The Pi-Rate Ratings

September 1, 2009

2009 Atlantic Coast Conference Preview

2009 Atlantic Coast Conference Preview

A PiRate Look

Four teams finished with 5-3 records in the ACC last year.  That’s not abnormal.  However, when 5-3 wins both divisions of a 12-team league, that’s a sign of real parity.  Unfortunately, it was a parity of mediocrity.  In 2007, Boston College won the Atlantic Division with a 6-2 record.  Wake Forest did the same in 2006.  This year, the parity should begin to wane some, but the races in both divisions should go down to the final week, and tiebreakers once again could determine the division title winners.  All 12 ACC members have exploitable liabilities, and many teams can take advantage of them.  However, no team has the tools to exploit all of those liabilities, so we expect no 8-0 conference records yet again.

Here are the preseason PiRate ratings for the league.  The ratings have been rounded to the nearest whole number even though we calculate them to two decimal places.  Thus, when you see multiple teams with the same rating, they are not actually exactly even.  To understand what the rating means, it is set so that 100 is average.  Thus, a rating of 90 means the team is 10 points weaker than the average team in the FBS.  The average of all 120 FBS teams should round to 100 if the math has been successfully calculated.

For those who have not followed the PiRate Ratings before and wonder about the home field advantage, we do not assign set in stone advantages.  These are assigned on a game-by-game basis.  For instance, when Florida State hosts Florida, the Seminoles only get about two points for home field advantage.  However, if a smaller school, such as Arkansas State comes to Tallahassee for Homecoming, FSU’s home field advantage jumps by several points. The PiRates think it’s ridiculous to issue a blank home field advantage for all teams or even assign a range of set home field advantages.

  Atlantic Coast Conference Preseason PiRate Ratings  
   

 

Prediction *

 

 
  Team

PiRate

ACC

Overall

 
  Atlantic Division

 

 

 

 
  Florida State

116

5-3

7-5

 
  Clemson

113

6-2

10-3

#

  Boston College

109

1-7

4-8

 
  North Carolina St.

108

3-5

6-6

 
  Wake Forest

106

4-4

8-4

 
  Maryland

98

2-6

4-8

 
   

 

 

 

 
  Coastal Division

 

 

 

 
  Virginia Tech

117

7-1

10-2

 
  Georgia Tech

115

7-1

10-3

#

  North Carolina

113

6-2

10-2

 
  Miami-FL

108

4-4

6-6

 
  Virginia

99

2-6

4-8

 
  Duke

97

1-7

3-9

 
   

 

 

 

 
 

*  Predictions not based on PiRate Rating but

 
 

on expected changes to rating during the year

 
 

# Clemson to upset Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game

 

 

Atlantic Division

Florida State:  The Seminoles are no longer the beast they were for a quarter century.  They are simply an above-average team that doesn’t challenge for national honors any more.  While they begin the season highly ranked in the PiRate Ratings, we just don’t see any way that they will stay there.  By October 22, we see FSU sporting a record no better than 4-3 and possibly just 3-4 with three tough games to play.

The Seminoles, once one of the toughest defenses to crack, appear quite vulnerable against both the run and the pass.  The defensive line no longer has all-Americans manning the four spots.  This year, we don’t even see an All-ACC caliber player up front.  Look for FSU to surrender more than four yards per rush for the first time in ages.

With a weaker pass rush, the secondary will find the going tough against quality passers.  The Seminoles will be vulnerable to quick receivers coming across the middle of the field.

The one real star on this side of the ball is linebacker Dekoda Watson.  He made eight stops for losses last season, but he’s going to see an extra blocker headed his way this year.  We envision FSU giving up 25 points per game and 350 total yards per game.

The offense is in better shape, and if the ‘Noles can manufacture an above-average rushing attack, they will be able to outscore several opponents.  It all starts up front, where State has the top line in the conference.  Center Ryan McMahon will start in the NFL early in the next decade, and guard Rodney Hudson could do so next year.  They should make the running game look better than it normally would and protect the QB with great pass blocking.

