by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We conclude our look at the Atlantic Coast Conference by previewing the Atlantic Division. As usual, teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with last year's straight-up and pointspread records included...

The question on the minds of all followers of ACC football, beyond if local supermarkets are off limits to Jameis Winston, is if Florida State (SUR 14-0, PSR 11-3) is up for a repeat national championship.

Well, here’s an indicator. In early June, we were once again involved with Tony Miller and Aaron Kessler from Las Vegas’ venerable Golden Nugget, for the process of arriving at pointspreads for 200 select college football “games of the year” to be posted over the summer at the sports book of the historic downtown hotel. Many of the Seminoles’ games were included, and every single spread involving FSU saw it posted as a double-digit favorite (and often a heavy double-digit favorite).

Mind you, no team in documented TGS history has gone a complete regular season as a double-digit favorite in every game, with 2004 USC (a single-digit favorite only once, in an October home game vs. Cal) coming the closest. And, of course, these are just preliminary numbers on the Noles’ games for 2014. But if we’re on the right course, the chances look pretty good for FSU to at least have a shot to defend its national crown in the successor to the BCS, the creatively-named College Football Playoff.

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And why not? We are hard-pressed to ever recall a college side rolling through its regular season as did the 2013 Noles, who outscored foes a staggering 51.6-12.1 ppg during the regular season, never trailing a game in the second half until the BCS title game vs. Auburn. None of Bobby Bowden’s earlier powerhouses at FSU had ever dominated in similar fashion. Perhaps it took that sort of season from fourth-year HC Jimbo Fisher to finally quiet the vocal faction of Nole boosters still loyal to Bowden, who, unbeknownst to many, has long been close to Jimbo, considering him almost as one of the family.

Now that Jimbo’s chops as a head coach are firmly established after making a name for himself as an offensive coordinator of note, some have wondered if Fisher is in it for the long haul in Tallahassee, or perhaps looking elsewhere to move. The answers probably came during the last two offseasons, when Jimbo politely declined to get involved in job searches at Tennessee (the preference of Jimbo’s agent Jimmy Sexton, a Vol alum) and Texas, which was casting a wide net late last year, and into January, as it sought to replace Mack Brown.

And why would Jimbo want to leave FSU? He might be able to make a little more money elsewhere, but he is being rewarded handsomely, has a situation in which he can get most of his recruits admitted, and does not have to worry about knocking heads with foes in the SEC or Big 12. The Noles are the alpha dog of the ACC and should have a legit chance to qualify for the new Playoff in almost every year. Which is another reason that FSU stopped rattling its saber regarding a possible move to the Big 12 a few years ago. Having since assigned its telecast rights to the conference (along with the other ACC members), FSU is not going anywhere in the foreseeable future.

The Noles’ title defense starts with defending Heisman winner QB Winston and four starters from what was the best line in college football last fall. There are more key departures from last year’s decorated stop unit that led the nation in scoring defense, but the only hurdle we foresee is Jimbo trying to keep his powerhouse troops properly motivated all season. There was a bit of magic about the Noles a year ago that might be hard for Jimbo to resurrect, even as FSU is expected to romp in every regular-season game.

The only real concerns on offense are replacing the first and second-string tailbacks, plus big target WR Kelvin Benjamin (Panthers first-round pick), who emerged as Winston’s “money” man last season and caught the late TD pass to beat Auburn in the last-ever BCS title game. But there is no real concern among the RBs especially with former DB Karlos Williams ready to really bust loose after gaining 730 YR, at better than 8 yards per pop, in a reserve role a year ago. Speedy backups Mario Pender, Ryan Green, and touted true frosh Dalvin Cook (a Miami product) give Jimbo, who still serves as his own o.c., plenty of homerun threats off the bench.

Although Benjamin has moved early to the NFL, Winston (4057 YP and 48 TDP in 2013) still has his favorite targets, srs. WR Rashad Greene (76 catches and 9 TDs last year; FSU’s receiving leader as a frosh, soph, and junior) and TE Nick O’Leary (Mackey Award finalist with 33 catches for 7 TDs in 2013), in the fold. Winston figures to have time to throw with his experienced OL that returns four starters, while the fifth, sr. C Austin Barron, has five starts of his own in his FSU career. Those who want to nitpick might want to point out the relative inexperience behind the OL starters, but if that is Jimbo’s biggest concern heading into the fall, we don’t think it is causing him to lose much sleep.

We might to suggest to Jimbo, however, that he keep a close eye on his prime commodity, Winston, who has shown a predilection to get himself into off-field trouble. Keeping Jameis out of jail has been almost as hard for Jimbo as it ahs been for opposing coaches to keep him and the Noles out of the end zone.

