Zach Bigalke: Welcome back to the Tailgater here at Sports Nickel, everyone! I’m going to be hosting things this week as we head toward the Atlantic. It’s time to talk ACC in the next of our preseason conference previews, and with me as always to discuss the teams and the topics at hand are Matt Strobl and John Mitchell.
Matt Strobl: The Big Ten might be my top conference, but geography requires me to follow the ACC pretty closely. This season should be interesting, assuming the NCAA doesn’t suspend half the league.
Bigalke: In a shaky offseason that saw seemingly every conference looking to make a big realignment move, the ACC stood pat. How do you perceive the ACC’s strength as a conference, both on the field and in the perception of voters and fans nationwide, heading into 2010?
Strobl: I think the ACC is suffering at the moment, and the hit to its reputation is not wholly undeserved. While Virginia Tech is a perennial contender for a BCS berth, and Miami is on its way back to prominence, the conference lacks overall strength relative to the other BCS leagues. I think the Atlantic Division in particular has weakened significantly over the past few years thanks in large part to the struggles of Florida State. Once you get past the top of the league, there isn’t much depth. Plenty of “good” teams, but few greats.
2010 Tailgater Previews
Mitchell: The conference as a whole doesn’t stack up too well against the likes of the SEC, Big XII, Pac-10, or even the Big Ten. Like Matt said, the Atlantic Division has been particularly weak with Florida State suffering from a few down years. That could be changing if Jimbo Fisher is as good at coaching as he is at recruiting. The power of the conference without a doubt lies in the Coastal division. The top four teams in the division (Virginia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, and Georgia Tech) are all better than any team the Atlantic Division can throw out there, at least on paper. I still don’t see an ACC team that is good enough to seriously contend for a National Title, but that should lead to a pretty exciting race within the conference.
Bigalke: We’ll find out quickly just how good the Hokies are when they face off against Boise State to oipen the season. The fact is that, despite the fact other teams like Georgia Tech have been more recent conference champions, the ACC suffers from the perception that they are a one-trick pony just like the Pac-10 was last decade. When Virginia Tech has a down year, the conference’s national profile takes a big hit — as much a measure of how far traditional powerhouses like the Hurricanes and Seminoles have fallen as an indictment of the league itself. But fair or unfair, that’s the perception from where I sit on the opposite coast…
Today we’re going to cover the teams in the Atlantic Division. Where better to start than last year’s division winner Clemson. Do the Tigers still have the weapons to repeat as Atlantic champs in 2010?
Mitchell: Clemson got great news when Kyle Parker decided to spurn the Colorado Rockies offer after being selected in the MLB Draft. He decided to return to Clemson for his Sophomore season and that instantly makes Clemson a better team and gives them hope in the Atlantic Division. But, as we all know Clemson is a team that usually disappoints, even though they did finally win the Atlantic Division in Dabo Swinney’s first full season as the Tigers coach. The biggest reason Clemson made it to the ACC Championship game was one man. CJ Spiller. Spiller almost single handedly lifted Clemson past Georgia Tech in the Title game. With him gone, they are not only losing a running back, they are losing a dynamic player in many facets of the game including the return game. Their second most dynamic offensive weapon was Jacoby Ford and he is also now going to be playing on Sundays. Depth on the offensive line could also prove to be problematic for Clemson, especially if they lose one of their starters to injury. I believe the window of opportunity is closing for Clemson with Jimbo Fisher building what appears to be a juggernaut in Tallahassee. That means this could be one of the final years this team will be serious threats to the ‘Noles in the Atlantic Division. Their defense should keep them in most games, but I don’t see them winning a second consecutive Atlantic Division title.
