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TGS 2013 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE ACC-PART I
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Never a dull moment in the ACC, that’s for sure. Although we have a suspicion that things will be calming down soon enough thanks to a bit of news that surfaced early in the spring. More on that in a moment.

In the meantime, a lot of attention continues to be paid to the plight of the Miami Hurricanes, who have had their day in front of the NCAA Infractions Committee and await a ruling related, among other things, to improper benefits and contact involving disgraced booster Nevin Shapiro, who has been back in the news in recent weeks. Now, Shapiro has introduced gaming-related info to the mix, although sources say the NCAA has already checked through those allegations and that Shapiro was really bringing up nothing new a few weeks ago.

Regardless, the NCAA inquiry of Miami has almost lasted longer than it took to get Jodi Arias to trial; the Canes have been anticipating the worst for almost two years now, and have inflicted self-imposed sanctions in the interim, including bowl bans the past two seasons. If this drags on much further, we would not be surprised to see Nancy Grace and the Headline News Network camp out at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis to await the decision, while Jean Casarez offers legal insights. Stay tuned for further developments.

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Of course, most of the news involving the ACC over the past several years has involved its status at the epicenter of the shifting college conference landscape. The tectonic plates have indeed been moving beneath the league for the past decade, when the ACC registered the first temblors of the conference wars when annexing Virginia Tech and Miami-Florida, and then Boston College, from the Big East, forever weakening the football alliance of the latter. Completing their storming of the Big East, the ACC would eventually steal Syracuse and Pittsburgh, who officially join the league this school year. The departures of the Orange and the Panthers effectively ended what we knew of the Big East as a football league in what we suspect is the first retail-style business takeout in college sports annals.

Along the way, the ACC was also able to secure an agreement with Note Dame to add the Irish as basketball member and an affiliate on the football side. In future years, Notre Dame will be scheduling as many as five ACC reps per season on the gridiron.

There has been some outflow from the ACC, too, with Maryland announcing a pending move to the Big Ten, effective next year. Ramifications surrounding the Terps’ transfer continue to be felt (more on that in a moment, too). Effectively taking Maryland’s place in the league, beginning with the 2014-15 season, will be Louisville.

Meanwhile, rumors were flying late last year that Virginia Tech and North Carolina State were about to be annexed by the SEC in its desire to expand up the Eastern seaboard and lay claim to more plum TV territory, while Florida State has been rumored to be bound for a variety of destinations, in particular the Big 12. But such situations remain fluid until arriving at a resolution, and developments elsewhere seem to have nixed further speculation involving the Hokies, Wolfpack, Seminoles, and any others for the foreseeable future.

Those developments include the $50 million exit fee mess that Maryland got itself into when bolting, then, more importantly, VPI and NC State tagging along with the rest of the league members when assigning a Grant of TV Rights to the conference.

The latter, in terms of significance, might have been the most important development of the offseason in college sports.

Although the ACC is not the first league with a Grant of Rights from its members (the Big Ten, Pac-12, and Big 12 have all done the same; the SEC, interestingly, is the one major conference without such provisions), it effectively ends the involvement of ACC teams looking to leave the league. Having assigned future TV rights to the conference, an NC State or Virginia Tech would technically not be able to move to a new loop and switch conference rights holders on a whim.

It will now take a legal challenge by any potential ACC defectors to take their TV rights with them to another conference should they decide to jump leagues. Which might be infinitely more costly in the long run than the $50 million exit fee from the league.

Thus, until further notice, the ACC doesn’t figure to lose any members. Although the prospect of expansion to 16 schools is still possible, as UConn and Cincinnati, in particular, await liberation from the smoldering ruin of the Big East now known as the AAC (American Athletic Conference). Which is also very tough for the Huskies and Bearcats to swallow on the basketball side, as they are also separated from the “Catholic 7" that bolted from rest on the hoops side after last season, and took the Big East name with them.

The new AAC hasn’t yet demanded any Grant of Rights on its membership, so sorts such as UConn and Cincinnati could still be in play for any interested league (beyond the ACC, the Big Ten has been said to have a remote interest in the pair, although it would not be adding many TV sets from regions in which the Big Ten Network will already have reached).

So, save possibly asking UConn or Cincy to join within the next couple of years, the ACC will now likely have a very low profile in any future conference-jumping storylines. Which means it can now get about the business of establishing its own TV network to get its members schools close to the annual money hauls that the Big Ten and SEC (with its nascent network) can provide.

It may seem a bit odd to see the ACC as a future bystander in the conference shuffle. But it's about time; the league has caused enough trouble over the last decade.

ACC ATLANTIC PREVIEW


Following is our ACC 2013 Football preview, broken into two segments (Atlantic Division up first; Coastal Division to follow). Teams are presented in order of predicted finish; 2012 straight-up and pointspread records for each are included.


