Very Early 2012 ACC Predictions

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Is Florida State the team to beat in 2012?

<p> Athlon releases its very early predictions for the ACC for 2012.&nbsp;</p>

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Very Early 2012 ACC Predictions

Atlantic Division

1. Florida State

Key Returnees: QB EJ Manuel, RB Devonta Freeman, WR Rashad Greene, WR Rodney Smith, DE Brandon Jenkins, DE Bjoern Werner, DT Everett Dawkins, DT Timmy Jernigan, LB Christian Jones, CB Xavier Rhodes, CB Greg Reid, FS Lamarcus Joyner, K Dustin Hopkins

Key Losses: WR Bert Reed, LT Zebrie Sanders, LB Nigel Bradham, CB Mike Harris, P Shawn Powell

The question facing the Seminoles every offseason seems to the same: Is Florida State back? We won’t know until next December if the Seminoles are truly a contender for the national title, but on paper, this group has the pieces to finish among the top 5-10 teams in the nation.

Quarterback EJ Manuel had his moments in his first year as the starter, but a shoulder injury suffered in the third game of the season seemed to stall the offense’s development. Manuel has plenty of young weapons at receiver to throw to, but Florida State’s offensive outlook rests solely on its line. The Seminoles had several underclassmen see valuable playing time up front, but this will be a question mark all season long. Largely due to the struggles of the offensive line, the rushing attack never really got going in 2011. If the line play stabilizes, Devonta Freeman and James Wilder should find more running lanes in 2012.

Mark Stoops was reportedly courted by Auburn for its defensive coordinator position, but chose to stay in Tallahassee for another year. That’s great news for a Florida State defense that should be among the best in college football next year. The Seminoles bring back a plethora of talented linemen, including ends Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner. Nigel Bradham must be replaced at linebacker, but Christian Jones, Vince Williams and Jeff Luc are ready to step up. The secondary figures to be near the top of the ACC once again, especially with Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid returning at cornerback.

2. Clemson

Key Returnees: QB Tajh Boyd, RB Andre Ellington, WR Sammy Watkins, WR DeAndre Hopkins, C Dalton Freeman, LB Corico Hawkins, LB Jonathan Willard, S Rashard Hall, S Xavier Brewer

Key Losses: TE Dwayne Allen, LT Phillip Price, RT Landon Walker, DE Andre Branch, DT Brandon Thompson, DT Rennie Moore, CB Coty Sensabaugh

Coming off a 6-7 season, there was plenty of doubt about Clemson in 2011. The Tigers were picked by most to finish in the second tier of the ACC Atlantic, but all of the pieces fell in the right place. Hiring Chad Morris as offensive coordinator turned out to be one of the best coaching moves of the offseason, while the Tigers crushed Virginia Tech 38-10 to make their first BCS bowl appearance.

Morris’ offense was a smash hit in Death Valley last season and most of the key pieces return for 2012. Quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins will be one of the top pass-catch combinations in college football, while running back Andre Ellington should rush for 1,000 yards. The biggest question mark facing Clemson’s offense will be the line, where three new starters will step in. If the Tigers successfully replace tackles Phillip Price and Landon Walker, the offense shouldn’t miss a beat in 2012.

After giving up 70 points to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was shown the door. And in his place comes former Oklahoma assistant Brent Venables - a home run hire as Clemson's new defensive coordinator. The Tigers finished the season ranked 70th or worse in rush, total and scoring defense and generated only 1.7 sacks per game. Not only will the defense have a new coordinator, but must replace three key starters on the line, including All-ACC selections in Brandon Thompson and Andre Branch. The Tigers have recruited well, but the defense may be a year away from showing much improvement in the stat column.

3. NC State

Key Returnees: QB Mike Glennon, RB Mustafa Greene, RB James Washington, WR Tobais Palmer, LT R.J. Mattes, C Camden Wentz, CB David Amerson, S Brandan Bishop, S Earl Wolff

Key Losses: WR T.J. Graham, TE George Bryan, DT J.R. Sweezy, DT Markus Kuhn, LB Audie Cole, LB Terrell Manning

Last offseason wasn’t exactly quiet in Raleigh, but after closing with wins in four out of their final five games, coach Tom O’Brien should be feeling good about his team going into 2012.