Most regional insiders also believe that the Nole defense will not have any significant dropoff from last season’s platoon that led the nation in scoring "D" and third in total defense. Still, losing so much frontline talent to the NFL (such DT Timmy Jernigan, emotional leaders leaders LB Telvin Smith and DB Lamarcus Joyner, and S Terrence Brooks) is cause for a bit of concern. And there will be a new coordinator, with Charles Kelly promoted from LB coach after Jeremy Pruitt left Tallahassee for the University of Georgia.

Still, six starters remain in the fold, including jr. DE Mario Edwards, a onetime USA TODAY National Defensive Player of the Year as a prep who flashed dominant form last fall and can play inside or out. A slew of athletic and powerful defensive linemen will be joining Edwards.

Kelly will be breaking in a few more new faces in the LB group, where jr. OLB Terrence Smith is the only returning starter. Spring work suggested that RS frosh Matthew Thomas could be a new star in the making as an edge-rushing DE/KLB hybrid. The Noles could also not be more confident about their secondary despite losing two starters, including Joyner (Rams 2nd-round pick). Soph Jalen Ramsey, who started as a true frosh at both CB and safety in 2013, is expected to take over the safety spot vacated by Joyner. But the secondary is so deep that even backup CB sr. Nick Waisome spent 2012 as the starter.

Granted, the Noles lost some key pieces from last year’s BCS title winner, but the assembly line is rolling in Tallahassee, and Jimbo should have able replacements to slot into the mix around a dominant core of returnees led by Heisman winner Winston. What we are most interested to see, however, is if Jimbo can rekindle that competitive fire that made FSU (11-3 vs. the line a year ago) a go-with proposition even as pointspreads mushroomed as last season progressed. Remember, no one in the ACC can within breathing distance of the Noles last season, and the 2014 slate shapes up favorably, with most of the dangerous foes (Clemson, Notre Dame, and Florida) all visiting Doak Campbell Stadium, with ACC newcomer Louisville and old foe Miami on the road.

But, if Jameis Winston gets into more trouble....

Here we go again! The rollercoaster ride that is Bobby Petrino has returned for an encore at Louisville (SUR 12-1, PSR 6-7), completing a roundabout (or maybe we should say “Roustabout” instead, honoring one of our favorite Elvis movies when he tried to romance Sue Ane Langdon and rode a motorcycle, a well-publicized Petrino behavior trait and mode of transport in recent years) seven-year odyssey around various locales in the south.

The ‘Ville that Petrino re-inherits from Charlie Strong will also now be operating out of a higher-priced neighborhood in the ACC and not Conference USA or the Big East, as in Petrino’s first tour of duty. Though it should be noted that the Cards have fared pretty well when stepping up the past few seasons, romping past ACC rep Miami by a 36-9 count in last December’s Russell Athletic Bowl, and beating SEC Florida in the Sugar Bowl the year before. And while the top of the ACC is treacherous, the likes of Virginia, Wake Forest, NC State, and Boston College (all new foes in 2014) hardly look any better than the middle-rung Big East and AAC sorts that Strong’s Louisville routinely handled the past few years.

When last seen at Papa John’s Stadium at the end of the 2006 season, Petrino had led the Cardinals to a 41-9 record he previous four seasons and a BCS berth in the 2007 Orange Bowl. But that was all before a dizzying trek to the Atlanta Falcons, Arkansas, and Western Kentucky, with Petrino leaving plenty of scorched earth and “good riddance” references from respective fan bases.

All of that, however, has made little difference to Louisville, which has indicated before that it doesn’t mind employing coaches with some baggage (such as Rick Pitino), taking Al Davis' famous "Just win, baby" to heart. Whatever ethical shortcomings attached to Petrino and his earlier Card regime were apparently easy to overlook, too, because Bobby won, an end that seems to justify all means at Louisville. When Petrino successor Steve Kragthorpe tried to clean out some of Petrino’s bad seeds left over in the program, the locals revolted, especially because the Cards regressed quickly in the W-L column upon Petrino’s 2007 departure.

Petrino has also reconvened some old friends on staff, including o.c. Garrick McGee, Petrino’s o.c. at Arkansas who had been head coach at UAB the past two seasons. Given the choice of continuing to coach in front of empty seats at Legion Field, or coordinating the offense of an expected ACC contender, McGee’s choice was obvious.

Petrino returns to a program that also scaled some impressive the heights under predecessor Strong, who left for the Texas job after leading the Cards to the BCS in 2012 and winning another 12 games last season. Though there are some obvious lineup holes to fill from a year ago, we would discount those who believe the Cards might be due for a big drop-off. Rather, this looks like a situation in which an operator like Petrino can really flourish.

Morover, the noted trash talking by recent Cards teams, which made some foes look as intimidated as Floyd Patterson once did when stepping into the ring vs. Sonny Liston, will also be embraced by Petrino.

