ACC - Atlantic Division
By Mike Nowoswiat
August 1st, 2013
August 1st, 2013
If Tajh Boyd does not repeat as ACC Player of the Year in 2013, my money would be on WR Sammy Watkins. These two playmakers are my two reasons for putting Clemson ahead of Florida State in the Atlantic. The winner of this October showdown has legitimate National Title possibilities. However, the Tigers especially have their work cut out for them as they open with Georgia and end the season with South Carolina (both Top 10 caliber). The season opener should be an absolute shootout that will give us a preview of what to expect among the nation's elite.
Tajh Boyd isn't just playing for ACC POY this year, but rather the Heisman Trophy. Boyd showed the nation why he should be considered for the award in 2013 in his amazing bowl game against LSU in which he threw for 346 yards and two touchdowns against a defense littered with eight 2012 NFL draft picks. Boyd loses his top target DeAndre Hopkins, but gets back arguably the most talented receiver in the country Sammy Watkins. Watkins had an eventful offseason heading into 2012, which resulted in a suspension for the first two games. Watkins could never seem to really get it going last season; and with Hopkins playing the way he did, it wasn't a huge problem. This season, I would bet a lot of money that Watkins bounces back to freshman form and posts monster numbers while opening up opportunities for fellow receivers Charone Peak and Martavis Bryant. Both are big targets that cannot be ignored. Four starters return along the line and although they lose All-American Dalton Freeman, they could be improved in 2013. One of the most significant losses will be the departure of Andre Ellington at RB. Still, there will be talent at the position whether it is Roderick McDowell, DJ Howard, or true freshman Tyshon Dye.
Clemson's biggest question marks reside on the defensive side of the ball. I am a big fan of Brent Venables and believe that he will have his unit playing at a much higher level this season. Last year, they gave up nearly 400 yards per game and 25 points per game. While not terrible, this type of production will not bring home the crystal ball. The secondary loses some key players, but returns a lot of talent including CBs Darius Robinson, Garry Peters, and Bashaud Breeland. Add in five-star recruit Mackensie Alexander and you have a very deep, talented cornerback group. I would expect the linebackers to be the weakness on defense, but should not be poor by any means. Vic Beasley returns as the only true pass rushing threat until somebody else can prove to be capable. Beasley will move into a starting role this season and must prove that he can handle the run game.
In the end, I believe Clemson will finally put together a complete season and win the Atlantic. Not that the Tigers have struggled to win the division recently, but with FSU's increased level of play, the battles between the two schools have become elite. The winner should be in a very nice position heading into the postseason. The key will be not slipping up against weaker opponents and getting the job done against SEC opponents. If one team can do that, it might just find itself in the National Title game.
2. Florida State
Finally, I can go into a season where I am not basing my FSU optimism on a paper roster. Finally, the Seminoles won the ACC. And finally, Florida State appears to be back as the perennial power that the ACC needs it to be. This season, the Seminoles season may be hinging on redshirt freshman Jameis Winston who will take over for EJ Manuel at QB and try to have a Manziel-like season. While I doubt Winston will take home the Heisman Trophy like Johnny Drama did a season ago, he could have a chance to take home the Coaches' Trophy with a highly productive season.
The Seminoles return a lot on offense, including the league's best offensive line. Every single starter along the line has a chance to garner All-ACC honors come December. Devonta Freeman and James Wilder will reap the benefits at running back while reminding fans of New York Giants lightning/thunder duo of Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne. Greg Dent figured to be a big contributor at receiver, but was arrested during the offseason and booted off the team. Fortunately, Rashad Greene, 6'6" Kelvin Benjamin, and Kenny Shaw all return to provide the 'Noles a great rotation at WR. And Nick O'Leary is one of the best Tight Ends in the nation who will probably be Winston's best friend. I am expecting a lot from Winston as he is the one real question mark this offense has.
Defensively, there are not nearly as many question marks. I believe Dante Fowler of Florida could end up being one of the best pass rushers in all of football this season, and he decommitted from the Seminoles because they had too much talent. Don't hang your head on that loss, Seminole fans. Keep in mind how ridiculous the talent must be for a player like Fowler to be scared off. While the talent across the board is a bit unproven, I would be shocked if the defensive line isn't dominant once again. DT Jacobbi McDaniel returns after being injured all last year to team up with Timmy Jernigan who could challenge for Defensive Player of the Year honors. Mario Edwards, the former five-star recruit, will start at defensive end and look to pick up where draft picks Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine left off. The linebackers should be dominant with Christian Jones leading the way. Jones was a 1st team All-ACC performer last season after racking up 95 tackles. Terrance and Telvin Smith are ultra-athletic and will man the other LB spots. Ronald Darby, Nick Waisome, Lamarcus Joyner, Karlos Williams, and Terrence Brooks will form the best secondary in the conference. Yes, I listed five players because Karlos Williams has the potential to have a huge season while backing up Joyner at safety.
