PiRate Preview: The ACC

When the ACC expanded by three to 12 members and placed Miami and Florida State in separate divisions, it was a foregone conclusion that the two schools would now play the first and last weeks of the regular season. Florida State lost three conference games for the first time in their ACC tenure.

Luckily, for the Seminoles, the entire Atlantic Division was close to equal last year, and 5-3 was good enough to earn the title by virtue of beating co-champ Boston College.

Miami recovered from a loss to Florida State to open the season and won eight consecutive games, the last seven of which were by comfortable margins.  Included in that streak was a 27-7 smashing of Virginia Tech to effectively wrap up the Coastal Division crown.  Then, something went wrong.  The Hurricanes lost at home to Georgia Tech.  When Virginia Tech beat North Carolina, the Hokies clinched the Coastal title.  There was no rematch.

 

Miami proceeded to lay an egg in the Peach Bowl, losing to LSU 40-3.  Even with a career record of 53-9, which is the best of any current head coach with five years experience (beats USC's Pete Carroll), Hurricane coach Larry Coker finds himself on a rather hot seat.  With numerous suspensions including some starters, Miami opens the season against the Seminoles far from being full strength.

 

The official media poll picked the two rivals to place twice this year—Florida State in the Atlantic and Miami in the Coastal.  The Hurricanes were the pick to win the ACC Championship game.  The rest of the Atlantic poll showed Clemson in second, Boston College third, Maryland fourth, North Carolina State fifth, and Wake Forest last.

 

In the Coastal Division, Virginia Tech followed Miami in second, followed by Georgia Tech, Virginia, North Carolina (Cavs and Heels in virtual tie), and Duke.

 

The PiRates begin the season showing quite different results.  In what was a surprise even to me, neither of the Sunshine teams begins 2006 rated as the top team in their division.

 

Atlantic Division

 

1t. Clemson Tigers

PiRate: 113             National Ranking: 21(t)  HFA: 6

 

Many Clemson fans tired of Tommy Bowden a few years ago and began calling for a coaching change; it never happened, and that was probably a good thing.  The Tigers are on the cusp of becoming very good, and it could start as early as this season if the new quarterback and young defensive line develop quickly.

 

Clemson finished 8-4 last year, but all four losses could have been wins.  They lost to Miami 36-30 in 3ot, Boston College 16-13 in ot, Wake Forest 31-27, and Georgia Tech 10-9.  If former quarterback Charlie Whitehurst had just one more year of eligibility, I might predict the Tigers to go 12-0 this year.

 

Will Proctor takes over at quarterback this year after throwing for 281 yards on 18 of 31 passes in 2005.   Proctor is more of a runner than Whitehurst, but he doesn't have the arm strength Whitehurst has.

 

Proctor will be handing the ball off more this year than Clemson signal callers have done recently.  Running backs James Davis and Reggie Merriweather are both capable of rushing for 1,000 yards.  The two united for 1,594 yards and 16 touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per rush.  Look for at least 2,000 yards rushing from them this year and maybe as many as 20-25 touchdowns.

 

CU won't revert back to the running only offense they used under Coach Frank Howard 60 years ago, because the Tigers return the top receiver in the ACC.  Chansi Stuckey caught 64 balls for 770 yards.  Aaron Kelly also returns after taking hold of 47 passes for 575 yards.

 

The offensive line just may be one of the five best in the country.  Center Dustin Fry, guards Roman Fry and Nathan Bennett, and tackles Barry Richardson and Marion Dukes have no equal in the ACC, and the second five are good enough to start for half the I-A teams.  This group will allow the offense to produce 30-35 points and 425-450 yards per game.

 

The Tiger defense yielded only 17.6 points and 317 yards per game.  If this year's stop troops produce those same numbers, Clemson will play in a BCS bowl.  The problem with expecting a repeat is a young front four that probably can't approach last year's talented output.  End Gaines Adams tackled the opponent 15 times behind the line of scrimmage and batted away nine passes.  Tackle Donnell Clark returns to the starting line after missing last year with a torn ACL.

 

The next level is tough, quick, and full of football smarts.  Linebackers Nick Watkins, Anthony Waters, and Tramaine Billie combined to make 301 tackles with 24 for losses.  Waters is a first-round NFL draft choice if he stays healthy.

 

The secondary has some limitations, as two key players are gone.  Cornerbacks C.J. Gaddis and Duane Coleman are above-average, but they cannot shut down star receivers.