Before a game has been played in the 2013 season, Clemson (2012 SUR 11-2; PSR 9-4) has already experienced one of its biggest days of the upcoming campaign. That came in early January, when sr. QB Tajh Boyd (3896 YP and 36 TD passes last year) announced that he would not be applying for the upcoming NFL Draft.

The reverberations were felt throughout Death Valley and into adjacent Littlejohn Coliseum, where Brad Brownell’s Tiger hoopsters even had to take a back seat to the announcement. That’s because the ramifications of Boyd’s return were huge. Hello, favorite’s role in the ACC Atlantic Division. Hello, a likely Top Ten ranking heading into the season. Hello, peripheral consideration as a contender for the school’s first national championship since 1981. Hello, a possible Heisman Trophy run.

That’s a lot riding on the decision of one player to return for a senior season. But it also suggests how Boyd has become a new face to a program that finally seems to be regaining some of its mojo while also giving the ACC a fighting chance to reclaim some of the prestige it has lost while ceding the spotlight to the SEC in the past decade.

Oh, yes, the SEC. It still figures rather prominently in Clemson’s 2013 prospects. Consider the August 31 opener at Death Valley against nearby Georgia, as one of the region’s great rivalries from years past is reprised. Which provides a rugged symmetry to a regular-season schedule that, as usual, will conclude in the Palmetto State showdown vs. hated South Carolina at Columbia. That’s a pair of SEC bookends to a season that has the IPTAY boosters as excited as they’ve been since the early ‘80s, and the school’s lone national title campaign in 1981 (and as reviewed in depth in our ACC Retrospective piece elsewhere on this website).

The prospect of a couple of battles vs. the SEC should not spook the Tigers too much after their rousing 25-24 Chick fil-A Bowl win over LSU, which was the first significant win for an ACC rep against an SEC power in recent years (we don’t count Virginia Tech’s romp over Lane Kiffin’s Tennessee in the 2009 version of the same bowl). In fact, Clemson went 2-1 against the SEC last season, with both wins in the Georgia Dome, including the opener against an Auburn side that, at the time, didn’t seem like it was as bad as it would eventually prove.

But that win over LSU has resonated not only in Death Valley, but throughout the region and indeed across the college football landscape. Clemson and the ACC were badly in need of a morale boost after years of taking a back seat to the SEC, especially after the Tigers lost to South Carolina, and Florida State lost to Florida, at the conclusion of the 2012 regular season. Sure, the Chick- fil-A Bowl win over LSU was only one game, but the boost Clemson gave to the collective psyche of the ACC as a result of that thrill-packed victory is incalculable.

Moreover, the regime of 5th-year Clemson HC Dabo Swinney was further legitimized by the LSU win. No longer are we hearing whispers from the IPTAY crowd that Swinney is on a hot seat, as has often been the case entering recent seasons.

Boyd’s continued presence is also crucial, especially since the offense did see one of its other stars (prolific WR DeAndre Hopkins) indeed bolt early for the NFL. ACC sources believe the combination of Boyd’s return and Hopkins’ departure will light a fuse under jr. WR Sammy Watkins, who broke in like gangbusters as a frosh in 2011 but saw his 2012 campaign disrupted by suspension and injuries. Reportedly rededicated and refocused, as indicated by spring work, regional insiders expect Watkins to more resemble his frosh self (when catching 82 passes for 12 TDs and ranking as one of the nation’s top kick returners) this fall.

Four starters also return along an OL that paved the way for Boyd and last year’s “O” to score a whopping 41 ppg (ranking 6th nationally) and gain 513 ypg (ranking 9th). Don’t be too alarmed at last year’s relatively-high sack number (31) that ranked 85th nationally; that was more a function of Boyd often eating the football rather than putting a pass up for grabs. Besides, Boyd’s feet are not in concrete, running for another 528 yards a year ago. The latest in a string of productive recent Clemson runners that includes C.J. Spiller and Andre Ellington will likely be sr. slasher Roderick McDowell, who provided a sneak preview last fall when gaining 5.4 ypc in spot duty behind Ellington. All the low-slung (5'9, 195-lb.) McDowell has lacked in the past is a chance to shine.

Let’s also not forget the other important offseason development involving in-demand o.c. Chad Morris, who returns for a third season running the Clemson attack. It has been no coincidence that the Tiger “O” has ascended since Morris arrived from Tulsa in time for the 2011 season and implemented a more high-tech spread look. Another prolific season from Boyd and the offense likely puts Morris on a short list for head coaching openings elsewhere in the offseason.

Swinney’s ability to pluck proper coordinators is further reflected on the defensive side, where ex-Oklahoma d.c. Brent Venables was enlisted prior to last season. Streamlining a defensive playbook that had become too thick and complicated under predecessor Kevin Steele, the Venables 4-3 was simplified in its approach, based more upon on reading and reacting, utilizing more zone looks and relying upon the defenders’ instincts to sniff out the plays. The results were encouraging, as the Tigers moved into the upper tier in all relevant ACC defensive stats, and then held LSU to a mere 219 yards of total offense in the bowl win.

