Most of the ACC should have an easy Week 1 victory, but there are a few marquee matchups that will play a role in the national and conference title picture.
The showdown between Georgia and Clemson is easily one of the best games of the opening weekend. Both teams should have no trouble moving the ball on suspect defenses. The Bulldogs came up just a few yards short of playing for the national championship last year, and if the Tigers want to remain in the hunt for the 2013 BCS title, they need to beat Georgia. And this matchup, along with North Carolina-South Carolina is a chance for the ACC to gain conference bragging rights and respect.
The only conference game in the ACC takes place in Pittsburgh. Florida State travels to the Steel City to welcome the Panthers to the ACC on Labor Day. This game also features the much anticipated debut of quarterback Jameis Winston, while the Panthers will turn to former Rutgers’ passer Tom Savage to start under center.
ACC Week 1 Game Power Rankings
1. Georgia (-2) at Clemson (8 ET, ABC)
It’s only Week 1, but the Georgia-Clemson matchup should factor prominently into the national title picture. Georgia has one of the toughest two-game stretches of any FBS team to start the year, so the Bulldogs can’t afford to get off to a slow start. Clemson should be favored in all of its ACC games in 2013, with its two matchups against SEC opponents – Georgia and South Carolina – the toughest ones on the schedule. There should be plenty of fireworks on Saturday night in Death Valley, as both teams averaged over 35 points a game last year. Clemson will miss running back Andre Ellington and receiver DeAndre Hopkins, but quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins is still one of the best duos in the nation. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray needs five touchdown passes to reach 100 in his career, and the senior has the best backfield in the nation at his disposal with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. There’s no question both teams should score plenty of points. But which can make stops on defense? Georgia is returns only three starters on defense and has been dealing with a few injuries in its secondary this fall. Clemson is in better shape in terms of returning personnel on defense, but the Tigers’ secondary is also an issue. And that's a big concern against Murray and the Bulldogs’ receiving corps.
2. Florida State (-10.5) at Pittsburgh (Monday, 8 ET, ESPN)
The Steel City is home to the only conference game between ACC opponents this week. Pittsburgh makes its ACC debut against Florida State – a team it has not played since 1983. While the Panthers’ introduction to the ACC is a huge storyline, this game features the debut of quarterback Jameis Winston for the Seminoles. Winston was the No. 1 quarterback in the 2012 signing class by Athlon Sports and was impressive throughout the offseason. Winston redshirted last year, so his first snap of college experience will come on the road. Although Winston has enormous upside, he is surrounded by a strong supporting cast, which should allow coach Jimbo Fisher to ease him into the game. The Seminoles have a new defensive coordinator (Jeremy Pruitt) and will shift to more 3-4 looks for this game. Even with a rebuilt defense and scheme, Pittsburgh could have trouble moving the ball on Florida State. Quarterback Tom Savage hasn’t played in a game since 2010, and running back Isaac Bennett has been dealing with injuries in fall camp. The Panthers return eight starters on defense, and this unit needs to force a few turnovers to help its offense on Monday night.
3. North Carolina (+12.5) at South Carolina (Thursday, 6 ET, ESPN)
In a bit of a surprise, these two schools have played only once since 1992. South Carolina won the last meeting 21-15 in Chapel Hill. This year, the stakes are much higher. The Gamecocks are considered one of the top threats to win the national title, while North Carolina is positioned to make a run at the ACC Championship. South Carolina’s strength is on defense, where end Jadeveon Clowney is a legitimate top-five Heisman candidate this year. Stopping Clowney is a tough obstacle for the Tar Heels, especially on an offensive line that loses guard Jonathan Cooper and two other starters. But left tackle James Hurst is one of the ACC’s best, and he will be tasked with protecting the blindside of quarterback Bryn Renner. North Carolina likes to go fast on offense, and its tempo could help slow down the South Carolina pass rush. Even if the Tar Heels move the ball on offense, their defense will have its hands full on Thursday night. The Gamecocks have two quarterbacks that could start, and running back Mike Davis is a rising star. North Carolina’s offense should have success, but its defense may not be able to stop South Carolina.