Concern number one at Papa John’s is not as much Petrino succeeding Strong but rather soph Will Gardner replacing Teddy Bridgewater (Vikings first-round pick) at QB. Unlike others, we are not conceding a significant drop-off at QB; consider that Petrino has rarely been caught short at the position, and Gardner allayed many of those fears in the spring game when completing 32 of 37 passes for 542 yards. Though spring games are notoriously deceiving and often low-key, 542 passing yards would be spectacular in any setting, be it a Strat-O-Matic game or on the sandlot. Observers were most impressed that Gardner had developed chemistry and timing with star WR DeVante Parker and the rest of the ‘Ville’s talented receiving corps by the end of spring drills.

Indeed, many believe Parker’s decision to bypass the NFL Draft and return for his senior season had already mitigated some of the potential damage caused by Bridgewater’s early exit. Parker’s late-season surge in 2013 and dominant effort (9 catches for 142 yards) in the bowl romp past Miami provide a dimension for the offense that an offensive whiz such as Petrino can exploit.

Gardner will also be surrounded by every weapon an unproven QB needs--halfbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, and four returning linemen. Besides Parker (who also caught 12 TD passes last season), speedsters Eli Rogers (44 catches LY), Kai De La Cruz (18.1 yp reception in 2013), Robert Clark and Michaelee Harris are all established receiving threats. As well as sr. TE Christian Gardner, pegged as a breakout star this fall after shining in spring drills. Gardner’s 28 catches last fall were also good for over 15 yards per catch, an extremely impressive average for a tight end.

If anything, Petrino might also believe in a power running game more so than predecessor Strong, and the RB pool is the deepest on the team. Dominique Brown led Card backs LY with 825 yards, but Auburn transfer Michael Dyer and early enrollee true frosh L.J. Scott were the best-looking runners in spring. As long as the ’Ville OL (with four returning starters) holds up, Petrino has his complement to the passing game.

Though only four starters return on the defensive side, it was the number-one rated stop unit in the country last season, allowing only 251 ypg. The new faces in the lineup, and the upgraded ACC schedule, figure to inflate those numbers, but Petrino’s new d.c. Todd Grantham (imported from Mark Richt’s Georgia staff) is not exactly going to be working with his hands tied behind his back.

If there is a potential trouble spot for the platoon, it could be in the secondary, especially at the safety spots after the departure of a pair of three-year starters, including the decorated Calvin Pryor (Jets first-round pick). A projected starter at SS, Jermaine Reve (who had moved from slot corner), damaged his knee in spring and appears iffy for the fall. Juco and ex-Washington Huskies transfer James Sample likely gets the next call at SS. Better injury news might come at the LB spots, where jr. Keith Brown missed all of 2013 plus spring work due to knee problems, but should be ready to go in the fall.

Grantham’s challenge will be rebuilding the middle of the defense--both tackles, interior linebackers, and the aforementioned safeties. But if recent recruiting has been as upgraded as the past few seasons have suggested, Grantham has some building blocks to use.

Even moving into an upgraded league (ACC) and without the coach (Strong) who won 23 games over the past two seasons, underestimate the ‘Ville at your own risk. Like him or not, Bobby Petrino has a proven record of winning and teams consistently putting 40 or more points on board. Remember, too, that Petrino’s last three Arkansas teams posted a combined 17-7-1 record as chalk, much like his last three ‘Ville teams earlier in the past decade posted a 24-11 mark as a favorite.

What we’re really saying is to watch out for these guys.

No one at Clemson (SUR 11-2, PSR 7-6) is talking anymore about Dabo Swinney being the wrong guy to lead the program. That had been a topic of discussions at several IPTAY meetings over the past few years after an odd set of circumstances (Tommy Bowden’s midseasson ouster in 2008, and school coffers not being full enough to make a big-money offer to a higher-profile coach after Swinney’s interim assignment following Bowden’s departure) led to Dabo getting the job on a full-time basis in 2009. But after back-to-back 11-win seasons and bowl successes vs. LSU and Ohio State, there is little grumbling anymore in Death Valley regarding Swinney, who has finally built some capital and good will within the support base.

At first glance, however, 2014 does not seem like the ideal year for Clemson to continue its recent three-season run of 10 or more wins. Dabo loses a record-setting quarterback in Tajh Boyd (Jets 6th-round pick), a 1,000-yard rusher in Roderick McDowell (Redskins camp), and the No. 4 overall pick (Bills) from May's NFL Draft, homerun WR Sammie Watkins.

Moreover, there are a couple of alligator-filled moats to cross in the first month of the season. Daunting road tasks at revenge-minded Georgia on Aug. 30 and a trip to ACC Atlantic rival Florida State on Sept. 20 could have Tiger backers thinking about the Music City Bowl before the end of baseball season.

There is never an ideal time to lose as much offensive firepower as has departed Death Valley since a year ago. What’s worse is that there is not going to be much time for key replacements, such as new QB Cole Stoudt, to grow into their positions before a demanding opener at a locale such as Athens.

