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THE WORD FROM WES

Feb. 8, 2008

JACKSONVILLE STATE: Georgia Tech has played Samford from the Ohio Valley Conference twice in the last four years, but this will be the first meeting ever with Jacksonville State. The Gamecocks of Jack Crowe (former head coach at Arkansas), won the OVC crown in 2003 and 2004. Since that time, they have posted three straight 6-5 seasons. Jacksonville State ended the campaign winning five of their last seven games. The play of QB Cedric Johnson sparked the strong finish. Johnson a rising senior, threw for more than 1,400 yards and 6 TD’s. Johnson completed 57% of his passes along the way as well. A dual threat performer, Johnson was the Gamecocks second leading rusher as well, finishing with 430 yards on the ground and a team-high 10 touchdowns. The Gamecocks will return several defensive starters, but will have to fill almost a half dozen spots on the offensive side of the ball. One area they won’t need to tinker with is at running back. Daniel Jackson led JSU in rushing last fall with 509 yards and is expected to be the feature back when next fall opens.

Game #1 Note: Georgia Tech has not opened a season with a conference opponent since 1996, when they beat NC State in Raleigh (28-16).

AT BOSTON COLLEGE: After appearing in the ACC Championship game last December and scoring a win over Michigan State in the post-season, Boston College will say good bye to the ACC Player of the Year, QB Matt Ryan. But more than Ryan, the Eagle will also lose several key pieces to their explosive offense. Both of their top rushers (Andre Callender, L.V. Whitworth) and their top receiver (Kevin Challenger) will be gone too. Defensively, two of the three linebackers will be gone (Tyrone Pruitt, Jolonn Dunbar), but Jeff Jagodzinski will look forward to the return of Brian Toal (LB), who missed all of 2007 with an injury. Three quarters of the secondary will need to be replaced as well.

Game #2 Note: The Jackets last visit to Alumni Stadium was October 4, 1997, when they beat BC, 42-14.

AT VIRGINIA TECH: After their loss to Kansas in the FedEx Orange Bowl, Virginia Tech then discovered that Brandon Ore (TB), Brandon Flowers (CB), “Macho” Harris (CB) were all going to enter the NFL Draft early. A week later, only Flowers name was still in the mix. Both Ore and Harris elected to return to Blacksburg, which helps make Frank Beamer sleep better at night. When healthy, Ore is one of the best backs in the ACC and with Sean Glennon and Tyrod Taylor mixing things up at quarterback, Ore has been the constant for the Hokies. Defensively, three of the front four have to be replaced and big play linebacker Vince Hall as well.

Game #3 Note: With their win in Atlanta last year, Virginia Tech took a 3-2 lead in the overall series. In their four meetings as ACC opponents, the Hokies have won three times.

MISSISSIPPI STATE: Sylvester Croom’s team posted an 8-5 campaign last fall, including a Liberty Bowl win over UCF. The Bulldogs posted wins over Auburn, Kentucky and Ole Miss along the way. That along with the bowl win got Croom a contract extension and some optimistic thinking for the first time in a few years. One thing the Bulldogs will have to do is improve against the run. Miss. State was 56th nationally against the run, but allowed five of their seven opponents to rush for more than 150 yards in the game. Croom’s Bulldogs allowed five teams (Auburn, Tennessee, West Virginia, Arkansas and Ole Miss) to rush for more than 200 yards last year. The offense didn’t put many points on the board, but the combination of Wesley Carroll and Michael Henig at quarterback was complimented by the 1,000 yard rushing season of Anthony Dixon. Dixon, a rising junior, also posted 14 touchdowns.

Game #4 Note: Georgia Tech and Mississippi State have not met in football since October 5, 1929, when the Golden Tornado won a 27-13 decision on Grant Field.

DUKE: Former Ole Miss head coach David Cutcliffe has brought plenty of optimism to Duke football since he was announced as the Blue Devils new head coach. It’s a whole new staff for Duke as well, as not one assistant from Ted Roof’s staff was retained by Cutcliffe. It is a fresh start in many ways for the Blue Devils and for Cutcliffe, who posted five winning campaigns in six seasons at Ole Miss. The Blue Devils will also be one of the most experienced teams in the ACC next fall. Duke will return all 11 starters on defense and seven more on offense. All that and a new leader give Duke hope that they can have a winning season for the first time since 1994 and snap a 30-game losing streak in ACC play.

Game #5 Note: Duke’s defensive coordinator is Mike McIntyre, who graduated from Georgia Tech in 1989, after playing two years for the Jackets.