Strobl: I doubt it. Clemson has become the proverbial poster boy for disappointment. I’ve lost count of how often it is to be “the year” for the Tigers only to see the season end around .500 yet again. Even with last year’s successes there was little to put Clemson on the same level as other talented teams across the nation. And coming into 2010, the Tigers are without superstar tailback C.J. Spiller. While I personally found him to be overrated, there’s no questioning his explosiveness and ability to change a game. Kyle Parker should be a serviceable QB, but with Jacoby Ford and tight end Michael Palmer gone it remains to be seen to whom he’ll throw. And defensively there are some significant questions. Frankly, the division is wide open. Many experts expect this to be the year that FSU bounces back, but that’s far from a sure thing. The opportunity is there for Clemson’s taking, but I think the Tigers will fall just short of defending their title.
Bigalke: Look, I will just come right out and say it. I am not convinced of any team’s superiority in this division. I am like you, Matt, in that I am tired of getting burned by the Tigers in my preseason predictions over and over again. But as we’ll surely discuss more a little later, I don’t think there’s much to push the Tigers this year — not Florida State, not Boston College, not Wake Forest or Maryland or even NC State. It might just bite me in the ass later, but the champ last year befuddled me in the predictions. And since there’s no standout in the field, it’s easy enough to say that Parker and company should be able to at least hold the other Atlantic teams at bay. Swinney has wiped away in one full season the befuddling pall that had befallen this program. I’m going to put my confidence in his ability over any other coach or assembly of talent in this division.
A new era begins in Tallahassee as life after Bobby Bowden begins for the Seminoles. The talent all remains, from new head coach Jimbo Fisher on down the ranks. How will year one post-Bowden go for Florida State?
Strobl: The popular opinion is that Florida State will win the Atlantic, and I’m rather inclined to agree. Although the program had some maddening bouts of inconsistency last year it also flashed some real talent. In terms of raw potential, none of it Atlantic rivals can stack up, but FSU desperately needs to execute better than it did in 2009. That is especially true for a defense that was pretty atrocious last year. This year, Mark Stoops should have an improved unit, but don’t expect it to measure up to the great defenses that Bowden enjoyed in his prime. Luckily, Christian Ponder is back to lead an offense that should be good enough to keep the team in most games. The schedule, however, won’t be easy. Jimbo Fisher’s inaugural year will see him face Oklahoma, BYU, and Florida out of conference. Two of those three are superior teams, and the Cougars are no slouches. In conference, FSU gets Miami and UNC out of the Coastal, but avoid Virginia Tech. That should help matters, but with a defense still in flux and this slate of games, a ten-win season would be quite an accomplishment. While I’m taking them to win, I don’t see the Seminoles running away from their competition.
Mitchell: Even though this will be a rebuilding year for Florida State with the changing of the guard so to speak with Jimbo Fisher as the new head coach, Florida State is fielding a team that looks to be the best in the Atlantic Division. But, then again the Seminoles were the sexy pick last season to win the division and they finished with just a 7-6 record and third place in the division. Christian Ponder could very well play himself into the Heisman race if he can perform like some thing he can. The Seminoles will enter ACC play battle tested to say the least with out of conference games against Oklahoma on the road and BYU at home before they play their first ACC game. That should give them a competitive edge over the rest of their challengers in the division. We know Florida State’s offense has firepower, but my main concern with this team is defensively. They finished ranked 108th last season in total defense and with only four starters returning they will have to rely heavily on some freshman like LaMarcus Joyner to play a big role. I have no doubts that the Seminoles will field a better team this year than last. I believe they are the favorites to win the Atlantic Division, but I think it will be a tight race as usual in the division.
Bigalke: Honestly… what is it that everyone is seeing in Christian Ponder? Sure, his numbers took a giant jolt last season. But despite throwing for 700 more yards and cutting back his mistakes by a half-dozen interceptions, Ponder still only threw for 14 touchdowns — the same total he had in a statistically down 2008 season. Sure, he missed the end of the season after separating his throwing shoulder in the November matchup against Clemson. How? Pissed off after tossing an interception, he threw a tackle on the man who received his interception, defensive back DeAndre McDaniel and in the infinite wisdom of his decision making managed only to injure himself. What really indicates that he’s going to perform at the same level he was developing into before this injury? What makes everyone think he’s suddenly going to be able to string together more than two competent games in a row? And this is only a discussion about the leader of the offense; the defense is in a bad place right now, and Jimbo Fisher is going to have one hell of a time battling to stay in the top half of the conference. As sweet as everyone is on this team, I think Seminoles fans are in for a big letdown this season.