Maybe, however, Stoudt will be up to the task. A senior who has not had a lot of game experience, Stoudt has nonetheless shown well in brief appearances, such as a year ago when completing 79% of his passes and tossing for 5 TDs in mostly mop-up work. And if he has some questions about replacing a productive QB like Boyd, all he has to do is ask his papa Cliff, who once upon a time was Terry Bradshaw’s backup in a couple of the Super Bowl years with the Steelers. The starting job became his in spring after top competitor Chad Kelly was dismissed from the team by Dabo following series of incidents.

The best news for the offense, however, involves creative o.c. Chad Morris, whose arrival in Death Valley from Tulsa has neatly coincided with Clemson’s resurgence the past three seasons. Morris, the architect of Clemson’s hurry-up, no-huddle, high-tempo attack that averaged 40.2 points and gained 510 yards per game in 2013, has been courted by a variety of others locales in head coaching searches the past few seasons, but remains with the Tigers. Which should give the Clemson a better than fighting chance to continue lighting up the scoreboards this fall.

Morris and Dabo are not working with a bare cupboard of talent, as ACC insiders believe the Tiger skill-position weapons are still formidable. Soph WR Mike Williams has drawn comparison to 2013 first-round NFL pick, DeAndre Hopkins, while sr. Adam Humphries (41 catches LY) is a reliable presence on short-to-intermediate routes. The middle of the OL returns in tact, led by gritty jr. C Ryan Norton, and if a lead back can emerge from the pack of jr. Zac Brooks (5 ypc in limited carries last fall), sr. D.J. Howard, and touted RS frosh TE Wayne Gallman, the pieces could be in place for another productive strike force.

A possible concern could be at the PK spot, where Chandler Catanzaro has departed as the ACC’s number two all-time scorer, and where expected replacement jr. Ammon Lakip left the program briefly last summer.

The Tigers could also do a whole lot worse than what they have returning on defense, which might be enough to carry them to similar heights of recent past. As an indicator of the level of last year’s platoon, opponents faced an average of 8.2 yards-to-go on third downs last season, the second best such defensive mark in the country. Having foes in so many passing downs also helped the pass rush a year ago.

Clemson’s “D” used to be more of a liability than a strength, but not lately. The core of last year’s stingy stop unit returns for co-d.c.’s Brett Venables and Marion Hobby, highlighted by most of the DL two-deep featuring sr. DE Vic Beasley (13 sacks as a junior), a consensus A-A who turned down a chance to enter the NFL Draft. Another senior, 295-lb. DT Grady Jarrett, is a run-stuffer deluxe.

Beyond Beasley & Jarrett, four other starters return to the platoon, including returning leading tackler LB Stephone Anthony (131 tackles LY). Junior Travis Blanks was a Frosh A-A two years ago before an up-and-down soph campaign that ended when he a tore and ACL last November. Venables suspects that a position switch might do wonders for Blanks and moved him to the “SAM” (hybrid safety/LB) position in spring.

In the secondary, CB Bashaund Breeland (Redskins 4th round pick) could be missed after declaring a year early for the NFL Draft, but seniors Martin Jenkins and Garry Peters bring plenty of savvy to the corners, and touted RS frosh Mackenzie Alexander appears primed for a breakthrough on the other side.

Dabo’s Tigers have done almost everything asked of them lately, except beat bitter rivals Florida State and South Carolina, against whom Clemson is 0-4 the past two seasons. If the best teams in recent Clemson history couldn’t clear those hurdles the past two seasons, we're not sure that this fall will be any different, especially with Boyd & Watkins having departed Death Valley. But the Tigers project as favorites in their other games, so a fourth straight double-digit win season is not out of the question.

There was a bit of a bipolar streak to the efforts of Syracuse (SUR 7-6, PSR 8-4-1) in its maiden ACC voyage last season. Especially the feast-or-famine offense that on occasion generated points like Jim Boeheim’s Cuse hoopsters (50-plus points twice during the season) but looked from the peach-basket era at other times, failing to score as many as 20 points on six occasions. The Orange were also on the wrong ends of bombardments like 56-0 against Georgia Tech and 59-3 vs. Florida State, causing rumors to circulate that famous alum Jim Brown might have to make a special trip to suggest to his successors that Syracuse football teams aren’t supposed to lose games by 50 points or more.

Still, things are looking up at the Carrier Dome with second-year HC Scott Shafer, especially since the program didn’t regress last fall as some expected after Shafer predecessor Doug Marrone left town to call shots for the Buffalo Bills. The Orange also took plenty of momentum with them into the offseason after a rousing 21-17 Texas Bowl win over Minnesota.

It took a while last year for Shafer to sort out the offense, which mostly spun its wheels in the first month of the campaign while giving Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen a shot at QB. A better alternative was already in the program, though it took until midseason for Shafer and o.c. George McDaniel to figure out that then-soph Terrel Hunt was probably the best option for the Orange.

