Thanks to the schedule at hand, it's going to be a good year in Blacksburg.
We continue our conference summaries by heading to the east coast.
When I wrote Miami's profile in July, I was really talking myself into them. Now? Not so much. It is difficult to make predictions for the ACC, especially the Coastal Division, when we have no idea what kind of kinks and suspensions NCAA investigations will throw into the mix. For now, I have no faith in Miami -- not with double-digit suspensions a possibility -- but ... I really don't have faith in anybody in the Coastal Division.
And you have no idea how close I came to talking myself into Clemson making a major run. I'm an addict.
Five Predictions for the ACC in 2011:
1. Virginia Tech goes undefeated in the regular season.
2. Florida State beats Oklahoma but doesn't finish undefeated ... and then beats VT in the conference title game.
3. Only two Coastal Division teams will play in a bowl game.
4. Five Atlantic Division teams will play in a bowl game.
5. N.C. State fails to live up to Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections (9-3, 5-3).
B.C. needed quite a bit of fumbles luck to produce a good turnover margin, and ... really, this just wasn't a very good team last year. In terms of Def. F/+, the Boston College defense has improved, at least slightly, in each of the last three years. Unfortunately, the offense has regressed at a steeper rate than the defense has progressed. It is easy to see the steady fall as a sign that Frank Spaziani fits into the "A great assistant coach who, when promoted to head coach, proved himself to be a great assistant coach" model, and who knows, you might not be wrong. We'll begin to find out this year, with a new hand leading the offense. If Kevin Rogers can breathe some life into a dying offense, then things could rather quickly turn around. The offense doesn't have to be good; it just has to be average for B.C. to succeed.
If B.C. is to come up with yet another winning season and/or threaten for a surprise division crown, a fast start is mandatory. They face a tricky trip to Central Florida in the second week of the season, but four extremely winnable home games (Northwestern, Duke, UMass, Wake Forest) should supplement, at worst, a 4-1 start. Anything less, and six wins becomes an awfully difficult task. The Eagles have a three-game road trip to Clemson, Virginia Tech and Maryland (ouch) in October, host Florida State and N.C. State, then finish at Notre Dame and at Miami. That's brutal.
It almost goes without saying at this point, but this should be a pretty good football team. They have an emerging star at running back (Andre Ellington) with a blue-chipper backing him up. They have one of the most experienced offensive lines in college football. They have a pair of potentially big-time defensive tackles lining up in front of one of the more underrated sets of linebackers in college football. They have a star at cornerback, a good defensive coordinator and an up-and-coming offensive coordinator. They are once again projected in Football Outsiders' Top 25.
But that doesn't really mean a lot, does it? It will be hard to truly believe in Clemson until they come up big in a big game. And in 15 days starting in mid-September, they play three huge ones. They host Auburn on September 17 and Florida State on September 24 (they lost to these two teams by a combined six points last year, both on the road) before heading to Blacksburg to take on Virginia Tech on October 1. The Tigers could somewhat legitimately be anywhere between 5-0 and 1-4 (with a loss to Troy) on October 2; none of those options would surprise anybody too much (okay, 5-0 and 1-4 probably would). The above stats show that Clemson has (on paper) achieved about the level of quality their recruiting rankings would suggest, and they were not particularly lucky or unlucky last year (aside from the injury to Kyle Parker, anyway). They will likely play quite a few more close games this fall, and they will either live down to the stereotype in those games, or they will regress back toward the mean in a crazy way.
1. Recruiting has been solid. This has obviously never been a problem with FSU. In fact, the only recruiting-related problem the 'Noles have suffered has been their recent propensity for topping the "biggest underachievers as compared to their recruiting rankings" list. They pretty much owned that list for a while. But their surge last year was fortified by top ten talent, making it infinitely more sustainable.
2. The offense has been good for a while. This wasn't a situation where both the offense and the defense rose from the 60s to the teens. FSU had a top-flight offense in 2009, and they had a (slightly less) top-flight offense in 2010.
3. The surge wasn't actually much of a surge. FSU's four-year F/+ average ranks them in the Top 25; they've finished in the Top 30 in each of the last three years, and last year's "surge" only took them from 29th to 15th. The major difference was, before 2010, this was certainly a "whole less than the sum of its parts" situation. The foundation has always been rather strong.
The biggest issue for FSU in 2011 is quite simply the schedule. They will still be a rather young team in September, when they face off against a Top 5 team in Oklahoma (at home) and a Top 20 team in Clemson (on the road). If the 'Noles are 4-0 at the end of September, then they will almost certainly be 8-0 at the end of October, and things will begin to get very interesting. The pieces on the board are positioned nicely; now it's up to Jimbo Fisher and company to prove they can not only execute strategies at a high level, but they can pull off the tactics to score a checkmate on the Oklahomas and Floridas of the world.
