Scouting the Atlantic Coast Conference

VandyMania's Howell Peiser continues with his expert look at the football conferences. Today we will take a look at the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).

Atlantic Coast Conference Preview


Howell Peiser 

The Atlantic Coast Conference stakes it claim to league supremacy this year as it adds a 12th member and splits into two divisions. Placing teams in geographic regions would force Miami and Florida State into the same division. The ACC didn't want that, so they split up the two perennial powers. Hence, we have the Atlantic Division and Coastal Division. It reminds me of the gerrymandered four divisional split made by the NFL from 1967 to 1969, where Atlanta, San Francisco, Baltimore and Los Angeles were placed in the Coastal Division. What's next? Will North Carolina State and Virginia Tech switch divisions yearly to guarantee rivalries are played like The New Orleans Saints and New York Giants did back n 1967-68-69? 

Last year, a former Big East school was picked to win the ACC title in their first year in the league. Miami lost three conference games, finishing in a three-way tie for third. It was the other Big East school, Virginia Tech that surprised everyone and won the league by a game over Florida State. Last year's top two teams are picked to win their respective divisions. In the official preseason poll, Florida State was picked to win the Atlantic Division followed by Boston College, North Carolina State, Clemson, Maryland, and Wake Forest. Virginia Tech got the nod in the Coastal Division followed by Miami, Virginia, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, and Duke. 

My ratings closely match the preseason poll. I show the top four teams in each division being as strong as any top eight teams in any other conference. Only three teams fail to start the season with a ranking of 100. 

Florida State, Virginia Tech, and Miami get the maximum five home field advantage points. Duke and Wake Forest get the minimum three points, while everyone else get four. 

Atlantic Division 

1. Florida State  PiRate: 112  HFA: 5 

With 300-pound behemoths strong enough to lift cars and sub-4.4 sprinters who can run the length of a football field in less than 10 seconds, it is odd that the Seminoles' chances to compete for a spot in the Rose Bowl could have been affected by a parasite. Expected starting quarterback Wyatt Sexton went one-on-one with an infected tick and lost. Lyme Disease will shelve him for the season. 

Coach Bobby Bowden has a tough decision to make at the QB position. He has an open two-man race between two redshirt freshmen. Drew Weatherford and Xavier Lee were both blue-chip prospects coming out of high school. Weatherford saw brief action against North Carolina last year, but he suffered an ankle injury and was granted his redshirt. He has the better chance of starting the Miami game, as Lee has missed some time with a sore arm and shoulder. While both players have exceptional raw abilities, their inexperience will prevent FSU from winning 10 or 11 games and challenging for a berth in the Rose Bowl. 

Both starting wide outs from 2004 are gone. This year's starters, Chris Davis and Willie Reid are both speedy players with big play potential. Davis is more of a deep threat. At tight end, three players could split the duties, including former Brentwood High School quarterback Matt Henshaw. This position will be used more for blocking than pass catching. 

The running back position is the strong point of the offense. Florida State rushed for 162 yards per game last year, and that average could approach 200 this year, as the ‘Noles must rely more on the running game. Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker combined for 1,838 yards and 11 touchdowns with a collective average of almost six yards per carry. The fullback spot is also talented and deep. James Coleman and B. J. Dean will split most of the minutes. Used mostly for blocking, the tandem did rush for six scores in 2004. 

The offensive line lost three starters, two of whom will play in the NFL this year. Additionally, a new offensive line coach has changed all the terminology and schemes, so this could be a mistake-filled learning year in the trenches. The strength of this are the two guards. Matt Meinrod and Jacky Claude quickly grasped the new zone blocking rules. Center David Castillo will help provide the backs with excellent inside rushing holes. 

Florida State may not improve much upon their 25.2 scoring average this year, but their time of possession may increase due to extra running plays. That should help the defense keep its numbers close to last year's exceptional production. Mickey Andrews' stop troops yielded only 14 points and 284 yards per game last year. Even with the unexpected loss of two stars, this unit should still rank among the national leaders in 2005. 

The defensive line loses nose guard Clifton Dickson to academics and hence has four new starters. Brodrick Bunkley has starting experience at the nose and will replace Dickson. Andre Fluellen inherits the other tackle spot, while Darrell Burston and Kamerion Wimbley take over the end positions. Wimbley saw significant action last year. 

The three-man line backing crew returns in one piece this year. Ernie Sims and A. J. Nicholson make up the best outside linebacker tandem in the nation. Last year, they combined for 174 tackles (13 for loss) and 8.5 sacks. Middle linebacker Buster Davis makes this trio one of the two or three best overall. 

