2003 Athlon Sports ACC Predictions

Charged with delivering North Carolina State its first Atlantic Coast Conference football title in 24 years, Chuck Amato must replace six starters on the league's top-rated defense. It's a tall order, but one Amato tackles with an unprecedented wealth of talent on the offensive side.

Projected Finish

1. NC State
2. Florida State
3. Maryland
4. Virginia
5. Clemson
6. Wake Forest
7. Georgia Tech
8. UNC
9. Duke

The Wolfpack welcome back the most productive trio in ACC history: senior quarterback Philip Rivers, senior wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery and sophomore tailback T.A. McLendon. No program in 50 years of league play has ever returned a 3,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard receiver and 1,000-yard rusher. That's a significant building point for a program coming off its winningest season ever — an 11–3 campaign capped by a 28–6 Gator Bowl rout of Notre Dame.

Of course, it's impossible to discuss an ACC title without mentioning perennial heavyweight Florida State. Bobby Bowden's defending champions have won or shared 10 of the last 11 championships and have no designs on bowing out quietly. With 11 defensive starters back, the Seminoles are equipped to unleash an aggressive attack that has been pedestrian at best over the past two seasons.

Whether the Noles are up to the task is open for debate. Bowden has focused his energy on restoring chemistry in the face of a troubling off-season outside the lines, including the rehabilitation of quarterback Chris Rix's reputation within the ranks.

There are more than two pursuers in this title chase. Third-year Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen boasts a league-high 56 returning letter-winners, including 15 starters, off an 11–3 season that ended with a 30–3 Peach Bowl blowout of Tennessee. Just to the south, third-year Virginia coach Al Groh has assembled a wealth of young talent and welcomes back the league's reigning Player of the Year, quarterback Matt Schaub. The Cavaliers managed to go 9–5 and tie for second (6–2), despite harboring the league's worst offense. Not surprisingly, the aforementioned quartet finished in the Top 25 of both national polls, a feat accomplished only one other time ('92) in ACC history.

Though the clear-cut favorites are well-established, at least three others have the necessary parts to throw a wrench in the plans. Embattled Clemson coach Tommy Bowden puts the ball in the hands of quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, who will put it in the air and in the hands of the league's most dangerous receiving corps. Jim Grobe has turned Wake Forest from an also-ran to the best running team in the ACC over the past two seasons. The Demon Deacons were hit hardest by graduation — a league-low 10 starters return — but their unique misdirection offense and a seasoned defense should lessen that blow. Second-year Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey has a lot of work to do offensively, but a formidable front seven on the other side of the ball might buy the Yellow Jackets some time.

North Carolina and Duke brought up the rear a year ago, and while it will be difficult to make headway, these two neighboring schools figure to improve on their combined 1–15 league mark. Quarterback Darian Durant led the ACC in total offense for the Tar Heels, who return eight from a woeful defense. The Blue Devils boast a league-best 20 returning starters after losing five games by five points or less.

Comeback Kids

While the health of the ACC has never been better, some of its brightest stars have spent the off-season in rehab.

Florida State tailback Greg Jones, Georgia Tech defensive end Greg Gathers, NC State defensive end Terrance Chapman and Virginia center Kevin Bailey headline a list of potential All-ACC candidates who should provide their fans with quick reminders of what they missed last season. Jones had piled up 938 rushing yards in nine games before a knee injury ended his potential All-America campaign. Gathers, an All-American in 2001, is returning to form as he continues his battle with a kidney disease that cost him all but a handful of snaps last season. Chapman was an academic casualty in '02 but should re-emerge as a force on a retooled defense, while Bailey's recovery from knee surgery fills a pronounced void in the middle of the Cavaliers' offensive front.

While Maryland tailback Bruce Perry, the ACC Player of the Year in '01, should be ready for a full load after an abbreviated '02 campaign, Georgia Tech senior tailback Tony Hollings' immediate future is less certain. Hollings was leading the nation in rushing after four games, but he went down with a devastating knee injury late in the Jackets' win over BYU. He missed spring practice while rehabbing the surgically repaired ACL and lateral meniscus in his right knee.

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