 

Clemson starts the year tied for first in the PiRate ratings with Boston College, but I don't expect the Tigers to stay there.  They must face both Boston College and Florida State on the road after opening with Florida Atlantic, and they have to venture to Blacksburg, Virginia, to face the Hokies on what should be a cold Thursday night.  The rest of the schedule is manageable, so 9-3 is quite possible.  If that defensive line should come together and Proctor plays flawlessly, who knows?  CU could win another game or two and play on New Year's Day.

 

1t. Boston College Eagles

PiRate: 113             National Ranking: 21 (t) HFA: 4

 

The Eagles have been the Rodney Dangerfield of college football in recent years.  In the past five seasons, they have won 43 games including five bowl games, yet BC never gets the hype of other teams who average better than eight wins per season.

 

Coming off a 9-3 season in 2005, the Eagles return enough talent to maintain their 21st century pace.  If they didn't have to play at both Florida State and Miami, they might have a chance to go a little farther this year.

 

BC's offense should rank in the top three in the ACC.  Quarterback Matt Ryan returns after sharing the job last year.  He completed 62.1% of his passes for 12.5 yards per completion. 

 

The running game is in good hands.  L.V. Whitworth and Andre Callender took turns at tailback with Whitworth rushing for 807 yards and Callender gaining 708.  Fullback Mark Palmer will lead interference, and when the Eagles need one or two yards, they call on starting linebacker Brian Toal to come into the game and convert.

 

The receiving unit lacks a proven star but has capable starters.  Brandon Robinson and Tony Gonzalez both have some speed and can get open short, medium, and deep.  Former Vanderbilt tight end Jonathan Loyte could emerge as the starter at tight end by season's end.

 

The offensive line is always a team strength in Chestnut Hill.  This year is no different, as Josh Beekman, James Marten, and Gosder Cherilus all look like NFL prospects.

 

There are several talented players on the other side of the ball, but BC won't equal last year's mark of 15.9 points and 312 yards allowed per game.  The defensive line could be as good or better than last year's unit that registered 35 sacks and held opponents to 91 rushing yards per game.  Tackle B.J. Raji and ends Jim Ramella and Nick Larkin should hold up blockers at the line so that a fine linebacker unit can make the stops.

 

Those linebacker include the aforementioned Toal, who is the lone returning starter in this unit.  Tyrone Pruitt and Jolonn Dunbar will have to contribute immediately.

 

The secondary is the most experienced unit on the stop side.  Safety Jamie Silva led BC with 87 stops a year ago.  He'll welcome back cornerback DeJuan Tribble and safety Ryan Glasper to give the Eagles a very good pass defense.

 

As mentioned above, the schedule does not help the Eagles this year.  Besides having to play on the road twice against the Sunshine State boys, I believe Boston College will lose once at home to either Clemson or Virginia Tech.  It adds up to yet another 9-3 season.   

 

3. Florida State Seminoles

PiRate: 112             National Ranking: 26                   HFA: 7

 

While Florida State begins the PiRate season in third place in the Atlantic Division standings, they benefit from hosting both Clemson and Boston College.  Since Miami begins the season missing some key players due to suspensions, the Seminoles might be able to beat the Hurricanes at the Orange Bowl.  So, FSU is my pick to win the Atlantic crown.

 

Florida State hasn't fielded a top-flight offense since 2000, and this may not be the year they return to 35 to 40-points and 450 to 550-yards offensive production per game.  However, the defense will hold opponents to less than 20 points per game, so 30 points per game should be enough to advance to the ACC Championship Game.

 

Drew Weathorford could actually be a Heisman Trophy candidate this year.  With no help whatsoever from a woeful running game last year, Weathorford threw for 3,208 yards and 18 touchdowns.  He also tossed 18 interceptions as opponents gave the ‘Nole running game no respect.

 

When Weathorford drops back to pass, he'll have a Randy Moss-like deep man to stretch the defense vertically.  Greg Carr caught 30 passes last year and nine of them resulted in touchdowns. He averaged 20.6 yards per catch.  Chris Davis returns after leading FSU with 51 grabs.

 

The running game can only be better.  Lorenzo Booker was considered another Marshall Faulk when he came out of high school, and he has yet to produce.  He finished with 552 yards last year and needs to finish out his career on a high note.  What will help his draft position is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, as judged by his 38 receptions last season.

