EJ Manuel and Florida State are Athlon's pick to win the ACC this season.
After reaching the ACC Championship Game in Jimbo Fisher’s first season as head coach, there’s no reason to believe Florida State won’t be there again in 2011. The Seminoles return 17 starters from a team that won 10 games and went 6–2 in conference play. The graduation of three-year starting quarterback Christian Ponder is significant, but FSU is excited about the potential and progress of EJ Manuel, a fourth-year junior. Manuel already has six starts under his belt — he went 4–2 in those games — and he has led FSU to bowl victories against West Virginia and South Carolina.
If Florida State falters, NC State, Maryland and Clemson likely won’t be far behind. The Wolfpack and Terrapins were the conference’s most improved teams last season, and both return a great deal of talent and experience on defense. Clemson certainly has the talent to contend; the only question is how quickly the Tigers will grow comfortable in the up-tempo offense installed by new coordinator Chad Morris.
The Coastal Division, meanwhile, could again be a one-team race unless Miami, North Carolina or Georgia Tech makes significant improvement. Virginia Tech has dominated the Coastal since it joined the ACC, with appearances in four of the six conference title games, including three of the past four. The Hokies will have to replace quarterback Tyrod Taylor, but they should benefit from a schedule that appears less than arduous; their four ACC road games will come against Wake Forest, Duke, Georgia Tech and Virginia — arguably the four worst teams in the conference last season.
Miami should enter the season with renewed energy following the overhaul of its coaching staff, and the Canes certainly have the talent to challenge. But the Hurricanes won’t be a serious factor until they find some consistency at quarterback. Another contender could be North Carolina, which played well in 2010 despite an incredible wave of bad news — from numerous player suspensions to the sudden departure of assistant coach John Blake.
Athlon's 2011 ACC Previews
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Virginia is for Quarterbacks
The state of Texas has a well-deserved reputation for cranking out elite college quarterbacks, but Virginia isn’t far behind — at least when it comes to the Atlantic Coast Conference. When the 2011 season kicks off, half of the ACC’s 12 teams likely will have Virginia products leading their offenses.
That’s nothing new for Virginia Tech or Virginia, of course — the Hokies will turn to Logan Thomas of Lynchburg, Va., and the Cavs are expected to go with Michael Rocco (Lynchburg) or Ross Metheny (Stephens City). But it is unusual for the rest of the ACC to be following suit.
Florida State will go with Virginia Beach native EJ Manuel; North Carolina has Bryn Renner of West Springfield; Clemson is turning to Tajh Boyd of Hampton; and Mike Glennon of Centreville is taking over at NC State.
In all, seven ACC schools could have new starting quarterbacks this season — and six of them will be from the same state.
While most coaches’ biggest concerns during spring practice revolve around developing their players’ skills and fundamentals, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher had a much more profound issue on his hands — the health of his youngest son, Ethan.
Soon after spring practice started, Fisher and his wife, Candi, announced their son had an undisclosed medical condition and that it might force the second-year head coach to miss some time from the team. Fisher ended up skipping FSU’s final three spring practices before the spring game for an out-of-state consultation, and he also missed some time from his spring booster tour.
In his absence, offensive line coach Rick Trickett, offensive coordinator James Coley and defensive coordinator Mark Stoops took the lead in organizing practice schedules and workouts.
Seeking that perfect blend
The ACC’s two newest head coaches, Al Golden at Miami and Randy Edsall at Maryland, both appeared to find the right mix of old and new when it came to the construction of their coaching staffs.
Though both talked at length about needing to change the culture at their respective programs, they also were careful to retain a few holdovers to maintain some continuity — which can be important in both alumni relations and recruiting.
Golden not only kept linebackers coach Micheal Barrow, who was an All-American at the school in 1992, but he also brought back former offensive line coach Art Kehoe. During a quarter-century in Coral Gables, Kehoe helped guide the Hurricanes to five national championships before being dismissed with several other assistants following the 2005 season.
Golden also retained longtime strength and conditioning coach Andreu Swasey, who is a Miami native and has a strong relationship with many former Hurricanes.
At Maryland, Edsall retained veteran offensive line coach Tom Brattan, who is in his 11th year at the school, and receivers coach Lee Hull, who will be in his fourth year.
The perils of uneven scheduling
In an era of continuing conference expansion and potential super-conferences, it’s probably pointless to complain about the flaws of uneven scheduling. But if the fans of Boston College were so inclined, they could find plenty of ammunition.
With the conference’s top running back and a dynamite defense, the Eagles could be legitimate contenders in the ACC’s Atlantic Division. But they certainly drew the short straw when it came to scheduling; two of their three Coastal Division opponents will be Virginia Tech and Miami, the top two teams in that division. Both of those games will be on the road, and both also will come on the heels of equally difficult road games — BC will travel to Blacksburg, Va., one game after playing at Clemson; and the Eagles will go to Miami one week after a non-conference game at Notre Dame.
For contrast, consider the schedule for Atlantic Division rival NC State. The Wolfpack’s three Coastal Division opponents will be Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Virginia — none of which finished above .500 in conference play last season.
Making the rounds
Maryland running backs coach Andre Powell, who worked the last four seasons at Clemson, is just one of many assistant coaches to make the move from one ACC school to another — and he’s no stranger to the practice. Powell coached at North Carolina and Virginia earlier in his career.
Then there are others like NC State linebackers coach Jon Tenuta, who have seemingly been everywhere in the conference. Earlier this decade, Tenuta enjoyed a successful run as defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech. He held the same position at North Carolina before that, and he started his career as a graduate assistant at both Virginia and Maryland.
It didn’t work so well for Bobby Bowden or Al Groh, but Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer apparently didn’t hesitate to bring son Shane onto his staff this offseason. The younger Beamer, who spent the past four seasons at South Carolina, will coach running backs.
Groh hired his son, Mike, as an assistant at Virginia in 2001 and later promoted him to offensive coordinator. The younger Groh was eventually dismissed following the 2008 season, and his father was fired the next year.
Bowden hired his youngest son, Jeff, as a receivers coach and later promoted him to offensive coordinator. Jeff Bowden resigned under pressure late in the 2006 season, and his father was pushed out three years later.
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