Built like a fullback at 6'3 and 233 pounds, Hunt also sparked the Syracuse run game with his 500 yards rushing, doing a good impression of past Syracuse bulldozers such as John Mackey, Jim Nance, and Larry Csonka from the Ben Schwartzwalder era in the process. Hunt was a true dual-threat, also passing for 1638 yards and 10 TDs while completing 61% of his throws in just over a half-season of work. Not Peyton Manning-like stuff, but good enough to provide some balance for the offense.

We are relatively sure that Syracuse can significantly improve upon its very modest 22.7 ppg last fall (ranking 98th in scoring offense), not only because of the presence of Hunt, but also because there is game experience returning at every position except one interior line spot. Shafer and aforementioned o.c. McDaniel also have a year under their belts, and now the Orange enter a season with an established starter (Hunt) at QB.

More stability at the QB spot should benefit the entirety of the offense. Team rush numbers (195 ypg, ranking a respectable 38th nationally) were not bad last season, partly because of Hunt’s running dimension. Though there are no Jim Browns or Floyd Littles running the ball these days for the Orange, a collection of backs led by the slashing Prince-Tyson Gulley (5.5 ypc in 2013) can likely overcome the early departure of Jerome Smith, last year’s leading rusher (914 yards) who declared for last May’s NFL Draft and ended up signing a FA deal with the Falcons.

How far Hunt can progress the passing game, however, will likely determine the degree of improvement Syracuse can make from last season. The team had no receiver catch as much as 500 yards worth of passes a year ago, and a sharper edge must be developed by imposing 6'3 specimen Ashton Boyd, who caught 52 passes last season though none of them went for a TD. Shafer believes some of the newcomers can make an impression on the WR corps, especially highly-rated wideouts K.J. Williams (via Bethlehem PA), Corey Cooper (via Raleigh), and Steve Ishmael (via Miami). Remember those names in the fall.

Best of all for the offense, four starters return along the OL led by honors candidate sr. LT Sean Hickey, and every key player returns on special teams, including homerun soph Brisly Estime, whose late 70-yard punt return set up the winning TD in the bowl game vs. the Golden Gophers.

That Jekyll-Hyde pattern flashed by the offense last season could also have applied to the defense which held five foes to 17 points or fewer and pitched two shutouts but also yielded at least 48 points on four other occasions. Huh?

Defensively, seven starters return, but a couple of impactful playmakers don’t, including star DT Jay Bromley and MLB Marquis Spruill, who combined for 15.5 sacks and 29 tackles for loss a year ago.

There is experience at every level of the platoon, with the linebacking corps being a potential area of strength with Cameron Lynch (69 tackles LY ranks second among returning starters) and Dyshawn Davis. The secondary, led by jr. FS Durell Eskridge (team-best 78 tackles and four picks last season), will return solid game experience at all four positions.

The schedule toughens up in a hurry after the first two vs. Villanova and Central Michigan, with Maryland (no longer an ACC foe) and Notre Dame (at the Meadowlands) next up before the meat of the conference schedule commences. Beyond Florida State and probably Clemson, however, there doesn’t look to be a game on the schedule that Syracuse cannot win, and we expect Shafer to get the Orange back to another bowl, though improving much upon last season’s seven wins looks a bit iffy.

Spread-wise, Shafer’s team somewhat overachieved with its 8-4-1 mark, with several potential supporters likely spooked by the occasional heavy losses. But the Carrier Dome also resurrected itself last year as a fortress when the Orange covered five of six at home.

Those who contend that the ACC Atlantic is a top-heavy group are not far off of the mark. While the top three (Florida State, Louisville, and Clemson) are easy to identify, and Syracuse looks like a bowl team once more, the division drops off significantly thereafter. The bottom three, in particular, seem to be separated from the top by a distance almost as long as the north-south I-95 route that traverses most of the locales in the loop.

Among the acknowledged Atlantic “bottom three” in 2014, we give a measured vote to Wake Forest (SUR 4-8, PSR 5-7) as the best of the bunch. Admittedly, at these depths, evidence for such a recommendation is elusive. But we have an idea that the Demon Deacons might be a bit better than NC State or Boston College this fall.

Mind you, Wake is no threat for the College Football Playoff. Especially as it welcomes a new regime after the well-respected Jim Grobe finally gave up the good fight after last season, the Deacs’ fifth losing record in a row after some rare success for the long-downtrodden program in the middle of the last decade. Grobe’s ability to scheme and coach up his players was not able to overcome some of the personnel shortcomings on recent rosters after taking advantage of a power vacuum in the conference and hitting the jackpot on a few NFL-quality recruits several years ago.

It was time for a change at Wake and new HC Dave Clawson, off a MAC-winning campaign at Bowling Green, has arrived in Winston-Salem to tackle what has been a historically-daunting task.