The fortunate QB is Christian Ponder.  He threw for just a little over 2,000 yards last year and with a so-so 14/13 TD/INT ratio.  Those numbers will be much better this season.  Ponder can take off and run at any time and could even lead FSU in rushing in several games.

A mediocre receiving corps will look better because Ponder will have more time to look for an open receiver.  Give any college receiver and extra two seconds to get open, and they will most of the time.

The running attack is not strong and will need exceptional blocking to match last year’s numbers (179 yards per game and 4.8 avg. per run).  Expect a group effort here with Jermaine Thomas leading the way.

The schedule gives the Seminoles a couple of easy wins (Jacksonville State and Maryland), one for sure loss (Florida), and several tough games they could win or lose (Miami, BYU, USF, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Clemson, and Wake Forest).  There will be days where FSU can win by outscoring their opponent, but there are going to be defenses that can slow them or shut them down.  It adds up to another just above average season and lesser bowl bid. 

Clemson: The team that has been picked to break out and have a big season every year in recent memory has never done so.  Tommy Bowden never could reach that next level.  Now it’s Dabo Swinney’s turn to try.  He went 4-3 after taking over at mid-season.  Swinney is primed to return CU to its old way of playing football—using the run as the principle weapon to set up the pass as a surprise weapon.  The defense should be better because they won’t be on the field for 67 plays per game.  Five to eight fewer plays by the opponents could lead to 35 fewer yards and three fewer points per game before factoring in the improvement on that side of the ball.

The Tigers’ defense is strongest on the back line.  The secondary has two shut down cornerbacks who will take away a lot of opponents’ passing plans.  Chris Chancellor and Crezon Butler can both make the All-ACC team.  Last year they teamed up for 15 knocked down passes and eight interceptions.

All three of last year’s starting linebackers return, and Kavell Conner was the team’s leading tackler with 125.  Middle linebacker Brandon Maye is capable of having 100 tackles.  DeAndre McDaniel has moved to safety, and he’s going to put a hurtin’ on some poor receiver who tries to catch a weak pass.

Up front, Clemson’s line is among the best in the league.  Three starters return; Da’Quan Bowers, Jarvis Jenkins, and Ricky Sapp combined to record 23 tackles behind the line in ’08, and that number could improve this year.

Clemson gave up only 17.3 points and 300 yards per game last year, but we expect those numbers to be even better this year.  How about 15 points and 270 yards per game allowed?

The offense wasn’t a standout attack unit last year, and the Tigers might only match those numbers of 25 points and 329 yards per game, but it’s how those numbers will be accrued that counts.  We expect CU to run for 190 and pass for 140 yards per game, using three more minutes of clock time.

New quarterback Kyle Parker is not much of a passing threat, but he can run the ball like a fullback in the open field.  When CU must pass, Willy Korn could be the man doing so.

At running back, Clemson has super quick C. J. Spiller returning after finishing second on the team in rushing last year with 629 yards and seven scores.  He caught 34 passes out of the backfield and could be used on play-action and screen passes this season, as well as being a safety valve on other plays.

The receivers will take on less responsibility this year, and they will be required to block downfield more than last year.  Tight end Michael Palmer could see more passes thrown his way because Parker will command the linebackers to keep him in their sights lest he take off and run.

The offensive line returns intact from last year, and it is the equal of the OL at Florida State.  They will open holes for Spiller and protect Parker or Korn on passing plays.

The schedule presents a few bumps.  CU must play at Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina State, and South Carolina.  One of the non-conference home games is against TCU, who should be 2-0 and highly ranked when they visit on September 26.

Boston College: It may just be a hunch, but all of us here at the PiRate Ratings believe there’s going to be a collective BC headache this year in Chestnut Hill.  For the third time in four seasons, the Eagles have a new head coach.  Frank Spaziani has been the head coach at BC before—for the 2006 Meineke Car Care Bowl against Navy (BC won 25-24).  In addition to the change at the top, the Eagles will have to go with a quarterback they didn’t plan on starting.  Dominique Davis couldn’t keep up his academic load and was dismissed from the team.