Breaking up with quarterback Russell Wilson wasn’t easy, but Mike Glennon quietly turned in a solid season. The junior threw for 3,054 yards and 31 touchdowns, while tossing 12 interceptions and adding one score on the ground. Glennon will only get better with another offseason to work with the coaching staff, but the Wolfpack has to replace key receivers T.J. Graham and Jay Smith and tight end George Bryan. Running back should be a position of strength, as James Washington returns after rushing for 897 yards and Mustafa Greene is back after missing all of 2011 due to injury. With four starters returning, the Wolfpack offensive line should be able to cut down on the amount of sacks this group allowed in 2011 (34).

Keeping Jon Tenuta on the defensive staff was a huge coup for O’Brien, especially after finishing fourth in the ACC in total defense in 2011. However, the Wolfpack suffered some key losses from this group, especially in the front seven. Tackles Markus Kuhn and J.R. Sweezy and linebackers Dwayne Maddox, Audie Cole and Terrell Manning are all gone. While the front seven will be a question mark, the secondary is a strength, especially with cornerback David Amerson returning.

4. Wake Forest

Key Returnees: QB Tanner Price, RB Josh Harris, WR Michael Campanaro, NG Nikita Whitlock, LB Mike Olson, CB Merrill Noel

Key Losses: RB Brandon Pendergrass, WR Chris Givens, LG Joe Looney, DE Tristan Dorty, LB Kyle Wilber, SS Cyhl Quarles, S Josh Bush

The Demon Deacons started 5-2, but cooled off in the second half of the year to finish with a 6-7 record. Although that tally isn’t overwhelmingly impressive to some, the record represented a solid year of improvement for coach Jim Grobe. Wake Forest won only three games in 2010 with a core composed mostly of young players, which was a valuable learning experience for the team in 2011 and once again for 2012.

Quarterback Tanner Price emerged as one of the top passers in the ACC last year, throwing for 3,017 yards, 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Price returns in 2012, but will have to find a new go-to target with receiver Chris Givens moving onto the NFL. Michael Campanaro figures to be Price’s new favorite target after catching 73 passes for 833 yards last year. Running back Josh Harris was limited due to a hamstring injury in 2011, but could threaten 1,000 yards with 150-175 carries in 2012. Expect the offensive line to get plenty of attention in the spring, as the Demon Deacons have to replace four starters, including tackle Dennis Godfrey and All-ACC guard Joe Looney.

Seven starters return on defense for Wake Forest next season, but this unit ranked eighth or worse in the ACC in rushing, total, scoring and pass defense last year. There aren’t a ton of significant losses for 2012, but replacing All-ACC safety Josh Bush won’t be easy. With the returning group of players, Wake Forest figures to make some improvement on defense in 2012. The Demon Deacons would benefit from more of a pass rush, as they finished 115th nationally in 2011.

5. Boston College

Key Returnees: QB Chase Rettig, RB Montel Harris, WR Colin Larmond, DT Kaleb Ramsey, DT Dominic Appiah, LB Kevin Pierre-Louis, LB Steele Divitto, CB Al Louis-Jean

Key Losses: C Mark Spinney, DE Max Holloway, LB Luke Kuechly, CB Donnie Fletcher

The Eagles are coming off their first losing season since 1998. After starting off 1-6, the team showed some progress, winning three of their final five games to finish with a 4-8 record. Coach Frank Spaziani enters 2012 on the hot seat and some new faces on the coaching staff. Spaziani hired former Kent State coach Doug Martin to coordinate the offense, while former Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman will work with the offensive line.

Spaziani hopes Martin can find some answers for offense that was one of the worst in the ACC last year. Quarterback Chase Rettig tossed 12 touchdowns, but completed only 53.6 percent of his throws. Rettig needs more help from his receiving corps, as the offense would benefit from more big plays in 2012. Montel Harris has rushed for 3,735 yards and 27 scores in his career and was granted an extra year of eligibility after missing most of 2011 due to a knee injury. While getting Harris back will help the ground attack, Boston College also needs more help from its offensive line.

The defense was respectable last year, as the Eagles finished 43rd nationally in scoring defense and allowed 17 or fewer points in each of their final three games. However, this group suffered some key losses, including Butkus Award winner Luke Kuechly. Look for Kevin Pierre-Louis to emerge as the leader in the linebacking corps and should challenge for all-conference honors. The defensive line gained some extra help over the winter when tackle Kaleb Ramsey was granted an additional year of eligibility.

The Eagles aren’t ready to challenge for the division title, but the pieces are in place to contend for a bowl bid. Improving the offense is priority No. 1 this offseason for Spaziani and if this unit struggles in 2012, Boston College will likely be looking for a new head coach by December.