The key for the stop unit this fall will be a rebuilt secondary that must replace all four of its 2012 starters, although soph S Travis Blanks played well enough when on the field to merit Frosh A-A status last fall. A much-improved front seven returns all but one starter from 2012, and the one new starter, jr. DE Vic Beasley, is primed to move into a featured role after recording 8 ½ sacks as a pass-rush specialist a year ago.

In conclusion, however, the SEC will again prove very important to this season’s Clemson; we’ll know if the Tigers are a serious national title contender if they can beat Georgia in the opener. Remember, the catapult to the 1981 national title was an early-season win over Herschel Walker and the defending national champion Bulldogs, also at Death Valley. Getting Florida State at home in mid-October will be important in terms of primacy in the ACC Atlantic. The ideal scenario would conclude with both the Tigers and Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina as unbeatens when they meet in the regular-season finale at Williams-Brice Stadium in what would probably be the biggest-ever sporting event in the state.

We know, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, but it’s hard to not dream big if you’re a Clemson backer.


While Florida State (SUR 12-2, PSR 5-8) won the ACC Atlantic and the conference title game (though not impressively) vs. Georgia Tech a year ago, and recorded in what recent times has been rare conference success in the BCS with an Orange Bowl win, we don’t think the Noles did as much for league prestige as did Clemson with its bowl win over LSU. Not that it was FSU’s fault that it only had to beat MAC champion Northern Illinois in the Orange. But unlike the Tigers, the Noles didn’t have a chance to make amends vs. the SEC after losing the regular-season grudge match finale vs. Florida at Tallahassee.

And many national observers were already down on the Noles for blowing a midseason game at NC State that put a wrench in what were legitimate hopes at qualifying for the BCS title game. After all, the 2012 schedule could not have set up better for FSU, which seemed to have a clear path to a national championship date, especially with the two most-challenging games (Clemson and Florida) at Doak Campbell Stadium.

Somebody, however, forgot to tell NC State that it was supposed to be roadkill. That galling 17-16 loss by the Seminoles, when they blew a seemingly-safe lead in the second half, effectively removed the Noles from the national title discussion before Halloween.

Still, those 12 wins and BCS success (albeit vs. a MAC foe) were a signal that HC Jimbo Fisher has finally solidified his position with the many FSU backers who had found it hard to warm to Jimbo after Bobby Bowden was effectively forced out after the 2009 season. What has helped the healing process in Seminole Nation has been the close relationship between Jimbo and the Bowdens; ’ol Bobby is said to consider Fisher, who in college played for Terry Bowden at Salem College and Samford U in Birmingham and later coached for him at Auburn, as almost part of the family. Indeed, not once has Bobby ever publicly criticized his successor, who was on staff and in place for the HC job before Bowden’s departure.

And Jimbo would indeed appear to be at Tallahassee for the long haul, especially after some regional insiders suspected he might be the preferred choice of his super-agent, Jimmy Sexton, for the Tennessee job that opened last season. Some expected Sexton, a Vol alum and power broker in the region, to push Fisher toward Knoxville, but Jimbo had no interest in butting heads with the powers in the SEC if he didn’t have to do so. And besides, he has a pretty good gig already at FSU.

Fisher, however, is an offensive coach by trade, and the first order of business in Tallahassee is to find a replacement for QB EJ Manuel, who was a first-round pick in the NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills. Spring work suggested that ballyhooed RS frosh Jameis Winston would be the new offensive pilot in the fall, confirmed by the fact that Manuel’s backup Clint Trickett, who expected to contend for the starting job, saw the handwriting on the wall and transferred to West Virginia after spring practice. Winston is big (6'4), can throw hard and run fast, and was considered by many as the nation’s top prep QB in the 2012 recruiting class after starring at Hueytown (Ala.) High, just outside of Birmingham. Even though Jimbo has yet to make an official announcement on his starter for the Sept. 2 opener at Pitt, the anointment of Winston is expected to be a mere formality. Barring injury, Winston will be the Nole QB for the next few years.

How quickly Winston can hit the ground running thus becomes a major storyline in this fall’s ACC. Jimbo’s offense scored 39 ppg last fall and most of the key components save Manuel will return. Four starters are back along the OL, while RBs James Wilder, Jr. & Devonta Freeman provide a thunder-and-lightning combo that gained almost 1300 YR between them a year ago. Four receivers who caught at least 27 passes in 2012, led by homerun jr. Rashad Greene (57 receptions last year), also remain in the fold.

There is also guarded optimism in regard to a defense that returns four starters from what was one of the top-ranked stop units in the country (sixth in scoring, second in total, first in pass defense) a year ago. Beyond the seven starters who moved (many of them to NFL ) after last season, d.c. Mark Stoops also departed to take the head coaching job at Kentucky.