The new quarterback is yet to be determined, but freshman Justin Tuggle is in the lead with a week to go before the season begins.  Codi Beck, a former fullback, and Dave Shinskie are in the picture as well.  The BC passing game is going to falter some, and it wasn’t all that spectacular last year.  In the final three games against Maryland, Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game, and Vanderbilt in the bowl, Davis and Chris Crane completed just 43% of their passes.

Two of the top three receivers from last year return, but Rich Gunnell and Justin Jarvis are not going to be attracting the eyes of NFL scouts.

The running game will have to step it up a notch if BC is to score consistently this year.  Montel Harris and Josh Haden teamed up for 1,379 yards at a 4.6 average last year and could top that this year by 200 yards. 

A usually strong offensive line will not deviate from that statement this year.  However, they aren’t as good as either Florida State or Clemson. 

The defense was tough last year, giving up just 268 total yards per game.  The defense suffered a big blow when linebacker Mark Herzlich, was diagnosed with bone cancer.  We here wish him a speedy recovery and hope he is able to return to the field in 2010.  Herzlich was a one-man wrecking crew leading BC with 110 tackles, 13 behind the line, breaking up eight passes, and picking off six more.  He cannot be replaced by anybody on the roster.  Mike McLaughlin takes over as the leader of this side, and he could be considered a junior Herzlich.

The Eagles are going to regress some in the trenches following the loss of two NFL draftees at tackle.  B. J. Raji was a 1st round pick and Ron Brace went in the 2nd round.  Expect to see teams running line plunges for a few extra yards against the defense.

The secondary returns three starters who need to do a much better job this year in order to make up for a weaker trio of linebackers.  Wes Davis has a chance to shine from his free safety position.

After two easy games to start the season, BC opens conference play at Clemson, and it could be ugly.  Road games against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame could produce the same result.  The Eagles could split their four home conference games, but they could easily lose all their road games.  It looks like a year away from bowl competition in 2009. 

North Carolina State: This was a tale of two seasons a year ago in Raleigh.  The Wolfpack began the year 2-6 and looked to be headed to a possible nine loss season.  Then, Coach Tom O’Brien’s team acted like a switch had been activated.  NCSU demolished Duke, Wake Forest, North Carolina, and Miami to sneak into the Papajohns.com Bowl (where they lost to an even hotter Rutgers team).  The Wolfpack could be better this year as a whole, but the record may not be any better as teams remember the shellacking they received in November and seek revenge.

Quarterback Russell Wilson earned 1st team All-ACC honors in his freshman season last year, and he is the leader in the clubhouse for repeating this year.  All he did as a freshman was pass for 17 touchdowns with just one little interception!  That’s got to be the greatest TD/INT ratio in a major conference ever!  Wilson can run the ball too, but our advice is for him to limit that this year.  Behind him, the reserves are much weaker, and Wilson is injury-prone.

Wilson’s top two targets are back in the fold this year.  Owen Spencer and Jarvis Williams combined to catch 57 passes for 1,123 yards and nine scores.  Both can burn a secondary for a long touchdown, and both can win a jump ball in the end zone.  Tight end George Bryan provides a nice secondary target and must be respected by the defense.

The returning running backs are more of the plodding, power variety than the quick burst of speed variety.  That could present a small problem, because it takes a good line to hold their blocks long enough for the backs to hit the holes.  The offensive line is the weakest unit on the offense.  NCSU could fail to rush for 100 yards per game in conference play.

The defense showed little signs of improvement in O’Brien’s second year in Raleigh, and it will be hard to show much improvement this year as well.  The secondary was hit hard by graduation and defections.  Two projected starters quit the team and transferred elsewhere.  It leaves a huge hole, and the Wolfpack might give up more passing yards than last year’s dismal secondary (249 yards per game and 62.2% completions).

More problems abound at linebacker, where Nate Irving, a potential All-American, saw his 2009 season end in a summer car crash.  That leaves Ray Michel as the only holdover in the middle of the defense.  Michel led the team with 85 tackles, but he’s no Irving.

