- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 3, 2009



Last season: 9-4 (5-3); beat Wisconsin in Champs Sports Bowl

Coach: Bobby Bowden (34th season, 44th overall)

Player to watch: G Rodney Hudson. A fixture on the Seminoles’ line the past two seasons, the junior is the focal point of a mature unit that figures to provide plenty of holes for tailback Jermaine Thomas and protect quarterback Christian Ponder. Hudson is arguably the ACC’s top interior lineman.

Key game: Oct. 10 vs. Georgia Tech. The Seminoles were tripped up in last year’s game at Georgia Tech, a loss that helped deny them an outright division title. If they can handle the triple-option, things will look good entering the second half.

Outlook: As time winds down on Papa Bowden’s storied career, a third national title appears unlikely. But adding an ACC championship to the gaggle he already has earned is possible. Armed with a veteran quarterback, a strong line and an athletic defense, the Seminoles possess the talent to make up for questions at receiver and make a strong push for their first ACC crown in four years.

Prediction: 9-3, 6-2


Last season: 6-7 (4-4); lost to Rutgers in Papajohns.com Bowl

Coach: Tom O’Brien (third season, 13th overall)

Player to watch: QB Russell Wilson. His 17 touchdown passes and one interception were nice enough, but the Wolfpack’s bowl game collapse after Wilson was injured illustrates just how valuable the shifty sophomore is. Until proved otherwise, Wilson should be considered the conference MVP; N.C. State just isn’t very good without him.

Key game: Oct. 31 at Florida State. The Wolfpack come off their bye for a Halloween showdown in Tallahassee. What’s more, N.C. State plays three of its four November games at home. This could be a meeting of the Atlantic’s top teams and is one of the league’s few must-see games.

Outlook: It took three years for O’Brien to begin rattling off eight- and nine-win seasons at Boston College, and a rerun of that trend wouldn’t be surprising in Raleigh. Wilson and backup Mike Glennon will both play, making the Wolfpack deeper at quarterback than anyone else in the ACC. But an equally significant concern is replacing linebacker Nate Irving, who will miss the year after an offseason car wreck.

Prediction: 8-4, 5-3


Last season: 7-6 (4-4); lost to Nebraska in Gator Bowl

Coach: Dabo Swinney (second season)

Player to watch: TB C.J. Spiller. Possibly the best all-around skill position player in the conference, Spiller finally will head into a season as the Tigers’ unquestioned featured back after splitting time with James Davis for three years. Clemson thinks it has a stealth Heisman candidate, and Spiller certainly has the speed to make a serious difference.

Key game: Sept. 10 at Georgia Tech. At least the Tigers will find out early if they can contend this season. The Yellow Jackets have won four of five in the series and spoiled Swinney’s debut last fall. A win here could vault Clemson into the Top 25, possibly for the balance of the season.

Outlook: Ah, Clemson. Middling when it’s supposed to be good, surprising when it’s supposed to be mediocre. Low expectations mean it’s time for Spiller and a superb defense to produce a quality season and set the table for next year’s disappointment. Untested quarterback Kyle Parker must be adequate for Clemson to fulfill the happy side of its up-and-down pattern.

Prediction: 8-4, 4-4


Last season: 8-5 (4-4); beat Nevada in Humanitarian Bowl

Coach: Ralph Friedgen (ninth season)

Player to watch: QB Chris Turner. With an untested offensive line and just 12 scholarship seniors, a quarterback with 20 career starts is a valuable commodity. Turner needs to be sharp to help make up for questions elsewhere, and his proclivity for huge performances against tough opponents bodes well for the Terrapins.

Key game: Oct. 3 vs. Clemson. The Terps easily could split their four September games, and November is daunting on paper. That makes October a priority, and it begins with a tossup game at home against the Tigers. Win and perhaps Maryland can surprise in the ACC. Lose and contention seems a lot less likely.

Outlook: It’s difficult to balance how much better the Terps could be on defense with new coordinator Don Brown’s aggressive scheme and how much trouble Maryland might be in if its thin and inexperienced line flounders. Ultimately, it’s best to bank on those things being even, especially with a program that has hovered around .500 much of the past five years.