College football insiders, however, are almost all in high praise of Clawson, who won not only at Bowling Green, but also at previous head coaching stops with Vin Scully’s alma mater Fordham, where he took the Rams from an 0-11 mark to the I-AA quarterfinals, and Richmond, where he resurrected the Spider program and was twice named the I-AA (now FCS) Coach of the Year. Before his Bowling Green assignment, Clawson was hired as o.c. at Tennessee, many believed to be groomed to replace Phil Fulmer, before the Vols fell apart in 2008 and the Fulmer regime was run out of Neyland Stadium. Clawson just happened to be at the wrong place at wrong time in Knoxville six years ago, but quickly put his career back on the fast track in the MAC.

Clawson is already in the process of making adjustments to make Wake competitive in 2014 despite the presence of only eight returning starters. All of Clawson’s know-how is going to be required on offense, where the Deacs return only three starters (all on the line) and have lost, among others, four-year starting QB Tanner Price and do-everything WR Michael Campanaro (taken in the NFL Draft by the Ravens), and speedy RB Josh Harris. Even with that collection of playmakers, the Deacs ranked abysmally low in most relevant offensive categories last season (such as 114th in scoring at 18.3 ppg, and 118th in total offense at 291 ypg).

Specifically, Clawson has said that he will implement a multiple offense after running a full-blown spread in recent years at Bowling Green. Now, he’s just got to find the pieces to make it work.

There was no resolution to the QB derby in spring, where Kevin Sousa, who originally signed with Michigan and had been a WR at Wake, was running neck-and-neck with soph Tyler Cameron, Price’s backup last season. Sousa’s athleticism is said to intrigue Clawson, who also might be tempted to give looks to true frosh Travis Smith or John Watford. The RB situation is similarly muddled, with speedy former flanker Orville Reynolds, a 5'9, 185-lb. whippet, having switched positions with success in spring, as has ex-S James Ward, who moved to a RB spot. Leading returning rusher Dominique Gibson had moved from the secondary to RB last season. (Did the Grobe staff simply forget about RBs on the recruiting trail?)

After WR Campanaro was hurt late last season, 6'3 Tyree Harris emerged as a possible go-to target, finishing 2013 fast and ending with 23 catches. Virginia transfer E.J. Scott, a fifth-year senior who caught 29 passes in his best season for the Hoos in 2012, adds a veteran look to the receiving corps.

Three starters are back on an OL that did not work cohesively a year ago, unable to consistently open holes for runners or protect Price, who was mostly limited to dump-off passes because he lacked time to set and throw deep. ACC sources say that Clawson and new o.c. Warren Ruggiero believe that former o.c. Steed Lobotzke’s schemes were ill-suited to the talent on hand, and that having multiple looks (and a mobile QB like Sousa) might alleviate some of those problems in the fall.

There might be better news on the defensive side, as ACC blog chatter in the spring indicated that the Deacs have the makings of another competitive stop unit after last year’s platoon ranked favorably in scoring (24.1 ppg at 38th) and total defense (366 ypg at 32nd).

Under Clawson and new d.c. Mike Elko, the Deacs will transition from the 3-4 looks of the Grobe years to a 4-2-5 that takes advantage of a potential top-notch secondary that ought to come in handy against the many spread attacks of the ACC. Despite losing the entire starting DL to graduation, including run-stuffing NT Nikita Whitlock (Bengals camp), spring work suggested that the new-look Wake DL might be something special. Soph DTs Josh Banks and Shelldon Lewinson starred in drills, and the tactical move to incorporate speed-rushing ends has provided an opening for former LBs Zachary Allen and Wendell Dunn to wreak havoc off the edge.

The experience in the platoon, however, comes in the back seven, especially the secondary, where holdover sr. CBs Kevin Johnson and Merrill Noel have a combined 60 starts and 11 interceptions in their careers. Soph FS Ryan Janvion is the anchor of the platoon and led the team in tackled as a redshirt frosh.

Our respect for Clawson does not disguise the fact that he has a mountainous job ahead of him in Winston-Salem, and goodness knows what happens with the restructured offense that has lost almost all of the skill-position elements from a year ago when it still ranked among the worst attacks in the country. But the staff seems to have plan in place to maximize the talent on hand, and if reports from the region are correct, the Deacs will have a defense to keep them in many games. Wake might be a year or two away from getting back into the bowl mix, but we like Clawson enough to believe the Demon Deacons won’t be the ACC’s worst.

The Deacs, not likely to be generating a bandwagon among the wagering public at the outset, could also emerge as a stealth pointspread force after Clawson’s Bowling Green teams covered 20 of their last 29 on the board.

We hope NC State (SUR 3-9, PSR 4-8) AD Debbie Yow was happy with her handywork last season after running off the respected HC Tom O’Brien the previous December. While some ACC sources suggest that the Wolfpack program was beginning to regress under O’Brien, others disagree, and point to four bowl visits in the last five years of the old marine’s watch. Which was something NC State could only dream about last season under new HC Dave Doeren, when the Wolfpack didn’t win a game after the conclusion of the baseball regular season.

