The ACC should have an exciting year once again with more than half its teams eligible for postseason play. The Coastal Division will feature a tight race with Virginia Tech as the frontrunner, followed by Miami, North Carolina, and Georgia Tech. The Atlantic Division will be a battle between the Jimbo Fisher-led Seminoles, the Boston College Eagles, and the 2009 Atlantic Division champion, Clemson.
North Carolina Tar Heels
The ACC Coastal Division was supposed to be a three-team race between Miami, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina. However, the NCAA’s ongoing investigation of the Tar Heels has left the team in disarray. As of now, who can suit up for the Kickoff Classic on September 4 against LSU in the Georgia Dome is still undetermined.
North Carolina (No. 18 AP, No. 18 USA Today) was set to return 19 starters this year (nine from a top 10 defense last season), but DT Marvin Austin and top WR Greg Little may be among as many as nine players who could be suspended for receiving improper benefits from agents.
In addition, there is much uncertainty in Chapel Hill due to academic allegations involving a former tutor. The Tar Heels have already lost highly rated freshmen prospects RB Giovanni Bernard (torn ACL) and DT Brandon Willis (transfer). There were previous reports that starting senior CBs, Kendric Burney and Charles Brown, will not be on the team this year, but that has not been confirmed since the investigation is ongoing.
Regardless of the distractions the possible (and likely) suspensions will bring, the Tar Heels face tough conference games at Miami (10/23) and at Florida St. (11/6). They then play host to the Hokies (11/13) one week after their game against the Seminoles.
Without their top defensive playmakers, UNC will need to rely on starting QB T.J. Yates. Yates struggled mightily at times last season, especially on the road (6 TDs, 9 INTs in away games).
The Heels should be bowl eligible with at least seven wins, but the results will be a far cry from the high expectations they had prior to the investigations. Butch Davis’s fourth year at Chapel Hill just got that much more interesting.
The Miami Hurricanes (No. 13 AP, No. 13 USA Today) look poised to have a great season despite a brutal September slate of playing Ohio St. at the Horseshoe (9/11) and at Pittsburgh (9/23) on a Thursday night. Their conference schedule features tough games at Clemson (10/2), Florida St. (10/9) at home a week later, and Virginia Tech (11/20) at home in what is likely to be the Coastal Division title game.
The U is led by their QB Jacory Harris (3,352 yards, 24 TDs, 17 INTs in 2009), who created buzz early last season with his play and declaration that if he were a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, he would be willing to attend the ceremony in a pink suit. Harris will also have his top five receiving targets back, including leading senior receiver Leonard Hankerson (45 receptions, 801 yards in 2009).
In addition, the Canes return senior RB Damien Berry (93 rushes, 616 yards, 8 TDs in 2009). Berry should complement the top RB, senior Graig Cooper (134 rushes, 695 yds, 4 TDs in 2009), nicely as Cooper is coming back from an ACL tear in last year’s Champs Sports Bowl game against Wisconsin.
The U should be able to win seven conference games, contend for the Coastal Division title, and could win as many as 10 total games, which would be Randy Shannon’s most since taking over as head coach in 2007.
Virginia Tech Hokies
Virginia Tech (No. 10 AP, No. 6 USA Today) leaps right into the thick of the national title conversation with their highly anticipated matchup against Boise St. (No. 3 AP, No. 5 USA Today) on September 6 at FedEx Field.
The Hokies will rely on senior QB Tyrod Taylor’s playmaking ability. Taylor put up solid stats in his first full season as a starter in 2009 (2,311 yards, 13 TDs, 5 INTs). He also added 370 yards on the ground with five rushing TDs.
Sophomore RB Ryan Williams returns after a stellar year in which he ran for 1,655 yards and 21 TDs. The Hokies’ running game will be even more dynamic with the return of junior RB Darren Evans (torn ACL in 2009), who ran for 1,265 yards and 11 TDs in 2008.
Virginia Tech visits Boston College (9/25), North Carolina (11/13), and Miami (11/20). If they lose to the Broncos to open the year, their January bowl game hopes may rest on getting to the ACC title game, which would make the matchup at Miami their second most important game of the year. There is no doubt that Frank Beamer will have his team ready with a legitimate shot at the national title.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (No. 16 AP, No. 17 USA Today) are coming off an outstanding 2009 season in which they went 11-3, won the ACC, and earned a trip to the Orange Bowl. Paul Johnson enters his third year at the helm with 14 returning starters (eight on defense).
Like the top three teams in the Coastal Division, the Yellow Jackets return a quarterback – senior Joshua Nesbitt. Nesbitt is the point man in Johnson’s triple option attack with 1,037 rushing yards and 18 TDs to go along with 1,701 passing yards, 10 TDs, and five INTs.