In the end, I had a difficult time picking Clemson ahead of FSU. I can't downplay the loss of DC Mark Stoops, nor can I expect a Manziel-like season from Winston even though I think he is capable of it. Plus, I think Miami is a difficult ACC game for FSU and a visit to Clemson will be a difficult venue to exit with a win. In the end, the ceiling is a National Title and the floor is a 9 win season. Breathe easy, Seminole fans.
Head Coach Randy Edsall returns for his third season in College Park, and with a much more willing team after facing a contingent of players who wouldn't buy into his system upon his arrival a year ago. He has proven his worth by taking the UConn football program from FCS levels to a BCS game. Edsall inherited one of the sleeping giants in football with a fertile recruiting ground to pick from and a soon-to-be infusion of wealth as the Terrapins head to the Big Ten for financial reasons. Edsall is not just a good coach, but a program builder, and this season we will see it once again.
CJ Brown returns under center after making some noise in 2011 with his ability to run and make plays. He will have one of the most explosive players in the nation to throw to in Stefon Diggs who was the school's biggest recruit in recent memory; Diggs is electric and will contend for All-American honors this season. Also, Maryland welcomes junior college transfer Deon Long who dominated the lower-level competition last season. I am expecting big things from the aforementioned trio this season and their supporting cast. The offensive line returns three starters including its top player true sophomore Mike Madaras. Finally Wes Brown and Brandon Ross, last season's leading rushers, both return to form a solid tandem at RB.
Defensively, I am a bit more skeptical about this year's outlook. Only five starters return from a unit that allowed 27.2 points per game and, unlike the offense, lose some key players. 1st team All-ACC DE Joe Vellano is gone and All-ACC linebackers Kenny Tate and Demetrius Hartsfield have also moved on. Both players missed some time with injuries, but the unit struggled in their absence, possibly giving a preview of what to expect for this year. Both cornerbacks return, and S Matt Robinson also returns, but moves to LB. The secondary was solid last season, especially on third down when opponents only completed 47% of their passes. However, they lacked interceptions (four total) and must replace both safeties this season. With a decimated front seven, I don't expect the defense to improve on 2012's numbers.
In Maryland's final season in the ACC, Maryland should elevate its play and head to a bowl. Edsall will have his men prepared for Big Ten play in 2014 when I think we will see the biggest leap in production, and more importantly, the win column.
4. Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons head into 2013 on the sourest of notes. Not only did they lose their last three games to finish 5-7, but they were dominated by a total score of 27-130 in the process. Fortunately, they return their core nucleus of players and Jim Grobe returns to coach his 13th year in Winston-Salem. WF was, of course, 5-4 going into the last three games and this year they don't get Notre Dame again.
Offensively, Tanner Price had a decent year at QB, but didn't put up enough yards or scores in a pass-first offense. Fortunately, Price brings back experience at the position and will have another season to work with 2nd team All-ACC selection WR Michael Campanaro. Behind him, Joshua Harris returns for his senior season after rushing for 4.4 yards per carry last year on a team that only averaged 3.0 yards per carry. Harris is a talented back, but will need much better production from his offensive line. The interior line returns and fans can only hope that another year in the system will pay major dividends. I don't expect much from the group, but I do expect improvement since last year's performance was difficult to watch.
Eight starters return on the other side of the ball. Each unit is solid and I can't find any glaring holes heading into 2013. Two-time All-ACC performer Nikita Whitlock returns to lead the line; top tacklers Justin Jackson and Mike Olson return to lead the linebacking unit; and finally, Kevin Johnson and Bud Noel make up one of the best cornerback tandems in the ACC. James Ward steps into the starting lineup after a decent true freshman season and will only improve in his second season. While the pass rush was never great, it improved upon a horrendous 2011 campaign in which the Demon Deacons recorded 11 sacks all year. I look for a much better performance in 2013, hopefully limiting opponents to much less than 31.8 points per game.
While last season would not be considered a success, returning 15 starters should be big considering Grobe's team often rely on experience to gain an advantage. I expect Tanner Price to have his best season under center and the offensive line to pick up its level of play. Adding Syracuse to the schedule should lead to another win that was absent a season ago. And I believe that will be just one of the many factors leading to a bowl game for the Deacs.
5. North Carolina State
Wolfpack fans are giddy about new Head Coach Dave Doeren and his decision to make North Carolina the homecoming game. Bring on the Heels. Doeren ran a highly effective read option offense in his two years at Northern Illinois that culminated in an Orange Bowl appearance last year. After losing QB Mike Glennon and bringing in a pro-style QB Pete Thomas--contrary to Doeren's preferred dual-threat signal calling philosophy--the Wolfpack may struggle on offense intially. Still, the Doeren hire was one of my favorite coaching pickups during the offseason and I believe he will begin to pay dividends sooner rather than later.
As I mentioned, Colorado State transfer Pete Thomas will most likely be the week one starter at QB. He comes in after posting pedestrian numbers against weaker competition--he never threw for more touchdowns than interceptions in a season--and does not provide fans much optimism for the position. Next year, the Wolfpack will welcome in Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett who isn't a true dual threat QB, but can run if given the chance. I expect Brissett to take over next year and lead NC State to success. However, I am not writing Thomas off this year and believe Doeren is one of the better QB coaches in the country. Leading receivers Quintin Payton and Bryan Underwood return at WR to provide Thomas a solid 1-2 punch on the outside. The offensive line returns both OTs and should put up better number's than last year's unit.