Indeed, if not for Louisiana Tech, Richmond, and Central Michigan, hardly an early-season gauntlet of non-ACC foes, the Pack might have gone winless last year. They also sported the big donut in ACC play, their first winless conference mark since way back in 1959 in one of the worst seasons for longtime HC Earle Edwards, and when the QB was a young sophomore named Roman Gabriel.

ACC insiders suggest AD Yow was happy to throw her weight around in regard to O’Brien, who was not interested in any my-way-or-the-highway edict from the AD, who arrived in Raleigh from Maryland after O’Brien’s hire in late 2007. Yow has developed something of a reputation in Raleigh for moving out coaches; O’ Brien/Doeren was the seventh coaching change on her NC State watch in a bit over two years.

As for Doeren, the jury remains out among many ACC observers who were not impressed with Doeren’s inability to punch above his weight last fall when minus the manpower advantages he previously enjoyed in the MAC while at Northern Illinois. Especially since the Pack seemed to get worse as the season progressed, to the point it was getting bombed by the likes of BC, East Carolina, and Maryland at the end of the season. It was not a premier that would play well on Broadway, much less Tobacco Road.

Still, to be fair to Doeren, he did not coach in good luck last season, as myriad injuries hurt on both sides of the ball, as well as a jumbled QB rotation. For the latter, Doeren might have had already his answer within the program last season, though transfer rules put a hold on things until this fall.

Specifically, former Florida QB Jacoby Brissett has been the heir apparent at QB for NC State since a year ago, and he is finally eligible to compete this fall. Brissett hinted at better things to come with a strong showing in the spring game when he passed for 365 yards and two TDs. And the job is his after neither of last year’s transfer options Pete Thomas (formerly Colorado State) and Brandon Mitchell (formerly Arkansas) were able to find the keys to the offense, combining for 14 TD passes and 15 picks. While Mitchell’s eligibility has been exhausted, Thomas has moved on once again (to UL-Monroe), so now it’s Brissett’s show in Raleigh.

With Thomas and Mitchell at QB, the Pack scored only 22.8 ppg (ranking 97th) a year ago, but there is hope things improve with Brissett and a couple of returning focal points from last year’s offense, jr. RB Shadrach Thornton (768 YR in 2013, including 173 YR vs. Florida State’s stout defense) and WR Bryan Underwood (32 catches last season). Skill position help could also come from frosh slot WR Bo Hines, one of nine early enrollees who wowed ‘em in the spring game with 10 catches and has already seemed to develop some rapport with Brissett. “I like him a lot,” says Brissett. “He can catch the ball and make plays.”

A recurring headache over the past decade for the Pack, dating to the Chuck Amato era that preceded O’Brien, however, has been the OL, and we’re not sure things improve in the fall. Doeren might have received some good news in the offseason when the NCAA granted a sixth year of eligibility to LT Rob Crisp, who missed all but two games last fall due to a concussion. With Crisp, o.c. Matt Canada can now move the versatile jr. Joe Thuney to LG, while also making room for touted frosh C Tony Adams. We’ll see if the forward wall upgrades this fall.

On the other side of the ball, Doeren, a defensive coach by trade, did not take long to realize he had to make some adjustments on his “D” that was losing track meets to the many spread offenses in the ACC. To combat those looks, Doeran and d.c. Dave Huxtable altered the stop unit alignments in spring by switching to a base nickel defense with five DBs (much as the new regime has done at Wake Forest). This is also partially in response to a declining pool of talent at the LB spots, a position group for the Pack which not long ago was regularly sending players to the NFL, but whose productivity has dropped off alarmingly in recent years.

Even with six starters remaining in the defensive mix, Doeren is not going to be afraid to give newcomers a long look after last year’s platoon conceded over 30 ppg (and 38 or more in the last four games of the regular season). Among the new blood, frosh DE Kentavius Street has generated the most buzz after being the top-rated prep in North Carolina last year. Another frosh, DT B.J. Hill, enrolled early and beat out holdover Thomas Teal for a starting spot in spring. Yet another true frosh, S Germaine Pratt, also enrolled early and impressed greatly in spring, while RS frosh S Josh Jones was one of the hardest hitters in March/April drills.

These new faces might provide an upgrade to the stop unit, but whether they can help forge an immediate uptick after last year’s considerable problems remains to be seen.

The Doeren re-boot at Raleigh will continue this fall, as there will be 51 new or redshirt frosh on the fall roster, and the newcomer theme will continue with Florida transfer QB Jacoby Brissett. But we are still skeptical of the Doeren hire (and O’Brien ouster) that looked more like a Debbie Yow power play than anything else. And when last seen at Florida, Brissett was not making anyone forget about Tim Tebow. Not much was accomplished under Doeren at Raleigh last season, and even with improvement in year two of the new regime, the Pack will have to catch a considerable updraft to get into the bowl mix. The schedule provides a chance for a fast start (as it did a year ago), but a stretch of six straight games vs. 2013 bowl teams begins September 27 vs. Florida State.

