- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 29, 2012

ATLANTIC DIVISION

FLORIDA STATE

Last season: 9-4, 5-3 ACC; Beat Notre Dame in Champs Sports Bowl

Last non-bowl season: 1981

Coach: Jimbo Fisher (19-9, third season)

Player to watch: QB E.J. Manuel. The Seminoles possess plenty of talent on offense, but few legitimate stars. Manuel, who started all but two games last season, is the exception after throwing for 2,666 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior. He’ll be the favorite for ACC player of the year if Florida State wins the Atlantic.

Outlook: Time for a recurring question: Is this the year the Seminoles win their first ACC title since 2005? They might finally live up to those annually colossal expectations, assuming Clemson doesn’t get in the way. Most of the key pieces of a stout defense are back, and Florida State’s three ACC losses last fall came by a combined 11 points. Look for the Seminoles to make it to Charlotte.

Prediction: 10-2, 6-2 ACC

• CLEMSON

Last season: 10-4, 6-2 ACC; Lost to West Virginia in Orange Bowl

Last non-bowl season: 2004

Coach: Dabo Swinney (29-19, fifth season)

Player to watch: WR Sammy Watkins. As if people weren’t paying attention last year, when Watkins uncorked an 82-catch, 1,219-yard season a few months removed from high school. The preseason ACC player of the year has the task of replicating his electric performance as a sophomore.

Outlook: Watkins and fellow wideout DeAndre Hopkins return, as does quarterback Tajh Boyd and tailback Andre Ellington. There’s no doubt about the skill positions, but this is Clemson — the last four times the Tigers began a season ranked, they finished out of the final poll. The defense is a bit of a question, but the Tigers should still be in the conference title race well into November.

Prediction: 9-3, 6-2 ACC

• N.C. STATE

Last season: 8-5, 4-4 ACC; Beat Louisville in Belk Bowl

Last non-bowl season: 2009

Coach: Tom O’Brien (33-30, sixth season)

Player to watch: CB David Amerson. O’Brien figures this will be the final year the junior spends in Raleigh, for good cause. Amerson picked off 13 passes a season ago, and opposing offenses would be wise not to test him much this fall. There’s only so many college corners who can establish that strong a reputation.

Outlook: It’s time to find out how well the 2011 Russell Wilson-for-2012 Mike Glennon trade works out for the Wolfpack. The early guess? Quite well. As strong as Wilson was at Wisconsin last year, handing the offense over to Glennon (3,054 yards, 31 touchdowns, 12 interceptions) didn’t go poorly. The senior returns most of his offensive line, and the Wolfpack should be a tough out from start to finish.

Prediction: 8-4, 4-4 ACC

• WAKE FOREST

Last season: 6-7, 5-3 ACC; Lost to Mississippi State in Music City Bowl

Last non-bowl season: 2010

Coach: Jim Grobe (68-67, 12th season)

Player to watch: CB Bud Noel. Last year’s ACC defensive rookie of the year broke up 19 passes and intercepted two, and he is unlikely to find himself a target quite as often as a sophomore. He’ll be one of the top players on a Demon Deacons defense that returns seven starters.

Outlook: Grobe needs nine wins to match Peahead Walker as the winningest coach in Wake history. It’s unlikely to happen this year, in part because of an offense that loses star wideout Chris Givens and four line starters. Nonetheless, Grobe’s history of usually extracting the most out of his teams suggests the Demon Deacons will have a chance in November to earn another bowl bid.

Prediction: 6-6, 4-4 ACC

• BOSTON COLLEGE

Last season: 4-8, 3-5 ACC

Last bowl appearance: 2010 (Fight Hunger Bowl)

Coach: Frank Spaziani (20-19, fourth season)

Player to watch: LB Kevin Pierre-Lewis. It’s not easy finding stars in Chestnut Hill these days, but the Eagles always have at least one superb linebacker. In recent years, there was Mark Herzlich and then Luke Kuechly. Now it’s Pierre-Lewis’ time for a star turn. The junior is the ACC’s fourth-leading returning tackler on a per-game basis (8.2).

Outlook: Spaziani is optimistic after the Eagles won three of their last five, and the hire of offensive coordinator Doug Martin should help Boston College improve on its inept attacks of the last two years. Still, the Eagles’ victory total has dropped for four years running, and there just isn’t as much talent in the program as there was when BC won consecutive Atlantic Division titles in 2007-08. Reaching a bowl would mark a successful season.

Prediction: 4-8, 2-6 ACC

• MARYLAND

Last season: 2-10, 1-7 ACC

Last bowl appearance: 2010 (Military Bowl)

Coach: Randy Edsall (2-10, second season)

Player to watch: DE Joe Vellano. The relentless fifth-year senior has worked his way into becoming one of the nation’s elite defensive linemen. His play was one of the few highlights of a lost 2011, and he’ll move out to end as Maryland adopts a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Brian Stewart.

Outlook: After a horrible debut, things simply can’t be more miserable the second time around for Edsall. At least it seemed that way before junior quarterback C.J. Brown suffered a season-ending knee injury during camp. Maryland will go with true freshman Perry Hills at quarterback, with fellow true freshman Caleb Rowe waiting in the wings. Their ability to adapt quickly will determine whether the Terps chase bowl eligibility or flirt with 10 losses for the third time in four years.

