ACC: The Power is in the Atlantic

Well it’s Atlantic Hurricane Season for a couple of more months, but when it comes to the Atlantic Coast Conference, it’s been anything but Hurricane season.  Who would have thought that since joining the Atlantic Coast Conference, the University of Miami (the baddest of the bad in the old Big East Football Conference) has never made the ACC Championship Game.  It seems that in the last few years, Miami has had a tough time getting out of its own way.  There was the now famous scandal with piss-ant Nevin Shapiro that caused the school to ban itself from post-season play for two years and in one of those years, the Hurricanes would have represented the Coastal Division on the ACC Title game.  Al Golden was hired to replace Randy Shannon as head coach.  Personally, I thought it was kind of cool that Golden wore ties on the sidelines, but that’s not Miami.  That might work at Virginia, but not Miami.

Now the Hurricanes have hired Mark Richt as head coach who served as Jim Kelly’s backup quarterback in the early 80s.  That is to say that he didn’t see the field that much.  After 15 years as the head coach at Georgia, the Bulldogs administration decided a change was in order.  Will the change at Miami make Miami again?  Well there’s no question that Richt can coach and can recruit, but Miami is not even the best team in its own state much less its conference.  The Hurricanes have the best quarterback in the league, but do they have enough pieces around him?  Not likely this year, but keep in mind that Georgia’s best years came when Richt was calling the plays, something he will do at Miami this year.

Richt is one of 4 new coaches in the ACC this season.  Like new coach Dino Babers at Syracuse and really like Bronco Mendenhall at Virginia, he’s in a rebuild mode.  Meanwhile, Justin Fuente has been handed the keys to one of the nicest cars in the conference in taking over for Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech.  Granted that car has a few dents in the form of several years of mediocrity, but Va. Tech is counting on Fuente to work his magic on offense, while Bud Foster remains in town to coordinate the defense.  At Memphis, Fuente’s offense was 18th in the nation in passing offense at 307.5 yards per game.  The Tigers were 11th in scoring offense averaging 40.2 points per game and 19th in total offense, averaging 486.9 yards per game.  For comparison, Va. Tech was just 74th in total offense.  Fuente’s Memphis team was not ranked in the top 50 in rushing offense, and I don’t care what level of football it is, if you don’t run the football, you cannot win games so there will need to be some emphasis on getting the offensive line to – I don’t know actually block and get their uniforms dirty for a change – and let Travon McMillan get going.  It’s one thing to rack up big yards in the American Conference.  It’s another in the ACC.

But, let’s face it, the power structure in the ACC is in the Atlantic Division with Florida State and Clemson.  Over the past five years, those two schools have won every ACC Title.  Clemson winning it in 2011 and 2015 and the Seminoles racking up Championships in 2012, 2013, and 2014.  That means the most important game in the ACC comes at the end of October in Tallahassee, Florida when Clemson faces FSU.  The winner figures to win the ACC and be in the College Football Playoff.  The pundits are in love with Clemson and for good reason.  They did play in the Championship game last year and Quarterback DeShawn Watson is back for what figures to be his last year in the college game before going to get paid in the NFL.  But, like I said, if you can’t run the ball you don’t win and no one should be able to run the ball better than Florida State.  Dalvin Cook is back at running back and that’s good enough for me.  Also, add in that the Seminoles host Clemson and I like Florida State to return to the top of the ACC.  Clemson and Florida State are tied with the most ACC Championships with 15 apiece.  One or the other figures to break that tie this year because the power is in the Atlantic.

I must say that the ACC right now sort of resembles what they said about the old Big 8 in the days of Oklahoma and Nebraska’s dominance.  It was called the Big 2 and Little 6.  The ACC isn’t that bad, but there is a gap between Clemson and Florida State and the rest of the Conference.

Predictions – Coastal Division: The popular pick in the Coastal is last year’s champion North Carolina.  But, I’m picking (1) Pittsburgh.  Why?  Well for one thing head coach Pat Narduzzi loves physical football and a strong defense. On offense, James Connor returns to the field.  Last year, he tore an ACL missing the entire season and then was diagnosed with cancer.  He beat both so conquering the ACC Coastal should be a breeze.

