech move the ball through the air. Herein lies a problem, as the GT wide receiving corps is very raw. Only one wideout, Nate Curry, caught more than 10 passes in 2003. They will need one or two young guys to step up in a big way. If this happens, Tech could do bowling. If they can't get open, Ball will struggle throwing the ball, and Tech will once again have trouble scoring points. Last year, they could get away with it, this year I don't think they will.
Final record: 5-6(overall), 3-5 (in the ACC)
Strengths: Running backs, Coaching
Weaknesses: Secondary, Quarterback
Schedule: Unlike the past two seasons, the Terps should get off to a good start in 2004 with consecutive home games against Northern Illinois and Temple. Their bowl fortunes should be determined during a 3 game stretch at the end of October when they play at Clemson, Florida State, and at Virginia. Win two of these three games, and Maryland might be looking at another 10-win season. A road trip to Big East favorite West Virginia could be a possible stumbling block.
Question mark: The Maryland offense has been great at finding ways to score points under Ralph Friedgen, despite questionable personnel at wideout and to a lesser extent quarterback. They will be faced once again with a similar dilemma. WR Steve Suter gives them a good outside threat, but will they be able to find another Scott McBrien type QB to run the offense?
Outlook: The Terps have been on a great run the past 3 seasons, winning 10+ games each year. This team, however, could have more holes than any in the past. With only one starter returning in the defensive backfield, they will be more vulnerable to opposing passing attacks. With the early departure of DT Randy Starks, they will be a bit weaker on the defensive interior. Offensively, they will be good along the offensive line, but they will be breaking in yet another QB. The rushing attack of Josh Allen and company will need to carry the load, until whoever plays QB can settle in. If the younger player step up and produce, the Terps could again contend for the conference title. On the other hand, this also could be a slight down year for Maryland.
Final record: 8-3 (overall), 5-3 (in the ACC)
Strengths: Offensive line, Secondary
Weaknesses: Linebackers, Leadership
Schedule: If the Canes can get by FSU in the season-opener, they should have relatively smooth sailing until they travel to NC State on October 23rd. They have a tough 2-game stretch in November, playing Clemson at home and going on the road to face Virginia. Their overall schedule, however, is very well laid out with spacing between their heavyweight games.
Question mark: Miami had several 1st round NFL draft picks on their defense in 2003. Replacing DT Vince Wilfork, S Sean Taylor, and LBs Jonathan Vilma and DJ Williams will be tough, even for a team as talented as Miami. Who will step up to replace these players?
Outlook: The Hurricanes will not be as good on defense this year as they were in 2003. Of course that means they will only be in the top 3 or 4 in the conference, so I don't think they deserve sympathy from anyone. Offensively is where this team will make their mark. They have explosive athletes at the skill positions, but they will need better play out of the quarterback position. Berlin doesn't need to be an all-star; he just needs to not make mistakes. The rest of the team can make things happen. As with the last 4 seasons, Miami will be right in the hunt for the national championship, however, their regular season will be much more difficult in 2004 than it has been in the past. Expect a trip up or two along the way.
Final record: 9-2 (overall), 6-2 (in the ACC)
Strengths: Quarterback, Running back
Weaknesses: Defensive Line, Secondary
Schedule: The Heels should start the 2004 season off in a good way, facing 1-AA William and Mary. The rest of the schedule, however, looks to be daunting. The Heels face 8 teams in succession that will likely play in post-season bowl games, including Florida State and Miami in October. The last two games against Duke and Wake Forest are winnable, but the season may not salvageable at that point.
Question mark: The 2003 UNC defense was last in the ACC in almost every defensive category. Having two defensive back drafted in the NFL makes you wonder how good the returning personnel actually is. Expect the Heels to play lots of younger guys to see who can hack it in the "new" ACC; however, will they be able to stop anyone?
Outlook: The offense, led by senior QB Darian Durant, will score points. This will not translate to wins, however, if the defense can't stop anyone. They are not bereft of talent on that side of the ball, but the retuning players better have improved significantly from 2003. Otherwise, the offense will be spending a long time watching from the sidelines. The cloud of John Bunting's uncertain future also looms large. If the Heels start slowly, this season could get ugly in a hurry.
Final record: 3-8 (overall), 1-7 (in the ACC)
Strengths: Offensive Line, Skill players (RB, WR)
Weaknesses: Quarterback, Special teams
Schedule: Their schedule is back-loaded with a brutal 5 game stretch of Maryland, Miami, Clemson, Georgia Tech, and Florida State in October and early November. The good news is their three toughest games (Ohio State, Miami, and FSU) are all at home. Still, road games against Virginia Tech, Maryland, and Clemson will make life difficult in conference play.