Boston College was right there in the mix as usual last year, a 25-7 loss to Clemson the difference between the two teams when it was all finished. Can the Eagles exact revenge when they host the Tigers this year and bring the Atlantic title back north?
Mitchell: Two of Boston College’s three losses in the conference last year came against Coastal division opponents North Carolina and Virginia Tech. They will have an easier conference schedule this season. They still play Virginia Tech, but they replace North Carolina with Duke. That should add at least one more win to their record in 2010. If they can take care of business at home against Clemson, they could afford a road loss to Florida State and still have a great shot at winning the Atlantic Division and playing for the ACC Championship. Montel Harris is the real deal at running back, but QB play will be what makes or breaks Boston College’s season. Dave Shinskie is ready to take the reins for the Eagles and they will need him to improve the 93rd ranked passing offense from last season. Boston College always fields a good defense and should be even better this season with Mark Herzlich set to return to the field. Their defense will keep them competitive just like last season if the offense sputters somewhat with Shinskie under center. I expect Boston College to be right in the thick of the Atlantic Division race and they should give Florida State all they can handle.
Strobl: I don’t see them winning, but the Eagles could well sneak into second if quarterback Dave Shinskie plays well. The team returns fourteen starters and gets back an inspirational player in Mark Herzlich. Herzlich’s battle against cancer has been well documented, and having him back on the field now gives the team something — someone – tangible to fight for. Tailback Montel Harris is now a senior, and if he can improve his consistency he could do some damage. BC was a surprise last year, finishing 8-5 in a season when many folks figured the Eagles for a .500 team. Now they could surprise yet again by exceeding that total. The schedule is favorable with Virginia Tech and Notre Dame as the only real extra-divisional tests. If BC can avenge last year’s loss to Clemson, it could put some pressure on Florida State.
Bigalke: Boston College looks like a team in much better position to challenge Clemson than the Seminoles, but the holes in that offense go beyond the passing attack. Doug Flutie to Gerald Phelan this certainly is not. With a receiving corps turning over but the quarterback returning, it is imperative that Shinskie get his pass catchers on the same page and finely tuned. He has to take hold of this offense and be more of a leader. Harris should be an even better tailback this year after putting up nearly 1500 yards last season; despite his output, though, the ground game ranked just 71st nationally. Their go-to guy on the ground can’t be their only option or else they’ll be too predictable and give up that advantage of surprise that is integral to Shinskie improving as a quarterback. The defense will certainly be good once again, and the Herzlich story is a touching tale and possibly a boon to an already solid top-20 defensive unit. But unless they find the offensive output to outscore those opponents, all that defensive prowess will be for naught. I’m guessing they’ll be just behind the Tigers yet again, unable to exact revenge for last year’s loss.
Wake Forest moves on to life after Riley Skinner, their senior quarterback graduated and gone from the program. What is the realistic ceiling for Jim Grobe’s Demon Deacons this season?
Strobl: I found it extremely disappointing to watch Skinner’s career fizzle like it did. At one time he was the league’s most efficient QB, but for all his talent he couldn’t lead his team to success in his final season. He was, however, able to keep them close—the Deacons lost five different games by three points or fewer. Without Skinner, the team’s weaknesses will be more fully exposed and Wake could slide to the bottom of the division. The defense was bad last year and probably won’t be much better in 2010. And worse, none of Skinner’s potential replacements appear ready to assume leadership. I still like Jim Grobe’s coaching ability, but this year he just doesn’t have a lot to work with. Wake might struggle to get to five wins depending on how some other mediocre programs do.