The secondary took a major hit when All-American cornerback candidate Antonio Cromartie suffered an off-season knee injury and was lost for the year. Free safety Pat Watkins picked off four passes and broke up 10 more last year. The other three starters will be newcomers. Tony Carter, Kyler Hall, and Gerard Ross are capable defenders, but they will not remind FSU fans of Michael Boulware, Deion Sanders, and Samari Rolle. 

No Seminole preview would be complete without mentioning the place kicker. Xavier Beitia has graduated, and the microscope now focuses in on Gary Cismesia. His first game as the full-time regular comes against… MIAMI. The goalposts just narrowed.  

2. Boston College  PiRate: 108  HFA: 4 

The new kid on the block gets immediate respect. Boston College returns 14 2004 starters plus a returning quarterback starter from 2003 to a team that finished 9-3 last year and beat North Carolina in the Continental Tire Bowl.  

Quinton Porter returns as quarterback after redshirting last year. In 2003, he threw for 1,764 yards and 14 touchdowns before suffering a hand injury in the 10th game.  

The Eagles lost a couple of consistent receivers, but they return talented players in Will Blackmon and Larry Lester. Blackmon has been moved to wide out from cornerback, where he was a 2nd team All-Big East selection. Lester finished second on the team with 35 receptions in 2004. Tight end Chris Miller is no Pete Mitchell, but he is more than adequate as a blocker and receiver. 

While there is no star at tailback, three capable runners share the load. Andre Callender, L. V. Whitworth, and A. J. Brooks shared the ball-toting duties and combined for 1,579 yards (4.7 avg) and 10 touchdowns. All three can rush for 100 yards in a game. Fullback Mark Palmer is the new fullback.  

B-C has developed a reputation for turning out top-rate offensive linemen. What makes this team's offense look better than last year is the return of all five 2004 starters. Center Pat Ross, another Dan Koppen, and tackle Jeremy Trueblood will hear their names called on the first day of the next NFL draft.  

Expect Boston College to run for 170+ yards and pass for 230+ yards, while scoring about 25 to 28 points per game. That should be enough to win eight or nine ball games, because the defense will hold opponents under 20 points per game. 

It all starts up front, where defensive end Mathias "The Freak" Kiwanuka is the best player in the nation at his position. Last year, he stopped enemy runners behind the line 13 times and put quarterbacks on the turf 11.5 times. Tackle Al Washington is the other returning starter. 

For the first time in Coach Tom O'Brien's nine-year tenure at B-C, all three starting linebackers return. Ricky Brown, Brian Toal, and Ray Henderson were the top three tacklers, uniting for 233 tackles. Henderson intercepted six passes and recorded seven tackles for loss. 

The secondary returns two starters unless Blackmon returns to the defense or plays both ways. Cornerback Jazzmen Williams broke up 10 passes last year, while safety Ryan Glasper recorded 57 tackles. 

When he isn't starring at wide out or possibly cornerback, Blackmon is one of the best kick returners in the nation. Last year, he averaged 27.2 yards per return with one touchdown. 

3. Clemson   PiRate: 106  HFA: 4 

Coach Tommy Bowden's Tigers began 2004 with a 1-4 record, then won five out of six games thanks to a big defensive improvement. In the first five games, the Tigers gave up 31.2 points per game. In the last six, they gave up only 10.5. The tough early schedule woes continue in 2005, as the Tigers must face Texas A&M, Miami, and Boston College in the month of September. 

Seven starters return on offense, including potentially the best quarterback n the ACC. Charlie Whitehurst had a down year in 2004, but he is capable of completing 60% of his passes, while being a dangerous threat to run. He has a new offensive coordinator in Rob Spence, who previously guided offenses at Louisiana Tech and Toledo to record-setting performances. 

Whitehurst will have four skilled receivers at his disposal this year, but he loses top receiver Airese Curry and his 61 receptions. Wide outs Kelvin Grant, Chansi Stuckley, Curtis Baham, and La'Donte Harris will be the main targets. None of them have shown the ability to get open deep, so defenses may bunch up in double zones to stop the short game. Tight end Bobby Williamson will be used more as a blocker than a pass receiver. 

Two running backs, who have led the team in rushing in the past, return for their junior years. Reggie Merriweather led the Tigers with 670 yards and 11 TDs last year, while Duane Coleman led CU with 615 yards in 2003. 

The offensive line returns three starters including potential all-star guard Nathan Bennett. Tackles Marion Dukes and Barry Richardson should open more running lanes for the backs. Clemson ran for just 108 yards per game last season. 

The Tiger defense would like to continue the success of the second half of 2004. Five starters were lost, including the top two tacklers and a defensive back that was selected in the NFL draft. It adds up to some slippage this year. 

