1) Florida State Seminoles
Reasons To Be Excited: 17 returning starters from a year ago, including 9 on a defensive unit that ranked fourth nationally in scoring defense in 2011. The defensive line is as good as any in the country and will be exceptional against the run (allowed only 83 rushing yards a game last season). Sophomore Rashard Greene leads a wide receiving corp that looks to be vastly improved with another year of experience.
Reasons To Be Concerned: There are still questions as to whether or not starting quarterback EJ Manuel can make the transition to becoming an elite quarterback in the ACC. FSU also has major concerns in the running game, as the Seminoles have failed to produce a 1,000 yard rusher since 1996. FSU failed to rush for over 100 yards in 6 games last season.
Outlook: Florida State’s combination of talent, experience, and schedule have some people predicting that this could be a year that Florida State becomes the first ACC team to win a national championship since the Seminoles last did it in 1999. However, FSU is just 24-16 in ACC play over the last five years and have not had a season with fewer than four losses in any season since 2004. While Florida State definitely has the potential to win the ACC, they will need to become more consistent before challenging for a national championship.
2012 Projected Record: 9-3
2) Clemson Tigers
Reasons to Be Excited: The Tigers are one of just two schools in the entire country that return a 3,000 yard passer (Tajh Boyd 3,828 yards), a 1,000 yard rusher (Andre Ellington 1,178 yards), and a 1,000 yard receiver (Sammy Watkins 1,219 yards). Watkins was a unanimous All-American in 2011 as a true freshman and along with Deandre “Nuk” Hopkins, Martavis Bryant, Charone Peake, and Adam Humphries, Clemson boasts one of the most complete wide receiving corps in all of college football.
Reasons to be Concerned: There are question marks on both the offensive and defensive lines of scrimmage where Clemson had to replace three starters on both lines. Brent Venables was hired as defensive coordinator from Oklahoma to improve a defense that gave up 394 yards a game one year ago and was torched for 70 points the last time they were on the field. There are also depth concerns in the secondary and at running back.
Outlook: Clemson is coming off their first ACC Championship since 1991, so it will be interesting to see how they handle expectations. They get Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech at home but do have to travel to Tallahassee to take on Florida State which just may tip the scales in FSU’s favor.
2012 Projected Record: 9-3
3) NC State Wolfpack
Reasons to Be Excited: NC State returns one of its most experienced teams under Head Coach Tom O’Brien. The offensive line has the second most career starts in the country with 112 and quarterback Mike Glennon is coming off a season in which he passed for over 3,000 yards and ranked second in the conference in touchdown passes. Corner back David Amerson led the country last year with an astounding 13 interceptions and provides the secondary with a playmaker capable of helping to win the turnover battle on a consistent basis. NC State was +14 in the turnover margin a year ago.
Reasons to Be Concerned: NC State has only exceeded 8 wins once under Tom O’Brien (9-4 in 2010). They have been decimated by injuries in multiple seasons and will have to avoid that in order to challenge for the division in 2012. The biggest question mark comes at the linebacker position where the Wolfpack are vastly inexperienced and have to replace all three starters from a year ago.
Outlook: Tom O’Brien has called this year’s team the most talented and experienced group he’s had since he’s been in Raleigh. They will benefit from avoiding both Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech out of the Coastal division while getting Florida State at home. There is no doubt that this team should be making their fourth bowl trip in the last five years, but may find it difficult to push Clemson and Florida State as division favorites.
Projected Record: 8-4
4) Boston College Eagles
Reasons To Be Excited: BC has 17 returning starters from a year ago, tying FSU with most in the ACC. Quarterback Chase Rettig should benefit tremendously with another year of experience as well as working behind an offensive line that returns four starters. Boston College has a great chance of averaging over 4 yards a carry on the ground for the first time since 2003. The defensive line is also experienced and should be improved from a year ago. Kevin Pierre-Louis should keep the tradition of great linebacker play at BC going for another year.
Reasons To Be Concerned: While BC does have 10 returning starters on the offensive side of the ball, they return for an offense that ranked 112th nationally in points-per-game last year and failed to gain at least 300 yards of total offense on six different occasions in 2011. The Eagles will also have to replace All-American and Lombardi Award winner linebacker Luke Kuechly who racked up 532 tackles in three years. The leading rusher in school history, Montel Harris, was dismissed from the team in the spring.
Outlook: With so much experience returning from 2011, this years’ Boston College team should be improved from last years’ 4-8 record. The offense should be noticeably better than last season, and will have to be if Boston College is to have a shot at post-season play come bowl season.
