Wednesday, August 1, 2012

ACC Atlantic Preview: The Unpredictable Ones

Already blabbered about: SEC West, SEC East, ACC Coastal 
I took on the fairly straightforward Coastal division yesterday, where everything's coming up Milhouse Virginia Tech. Let's talk a little bit about the Atlantic division, if for no other reason than to help me (and you) commit to memory which teams are in which division (don't lie, you don't know either). 

Florida State, after winning 10 games in 2010, entered the 2011 season with the standard amount of hype. This time, however, there was a pervading sense that maybe just maybe this time it was for real, that on the back of a stout defense and EJ Manuel's play at quarterback, the Noles would be a legitimate national contender once again. This was yours truly circa last August:
This might end up making me look really stupid but I think this is FINALLY the year that Florida State is legitimate once again. Replacing Ponder might be an issue, but EJ Manuel is not exactly chopped liver (talent-wise, at least). He will have to grow up fast with a home date against the Sooners coming in the third week of the schedule. The ACC is fairly mediocre once again, and with no Virginia Tech on the regular season schedule, the Seminoles have an outside shot at a BCS title game berth in my humble opinion. Plus, second year coaches and whatnot. 
That didn't exactly work out. I'm not sure why I decided to trust in Florida State last season, but it predictably backfired, as the Noles, after losing a close primetime game at home against Oklahoma (who turned out to be good but not exactly transcendent), went on to lose two more, @ Clemson and more embarrassingly @Wake Forest. FSU as developed a strange habit out of losing to Wake Forest of late, one that I can't really explain. That's been FSU of the last decade or so, though: incredibly inconsistent, prone to fiery epic collapses while still remaining one of the most talented teams around (according to the scouting services, at least). This sounds very familiar.

Luckily for the Noles, they went on to win out save for a one-point home loss on November 19th against Mike London's improved Cavaliers. Although FSU recovered nicely last season, the home loss against UVA further underscored the fact that the patina of invincibility that once seemed to emanate from the field at Doak Walker has completely worn away over time; the Cavaliers had not won at Doak in their previous eight trips before last season's late game triumph.

For all the e-ink spilled regarding FSU, it was Clemson that won the Atlantic division in 2011. Yes, the always entertaining nexus of EDSBS commenters' faux ire verging on ironic approval. For years, Clemson has been known as the talented but incredibly underachieving team. Clemson has always struck me and many others as the most SEC-esque of all the ACC schools in a number of ways. However, the Tigers have not been able to position themselves as a team that can make noise on the national stage as Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Florida have in the last six years. After Dabo Swinney took over for Tommy Bowden midway through the 2008 season, he led Clemson to 9-5 and 6-7 records in his first two full seasons in town before leading the Tigers to a 10-4 record and their first ACC championship since 1991 last season.

Clemson started off 8-0, and like many, each week I had to make some sort of "Clemson is still somehow undefeated" comment during my weekly ranking post. Things fell apart near the end, as the Tigers lost by two touchdowns at Georgia Tech, then got killed in consecutive weeks on the road at N.C. State and South Carolina, the former being one of the more perplexing losses of the season for any team, anywhere. On the bright side, the Tigers finally broke through and won the conference and made it to a BCS game. Whether Dabo Swinney can take this program any further remains to be seen, but Clemson is certainly paying its coordinators--OC Chad Morris and new DC Brent Venables--enough to indicate that they are serious about winning.

Also Clemson-related, but since I don't know where else to put this, please look at the caption under the picture on Swinney Wikipedia profile: tremendous and likely accurate. This is why the young people look to Wikipedia first for their most rigorous scholastic exertions.

The rest of the division is a sea of teams existing anywhere on the spectrum from outright horrible (Maryland) to mediocre (N.C. State). Maryland was simply horrific in every facet of the game, including their choice of jersey design. They finished 2-10 (1-7), with their only meaningful win coming at home to start the season on a Monday night against Miami; the other win came against Towson. To make things worse, QB1 Danny O'Brien transferred out to Wisconsin.

Boston College was similarly bad, going 4-8 (3-5) under third year HC Frank Spaziani, who is, if you look really hard, basically just a strange combination of Stan Van Gundy and Tom Selleck.

Wake Forest and N.C. State are the interesting teams to watch in this division outside of the obvious favorites (Clemson and FSU). Under long time head coach Jim Grobe, the Demon Deacons went 6-7 en route to a topsy turvy season that sent them to a bowl game for the first time since 2008. I say topsy turvy because without having watched the games and looking at their 2011 results, you'd be liable to think that somebody was just picking scores out of a hat for this WF team. After starting the season with an OT loss at Syracuse, WF rattled off four straight wins before getting thumped at Virginia Tech. Things fell apart after that, as they went 2-4 the rest of the way, not including the bowl game loss against Mississippi State. They were able to beat divisional foes FSU and N.C. State but got destroyed at UNC and somehow lost to Vanderbilt at home 41-7 to close out the regular season.