The defensive line will have to get the job done, or else State will give up a lot of yards and points.  Willie Young has the potential to be a star but not the next Mario Williams.  He should be a first day draft pick next year, but he will see some heavy double teams this year.

The Wolfpack will pick up some easy wins against some weak competition (Murray State, Gardner-Webb, Duke, Maryland), but they will get it handed to them against the top tier teams in the league.  Expect something like a repeat of last year, but the wins won’t all come in November.

Wake Forest: Jim Grobe ranks as the top coach in the Atlantic Division.  He gets more out of his talent than any other head man.  He will have to come up with one great accomplishment to keep his defense from imploding after losing his three starting linebackers and three starting defensive backs.  Replacing Alphonso Smith (seven INT and 13 PBU) will not be possible.

Wake surrendered 18.3 points and 297 total yards per game last year, but the Deacs could give up close to that in passing yardage alone this season.  Brandon Ghee is the only returnee to the back seven, and he’s anything but a star.

The defensive line returns three starters, but only nose tackle Boo Robinson will contend for All-ACC honors.

With the top five tacklers, including first round draft pick Aaron Curry and fourth round pick Stanley Arnoux, the Demon Deacons will be much more angelic to enemy offenses in 2009.

All is not lost in Winston-Salem, for the Wake Forest offense has a chance to be really good this year.  Quarterback Riley Skinner is a master at the quick passing game.  He can lead a team downfield with a long, time-consuming drive with short passes; call it five yards and a cloud of wind.

When Riley throws, he will see some unfamiliar faces.  He won’t have D.J. Boldin around this year, after Boldin led the Deacs with 81 receptions.  In this offense, receivers can acclimate quickly with short routes.  Holdover Marshall Williams can be a great change of pace wide out, as he can get open deep.

The running game is not the same as the Wake Forest running games of 2002-2004, when all the cut blocking was giving them a bad reputation.  Look for quite an improvement here this year, as the top three backs return and could combine for 1,200-1,400 yards on the ground.  Skinner can sneak by for a first down on a scramble.

The offensive line returns five players who have started in their careers.  The two tackles, Joe Birdsong and Chris DeGeare will protect Skinner like he’s gold.

Expect a season much like 2007 in Winston-Salem this year.  Wake Forest will outscore opponents much like Florida State, and much like Florida State, they will falter on offense a few times and suffer some tough losses.  Still, it looks like a fourth consecutive bowl bid.  As always, there will be some coaching changes at power schools, and Grobe will probably wind up on a few short lists once again.

Maryland: This figures to be a long year in College Park.  The Terrapins suffered more to graduation than any league foe, and they have been wiped out in the trenches on both sides of the ball.  When a team cannot block at the line and gets blown off the line on defense, they aren’t going to win many games.

Let’s start with the offense.  Coach Ralph Friedgen has some weapons back, but without decent blocking, those weapons can produce only so much.  Quarterback Chris Turner is an average signal caller for this league.  He threw 13 touchdown passes, but he also tossed 11 interceptions.  He has a tendency to have wild streaks and miss his receivers. 

Turner has lost his top two receivers from last year.  Darius Heyward-Bey took a lot of flak when Oakland made him their first pick in the NFL draft with Michael Crabtree still on the board, but he’s set to start for the Raiders while Crabtree is set to lose the year and return to the draft.  Heyward-Bey led the Terps with 42 receptions and 609 yards, and there isn’t a player on the team who can rival his speed.

Maryland has a tough running back tandem returning in Da’Rel Scott and Davin Meggett.  Scott rushed for 1,133 yards and eight TDs last year, but it will be difficult if not impossible for him to repeat that feat.

The offensive line lost four key contributors and will take a step back this season.  Only center Dave Cost, who moved to the middle from guard, and part-time starting tackle Bruce Campbell return this year.  Expect Maryland’s offense to falter many times and average only 18-19 points and 300-325 total yards per game.

The news isn’t much better on the other side of the ball, as the entire starting defensive line is gone.  Tackle Travis Ivey has the most experience, but he made just 26 stops last year in nine games.