We’re not holding our breath.

It might come as news to many gridiron aficionados that Boston College (SUR 7-6, PSR 7-6) actually made it into a bowl game last season. Don’t worry, you’re not alone, as that 42-19 loss to Arizona in the AdvoCare Independence Bowl barely caused the locals to blink in Beantown, where most were more concerned about how the NHL Bruins were faring on the ice at TD Garden.

What was a bit surprising about the bowl bid was that the Eagles had fallen to 2-10 the previous year, prompting the ouster of intimidating HC Frank Spaziani, so the recovery was a bit unexpected. Following Spaziani, Steve Addazio was thus heisted away from Temple and forged a rather quick turnaround at Chestnut Hill, though ACC observers suggest that Addazio inherited a better situation than Spaziani’s substandard 2012 mark would suggest. Indeed, Addazio had a three-year starting QB (Chase Rettig) already in the fold as well as a RB who would lead the nation in rushing, Andre Williams.

The rebuild at BC effectively begins this season, especially after the Eagles lost eight starters from their offensive unit, including Rettig and Williams. Replacing Rettig and his considerable inconsistency might not prove a significant challenge, but Heisman finalist (the school’s first since Doug Flutie almost 30 years earlier) Williams and his staggering 2177 rushing yards (and 18 TDs) leaves some very large shoes to be filled.

(Critics of the departed Rettig and the Addazio offense like to point out, with some justification, that Williams was in fact not properly used last season when he didn’t catch a single pass. Though his forte was running the football, imagine, they claim, the added dimension that Williams might have been able to provide if involved as a short or screen-pass receiving option in the offensive scheme?)

Addazio found his replacement for Rettig in the offseason when former Florida QB Tyler Murphy showed up in Chestnut Hill as a transfer, and immediately staked claim to the starting role in spring drills. It’s the same Murphy who went 2-4 as the Gators’ starter last season, completing 60.5% of his passes for 1216 yards. Not content as a senior to sit behind projected starter Jeff Driskel in Gainesville, however, Murphy instead treks north to salvage what is left of thus far an unfulfilled college career. Murphy essentially won the job by default, as neither true frosh Darius Wade nor RS frosh James Walsh looked ready to lead a college offense in spring. Murphy, however, provided some excitement in the drills, quickly digesting o.c Ryan Clay’s offense and showing that he could extend plays with his legs, as well as make proper decisions when it was time to throw.

Murphy at least gives Addazio’s offense more of a fighting chance than if he didn’t arrive, but replacing the ultra-productive Andre Williams is still going to be a chore. And it won’t be a job for one man, rather several, as Addazio plans a RB-by-committee approach, likely to include versatile soph Myles Willis (346 YR in 2013) and decorated four-star frosh recruit Jonathan Hillman. The strength of the OL starts in the middle after losing bookend tackles Matt Patchan and Ian White to graduation.

The RB spots look positively loaded compared to the receivers, however, as the Eagles not only lost Rettig’s favorite (only?) target, the graduated Alex Amidon, and his 77 receptions, but holdovers such as Spiffy Evans, Marcus Grant, and Brian Miller, who all left the program after last season. Meanwhile, soph Harrison Jackson was still rehabbing a torn ACL in spring. Addazio must also replace valuable Nate Freese, who doubled as the PK and punter last season and was the school record-holder for field goals (70 in his career).

Last year’s BC defense didn’t have the same rock-ribbed look as it did during most of the Spaziani years, either, and was positively leaky vs. the pass, ranking an awful 111th in the country. So maybe it’s not a good thing that all four starters return in the secondary, though ACC sources believe sr. SS Dominique Williams has the potential to play on Sundays.

The Eagles have become somewhat renown for their linebackers in recent campaigns, and the next star could be jr. OLB Steven Daniels, who recorded 88 tackles a year ago, though he is the only returning starter from that position group. Coordinator Dan Brown likes to bring pressure from all angles, and the hope is that 6'7 soph DE Malachi Moore will be the breakout performer of the fall. Indeed, the BC defensive line looks more like the frontline for new HC Jim Christian’s Eagle hoopsters, also featuring 6'9 DE Brian Mihalik and 6'7 DT Mehdi Abdesmad, who flashed beast-like form last September before going down for the count with a knee injury.

While Addazio (a native New Englander) appears to be a proper fit for the BC program, we remain a bit skeptical, noting how he took advantage of a good situation left behind at Temple by Al Golden before the Owls regressed in the second year on his watch, and we suspect more of the same might be in store for BC. The Eagles’ quest for a return trip to a bowl will be impeded by the rough ACC Atlantic, and a non-conference rematch vs. Southern Cal looms in the September queue. Perhaps Florida transfer QB Murphy will be a plus, but at this point it looks as if Addazio will be hard-pressed to replicate last season’s modest results.


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