(2) North Carolina – make no mistake, I believe the Tarheels are finally starting to achieve.  There’s no reason not to be good. The state is a hidden gem for high school football players and the facilities at Carolina are incredible.  Larry Fedora has his offense humming and Gene Chizik made the defense so much better. The key game comes early September 24th at home against Pitt.  If the Tarheels want to repeat as ACC Coastal Champion, they cannot lose that game because there’s a trip the following week to Florida State.

(3) Virginia Tech – Count me among those who think that Fuente will eventually have the Hokies winning the ACC Coastal Division title.  What he did at Memphis (a football sewer) was amazing so we know he can coach and we know he can rise to a challenge.  But, his first team has a question mark at the most critical position: Quarterback.  Fuente recruited Junior College Transfer Jerrod Evans to come to Blacksburg because he no doubt looked at what he had and didn’t like it.   But, remember this about Evans.  He started his career at Air Force and left.  He was going to Memphis before Fuente went to Va. Tech and invited him along so we aren’t talking about DeShawn Watson talent here.  The popular thought is that Fuente didn’t recruit him to sit him and that’s probably true, but I also know that coaches have a tendency in a close race like this one appears to be between Evans and returning Senior Brenden Motley to start the year with the quarterback that they don’t think will be the answer long term.  So, I expect that when Tech opens the season at home against Liberty, Motley will start.  There’s no reason that the Hokies shouldn’t start the season 3-1.  The game with Tennessee at Bristol is NOT winnable.  But after that comes a 4 week stretch at North Carolina, at Syracuse (and the Carrier Dome has a tendency to be Tech’s little shop of horrors), home against Miami, and at Pittsburgh.  3-and-1 could quickly turn into 4-4 or 5-3 easy.  Then there is a November trip to Notre Dame that likewise is NOT winnable.

(4) Miami- The Hurricanes have the best quarterback in the league, but not the best team.  Better get them now because Richt will have the Canes battling for the division title sooner rather than later.  The schedule is soft at the beginning with Florida A&M and Florida Atlantic and for some reason a road trip to Appalachian State. I have no idea who scheduled that.  A 3-0 start may be some cause for celebration, but after an open date, the next 6 games are at Georgia Tech, at home to Florida State and North Carolina, a Thursday night trip to Virginia Tech, then a rematch of Catholics vs. Convicts from the early 90s when they visit Notre Dame, and finish that run at Pittsburgh.  6 or 7 wins at the most.

(5) Georgia Tech – As an option offense kind of guy, I love Ga. Tech’s offense.  It drives opponents crazy and when it works, it’s a thing of beauty.  When it doesn’t, you get last season.  Coach Paul Johnson appears to have all the personality of a large size trash can and he seems like a constant stress ball on the sidelines, but he knows what he’s doing and you can be an ass if you win games.  When you don’t win games, you’d better show some personality.  This is a critical year for his future.  He’ll be getting a new athletic director and let’s face it, option football wins games, but unless you are a football purist, it’s like watching a root canal.  I figure this is about a 6-6 team that starts the year with a nice road trip, an opening Saturday game in Dublin, Ireland against Boston College.  The key game is September 22nd at home against Clemson.  Win that, and the Jackets may be back to 2014 instead of 2015.

(6) Virginia – This program was built by George Welsh by recruiting some of the best players in the Commonwealth of Virginia, coaching the hell out of them and developing them as players.  His formula took U.Va. to a place even Virginia Tech has never been…number 1 in the AP Poll in 1990.  Welsh retired and U.Va. fans had to watch Al Groh and Mike London whose ideas of player development was to burn a player’s redshirt year by allowing them to run down on kickoffs on special teams, run the U.Va. program right into the iceberg.  Enter Bronco Mendenhall from BYU.  He’s a little different.  For one he’s a member of the Mormon church.  No sin there, that’s a man’s religion and he can practice whatever he believes. He wins games, no one is going to care.  While trying to find a place to live in Charlottesville, he had his family living in an RV, and reportedly disappears for at least 90 minutes a day and no one knows where to find him.  What he did do at BYU was win games, 99 of them to be exact.  I expect him to overachieve in year 1 and win at least 5 games.  If he can figure out how to get the best of the Commonwealth to come to Charlottesville instead of going out of state, the pieces are there for U.Va. to be a success again.

