It’s been a couple months since we last checked in on the ACC’s football teams, and in that time, we’ve been able to digest recent recruits, coaching changes and the new directions of each squad. And with spring practices in full swing, chances are we’ll get to know even more over the coming weeks. Until then, here’s where the ACC‘s 14 (15) teams stand in our way-too-early assessment:
1. Clemson Tigers (Last: 1): Clemson’s offseason focus is obviously on the defensive side of the ball, as they look to build upon the positives of last year. While Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins will be the motors that guide the success of the offense, it really is that defensive unit that will guide just how far this team can go, and if they can achieve their ultimate goal (a national title).
2. Louisville Cardinals (Last: 2): Far too many players are coming back for the defending Sugar Bowl champs to accept anything but another trip to a BCS game. But yet, it seems far too many critics see them doing just that. If coach Charlie Strong can keep that chip on the Cardinals’ shoulders, we may just be looking at a darkhorse contender for the BCS title game.
3. Florida State Seminoles (Last: 3): Can they effectively replace EJ Manuel at the quarterback position? That’s really the linchpin of FSU’s year, and the key question this spring as well. If they can come out of spring with a great handle on who their starting passer is, it means the offense also progresses faster come August, too.
4. Miami (FL) Hurricanes (Last: 4): Too much returning talent on offense for the ‘Canes to go anywhere but up. And while the continuing off-the-field nonsense certainly doesn’t help matters for this group, it could also work to their advantage. With new offensive coordinator James Coley now officially plugged in, I’d highly expect results to come in the form of big season from key playmakers Duke Johnson and Stephen Morris.
5. North Carolina Tar Heels (Last: 6): Technically, the Tar Heels are your defending Coastal division champ, so expectations should be pretty high right off the bat. But as year two of Larry Fedora’s offense takes shape, this team does have a pretty clear shot to challenge for the conference title. The difference-maker may end up being the defense, though, which struggled at times last season, and must replace several key starters.
6. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (Last: 5): Will the defense be a liability once again? If it is, it won’t matter how well presumed starting passer Vad Lee can throw the ball. Though there’s plenty of kinks to work out this spring (on both sides of the ball), this year’s performance is critical to make up for both recent recruiting failures and the very short leash Paul Johnson will be on.
7. Virginia Tech Hokies (Last: 7): Offense. Offense. Offense. Last year’s was terrible by any measure, and this spring will try to fix that. Among the top needs: a number-one running back, key receiving targets and offensive line replacements as well. Quarterback Logan Thomas certainly has the talent to succeed, but he also needs a supporting cast in order to live up to potential.
8. Pittsburgh Panthers (Last: 8): Pitt can stay in this spot for the time being, but if it does come to pass that top running back Rushel Shell is transferring from the program, you may end up seeing a drop. The running back position was a strength at one time, and without Shell, it makes that a much tougher prospect — especially as the Panthers also look to break in a new quarterback.
9. Syracuse Orange (Last: 9): New head coach Scott Shafer’s got this team energized, though it’s hard to tell to what degree, as practices are closed to media right now. Obviously, quarterback is the biggest concern at this juncture, allowing the rest of the offense to fall into place around whomever takes over at that position. For a little more on one of the country’s most intriguing QB battles, you can also check out my feature on Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician from last week.
10. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (Last: 10): This is put up or shut up time for this Wake team, with a raft of senior talent and experience across the roster and coaching staff. QB Tanner Price took a major step back last year, and if this team expects to get back to bowl eligibility (a necessity, in my opinion), the effort will start with a more efficient effort from him.
11. Duke Blue Devils (Last: 14): With the proverbial “no bowl game since 1994” monkey off their back, the Blue Devils appear to be a whole new program. Even replacing David Cutcliffe-era poster boys Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon doesn’t seem that daunting. In all honesty, this year’s offense may actually be able to run more efficiently with dual-threat Anthony Boone at the helm, helping out the group’s one glaring weakness (running the football).
12. Virginia Cavaliers (Last: 12): If UVa expected this spring to be smooth sailing, things have not gone according to plan. Presumptive starting QB Phillip Sims is already frustrated with his role in the offense, creating a flurry of questions about his future and the Hoos’ strategy going forward. Are his concerns a worthwhile result of the pro-style preferences of new O-coordinator Steve Fairchild, or just needless worrying? We’ll find out soon enough.
13. Maryland Terrapins (Last: 11): Too many quarterbacks, yet not enough healthy passers, fails to help clear up anything in Terps camp. What we do know, however, is that receiver/kick returner Stefon Diggs will be the “big man on campus” come the fall. As one of the most dynamic playmakers in the conference, the attack will need to run through him first and foresmost — regardless of who’s throwing the ball.
14. NC State Wolfpack (Last: 13): State’s going to need to figure out how to run the ball consistently this spring, but they’re also another ACC team looking for solutions at passer. New head coach Dave Doeren’s offense should provide for at least a more up-tempo team than before. But with inexperience at many of the skill positions, the ramp could be pretty steep between now and the start of the 2013 season.
15. Boston College Eagles (Last: 15): Can Steve Addazio come in and fix everything in a day at BC? No. But he can at least start strong this spring. First and foremost, QB Chase Rettig needs to regain his confidence throwing to someone besides just Alex Amidon; easier said than done of course, though a competent running game would certainly help that process.