2004 marks the beginning of a new era in the ACC, as the conference expands to eleven schools this year and twelve next year. Widely regarded around the country as Florida State’s free pass to the BCS over the past few years, the ACC has added two football powerhouses into the mix this year. This infusion of talent will certainly cause a shift in power away from Tallahassee, and the conference race should have tons of excitement and intrigue this season. Based on all the conference and team shuffling caused by the ACC acquisitions, the nation will be paying close attention to the ACC football race this year.
Coming off a 9-4 finish with a Peach Bowl victory last year, the Tigers have tons of momentum riding into this season. Tommy Bowden has managed to get the team into a bowl game for five straight seasons, so a sixth straight bowl appearance will be expected. Charlie Whitehurst could become a surprise Heisman candidate as the centerpiece of an offense which returns seven starters from a year ago. The battle for starting tailback between Duane Coleman and Yusef Kelley should keep the running game fresh in tough ACC games later in the season. The defense will be led by seven returning starters as well, most notably LB Leroy Hill, who should repeat as the ACC’s leading tackler. The only problem keeping Clemson from a BCS berth is their schedule. A tough three game road trip to Texas A&M, Florida State, and Virginia could break this team. If the Tigers win two out of these three games, then the only other obstacle in front of them will be the road game at Miami. With this kind of schedule, the best the Tigers can hope for is a January bowl game.
Coach Ted Roof righted the ship midway through 2003, leading them to a 4-8 overall record and an ACC victory for the first time in four seasons. The Blue Devils do return most of their skill-position players in 2004, but both lines were decimated by graduation last year. Unless the new offensive line can step up and protect sophomore QB Mike Schneider against faster teams like Virginia Tech and Miami, the offensive production will drop from last season. The biggest threat Duke may pose is the special teams kick return unit and Senterrio Landrum. Despite missing Miami on the schedule, the Blue Devils will be lucky to have the same success as last season.
After winning eleven out of the last twelve ACC football titles, the Seminoles look to keep their superiority over the new ACC in 2004. Offensively returning 9 starters, FSU should have no trouble giving Chris Rix the time he needs to find quality receivers like Craphonso Thorpe. The offensive line will be the best in the ACC, again led by tackle Alex Barron. The defense should be able to reload despite losing 7 starters, and the offense should help the defense by staying on the field for long periods of time. With the most talent in the league this year, Bobby Bowden will almost certainly lead the team to another January or BCS bowl. The only problems are going to Miami to start the season and visiting NC State later in the season. If FSU wins on September 6 in Miami, they will certainly be a favorite to win the ACC and perhaps another championship for legendary coach Bobby Bowden.
The 2003 campaign was an overall success for the Yellow Jackets, as Chan Gailey led the team past expectations to a 7-6 record and a bowl victory over Tulsa. The running backs, Daniels and Dixon, return to lead the offense, but a rebuilt offensive line will make it tough for them to find holes. Despite losing most of their linebackers to graduation, the defense, led by FS James Butler and DE Eric Henderson, will be tough to score against this year. The schedule is relatively favorable, but an early trip to Chapel Hill could send this season to the trash can. No games will be easy in the new ACC, and Georgia Tech is one of the bubble teams which will probably be shoved out of the bowl picture due to the new arrivals.
If there are any successors to Bobby Bowden’s reign over the ACC, Ralph Friedgen might be the top choice. In his first three years at UM, he has led the Terrapins to three straight 10-win seasons. Now returning only 5 offensive and 4 defensive starters, Friedgen has a new challenge in front of him. G C.J. Brooks will be critical to the offensive line, so expect another All-American season from him. The strength of their defense should be their linebackers led by D’Qwell Jackson. Although Miami is not on the schedule this year, Maryland will still have trouble attaining nine or ten wins in the regular season due to inexperience. Other than going to West Virginia, who they dismantled twice last season, there is no reason the Terps should not go into the meat of their schedule at 5-0 or 4-1. The wheels could fall off in late October when Maryland visits three very tough ACC opponents and only plays FSU at home, so a January bowl game is probably out of the question in this rebuilding year.
Just like Friedgen at Maryland, coach Larry Coker has opened his career at Miami with an even more impressive list of accomplishments. Coker has a 35-3 record, a 24 game winning streak, 3 Big East titles, and 3 BCS bowl appearances in his 3 years. His leadership will be needed as the Hurricanes reload after only returning 9 starters on offense and defense combined. Brock Berlin will have a rebuilt set of wide receivers to throw to and a new O-line to protect him. Even if the offense struggles, the national leaders in pass defense should not let the team get too far behind with leadership coming from certain All-American CB Antrel Rolle. The only attack which should scare Miami is a powerful rushing offense combined with a great defense, and there are no teams on the schedule which fit this billing. Florida State might have more raw talent this year, but Miami has proven it can outplay them, especially at home. If the Hurricanes can avoid slipping up at NC State and Virginia, they could be headed to the Orange Bowl.