 

The offensive line is weak compared to what this school is used to having.  There are no All-ACC performers in this unit, and the only awards given out to these guys have been purple hearts for all their injuries.

 

FSU gave up 22 points a game in 2005, which is good for most teams.  However, a Mickey Andrews-coached defense doesn't settle for good.  That defense lost six of their top seven tacklers, their top three pass rushers, and three of their top four pass defenders.  Fret not for FSU, they have quality players set to take over.

 

The defensive line is top-grade.  Expect tackle Andre Fluellen to become the next big Seminole star.  He combines strength with great lateral movement. 

 

Buster Davis will make All-ACC linebacker this year.  He is the lone returnee of the top seven tacklers, making 91 stops with 10.5 for losses.

 

The secondary should limit opponents to less than 200 yards per game.  Cornerback Tony Carter defended 13 passes last year, and he will team with J.R. Bryant to make a great one-two punch on the outside.  The Seminoles have another Rolle expected to do great things.  Myron Rolle should start from day one.

 

Florida State has a kicker who could avoid wide right or wide left nicknames this year.  Gary Cismesia converted 17 of 24 field goal attempts with six of nine coming from beyond 40 yards.

 

The schedule will benefit this team.  Playing Miami when the Hurricanes won't be at full strength should give FSU a chance to open the season on a high note.  If they win that one, it could be clear sailing to a 12-0 regular season.  If they lose, they could still go 11-1.  My semi-educated guess is they will go 10-2 or 11-1, which should be good enough to get them a return date in the ACC title game.

 

4. Maryland Terrapins

PiRate: 108             National Ranking: 33                   HFA: 5

 

Back-to-back 5-6 seasons have left Maryland fans wondering what happened to Ralph Friedgen's vaunted offense.  After averaging 34.4, 32.2, and 31.2 points per game the first three seasons, the Terps have fallen to 17.7 and 24.5 the last two years.

 

To make matters worse, the UM defense has regressed in that time.  After giving up 16.3 and 15.8 points per game in 2002 and 2003, they have allowed 20 and 25 the last two seasons.

 

What has happened?  Number one, the ACC has become much tougher with Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College in the fray; it knocked the Terps down three notches.  2006 looks to be another year where Maryland will be around .500.

 

The offense is going to have problems moving the ball again this season.  The receiving corps has virtually no experienced talent returning; it loses the nation's top pass receiving tight end in Vernon Davis .  Running back Lance Ball caught 18 passes for just 153 yards.  The leading returning wide out is Drew Weatherly, who caught a grand total of 10 passes for 83 yards last year.

 

Quarterback Sam Hollenbach completed 61% of his passes last year for 2,539 yards, but he also completed 15 passes to the wrong-colored jersey.  I foresee a season in which Hollenbach will complete over 60% of his passes yet again, but the average yard per completion will drop from 13.2 down to around 10 yards.

 

The running game could save the Terps if Lance Ball and Josh Allen stay healthy all year. Ball is a grind-it-out runner who requires two defenders to bring him down, while Allen was an outside speed threat prior to missing last year wit a knee injury.

 

The offensive line should be much better against the run and protect the quarterback better as well.  Tackles Stephon Heyer and Jared Gaither are giants who take up a lot of space on the line.  Guard Andrew Crummey has All-ACC potential

 

Defensively, the Terps are quite average.  None of their units stand out, but none are outright weaknesses.  The big stars on the defensive side should be linebacker Wes Jefferson and cornerback Josh Wilson.  Jefferson made 57 tackles as a backup, while Wilson defended nine passes and picked up 73 tackles.

 

The top lineman is Conrad Bolston who got to enemy quarterbacks five time last year.  Bolston made 38 stops from his nose tackle position.

 

Punter Adam Podlesh averaged 43.8 yards per punt last year placing almost 40% of those punts inside the 20 yard line.

 

Maryland has three easy wins and three or four probable sure losses.  What the Terps do against Virginia, North Carolina State, and Wake Forest will determine whether they can become bowl eligible.  My guess is they will go 6-6 at best, and 5-7 at worst, even though they could probably finish in second place in the Big East if they switched places with non-conference arch-rival West Virginia.

