By Marty Jenkins for TonySoftli.com
ACC Preview- Atlantic Division
1. Florida State- Head coach Jimbo Fisher once again has a team that is getting plenty of preseason National Title hype. Can they break through this year? I think they can. This team has all the talent in the world and a favorable schedule. The two key games are at Clemson and at Florida in the last game of the season. The strength of this squad is a very nasty defense. With seven players back on the unit, the secondary is perhaps the best in the land. The Noles’ also have a defensive line that is one of the ten best in the country…maybe top five. The line is led by junior Jimmy Jernigan and senior Jacobbi McDaniel. These guys are studs. The group of linebackers is also one of the five best corps in the nation. Senior’s Christian Jones and Telvin Smith are downright awesome and will be good at the next level as well. FSU also has the best special teams unit in the country. That may surprise some because they have a redshirt freshman kicker in Roberto Aguayo. However, this guy was dropping field goals in high school from as deep as 63 yards…yes, 63 yards.
Life without quarterback E.J. Manuel isn’t going to be as bad because of who is taking over. Remember this name folks: Jameis Winston. The Redshirt freshman was the top high school quarterback in the land two years ago and he is more than ready to lead this team. The dual-threat signal caller is a good decision maker with a great pocket presence and great arm strength. Winston is also very confident for a freshman. His accuracy needs a bit of improvement, but he is still going to be just fine this year. He will be tossing the rock to arguably the best group of receivers in the land. Junior Rashad Greene is an absolute beast and Kenny Shaw will look to build on a freshman campaign where he had 532 receiving yards. Six of the top eight are back and they are going to be fun to watch. Junior running backs Devonte Freeman and James Wilder combined for 1,347 yards and nine touchdowns last year. The Noles’ will have one of the best running attacks in the land. Those two will also be running behind an offensive line that is one of the top two or three in the nation. The key piece on that line is center Bryan Stark. This team is sick. I have them running the table.
2. Clemson- This team can definitely run the table this year as well. It’s going to come down to three games. Many think they can beat Georgia in the opener, they get Florida State at home, and they finish the season at South Carolina. Senior Quarterback Tajh Boyd threw for 36 touchdowns last year and ran for ten. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he won the Heisman. The guy is nasty. He’ll be throwing to one of the top two receivers in the land in Sammy Watkins. The junior would have been the first receiver off the board in the draft this year. Martavis Bryant and Adam Humphries are also back. Bryant is a deep threat who was very highly touted out of high school. The junior is primed for a big year. The Tigers will miss running back Andre Ellington who scampered for 1,104 yards last year. Senior Roderick McDowell ran for 450 yards and five touchdowns last year. If he struggles, there are some talented young backs that can step in. One thing is for certain though: whoever is running the ball should have some nice holes. The Tigers offensive line returns nine of their top ten and is one of the best lines in the ACC.
Clemson boasts one of the top 10 or 15 defensive lines in the land. They return seven of their top eight. Last year the unit was solid and now they are a year older and stronger and could be very dangerous. Four of the top six linebackers are back which should make for a good year in that department. The area that concerns me with this squad is the secondary. They lost four studs and could struggle a bit. They still have talent and are one of the top 40 units in the country. However, they lost a lot of key contributors and will probably take a step back. They don’t have to be great though because of all the other strong areas on both sides of the ball. I’m very interested to see how the secondary fares.
Head coach Dabo Swinney had an 11-2 bunch last year and could be staring at the same record this year. I can’t wait for the opener vs. Georgia. We will find out a lot about Clemson in that one. If they win that, they’ll likely be 6-0 before a huge home contest against the Noles’ which could have National Title implications. What a scene that could be in Death Valley…WHAT A SCENE.
3. Wake Forest- Jim Grobe has an interesting team on his hands in his 13th year at the helm in Winston-Salem. Many have them probably fifth in the Atlantic, but I think they will surprise people. Senior quarterback Tanner Price is the key. He needs to get back to his form in ’11 when he had 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Last year he had 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Price will be throwing to one of the 15 best receivers in the land in senior Michael Campanaro. Campanaro should have a 1,000 yard year with double digit touchdowns. Three of four are back on a unit that should be pretty good. The Deacons have a really good running back in Josh Harris. However, he has some academic issues and could be done for the season. However, sophomore Deandre Martin is a star in the making and could have a big year. Last year he scampered for 513 yards and six touchdowns. Watch out for this guy. Martin will be running behind a line that returns six of ten and should be much improved from last year.
There are eight defensive starters back and the strength will be a defensive line that has three senior starters. The linebacker corp returns its two top tacklers in Mike Olson and Justin Jackson. The secondary is also solid. The Deacs also get North Carolina State and Maryland at home. I think this offense is going to have a very nice year and I think they beat Maryland and N.C. State at home.