4. Alabama (-20) vs. Virginia Tech (Atlanta) (5:30 ET, ESPN)
In terms of name value, this game has plenty of appeal. However, this matchup is shaping up to be a huge mismatch. Alabama begins its national title defense with 14 returning starters, including quarterback AJ McCarron and linebacker C.J. Mosley. Virginia Tech stumbled to a 7-6 mark last year, and the Hokies have several question marks entering this contest. The offensive line struggled throughout fall camp, and a true freshman (Jonathan McLaughlin) is slated to start at left tackle. But the Hokies’ problems extend to the rushing attack and receivers, and quarterback Logan Thomas is still trying to get comfortable in new coordinator Scot Loeffler’s offense. Mobile quarterbacks have given Alabama trouble in recent years, so Thomas will have to take advantage of his legs when things break down in the pocket. Virginia Tech’s defense is its best chance at winning this game. The Hokies have one of the best defenses in the nation and will be going up against a Crimson Tide offensive line with three new starters. Expect McCarron and receivers Amari Cooper and Chris Black to test a secondary with two talented freshmen expected to see major snaps (Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson).
5. Penn State (-8) vs. Syracuse (East Rutherford, N.J.) (3:30 ET, ABC)
The Nittany Lions and Orange have recently rekindled a rivalry that was played nearly every season from 1922-90. After a hiatus from 1990-2007, Penn State claimed victories in 2008 and 2009 over Syracuse. Both teams enter this matchup in transition, as the Orange will be entering the ACC this season and are under the direction of a new coach (Scott Shafer). The Nittany Lions lose a few key leaders from last year’s team, and coach Bill O’Brien has yet to name a quarterback. Junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson or highly touted true freshman Christian Hackenberg will start on Saturday. And whichever quarterback wins the job will be surrounded by a solid supporting cast, including All-Big Ten receiver Allen Robinson and three starters on the line. Syracuse also has a quarterback question mark, with Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen and sophomore Terrel Hunt vying for time. The Orange’s rushing attack – led by junior Jerome Smith – will test a Penn State defensive line that is thin on depth and returns just three starters in its front seven. With two new starting quarterbacks, a low-scoring game wouldn’t be a surprise.
6. BYU (-1) at Virginia (3:30 ET, ESPNU)
One of the opening week’s most-intriguing non-conference affairs takes place in Charlottesville. The Cougars have a challenging schedule ahead in their third season of Independence, while Virginia has its sights set on a rebound after going 4-8 last year. The strength of both teams is clearly on defense. BYU returns All-American linebacker Kyle Van Noy and three other starters on defense from a unit that allowed only 14 points a game in 2012. The Cavaliers return seven starters on a defense that ranked fourth in the ACC in yards allowed. Points could be at a premium on Saturday, and both offenses can’t afford the ill-timed turnover. David Watford topped Greyson Lambert for the Cavaliers’ starting quarterback spot, and the sophomore’s mobility will present a challenge for BYU’s defense. New Cougars’ quarterback Taysom Hill played in six games last year before a knee injury sidelined him for the rest of 2012. Both teams have good skill players, so whichever quarterback plays the best game will be the difference in this too close to call matchup.
7. Louisiana Tech (+14) at NC State (12:30 ET, ACC Network)
The Bulldogs and Wolfpack share plenty of similarities going into this game. Both programs have a new coach (Skip Holtz, Louisiana Tech and Dave Doeren, NC State). And both teams have a new starting quarterback that transferred from a BCS conference. Doeren has been coy with his quarterback choice, but Arkansas transfer Brandon Mitchell is expected to start this Saturday. The Bulldogs will turn to former Texas Tech passer Scotty Young. This is a dangerous spot for NC State, especially with a new quarterback and schemes on both sides of the ball. Louisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon (1,194 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2012) will test a Wolfpack run defense that allowed 154.8 yards per game last year. Louisiana Tech has only five returning starters, so this is a drastically different team than the one that went 9-3 last year.
8. Villanova (+16.5) at Boston College (12 ET, ESPN3)
The Eagles open the Steve Addazio era with a dangerous FCS opponent. The Wildcats ranked No. 9 in the first FCS poll for 2013 and return quarterback John Robertson (2,986 total yards and 28 scores last year). These two teams have not met since 1980, with Boston College holding a 29-15-1 series edge. The Eagles return plenty of experience with 16 returning starters, and quarterback Chase Rettig and receiver Alex Amidon should be one of the top pass-catch combinations in the ACC. Addazio wants the Eagles to establish the run more in 2013, and senior running back Andre Williams will test a Villanova defense that allowed 156.2 yards per game last year. Don Brown comes to Boston College after coordinating one of the nation’s top defenses at Connecticut. The Eagles should be more aggressive on defense in 2013 and will make for an intriguing matchup against Villanova’s offense.