 

5. Wake Forest Demon Deacons

PiRate: 106             National Ranking: 42                   HFA: 4

 

Wake Forest is one of those teams other BCS teams defeat, but one that those teams don't look forward to playing, much like the Chicago Bears during the Dick Butkus/Gayle Sayers years.  This season could see something change.  The Deacs could wind up on the plus side of the ledger and advance to a bowl game for just the fifth time in 58 years.  Coach Jim Grobe welcomes back almost his entire starting 22 players from last year, a year where Wake just missed going 6-5.  The schedule is set up for a special start, and it could propel WF to a memorable season.

 

The offense led the ACC in rushing yards last year, and the passing yardage wasn't all that bad.  I can see Wake rushing for 225-250 yards per game and passing for 175-200 yards per game.  That should increase their scoring average from 24.5 to 28-33 points per game.

 

Star running back Chris Barclay is gone, but Vanderbilt fans can tell you about Micah Andrews.  Before Jay Cutler started his audition to become the next John Elway at Denver, Cutler directed the black and gold offense on the first of multiple Elwayish late comebacks.  That comeback was necessary due to Andrews impersonating Greg Pruitt rushing through the Vandy defense for 254 yards.  Andrews, if he remains healthy, will rush for 1,200-1,500 yards this year and make somebody's All-ACC team.  Wake has numerous quality backups as well, and having fullback Damon McWhite leading interference is like having a third guard in the lineup. 

 

Quarterback Ben Mauk will never be confused for Brian Kuklick, but he should improve upon last year's stats (53.8% completions, 845 yards).  He won't be sharing the job like he did last year.

 

Mauk has one receiver who could make All-ACC this year.  Nate Morton returns after grabbing 39 passes for 482 yards.  Demar Boldin gives the Deacs another prime option after he caught 15 passes with a 14.9 average.

 

The offensive line has been called "dirty" by opponents due to all the injury-causing cut blocks they throw.  The block is legal, so opponents better grin and bear it.  Center Steve Justice and tackles Steve Vallos and Arby Jones are prime-time players; Vallos is on most NFL teams' draft boards.

 

The Demon Deacons gave up 28.7 points and 386 yards per game last year, and those numbers will be better this season.  Only one player was lost off that team, and he was the number 10 tackler.

 

The only weakness on defense is the front line. Three of the four projected starters are trying to get over injuries, including star end Matt Robinson, who recorded 10.5 tackles for loss last year and broke up four passes.

 

The trio of linebackers is a team strength.  Middle backer Jon Abbate is another Lee Roy Jordan in the making.  He led WF with 77 tackles, six for loss, last year and should top 90 tackles this year.  Aaron Curry recorded 7.5 tackles for losses and broke up five passes.

 

 The secondary has three talented players who should help the Deacs improve on an already good pass defense (they gave up only 54.9% completions).  Safeties Patrick Ghee and Josh Gattis are experienced seniors who won't be beaten deep much if any.  The pair combined for 137 tackles and 16 defended passes.  Cornerback Alphonso Smith is a dual threat on the perimeter.  He defended 12 passes last year, and he made eight tackles for loss.

 

Wake lost one of the top punters in college football when Ryan Plackemeier 47.2 avg) graduated.  Kicker Sam Swank is the best in the league and one of the top 10 in the NCAA.  Last year, he converted on all 29 PATs and 19 of 24 field goals, including 6-8 from beyond 40 yards and two of two from beyond 50 yards!

 

Look at the schedule Wake Forest gets handed this year!  They open at home against 1-10 Syracuse, play Duke at home, go to Connecticut and Ole Miss, and come home to face Liberty.  They have a great shot to start 5-0 if the defensive line is healthy.  They will need only one more win to become bowl eligible, but it won't be easy, as they close with Clemson, at NC State, at N.Car, Boston College, at Fla. St., Virginia Tech, and at Maryland.  I think the Maryland finale will be a bowl elimination game, as Wake will finish either 5-7, 6-6, or 7-5.

 

6. North Carolina State Wolf Pack

PiRate: 103             National Ranking: 52                   HFA: 4

 

If Southern California lost the talent that North Carolina State lost last year, I might find it hard picking the Trojans in the top three of the Pac-10.  The Wolf Pack lost enough talent to start an expansion franchise in the NFL!  There's no way they will equal last year's seven victories.  Trying to avoid a record reversal is the goal they should shoot for.

 

Let's start with defense where State saw five 2005 starters hear their name called on NFL Draft weekend, including the very top pick.  NCSU gave up 17.7 points and 299 yards per game last year, and should see those numbers jump like the thermometer after sunrise in Yuma, Arizona. 