In the same vein, Tom O'Brien's Wolfpack also were somewhat of a wild card, beating the Cavaliers in Charlottesville and completely flummoxing Clemson at home, 37-13, when the Tigers were ranked #8 in the country. They also lost to Wake Forest, Boston College, and at Cincinnati, 44-14.

Comings and Goings 
I didn't do this for the first three previews, but I will from now on: all NFL draftees will henceforth appear in bold. Departures of note:

  • FSU-Bert Reed-WR, Beau Reliford-TE, Ja'Baris Little-TE, Zebrie Sanders-OT, Nigel Bradham-WLB, Terrance Parks-SS, Mike Harris-CB, Andrew Datko-OT
  • Clemson-OT Phillip Price, OT Landon Walker, TE Dwayne AllenNG Brandon Thompson, DT Rennie Moore, DE Andre Branch, CB Coty Sensabaugh 
  • Wake Forest-Tristan Dorty-DE, Kyle Wilber-OLB, Cyhl Quarles-SS, Josh Bush-FS, Chris Givens-WR, Joe Looney-OG, Cameron Ford-TE, Doug Weaver-OT 
  • N.C. State-T.J. Graham-WR, Terrell Manning-OLB, Audie Cole-ILB, J.R. Sweezy-DT, Markus Kuhn-DT, Jay Smith-WR, George Bryan-TE
  • Maryland-QB Danny O'Brien (transfer), Davin Meggett-RB, Cameron Chism-CB, Trenton Hughes-CB, Tony Logan-WR, Quintin McCree-WR
  • Boston College-Luke Kuechly-ILB, Mark Spinney-C, Donnie Fletcher-CB, Montel Harris-RB* (dismissed from team), Ifeanyi Momah-TE
By numbers of returning starters (including special teams): 1) Florida State-18 2) Boston College-17 3) Maryland-17 4) N.C. State-16 5) Clemson-15 6) Wake Forest-12

Although I mentioned yesterday that the odds of a VT-Clemson conference title game are pretty good, FSU has to be the Atlantic favorite on paper. Eighteen returning starters, including starting quarterback EJ Manuel and a nasty defense that returns the starting front four completely intact and loses only two in the back seven. Starting tailback Devonta Freeman is also back after a decent 2011; back-up Jermaine Thomas is off to the NFL and I haven't really heard anything of late regarding James Wilder Jr.'s legal issues. If Freeman can carry the load and take some pressure off of Manuel, this could be a team in contention for a national title game appearance in November. I'm only committing to "could", however, after getting burned by the Noles last season. 

This Clemson team kind of reminds me of the 2008 iteration on offense: talented skill players, good bit of offensive linemen to replace. As we all know, a sub-par OL can make even the most talented skill players look like nobodies. Clemson has to replace three 2011 starters this year, just like they did in '08. Defensively, the Tigers need to replace 75% of the DL, but the back seven returns intact. As a whole, the defense should improve under new DC Brent Venables.  

Intra-Division Games To Watch 
Once again, here's the helmet schedule.

1) Clemson-Florida State, September 22nd. This is the obvious choice for #1 in the Atlantic division.  Both teams have high hopes, some built on reality and some built on vague notions of talent and, in FSU's case, the omnipresent shadow of history and past success. After rattling off 11 straight wins against Clemson between 1992 and 2002, the Noles have gone 3-6 against the Tigers since. On the bright side for FSU, the home team as won this game the last four times they've met.

2) Clemson-N.C. State, November 17th. There's a big drop-off after #1 on this list, but this is still an important game, especially for Clemson. Last year's loss in Raleigh was one of the more surprising losses of the season, which is sort of a testament to how much good faith Clemson had built up to that point (i.e. that such a loss was surprising at all). This is Clemson's last conference game before taking on the Gamecocks at home. Luckily, the Tigers also get the Wolfpack at home this time.

3) Florida State-Wake Forest, September 15th. Okay, don't laugh, but FSU has somehow gone 2-4 against WF in their last six meetings. The Demon Deacons are clearly the Seminoles' IT'S A TRAP game, although it shouldn't be so much of a trap anymore for FSU, you would think. Also, this game takes place a week before the FSU-Clemson showdown, so there is classic letdown potential yada yada yada.