4. Maryland- They have a ridiculously potent duo at wide receiver in sophomore Stefon Diggs and JUCO All-American Deon Long. Diggs had 848 yards and six touchdowns last year and is one of the best receivers in the land. One other positive is the secondary where the Terps return seven players. Senior quarterback C.J. Brown is a turnover machine and that’s going to have to change very early on if head coach Randy Edsall wants a winning season. The running game is solid with sophomore’s Wes Brown and Brandon Ross. However, I think that offsets because the offensive line was really bad last year and they lost three from that line.
The defensive line has to replace some quality players in Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis. There is only one returning starter when it comes to the linebackers. With all of the negatives I mentioned, there is a positive spin. The Terps had a lot of injuries last season and many of those players are back. The receivers are top notch and the secondary is solid. The key is can that offensive line overachieve and give Brown time to throw to the awesome receiving corp. I’m very interested to see how they fare with a healthy bunch this year. Edsall can get this team to a bowl game this year.
5. Boston College- A lot of people have the Eagles last or second to last in the Atlantic. I think they’ll surprise many much like the Deacons. First year head coach Steve Addazio takes over a team with 18 returning starters. Last year they were close in several games. They lost four games by single digits and I think some of those close ones will tilt their way this year. The strength is a linebacker corp that is one of the top 25 or 30 in the land. They return six of their top seven and are led by a beast in senior Kevin Pierre- Louis. Senior Steele Divitto is also a stud. The secondary and defensive line lack star power, but they will still be decent. The offensive line had some issues last year, but they do return three starters and should be slightly improved. Senior running back Andre Williams ran for 599 yards and four touchdowns last year. He is a solid back and could have a really nice year if the line exceeds expectations. The receivers should be in good shape as they return six of the top seven. Senior Alex Amidon is nails. Amidon had 1,210 yards and seven touchdowns last season. The key is going to be senior quarterback Chase Rettig. Rettig tossed 17 touchdowns last year, but had 13 interceptions. If he can improve slightly, this offense will be pretty good.
Unfortunately for Eagles fans, they have the toughest conference schedule. They face Virginia Tech and North Carolina out of the Coastal. They could still reel off three conference wins and get to a bowl.
6. North Carolina State- I am not nearly as high on the Wolfpack as many others are. First year head coach Dave Doeren takes over a team that lost some big time playmakers. The biggest playmaker that left is stud quarterback Mike Glennon. Taking over for Glennon is Colorado State transfer Pete Thomas. Thomas threw 18 touchdowns and 21 interceptions at CSU. He is going to struggle big time. It doesn’t help matters that four starters are gone from the offensive line. It’s too bad that there isn’t much at quarterback and offensive line because the group of receivers is pretty good. They return five of seven led by senior Quintin Dunbar who had 798 yards last season. Bryan Underwood also had a good year last season hauling in 700 receiving yards. Running back Shadrach Thornton is also legit. Thornton ran for 700 yards last season. I just don’t see Thornton and the receivers having as good as year’s as last season because of the QB situation and the O-Line.
The secondary also took some big hits as they lost four really good players including safety Earl Wolff and cornerback David Amerson. Wolff was all conference and Amerson was 2nd team all-ACC. The defensive line and group of linebackers are solid though. Defensive end Darryl Cato is legit and so is linebacker Rickey Dowdy. There are just too many holes at key positions on this team. I think 6-6 is the ceiling for this bunch.
7. Syracuse- First year head coach Scott Shafer inherits a team that lost the school’s career passing leader in Ryan Nassib. Shafer also lost receiver’s Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales to graduation. Lemon is second in school history in receiving yards. Three really good players from the defensive line are gone as well in Deon Giggins, Brandon Sharpe, and Markus Pierce-Brewster. It gets worse as three starters are gone from the offensive line including Justin Pugh who went 19th in the draft. The offensive line will still be decent, but nowhere near as productive as last year. Jerome Smith ran for 1,200 yards last year but it will be hard to come close to that because of the offensive line issues. I’m not very high on quarterback Drew Allen. Allen transferred from Oklahoma and will battle for the starting position with sophomore dual-threat Terrel Hunt. I don’t see either having a solid campaign because of all of the talent lost. Watch out for Hunt though in the next couple years.
I do like some pieces on the defense. The group of linebackers is solid and the secondary returns seven to the unit. Shafer brings nine JUCO’s in this year, so it’s very important that they make a nice transition or it could be a really rough season. I like some of the pieces on this team, but the transition to the ACC will be brutal for them this year. I see only two or three wins.