 

The defensive line lost about as much talent as a team can lose.  You don't replace Mario Williams easily; replacing Williams plus Manny Lawson and John McCargo cannot be done.  State still has some quality talent in tackles De Mario Pressley and Tank Tyler, who should combine for double digit tackles for loss.

 

New starting middle linebacker Patrick Lowery made 40 stops in relief of Oliver Hoyte, and he should rival triple digit tackles this year; where he makes those tackles might decide State's fate.

 

The secondary is still strong, but they will have to defend at least one extra second on most passes this year.  Safeties Garland Heath and Miguel Scott and cornerback A.J. Davis are all above average pass defenders, but still this unit loses its best player (Marcus Hudson and his 22 defended passes).

 

The offense has some rebuilding to do as well.  They scored just 20.8 points and gained 314 yards per game last year and could be hard-pressed to equal those humdrum numbers.  Quarterback Marcus Stone won't carry the team on his arm, but he won't lose games single-handedly either.  Last year, he completed just 48.7% of his passes.  Stone has a solid arm, but he doesn't always know where his tosses are headed.

 

The receiving corps must be rebuilt, as the top three receivers from last year are gone.  That includes yet another NFL Draft pick, T.J. Williams.  Tight end Anthony Hill and wide out Darrell Blackman give Stone two decent pass-catchers, but State is going to struggle to top 170 passing yards a game.

 

One area where Coach Chuck Amato should feel comfortable with is at running back, where Andre Brown and Toney Baker return.  The duo joined together to amass 1,213 yards and 11 touchdowns last year at 4.8 yards per rush.  They can top that this year, but only if the defense is forced to respect the pass.

 

The offensive line is yet another area of concern.  Two regulars return, and center Leroy Harris could earn 1st team All-ACC honors if he gets any help from two new guards.

 

North Carolina State's only saving grace this year is their schedule.  Virginia Tech drops off the slate and is replaced by a rebuilding Virginia.  Outside of league play, the Wolf Pack have Appalachian State, Akron, East Carolina, and Southern Miss.  They have an outside chance at a 6-6 season, but my guess is they will lose more than they win this year.  If that happens, Coach Amato could be skating on thin ice.

 

Coastal Division

 

1. Virginia Tech Hokies

PiRate: 116             National Ranking: 11 (t) HFA: 6

 

Normally when a team loses a majority of its starters on both sides of the ball, they are not considered the preseason top team in a BCS conference.  Barring a total breakdown by the PiRate computer, Virginia Tech does just that this year.

 

When the Hokies were on their game last year, they were almost as good as Texas and Southern Cal.  They won't be as strong this year, but the rest of the league is a bit down as well, giving VT a shot at winning both the Coastal Division and the ACC Championship.

 

Coach Frank Beamer is a legend thanks to great defense and special teams, and this club will be built around those parts.  This defense will shine thanks to three all-tool studs.  Linebacker Vince Hall was a demon last year finishing with 112 tackles.  8.5 of those stops were for losses, and he defended 10 passes.  Fellow linebacker Xavier Adibi could give the Hokies a pair of 1st team all-conference players.  Adibi's 69 tackles last season included seven for losses, and he added six defended passes.  Rover Aaron Rouse is more of a secondary player than a linebacker, but he is equally strong against the run and pass.  The way he clobbers ball-carriers, don't be surprised to see him cause multiple fumbles this year.

 

On the defensive line, Chris Ellis is a future pro.  He comes off a season where he registered 10.5 tackles behind the line, including six sacks.

 

As usual, punting against VT is always dangerous.  While they haven't been as successful in blocking punts the last few years, expect that aspect to return to their special teams play again. 

 

Virginia Tech's offense may not approach last year's numbers of 33.8 points and 381 yards per game this year, but they could hold onto the ball longer on sustained drives, keeping their defense off the field.

 

Marcus Vick is no longer a distraction after being given his walking papers.  Getting first shot to replace him is redshirt sophomore Sean Glennon, who is strictly a drop back passer with little running skills.  Ike Whitaker and Cory Holt could earn playing time this year.

 

The quarterbacks will be handing the ball off to two excellent backs in Branden Ore and George Bell.  They should combine for more yardage than Ore and departed starter Cedric Humes gained last year (1,399), and their aggregate per carry average should be around 5.o.