Only one starter returns at linebacker, but he’s the best player on this side of the ball.  Alex Wujciak led the Terps and finished second in the league with 133 tackles, 8 ½ of which went for losses.  The two new starters cannot come close to equaling the production of last year’s starters who combined for 171 tackles and 17 for losses.

The secondary will have four senior starters, two of whom started a year ago.  Cornerback Anthony Wiseman broke up 10 passes, but he’s likely to see opposing quarterbacks pass away from him more this year.  That may be a mistake because Nolan Carroll has the potential to be better than Wiseman.  He broke up eight passes last year after starting four games.

The Terp pass defense will suffer if the pass rush doesn’t help it some.  Give any QB an extra couple of seconds to pass, and he can shred Florida and Southern Cal with completed passes.

The schedule is going to keep Maryland under .500 this year.  Out of the conference, the Terps must face California in Berkeley to open the season and Rutgers.  They will be looking up at the rest of the Atlantic Division and will be fortunate to win more than two conference games and more than four overall.

Coastal Division

Virginia Tech: If one team is going to break through the parity party and run away from the field, this one is the favorite to do so.  However, the Hokies still have some issues to be resolved, and we think they will suffer at least one conference defeat and one out of conference defeat.

The unexpected loss of one player brings Tech back to the pack.  Star running back Darren Evans may have been a Heisman Trophy contender with a big year.  He ran for 1,265 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, but unfortunately, he suffered a season-ending ACL injury in practice.  It’s not like the backups who will come to the forefront are chopped liver, but they aren’t going to get into the Heisman Trophy picture either.  Instead of dominating in the running game, Tech will just be average here and rush for about 150-160 yards per game.

Quarterback Tyrod Taylor could actually become the leading rusher by default.  He better have a stellar season afoot, because he isn’t going to strike fear in the opponents with his arm.  Tight end Greg Boone will get some snaps out of the wildcat formation, but Coach Frank Beamer limits its use to a couple plays.

Taylor has a wealth of talent to catch his passes this year.  Every player with double digit receptions last year returns this year, led by Jarrett Boykin, Danny Coale, and the aforementioned Boone.  Taylor’s passing numbers will improve from about 130 to 175 yards per game.

The offensive line will give Taylor ample time to throw or run the ball, and they should be strongest in the off-tackle and wide running lanes on the left side where tackle Ed Wang and guard Sergio Render form an excellent tandem.

Beamer’s teams are noted for top notch defensive and special team’s play.  This year’s stop troops won’t disappoint, but they won’t live up to recent standards either.  Tech gave up 16.7 points and 279 yards per game last season, but those numbers will rise this year.  If they rise to 18 points and 300 yards, Tech will be okay and contend for another league championship.  If they top 20 points and 330 yards, then the Hokies might lose a key extra game that costs them the division title.

The question mark rests at linebacker, but we believe they will be okay there even though the two lost players were the top two tacklers.  Cam Martin and Cody Grimm platoon at the whip linebacker position, and they totaled 122 tackles with 19 ½ for losses. 

Up front, three starters return, including Jason Worlds at end.  Worlds will contend for 1st team All-ACC honors after earning 2nd team accolades last year.  He led Tech with 18 ½ stops behind the line including eight dumps of the quarterback.

The secondary returns three starters as well.  They were one of the best in the nation last year, but they should be even better in 2009.  Cornerback Stephan Virgil and safety Kam Chancellor will vie for all-conference honors.

Virginia Tech faces three out of conference foes expected to contend for division championships in their respective conferences.  The Hokies begin the season playing Alabama in Atlanta.  They also host Nebraska and make a visit to East Carolina with revenge on their minds.  They must make an even more important second trip to Atlanta on October 17 to face Georgia Tech.  The winner of that game could be the Coastal Division representative in the ACC Championship Game.