6. Maryland

Key Returnees: QB C.J. Brown, WR Kevin Dorsey, DT Joe Vellano, LB Kenny Tate, LB Demetrius Hartsfield, CB Dexter McDougle, S Eric Franklin

Key Losses: RB Davin Meggett, WR Quintin McCree, RT R.J. Dill, CB Cameron Chism

Only one word seems to correctly summarize coach Randy Edsall’s first year at Maryland: Disaster. Coming off a 9-4 season, the Terrapins appeared to have the pieces in place to contend for a finish among the top three in the ACC Atlantic. Instead, Maryland hit rock bottom, finishing with just two victories and going winless in conference play. The 2-10 debacle prompted changes on the coaching staff, including new offensive and defensive coordinators.

After turning in a terrific freshman campaign, quarterback Danny O’Brien was one of the most disappointing players in the ACC last year. O’Brien decided to transfer, leaving C.J. Brown as Maryland's No. 1 quarterback for spring practice. Running back Davin Meggett has finished his eligibility in College Park, leaving Justus Pickett and incoming freshman Albert Reid and Wes Brown to compete for carries. Tackle R.J. Dill decided to transfer to Rutgers for his senior year, leaving a void on the right side of the line.

There were few positives for the Terrapins on defense last season, finishing last in the ACC in rushing, total and scoring defense. New coordinator Brian Stewart is moving this defense to a 3-4 look, and there is some solid returning personnel in place for this transition. Linebacker/safety Kenny Tate was injured early in the year, but should be in contention for All-ACC honors in 2012. Defensive tackle Joe Vellano is coming off a terrific season, but the Terrapins need to figure out if he can anchor the middle of the 3-4 look or if he is better suited for the outside.

There’s nowhere to go but up for Maryland next season. However, there are plenty of concerns and question marks facing this squad. 

Coastal

1. Virginia Tech

Key Returnees: QB Logan Thomas, WR Marcus Davis, WR D.J. Coles, DE James Gayle, DE J.R. Collins, DT Derrick Hopkins, LB Bruce Taylor, LB Tariq Edwards, CB Kyle Fuller, S Antone Exum

Key Losses: RB David Wilson, WR Jarrett Boykin, WR Danny Coale, LT Andrew Lanier, LG Greg Nosal, RG Jaymes Brooks, RT Blake DeChristopher, CB Jayron Hosley, FS Eddie Whitley

The Hokies have claimed back-to-back ACC Coastal titles and despite some heavy losses, will enter 2012 as the favorite once again. With the rest of the division facing a lot of uncertainty, Virginia Tech could be the only team from the Coastal to be ranked in preseason top 25 polls.

With running back David Wilson and four starters departing on the offensive line, it’s up to quarterback Logan Thomas to carry the Virginia Tech offense in 2012. The junior made big progress as a passer as the season progressed, but will be throwing to a revamped receiving corps next season. Replacing Wilson won’t be easy, especially with a cast of running backs with very little experience in place. Tony Gregory has the most carries (39) of returning running backs, but averaged only 3.3 yards per touch. Don’t be surprised if freshmen play a key role in the Hokies’ backfield next season.

While the offense will be undergoing some renovations, the defense could be among the best in college football. The line is stacked with proven commodities, including likely All-ACC selections in end James Gayle and J.R. Collins, while tackle Derrick Hopkins looks to build off his 2011 campaign (50 tackles, 3 sacks). Linebackers Bruce Taylor and Jeron Gouveia-Winslow missed time due to injuries, but will anchor a solid group in 2012. Losing cornerback Jayron Hosley and safety Eddie Whitley is a big blow, but Antone Exum and Kyle Fuller is a good starting point for the secondary for next season.

2. Georgia Tech

Key Returnees: QB Tevin Washington, RB David Sims, RB Orwin Smith, OG Omoregie Uzzi, LB Julian Burnett, LB Jeremiah Attaochu, CB Rod Sweeting, CB Louis Young, S Isaiah Johnson

Key Losses: WR Stephen Hill, DE Jason Peters, DT Logan Walls, LB Steven Sylvester, S Rashaad Reid

What a difference a year makes. Coming into 2011, Georgia Tech was coming off a disappointing 6-7 season and coach Paul Johnson’s option attack was being questioned once again. Instead of continuing to slide back to mediocrity, the Yellow Jackets responded with a 6-0 start and finished with an 8-5 record. Although Georgia Tech had a late-season slide, it is poised to be a contender for the ACC Coastal title in 2012.