 

The group of receivers is another strength.  Wide outs Eddie Royal, David Clowney,  Josh Morgan, and Justin Harper were 2005's top four receivers, and they return to better their combined 105 receptions and 16.2 yard per catch average.

 

The offensive line has five average blockers who will get better as the season progresses.  VT rarely has a weakness here, and this group will develop a good reputation before November.  Tackle Duane Brown is quick for his size.

 

This Virginia Tech team probably wouldn't beat last years team three games out of 10, but this year's team is blessed with a schedule that few teams get.  The non-conference slate of Northeastern, Cincinnati, Southern Miss., and Kent State will give them no resistance.  In the ACC, there are only two real bumps in the road—road games at Boston College and Miami.  I think they will split these two games and finish the season 7-1/11-1.  What Miami does will determine whether 7-1 is good enough for a return trip to Jacksonville on December 2nd.

 

2. Miami Hurricanes

PiRate: 114             National Ranking: 16                   HFA: 5

 

The Hurricanes' chances for a national championship may disappear after one game this year.  Four players, including two key offensive starters are suspended for the Florida State game.  When the two starters are star running back Tyrone Moss and star receiver Ryan Moore, that can be the difference in a win and a loss against The Seminoles' defense.

 

Miami is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball.  If you take their starting 22 players and compare them with the rest of Division I-A, the Hurricanes may be number one.

 

The ‘Canes have the top quarterback in the ACC, that is when he is on his game.  Kyle Wright was supposed to be what Jay Cutler became, but he has not lived up to the hype.  He could become still become another Carson Palmer, who exploded as a senior.  He finished last season with 2,403 passing yards on 58.6% completions.  He has to prove himself against the likes of Florida State and Virginia Tech.

 

When Moss becomes eligible on September 9 and if his knee is fully healed from a knee injury,  against Florida A&M, he will carry the ball about 10-12 times in the first half and leave with 100 yards rushing.  For the FSU game, Miami will have to get by with Charlie Jones, Derron Thomas, and Andrew Johnson.  None of the three can match Moss for talent.

 

The receivers will have to make do without Moore for game number one, and he is their leading returning reception yardage man.  Miami has enough talent to get by without him against most teams, but against FSU, a trio of inexperienced receivers may have a long night.   Tight end Greg Olsen is the best in the league, but he cannot bear the load by himself.

 

The offensive line is not overly deep, but Miami has some future NFL players here.  Guard Andrew Bain and tackle Reggie Youngblood will garner All-ACC votes this year.  Center Anthony Wollschlager could challenge for the All-ACC first team.

 

The Hurricane defense gets better the farther back it goes.  Miami has the best safety combo in the nation and maybe best in years in Brandon Meriweather and Kenny Phillips.  The duo teamed up for 202 tackles and 15 defended passes.  Meriweather recorded 13 tackles behind the line.

 

The linebackers are led by Tavares Gooden, who registered 83 tackles when he last played in 2004.  Jon Beason gives them two above average players.

 

The defensive line is above average but not great.  Ends Bryan Pata and Baraka Atkins should improve on their 10 tackles for loss with more sacks.

 

The Hurricanes have a strong kicking game.  Punter Brian Monroe  doesn't get much distance but rarely has many long returns.  Kicker Jon Peattie connected on 15 of 20 field goals.

 

Miami could run the table and play for the national title, but there are three or four games that could mess that up.  Playing Florida State without Moss and Moore, venturing to Louisville, facing Georgia Tech in Atlanta, and hosting Virginia Tech is probably too much to expect.  They will lose one or two of these four.  It's 50-50 whether they will beat Virginia Tech and have the tiebreaker advantage.  If they lose more than two, Larry Coker could be in trouble.  Butch Davis is available.

 

3. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

PiRate: 109             National Ranking: 32                   HFA: 4

 

Back in the 1970's Coach Al Onofrio led Missouri for seven seasons.  From 1972 to 1977, the Tigers won 33 games and lost 24 games, going 6-6, 8-4, 7-4, 6-5, and 6-5.  In each one of those six seasons, Missouri upset a top 20 team.  Schools like Notre Dame, Nebraska, Alabama, Southern California, and Ohio State became upset victims of the Tigers.

 

Under Coach Chan Gailey, Georgia Tech is becoming the 21st century version of Missouri.  In each of Gailey's four years in Atlanta, the Ramblin' Wreck has wrecked the plans of a top-25 team.  Last year, it was Auburn and Miami.  In 2004, it was Clemson and Maryland.  In 2003, it was Auburn yet again.  In 2002, North Carolina State was 9-0 before Tech ended their title hopes.  In those four years, Georgia Tech has an aggregate record of 28-22.