Despite last year’s gaudy numbers, Jimbo would still like to see his “D” force more mistakes and create big plays after ranking rather well down the list (66th) in turnovers gained a year ago. To that end, Fisher raided old friend Nick Saban’s Alabama staff and pried DB coach Jeremy Pruitt to take Stoops’ place in Tallahassee.

The small number of returning starters should not be of too much concern, especially since some of the projected starters on the DL (such as tackles Tommy Jernigan and Demonte McAllister) posted better numbers than the first-stringers a year ago. Replacing NFL draftee DEs Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine will be a bit more problematic, but the recruiting pipeline has been full for a few years, and any dropoff will likely be negligible.

There is still demon speed in the back seven and playmakers galore in the mix. Senior LB Christian Jones is a top honors candidate, while three starters are back in the secondary that, as mentioned, helped lead the nation in pass defense a year ago. Pruitt also thinks that All-ACC S Lawrence Joyner might be even better suited to duties at CB, and made the switch in spring, which can hardly make opposing QBs sleep easier.

Spread-wise, perhaps the fact that Jimbo’s team might be a bit downgraded by oddsmakers after all of the graduation losses will be a bonus. The Noles have tended to be a bit overvalued the past couple of years, and were something of a spread underachiever in 2012, especially away from home in the regular season, when FSU dropped all six of its spread decisions a year ago.

Losing several assistants (including the valued d.c. Stoops) and NFL draftees from last year’s team suggests that FSU should, at the moment, probably rate behind Clemson in the ACC Atlantic pecking order. But if QB Winston can get comfy by midseason when the Noles trek to Death Valley, a repeat Atlantic Division title and BCS trip are hardly out of the question. We’ll also get an idea where FSU rates in the national pecking order in the traditional regular-season finale at Florida.


Beyond Clemson and FSU, projected 1-2 in either order by almost all forecasters entering the fall, the rest of the ACC Atlantic looks to be a jumble. For the moment, we opt for NC State (SUR 7-6, PSR 5-8) in the third slot, though do so under a mild protest after Wolfpack AD Debbie Yow, in a heavy-handed move, dismissed respected HC Tom O’Brien after last season’s 7-5 regular-season mark. O’Brien was out before the Music City Bowl vs. Vanderbilt, and NC State moved quickly for a replacement as it locked up the ascending Northern Illinois HC Dave Doeren, who had steered the Huskies to the MAC title and an improbable BCS berth against Florida State.

Thus, you can see the many moving parts last December in Raleigh, orchestrated mostly by Yow, who arrived at her new job in 2010 after a similar post at Maryland. There were emotional ties to NC State for Yow, whose sister Kay was a successful hoops coach for the Wolfpack before succumbing to cancer in 2009. But Yow has been known to grind with her employees before, most famously at Maryland with basketball coach Gary Williams. Thus, many in the region were not surprised that Yow would eventually force a my-way-or-the-highway showdown with the no-nonsense, ex-Marine O’Brien, who in late 2006 had been hired away from Boston College by Yow predecessor Lee Fowler. There was even a brief buzz in Raleigh that Doeren, a former Wisconsin assistant before taking the NIU job, could do a u-turn and jump at the Badger opening after Bret Bielema’s surprise departure for Arkansas before the Rose Bowl. Doeren, however, had made his commitment to NC State, and not wanting to give his new boss Yow any reason to doubt his intentions, politely declined any interest from Madison.

Doeren’s first order of business in spring was junking the pro-set offense preferred by O’Brien and instead installing a higher-tempo spread similar in design to his prolific offenses at DeKalb. Doeren and o.c. Matt Canada (who held the same role on Bielema’s Wisconsin staff) thus didn’t seem to mind at all that only four starters were returning on the attack end. One of the new starters will be at QB after the graduation of Mike Glennon, a Tampa Bay Bucs draftee; Colorado State transfer jr. Pete Thomas emerged as the frontrunner in spring.

Thomas, at 6'6 and 234 lbs., won’t be expected to run as much as Doeren’s NIU QB Jordan Lynch, but he’ll have to be able to detonate the faster pace Doeren and Canada desire. Mountain West observers who watched Thomas blow hot-and-cold at CSU are understandably a bit skeptical at his ability to effectively execute the sort of offense that Doeren desires. We’ll see.

Doeren offenses do put a much greater premium on balance than did the Dana Bible, pass-first approach of the O’Brien years, and to that end expect soph RB Shadrach Thornton (who led NCS with 694 YR in 2012 despite missing the first three games) and jr. Tony Creecy to get more work. There is experience at the wideout spots, where sr. Quintin Payton (51 catches LY) and jr. Bryan Underwood (44 catches and 10 TDs in 2012) are established weapons. Doeren, however, will be breaking in four new starters along the OL in front of QB Thomas.