Georgia Tech: Paul Johnson is the nation’s top contrarian coach.  In an era where the spread passing game is all the rage, Johnson is still a proponent of the old option offense made popular by the Split-T in the 1940’s and 50’s and the veer and wishbone of the 60’s and 70’s.  The so-called football experts claimed a BCS conference team could not succeed running such an archaic and antiquated offense.  Let us let you in on a little secret folks: with the right personnel, the single wing offense from the 1920’s could devastate BCS defenses today. 

Johnson’s teams at Navy and Georgia Southern, as well as the days when he was an offensive coordinator at Hawaii and Navy the first go-around always made huge strides on offense in the second year of his implementing his package.  We expect year two at Tech to be more of the same.

10 starters return to an offense that averaged 24.4 points and 372 yards per game (273 on the ground).  It is our belief that the Yellow Jackets will top 300 rushing yards per game this year and score upwards of 30-35 points per game.  Start with an experienced Josh Nesbitt at quarterback, who rushed for 693 yards and seven touchdowns in his first season running the option.  Backup Jaybo Shaw showed promise as well, and it is required of this offense to have more than one capable quarterback.

Jonathan Dwyer thrived in the new offense, gaining 1,395 yards and scoring 12 times, while averaging an eye-popping seven yards per carry.  It earned him ACC Offensive Player of the Year.  His numbers could decline a little but for a great reason.  Former 1,000 yard rusher at Louisville Anthony Allen is now eligible after sitting out a year.  It wouldn’t surprise to see both Dwyer and Allen top 1,000 yards on the ground and wear out some defenses.  When defenses bunch up to stop those two, watch out for the pitch to two speedy slot receivers.  Lucas Cox and Roddy Jones combined to average 8.7 yards every time they ran the ball.  There could be a game where Jones,  Allen, and Dwyer all top 100 yards!

Cox and Jones are pass catching threats to go all the way every time they receive a surprise pass.  Demaryius Thomas caught 53% of Tech’s completed passes and accumulated 49% of the yards.  He will see more deep balls thrown his way this year. When Georgia Tech passed the ball last year, they averaged 7.8 yards per attempt and 17.4 yards per completion.  Those numbers could be more like 9.5-10 yards per attempt and 18-22 yards per completion this year.  If so, the Techsters will be almost impossible to stop.

The offensive line has four starters returning if you count tackle Nick Claytor a starter.  He started the final five games and played spectacularly against some very strong defensive opponents.  This unit is all about run blocking, and they will break down if Tech finds itself in too many obvious passing downs. 

Not to be overlooked is an experienced defense that returns its top five and eight of its top nine tacklers.  Tech will be much tougher this year against the pass, as six of the seven back defenders will return to the starting lineup.  The Jackets gave up 193 passing yards per game last year and picked off 17 passes.  Look for those numbers to improve to 170 yards and 20 interceptions in ’09.

The star of the secondary is rover Morgan Burnett, who intercepted seven passes and broke up eight more.  He found time to bring down seven runners behind the line as well.

At linebacker, all three 2008 starters return.  They weren’t stellar, but they were more than adequate.  None will make the All-ACC team, but they won’t be a liability either.

Up front, Tech has a little to worry about, and it will be their Achilles heel.   Three key players have used up their eligibility, and only end Derrick Morgan returns.  Tech could see its rushing defense numbers jump from 120 to 150 yards allowed per game.

The annual rivalry finale with Georgia is the only non-conference game for the Yellow Jackets to fret over, as they should handle the other three.  The schedule favors Tech in the Coastal Division race, as they host Virginia Tech and North Carolina.  Back-to-back Thursday night games against Clemson and Miami could decide whether the Virginia Tech game in October will be for the division title. 

North CarolinaCoach Butch Davis has quickly rebuilt the North Carolina football program back to where it was during the Bill Dooley and Dick Crum days.  The Tar Heels may soon be as successful on the gridiron as they are on the hardwood.

Nine starters return to a defense that gave up 21.2 points and 365 yards per game.  Expect those numbers to improve to 18-20 points and 325-350 yards per game.

The strength of the defense is the line.  The front four could be one of the five best in the nation this year, as all four starters return to the fold.  Tackles Cam Thomas and Marvin Austin both top 300 pounds but have exceptional first movement on the snap of the ball.  All four of the second four return as well, so the Tar Heels will have the best depth in the nation outside of Gainesville, Florida or Norman, Oklahoma.