 

If the Jackets are going to break out of the 7-5 type seasons with an upset or two along the way, it probably won't be this year.  Tech is loaded for bear on offense, but the defense has some major holes to fill.  GT could pull off an upset again, but they will have to settle for third in the Coastal Division.

 

Quarterback Reggie Ball has numerous faults, but he seems to come up with the big play when you least expect it.  Last year, he completed just 48% for 2,165 and 11 touchdowns.  He also was picked off 12 times because he sometimes telegraphs his passes.

 

When Ball passes, he will have one of the top three receivers in college football running routes.  Calvin Johnson caught 54 passes last year for 888 yards and six touchdowns.  If Ball completes 55% of his passes this year, Johnson will have an 80-catch, 1,200-yard season.  The fly in the ointment is there are no other complementary receivers to take the attention away from Johnson.

 

The running game is adequate.   Tashard Choice and Rashaun Grant aren't going to remind people of Tyrone Moss, but together they should keep defenses from concentrating solely on Ball and Johnson and rush for close to 1,500 with an average of 4.5 to 5.0 yards per carry.

 

The reason Tech has a chance to do great things on offense this year is the return of four starting linemen and the return of another from the defensive side.  Tackles Mansfield Wrotto and Andrew Gardner will protect Ball and allow him the time to spot Johnson down the field.

 

The defense should be strong up front, but the secondary is very suspect at this point.  KaMichael Hall and Philip Wheeler return to their linebacker positions where they stopped 64 ball-carriers each last year (25.5 for losses).  Adamm Oliver and Joe Anoia return to the front four, where they combined for 12.5 tackles for loss.

 

The secondary returns just one starter.  Kenny Scott defended seven passes and will lead the way from his cornerback slot.

 

Georgia Tech hosts Notre Dame to open ABC's primetime Saturday series.  Will they pull off the big upset?  Will they upset Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Clemson at Clemson, Miami at home, or Georgia in Athens?  Chances are they will win two of those games.  And, chances are they will lose to a couple teams they should beat, which adds up to another 7-5/8-4 season.

 

4. Virginia Cavaliers

PiRate: 104             National Ranking: 50 (t)            HFA: 5

 

The Cavs tailed off last year, falling to 3-5 in the ACC.  They came from behind to beat Minnesota in the Music City Bowl to salvage a winning season.  This year, UVA may struggle to repeat that so-so season. 

 

The offense scored 26.7 points per game last year, and it will be hard to replicate that amount this year.  Virginia must replace quarterback Marques Hagans.  They lose top offensive lineman D'Brickashaw Ferguson.

 

The starting four receivers return and could help the new signal caller perform close to Hagans' level.  Wide outs Dryon Williams and Fontel Mines could catch 100 passes for 1,200 yards, while tight ends Tom Santi and Jonathan Stupar should combine for 50-60 receptions.

 

The quarterback will be Christian Olsen, who completed seven of 11 passes for 71 yards in limited action in 2005.  Redshirt freshman Jameel Sewell may be a year away from the starting job, but he could find himself running the team if Olsen fails early.

 

The running game will probably feature multiple backs sharing the load.  Expect Michael Johnson and Jason Snelling to get most of the snaps with Cedric Peerman available as well.

 

The line will be much weaker this year without Ferguson bulldozing the opposition.  Guard Branden Albert will lead this group.

 

The defense lost some key talent as well.  Kai Parham departs after earning 1st team All-ACC awards from his linebacker position.  Clint Sintum leads the way from this unit.

 

End Chris Long could be the star of the defense after stopping 10 runners for losses a year ago. 

 

In the secondary, three starters return.  Cornerbacks Marcus Hamilton and Chris Gorham should rival any other set of CBs except Florida State's.

 

UVA's schedule could allow them to avoid a losing season and get back to a minor bowl.  After opening at Pitt, the Cavs host Wyoming and Western Michigan.  Their other out-of-conference game is at East Carolina.  UVA should beat Duke and North Carolina, and if they can find two more conference wins, it could result in a bowl.  I foresee them falling one game short at 5-7.