The Wolfpack “D” was a mild disappointment last season, especially in the secondary, where a veteran group of DBs proved vulnerable to the deep ball. The big-play ability of Washington Redskins draftee CB David Amerson (18 picks the past two season) could be missed, but many ACC observers believed Amerson took ball-hawking to extremes and was too often victimized because of that aggressiveness that bordered on recklessness. Only four starters return on the platoon for new coordinator Dave Huxtable, most recently at Pitt and who will employ a 4-3 scheme for his stop unit.

On paper, the strength of the defense appears to be up front, where three starters return. The reinstatement of impact sr. OLB D.J. Green, who missed 2012 due to suspension, adds another playmaker to Huxtable’s front seven.

Doeren, whose NIU teams were 23-4 the past two seasons, will be watched closely to see if he can replicate anything close to that success in Raleigh, where the competition will be tougher. We’ll also be watching to see if Doeren can replicate last year’s spread success (9-3-1 on his watch) at NIU and perhaps help NCS rediscover some of the spread mojo it had for the first five years of the O’Brien regime (when the Wolfpack would always close fast after midseason and stood 26-13 as a dog) before a somewhat disappointing 5-8 spread mark a year ago.

But any projection beyond another minor bowl would qualify as overly-optimistic in Raleigh.


Before we concede that Jim Grobe’s regime at Wake Forest (SUR 5-7, PSR 5-7) might never replicate some of the successes of the past decade when the Deacs were briefly the rage of the ACC, we pause and reflect upon one of the best coaching jobs in recent memory. That’s because Wake had contended in the ACC and appeared in the ratings about as often as a blue moon before Grobe arrived from Ohio U and began to change the metrics in Winston-Salem 12 years ago.

We still respect Grobe greatly and suggest that he might be able to pull another surprise in 2013. But a return to the highlight days in the middle of the last decade seem unlikely.

Of course, it still seems like something of a dream that Wake was good enough to win the ACC in 2006 and advance into the BCS Orange Bowl, an unthinkable gridiron development for most of the school's history, which began in the little hamlet of Wake Forest near Raleigh-Durham before the campus, backed by regional tobacco money, moved to more-comfy digs in Winston-Salem in the mid '50s. Grobe's surge included a school-record three straight bowl invitations between 2006-08, heady stuff for a program that had never once managed as much as back-to-back bowl visits. In fact, prior to 2006, the Deacs had managed just seven postseason invitations in their gridiron history.

In retrospect, a confluence of factors contributed to Wake's emergence as an ACC force in the middle of the last decade, the most important being Grobe's presence as well as a conference power vacuum created by downturns at Florida State and Miami (the latter having joined the league amid much fanfare in 2004). Grobe also hit a few homeruns on the recruiting trail, with sorts such as NFL-bound LB Aaron Curry and CB Alphonso Smith emerging to lead a defense that had rarely been able to slow competent attacks previously. The Wake stop unit hit its high-water mark when allowing only 15 ppg in the Orange Bowl year of 2006.

Grobe’s magic touch, however, is confirmed by that fact that Wake has long been one of college football's poorer relations, having won only 36% of its games the past 60 years. Bowl trips were infrequent; the Deacs once went 31 years (1948-79) without a postseason invitation. Even when Wake would make a rare emergence, as it did in 1970 when stealing the ACC crown, there was no bowl reward. (The Deacs, only 6-5 overall that season, were bypassed in favor of nearby North Carolina for a Peach Bowl invitation in an era in which there were no guaranteed bowl destinations for ACC teams). Head coach Cal Stoll followed up that 1970 surprise with another 6-5 mark in 1971, which was enough to get the attention of Big Ten Minnesota, as Golden Gopher AD Paul Giel hired Stoll to replace the legendary Murray Warmath. By contrast, Grobe has stayed put, even deflecting reported interest from high-profile ports of call like Nebraska and Notre Dame in recent years.

Still, recent seasons have been a bit disappointing, as Wake has recorded four straight losing records, although it has usually hovered around the .500 mark, qualified for the Music City Bowl in 2011, and was only out of the bowl contention once (2010) in that span. A bowl berth looked possible last fall, too, but the Deacs, thinned by injuries and suspension, would collapse down the stretch when losing four of their last five by lopsided margins (never closer than 29 points) to conclude at 5-7.

Depth issues, always a concern in Winston-Salem, could always resurface, but there are some rays of hope entering this fall. Grobe and longtime o.c. Steed Lobotzke spent spring reintroducing some of the option concepts to the Wake offense that had mostly disappeared from pass-centric attacks of the past several years that coincided with the comfort level of former QB Riley Skinner and a scaled-back playbook the past few seasons. Improving upon a 113th-ranked rush offense (only 100 ypg) seems like a decent idea, considering how it limited an O” that could only score 18.5 ppg in 2012, ranking an even poorer 114th in scoring.