2012 Projected Record: 6-6
5) Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Reasons to Be Excited: Like many other ACC schools, Wake returns a very talented and experienced quarterback in Tanner Price. Price threw for over 3,000 yards last season with 20 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions. Wide Receiver Michael Campanaro proved he’s a reliable target for Price last year when he grabbed 73 receptions for 833 yards. The Deacons’ special teams unit returns in tact which could play pivotal in close games.
Reasons To Be Concerned: The Deamon Deacons only return 11 starters from last years’ squad and have to replace last years’ leading rusher Brandon Pendergrass as well as wide receiver Chris Givens, who led the conference in receiving yards a year ago. The offensive line will also be relatively inexperienced where the unit goes from a combined 68 career starts from a year ago to only 16 combined starts going into this season.
Outlook: The offensive line is going to have to gel early with a home game against North Carolina the second week of the season with a trip to Florida State the following week. Tanner Price is more than capable at keeping Wake Forest in a lot of games. However, with the lack of experience coming back, it will be tough for Wake Forest to replicate last season’s success, but if things go their way, they could find themselves competing for a shot at a bowl game.
2012 Projected Record: 5-7
6) Maryland Terrapins
Reasons To Be Excited: Those around College Park are hoping that true freshman Stefon Diggs will add instant playmaking ability similar to the impact Sammy Watkins had last year for Clemson. Diggs joins a wide receiver corp that returns 3 of the top 4 receivers from a year ago. Defensive tackle Joey Vallano is among the best in the country and will look to build on his 10.5 tackles for loss and second team All-ACC accolades he gained in 2011.
Reasons To Be Concerned: After the transfer of Danny O’Brien’s transfer to Wisconsin, losing projected starter CJ Brown for the year to a torn ACL could be tough for Maryland to overcome and will mean they are vastly inexperienced at the most important position coming into the season. Perry Hillis will be the starting quarterback and will be taking his first collegiate snap ever against William & Mary on September 1. Maryland will be relying heavily on true freshmen in various positions which can make any Maryland fan a little nervous.
Outlook: Maryland has been hit hard by transfers on both sides of the ball as they are still getting acclimated to Head Coach Randy Edsell. They will have plenty of time to try and get their quarterback play in line before conference play begins with their conference opener against Wake Forest on October 6.
2012 Projected Record: 3-9
1) Virginia Tech Hokies
Reasons To Be Excited: The Hokies return nine starters back on a defense that ranked seventh nationally in points against in 2011. The defensive line returns intact after losing only three reserve players and should be one of the best in the country. Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster is one of the most respected assistant coaches in all of college football and gets an entire offseason to game plan for Coastal division rival Georgia Tech’s vaunted spread option attack in the first game of the season on September 3. Logan Thomas is expected to have a big season coming into his second year as a starter.
Reasons To Be Concerned: While the defense returns nearly everyone, the offense will be at the opposite end of the spectrum after returning only three starters. 2011 ACC leading rusher David Wilson is gone, and while Virginia Tech seems to just restock at running back, this still seems to be a big loss. The Hokies also lose their top two receivers in school history, Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale. Virginia Tech also has to go on the road to take on the top two teams in the Atlantic division in both Clemson and Florida State
Outlook: Eight consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins, the winningest active head coach in college football, and four division championships in the last five seasons are just a few reasons as to why Virginia Tech is considered the elite of the ACC. Frank Beamer has built a program that thrives on consistency. Until the rest of the ACC can prove they can beat Virginia Tech on a consistent basis, no reason to think things will be any different.
Projected 2012 Record: 10-2
2) Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Reasons To Be Excited: Georgia Tech enters the season with the most experienced offensive line that Paul Johnson has had since he’s been in Atlanta. Tevin Washington returns at quarterback with another year of experience under his belt. Running backs Orwin Smith and David Sims also return after combining for over 1,300 yards a season ago.
Reasons To Be Concerned: While the running game should be dominant, as is always the case with a Paul Johnson offense, the loss of Stephen Hill at wide receiver could be huge. Tech enters the season with a group of wide receivers that have ZERO career receptions collectively. They need to find someone that can stretch the field and be a consistent deep threat to keep defenses honest. The defensive line is also inexperienced and will need to improve in Al Groh’s third season in charge as defensive coordinator.
Outlook: Georgia Tech has the potential to put together a really solid season and compete with Virginia Tech to win the Coastal. One of their biggest obstacles, however, may be their schedule as they have to face Virginia Tech, Clemson, North Carolina, and Georgia all on the road.