Mitchell: It was indeed a disappointing end to Riley Skinner’s great career with the Demon Deacons. Fans in Winston-Salem will see this season that life without Riley Skinner is a really bleak outlook. This team only won five games with him under center last season and I can’t see them getting any better with him no longer on campus. Wake Forest is making the switch to more of a spread option offense and it will be interesting to see how that transition goes this season and how other ACC defenses attack it. Wake Forest’s schedule is pretty tough out of conference. They play at Stanford, home against Navy, and on the road again in the season finale against Vanderbilt this season. None of those games are guaranteed wins for the program, with their only for sure out of conference win coming in the season opener against Presbyterian. If Wake Forest ends up 1-3 in their out of conference schedule, then they will be missing out on a bowl game for a second year in a row. Things will get better in Winston-Salem, but the outlook is not good in 2010.
Bigalke: Will this be an ugly year for Demon Deacons fans? It all depends on the ground game, the true strength of Jim Grobe’s offense that was masked for all those years we saw Riley Skinner under center. The fact was that the quarterback was never a true fit for the Grobe playbook at its most effective; by last season their modifications hadn’t evolved enough to the ACC defenses that had seen Skinner torch them year after year and had adjusted accordingly. Now Wake Forest can get back to the punishing rushing attack that saw it amass over 200 yards a game from 2003-2005 (the pre-Skinner era). Will the platoon of backs be up to the task? Josh Adams and Brandon Pendergrass return and should be able to pile up much more yardage than their combined 940 yards of 2009 with more carries being called. All things told, this team’s improvements should wash out its setbacks in what they lose in the passing game. So the defense is going to have to tighten up from 383 yards allowed and 26 points given up a game last season if Wake Forest is going to stay out of the cellar in the Atlantic.
Russell Wilson is back to lead NC State this season as a third-year redshirt sophomore starter. His performance improved greatly from 2008 to 2009 but didn’t translate to the standings. Is this the year that the Wolfpack convert improved performance into victories… and how many?
Mitchell: NC State is my sleeper pick in the ACC. If some things go right, I think NC State could compete in the Atlantic Divisional race. I think there are four teams in this division that have legitimate chances at winning the division. They had a rough stretch last season that saw them lose four games in a row, but they had flashes of brilliance last season with wins over Pittsburgh and North Carolina. Russell Wilson is back at QB and he is an extremely dynamic offensive weapon with his ability to pass and run. Tom O’Brien knows what it takes to build a winning football team and I think the Wolfpack are just on the cusp of being a really good team. I don’t expect them to challenge Florida State consistently in the future, but they should field solid football teams every year capable of pulling of an upset. NC State is good for an upset here and there, but if they truly want to compete in the Atlantic Division, they are going to have to win the games they should. I don’t see NC State winning the Atlantic Division, but they should be a competitive team this year, make a bowl game, and finish in the top four in the division. An over/under of 6 wins seems like a realistic expectation for NC State.
Strobl: A lot of experts are down on the Wolfpack, and while I don’t expect NC State to be a good team, I also don’t think things are as dire in Raleigh as many would have us believe. Russell Wilson has his flaws as a QB, but he is a true dual threat talent. Standing in Tom O’Brien’s way is a rather challenging schedule. Non-conference games against Cincinnati and Georgia Tech loom as losses, but the season will be evaluated based on how NCSU does within the conference. At first glance, only the games against Wake Forest and Maryland appear winnable, but don’t be shocked to see the Pack pull an upset somewhere along the way. Even so, I see a three-way contest at the bottom of the division and wonder which team will avoid ending up in the cellar.
Bigalke: I really think this is the season Wilson is poised for one of those Dennis Dixon-like leaps of faith. I see NC State overtaking Florida State and pushing the Seminoles down to fourth in the division. And if Wilson’s leap includes the Dixon-like fall from grace as well, backup Tom Glennon is a solid sophomore backup who could very well be the Justin Roper for this team. Enough references to the Ducks of 2007? Good… that said, the Wolfpack return a bevy of skill players that should have matured to an even better performance than last year’s 30 points a game. The defense was the deficiency for last year’s NC State squad, giving up 31 to counter all the offensive gains. They got killed on long passing plays, lost the turnover battle time and time again and simply bent… and then went and broke for good measure. Tom O’Brien is going to have a tall task mending that leaky D, but it will be imperative. The ceiling remains higher for this offense, and I have a feeling they are going to win a lot of shootouts. Whether those can be translated into high-scoring victories or high-scoring defeats is dependent on a senior defensive line taking the pressure off a green secondary and LB Nate Irving returning to top form after a down 2009 following his offseason car accident prior to last season. If the pieces come together, this team is talented enough to nab eight or nine wins and head bowling. They’re not there enough to overtake the defending champs, but they will spring a surprise or two this season.
