Projecting the 2013 season in minute detail, based on our preseason F/+ ratings. Suggested point spreads are generated from projected ratings. For the full ratings, see the this year's edition of the Football Outsiders Almanac.
1. FLORIDA STATE
Best-Case. Outsiders have been conditioned over the last decade to regard the Seminoles as perennially overrated choke artists – the only rational response to their track record in that span – and it will probably take them as long to shed that reputation as it did to earn it. But the meme is beginning to feel a little moldy. In 2012 FSU came as close as any outfit of the past decade to replicating the dominant, swaggering editions that claimed eleven conference titles from 1992–2003, all the way down to the over-the-top talent level: Eleven Noles were taken in April's draft, more than any other school. Compared to other ACC champions this millennium, Florida State set new highs for wins (12) and final F/+ score (+29.5%, fifth-best in the nation), and delivered only the conference's second BCS bowl win in its last 14 tries. The only other teams in school history with 12 wins in a season, in 1993 and 1999, both won the national championship.
As with those halcyon outfits, the talent gap between Florida State and the rest of the ACC is so wide that attrition in any given year is irrelevant. (This year's starting rotation will feature a dozen players who arrived at FSU as five-star recruits, including the new quarterback, Jameis Winston. That's more than the rest of the league combined.) By the time the annual hate date with Florida rolls around, Winston and the other new faces will be entrenched veterans. What matters is consistency, especially in the fourth quarter. In both of their losses in 2012, the Seminoles led comfortably entering in the final frame, only to be outscored by N.C. State and later Florida by a combined 38 to 6 down the stretch. That wasn't a recurring theme – the same team showed a strong closing push in wins over Clemson, South Florida, Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois – but it was the difference between a spot in the BCS title game and a spot at the fringes of the top ten. If the 2013 edition can close, it has a direct path to the former.
Worst-Case. How many promising seasons have been derailed by growing pains under center? For all the hype surrounding Winston, he's still a redshirt freshman quarterback on the road against the only two teams on the schedule that can conceivably match up with FSU athletically, Clemson and Florida, not to mention a dangerous opening-night trip to Pittsburgh. Whatever his long-term ceiling, a quarterback taking his first college snaps is always a potential liability in a game that could turn on one or two big mistakes.
Which brings us to the real red flag, which is that the most persistent hurdle between Florida State and its full potential is usually Florida State. Last year's loss at N.C. State was the eighth time in eight years the Seminoles have been ambushed as a ranked team by an unranked underdog. It was the fourth loss in three years under Jimbo Fisher in a game they were favored to win by double digits. Stumbling in Death Valley or Gainesville would be disappointing enough; stumbling out of the gate in Heinz Field, or at home against N.C. State or Miami, would make last year's run look more like a minor glitch in the era of mediocrity than a harbinger of championships to come.
Reality. For a team with national aspirations, the schedule offers no margin for error. Clemson and Florida are big enough scalps to justify Florida State's presence in the championship conversation, and there's some potential value in beating Miami and/or the Coastal Division champ in the ACC title game, too. But the rest of the schedule is poison: On most weekends, the Seminoles' only chance for above-the-fold attention will be to struggle with some overmatched outfit they were expected to run of the stadium. The BCS computers punished FSU severely last year for its mediocre strength of schedule – the Noles consistently ranked 10–15 spots lower in the computer rankings than in the human polls – and won't have any reason to overlook a blemish this year. As always, the ACC is there for the taking. The highest bar is still a rung or two out of reach.
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Projected Record: 10–2 (7–1 ACC)
Best-Case. Tajh Boyd was just another stat-padding spread quarterback, until he mastered the Costanza Rule: Always go out on a high note. By rallying Clemson from 11 points down against LSU in the fourth quarter of the Chick-Fil-A Bowl – accounting for 368 yards and three touchdowns against the Tigers' blue-chip defense in the process – Boyd not only turned himself into an intensely coveted NFL prospect. Overnight, Clemson ripened from an ACC also-ran known for imploding at random intervals (see below) into the kind of team that gets pegged as a darkhorse BCS contender behind the most bankable senior QB in the country. In the preseason magazines, the Tigers are consensus favorites to win the ACC and to finish in the top ten nationally for the first time since 1990, two years before Florida State joined the conference.