Though sr. southpaw QB Tanner Price hasn’t done a lot of running while piloting the “O” in his three previous years as a starter, he was a dual-threat in high school days and seemed to make the adjustment quite smoothly in spring. Senior RB Josh Harris (1716 career rush yards) has flashed considerable upside in the past... when healthy. Speaking of health, that was a major problem for what was an injury-plagued OL a year ago; the healthy returns of LT Steven Chase and LG Antonio Ford will be key this fall. As will be keeping prolific sr. WR Michael Campanaro (152 catches the past two seasons) in one piece after he, too, was slowed by injuries a year ago.

Grobe and d.c. Brian Knorr (a former Air Force QB who succeeded Grobe as HC at Ohio U over a decade ago) are also hopeful that this could be the best Deac stop unit since the consecutive bowl years of the last decade. Eight starters return, with experience spread throughout the various scaffolds of the platoon. Again, staying healthy will be key; important playmakers along the DL (in particular honors candidate NG Nikita Whitlock) and secondary (specifically shutdown CB Merrill Noel) were both limited by injuries a year ago. Whitlock returns to anchor an all-senior DL, and the secondary, with a healthy Noel and fellow jr. returning starter CB Kevin Johnson, has plenty of experience.

Where the Deacs could use an upgrade is within the LB corps that was a strength during the best Grobe years. It is hoped that RS frosh Kevin Jones and soph Brandon Chubb will break into the lineup and provide the sort of playmaking bent too often absent from the Deac “D” the past few seasons.

The schedule shapes up similar to last season, with several winnable games out of the chute before the first major test on September 28 at Clemson. The slate gets harder down the stretch, and another spate of injuries like 2012 could once again expose the raw nerve of depth. But if the Deacs can avoid the injury bug, the resourceful Grobe is still capable of steering Wake back into a minor bowl and perhaps once again becoming a nuisance to the top contenders in the loop.


The college football equivalent of Murphy’s Law the past couple of years has been at Maryland (SUR 4-8, PSR 6-6). Whatever can go wrong seems to have indeed gone wrong for the Terps ever since they controversially hit the eject button on HC Ralph Friedgen after the 2010 bowl season and hired Randy Edsall away from UConn.

Perhaps it is fitting that the Terps have seemed jinxed since, suffering uncommon personnel defections in 2011 before an injury bug which was the football equivalent of Super Storm Sandy wiped out the Maryland QB depth chart in quick order last fall and forced a former LB (Shawn Petty) into a starting role by midseason. Considering all of the hurdles associated with having no viable alternatives at QB, Edsall did well to get to those four wins a year ago, although the Terps dropped their last six games when the situation behind center was at its most dire.

Edsall was thus given a mulligan for 2012 and enters 2013 with a bit more rope than most coaches who would have lost 18 of their first 24 games after inheriting a bowl-qualifying program. But barring another tidal wave of injuries, Edsall is going to be expected to display significant progress and at least a .500 record or find himself in potential hot water in December.

Moreover, the pending move to the Big Ten for 2014 suggests that ACC opposition will probably not pull any punches against the Terps this fall.

Of course, all eyes are going to be on an “O” that understandably finished bottom of the national offense stats when gaining a mere 285 ypg a year ago. Senior QB C.J. Brown, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in fall camp and before even taking a snap a season ago, had previously emerged as one of the lone bright spots from the desultory 2-10 campaign of 2011 and whose run and pass skills were the fit around which o.c. Mike Locksley had built last year’s new-look spread.

A healthy Brown could make a significant difference this fall, and there is at least now plenty of experienced depth at the position. Soph Perry Hills, who performed with some flair in the first half of the season before he, too, was felled by injury (torn ACL), is available if needed, though Edsall might be tempted to use a redshirt on Hills, who likely takes over the “O” in 2014, in order to save a year of eligibility.

That all might be wishful thinking, however, as of all teams, Maryland knows that you can never have too many available QBs on a roster. If 2012's injuries are an indicator, Edsall will probably want all hands on deck this fall.

Further encouragement in College Park comes from a collection of skill-position weaponry led by explosive soph wideout Stefon Diggs, one of the nation’s top recruits a year ago who still caught 54 passes as a frosh despite all of the QB issues on the roster. Soph RBs Brandon Ross and Wes Brown have flashed plenty of upside, too; Wes should be ready for fall camp after sitting out spring work while rehabbing from shoulder surgery. Another positive byproduct of the injury epidemic from 2012 was that soph LT Mike Madaras was thrust into action a year earlier than expected, but responded with mostly flying colors and is now considered a legit NFL prospect. Edsall and vet OL coach Tom Bratton made upgrades along the forward wall, which returns three starters, an emphasis all spring.