Defensively, there are glaring holes in the secondary as they lose David Amerson, Earl Wolff, and Brandan Bishop do not return. All three garnered All-ACC honors last season and made up arguably the best secondary in the conference. The trio combined for 10 interceptions and will not be simply replaced. The front seven was not very productive a season ago; however, the top three sack-leaders return in Darryl Cato-Bishop, Art Norman, and T.Y. McGill. All three players return along the line, which could prove to be one of the strengths for this squad.
In all, the loss of Glennon will hurt. If the offensive line, I wouldn't be surprised if the offense overachieves behind a solid running game. But I am skeptical in Pete Thomas' ability to throw the ball and there are some major question marks in the secondary. North Carolina and Duke are decent draws from the Coastal, especially considering UNC is not really a 'draw' as it is an annual matchup. Still, a bowl appearance would be a solid year. But, more importantly, the Wolfpack have found their new leader, and the future of the program is now brighter than it was a year ago.
6. Boston College
Not only do Syracuse and Pittsburgh benefit from ACC expansion, but so does Boston College, which will not be geographically isolated from the rest of the conference anymore. With the addition of two more teams above the Mason-Dixon line, the conference is truly living up to its name. Of course, Boston College will only reap the benefits of this move once this year--a trip to Syracuse--but conference expansion is exciting nonetheless. And a trip to USC quickly cancels out the somewhat convenient Syracuse trip, especially considering how difficult that trip may be. In addition to these two games, BC draws a difficult cross-division schedule with games against Virginia Tech and North Carolina. Fortunately for new Head Coach Steve Addazio, 18 starters return from last year's squad.
Chase Rettig returns for another year under center. He had an up-and-down 2012 campaign, throwing for over 3,000 yards and 17 touchdowns, but also tossing 13 interceptions and completing only 54% of his throws. Rettig will have his top four targets back, including 1st team All-ACC performer Alex Amidon. The offensive line defects the most players from last year, but also adds in former five-star recruit and Florida transfer Matt Patchan at LT. At the very least, this offensive unit should improve upon last year's poor numbers.
The defense only loses one player--albeit 1st team All-ACC MLB Nick Clancy--and should improve upon last year's numbers. The linebacking unit is the strength of this roster with Kevin Pierre-Louis leading the way. I expect Pierre-Louis to follow in the footsteps of Clancy, Luke Kuechly, and Mark Herzlich as 1st team All-ACC performers. Although the defensive line struggled last season, it returns nearly everybody so it can't be much worse. The entire defense only recorded six sacks. There were 78 players in the FBS with at least six sacks. The secondary should be solid this season, but will not look good until the front seven can generate some pressure on the opposing quarterbacks. Al Louis-Jean is the most talented player in the secondary and had to sit out last season with an injury. His return will provide a huge boost to this defense.
All in all, I expect an improved season from the Eagles. I do not expect a bowl appearance, but I expect more than one conference win. I liked the Steve Addazio hire and believe he will be a good fit in Chestnut Hill. I do not expect big things from him initially, but I believe he will right the ship within the next three seasons.
The Orange enter the post-Marrone, post-Nassib era in a difficult situation--the ACC. Rather than only having to deal with Louisville in the Big East, 'Cuse will have to square off against Clemson and Florida State in the ACC Atlantic. Not to mention, they will have to deal with an improved Georgia Tech team and old rival Pittsburgh from the ACC Coastal. Needless to say, Syracuse and first year head coach Scott Shafer have their hands full in 2013.
The offense doesn't only lose Ryan Nassib at QB, but it loses the only 1,000 yard receiver it had in Alec Lemon and the receiving TD leader in Marcus Sales. The offensive line loses its star Justin Pugh who was drafted in the first round of this year's NFL draft. I would be surprised if the passing game is half as good as it was last season. Fortunately, the one-two punch at running back returns with Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley. The duo averaged 5.2 yards per carry, which is a testament to the entire offense. I expect these two to increase production this season as Shafer will have to lean on them, but their yards per carry should decrease. Not only should the offensive line take a step back, but the passing game really opened up a lot of holes. In the Pinstripe Bowl, the SU running game absolutely shredded the West Virginia defense.
Defensively, Syracuse returns six starters. The top two tacklers, Shamarko Thomas and Siriki Diabate, are gone, along with top sack-getter Brandon Sharpe. Thomas will be missed at safety, but the secondary retains everybody else from last year. However, the front seven should certainly play at a lower level this season. I am worried that the Orange will not be able to generate a pass rush. Sharpe was the only player with more than five sacks--he had 8--and there doesn't appear to be anyone ready to replace that production.
In the end, look for Syracuse to struggle. It would be a rebuilding year for the Orange if they were still in the Big East, but a move to the ACC will make the season that much more difficult. Last year, there were only two ranked teams on the schedule, but this year there could be four or five. Still, the move to the ACC will help the program immensely as the ACC is actually one of the most stable conferences around.