Yes, of course, you have heard all of this before. But high expectations in the past have never been built on as solid a foundation as a) Boyd, or b) A win over a perennial SEC heavy, a legitimate breakthrough for a program that has dropped four straight against its one SEC rival (South Carolina) and opens the season against another (Georgia). If Boyd is good enough to get the Tigers past a loaded LSU defense on a neutral field, he's good enough to get them past a rebuilding Georgia D at home. From there, it's a straight shot to Florida State for the ACC crown, and then to South Carolina with BCS implications. Even with Boyd en tow and the rampant optimism of the prognostoscenti, it's unrealistic to expect a team with so many questions on defense to clear so many hurdles without at least one blemish. Still, in any context, a BCS bowl would be a triumph.
Worst-Case. Okay, so now we can talk about what happens when Clemson is mixed with high expectations. Between 2001 and 2011, the Tigers were ranked in the preseason polls four times, and subsequently failed to finish there in any of those four seasons. Between 2006 and 2011, they lost ten games as a ranked team to an unranked opponent. Twice in that span they played their way into the top ten in late October, only to blow both opportunities by losing four of their last five (2006) and four of their last six (2011), respectively. When they finally reached their first BCS bowl, in 2011, they were not only upset, but humiliated in the most lopsided blowout in Series history. Last year was the first time Clemson started and finished the season in the Associated Press poll since 2000. The program is so reliably volatile in high-stakes situations that the blogosphere coined a verb for it, "Clemsoning," defined in the Urban Dictionary as "the act of delivering an inexplicably disappointing performance."
As always, the ACC schedule offers multiple opportunities for Clemson to Clemson: N.C. State, Wake Forest, Maryland and Georgia Tech have all scored upset wins over Clemson in the last five years, and there are also road trips to Syracuse and Virginia. If the Tigers go 0-for-3 in the defining, test-of-strength games against UGA, FSU and South Carolina, a flop against the conference could send the season careening into an all-too-familiar spiral.
Reality. It's hard to overstate the importance of the opening night visit from Georgia, which amounts to a restaging of the 2008 opener in which another highly touted outfit was mortally wounded by Alabama; coach Tommy Bowden was fired six weeks later, and the Tigers limped to a 7–6 finish. As much as it would mean to exorcise those demons, though, it's equally hard to see a defense that hemorrhaged big plays in 2012 holding up over the course of an entire season. Another SEC scalp would be nice, but without the ACC crown it will also be a symbol of another opportunity missed.
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Projected Record: 9–3 (7–1 ACC)
Best-Case. Orange partisans aren't about to hold up the Doug Marrone era as the prevailing standard for Syracuse football – four years, two winning records and a pair of victories in the Pinstripe Bowl is no one's idea of the glory days – but the fact that a .500 mark in his only tour as a head coach was enough to propel Marrone to a top job in the NFL speaks volumes about the wreckage he inherited. After four consecutive last-place finishes under his predecessor, Greg "Gerg" Robinson, a share of the Big East title and a 6–1 run to close the season in year four under Marrone felt like mission accomplished.
For his successor, Scott Shafer, the strong finish offers a manageable template for keeping his head above water in a new conference: From midseason on, the Orange were increasingly committed to the run, averaging 238 yards on nearly 50 carries per game over he last seven. The top two tailbacks, Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley, are both back after combining for exactly 2,000 yards rushing as juniors, including 365 yards in the bowl romp over West Virginia. The key to getting back above .500 is stealing a road win or two early (trips to Northwestern, N.C. State and Georgia Tech are winnable), then holding serve at home against Wake Forest and Boston College in November. Add a minor upset – fellow Big East refugee Pitt would fit the bill – and back-to-back winning seasons is well within reach. That hasn't happened at Syracuse since 1998-99, behind quarterback Donovan McNabb.
Worst-Case. From a talent standpoint, 'Cuse will be playing above its head, much more so than in the Big East; according to Rivals' annual rankings, even Duke and Wake Forest have fared better on the recruiting trail over the last five years. For a team breaking in a new head coach and a new, as-yet unidentified quarterback, there is no safety net, and no real gimmes on the schedule, either. Outside the conference, opening against Penn State and Northwestern on consecutive weekends is a good way to get in a quick hole. Within the conference, an early October loss at N.C. State could put the Orange on the fast track to an 0–3 start in ACC play, with Georgia Tech, Florida State and Pitt still on deck. From there, the bottom of standings are only an untimely injury and a couple of bad bounces away.