The Tar Heels are trying to rebound after a 2-10 season placed them back into their perennial doormat status of the ACC, and the changes to the conference will not help them. The best offense in the ACC returns 8 of its starters, including the conference’s best QB-WR connection in Darian Durant throwing to Jarwarski Pollack. The defense returns 7 starters, but new leaders need to step up in this unit if the defense does not want to get run over again this year. With such an explosive offense, the Tar Heels will be competitive in any game. UNC could start quickly with a 2-1 or 3-1 record before visiting FSU, but the schedule is tough the rest of the way. A little momentum and some luck could vault UNC to the middle of the pack in the ACC this year, but do not be surprised if the Heels end on an eight game losing streak.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE
If last year’s mediocre 8-5 finish did not please the fans in Raleigh, this year should help. Although they lost ACC Player of the Year QB Phillip Rivers and ACC leading receiver Jerricho Cotchery, the high-powered offense returns 8 starters and the defense returns 10. Experienced from losing close games on the road such as the overtime losses at Ohio State and Florida State, the Wolfpack could be a surprising threat to Miami and FSU this year. The schedule is pretty favorable, and I think Coach Amato can lead the team to two big home wins against the three top-10 teams visiting Raleigh this season (Ohio State, Miami, and FSU). If the Wolfpack can play better in hostile road environments against conference opponents this year, they could be headed to a BCS bowl.
Coach Al Groh led the Cavaliers to an 8-5 finish last season and another bowl game win in the Continental Tire Bowl. The offense returns 7 starters, including the whole offensive line and TE Heath Miller, who led the nation in receiving for tight ends in 2003. The most experienced line in the ACC should give the new quarterback and wide receivers time to run the offense effectively. The defense is also experienced, returning 8 starters, including most of their line and all their linebackers. Kicker Connor Hughes should have another great season and be competitive for the Lou Groza Award. The late season schedule is brutal, but without any upsets, the Cavaliers should be 5-0 when they go to Tallahassee. With enough line experience to match up against all the ACC teams and a soft non-conference schedule, the Cavaliers will likely make a December bowl game again.
After starting 6-0 last season, the Hokies suffered their second late season collapse in the last three years. For the first time since their national championship game appearance in 1999, Frank Beamer’s Hokies should not have lofty expectations of a BCS bowl. The season suspension of QB Marcus Vick is not great news for Tech, but this will allow two-year starter Bryan Randall to focus on leading the offense instead of keeping his job. The offense only returns 4 starters and the defense only returns 5 of their own. Although the schedule is overall easier than most ACC teams with no FSU or Clemson, the inexperience of the team will cause problems. Assuming Virginia Tech does not get too demoralized in the season opener against defending champs USC, Beamer might hold the rebuilding team together enough to have a mediocre season in the ACC and another bowl appearance.
Jim Grobe has coached the Demon Deacons to three straight mediocre seasons, including a 5-7 campaign last year. The offense returns 7 starters, including star running back Chris Barclay, and the defense returns 8 starters on their side of the ball. Grobe teaches a conservative style of football, and the Demon Deacons do not make many mistakes. Wake Forest does not commit many penalties or give up many turnovers, and keeping this reputation will be the key to their performance this season. The schedule has all the tough ACC teams on it, but the Deacons do not leave North Carolina for a stretch of 8 consecutive games this season. Better opponents in the ACC this year will cause Wake Forest to drop slightly from their performance of the past three seasons.
PREDICTED ACC STANDINGS
2004 PRESEASON ALL-ACC TEAM
THE BEST OF THE ACC
Best Team – Florida State : The Seminoles edge NC State and Miami on talent, but Tallahassee has the most of it this year in the conference.
Best Coach – Bobby Bowden, FSU : Bowden is the all-time wins leader in D-I football, and he has not lost a step despite the influx of great young coaches into the ACC.
Best Player – Antrel Rolle, Miami : This kid was ready for the NFL last season, and another season in Coral Gables will only boost his experience against the best receivers in the ACC.
Best Stadium – Doak Campbell Stadium (FSU) : There is nothing quite like the intimidation factor of this stadium and the Tomahawk Chop, plus it looks great on national television.
Best Game of the 2004 Season – Florida State at Miami, September 6 : This game should determine the front-runner for the ACC crown and also a serious contender for the national championship. Why else would they make it Monday Night Football on Labor Day?
Best Fans – Clemson : The Tigers might have lost the best stadium battle, but the great atmosphere in Memorial Stadium on game days is a tribute to the 81,000 loyal fans which come to every Tiger game. These are also the friendliest fans in the conference.
Best Tradition – Clemson : Almost no contest, Clemson wins this by having a rich football history and great game-day rituals at Death Valley. Running down the Hill and the mystique of the successful Orange Pants are just two of the more known traditions at Clemson.
Best Bet to Under-Achieve – Virginia Tech : Let’s face it, the Hokie fans are used to Top 10 rankings and 10 win seasons. With the move to the ACC, expectations are too high for this squad.
Best Bet to Over-Achieve – NC State : With a little luck, a favorable schedule, and a lot of experienced players returning, this could be the year NC State wins the ACC title. With Miami joining the league this year, that would be a very impressive accomplishment and a well-deserved BCS bowl bid.
With all eyes on the new ACC this year, the conference can hopefully produce a great race for a conference championship and successes similar to last year’s 5-1 record in bowl games. Will the new ACC be the best conference in college football? That is a discussion best saved for another article, but the ACC will be comparable to the Big Ten and SEC this season. Overall, it looks like the only season with 11 teams in the ACC should be one of the most memorable for the conference. Stay tuned to SCS.com all season as I cover the most pressing issues in the ACC throughout the exciting 2004 season!
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