GARDNER-WEBB: Steve Patton begins his 12th season as the head coach of the Runnin’ Bulldogs. Gardner-Webb starts its 39th season of senior college football and has made the move from NAIA to NCAA division II, to its current spot in the FCS (former 1-AA). Last fall, Patton’s club posted a 5-6 mark during their transition to the Big South Conference for football. The defense will be looking to replace All-America end Brian Johnston, while the offense will have all of their skill personnel back. Rising junior Stan Doolittle threw for 1,422 yards and 9 touchdowns last fall. Doolittle hit 61% of his passes along the way. Stone Mountain product Dobson Collins caught 50 passes last year for an average of 12.6 per catch and 3 scores. David Montgomery of Sugar Hill was Gardner-Webb’s leading rusher with 713 yards and 6 touchdowns.

Game #6 Note: The game against Georgia Tech will be the Runnin’ Bulldogs second against a BCS school. Last fall, G-W lost 31-15 at Mississippi State on Sept. 22.

AT CLEMSON: It would not be a surprise if Clemson is the favorite in the pre-season to win the Atlantic Division crown, and a pretty high pre-season ranking. Despite the early departure of defensive end Phillip Merling to the NFL, Tommy Bowden’s Tigers will return plenty of experience, particularly on offense. The combination of James Davis and C.J. Spiller is back, but they are joined by QB Cullen Harper. All the principal receivers return for the Tigers as well, including Marietta’s Aaron Kelly, who briefly considered an early exit to the NFL. Clemson will have 7 senior starters on defense, including three in the secondary.

Game #7 Note: Clemson will host UCF as part of their non-conference slate. The last time George O’Leary visited Frank Howard Field was in 2000, when the Jackets beat then-undefeated Clemson, 31-28 on “The Catch”.

VIRGINIA: It is difficult to know what to expect from the Cavaliers. After winning so many close games during the regular season, Virginia lost one that way in the Gator Bowl to Texas Tech. But beyond the New Year’s Day loss, the Wahoos now have to concern themselves with finding players for several vacancies, particularly on the respective lines. QB Jameel Sewell was not enrolled this spring, meaning that Peter Lalich will get plenty of reps during the off-season. Virginia is set at tailback with Cedric Peerman and Mikell Simpson. Defensively, Chris Long is gone to the NFL , but seven starters will return up front for the Cavaliers. Al Groh’s team will open the season hosting Southern Cal at home, but also have games with UConn and East Carolina as part of their non-conference slate.

Game #8 Note: The home team has won 12 of the last 13 meetings between the Jackets and Cavaliers.

FLORIDA STATE: It has been five seasons since the Jackets and Seminoles have played. Back then, the `Noles were the power of the ACC and teams were just starting to find their number. All the uncertainty of the last couple years should make for an interesting 2008 campaign in Tallahassee. One area where FSU is ready to go, is on the defensive side of the ball, where nine starters are back. LB Geno Hayes declared for the draft or it would have been 10. The good `ole days might be back for Mickey Andrews and that unit. On offense, Drew Weatherford has weathered a lot of storms in his career, but helped engineer the win at BC last fall and is one of the more consistent players in the ACC.

Game #9 Note: This will be FSU’s first trip to Bobby Dodd Stadium since November 9, 2002, when the `Noles held off the Jackets, 21-13.

AT NORTH CAROLINA: In some ways, the most curious team in the ACC will be the Tar Heels. There was momentum built during the initial season of Butch Davis in Chapel Hill, despite a 4-8 record. The Heels beat Miami, Maryland and Duke in league play, but played NC State, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech close during the year. Carolina brings back most of their skill people on offense, including T.J. Yates at QB, and Greg Little at TB/WR. Line play will be critical for the Heels as defensively Kentwan Balmer is gone and some key offensive line spots need to be addressed. The rest of the team was young by standards in the ACC…and that’s why people in Chapel Hill are excited.

Game #10 Note: Including last year’s win in Atlanta, the Jackets have won 9 of the last 10 against the Tar Heels, with four of the last five wins coming at Kenan Stadium.

MIAMI: There has been lots of shuffling in Coral Gables since the end of the season, with coaches and players both coming and going from Randy Shannon’s program. It is very difficult to project what the Hurricanes will be like until they complete spring practice. There is heavy speculation that Miami might have a freshman quarterback when the season opens to go with the strong running game they featured a season ago. Defensively, safety Kenny Phillips elected to forego his senior season, leaving a gap there.

Game #11 Note: Georgia Tech has won three straight from the `Canes, including their last two visits to the Orange Bowl. Miami moves their home games to Dolphins Stadium in Fort Lauderdale starting this fall.

AT GEORGIA: What else needs to be said about this series? If you are reading this, you know all the principles involved in the long standing final game of the regular season. Opinions on both programs are already building before each has a chance to stage their spring practices.

Game #12 Note: Not since 2000…well, you know the rest.

— Wes Durham

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