Aug. 28, 2012
By Wes Durham
After another quiet “off season” of college football, we are ready for the games to take place. No more realignment talk, no more conjecture about a playoff system…and no more motorcycle rides. The landscape is calm…for the moment.
Think about it! A year ago, Texas A&M and Missouri were in the Big 12, and you would have never imagined that Pittsburgh and Syracuse would ever be in the ACC. Let alone Boise State signing up to play in the Big East…but we are getting ahead of ourselves aren’t we?
We can spend other installments of the “preview” this fall talking about how these next two seasons might be the most important campaigns the ACC has staged in its history, given the dynamics of how the “new world” of college football is going to work starting in the fall of 2014.
Our job here at “ACC Preview” is to breakdown each of the games outside of the one Georgia Tech is playing, involving the other members of the ACC, and give you a few items to follow each week of the season.
Our mission is not to predict the outcome of games, plenty of people do that. But to offer some insight you might not find in other reports leading up to kickoff. In the words of Casey Kasem (sort of ): “Now onto the preview!!” Friday, August 31:
NC State vs. Tennessee, 7:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
For the first time, the good folks with the Chick-fil-A Bowl are staging a pair of kickoff games. The huge success of the previous games added the element to bring a doubleheader together in Atlanta for the first time. Ideally, it would have been Thursday / Saturday or Saturday / Monday, but the TV and schedule honchos pegged it for back-to-back nights at the Dome.
While Clemson vs. Auburn, has gotten plenty of play, this game has the chance to be more important to both schools, and it is nearly regarded as the “under card” to the Tiger-Tiger game the next night.
The Wolfpack rallied at the end of last season to create some real momentum for this fall. The wins over Clemson, North Carolina and in the bowl against South Florida have State fans excited about this fall. With Clemson and Florida State getting all the attention in the Atlantic Division, the Pack finds itself as the next threat to those two teams.
The QB’s for both schools will be under the microscope in this game. State’s Mike Glennon (62.5%, 31TD) was a big part of the late season run for Tom O’Brien’s team. He will be the catalyst for them early this year. James Washington had nearly 900 yards rushing for State.
In Knoxville, there have been some distractions within the last couple weeks, but the Volunteers have a ton of talent, headlined by their QB Tyler Bray, who when healthy, posted over 280 yards per game.
The match-up between Bray challenging State’s All-America CB David Amerson (13 Int) makes the game’s value even bigger. Especially if Amerson has to match-up against the Vols Justin Hunter (returning from ACL injury).
Hard to say what school needs the win more…while the Vols want a good start without drama, NC State and the ACC need a big win on opening night.
Saturday, September 1:
Elon at North Carolina, 12:30 p.m. (ACC Network)
It is hard to believe that Elon’s campus is only 34 miles from Chapel Hill and the two-schools have never played against each other in football. But the Phoenix (formerly known as Fightin’ Christians), have moved from NAIA to FCS (Southern Conference) in little more than a decade and now face the Tar Heels in the opener.
Everything is new at Carolina, from the head coach (Larry Fedora) to some of the uniform elements (apparently UNC is going with a white helmet for a game this year), including the speed of the game. Fedora, who enjoyed great success at Southern Miss, wants to run 100 plays on offense in a game. That style should favor two of his biggest weapons, QB Bryn Renner (3,086 yds, 26 TD) and TB Giovanni Bernard (1,253 yds, 13 TD).
Defensively, the Heels are interesting. Gone are the NFL draft picks (Quinton Coples & Zach Brown), but LB Kevin Reddick and DT Sylvester Williams should provide enough stability to make Carolina tough.
The Phoenix doesn’t have the size to match Carolina on either side of the line, but they do have the best WR in the stadium. Senior Aaron Mellette (6’4, 220) caught 113 passes last year for 1,639 yards and 12 TD. He’s regarded as one of the top FCS players and one of the best wide outs in the college game.
When he took the Carolina job, Fedora told fans to get in their seats early or else they might miss a touchdown, Saturday is his chance to start proving it.
Richmond at Virginia, 3 p.m. (RSN)
There are all sorts of connections with the Spiders and Cavaliers on Saturday. Virginia head coach Mike London used to be an assistant to Richmond head coach Danny Rocco, whose nephew is London’s starting quarterback on Saturday. Confused yet?!?!
The Cavaliers are likely to keep it simple, with 3 of 5 back on the offensive line, including both tackles. They have 3 different running backs for Michael Rocco to hand to, and solid play at receiver.
After winning 8-games last year, London’s biggest work is on defense where only 5 starters return. The best talent there is a pair of linebackers (Steve Greer, LaRoy Reynolds), who should be able to stabilize the new starters against the Spiders.
Richmond hasn’t beaten Virginia since 1947, and despite being a fine FCS program, shouldn’t win this Saturday.
William & Mary at Maryland, 3 p.m. (ESPN3)
Nobody is happier to see this season arrive more than Terps head coach Randy Edsall. After winning their opener against Miami last year, Edsall’s team posted just one more victory. Now with more players “buying in”, Maryland is now ready for the rebound. But there have been bumps along the way.
The incumbent at QB (C.J. Brown) was lost for the year with a pre-season knee injury in fall camp. True freshmen Perry Hills will be the starter on Saturday. Redshirt rookie Brandon Ross will start at running back, while WR Kevin Dorsey is the playmaker for the Terps.
Maryland could win some games on defense alone this year, where 10 starters return. The Terps have converted to a 3-4 alignment, and that could pay big dividends to DT Joe Vellano (2nd team All-America) and LB Demetrius Hartsfield (12.0 tackles per game).