Our questions regarding the offense, however, have more to do with the capabilities of o.c. Locksley, who presided over a destruction of the New Mexico program when Lobo HC a few years ago. His accomplishments as o.c. at Illinois include only one memorable season (the surprise 2007 Rose Bowl run); those who recall how Illini QB Juice Williams regressed in the subsequent 2008 campaign are rightly concerned about Locksley’s qualifications.

We have fewer reservations about d.c. Brian Stewart, who in the past also served in the same role with Dallas Cowboys. Stewart’s first Terp defense in 2012 improved markedly from the 2011 version, all of the way up to 21st in national total “D” rankings. Interestingly, the injury bug that hit the Terps so hard last season was mostly limited to the offensive side; Stewart’s defense stayed mostly healthy and was able to keep the Terps in many games when the offense floundered.

Maryland defended the run surprisingly well last season (ranking 26th nationally) perhaps in part due to the presence of All-ACC DEs Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis., who have both graduated, so Stewart is legitimately concerned about finding replacements up front in his 3-4 scheme. But there are several returning playmakers in the defensive mix, including jr. NT Darius Kilgo, who emerged as a valued run-stuffer, while ILB Cole Farrand recorded a team-best 78 tackles. There is starting experience on the corners, too, where jr. Jeremiah Johnson & sr. Dexter McDougle return.

While the schedule gets a lot tougher in the second half of the season, there is an opportunity for the Terps to get off to a fast start. Edsall’s return to Storrs to face his old UConn team on September 21 looms as not only an emotional game for the coach, but an indicator if Maryland is really up to making a push for a bowl that Edsall might need keep the war drums from beating too loudly at Byrd Stadium. It’s also worth noting that Edsall’s Terp teams have yet to flash the pointspread prowess of many of his UConn squads that gained quite a reputation as overachievers vs. the line.

Keeping his QBs healthy this fall will be a good place to start for Edsall to resume that pattern.


For comparisons between the relative strengths of what was the Big East in football and the ACC, look no further than Syracuse (SUR 8-5, PSR 7-6), which was good enough to close fast vs. a Big East slate and get to the Yankee Pinstripe Bowl in The Bronx last December, where it beat old rival and former conference foe West Virginia.

But a lot has changed since last season for the Orange, beginning with that conference affiliation. Before the old Big East, as we knew it, would disintegrate, Syracuse, along with league partner Pitt, found refuge in the ACC. We’ll get an idea this fall if it is going to be much of a leap, if any leap at tall, for the ‘Cuse into a new league which most observers believe rates a step or two above what the Big East was in football.

Even then, however, comparisons might have to be measured because the Orange have a different look about themselves in 2013, too. Four-year HC Doug Marrone is now the head coach of the NFL Buffalo Bills, with former d.c. Scott Shafer promoted as his replacement. Productive 3-year starting QB Ryan Nassib has also departed, drafted into the NFL by the New York Giants. Besides Nassib, four other All-Big East performers have graduated, too.

It’s also worth noting that before the ’Cuse turned around its 2012 campaign by winning and covering 6 of its last 7 games, Marrone was considered to be on the hot seat at the Carrier Dome after a 2-4 start that included a narrow escape at home vs. Stony Brook and a loss at Minnesota. There's a question of how good Syracuse really was in 2012.

It’s the departure of Nassib, however, that has a lot of Orange fans concerned, for it was he who mastered the hurry-up portion of the newly-installed spread offense a year ago that would become the staple of the 'Cuse attack. Nassib, comfy in the accelerated tempo, steered the strike force to 36 ppg over the last half of the 2012 campaign after struggling mightily into mid-October.

Shafer, having watched up close as the “O” would flourish down the stretch a year ago, has committed to a similar philosophy and hired Miami passing game coordinator George McDonald to see to it that the momentum continues. With no Nassib, however, that might be easier said than done. Especially since the race to replace Nassib took a different turn in May when Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen showed up and added another angle to a QB derby that seemed to be leaning toward third-year soph Terrel Hunt after spring practice.

Whichever QB takes snaps will have some decent cover in RBs Jerome Smith (a slammer who gained 1171 YR in 2012) and Prince-Tyson Gulley (a glider who gained 830 YR and 9 TDs last fall), and three starters return along the OL. Meanwhile, top wideouts Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales (combined 136 receptions last season) have also followed Nassib away from the Carrier Dome, though WR Jarrod West and TE Beckett Wales did combine for 78 catches last season.

Shafer’s fingerprints will still be all over his defense that has added like-minded Chuck Bullough, who has coached with Shafer in the past, as the new coordinator. Like Shafer, Bullough subscribes to the attack-from-all-angles philosophy. Syracuse brought lots of pressure last season and ranked sixth nationally in tackles for loss (7.9 pg).