 

 

5. North Carolina Tar Heels

PiRate: 101             National Ranking: 54                   HFA: 5

 

Tar Heel coach John Bunting has had one foot out the door for a few years now, but he always seems to manage a crucial win when it is needed.  After finishing 5-6 last year, he needs to win at least one more time this year, or else his job will be in jeopardy.

 

The offense averaged 18 points and just 315 yards per game last year.  If new quarterback Cam Sexton, a redshirt freshman, or Nebraska transfer Joe Dailey can keep defenses honest, backs Ronnie McGill and Barrington Edwards combined for 927 yards and should do better this season.

 

Jesse Holley is the standout receiver.  Last year, he caught 47 passes for 670 yards.

 

Guard Charlston Gray and tackle Brian Chacos are the only returning starters in the line.  That line could prevent the Heels from scoring 20 points per game this year.

 

The defense only yielded 349 yards per game last year, but opponents averaged 26.2 points per game.  In a league chocked full of great linebackers, UNC's trio gets overlooked, but Larry Edwards and Durell Mapp should make a lot of plays.

 

The rest of the defense leaves room for improvement.  Two starters return to the line, but Brian Rackley and Kyndraus Guy only recorded 36 tackles last year.

 

Safeties Trimane Goodard and Kareen Taylor combined to make 114 tackles and 12 defended passes last year.

 

UNC should know if it is good enough to improve after just one game this year; the opener at home against Rutgers should be a bell-weather game.  Other non-conference games are against Furman, South Florida, and Notre Dame in South Bend.  Clemson and Miami must be played on the road, while Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech come to Kenan Stadium.  Look for the Tar Heels to post a record ½ game better or worse than last year's 5-6.

 

6. Duke Blue Devils

PiRate: 86               National Ranking: 101 (t)            HFA: 3

 

The Blue Devils took a step back last year after having enough talent back to have a breakout season.  Now, Ted Roof's crew needs to start over after finishing just 1-10 (and the win was over I-AA VMI).  With the offensive line returning just one starter, this looks like a long season in Durham once again.  Luckily, by the time Duke plays at Boston College in November, the basketball Devils will be preparing to slaughter their first opponent.

 

The offense may be weaker than last year.  Just how bad was last season's attack?  How about less than 130 yards rushing and less than 130 yards passing?  How about being held to less than 14 points per game by I-A teams?

 

Zack Asack returns as starting quarterback after completing half of his passes for just 5.4 yards per attempt during his freshman year. Backup Marcus Jones is mobile.

 

Justin Boyle returns after leading Duke in rushing with 458 yards and nine touchdowns.  Backup Ronnie Drummer also returns after averaging over 10 yards per carry in 33 attempts including an 81-yard scamper.

 

There are no All-ACC-caliber receivers on this roster, but there is some speed.  Eron Riley caught 11 passes and averaged 22.5 yards per catch.

 

Duke lost four offensive line starters off a unit that was number 12 in the ACC.  This year, the OL could give up 10 more sacks and cause Asack to throw more under pressure.

 

The defense gave up 37.1 points per game while surrendering more than 200 yards rushing and passing a year ago.  This year, those numbers should be about the same—Duke has the weakest defense in the ACC.

 

Three starters return to the defensive line, giving Duke a chance to get a better pass rush.  End Patrick Bailey is the second leading returning tackler.

 

Linebacker Mike Tauiliili is more than just the toughest tongue-twister.  He led Duke with 92 tackles and 10 for losses last year.

 

In the secondary, Duke returns their lone All-ACC performer.  Cornerback John Talley intercepted five passes and broke up eight others.

 

Duke's schedule starts with a home date against Richmond.  If the Spiders come to Durham and win that one, it could be a very long season for the Blue Devils.  The next six games are not winnable, and Duke will be 1-6 at best when Vanderbilt comes for a visit to Wallace Wade Stadium.  Having Vandy and Navy at home, back-to-back gives Duke two other chances at wins.  A season finale against rival North Carolina could be the Ted Roof swan song.  I think Duke will double their win total, but 2-10 may be bad enough to force regime change.

 

Next Up: The Big 12 Conference.  Can Oklahoma regain the crown from Texas with a late change at quarterback and a healthy Adrian Peterson?  Can Nebraska finally win the North Division for the first time this century?  Can Dan Hawkins work the same magic at Colorado that he did at Boise State?

 

Sources:  The official ACC website plus the 12 individual schools' official websites.

                 The Charlotte Observer

                 The Washington Post


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