(7) Duke – What David Cutcliffe has done here is amazing.  He’s won a Coastal Division title and made Duke competitive in football of all things.  Heck the school has even taken steps to update ancient Wallace Wade Stadium where the press box also served as the home of the school clinic during the week.  But, I expect this year to be one of those that comes along every once in a while.  After opening vs. North Carolina Central and Wake Forest, there are back to back trips to Northwestern and Notre Dame.  The key game is week 5 vs. Virginia which may be the difference between the Coastal basement or another potential bowl team.

Atlantic – (1) Florida State – no mystery here.  They have the best players.  I don’t see a single game they cannot win including the October match-up with Clemson.

(2) Clemson – I have to admit what Dabo Swinney has done here is incredible and they are not going away anytime soon with the way they are recruiting and coaching.  The only difference between Clemson and Florida State this year is that the game between them is in Tallahassee.

(3) Louisville- count me among those who are not fans of Louisville coach Bobby Petrino.  It really has nothing to do with his extra curricular activities with a young female at Arkansas.  He just seems like a joyless soul.  He has an offensive coordinator, but doesn’t let the coordinator call plays which is his right.  So, the offensive coordinator leaves Louisville for Illinois.  Petrino is known as an offensive guru, but do you know why Louisville is competitive?  Defense.  Coordinated by Pulaski County, Virginia native Todd Grantham, Louisville was 14th in the nation last year in rushing defense, 39th in scoring defense, and 18th in total defense.  That’s solid no matter how you slice it.  It’s why Grantham is paid over $1 million per year.  Reportedly he and Petrino don’t get along, but if success continues to come from dysfunction, then might as well keep it going.

(4) Wake Forest – Yes, I said Wake Forest.  Dave Clawson is in his third year which is traditionally the year his team’s progress.  Six wins and a bowl game are not out of the question.  Have you ever been to Wake Forest?  One of the prettiest campuses you’ll ever visit.  Wake has high academic standards, but Clawson had to battle the same thing at Richmond and Bowling Green and Cutcliffe at Duke and Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern have shown that reading and writing and winning games are not mutually exclusive.

(5) Boston College – The B.C. Defense was among the best in the country last year.  Second in Rushing Defense, 4th in scoring defense giving up just 15.3 points per game, and number one in total defense.  On the offensive side of the ball they were horrific and couldn’t score.  So the solution is for head coach Steve Adazzio to hire Scott Loeffler as his new offensive coordinator.  In his career Loeffler, who is all fairness is an excellent quarterback coach, has coordinated an offense that got Gene Chizik fired at Auburn, and had Frank Beamer retire rather than experience another Pepto Bismol year watching that junk again.  I’m sure B.C. will be better, but could they be any worse?  To the extent that there are any, B.C. fans are about to learn the hell that is having Scott Loeffler and his gigantic play card as their offensive coordinator.  His play card is big on small print, and color coding.  If it’s like his tenure at Virginia Tech, it will be woefully short of offensive answers.

(6)  N.C. State – The lovable underachievers.  Again, a nice American Conference team playing in the ACC and may be playing this season for their coaches’ job.  Dave Doren did a good job at Northern Illinois, but hasn’t done much of anything at N.C. State.  His best player last year, Jacob Brissett is now in the NFL.  Not a formula for long-term employment. Then again, this is N.C. State, which is never going to be confused with a football powerhouse.

(7)  Syracuse – Dino Babers learned his up tempo offense at Baylor.  He then took it to Eastern Illinois where he made the FCS semi-finals, and then to Bowling Green where he won big.  Now, he’s the caretaker of the dumpster fire known as Syracuse Football.  Syracuse is the classic example of hiring the right coach doesn’t mean success, but hiring the wrong one is a guarantee of failure.  Syracuse is a long way from the Glory Days of Davis, McNabb, and McPherson.  Babers knows how to win, but he probably left a more talented roster at Bowling Green than he’ll have at Syracuse.

Florida State vs. Pittsburgh for the ACC Title.  FSU wins and qualifies for the CFB Playoff as the Number 1 seed at 13-0.

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