New defensive coordinator Vic Koenning made Clemson fans happy when he brought back the tradition of the "Bandit" end, which was used back in the days when the Tigers dominated the league and won a national title. Gaines Adams will take that appellation this year. He will be expected to rush the quarterback or drop back into zone coverage depending on the play call. Seasoned vet Charles Bennett starts at the other end position. Bennett recorded five sacks and nine tackles for loss in 2004. Tackle Trey Tate gives the Tigers another returning starter in the line. 

Two CU linebackers could contend for league honors. Anthony Waters and Tramaine Billie teamed for 132 tackles with 14 behind the line last year. Lionel Richardson gives the Tigers an excellent back-up. 

Cornerback Tye Hill leads the secondary troops from his cornerback position after breaking up an amazing 21 passes. Safety Jamaal Fudge made 66 tackles and broke up 10 passes. 

Clemson may have a difficult time achieving a winning record with the tough schedule it faces. To get to a bowl, they will have to pull off an upset or two.

4. North Carolina St. PiRate: 103  HFA: 4 

Last year, the Wolfpack had their first losing season since 1996, and two of those wins came against weak Richmond and East Carolina teams. This year, State plays three winnable out-of-conference games, so only a 3-5 conference finish should be required to post a winning record. 

Seven starters return on offense, but guard John McKeon (who played the most of any lineman) may be replaced in the starting lineup by quickly improving sophomore Kalani Heppe. Center Leroy Harris and tackle Derek Morris have all-star potential. 

Those linemen will protect returning quarterback Jay Davis. Davis completed 56% of his passes last year, but his TD/INT ratio was just 12/15. If he cannot get the job, magnificent runner Marcus Stone will give N.C. State an excellent change of pace. 

Davis will have a couple of above-average receivers to throw the ball to in tight end T. J. Williams and wide out Lamart Barrett. Williams led the team with 31 receptions and 382 yards last year, while Barrett pulled down 24 balls for 326 yards. 

A three-man running back committee will tote the pig. Reggie Davis, Darrell Blackman, and Bobby Washington will share the load after averaging a combined 3.8 yards per carry last year. 

The Wolfpack defense merely led the nation in total defense last year, allowing a microscopic 221 yards per game. All four defensive line starters return to a unit that gave up 102 yards rushing at 2.6 yards per play. Ends Manny Lawson and Mario Williams remind some of John Copeland and Eric Curry when they devastated opponents at Alabama in 1992. Both could earn All-American mention. 

Last year's top four tacklers were linebackers. Two of them return in Oliver Hoyte and Stephen Tulloch, who both recorded 13 tackles for loss. 

The secondary was wiped out by graduation. The cupboard isn't totally bare, as all four new starters have game action, but don't expect this team to match last year's percentage allowed (43.4%) passing yards allowed (119). 

John Deraney returns as both punter and kicker. Often times, this leads to leg fatigue, so his numbers this year may not match last year's.

5. Maryland  PiRate: 100  HFA: 4 

The Terrapins suffered through a disappointing 5-6 season last year, as the offense disappeared after the first four games. In starting 3-1, Maryland averaged 34.8 points per game. In finishing 2-5, that average fell off a cliff to eight points per game! In successive weeks, the offense rushed for eight yards and passed for 74 yards in a 20-7 loss to Georgia Tech and rushed for 67 yards and passed for 24 yards in a 13-3 loss to North Carolina State. In the seven game slide, the Terps averaged only 64 yards rushing. 

Will the problem be rectified in 2005? My ratings say no. In fact, factoring in home field advantage, Maryland could go winless in the ACC this year. The Terps will be weaker on both sides of the line, and their secondary will find it hard stopping enemy quarterbacks. 

The offense returns six starters, but some of those starters may find themselves sitting on the bench this year. One of those could be quarterback Joel Statham. Sam Hollenbach and Jordan Steffy started games last year. As of this writing, Hollenbach has emerged as the starter with Statham entrenched in second place. Hollenbach has the most poise of the three even though he might have the weakest arm. 

The starting tailback position is even more of a mystery at this point. Mario Merrills will battle Keon Lattimore, Morgan Green, and a host of others. None of the backs remind any Terp fan of LaMont Jordan. Maryland rushed for just 2.9 yards per attempt in 2004. 

Coach Ralph Friedgen decided to use a fullback more this year in order to run the ball more efficiently. Ricardo Dickerson and Tim Cesa were moved over from defense in order to lead block and run the occasional counter. 

Maryland returns its top two receivers this year. H-back Vernon Davis caught 27 passes for 441 yards (16.3 avg). He is not the lone deep threat this year. Wide out Derrick Fenner led the Terps with 35 receptions for 430 yards; even though his longest reception was a 35-yarder in which he ran several yards after the catch, defenders must play off him or risk the chance of getting burned by his sub-4.4 speed. He has a 40-inch vertical leap, so he provides an excellent target on goal line fade routes. 