Prediction: 7-5, 4-4


Last season: 8-5 (4-4); beat Navy in EagleBank Bowl

Coach: Jim Grobe (ninth season, 15th overall)

Player to watch: QB Riley Skinner. It seems he has been around forever. Certainly not a gunslinger but better than a game manager, Skinner likely will leave Wake Forest as its top career passer if he can remain healthy this season. He also has a good chance to lead the Demon Deacons to four straight bowls — heady stuff at a perennial doormat.

Key game: Oct. 3 vs. N.C. State. It’s the second of four straight Wake will play in the Atlantic Division and probably the Demon Deacons’ trickiest test in the first half. Skinner and Russell Wilson are the league’s most efficient QBs, so the meeting figures to be well-played.

Outlook: Rather than selling the naming rights for its field to a bank, Wake Forest would be better served to affix Grobe’s name to it. The man has worked miracles, and now it’s time for another: revamping a defense that lost Aaron Curry, Alphonso Smith and five other starters. Never fear; Wake probably has a bunch of fourth-year juniors you’ve never heard of who will fill in quite capably.

Prediction: 7-5, 3-5


Last season: 9-5 (5-3); lost to Vanderbilt in Music City Bowl

Coach: Frank Spaziani (first season)

Player to watch: RB Montel Harris. The Eagles’ offensive line is a sure thing, their quarterback not so much. Toss in a 69-year-old offensive coordinator (Gary Tranquill), and no program in the ACC figures to imitate a 1970s Big Ten team as much as BC. That means Harris, who ran for 900 yards as a true freshman, could be in for a big year.

Key game: Sept. 26 vs. Wake Forest. As with Maryland, the Eagles’ conference home opener could be a harbinger of things to come. No one seems to know just what BC will be at season’s end, but it seems a bit in flux for now. Snag a victory against a possible bowl team in the first month, and the perception of the Eagles will improve.

Outlook: The ACC’s most tumultuous offseason occurred in Chestnut Hill, where Jeff Jagodzinski was fired for interviewing for a pro job, quarterback Dominique Davis left school and uber-talented linebacker Mark Herzlich was diagnosed with cancer. Into the breach steps Spaziani, an affable lifetime assistant whose top option QB when healthy (Dave Shinskie) hasn’t played football in seven years. Expect a step back from the Eagles.

Prediction: 6-6, 2-6



Last season: 10-4 (5-3); beat Cincinnati in Orange Bowl

Coach: Frank Beamer (23rd season, 29th overall)

Player to watch: QB Tyrod Taylor. The Hokies held each of their last five opponents under 20 points in 2008, covering up the ineptitude of their offense. Taylor, who threw two touchdown passes last year, is pretty much the only guy who can change that. If he’s a better passer, the Hokies could be special.

Key game: Sept. 26 vs. Miami. Despite showcase games against Alabama and Nebraska early on, this is the Hokies’ most important September date. It’s the conference opener and more importantly a chance to get a leg up on a division opponent with a chance to make a late charge at a title.

Outlook: Tailback Darren Evans’ ACL tear during camp isn’t a dagger to the Hokies’ hopes of winning a third straight ACC title; those are only slightly diminished. They also don’t change the team’s chances of a national championship, which probably will be quashed in the opening weekend by Alabama. It’s the same old Hokies — great defense and sound special teams that must compensate for a dubious offense.

Prediction: 9-3, 6-2


Last season: 9-4 (5-3); lost to LSU in Chick-fil-A Bowl

Coach: Paul Johnson (second season, 13th overall)

Player to watch: RB Jonathan Dwyer. The 2008 ACC player of the year, Dwyer was the breakout star of Johnson’s first season in Atlanta. Expect more of the same this fall, especially since it’s not like the Yellow Jackets are suddenly going to become a pass-first team anytime soon.

Key game: Oct. 17 vs. Virginia Tech. Memories of bogus penalties in last year’s game still run strong, especially since Georgia Tech’s loss kept it out of the ACC title game. It’s sandwiched between four road trips, placing an even greater onus on taking advantage of friendly environs.

Outlook: Johnson’s second Georgia Southern team reached the national title game. His second Navy team quadrupled its win total. This bodes well for the Yellow Jackets, who should be even better at running the triple-option this season. If a defense that faded in the second half of last season can improve, Georgia Tech has the goods to crack the top 10 and win the ACC for the first time since 1990.