Say this much for the Edsall hire: it fits the personnel quite well. I was really intrigued by the thought of Mike Leach running the show in College Park, but there are benefits to Edsall. The thing that typically trips up teams with new coaches is the occasional delay that comes with installing your own system and scheme. Aside from running more and making quite a few position changes on defense, this should be at least a semi-smooth transition.
Because of their ability to go after the ball, Maryland produced a significant turnover advantage that might be at least somewhat sustainable. It prompted a very positive YPP margin, and while things may even out a bit, the regression to the mean might not be completely crippling. There is experience on both sides of the ball, and perhaps just as importantly, there are potential stars too -- O'Brien and Meggett are good (and could be great) on offense, while Vellano and particularly Tate are standouts on defense.
Without a doubt, there are question marks. The receiving corps is a complete mystery, as are both lines, really, but Edsall should be able to make something out of this team rather quickly. Who knows what their ceiling is, but there at least shouldn't be much of a drop-off. There better not be, at least, because the season begins with two defining home games: Miami and West Virginia. Both of those teams are undergoing transitions of their own, so who the hell knows what to expect, but those two games will create the narrative for the rest of the season. Are the Terps going to be darkhorse contenders for a division crown? Are they going to be fighting and scrapping for bowl eligibility? We'll probably know by the evening of September 17.
North Carolina State
N.C. State raised their game in 2010 due to a combination of Wilson, a stellar defensive front seven, and luck (both of the fumbles and YPP varieties). Though there are still playmakers on defense, and though O'Brien clearly has a ton of confidence in Mike Glennon, it's hard not to notice that Wilson is gone, a chunk the front seven is gone, and the luck was strong enough that it could turn around in 2011.
After years as a perfectly average team under O'Brien, the Wolfpack took a significant step forward in 2010, but unless Glennon is the real deal, it's hard not to see them regressing a bit in 2011. Luckily, the schedule should allow them access to another bowl game. The non-conference schedule consists of three home cupcakes (Liberty, South Alabama, Central Michigan), four tough-but-winnable conference home games (Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Clemson, Maryland), and some winnable road games (Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Virginia) to boot. They'll have to get to seven wins because of the always-ridiculous two FCS opponents, but it will take a pretty lengthy step backwards for them not to reach that. That should keep at least some of the "You just let Wilson walk out the door??" heat off of O'Brien.
Basically, Wake Forest had a lot going against them in 2010. Never mind the extreme youth ... they also had horrendous fumble luck and an unfavorable YPP margin. All possible signs point to a rebound for the Demon Deacons in 2011, but the question, as always, is how much? Because Wake was all sorts of bad last year, and a rebound of 20-30 spots in the F/+ rankings still puts them near the bottom of the ACC.
Wake Forest was so young in 2010 that they'll still be pretty young in 2011 and 2012. But when you bottom out, you at least want to know there's reason to still come to work the next season, and with sophomores like Josh Harris, Nikita Whitlock and, of course, Tanner Price, Grobe has that. Home games against Gardner Webb, N.C. State (early in the Mike-Glennon-as-QB era), Maryland and Vanderbilt will give them a chance to compile some wins if they are indeed decent, but chances are this will be another rebuilding year with the hope of another decent run in 2012-13.
Again, I ask ... are you an optimist or a pessimist? Both have material when it comes to Duke. Good news: the Duke defense has improved every season, the Blue Devils return a healthy number of starters, the turnover margin was, in theory, unsustainably bad in 2010, and Duke's YPP margin suggests they were rather unlucky. All good things! Of course...
...the turnover margin could be sustainably bad if the defense doesn't learn how to force some turnovers, the recruiting has trended in the wrong direction in the last couple of classes, Duke still can't win close games, and ... if you're the type to never bet against a trend, then "zero bowls in the last 16 seasons, two in the last 50" is a pretty strong one. The ACC's Coastal Division is not necessarily the most difficult place to build a six-win team -- Virginia still has work to do, and obviously Miami, Georgia Tech and North Carolina didn't light the world ablaze last season -- but Duke probably still isn't there, especially considering they face Miami, Virginia and North Carolina on the road in 2011. (Hosting Stanford and traveling to Florida International in non-conference play is also quite a chore.)
Georgia Tech had, basically, average fumbles luck (though they fumbled a ton) and an average YPP margin. Their recent performance basically matches their recent recruiting despite the unique system, and they return an average number of starters. In other words, there is little in these numbers to suggest that any sort of bounce back is certain in 2011. There is potential -- interesting young defensive ends, linebackers and maybe receivers -- but nothing is guaranteed.
Paul Johnson has proven that while there are a million ways to win a football game, there are also a million ways to quickly become stagnant. He will be relying on youth to avoid stagnation, and that's not typically something that works out beautifully. Still, the schedule sets up for a reasonably fast start -- first seven games: Western Carolina, at Middle Tennessee, Kansas, North Carolina, at N.C. State, Maryland, at Virginia. If they have even only slightly improved, then 6-1 is not out of the question; if not, then 3-4 is in play, and Johnson's seat could become rather warm rather quickly. This is a very important season for Tech's long-term viability under Johnson, and some newcomers will decide how the narrative develops.