Ralph Friedgen is back to fight for his job once more with the Terrapins. After three glorious years to start his tenure at Maryland, Friedgen’s performance has soured as of late. How hot is the long-time coach’s seat, and how many wins does he need to keep his job?
Strobl: If Friedgen needs a pre-determined win total, he’s doomed. Maryland was 2-10 last year and stands to improve somewhat from that horrific display, but this is by no means a talented squad. Only twelve starters return; Maryland has major issues on both sides of the ball. If the Terps can do nothing more than avoid being the league’s worst defense that will be a win. The offense is in little better shape. The only saving grace is that the team’s winnable conference games are at home. Duke, Wake, and NC State all come to College Park. But in my opinion, even that won’t help the Terps. Friedgen may not lose his job — that will be up to the tolerance level of the athletic department — but neither will he have a respectable year.
Mitchell: I have to agree with Matt that if there is a win total Friedgen needs to reach this season then it will be his final season in College Park. Maryland will be better overall this season after having to rely on so much young talent last year. That talent has matured some, but it still won’t yield the type of season Terps fans are hoping for. Tough out of conference games against Navy and West Virginia will prevent Maryland from improving much on their win total from 2009. I think they will split their first four games of the season and then get one or two conference wins to put them at the 3 or 4 win mark, which still won’t be good enough to get into a bowl game. From what I have heard, Maryland AD Debbie Yow has said that if the Ralph Friedgen era is to continue in College Park then a winning record will be needed. If that turns out to be true, then this will be it for him with Maryland.
Bigalke: Winning record? Look no further than the loss of QB Chris Turner from an already abysmal offense (albeit one that suffered major injuries last season) and you’ll find the seeds for Friedgen’s demise. Nothing in this team’s schedule indicates a winning record; and if by some miracle they do go bowling, do you see the Terps winning that bowl game with this squad? I didn’t think so either… and thus we have our winner for the cellar dweller of the year. I know some folks within my extended family who cringe at that thought, but the reality is that this team has regressed from the 8-5 Emerald Bowl season of 2008 and the rest of the conference is at a level consistent to one another… and just out of the reach of these Terrapins.
|ACC ATLANTIC PREDICTIONS|
|1. Florida State||1. Florida State||1. Clemson|
|2. Boston College||2. Boston College||2. Boston College|
|3. Clemson||3. Clemson||3. NC State|
|4. NC State||4. NC State||4. Florida State|
|5. Wake Forest||5. Wake Forest||5. Wake Forest|
|6. Maryland||6. Maryland||6. Maryland|
Now let’s move on to a few topics relating to the Atlantic and its teams as well as the greater conference as a whole. What are your thoughts on the recent dismissal of Jarmon Fortson by Florida State for failing multiple drug tests?
Mitchell: It’s a tough loss for the ‘Noles as he was supposed to play a prominent role in the offense for Florida State and be one of Christian Ponder’s main weapons on the offensive side of the ball. It was a move that needed to be made by Jimbo Fisher to show that he will not tolerate any issues regarding drugs. It will hurt Florida State’s offense somewhat, but Ponder is a good enough QB to make the best of the weapons he has and he still has plenty to throw the ball to. It could also mean a guy like Kenny Shaw could play a bigger role in the offense as a freshman.
Strobl: It’s not a surprise to see FSU’s off-field woes continue. For years this program has walked a fine line between respectability and getting slammed by the NCAA, and though it has weathered its various scandals rather well, there’s no reason to pretend the program is cleaner than it actually is. Still, this is one individual, not the team. The problem is that it’s one individual who was supposed to be a major part of the offense. Christian Ponder has other targets, and Fortson’s dismissal is probably not damaging enough to cost FSU the division, but it certainly starts the Fisher era off on the wrong foot.
