ACC football preview

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 8, 2011

Associated Press
PINEHURST — The Atlantic Coast Conference’s reputation has taken plenty of hits in recent years.
Jimbo Fisher figures it’s time to change that, and he hopes his Florida State team is the one to lead the way.
From the moment the Seminoles stepped into the ACC 20 years ago, they were the league’s clear gold standard.
After yielding that title to Virginia Tech for a while, they seem ready to reclaim it.
“I think it’s important to every conference to have somebody in that (national championship) game or in that limelight, that atmosphere, you know?” Fisher said. “But you have to earn it. You have to get there. We haven’t here recently. Everything goes in strides. Go back in the (1990s), the SEC won a few but they weren’t in it. Florida State was in it. Miami. It all goes in cycles and comes around.”
And now, it seems the Seminoles have cycled back to being on top.
The media that cover the ACC have made Florida State the favorite to win its first league title since 2005 — the year the conference expanded to 12 teams. Since then, the Seminoles had three 7-6 finishes during Bobby Bowden’s final four seasons (2006-09) while slipping to third or lower in its division three times in that span.
In Fisher’s first season as the head coach they finished 10-4 — with two losses coming by a total six points — and won the Atlantic Division and the Chick-fil-A Bowl. And with the nucleus of that team returning, they have observers thinking that maybe those old, swaggering Seminoles are back.
Even if these Seminoles won’t come out and say it.
“People are going to say how they feel, give their own opinion, but that’s going to be something where we have to go out there and play,” quarterback E.J. Manuel said. “I’m not going to say we’re back or anything like that, because that would be taking respect away from those teams that were what Florida State is now. That’s what we’re working toward. Hopefully we can get to that point and just continue to win games.”
That certainly can’t hurt the perception of the ACC, which took plenty of hits when bellwether programs Florida State and Miami were sagging. When they struggle, the ACC seems weak, too.
Now the across-the-league hope is that when upsets inevitably happen, that’s because the underdogs are improved — and not because the favorites are overrated.
“Sometimes, you had teams that weren’t as good as other teams,” Manuel said. “But now, in this day and age, athletes are good everywhere. It doesn’t matter whether you go to our school, Duke, wherever. It’s still going to have a good program, and you can’t go into a game thinking you’re going to blow out somebody. You have to go in there and make plays, and actually do it yourself, not just in your mind.”
FLORIDA STATE — Key players: QB E.J. Manuel, WR Bert Reed, T Andrew Datko; DE Brandon Jenkins. Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: The Seminoles are looking for much bigger things than just their 35th straight winning season. Key test comes in Week 3 against Oklahoma. … Florida State’s total of 17 returning starters doesn’t include Manuel, whose six career starts came when NFL first-round pick Christian Ponder was injured.
CLEMSON — Key players: RB Andre Ellington, C Dalton Freeman; DT Brandon Thompson. Returning starters: 8 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: All eyes will be on sophomore QB Tajh Boyd, who replaces Kyle Parker after Parker gave up football for a pro baseball career. … Tigers lost six defensive starters who combined to make 171 starts, including All-America DE Da’Quan Bowers. … Ellington and RB Jamie Harper give Clemson a solid 1-2 punch in the backfield.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE — Key players: QB Mike Glennon, TE George Bryan; LB Audie Cole, DT J.R. Sweezy. Returning starters: 6 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: Glennon, a promising pocket passer, takes over after three-year starter Russell Wilson was released and transferred to Wisconsin. … Wolfpack have a special teams weapon in T.J. Graham, who has returned three kicks for TDs and is 522 yards shy of the ACC’s career kickoff return yardage record.
BOSTON COLLEGE — Key players: RB Montel Harris, TE Chris Pantale; LB Luke Kuechly. Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: Kuechly led the nation with 14 tackles per game last season. … Harris was tops in the ACC in rushing and is 1,002 yards shy of the ACC career rushing record. … Eagles chasing their 13th straight bowl berth.
MARYLAND — Key players: QB Danny O’Brien, WR Tony Logan; LB Kenny Tate. Returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: New coach Randy Edsall enters with serious questions at the skill positions. He must replace WR Torrey Smith and RB Da’Rel Scott. … Logan returned 31 punts for 560 yards last season. … Former Division I head coaches Gary Crowton (BYU) and Greg Gattuso (Duquesne) are on Edsall’s staff.
WAKE FOREST — Key players: QB Tanner Price, RB Josh Harris; DE Kyle Wilber. Returning starters: 7 offense, 9 defense.
Notes: Demon Deacons return four senior starters on offensive line. … Wake Forest plays nine bowl teams from 2010, including Syracuse and Notre Dame. … Price started nine games as a freshman, a rarity at a school that prefers to redshirt all incoming players.
VIRGINIA TECH — Key players: WRs Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale, RB David Wilson; CB Jayron Hosley, S Eddie Whitley. Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Hokies are ACC’s only recognized champion from 2007-10 after Georgia Tech vacated its 2009 league title. … Virginia Tech faces a more manageable nonconference schedule (Appalachian State, East Carolina, Arkansas State, Marshall) than in recent years. … Hokies must replace QB Tyrod Taylor and RBs Darren Evans and Ryan Williams. All eyes will be on QB Logan Thomas.
MIAMI — Key players: WR Travis Benjamin; LB Sean Spence, S Ray-Ray Armstrong. Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: New coach Al Golden must settle on a quarterback — Jacory Harris or Stephen Morris — after Hurricanes threw 27 interceptions last season. … Nine opponents played in bowl games last season, including Ohio State, Kansas State and South Florida. … Spence, on whether the Hurricanes have underachieved: “We have a whole bunch of talent, as you can see. … To be 7-6, it just doesn’t add up. We know that.”
NORTH CAROLINA — Key players: RB Ryan Houston, QB Bryn Renner; DT Quinton Coples, CB Charles Brown. Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: League’s biggest question mark is how Tar Heels will respond to late July firing of coach Butch Davis. … Defensive coordinator Everett Withers steps in as the interim replacement. … Houston, who elected to redshirt last season after he initially was held out and later cleared in the NCAA investigation into the program, had surgery to repair a broken shoulder blade suffered in the spring game.
GEORGIA TECH — Key players: RB Roddy Jones; DT Logan Walls, LB Steven Sylvester. Returning starters: 6 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: QBs Tevin Washington and Synjyn Days are competing to replace three-year starter Joshua Nesbitt. … Yellow Jackets were made to vacate their 2009 ACC championship and Orange Bowl appearance following an NCAA investigation. … Jones has averaged 7.46 yards per carry for his career.
VIRGINIA — Key players: WR Kris Burd, OG Austin Pasztor; DT Matt Conrath, CB Chase Minnifield. Returning starters: 8 offense, 9 defense.
Notes: Cavaliers lead the ACC with 19 returning starters. … Minnifield’s 10 career interceptions lead all active players. … Coach Mike London must settle on a replacement for QB Marc Verica.
DUKE — Key players: QB Sean Renfree, WRs Connor Vernon and Donovan Varner; S Matt Daniels. Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: Blue Devils welcome back the league’s top returning passer (Renfree), top two receivers (Vernon, Varner) and top kicker (Will Snyderwine). … Duke hopes its 4-2-5 scheme will show improvement after it was the league’s worst defense in 2010.