There has been a decent amount of negativity surrounding the Miami program recently, from the disappointing 2010 season, to a coaching hire that failed to generate buzz, to arrests and transfers. The vaunted 2008 recruiting class did not bring 12-win seasons to Coral Gables, the depth isn't where it is supposed to be, and financial support appears lacking. This program is not where it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago, and looking at the program, and college football's power structure, it is difficult to imagine the 'Canes returning to those loftiest of lofty heights anytime soon. However...
...look at that 2008 class again. It still produced Marcus Forston, Sean Spence, Travis Benjamin, Ramon Buchanan, Vaughn Telemaque, Micanor Regis, Brandon Washington and, of course, Jacory Harris. Within the framework of the ACC, Miami is still at the top end in terms of athleticism and potential. Al Golden may be seen by some as a conservative hire, but if he manages to wring out more of the potential in some of these players than they have as yet uncovered, Miami is still a potential ACC champion and Top 10 program.
The schedule is, to say the least, trying. The 'Canes open on Labor Day at Maryland, then host Ohio State and Kansas State before the ACC schedule truly gets rolling. Their divisional fate will be decided by trips to Virginia Tech and North Carolina in mid-October, and by the time they reach the @FlaSt-USF-BC portion of their schedule, they could be anywhere between about 8-1 and 3-6. I've talked myself into this team to a certain degree, and I see them winning at least eight games when all is said and done, but 'potential' is the watchword. If we're still talking about potential, and not production, in November, then something went awry.
There is an NCAA hearing in October, so the chances are this cloud will continue to follow the program around all season; and honestly, they deserve it. But it further blurs the projectability (that is now a word, by the way) of this squad. In a vacuum, without hearings and allegations and a potential new coaching search (you never know) getting in the way, this is a team with solid potential. The offense might be more hit-and-miss, but the hits could be lovely; meanwhile, the defense is deep and athletic and could benefit from the experience players generated in light of suspensions last year.
With seven home games and trips to East Carolina and N.C. State, the Tar Heels play nine games within the borders of their home state; and considering their toughest home games are against Louisville and Miami, they could very well rack up the wins this season in the aforementioned vacuum. But in reality, the distractions will be epic. The Heels handled them well last year, which was amazing considering the shuffling of personnel, but the cloud only gets darker this fall, and if the NCAA moves quickly enough, last year's Music City Bowl might be the last time North Carolina tastes the postseason for a while.
Generally speaking, the base of talent at Virginia isn't too bad. Former four-star recruits like receiver Tim Smith and offensive tackles Oday Aboushi and Morgan Moses are reaching maturity, and the Cavs bring in a stellar class this fall. Combined with a host of returning starters and a potentially healthy YPP margin, and it isn't impossible to talk yourself into UVa.
Of course, I was attempting to talk myself into them last September too, but the defense got in the way. Unless some of the freshmen and sophomores are ready out of the gates, the Cavs are still probably a year away from becoming a truly interesting factor in the ACC.
Writing these profiles in worst-to-first fashion has resulted in some interesting themes, hasn't it? First, we had the bad teams who needed some breaks and a fast start to reach bowl eligibility. Now, we've moved on to either "temporary step backwards" teams like Washington and Louisville, and "a year or two away with severe question marks on one side of the ball" squads like Kansas State and Virginia. Soon enough, we'll move on to "in limbo between good and terrible" teams (Rutgers, Maryland, Arizona State) as well. Good times had by all, right?
No pressure, Logan Thomas. You've got some excellent skill position options around you, a solid line, a fantastic secondary, an improved front seven/eight, and one of the most manageable schedules of any top BCS team. Oh, and Phil Steele has named you a darkhorse Heisman candidate and Cam Newton clone. What could possibly go wrong, eh?
If Thomas is somewhere between competent and solid, look out for Tech. Here's their road slate: Georgia Tech (2011 proj. F/+ ranking: 50th), East Carolina (65th), Virginia (66th), Wake Forest (77th), Duke (79th) and Marshall (94th). Clemson, Miami, Boston College and North Carolina all come to Blacksburg. For a team that wins double-digit games against solid schedules, how many are they capable of winning against an easy one? Like Pearl Jam, Frank Beamer's Hokies have mastered the art of playing at an elite level while simultaneously disappearing from view; it might be difficult to avoid the trappings of pop superstardom this fall, at least as long as Thomas comes through. Again, no pressure.
Predicted Order Of Finish
NOTE: These predictions have nothing to do with the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections released recently (now on Amazon!) -- these are just based on my own impressions of each team as I was writing up the previews. It is intended to be more of a power poll than a set of predictions based on a lengthy look at the schedules. And it will change 17 more times between now and when the season starts.
1. Florida State
4. Boston College
5. N.C. State
6. Wake Forest
1. Virginia Tech
2. North Carolina
3. Georgia Tech