Quarterback Tevin Washington led the team with 987 rushing yards and 14 scores, but will face spring competition from Synjyn Days for the No. 1 spot. Washington needs to be more consistent as a passer, but the offense suffered a tough blow when receiver Stephen Hill left early for the NFL Draft. The Yellow Jackets lack a go-to back, but David Sims and Orwin Smith combined for 1,313 yards and 18 scores in 2011. Four starters are back on the offensive line, including All-American candidate Omoregie Uzzi at right guard.

Adapting to the 3-4 scheme wasn’t an overnight process, but the Yellow Jackets are making progress. Linebackers Jeremiah Attaochu, Quayshawn Nealy and Julian Burnett will be one of the top trios in the ACC next season. Finding an anchor at defensive tackle is key for any 3-4 defense and the Yellow Jackets have to replace Logan Walls in the middle next year. T.J. Barnes has the necessary size, but has not started for a full season. The secondary finished second in the ACC in pass defense in 2011 and returns four starters for 2012. If coordinator Al Groh can sort out the defensive line in spring practice, this defense should take another step forward in 2012. 

3. Virginia

Key Returnees: QB Michael Rocco, RB Perry Jones, RB Kevin Parks, WR Tim Smith, LT Oday Aboushi, DT Will Hill, LB Steve Greer, LB LaRoy Reynolds, CB Demetrious Nicholson

Key Losses: WR Kris Burd, LG Austin Pasztor, C Anthony Mihota, DE Cam Johnson, DT Matt Conrath, CB Chase Minnifield, S Rodney McLeod, S Corey Mosley

The Cavaliers were one of the biggest surprises in the ACC, going from 4-8 in 2010 to 8-5 in 2011. Coach Mike London claimed the conference’s coach of the year honors for the turnaround and leading the Cavaliers to their first postseason trip since the 2007 season. The future is bright for Virginia and another eight-win season should be within reach in 2012.

The offense had its share of ups and downs but finished No. 4 in the ACC with an average of 399.8 yards per game. Quarterback Michael Rocco had only one touchdown pass through the first four games, but finished with 12 over his next nine. He tossed 12 interceptions, which is something London and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor want to see him cut in 2012. The bread and butter of the Virginia offense is the one-two punch of Perry Jones and Kevin Parks at running back. The duo combined for 1,624 yards and 14 scores in 2011 and will lead the offense once again in 2012. The offensive line played a key role in the rushing attack’s success and loses two key players next year – guard Austin Pasztor and center Anthony Mihota.

The Cavaliers improved statistically against the run and in overall points allowed this season, but must replace some key contributors in 2012. The defensive line loses three starters, including tackle Matt Conrath and end Cam Johnson. The linebacking corps should be a strength, as Steve Greer and LaRoy Reynolds could contend for all-conference honors. Losing Chase Minnifield is a huge blow for the Virginia secondary, but freshman Demetrious Nicholson started all 13 games in 2011 and is a future star. Rodney McLeod and Corey Mosley will form a solid combination at safety next season.

4. North Carolina

Key Returnees: QB Bryn Renner, RB Giovani Bernard, WR Erik Highsmith, LT James Hurst, LG Jonathan Cooper, DE Kareem Martin, DT Sylvester Williams, LB Kevin Reddick, FS Tre Boston

Key Losses: WR Dwight Jones, DE Quinton Coples, DE Donte Paige-Moss, DT Tydreke Powell, LB Zach Brown, CB Charles Brown

The cupboard wasn’t left completely bare for new coach Larry Fedora. After a successful stint at Southern Miss, Fedora takes over a Tar Heel squad that finished 7-6 after starting 5-1. North Carolina has won at least seven games in each of the last four years, but has failed to contend for the Coastal title.

Fedora’s specialty is on offense and will have some talented personnel to work with next season in Chapel Hill. Quarterback Bryn Renner is back after throwing for 3,086 yards and 26 scores. Renner is more of a dropback passer, but Fedora has run a spread offense at his previous stops. Although Renner may not be a perfect fit, expect Fedora to mold his offense around his strengths. Running back Giovani Bernard is another solid building block, returning to Chapel Hill after a strong freshman season. Bernard led the team with 1,253 yards and 13 rushing scores, while catching 45 passes for 362 yards and one touchdown. All five starters on the offensive line will return in 2012, making this group one of the best in the ACC.