Two starters return at linebacker, and middle linebacker Quan Sturdivant will be playing for pay in a year or two.  Sturdivant led UNC with 122 tackles and played tough against the pass as well.

Three starters return in the secondary, and two of them should make the All-ACC team.  Cornerback Kendric Burney and safety Deunta Williams combined for 143 tackles, 8 ½ tackles for loss, six interceptions, and eight deflected passes.

The offense will struggle at times this year, and that’s why UNC will probably come up short in the Coastal Division.  The Tar Heels averaged 28 points on just 321 yards per game last year; the total yardage could go up, but the point total will drop.

T. J. Yates and Cameron Sexton were expected to split quarterback duties again this year, but Sexton transferred.  Yates has had problems staying on the field, even suffering a sprained thumb in spring practice.

Yates may not recognize his receivers when they line up before the first snap.  Five of the top six pass catchers are gone, leaving only Greg Little and his 11 receptions as a holdover.  Expect some drop in passes caught and yardage gained.

The running game should be able to make up for the lost passing yardage and maybe add a little more than that.  Shaun Draughn gained 866 yards last year, and we expect him to top 1,000 this season. 

The offensive line is the offensive question mark as three starters are missing from last year, including guard Aaron Stahl who had a year of eligibility left but decided to leave after graduating in May.

The Tar Heels’ schedule should allow them to win all four non-conference games (Citadel, Connecticut, East Carolina, and Georgia Southern).  Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech are both road games, and that’s why we believe UNC will miss out on a share of the division title by a game.  This team is good enough to win the title if the passing game can make any hay.  

Miami-FL: Here is a program that should always have enough talent to compete for the ACC crown.  However, the Hurricanes have yet to make it to the ACC Championship Game.  Coach Randy Shannon guided Miami to the Emerald Bowl last year, and that’s about where we expect them to be this season.

Inconsistent quarterback play has kept this program from turning the corner the last few years, and that problem will repeat this year.  Sophomore Jacory Harris is the only experienced signal caller left after two players left the team after spring practice.  True freshman A. J. Highsmith may see significant playing time if Harris struggles or is injured. 

Harris has almost all of his receiving weapons returning this year, so he should have a lot of open looks when he throws.  10 players had double digit receptions, and nine of them are back, headlined by Aldarius Johnson.  However, if Harris gets injured, we can foresee a major drop in passing yards in the games he misses—down to as low as 100-125 yards per game.

Luckily for the Hurricanes, they have two very capable running backs.  Graig Cooper led the team with 841 yards, and Javarris James added 286.  Those numbers will increase by about 200-300 yards split between the two.  As a team, we expect to see UM run for 175 or more yards per game.

The offensive line is a work in progress.  Tackle Jason Fox has NFL potential, but he cannot block three defenders at once.

Miami’s defense was dominant when the Hurricanes were competing for national titles.  The past two seasons, the ‘Canes have ranked in the lower half in defensive statistics in the ACC.  If they are going to return toward a defense of dominance, it will start with the linebackers taking over.  Colin McCarthy, Darryl Sharpton and Sean Spence all have all-conference potential.  Add in three returning starters up front, led by tackle Marcus Forston, and opponents will not run the ball with much success.

The secondary has some holed to fill, but it should be at least as good as last year.  Opponents may pass the ball for more yards, but they are going to pass the ball several additional times.

The Hurricanes will know their fate on Monday night, September 7.  The opener against Florida State in Tallahassee should eliminate the loser from their respective divisional race.  UM gets 10 days to prepare for the home opener against Georgia Tech, and that could mean the difference in an upset win instead of a loss.  If they can open 2-0, then Miami’s players could start to believe they can win.  Nine days later, the ‘Canes play at Virginia Tech, who will have the regular seven days between games.  If they are 3-0 at this point, they have a legitimate shot at winning the Coastal Division.  If they are 2-1, they are still in the race.  If they are 1-2, they can still recover and get to a bowl.  If they are 0-3, they are in big trouble because regardless of the record after three games, game number four will be a bad loss.  Oklahoma comes to Miami.