The offensive line will have three inexperienced sophomores starting. Only senior guard Russell Bonham and senior tackle Stephon Heyer have any significant game experience. Heyer is the only possible star in this unit. Don't look for Maryland to rush for 200 yards in any game this year, especially since Duke isn't on the schedule. 

The defense isn't in any better shape. The Terp stop troops gave up better than four points a game more last year than the year before, and the same thing could happen again. The woes start with an interior front four that is short on experience and talent. There are no seniors among the three-deep in the trenches. Only tackle Conrad Bolston has any game experience to speak of. He is a competent run stuffer and pass rusher, but he is likely to see double team blocks. Expect Maryland to yield around four yards per rush and only get to enemy quarterbacks about 20 times this year. 

The linebackers are the strongest part of the defense. Maryland returns all three starters from a year ago. David Holloway, William Kershaw, and D'Qwell Jackson teamed up for 250 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and eight passes broken up. Jackson narrowly missed winning the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award. 

Three starters are gone from the secondary including an NFL draft pick. Only cornerback Gerrick McPhearson returns from last year's secondary. He broke up 11 passes. He can cover any receiver, as he is possibly the fastest player in the entire ACC. 

Maryland has the best punter in the league, and he was used much too often for Coach Fridge. Adam Podlesh averaged nearly 44 yards per punt with very few punts returned. 

All three non-conference games (Navy, West Virginia, and Temple) look like wins; that's a good thing, because none of the conference games do. 

6. Wake Forest  PiRate: 99  HFA: 3 

Coach Jim Grobe has brought the Demon Deacons close to the level of Clemson, North Carolina State, and Georgia Tech in four years at the helm. His four squads have averaged about 220 yards rushing per game. His first three squads scored between 26 and 28 points per game, and then last year, the average dropped to 21 points, as the passing game didn't keep defenses honest. 

Wake returns nine starters to its offense, so last year's 21 point average should return to the 26 to 28 average of the previous three seasons. Quarterbacks Ben Mauk and Cory Randolph both return. Both should see regular action this year. Removing sacks and automatic downing of the ball from their rushing statistics, they rushed for 748 yards at an average of better than five yards. As passers, they totaled 1,544 yards on 52.6% passing for only five touchdowns against seven interceptions. 

Tailback Chris Barclay is an All-American candidate and one of the two best in the ACC. Last year, he rushed for 1,010 yards and nine scores. He will miss the opening game against Vanderbilt due to suspension. His backup, Micah Andrews is a more powerful runner; he scampered for 264 yards on just 43 carries (6.1 avg) last year and scored six touchdowns. 

Leading returning receiver Nate Morton caught26 passes at a 15-yard per catch average. He returns at Z-receiver. Chris Davis and speedy Kevin Marion will split time at the X-receiver. They combined for 29 receptions. A host of younger, inexperienced receivers could figure in the mix. Tight ends Zac Selmon and John Tereshinski often played together in a two tight end formation. They will be used almost exclusively as blockers. Coach Grobe has said that incoming freshmen Ted Randolph and Ben Wooster could see action immediately. 

Wake returns four offensive line starters. Tackle Steve Vallos is a returning All-ACC pick. He can play either guard or tackle position. The remaining starters are average at best, and some of last year's starters could be replaced by some outstanding freshmen recruits. 

Defensively, Wake Forest had difficulty stopping good passing games. Clemson, Boston College, North Carolina State, Duke, and Miami threw for more than 250 yards against them. For the year, The Deacs gave up 235 yards per game while allowing more than 55% of enemy passes to be on the mark. In preseason practice, the starting varsity has had difficulty stopping the junior varsity passing game. Against the run, Wake surrendered close to 160 yards at better than four yards per carry.  

This year's secondary must not only break in two new, inexperienced cornerbacks, the two they lost were their best duo in many years. Safeties Patrick Ghee and Josh Gattis return, where they registered 122 tackles last year.  

Depth abounds at linebacker, where eight quality players will compete for playing time. Leading 2004 tackler Jonathan Abbate recorded 101 tackles from his middle linebacker location. Abbate and teammate Pierre Easley suffered minor injuries recently and have missed some practices. 

The interior line should be the strongest unit. Three starters return plus some talented backups return. End Matt Robinson led the Deacs with seven tackles for loss and added three sacks. 

The Deacons have the one of the top two punters in the league. Ryan Plackemeier averaged 44 yards per punt last year. He has been named preseason 1st team All-ACC. 