Jimmye Laycock is in his 33rd season at William & Mary, and the Tribe is picked 7th in the CAA pre-season polls. Their top player is CB B.W. Webb (40 tackles, 2 int), who is on many pre-season FCS All-America lists.
Miami at Boston College, 3:30 p.m. (ABC/ESPN2)
These two teams closed the regular season last year when the Eagles won a 24-17 game, decided on Luke Kuechly’s interception return for a touchdown, now they open the season at Alumni Stadium. BC has now won 2 straight against the `Canes, which lost 3 of their 5 a season ago.
Stephen Morris attempted just 9-passes after the season opener at Maryland a year ago. Morris has Mike James (275 yds., 7 TD) in the backfield, while Allen Hurns (31 rec., 4 TD) is the most experienced receiver.
Defense is where Miami needs to be solid, where sophomore LB Denzel Perryman (69 tackles, 6.5 TFL) headlines for Al Golden.
Boston College cannot afford to slip early this fall. There is already heavy speculation about Frank Spaziani’s future as the head coach, especially with their AD announcing his retirement a couple weeks ago.
If last year is any indication, the Eagles may have something brewing. They won 3 of their last 5 games, including the Miami win, but also a 14-10 win over NC State. QB Chase Rettig is now in his 3rd year as a starter. 19 players return on offense with starting experience, including 7 players who have started 10 or more games. That is a big positive for BC, who labored at times on offense a year ago.
Their defense is built around another linebacker. This one is Kevin Pierre-Louis, who had 74 tackles and 6 TFL, when Kuechly wasn’t the first guy there.
In the last 7-years, BC has allowed an average of 99.5 yards rushing per game. That would help against the `Canes on Saturday.
Murray State at Florida State, 6 p.m. (ESPN3)
If this is going to be the Florida State of old…or the FSU we expected last year, but didn’t get. Then these first two games are going to be no more than organized scrimmages for Jimbo Fisher. The Seminoles open the season with 4 straight home games, but this week and next week (Savannah State) are not the same as Wake Forest (September 15) or Clemson (September 22).
The numbers on the `Noles are staggering. They have a combined experience of 420 starts. No player more important to their ultimate success than QB E.J. Manuel. His career completion percentage (66.1) is better than Charlie Ward’s, but Manuel can’t do the one thing FSU needs him to do most – run the ball. It has been since Warrick Dunn that the `Noles have had a 1,000-yard rusher. Last fall, they only gained 112 yards a game on the ground as a team.
If the depth holds for Florida State, their defense could be one of the nation’s best. Last fall they were top 5 in total numbers and against the run. In 2009, they were #108 in total defense, so this kind of unit has been building for the last couple years.
How good is FSU? I don’t think we will know until the third game of the season.
Liberty at Wake Forest, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN3)
Jim Grobe’s 12th season begins with 4 of their first 5 games at home in Winston-Salem. The Deacons bring back 13 starters, including junior QB Tanner Price (173 consecutive attempts without an interception). But the question is on the offensive line, where just one-starter returns.
Wake has 7 starters back on defense, including NG Nikita Whitlock (64 tackles, 14 TFL), who was an easy pre-season All-ACC pick in late July.
That adds up to a team that has a chance to challenge both FSU and Clemson on the Atlantic side.
The Flames of Liberty are coached by former Kansas head man Turner Gill, and his defensive coordinator is the former UNC head coach Carl Torbush.
Florida International at Duke, 7 p.m. (ESPN3)
The Blue Devils begin their 100th season of football with 16 starters back from a team that nearly reached a bowl game for the first time since 1994. David Cutcliffe starts his 5th season with one of the pass-catch combinations in the ACC (QB Sean Renfree & WR Conner Vernon). Vernon has 143 receptions and 10 TD’s in the last 2-years, while Renfree has thrown for over 6,000 yards and 28 TD’s.
Duke will need to be tougher on defense, and FIU will provide a test in the opener. Last year, the Panthers posted 568 yards of offense, in a 31-27 Duke win.
FIU returns 18 starters from a team that went bowling last year, and got head coach Mario Cristobal a lot of job offers (including a huge offer from Rutgers) only to stay with the Panthers. Some speculated at the time it was because of the work done to build this team for 2012.
Guess we will get that answer along with some others Saturday night.
Clemson vs. Auburn, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
This will be the 3rd installment of a series that has been very entertaining. 2 years ago, Cam Newton had a coming out party, and Clemson missed a late field goal in an Auburn win. Last fall, Tajh Boyd passed for nearly 400 yards and 4 TD’s as the Tigers won going away, 38-24.
The winner of this one gets to move ahead with their season, the loser of the game falls into the “pool of doubt”. That’s where you are trying to reach a certain level, but you can’t quite get there, because people doubt whether you are as good as they thought you were. After the way their respective seasons went a year ago, both Clemson and Auburn are candidates if they lose on Saturday.
The Tigers have a new defensive coordinator in Brent Venables, who arrived from Oklahoma last spring. Safety Rashard Hall is the top player with that unit (217 career tackles).
On offense, people discuss Boyd and WR Sammy Watkins, but Clemson seems to really roll when RB Andre Ellington is leading the way. Ellington is the active leader in the ACC with 2,355 yards rushing, 9 100-yard games and 25 TD’s.
The Tigers have heard all about the West Virginia game as well. The “70” deal has gotten old at Death Valley.
Auburn has new coordinators on both sides of the ball, and head coach Gene Chizik tapped Kiehl Frazier to be his QB, while Onterio McCalebb returns at TB. The hook for the Tigers is that 18 of their top 20 tacklers from last fall are back. For new DC Brian Van Gorder, that has been good news…but will it be good enough on Saturday night against the Tigers.
TIME OUT FOR TRIVIA:
How many starting quarterbacks return this fall in the ACC?
– Answer next week