Prediction: 9-3, 6-2


Last season: 7-6 (4-4); lost to California in Emerald Bowl

Coach: Randy Shannon (third season)

Player to watch: LB Sean Spence. Meet the eventual ACC defensive player of the year — this season or next. Spence had 65 tackles (9.5 for loss) as a true freshman and will be the backbone of a defense with the potential to inch the Hurricanes closer to their traditional level of intimidation.

Key game: Sept. 7 at Florida State. It might as well be the first four games because Miami goes on to play Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma by Oct. 3. But the Hurricanes have to play this one first, and scoring an upset of the Atlantic Division favorites would alleviate some concern about the rest of a brutal opening stretch.

Outlook: It’s all about potential. Jacory Harris is the unquestioned quarterback after Robert Marve’s transfer, and LaRon Byrd and Aldarius Johnson highlight a young but talented receiving corps. The pieces are there for a breakout season — or half-season should the schedule prove as fitful as anticipated. Nevertheless, the Hurricanes aren’t far from taking a spot near the top of the ACC again.

Prediction: 8-4, 5-3


Last season: 8-5 (4-4); lost to West Virginia in Meineke Car Care Bowl

Coach: Butch Davis (third season, ninth overall)

Player to watch: LB Quan Sturdivant. A tackle magnet, Sturdivant is a crucial component of a takeaway-happy defense that will need to match last year’s 29 turnovers for the Tar Heels to enjoy a similar season. Sturdivant had 122 tackles in 2008, second among returning ACC players behind Maryland’s Alex Wujciak.

Key game: Oct. 22 vs. Florida State. After waiting years to play the Seminoles (first meeting since 2004) and even longer for a Thursday night showcase (ESPN’s first midweek visit to Kenan Stadium), the Tar Heels get the chance to do both to commence an imposing second-half schedule.

Outlook: The Tar Heels were all about the takeaways (plus 18 in wins, minus 12 in losses) last year even though much attention was paid to a loaded receiving corps. North Carolina is thin at wideout now, and quarterback T.J. Yates will need to be creative to thrive against quality competition early. There’s a real chance the Tar Heels will be better this season yet still have a worse record, a minor hiccup in Davis’ rebuilding project.

Prediction: 7-5, 3-5


Last season: 5-7 (3-5)

Coach: Al Groh (ninth season, 15th overall)

Player to watch: QB/CB Vic Hall. Will he play quarterback? It wouldn’t make sense for the Cavaliers’ senior anchor to spend all of spring and camp there and not play. But if it doesn’t work out for him under center, he still will be one of the league’s top corners. One way or another, Hall will be one of Virginia’s most vital players.

Key game: Oct. 17 at Maryland. Traditionally, no ACC team winds up with as severe a home-road split as the Cavaliers — 18-7 at home since 2005, 7-15 on the road in that span. But the Cavaliers always win at least once away from Charlottesville, and this looks like their best bet.

Outlook: It’s an important year for Groh, whose contract expires in 2011. More importantly, he has presided over two losing seasons in the past three. The Cavaliers will be sound on defense — they always are — but it will be intriguing to see how the shift from a pro-style offense to the spread will shake out. Hall, Jameel Sewell and Marc Verica engaged in a protracted camp battle at QB, and it would be no surprise if all three play.

Prediction: 5-7, 3-5


Last season: 4-8 (1-7)

Coach: David Cutcliffe (second season, eighth overall)

Player to watch: QB Thaddeus Lewis. The consistently underrated Lewis tossed only six interceptions as a junior, and he figures to improve in his second year in Cutcliffe’s system. The phrases “Duke football” and “bowl game” would not be used together if not for the fourth-year starter, who has an outside chance to leave as the school’s career passing leader.

Key game: Oct. 10 at N.C. State. It’s easy to envision the Blue Devils entering their trip across the Triangle at 3-2, with winnable meetings with Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina looming after a bye. Upending the Wolfpack would go a long way to improving Duke’s postseason hopes.

Outlook: Last fall, the Blue Devils matched their victory total from the previous four years combined. They also lost seven of their last eight. Still, it’s baby steps in Durham, where Cutcliffe thinks a winning record is possible. Duke must win seven games to become bowl eligible (assuming it tops both lower-division teams on its schedule), and that might be a bit much to ask. But the Blue Devils will be better — and potentially downright dangerous.

Prediction: 4-8, 1-7

• Patrick Stevens can be reached at pstevens@washingtontimes.com.

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