Reality. The bottom half of the division is forgiving enough for Syracuse to make some immediate inroads in the pecking order, for whatever it's worth. This many miles behind Clemson and Florida State, that would be an invitation from one of the conference's nine bowl tie-ins and the satisfaction that comes with knowing it could always be a lot worse.
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Projected Record: 6–6 (4–4 ACC)
4. N.C. STATE
Best-Case. A very good question for a program that clearly believes it should be doing a lot better. Historically, N.C. State is more than three decades removed from its last conference championship, in 1979, and has only cracked ten wins a season once, in 2002. The last three head coaches, Mike O'Cain, Chuck Amato and Tom O'Brien, all left with multiple bowl games and one top-25 finish to their credit, along with a pink slip. O'Brien's ouster came last November, on the heels of the Wolf Pack's third consecutive winning season (7–5) on his watch.
On one hand, it's not hard to see why fans felt frustrated by untapped potential. The 2010 team won nine games behind quarterback Russell Wilson, but also blew fourth-quarter leads in three of its four losses; O'Brien subsequently chose to let Wilson transfer for his final season of eligibility rather than lose his younger backup, Mike Glennon, who proceeded to throw more interceptions over the next two years (29) than any other FBS passer while Wilson led his subsequent teams to the Rose Bowl and the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs, respectively. O'Brien's teams were capable of just about anything on any given weekend, having taken two straight over the eventual ACC champ (Clemson in 2011, Florida State in 2012) with losses to Wake Forest, Boston College and Virginia in the same span.
From that perspective, virtually every game on the 2013 schedule is winnable, and the Pack could be considered favorites in as many as nine. Taking eight of them would make new coach Dave Doeren look pretty good. For now.
Worst-Case. Almost all of those winnable games are also imminently losable games, especially for a team still deciding between one of three new quarterbacks and effectively starting over from scratch on defense. Besides a new scheme, N.C. State is replacing all three starting linebackers, a pair of draft picks in the secondary and a senior safety, Brandan Bishop, who started all four years he was on campus – a highly flammable combination regardless of the competition, although in this case five of the defining "swing" games (Wake Forest, North Carolina, Duke, Boston College and Maryland) are against senior quarterbacks. If a majority of those goes the wrong way, so do the odds of getting back above .500.
Reality. If everything comes together in time for the November run against Duke, Boston College, East Carolina and Maryland – all ripe for the picking – N.C. State has the best chance of emerging as the "surprise" team in the division, although that can be achieved without doing anything particularly surprising in any given game. At this point, some modicum of consistency against the rest of the conference rabble from week to week would be surprising enough.
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Projected Record: 7–5 (3–5 ACC)
5. BOSTON COLLEGE
Best-Case. Given that all-purpose hopelessness of the last two years, it's easy to forget how sturdy Boston College seemed when Frank Spaziani and his sad mustache were abruptly elevated to the top job back in 2009. At that point, the Eagles had put together ten consecutive winning seasons, easily the longest streak in school history, and played in back-to-back ACC title games under Spaziani's former boss, Jeff Jagodzinski. (Only one of which involved Matt Ryan.) In 2012, the seniors who signed up in those years bowed out with a single conference win and a last-place finish in the Atlantic Division.
At least Spaziani's overdue exit offers a glimmer of hope that the pendulum is swinging back in the right direction: If B.C. can sweep division peers Wake Forest, N.C. State and Maryland, the former two at home, a bottom-rung bowl game is back on the table. The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl has never sounded so un-depressing.
Worst-Case. If the Eagles have a move to make, it will have to come in November: Prior to that, there's not much flex in a schedule that clusters the five most unwinnable dates on the slate (USC, Florida State, Clemson, North Carolina, Virginia Tech) in a span of six games. Get through that with bowl ambitions intact, and three of the last four are on the road, including must-win trips to Maryland and Syracuse. The 2012 team didn't win a game away from home, and aside from a weird, mid-November excursion to New Mexico State, the prospects for the 2013 edition breaking the streak aren't much better.
Reality. For awhile, at least, it might be nice to have Spaziani to kick around some more. As the Eagles' recent draft fortunes have made clear, the cupboard is more or less bare. But there is a path out of the division cellar, and after last year any step forward under new coach Steve "Doctor Dive" Addazio should be applauded in the spirit of progress.