Bigalke: See, for me I have the same conclusion but in a diametrically opposite fashion. Were Fortson still on this squad, I’d still have them sitting in the bottom half of the division standings. Sure, the Seminoles will probably still go bowling, but this is just another sign of how far this team has regressed from its glory days. When the loss of one receiver from the Florida State roster is a talking point — when it even becomes a question of how it could affect the team’s performance instead of remaining mum and just plugging in the next top recruit into the slot — more than just the Bobby Bowden days have ended. Sure, the swagger has been missing for a while. And none of this is to say Fortson didn’t deserve the dismissal. If you’ve already received your warning, recidivism has no business being rewarded with continued benefits. There are enough other players dying for the opportunity to get the college education which Fortson eschewed for the college lifestyle.
I’m going to throw out one that seems a little macabre: Which coach in the Atlantic is least likely to have his job in 2011?
Strobl: Oddly, I don’t think anyone is in any real danger except for The Fridge. Grobe is too good a coach to be let go and Coach Spaz just took over in Chestnut Hill. Jimbo Fisher is just beginning, Dabo Swinney will probably get a couple more years before getting the axe, and Tom O’Brien is safe for the time being. Compared to some of the other conferences, the ACC Atlantic is actually relatively stable at the coaching position.
Mitchell: Like Matt, I believe the only coach that has a real possibility of losing his job this season is Ralph Friedgen if Debbie Yow isn’t satisfied with Maryland’s win total and I don’t think she will be if the team only gets 3-4 wins like I expect. Every other coach in the Atlantic division seems safe heading into the 2011 season.
Bigalke: You guys are probably right; I think Friedgen is the one man who we won’t see back in 2011. The other at risk, I think, would have to be O’Brien. After so many years of looking to be on the cusp of great things, the team must make good on all the promise it has exhibited and at least finish in bowl eligibility in 2010. If they fail to do that and regress to the point of a fifth- or sixth-place finish in the division, I could see NC State saying enough is enough and removing their coach in favor of a change to shake up the system.
Who do you think is the top pro prospect in the ACC this year?
Mitchell: Robert Quinn (DE/North Carolina) – The NFL talent North Carolina has on the defensive side of the ball is just staggering. Three of my top five defensive players coming out of the ACC in 2010 are from North Carolina. I would like to choose Marvin Austin, but it is unclear on if he will be eligible this season and if he is not it will likely hurt his draft stock by a slight margin. Robert Quinn has the opportunity to play himself into the top pass-rushing DE in the draft next season if he has the kind of season I expect. He’s without a doubt the best pass rusher in the conference and will help a North Carolina defense reek havoc on opposing offenses.
Strobl: Marvin Austin (DT/North Carolina) — Despite his role in the ongoing NCAA investigation and the potential trouble it could cause for the program, UNC’s Marvin Austin is still looking good for an NFL career. The big tackle elected to return for his senior year and should gain some valuable experience, but frankly he was ready for the pros even last fall. At 6’3”, 310 pounds, he has the size. He also has the footwork and lower body strength. I expect that when the 2011 draft rolls around, Austin will be off the board early on day one.
Bigalke: Owen Spencer (WR/NC State) — The 6’3”, 185-pound senior wideout is a speedy guy who can spread the field and should be even better than his 700+ yards and 6 touchdowns of 2009. With Russell Wilson getting another year to progress at QB for the Wolfpack, Spencer stands to be his standout receiver in 2010 and should put up huge stats. Along with fellow senior teammate Jarvis Williams, Spencer has been named to the preseason Biletnikoff watch list of the top receivers in the country. Expect him to be right there in the hunt for the award come December, vaulting up draft boards into first-round status in the process.
And that should just about close today’s edition of the Tailgater up for the day… be sure to come back tomorrow for the preview of the ACC Coastal Division!