2012 Projected Record: 9-3
3) North Carolina Tar Heels
Reasons To Be Excited: Quarterback Brynn Renner has to be excited to feature in Head Coach Larry Fedora’s spread passing attack. Renner put up huge numbers in 2011 and led all quarterbacks in the ACC in passing efficiency in 2011. He will need to limit his interceptions (13) but there’s no reason to think that he won’t be improved with another year of experience. The offensive line is experienced and should be able to adapt to a new system. Running back Giovanni Bernard was a freshman All-American a year ago and should be one of the best running backs in the league.
Reasons To Be Concerned: The unknown. No one is entirely sure how these North Carolina players will respond to everything that has gone on with the NCAA investigation. North Carolina is ineligible to represent the Coastal Division in the ACC Championship as well as for post season play. It will be interesting to see how motivated they can stay on a consistent basis.
Outlook: The schedule shapes up nicely for UNC, who avoids both Clemson and Florida State out of the Atlantic division while getting both Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech in Chapel Hill. While North Carolina has some nice pieces in place, the defense isn’t as talented as previous years. It might be a couple of years before Fedora really has the program where he wants it to be.
2012 Projected Record: 8-4
4) Virginia Cavaliers
Reasons To Be Excited: Head Coach Mike London enters his third season in charge at Virginia and has done a great job of turning that program around. Last season they entered the season finale against Virginia Tech with a chance to win the division but came up short. While he may not be spectacular, Quarterback Michael Rocco proved that he is more than capable as a game manager for the Cavaliers throwing for nearly 2,700 yards in 2011. Perry Jones could become Virginia’s first 1,000 yard rusher since 2002. Inside linebacker Steve Greer is one of the better defensive players in the conference.
Reasons To Be Concern: Virginia plays Penn State, Georgia Tech and TCU all in the first four weeks of the season. The defensive line only returns one starter which may cause production to drop this upcoming season.
Outlook: Last season, Mike London had UVA overachieving in only his second season in charge. They benefitted from four wins of three points or less and face a more difficult schedule this season. While their win total may drop from a year ago, Mike London still has this program headed in the right direction.
2012 Projected Record: 6-6
5) Miami Hurricanes
Reasons To Be Excited: Head Coach Al Golden has a reputation as a top-notch recruiter and that reputation has only been farther strengthened since his stint at Miami. Golden was brought into a bad situation with an ongoing NCAA investigation down in Coral Gables. However, Golden has brought in plenty of young talent into the program and with only 10 returning starters, a lot of younger players will get viable playing experience for the future. The secondary also looks to be vastly improved from a year ago.
Reasons To Be Concerned: Miami loses its leading passer, leading rusher, two leading receivers, and leading tackler from a year ago. The loss of running back Lamar Miller and wide receiver Travis Benjamin figure to be the two most influential losses from an offensive production stand point since Benjamin also specialized in the return game. Sean Spence was the leader of the defensive unit and will need to have someone step up to replace his 106 tackles from a year ago.
Outlook: With so many new starters, there are plenty of question marks for Miami entering the season. Much like Virginia, Miami’s win total will most likely take a step back this year. However, I still feel that the hire of Al Golden will come good for Miami with the Hurricanes looking to be much improved the following season.
2012 Projected Record: 4-8
6) Duke Blue Devils
Reasons To Be Excited: Quarterback Sean Renifree and wide receiver Conner Vernon offer one of the better pass-and-catch combinations in the conference. Both are vastly experienced and Vernon needs only 35 receptions to become the ACC’s all-time receptions leader. Renifree has a chance to throw for over 3,000 yards this season, a feat he came close to accomplishing last season. The offensive line returns seven of their top nine offensive linemen and should be much improved from a year ago.
Reasons To Be Concerned: Despite the fact that the defense has nine returning starters from a year ago, they are returning from a unit that had a difficult time generating stops. The Duke defense gave up over 500 yards of total offense four times and over 450 total yards another two times. The defensive unit will have to be much improved if the Blue Devils are to improve on their 3-9 record from a year ago.
Outlook: Duke’s offense will be able to keep them in plenty of games, but their defense will have to limit the big plays if they are to have a chance at becoming bowl-eligible this season for the first time under Head Coach David Cutcliffe. The conference schedule gets a little more difficult with the replacement of Boston College with Clemson. While the Blue Devils have become more competitive, they may still have to wait for that illustrious bowl game appearance.
2012 Projected Record: 4-8