Question mark: NC State is loaded with talented skill players, a solid defense, and a rugged offensive line. As of right now, however, they have to find someone to fill that gigantic hole underneath center. Can either Jay Davis or Marcus Stone step up and run the offense?
Outlook: The Pack will win some games with skill talent alone. Their offensive line is one of the best in the conference, they have a good young defensive front, and they have quality depth at most positions. Against the better teams, however, they will only go as far as their QB play allows them to. Unfortunately for the Pack backers, they will find out exactly how much their offense relied on Philip Rivers in 2003.
Final record: 7-4 (overall), 5-3 (in the ACC).
Strengths: Offensive line, Linebackers
Weaknesses: Quarterback, Wide receiver
Schedule: The Cavaliers start the season with 4 easily winnable games, 3 of which are at home. However the meat of the schedule is quite brutal, as Clemson, Florida State, Maryland and Miami all appear in the span of 5 weeks. The good news is that all of these games, save Florida State are at home. They end the season with two road games at Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech; both teams are perfectly capable of defeating the Cavs.
Question mark: Virginia seems to have the components for a very successful season, but they are not overly talented at wide receiver or defensive back. The mark of the best teams is the ability to create big plays. Will Virginia have enough on offense and defense to create big plays?
Outlook: This team is probably about on par with the best that the George Welsh era offered. They are very good up front on offense and their defensive front seven can match up with just about anyone in the country. They have several talented running backs that can share the rushing load. The key to the season, however, will be how Virginia fares when they are forced to throw to their wide receivers. The dismissal of senior receiver Ottawa Anderson does not help things. Despite this, they have the ability to win the ACC if they can defeat either Miami or FSU, and don't have let downs against teams they should beat this season (specifically Georgia Tech, Duke, and Virginia Tech).
Final record: 8-3(overall), 5-3(in the ACC)
Strengths: Quarterback, Special teams
Weaknesses: defensive line, running back.
Schedule: What a way to start the year, facing off against top-ranked Southern Cal. They get a couple breaks as NC State, Virginia, and Maryland all come to Blacksburg. The Hokies also managed to get out of playing two really good ACC teams this year (FSU and Clemson), which won't hurt the chances at success. Still they close the season with three tough games against Maryland, Virginia, and at Miami.
Question mark: Off-field distractions befell the Tech program this offseason. The players will have to start the season without three players they were counting on to be significant contributors in 2004. They might be replaceable, talent-wise, however, will an off-season of turmoil affect the teams 2004 morale?
Outlook: Tech will start the year short-handed. Despite having some talented replacements, they will miss Mike Imoh for the first three games both at running back and in the kick return game, not to mention the year-long suspension of QB/WR Marcus Vick. Still the Hokies always manage to turn out good athletes at the skill positions, which might end up compensating for the losses. They will, however, need to shore up the defense that sprung a major leak at the end of the 2003 season. Unfortunately, VT has entered a league that has 4-5 teams on their level. In addition, all of these teams are, on paper, better than the Hokies this year. Despite a somewhat easy in-conference schedule, an off year is in the cards for the boys from Blacksburg.
Final record: 5-7 (overall), 3-5 (in the ACC)
Strengths: Running back, Secondary
Weaknesses: Offensive line, defensive line
Schedule: The Deacons open with Clemson, then have a tough 4-game stretch in the middle of the season with Boston College, at NC State, Virginia Tech, and Florida State. It is notable that three of those contests are at home. They also end the season with two tough opponents in Miami and Maryland, both on the road. Having to play FSU and Miami in the same season is definitely a tall order for any team.
Question mark: Now in his 4th year at Wake, Jim Grobe has turned the program from a nearly automatic "W" to a team that no one wants to play. He does it with his disciplined, quirky, run-based offense and a bend but don't break defense. This year, the Wake offensive line will not be a strong as it has been in recent years, so will Wake need to pass more to move the ball?
Outlook: The Deacons got a tough draw, having to play both Miami and Florida State in the same season. Couple that with graduation losses, and it could be a somewhat long season for The Deacons. One thing that Grobe has brought to Winston-Salem is a winner's attitude. His players believe they can compete with any team, and that has spurred them consecutive 6-6 seasons. Wake has some good skill players in Jason Anderson and Chris Barclay. That alone gives them a chance against many teams. They will pull an upset or two, but their tough schedule will keep their record on the losing side.
Final record: 4-7 (overall), 2-6 (in the ACC).