The Yellow Jackets did lose last season’s leading rusher, Jonathan Dwyer, but they should be in fine hands with senior RB Anthony Allen (64 rushes, 618 yards, 6 TDs in 2009). The biggest loss is WR Demaryius Thomas (22nd overall pick by the Denver Broncos), who posted 1,154 yards and eight TDs in 2009, which was about 70% of Nesbitt’s passing production.
Georgia Tech has a difficult schedule in 2010 as they face Kansas, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Georgia all on the road. They should be favored to win five of their six home games. While they may not be able to make a repeat appearance in a BCS bowl game, they should win the necessary six games to make it to a bowl. The Yellow Jackets will have the talent and tools necessary to give the top three teams in the division a run for their money.
Duke Blue Devils
David Cutcliffe enters his third year with the Duke Blue Devils, and has continued to improve the talent since his arrival. In his first year in 2008, he won as many games (four) as the Blue Devils won the previous four years (2004-2007) combined.
Duke will be without last year’s starting QB and the school’s all-time leading passer, Thaddeus Lewis (10,065 yards from 2006-09). The Dukies hope that highly touted, dual threat sophomore QB Sean Renfree can put up big numbers immediately.
Renfree should be aided by the return of the top six receivers from 2009, including junior Donovan Varner (1,047 yards, 8 TDs), sophomore Conner Vernon (746 yards, 3 TDs), and senior Austin Kelly (625 yards, 4 TDs). However, Varner and Kelly have suffered hamstring injuries, which may slow them down to start the year.
The Blue Devils will continue to work toward their goal of ending a 15-year bowl game drought, but they will need to find a way to win three conference games this year (as they did in ’09). The outlook does not look good as the Dukies have only won four conference games from 2000-08.
The Cavaliers hope that Mike London can jump-start a program that experienced many ups and downs during Al Groh’s nine-year tenure (2001-09). London returns to Charlottesville for the third time; he previously acted as the team’s defensive coordinator from 2006-07 and defensive line coach from 2001-04.
London loses his top quarterback and running backs. The Cavs return just 12 starters, tied for fewest in the ACC. Virginia draws Florida St. and Boston College from the Atlantic Division along with their divisional games against Virginia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, and Georgia Tech.
2010 appears to be a rebuilding year for the Cavs as London shifts the offense to a pro-style attack and the defense to a 4-3 from Groh’s 3-4.
Florida St. Seminoles
The biggest loss for the Seminoles (No. 20 AP, No. 20 USA Today) is Hall of Fame coach Bobby Bowden, who reportedly gave into the wishes of the university and retired after 34 seasons, 377 career victories, and two national championships (1993, 1999).
Jimbo Fisher’s first year should be successful as 15 starters return, including nine on offense. The most important piece is senior QB Christian Ponder (2,717 yards, 14 TDs, 7 INTs in 2009), who played in the first nine games last season before sitting out the rest of the year with an injury.
The ‘Noles’ leading rusher, junior Jermaine Thomas, also returns (832 yards, 9 TDs in 2009) along with several of Ponder’s top receiving targets in juniors Bert Reed (710 yards in 2009) and Jarmon Fortson (610 yards, 4 TDs in 2009).
The top two returning tacklers on the team, junior LB Nigel Bradham and senior LB Kendall Smith, will need help in order to shore up a defense that gave up 30 points per game last year. If the defense cannot find a way to stop opponents, Fisher’s first year may be a long one.
The Seminoles face several tough opponents on the road, including Oklahoma (9/11) and Miami (10/9). But, they get Boston College, North Carolina, and Clemson at home, and close out the year by playing host to Florida.
Boston College Eagles
Frank Spaziani’s Eagles look to improve from last year’s 8-5 record and second place finish in the division (5-3 record). The Eagles’ toughest road game will be at Florida State (10/16), but they get Virginia Tech (9/25), Maryland (10/23), Clemson (10/30), and Virginia (11/20) at home.
Spaziani will have his team’s leading rusher, junior Montel Harris (1,457 yards, 14 TDs in 2009), back, as well as former minor league baseball player and returning starting sophomore QB Dave Shinskie (2,049 yards, 15 TDs, 14 INTs in 2009).
BC’s defense is anchored by sophomore LB Luke Kuechly, and will receive a major boost with the return of 2008 ACC Defensive Player of the Year, senior LB Mark Herzlich. Herzlich, who missed all of 2009 after being diagnosed with cancer, has been slowed by an unrelated fractured foot. However, his cancer is now in remission.