Wake Forest gets Maryland at home and plays Duke from the other division. That should give them a shot at two ACC wins. Hosting Vanderbilt and East Carolina gives them a shot at two more. Four wins is the best this team can expect. They are a year away from being quite good.  


Coastal Division 

1. Virginia Tech  PiRate: 116  HFA: 5 

Prognosticators overlooked the Hokies last year, and they won the ACC in their first year of membership. This year, enough talent returns to make Virginia Tech not only the favorite for another conference title, but also a competitor for the Rose Bowl. VT gave Southern Cal a good game to start the 2004 season. They might give them an even better game if they close out the 2005 season with a rematch. 

Both sides of the ball enjoyed successful seasons, and there is no reason to believe that they won't repeat their good work. Tech averaged 31 points and surrendered less than 13 points per game. 

The offense returns eight starters. One of those missing is quarterback Bryan Randall, who ran and passed equally well. He will be replaced by Marcus Vick. Not yet the equal of his older brother when he was the Hokie QB, Marcus will make some mistakes. He will also make a lot of big plays. When he gets into the open, his sub-4.3 speed will make it hard to stop the breakaway run.  

Tech has four tailbacks who could start this year. Cedric Humes and Mike Imoh start the year as co-number ones; they combined for 1,325 yards and 11 scores. Branden Ore and George Bell will see significant action as co-number twos. Tech has two good options at fullback. Jesse Allen and Carlton Weatherford will share time blocking for the tailbacks. Bell can also move over from tailback. 

Four receivers with starting experience return to the fold. The top five pass catchers return. Three of these players can burn defenses with deep routes. Josh Hyman (27-491), Eddie Royal (28-470), and Josh Morgan (15-346) teamed for 11 touchdowns. David Clowney is the fastest receiver on the team; he added 20 receptions for 263 yards, while tight end Jeff King contributed 25 catches for 304 yards and four touchdowns. A scrambling Vick will have an easier time finding an open man with these guys running the patterns. 

The offensive line has loads of talent but will rely on some less experienced blockers to fill some holes. Guard Will Montgomery can play any of the three interior positions in the line. A preseason 1st team All-ACC selection, he is tech's best blocker. Tackle Jimmy Martin has the potential to become a star; he is an excellent blind side protector for his quarterback.  

The Hokies gave up only 268 total yards per game in 2004, and they could approach those numbers this year, even though some excellent players graduated. Coach Frank Beamer's stop troops are quick and deep in talent. Two complete elevens will see regular action. 

End Darryl Tapp leads the interior charges from his end position. Among his 60 tackles last season were 8.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss. The 1st team All-ACC pick also blocked a kick last year. Noland Burchette and Chris Ellis will share time at the other end. They teamed for 60 tackles (six sacks and eight TFLs). Jonathan Lewis and Carlton Powell both have starting experience at tackle. Lewis made five sacks and six tackles for loss in 2004. 

ACC Defensive Freshman of the Year Vince Hall returns to a talented line backing corps. He is the leading returning tackler with 64. James Anderson had four tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.  

The top NFL cornerback prospect surprisingly returns for his senior season. Jimmy Williams intercepted five passes and broke up 14 more last year, while recording 60 tackles. He should be one of the first 10 players taken in the 2006 draft. The rest of the secondary will have first-time starters, but all three are speedsters who can overcome mistakes. Rover Aaron Rouse can stuff the run. 

Virginia Tech is noted for blocking more kicks than any other program. Last year, they blocked a West Virginia field goal attempt and returned it the distance for the win. 

This year's schedule helps the Hokies. They get Miami at home in November, where conditions may help them beat the Hurricanes for the third consecutive year. If they can beat the ‘Canes, they can run the table and get to Pasadena.  

2. Miami   PiRate: 114  HFA: 5 

After winning a most impressive national title in 2001 with a 12-0 record, Coach Larry Coker's Hurricanes have lost one, two, and three games each year afterward. Does that mean they will lose four times in 2005? Not a chance! Coach Coker's defense will be awesome, and if the offense reloads rather than rebuilds, Miami could be looking at another double digit win season. 

The defense returns nine starters plus several key backups, and one or two true freshmen could see action this year. All three units should be improved and match the results of the 2003 defense (15.1 ppg/258 total yards). 

Three potential All-ACC performers anchor the defensive line. Tackle Baraka Atkins and ends Orien Harris and Thomas Carroll are equally proficient stopping the run and rushing the passer. Carroll and Harris both registered double digit tackles for loss, while Carroll and Atkins finished tied for the team lead with 6.5 sacks. 

All three linebacker starters return in 2005. Rocky McIntosh made 111 tackles with nine for loss and four sacks. He broke up five passes. Leon Williams added six tackles for loss. Tavares Gooden is one of four defenders returning with double digit tackles for loss (10). Sophomore Jon Beason could actually crack the starting lineup. This quartet should help lower the yards allowed this year by 40 or 50 per game. 

