For two straight years, ACC football has been marked by a whacky path to the same ending. A lot of balance, but Virginia Tech beating Boston College in the conference championship game at the end of the day. With BC having fired coach Jeff Jagodzinski in anger, after he interviewed for other jobs, that’s likely to end, but the two themes of balance and Virginia Tech will again be at the forefront in 2009.
Balance wasn’t supposed to be the way of the world when this conference split into divisions prior to 2005. Miami and Florida State were going to be the ones that carried the superconference in its new era, and the divisions are even aligned to suit them. The ‘Noles and ‘Canes are in opposite divisions, a concession not made in the SEC or Big 12, which does its splits strictly on geography. The two powers have combined for exactly one title game appearance in eight tries (Florida State in ’05). On the Atlantic Division side, Miami has problems—they are inexperienced in the defensive front seven and breaking in their fourth defensive coordinator in the last four years. How much patience will be given Randy Shannon, now in his third year as head coach? They went 7-5 last year and got a bowl bid, and can do so again this year. But Larry Coker learned that doesn’t cut it in Coral Gables.
And while Miami has enough to be in the division race, three other teams are stronger on this side of the draw alone. Georgia Tech brought in Paul Johnson from Navy and he installed the triple-option wishbone attack. It was enough for a 9-3 season that matched Virginia Tech, only to lose the division on a tiebreaker. The Yellow Jackets were dealt a humiliating 38-3 loss by LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl though, and the defense has to be rebuilt. In a league where you can slip from first to ninth in the blink of an eye, that’s enough to raise doubts about Tech’s bowl prospects this year. Simply returning to the postseason party would have to be considered a success for Johnson in 2009.
Virginia Tech will have to deal with inexperience at the skill positions. But they have overcome a bad offense before, and they are strong on the defensive line and in the secondary. Combined with their famed special teams play, that’s enough to get them into the championship mix again. North Carolina burst onto the scene last year, as Butch Davis’ recruiting bore good fruit. The Tar Heels are going to move the ball and they are going to stop the run. The question will be if they stop the pass, with no senior starters in the secondary. The betting here is that the ‘Heels do so enough to win the division.
Over in the Atlantic Division, it’s a similar four-team race. Florida State is coming off a tumultuous offseason, where the program’s past transgressions may result in Bobby Bowden losing his place in history. It’s hard to sit here from behind a laptop and know how that’s going to effect the 2009 team, so I’ll stick with what I do know—this team will have a very good offense. The entire line is back, and so is senior quarterback Christian Ponder. The defense will be more of a challenge, and getting the front seven into shape will be the biggest on-field factor in determining if the ‘Noles will be in Tampa on December 5.
Dabo Swinney went 4-3 at Clemson after taking over as interim for Tommy Bowden, and has a pretty good team to work with. They’re not overwhelming and because of inexperience at quarterback, they’ll be under the radar, but they have a good offensive line and a good defense. Winning eight games is a very good bet, and give them an outside shot at the division if redshirt frosh Kyle Parker is ready behind center. Wake Forest is the reverse. They’ve got the QB, in senior Riley Skinner, on the short list of conference MVP candidates, but the defense is not overwhelming and that’s what will keep them from scaling the heights again.
N.C. State started slowly last year under Tom O’Brien, but the former BC mentor got his team on track by year’s end. They worked their way back to .500 and got a bowl bid, and this year will be even better. Sophomore quarterback Russell Wilson is one of the most underrated players in the entire country and was first-team All-ACC as a freshman. The Wolfpack are experienced in both trenches. The secondary is a problem, but in a league where every contender has its flaws, State has the fewest on their side of the draw. I like O’Brien to win the division.
Four teams have been left out of this discussion and that’s risky in this league, where envisioning three of the four making a championship run isn’t out of the question. But Virginia is going to be a sieve on the defensive front, Boston College is in turmoil with the coaching transition and Maryland has nothing on either line. All three of these teams have enough strengths that a bowl game is a legit hope, even if I wouldn’t predict it. Duke remains the one team that is hopelessly bad, and the defense in Durham will remind the locals all too much of the one that was shredded by Villanova in the Sweet 16 last March.
That leaves me predicting still more new faces in the conference championship game, as I have North Carolina vs. N.C. State. What a showdown. Dean Smith and Norm Sloan. Phil Ford and Sidney Lowe. Michael Jordan and David Thompson. Wait a minute, wrong sport. But still a good game, and I am picking the Tar Heels to capture the title and go to the Orange Bowl.
But before that game comes to pass, this is a conference hungry for national respect. Virginia Tech beating Cincinnati in last year’s Orange Bowl ended a major bowl losing streak that dated back to Florida State’s 1999 national championship season. A nice start, but beating the Bearcats isn’t going to change national perceptions of the ACC, and that means the league will still get short shrift if one of their teams gets into the national title picture in November. The focal point right now is the Virginia Tech-Alabama showdown on the first Saturday of the season, September 5. Parallels to last season are already being drawn, when a hungry ACC team (Clemson) went to the Georgia Dome to face the Tide and got spanked. This game will go a long way to deciding if the ACC gets the national respect it craves.
Up next: Big Ten on Wednesday