With a handful of key departures on defense, the offense will have to carry the Tar Heels in 2012. The Tar Heels must replace two starters on the line, including end Quinton Coples and tackle Tydreke Powell. Linebacker Zach Brown will be missed, but Kevin Reddick and Darius Lipford return. The secondary will be under the microscope next season, as the Tar Heels ranked 10th in the ACC in pass defense in 2011. Making matters worse in the defensive backfield is the departure of safety Jonathan Smith and cornerback Charles Brown. 

5. Miami

Key Returnees: WR Allen Hurns, OT Seantrel Henderson, DE Anthony Chickillo, DT Darius Smith, LB Denzel Perryman, LB Jimmy Gaines, S Vaughn Telemaque, S Ray-Ray Armstrong

Key Losses: QB Jacory Harris, RB Lamar Miller, C Tyler Horn, OG Brandon Washington, DE Olivier Vernon, DT Micanor Regis, LB Sean Spence, S JoJo Nicolas

Al Golden is the right coach for the job in Miami, but he is about to embark on a difficult road the next few seasons in Coral Gables. The Hurricanes are waiting for any penalties regarding a recent NCAA investigation, which could result in the loss of scholarships. Miami sat out the 2011 postseason hoping to avoid any future bowl ban as a result of the investigation, but it is unclear if the NCAA will prevent the Hurricanes from playing in a bowl game in 2012.

Even if you put aside the NCAA concerns, the Hurricanes enter spring practice with a handful of question marks. Quarterback Jacory Harris has finished his eligibility, leaving Stephen Morris, Memphis transfer Ryan Williams and incoming freshmen Preston Dewey and Gary Crow to compete for the job. Morris has the edge in experience, so it would be a surprise if he didn’t start the first game of the year. Losing running back Lamar Miller to the NFL was a huge blow to the offense, but the Hurricanes have some experience returning, including Mike James and Eduardo Clements. Incoming freshman Duke Johnson could also compete for playing time. Tommy Streeter and Travis Benjamin are gone in the receiving corps, which leaves Allen Hurns and tight end Clive Watford as the go-to weapons for the new quarterback. The offensive line also enters spring practice with issues, as Brandon Washington, Harland Gunn and Tyler Horn all depart.

Considering the offense will need a lot of work, the defense figures to be the strength. End Anthony Chickillo and linebacker Denzel Perryman are ready to build off strong freshmen seasons, while the secondary is a strength with safeties Vaughn Telemaque and Ray-Ray Armstrong returning. Replacing Sean Spence at middle linebacker will be one of the top priorities for defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio. 

6. Duke

Key Returnees: QB Sean Renfree, RB Juwan Thompson, WR Conner Vernon, WR Brandon Braxton, LB Kelby Brown, CB Ross Cockrell, S Walt Canty

Key Losses: WR Donovan Varner, TE Cooper Helfet, LT Kyle Hill, NG Charlie Hatcher, S Matt Daniels

Progress has been slow to come by at Duke under coach David Cutcliffe. The Blue Devils won nine games in Cutcliffe’s first two years, but have claimed only six over the last two seasons. It’s not easy to win at Duke, but the team has yet to make the jump most expected to see under Cutcliffe. There’s some promising talent returning to Durham in 2012, but it’s hard to see a finish outside of the cellar in the ACC Coastal.

If Duke wants to make any improvement in the win column, the rushing attack (seemingly a problem every year) has to take a step forward in 2012. The Blue Devils averaged only 94.1 rushing yards per game in 2011, putting too much pressure on quarterback Sean Renfree to win games. The senior quarterback threw for 14 scores and 2,891 yards last year, but also tossed 11 picks. Renfree has a good group of receivers to throw to, as Conner Vernon, Brandon Braxton and Jamison Crowder return. The offensive line returns mostly intact, but has to replace valuable tackle Kyle Hill.

Just like the rushing attack, the defense has been an issue for a handful of years in Durham. The Blue Devils ranked 11th or worse in the ACC in rushing, total, scoring and pass defense last season. Unfortunately for the defensive staff, the going won’t get any easier with the departure of safety Matt Daniels and nose guard Charlie Hatcher. There’s enough returning players to expect improvement, but each level of the defense has concerns heading into 2012.

2012 ACC Championship Game: Florida State vs. Virginia Tech

The Hokies should have their offensive line question marks sorted out by December, but Florida State's defense will likely be the difference in this game. Of course, it's only January, so all predictions are subject to change when Athlon updates the picks for the 2012 preseason annuals. 

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CFB Conferences: 

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