Not to be overlooked is a top-rate secondary. It starts with safety Greg Threat, who recorded a team-leading 139 tackles and 11 tackles for loss. He intercepted three passes and broke up six others. Anthony Reddick made 73 tackles from his free safety spot. Cornerbacks Kelly Jennings, Marcus Maxey, and Devin Hester should share the minutes. Hester is also the best return specialist in the ACC and one of the best in the nation. Last season, he took three of 19 punts all the way to pay dirt, while averaging 17.2 yards per return. He scored another touchdown on a kickoff return en route to a 25.9 yard average. 

The Hurricanes could easily have the best defense in the ACC. With N.C. State and Virginia Tech in the league, that's saying something. 

How far UM goes this year will depend on the offense. Seven starters were lost, including the leading rusher, quarterback, and receiver. Kyle Wright will try to fill Brock Berlin's shoes. Berlin had an outstanding TD/INT ratio of 22/6, while tossing for 2,680 yards. Wright has seen very little action and has more sacks than completed passes. If he doesn't get time to throw the ball, he will be sitting down several times. 

The five guys responsible for keeping Wright vertical should be able to do the job. Guard Tyler McMeans and tackle Eric Winston should both earn some type of All-ACC mention. 

Frank Gore left a year early and took his 945 rushing yards with him. Tyrone Moss has enough talent to run for 1,000 yards if he stays healthy. Fullback Quadtrine Hill can make his own hole up the middle and cross the line of scrimmage as a secondary pass receiver. 

The receiving unit lost Roscoe Parrish and his team-leading 43 receptions and eight touchdowns. Wide outs Sinorice Moss and Ryan Moore can burn most secondary defenders, but they must be more consistent. Moore drops a lot of passes. Lance Leggett has the potential to be the star of this group, but he is just a true sophomore. Last year, his 17 catches went for an average 0f 20.5 yards.  

Asking this youthful offense to go to Blacksburg, Virginia, in November and score enough points against the Hokie's defense is a bit too much. Miami can still win nine or 10 games and play in a big bowl. 

3. Georgia Tech  PiRate: 107  HFA: 4 

The Yellow Jackets have been consistently just above average the last four seasons, going 8-5, 7-6, 7-6, and 7-5. Just enough talent returns to make that five years. 

Coach Chan Gailey welcomes back just five regulars from an offense that failed to play with consistency. That starts at the quarterback position. Returning starter Reggie Ball completed less than 50% of his passes last year and threw 18 interceptions. He saved his best for the bowl game, connecting on 13 of 20 for 228 yards against Syracuse. Redshirt freshman Taylor Bennett could unseat Ball if he starts out inconsistent once again. He doesn't have the running ability of Ball, but he can stand back in the pocket and throw with poise. 

Calvin Johnson gives the quarterbacks an excellent primary target. In 2004, he led the Jackets with 48 receptions good for 837 yards and seven touchdowns. Demarius Bilbo moved from quarterback to wide out and doesn't have much game experience. Tight end Michael Matthews tips the scale at 270 pounds. A blocker first and foremost, he has only one career pass reception. A safety in zone coverage would have a hard time bringing him down in the middle. 

Only two starters remain in this year's offensive line, and one of those will be playing a new position in the line. If the new linemen don't prove they are up to the task, GT will struggle on offense. Tackle Brad Honeycutt was a guard last year. Matt Rhodes returns to his guard position. Former defensive lineman Mansfield Wrotto moves to the offensive side to take Honeycutt's former spot. Nate McManus assumes the center spot, while Andrew Gardner takes the other tackle post. These five have to block Auburn's defensive line less than one week from now. 

The Tech defense will be much more experienced than the offense. The Yellow Jackets return nine starters to this side of the ball, if you count a former starter who returns after missing most of 2004 due to injury. This was a unit that gave up just 18.9 points and 298 total yards per game.  

Three starters return to the defensive line. End Eric Henderson was never totally healthy last year, yet he made nine tackles for loss and three sacks. He grabbed 11 enemy QBs when healthy in 2003. Tackle Joe Anoai and end Adamm Oliver contributed a combined 6.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. 

Middle linebacker Gerris Wilkinson has NFL potential. He led tech with 119 tackles last year including 13 behind the line. He recorded 4.5 sacks as well. Joining him is returning strong-side backer KaMichael Hall, who also recorded 4.5 sacks. 