4) Florida State-N.C. State, October 6th. Don't have much in the way of specifics to say about this one other than that this is the next permutation in the Clemson-FSU-N.C. State triumvirate. This is the Wolfpack's first divisional game of the season; if they want to be taken seriously in the division, taking out the Noles at home

5) Wake Forest-Clemson, October 25th. Looking at WF's schedule, if they split their trips to FSU and Virgina, they could very easily be 6-1 heading into this game, a Thursday night matchup at home. Needless to say, if all goes according to plan, an upset win here would improbably put the Demon Deacons at or near the top of the division. This is admittedly a best case scenario sort of thing for Wake, but the other conference games in the lead up to the Clemson game, other than the aforementioned FSU and UVA games, are: UNC, Duke, and Maryland. Even for WF, that is extremely manageable.


  • FSU and Clemson herpin' and derpin'. Is this the year that either Clemson or FSU finally run through the schedule without an unexpected derp or two? Both have programs with fan bases that expect much more (see "national championships"), which might not be so realistic in Clemson's case but hey, who am I to cut down someone's dreams? With that said, Clemson did a good job of avoiding its own brand of Sparty No! moments up until November last season. The next step is to avoid those losses and at least put yourself in the picture of a national title game berth. On the other hand, FSU needs to avoid the lethargic start that it experienced last season. 
  • N.C. State: on the way up? After three sub-.500 seasons to start the O'Brien era, the Wolfpack have won 9 and 8 games in 2010 and 2011, respectively. They even picked off eventual conference champion Clemson. Sixteen returning starters is enough to allow for expectations to build a little bit. The Wolfpack start the season in Atlanta against Tennessee; that should be a solid initial indicator of whether or not this is the same old forgettable Wolfpack or if this is a team worth paying attention to. 
  • Clemson déjà vu. Like I mentioned earlier, Clemson's 2012 team kind of reminds me of what it had in 2008: a lot of skill position talent with several holes on the offensive line. Everyody wants to talk about Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd, but the Tigers need to replace 3 starters on the OL or Boyd won't have time to find anybody, especially against a fast and talented defense like FSU's. 
Obligatory Heisman Candidate Section That Nobody Cares About But Here It is Anyway 
1) Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson
2) EJ Manuel, QB, FSU
3) Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
4) Mike Glennon, QB, N.C. State

Whatever happens, with Clemson and FSU being the favorites, this division should, at the very least, be fairly exciting. Both teams have a penchant for losing to teams with way less talent, a trend that has developed over much of the last decade. Even last year, Clemson won the division and still had a few stinkers against N.C. State and Georgia Tech, and that's not even mentioning a loss against South Carolina that could have been considered hotly contested when juxtaposed with the Orange Bowl box score.

Regardless, this Clemson team should be more 2011 Clemson than the Clemson we've come to know in practically every other year this side of the new millennium. The Tigers have to replace a not insignificant amount of talent, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines. Like always, Clemson has the skill, with Tajh Boyd at QB, Sammy Watkins at wideout, and senior Andre Ellington at tailback. The question, as it has been before, is whether or not Clemson has the quality in the trenches. Swinney's recruiting has been strong, so we will see how well those losses are replaced; success would indicate that this program has matured greatly since Swinney took over back in 2008.

Much of the same could be said for Florida State. After going along with the people that had FSU as a darkhorse NC contender in 2011, I am understandably skeptical. After last year's 3-game losing streak early on (Oklahoma-Clemson-Wake Forest), it's hard not to look at the 4-week stretch of WF-Clemson-@USF-@N.C. State with a little bit of suspicion. Would a 1-3 record during that stretch really surprise you? No? That's exactly the problem. That said, E.J. Manuel will be a 5th-year senior and most of what was one of the most dominant defenses not based in Baton Rouge or Tuscaloosa last season returns this year.

Otherwise, you will find that N.C. State is the trendy darkhorse pick in the division. Mike Glennon is one of the more underrated QBs in the country, but I'm not sue that this team is strong enough from top to bottom to make a serious push for the divisional crown. Similarly, Wake Forest is a team with upset potential; however, I'm no sure that they have enough to make a serious push. On the positive side, as I mentioned earlier, their first seven games are navigable, with games against UNC, FSU, @UVA being the key tilts. If Wake can manage to go at least 1-2 in that trio of games and somehow upset Clemson at home, then as Cosmo Kramer would say: giddy up.

Like Duke, Maryland and Boston College are probably not worth discussing at length. If you are still interested in learning more about them, then: a) you must be really, really bored and b) here are the Pre-Snap Read preview posts for Maryland and BC.

As much as it pains me to do after last season, I'm writing FSU in for the Atlantic division title this season. This is one of those decisions that you make and constantly regret before anything even happens, but so it goes. I like FSU's defense, and although Clemson probably has better non-QB skill players, FSU's are more than capable. Throw in Clemson's OL/DL issues and I think that FSU is a cut above the Tigers this season.

Dangit, I knew this was going to happen and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Well FSU, don't make me look stupid again for trusting you, please.

ACC Atlantic Standings 
1) Florida State
2) Clemson
3) N.C. State
4) Wake Forest
5) Boston College
6) Maryland

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