Prediction: 3-9, 1-7 ACC

COASTAL DIVISION

• VIRGINIA TECH

Last season: 11-3, 7-1 ACC; Lost to Michigan in Sugar Bowl

Last non-bowl season: 1992

Coach: Frank Beamer (209-98-2, 26th season)

Player to watch: QB Logan Thomas. The tank-like junior accounted for 30 touchdowns (19 passing, 11 rushing) as a first-year starter, and plenty will be expected of him in the season’s early stages. If he can help an offensive line with only one returning starter coalesce quickly, the Hokies will win another division crown.

Outlook: This could be a team much like the ones Virginia Tech won the ACC with 2007 and 2008 — a strong defense complemented by an offense that scores just enough to produce wins. Beamer’s accomplished plenty with teams like that, and while the Hokies don’t look like a top-10 team nationally, they are the favorites to win the Coastal Division for the sixth time in eight years.

Prediction: 10-2, 6-2 ACC

• NORTH CAROLINA

Last season: 7-6, 3-5; Lost to Missouri in Independence Bowl

Last non-bowl season: 2007

Coach: Larry Fedora (first season)

Players to watch: LT James Hurst and LG Jonathan Cooper. Quarterback Bryn Renner and tailback Giovani Bernard generate plenty of attention, but the left side of the Tar Heels line is the cornerstone of the offense’s success. The seniors enter the season with 60 career combined starts.

Outlook: There will be no bowl bid in Fedora’s first season thanks to NCAA sanctions, but that doesn’t mean North Carolina will be a pushover. The offense will push the tempo, as did Southern Mississippi in Fedora’s last stop. The defense isn’t star-studded like it was in the Butch Davis years, but instead filled with solid talent nearly everywhere. Fedora should debut with a winning season.

Prediction: 8-4, 5-3 ACC

• GEORGIA TECH

Last season: 8-5, 5-3 ACC; Lost to Utah in Sun Bowl

Last non-bowl season: 1996

Coach: Paul Johnson (33-19, fifth season)

Player to watch: QB Tevin Washington. Wideout Stephen Hill turned pro a year early, depriving Washington of his top downfield threat. It will be on the senior to make Johnson’s triple-option offense run smoothly in his second full season as a starter.

Outlook: The Yellow Jackets can immediately shake up the Coastal Division with their Labor Day visit to Virginia Tech, and the return of much of the starting offensive line provides optimism Georgia Tech will be its usual pesky self. But after a 2-5 finish in 2011, it’s worth questioning whether this bunch can do a whole lot better than last year’s edition.

Prediction: 8-4, 5-3 ACC

• VIRGINIA

Last season: 8-5, 5-3 ACC; Lost to Auburn in Chick-fil-A Bowl

Last non-bowl season: 2010

Coach: Mike London (12-13, third season)

Player to watch: TB Perry Jones. The Cavaliers’ top returning rusher (915 yards) and receiver (506 yards), Jones is the most recognizable returning cog in what was a middle-of-the-road a year ago. He’ll get backfield help from Kevin Parks, but Jones figures to be one of the ACC’s most reliable rushers.

Outlook: After a surprise breakthrough in his second season in Charlottesville, London will find it tough to show much progress in the win column this year. Nonetheless, the Cavaliers have a chance to create the first sustained enthusiasm about their program since the middle of the last decade, and the pieces are in place to at least get to a bowl. An exceptionally youthful secondary is a concern.

Prediction: 7-5, 5-3 ACC

• MIAMI

Last season: 6-6, 3-5 ACC

Last bowl appearance: 2010 (Sun Bowl)

Coach: Al Golden (6-6, second season)

Player to watch: QB Stephen Morris. The junior threw only 37 passes last season and just nine after the return of longtime starter Jacory Harris from suspension in the season’s second game. Morris will be without the Hurricanes’ top rusher and top two receivers from 2011. Much will be asked of him this fall.

Outlook: The specter of the NCAA hammering Miami for its Nevin Shapiro-related rules violations still hovers over Coral Gables, where this year’s team does not look like a vintage outfit at The U. There are plenty of holes, and defensive back Ray-Ray Armstrong’s departure in July deprives the Hurricanes of one of their most talented players. It’s possible Miami could crater this year, before any sanctions take root.

Prediction: 5-7, 3-5 ACC

• DUKE

Last season: 3-9, 1-7 ACC

Last bowl appearance: 1994 (Hall of Fame Bowl)

Coach: David Cutcliffe (15-33, fifth season)

Player to watch: WR Conner Vernon. It could be a record-setting season for the senior, and not just because of the 10 receptions he needs to become the Blue Devils’ top career pass-catcher. Vernon is 35 receptions and 843 yards from seizing the ACC career records in both of those categories; he had 70 catches and 956 yards last year.

Outlook: It’s a Sisyphean task to bring the Blue Devils back, as even the more-than-capable Cutcliffe has discovered. For all of Duke’s competitive advances in the past four years, it still is coming off back-to-back 3-9 seasons. There’s a lot back, and a decent start is possible. But good luck in the second half of the season with Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech in succession.

Prediction: 4-8, 1-7 ACC