Both safeties return to the secondary. Chris Reis and Dawan Landry were an excellent team. They made 151 tackles with 11 sacks and 14 tackles for loss and broke up eight passes. Cornerback Kenny Scott broke up five passes last year subbing for injured Dennis Davis. Davis returns to reclaim the starting spot, making Scott the best secondary backup in the ACC. Reuben Houston returns after intercepting a team-leading three passes last year. This should be one of the best secondaries in the nation. 

Only a brutal schedule will keep Tech from winning two or three more games than they did last year. They must venture to Auburn to start the season and play Georgia to end it. In between, the Jackets make road trips to Virginia Tech and Miami. They start the season with four almost guaranteed losses. 

4. Virginia   PiRate: 105  HFA: 4 

Coach Al Groh saw his Cavaliers jump out to a 5-0 record last year and move as high as number six in the AP poll. In the last six games, they had to play at Florida State and Virginia Tech and host Miami. They lost all three games to finish the regular season 8-3, and then couldn't stop Fresno State and lost in the MPC Computers Bowl. This year six starters return to each side of the ball, and the Cavs figure to slip a little bit. A favorable schedule means UVa should still win six or seven games and garner a bowl bid. 

Quarterback Marcus Hagans completed 62.8% of his passes in his first year as a full-time starter. Factoring out sacks and automatic downing of the ball, he averaged eight yards per rush. Backup Chris Olsen returns as well. 

Hagans loses his top three pass catchers this year. Leading returnee Deyon Williams caught just 19 passes for 261 yards. He has deep threat potential, but he hasn't shown the consistency to be the go-to guy. Tight end Tom Santi is the only other receiver at the line to have caught double digit passes last year. He grabbed 13 passes for 155 yards. 

Virginia loses a 1,000-yard rusher in Alvin Pearman, but returns senior Wali Lundy. Lundy has rushed for more than 800 yards every season, and should go out with his first 1,000-yard effort. Fullback Jason Snelling returns to the fold to provide excellent blocking support. He can come out of the backfield and do damage on intermediate pass routes. 

The offensive line returns three senior starters, but loses two all-star performers including All-American Elton Brown. Tackles Brad Butler and D'Brickashaw Ferguson have NFL potential, with Ferguson having an excellent shot at earning All-American honors. He could have been a 1st round pick in this year's NFL draft, but he chose to stick around for his final year.  

The Cavalier defense won't match last year's numbers of 17.7 points and 313 total yards per game, but they won't resemble Duke either. The 3-4 defense will be stronger up front than in back. Nose Tackle Keenan Carter weighs 324 pounds and can form a blockade against teams who try to run up the middle. Ends Brennan Schmidt and Chris Johnson are better against the run than pass. 

Virginia's top two tacklers return to their inside linebacker spots. Ahmad Brooks and Kai Parham teamed for 170 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and 10 sacks. Outside backers Jermaine Dias and Clint Sintim are better pass defenders than run stuffers.  

Both starting cornerbacks return this year, but both safeties must be replaced. Cornerback Tony Franklin will be assigned to the opponents' best receiver. Last year, he made 78 stops and broke up five passes. Marcus Hamilton returns to the opposite cornerback position after leading the team with four interceptions. 

Preseason 1st team All-ACC kicker Connor Hughes gives the Cavs a long field goal threat with accuracy to boot. He connected on 17 of 24 field goals last year and can connect from up to 55 yards.  

5. North Carolina  PiRate: 99  HFA: 4 

Tar Heel Coach John Bunting is like a cat. He has nine coaching lives. Every time it appears his teams are headed toward a 1-10 or 2-9 season, they recover just before the axe falls on Bunting. Last year, UNC recovered from a bad start to beat North Carolina State and then pull off the biggest upset of the year over number one Miami. After clobbering Duke, the Heels earned a bid to the Continental Tire Bowl. 

Carolina has some talent returning, especially on defense, but the schedule could be the hardest in the nation. UNC must play Wisconsin, Utah, and Louisville out-of-conference. In ACC play, they make trips to both Miami and Virginia Tech, as well as Georgia Tech and North Carolina State. They will lose all five of their road games, and with home games against Boston College and Virginia, chances are good that 3-8 or 4-7 is the best they can hope for. Bunting may starting life number nine this year. 

The Tar Heels snuck up on folks last year with a well-balanced offense that averaged 27 points per game. They averaged almost five yards per rush and completed close to 60% of their passes. Six starters return on offense; one of those missing is quarterback Darian Durant. Matt Baker is a senior who will begin the season as a first-time starter. Baker won't beat teams with his arm or legs, but he won't lose games with bad decisions. 

The top two rushers used up their eligibility. LSU transfer Barrington Edwards will split the carries with Vince Wilson. Bunting was ecstatic last year when he saw Edwards torching his first team defense from the scout offense. 