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Projected Record: 5–7 (2–6 ACC)
6. WAKE FOREST
Best-Case. Whatever momentum the Demon Deacons generated from their brief bid for relevancy circa 2006–08 has long dissipated, but they're not so far removed from success (relatively speaking) that the template no longer applies. In fact, these Deacs look a lot like those Deacs: The 2013 lineup is long on experience, composed almost entirely of upperclassmen in their fourth or fifth years in the program on both sides of the ball, including a senior quarterback (Tanner Price) with 34 career starts under his belt. There's also the typically backloaded schedule, which offers a running start toward bowl eligibility with four vulnerable opponents (Presbyterian, Boston College, Louisiana-Monroe and Army) waiting in the first four games and N.C. State and Maryland in town for games six and seven. A 6–1 start would not be Jim Grobe's greatest miracle in this job – this is the man who boasts both a conference championship and a three-year winning streak over Florida State, at Wake Forest – but anything beyond a 7–5 regular season probably would be.
Worst-Case. Grobe remains widely respected, but after 12 years the program seems closer to a collapse than a breakthrough. The offense in 2012 was the worst of Grobe's tenure in terms of both yards and points per game, and plummeted to 107th in offensive F/+, down from 47th in 2011. In the S&P+ ratings, the Deacons limped in at 108th in rushing, 107th in passing and 113th overall, down from No. 60. Price, in his third year under center, finished with the lowest pass efficiency rating of any regular ACC starter; his best target, Michael Campanaro, led the league in receptions per game (7.9), but averaged just 8.4 yards on those receptions against ACC defenses. Presbyterian and Army may have a hard time matching Wake's firepower, but no one else will.
Reality. No surprises here: As usual, Wake will take care of business in the few games it should win, and is probably an upset away from a .500 record and a bowl bid. But it says a lot that even getting that far still feels like an achievement.
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Projected Record: 5–7 (2–6 ACC)
Best-Case. For starters, keeping a single quarterback healthy for the majority of the season would be a welcome change of pace. Beginning with the transfer of incumbent Danny O'Brien in the spring, the 2012 Terrapins were hit by a wave of attrition that felled every viable signal-caller on the roster, and one or two who weren't even that viable. After season-ending injuries to C.J. Brown (torn ACL), Perry Hills (torn ACL), Devin Burns (broken foot) and Caleb Rowe (torn ACL), coaches were left with no choice over the final month of the season but to turn to a true freshman linebacker, Shawn Petty, who happened to run the option in high school. By November, injuries had also claimed the seasons of starters at tailback, wide receiver, defensive end, linebacker and safety. Surprise: The Terps dropped their final four games by an average of 22 points and limped into the winter with the worst offensive F/+ rating in the league.
Theoretically, the upside to all that carnage is a more seasoned team – 15 players are back who started at least one game as a true or redshirt freshman – that cannot possibly encounter such bad luck again. Maryland was competitive enough through the first two months of the season to imagine a healthier version of the same team turning a corner with more experience. If it can make the handful of plays necessary to turn three narrow losses by a field goal or less into narrow wins, Randy Edsall will have his first palpable sense of progress in three years.
Worst-Case. The "youth movement" meme is the same line fans heard last year, after watching 21 freshmen thrown into the fire in Edsall's first season in 2011. In fact, the Terps' current roster features fewer career starts (205) going into 2013 than any team in the conference except N.C. State. The ostensible starter at quarterback, C.J. Brown, was limited in spring practice by the lingering effects of his knee injury, and the starting tailback, Wes Brown, has been suspended for the season. If the season goes off the rails early against the likes of Florida International and/or UConn, the track will be too crowded with locals calling for Edsall's head to get it moving in the right direction.
Reality. Edsall has been the victim of some outrageous circumstances – seriously, the guy lost four scholarship quarterbacks to season-ending injuries in a matter of weeks – but against this schedule, the progress he needs is going to be tough to come by. The good news is that he has a pair of first-rate playmakers in sophomore Stefon Diggs, who singlehandedly accounted for nearly 40 percent of the team's all-purpose production as a true freshman, and Deon Long, another five-star type who transferred from junior college directly into the starting lineup in the spring. How the offense plans to exploit their talents without a viable quarterback, though, is anyone's guess. For now, any conference win will qualify as at least a minor upset.
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Projected Record: 4–8 (2–6 ACC)