Playmakers return at each position group on the platoon, although the top two tacklers (including SS Shamarko Thomas, taken in the NFL Draft by the Steelers) and disruptive DE Brandon Sharpe must be replaced. The defense has a seasoned look about it, however, with upperclassmen penciled into all starting spots in the attack-minded 4-3. Honors candidates include sr. CB Ri’Shard Anderson and MLB Marcus Spruill.

The Shafer era gets a rough baptism, opening vs. Penn State (at the Meadowlands) and at Northwestern. A trip to Florida State awaits in mid-November. Although there is plenty of continuity from the Marrone regime, the adjustment to a brand-new QB on the offensive side might take some time. Remember, Nassib threw all but four of the ’Cuse passes the past two years. Shafer will be doing very well to get the Orange back to a bowl.


You’re forgiven if assuming that Boston College (SUR 2-10; PSR 4-8) hasn’t been playing football lately. The Eagles disappeared the last two seasons as the program predictably regressed under HC Frank Spaziani, a defensive specialist whose ideas on the other side of the ball were so conservative that he could have considered Antonin Scalia as his prototypical offensive coordinator.

Without any acumen on the attack end, Spaziani turned the offense over to a succession of coordinators, the last of which, Doug Martin, is now employed at New Mexico State as the Aggies’ head coach. Martin tried to jazz up what had been a dormant aerial attack before last season, but ended up completely neglecting a once-formidable ground game that could barely gain 90 ypg and ranked a distant 115th in national rush stats. Which instead put more pressure on now-sr. QB Chase Rettig; without an infantry diversion and with his tight ends wiped out en masse due to injury, Rettig would spend much of 2012 running for his life before finishing with a modest 17 TD passes alongside 13 picks. Rettig was sacked 36 times as BC ranked a sorry 106th nationally in that regard.

Rettig remains but Spaziani doesn’t, humanely removed of his duties following last season, when his departure became a fait accompli once his top supporter, AD Gene DeFilippo, announced he would be retiring in the fall. New AD Brad Bates would eventually hit the eject button that all suspected was coming before the season hit its halfway point.

Enter Steve Addazio, a native New Englander who spent the past two seasons as HC at Temple after a long career as an assistant, highlighted by a couple of seasons as Urban Meyer’s o.c. at Florida. Addazio’s preferred offensive balance, as exemplified by his Temple teams, puts a lot more emphasis on the running game than BC exhibited a year ago. But with Rettig (who did pass for 3065 yards last year) still in the fold, Addazio will wait a while before implementing his style of offense with a dual-threat signal caller--something the pro-style Rettig is not.

Expect more pitch-and-catch between Rettig and some of his established targets such as sr. WR Alex Amildon, who caught a school-record 78 passes for 1210 yards and 7 TDs in 2012, and sr. Bobby Swigert, who has dealt with a myriad of injuries but did once lead the Eagles in receiving yards way back in 2010.

Still, new Eagle o.c. Ryan Day will at least seek to achieve better balance and will try to feature sr. RB Andre Williams, a physical specimen at 6'0 and 220 lbs. who gained 584 YR in 2012, with the power to run inside and the speed to go outside. He’ll get the bulk of the carries after explosive but injury-prone Deuce Finch, expected to split the work in the fall, left the team during spring practice.

Improvement along the OL, however, is critical; three starters return, although a pair of new bookends will be starting at the tackle spots, hardly comforting to Rettig after the abuse he received from enemy pass rushers a year ago.

Whatever improvements BC can make on the attack might all be moot unless the “D” rediscovers some of its old swagger, and fast. Confirming that Spaziani was past his sell-by date, a once-rock ribbed platoon featuring playmakers like All-American LB Luke Kuechly a few years ago had regressed into mediocrity by the time the Spaziani regime extinguished. Among other unheard-of developments for a Chestnut Hill stop unit a year ago were low rankings in rush defense (214 ypg and 111th), total defense (456 ypg at 100th), and sacks (only 6...last in the country).

Addazio’s new d.c. is Dan Brown, formerly at Maryland and most recently at UConn and a proponent of attacking, blitz-based platoons that run counter to the Spaziani zone defense emphasis. But Brown has some problems with the inherited personnel, including all of the starters who return from last year’s DL; in a word, they were ineffective, and rarely could generate any push toward opposing QBs, reflected by the near-invisible sack numbers. Expect the aggressive returning starters at OLB, srs. Kevin Pierre-Louis and Steele Divitto, to be featured. The secondary returns three starters plus perhaps the best athlete on the team, CB Al Louis-Jean, who missed all of 2012 with a broken foot.

The Eagles cannot be any worse than a year ago, but a chance for a quick break from the gate for Addazio is probably negated by September games vs. Southern Cal and Florida State. Some ACC observers believe that BC could surprise after things went unexpectedly stale in quick order for the Spaziani regime, which was competitive until a season ago. But we would be surprised if Addazio can immediately get BC back into the bowl mix.


NEXT UPDATE: ACC COASTAL PREVIEW!


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