Virginia: Al Groh is on the hot seat in Charlottesville, and another losing season could be the end of his tenure at UVa.  Coach Groh, it doesn’t look too promising for you, because you’re missing a lot of talent from last year’s 5-7 team.

The Cavs appear to be ready to begin the season with a 5’9 quarterback.  Vic Hall is a former starting cornerback who played admirably on short notice in the season finale against Virginia Tech.  Coach Groh has called him a “Kung Fu Fighter,” as he gives everything and leaves it all on the field.  However, at 5’9, he’s going to have a tough time passing over the line. 

To make matters worse, all the key receivers from last year are gone.  Jared Green is the leading returnee after catching just 12 passes for 144 yards.  No other player on the roster caught even 100 yards worth of passes nor averaged 10 yards per catch.

It’s almost as sad at running back, as the leading returning rusher, Mikell Simpson, gained 262 yards at three yards per rush.

The offensive line has four starters back, so it gives the new skill players a little bit of cushion.  We don’t see the Cavs matching their offensive output of last year, and they only averaged 300 yards and 16.1 points per game.

The defense isn’t going to bail out the offense.  In fact, they have as many problem areas as the offense.  The top four tacklers have departed, including three key linebackers.  Three starters return to the secondary, and two of three starters return in the trenches, but as a whole, this defense is a bit small and not all that quick.  Opponents will run the ball with more success this year, and they won’t have to throw at the Cavalier strength. 

Virginia hosts Duke and should exact revenge after getting slaughtered last year in Durham.  The Cavs also host Boston College.  Those two are the only winnable conference games as we see it.  Two of the four non-conference games are going to be tough and probably losses.  TCU and Southern Mississippi can beat UVa.  The sports talk shows in the Commonwealth and in DC will be creating a lot of coaching rumors as soon as it becomes apparent that the Cavs will not enjoy a winning season.

Duke: Seven games into the 2008 season, Coach David Cutcliffe appeared to be on the verge of guiding Duke to a possible winning season and bowl game.  The Blue Devils were 4-3 with wins over soon-to-be bowl teams Navy and Vanderbilt.  However, in game eight, Duke had a chance to get to 5-3, but lost to Wake Forest in overtime after missing a makeable field goal at the end of regulation.  As so often happens with young and unsuccessful teams, that was enough to drain out the extra energy.  Duke didn’t win again, losing the final four games by an average of 13 points per game.

The Blue Devils may have blown their best opportunity to break through with a winning record, because they are going to take a step backward this season. 

A defense that surprisingly played much better than expected last year will regress back to usual form and give up 30 points per game this season.  Seven of the top 10 tacklers from last year graduated, leaving Duke with several holes on that side of the ball.

Two starters are missing from all three units on the stop side, but the biggest loss of all is linebacker Michael Tauliili, who led the team in tackles for the third time in his career.

Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis returns for his senior season after passing for 2,171 yards and 15 touchdowns with just six picks.  Backup Zack Asack was switched to safety and then dismissed from the team. 

Re’Quan Boyette returns at running back after missing last year with an injury.  He rushed for 432 yards in 2007, and he should form a large platoon that could improve upon last year’s 106 rushing yards per game by 20-30 more.

Lewis has a couple of decent holdovers at receiver, but he lost top receiver Eron Riley and his 61 receptions.  Combine that with three lost starters in the offensive line, and Lewis could be running for his life more than he did last year.

We see one winnable conference game on the schedule this year.  Maryland comes to Durham, and the Terps have several issues themselves.  Outside the league, Duke better take care of business when they play Richmond, Army, and North Carolina Central.  Richmond, the defending FCS National Champion, beat Duke 13-0 just three years ago, and they are a better team now.

Next up: Will Southern Cal make it eight in a row in the Pac-10?  Can Cal challenge the Trojans?  Will the Washington schools make progress?  Can Stanford make it to a bowl?

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