If Boston College can get past Florida St., they will have a clear path to the ACC title game.
Dabo Swinney’s team looks to defend its division title from last season’s 9-5 team. The loss of C.J. Spiller will be noticeable because his production will be difficult to replace. Sophomore RB Andre Ellington (68 carries, 491 yards in 2009) will carry the majority of the workload.
The other offensive asset the Tigers have is starting sophomore QB Kyle Parker (2,526, 20 TDs, 12 INTs in 2009). Parker was drafted 26th overall by the Colorado Rockies in the 2010 MLB Draft, and recently signed a deal that will allow him to play football this year and beyond if he wishes.
Clemson does return six starters on a defense that could be ranked in the top 25 by the end of the year, thanks to senior DT Jarvis Jenkins, senior SS DeAndre McDaniel, sophomore FS Rashard Hall, junior LB Brandon Maye, senior CB Marcus Gilchrist, and junior DE Da’Quan Bowers.
The Tigers have a rough schedule in 2010 as they must play Auburn (9/18) and South Carolina (11/27) out of the SEC, and then play on the road against North Carolina (10/9), Boston College (10/30), and Florida St. (11/13). However, the Tigers have a tremendous advantage at Death Valley (watch video here), where they are 50-17 the past 10 years.
Clemson has the talent to finish atop the Atlantic Division again, but due to their difficult schedule, a repeat performance is not likely. Still, they should be able to win seven or eight games.
The Terps experienced their worst season under Ralph Friedgen’s watch in 2009 as they finished 2-10. Senior star running back Da’Rel Scott had an injury-plagued, unproductive junior year (425 yards, 4 TDs), which was a complete reversal from his sophomore season (1,133 yards, 8 TDs). It will be imperative for him to stay healthy and return to his 2008 form if the Terps are going to win games.
Maryland opens the year against Navy at the Baltimore Ravens’ M & T Bank Stadium on Labor Day (9/6). The Terps will need to work in a new starting QB in junior Jamarr Robinson. The good news is that Robinson will have the leading receivers from last year, junior Torrey Smith (824 yards, 5 TDs) and senior Adrian Cannon (468 yards, 4 TDs), to work with.
On defense, senior LBs Alex Wujciak and Adrian Moten return, but they will need more help as the Terps’ schedule gets much tougher beginning in the middle of October. They visit Clemson (10/16), Boston College (10/23), and Miami (11/6), and then play Florida St. at home (11/20).
The Terps will be improved, but they will probably finish short of the six wins necessary for bowl eligibility. In addition, the hunt for a new head coach may ensue after the season.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Jim Grobe enters his 10th season at Wake Forest, and wants to get the Demon Deacons back to a bowl game in 2010 after going 5-7 in 2009. Wake Forest lost starting QB Riley Skinner, and will depend on sophomore Ted Stachitas in 2010. True freshman Tanner Price will be the backup, but he may see some action due to the inexperience of all quarterbacks on the depth chart.
Whoever takes the majority of snaps will have the top four returning receives to work with, including the leading receiver from 2009, senior Marshall Williams (867 yards, 6 TDs), and junior Devon Brown (671 yards, 6 TDs).
The Demon Deacons have to play Georgia Tech (10/2) at home and host Virginia Tech (10/16) from the Coastal Division, but they will need to win at least two conference games in order to become bowl eligible.
North Carolina St. Wolfpack
The Wolfpack are coached by Tom O’Brien, who left Boston College in 2006 after leading the Eagles to consecutive bowl games in his final eight years and compiling a 57-39 record along the way. At N.C. St., O’Brien is 16-21 in three years, and may have a tough road ahead in 2010 with a difficult schedule that features nine teams that went to bowl games in 2009.
O’Brien’s best weapon on offense is junior QB Russell Wilson (3,027 yards, 31 TDs, 11 INTs in 2009), who looked brilliant at times last year (21-35 for 322 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs in a win against Pittsburgh). However, Wilson also struggled in the loss to Clemson when he went 12-32 for 183 yards, two TDs, and one INT.
The Wolfpack also have their top four leading receivers back, including seniors Owen Spencer (765 yards, 6 TDs in 2009) and Jarvis Williams (547 yards, 11 TDs in 2009).
While N.C. St. has some talent, an upset or two is necessary to become bowl eligible.
Virginia Tech and Boston College will play in the ACC title game. If the Hokies can defeat Boise St. on Labor Day at FedEx Field, survive a brutal three weeks in November, and win the ACC, they will be a legitimate national championship contender.
Follow Yoshito Tsuji on Twitter @YoshitoTsuji.