The top three receivers return this year, with both wide outs having deep threat potential. Jesse Holley and Derrele Mitchell tallied a combined 51 receptions for 810 yards (15.9 avg). Third receiver Jawarski Pollack added 45 receptions after leading the Heels with 71 receptions the year before. Tight end Jon Hamlett is a rugged blocker who can catch the ball in a crowd. 

The offensive line returns three starters and regains the services of a two-year starter who missed most of last year to an injury. Guard Kyle Ralph is a preseason 1st team All-ACC selection. His counterpart Charlston Gray was named to the Freshman All-American team. Tackle Skip Seagraves returns after missing the last 10 games, while tackle Brian Chacos supplies excellent pass protection. 

Carolina's success in the red zone led to their surprise showing. They scored 39 out of 44 times. 

The Tar Heel defense was no juggernaut in 2004, giving up a generous 31.8 points and 446 total yards per game. Nine starters return, so those numbers should improve this year. 

Stopping the run will be job one this year. UNC gave up 5.2 yards per rush in 2004. Leading the way in the interior line is tackle Chase Page, who missed all of 2004 with a hand injury. Last year before the injury, he was being mentioned as a possible NFL candidate. Joining Page is end Tommy Davis. Last year, he led the Heels with five tackles for loss. 

All three regular linebackers return this year. Tommy Richardson recorded 67 tackles and broke up four passes. Jeff Longhany and Doug Justice combined for nine tackles for loss. 

The secondary allowed 61.5% of enemy passes to be completed. Cornerbacks Jacoby Watkins and Cedrick Holt teamed for 103 tackles. Safety Kareen Taylor recorded 67 tackles. 

On paper, this North Carolina squad is as good as or a little better than last year. The schedule will keep them from winning six games and advancing to a bowl. 

6. Duke   PiRate: 90  HFA: 3 

The Blue Devils no longer give up 45 points a game and go 0-11. The last three years have seen them give up less than 30 points per game. The offense has not toped 20 points per game in years. Last year, they scored 16.6 points and created just 264 yards per game. 

Seven starters return to the offensive side. All the skill position starters return, but just one offensive lineman returns. Blocking for the run and to protect the pass may be lacking this year. 

Mike Schneider returns at quarterback to direct Coach Ted Roof's attack. Last year, he completed 59.3% of his tosses for 1,527 yards. His TD/INT ratio was a respectable 8/7. 

Wide receivers Jomar Wright and Ronnie Elliott finished one-two in receptions with 323 and 318 yards. Wright is a serious deep threat who needs to step up this year. Tight end Ben Patrick caught 32 passes for 311 yards. Backup tight end Andy Roland saw lots of action and led the Blue Devils with three touchdown receptions. 

Tailbacks Cedric Dargan and Justin Boyle return after teaming for 703 yards last year. Fullback Malcolm Ruff will block for the backs and get a few carries as well. 

The offensive line is a mess this year. Only guard Tyler Krieg returns this year. Guard Bob Benion and tackle Lavdrim Bauta saw some action last year, but center Matt Rumsey and tackle Demetrius Warrick will see their first action. Expect Duke to fail to improve upon their low 94 rushing yards per game. 

The defense couldn't stop the run last year, giving up 226 yards at 5.0 per rush. They weren't much better against the pass, allowing 58.% of passes to be completed for 201 yards.  

The stop troops have one legitimate potential star in cornerback John Talley. Talley intercepted four passes last year and broke up 14 more. Brian  Greene is a returning starter at free safety. He is a hard-hitting tackler, but he gets lost in pass coverage sometimes. 

Linebacker Brendan Dewan is the leading returning tackle with 84. Five of those went for lost yardage. Codey Lowe didn't start but recorded 44 tackles and broke up four passes. 

Eli Nichols and Casey Camero return to the front line. Camero blocked three kicks last year and registered nine quarterback hurries.  

Duke has a couple of winnable non-conference games against East Carolina, VMI, and Navy. They should return to 0-8 in the ACC, but they will be more competitive this season.  

If All Games Were Played September 1st

(in other words, these ratings are only good for the first week of the season)

(and predicted records may move a team up or down due to HFA) 

Team   Conf.  Overall

Atlantic Division

Florida State   7-1   9-3 *

Boston College  6-2   9-2

North Carolina St.  4-4   7-4

Clemson   4-4   5-6

Wake Forest   2-6   4-7

Maryland   0-8   3-8 

Coastal Division

Virginia Tech   8-0   12-0 *

Miami     6-2   9-2

Georgia Tech  5-3   6-5

Virginia   4-4   7-4

North Carolina  2-6   3-8

Duke    0-8   2-9 

* Va. Tech picked to beat Florida State in the ACC title game. Top Stories