With the calendar quickly creeping into the summer months, we also have another installment of our early power rankings for the entirety of the ACC. As you’ll notice, these are no longer “far too early” — a welcome sign that football season is near). Just like always, we take into account what’s happened both on and off the field to compile these completely subjective evaluations. This will be revised monthly throughout the offseason, before returning to our weekly format come September.
1. Florida State Seminoles (LW: 1): Ten starters return from one of the nation’s top defenses, so it’s only natural to see the Seminoles sitting atop the rest of the conference in preseason. But as touched on before, what takes this team from conference title contender to National Title contender is E.J. Manuel, and how he responds to the implied expectations.
2. Clemson Tigers (LW: 2): Some say the Tigers have three Heisman contenders this fall. True or not, it won’t matter a bit if the defense continues its shoddy fundamentals and focus from last year. New defensive coordinator Brent Venables may have his work cut out for him, sure. But from early returns in practice, it already looks like he’s making a huge difference.
3. Virginia Tech Hokies (LW: 3): Like the ‘Noles, VPI returns the overwhelming majority of its players from a top-ranked defense. But just like their counterparts at FSU, it’ll come down to quarterback play to determine how far the Hokies can go. Logan Thomas showed tremendous growth in 2011, and he’ll need to do even more of it to cope with an inexperienced O-line in 2012.
4. NC State Wolfpack (LW: 4): For all the talent the Wolfpack have (and they do have a ton of it, they’ll still be battling two big weaknesses that could (fortunately or unfortunately) define their season. The run game and linebacker play are huge areas of concern, and if the team can’t lock down suitable solutions in camp, the year will be off to a very rough start versus Tennessee.
5. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (LW: 6): Power consolidation in the Atlantic Division, a favorable conference slate and an exciting junior quarterback (Tevin Washington) that could potentially take “the leap” this season. All of it gives rise to some excitement for Georgia Tech this year, with their best chance to win the Coastal since 2009.
6. Virginia Cavaliers (LW: 5): The Hoos have one of the league’s more “fun” schedules, if that makes any sense. Most notably, we’ll get to see early on just how improved the group is when they face off with Penn State, Georgia Tech and TCU on consecutive weeks in September. The team still can’t score, but the defense will have ample opportunities to keep Virginia in games (and should, in many cases).
7. North Carolina Tar Heels (LW: 7): Folks appear skeptical of Carolina, and I’m unsure why. If returning stars Bryn Renner and Giovani Bernard weren’t enough, you’ve got a huge chip on these players’ shoulders, plus new coach Larry Fedora. Last year, Fedora’s Southern Miss team was actually among the country’s most entertaining, so I’m curious to see what he can do with more talent.
8. Pittsburgh Panthers (LW: 8): The Panthers will have one of the country’s best backfields, and there’s a fair chance most are unaware of this fact. With a staunch defense returning, and the three-headed monster of Ray Graham, Rushel Shell and Isaac Bennett at running back, there’s more to like at Pittsburgh than people realize.
9. Syracuse Orange (LW: 9): A brutal non-conference schedule may throw a wrench into the gears, but the Orange (as a program) are improving vastly. And now that there’s ACC television money on the way soon (cue snickers from FSU fans), the school can finally upgrade its dreadful facilities and get back to recruiting top talent in the northeast.
10. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (LW: 10): Once again, Jim Grobe will likely get an award for doing the “most with the least” in the conference, and rightfully so. As the forgotten stepchild of even its Tobacco Road brethren, the school manages to pull in quality recruits from all across the ACC footprint (most notably Florida). Even playing in a top-heavy division, they can definitely finish a respectable 4-4.
11. Miami (FL) Hurricanes (LW: 11): Is it the recruits? The attitude? Location, history, coaching? We looked at all the reasons why “the U” has become more of a frown lately, and are still puzzled. While this isn’t their year, the pieces are assembling for plenty of success going forward.
12. Duke Blue Devils (LW: 12): I’ll add a remark on Duke and the two teams below them — there’s not much separating any of them. Each has a key player or two that makes you take a second-glance. Each has a weakness that makes you realize why they’re not more competitive. But since no other team has Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon, the Blue Devils get a leg-up.
13. Boston College Eagles (LW: 13): Would BC have gone any better than 1-11 without all-world linebacker Luke Kuechly last year? While we’ll never know for sure, we can come close to finding out this season. The defense should be at least respectable, but all eyes will be on Chase Rettig and the offense as they try to erase the memory of last year’s ineptitude.
14. Maryland Terrapins (LW: 14): I’ll give Maryland credit for replacing their offensive and defensive coordinators after a rough 2011, but I’m of the opinion it’ll take another season to see those dividends on the field. The Terps return some experienced players on defense, and appear on a recruiting upswing, so all is not lost. But this year doesn’t appear to be the breakout performance they’re craving.
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