9. FAU (+32) at Miami (Friday 8 ET, ESPNU)
Less than 50 miles separate these two campuses, but this will be the first matchup between Miami and FAU. Although they have never played before, the Hurricanes and Owls have some history. Legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger played a key role in developing both programs, and this is the first meeting in a three-game series. The Hurricanes are still under a cloud of NCAA uncertainty, but the talent is in place to finally win the ACC Coastal. FAU has plenty of question marks surrounding its team entering the second year under coach Carl Pelini. The Owls won two out of their last five games and return 13 starters. However, replacing quarterback Graham Wilbert has been a chore for the coaching staff this offseason, and three quarterbacks could play on Friday night. Junior college transfer JaQuez Johnson is expected to start, but freshmen Greg Hankerson and D.J. Juste could play. The Hurricanes shouldn’t have to sweat too much in this one, and the Owls’ defense will be a good opportunity for quarterback Stephen Morris to get acclimated to new coordinator James Coley.
10. FIU (+22) at Maryland (12:30 ET, FSN)
After a season filled with quarterback injuries, the Terrapins are hoping for better luck in the injury department in 2013. C.J. Brown will assume the No. 1 role after missing all of last year with a torn ACL, and the senior will be throwing to one of the nation’s top receivers in Stefon Diggs. Maryland’s defense ranked third in the ACC in yards allowed in 2012, but only four starters return this season. While the defense will be a work in progress in 2013, FIU’s offense shouldn’t provide much of a test for the Terrapins. New FIU coach Ron Turner does have a solid quarterback to work with (Jake Medlock), but running back Kedrick Rhodes was dismissed from the team this offseason. The Panthers also return only two starters on defense. Maryland had a close call against William & Mary in last year’s opener, but Randy Edsall’s team shouldn’t struggle to beat FIU.
11. Elon (+46) at Georgia Tech (12 ET, ESPN3)
The Yellow Jackets have a light start to the 2013 season. Paul Johnson’s team hosts an Elon team coming off a 3-8 record last year and then has a bye week next Saturday. The Phoenix are led by former NC State assistant Jason Swepson and are 0-5 in previous matchups against FBS opponents. Elon’s rush defense allowed 229.6 yards per game last season and will have a difficult assignment trying to slow down Georgia Tech’s option attack. Quarterback Vad Lee will make his first start for the Yellow Jackets, and the sophomore is in for a breakout year after rushing for 544 yards and nine scores in a backup role last year. With Elon breaking in a new starting quarterback and struggling to stop the run on defense, Georgia Tech should have no trouble putting away the Phoenix early on Saturday.
12. North Carolina Central (+33) at Duke (3 ET, ESPN3)
The Blue Devils enter 2013 with momentum on their side. Duke is coming off its first bowl appearance since 1994, and the program is positioned to close the gap on the rest of the ACC. The Blue Devils open with a FCS opponent for the fifth time in six seasons. Quarterback Anthony Boone performed well in limited action last year, throwing for 212 yards and four touchdowns in a win against Virginia. The junior will make his second career start against North Carolina Central on Saturday night, a team Duke defeated 54-17 in 2012. The Eagles are coming off their first winning season (6-5) since 2007 but return only eight starters. North Carolina Central is also dealing with some offseason controversy, as Henry Frazier was fired in late August after an arrest for violating a domestic violence protective order. Duke should be able to have this one in control by halftime.
13. Presbyterian (+38) at Wake Forest (Thursday, 6:30 ET, ESPN3)
Injuries and youth played a role in the Demon Deacons’ struggles last year, so there’s plenty of optimism in Winston-Salem about returning to a bowl game in 2013. Wake Forest has 15 returning starters, and the offense received good news in the offseason when running back Josh Harris won an appeal to play his senior year. Presbyterian is one of the nation’s smallest colleges with an enrollment of 1,200, and the Blue Hose are just 8-36 over their last four years. It’s tough for Wake Forest to glean much from this game, especially after Presbyterian allowed 502.5 yards per game last season. However, the Demon Deacons are hoping to see progress from their offensive line after allowing 2.3 sacks a game in 2012. With an ACC game next week against Boston College, this should be a good tune-up for Wake Forest.
ACC Week 1 Pivotal Players
The Tigers’ depth chart didn’t give much clarity to the cornerback situation for the opener against Georgia. Both cornerback spots had a designed or between two players. Juniors Garry Peters, Bashaud Breeland and Martin Jenkins, along with senior Darius Robinson will be under fire on Saturday night. Georgia’s offense is led by senior quarterback Aaron Murray, and receiver Malcolm Mitchell is one of the best in the SEC. The Tigers gave up 240.3 yards per game through the air last year, and the secondary is one of the team’s biggest concerns for the opener.
Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
In order for the Tar Heels to hang around on Thursday night, Ebron needs to have a big game. As a sophomore last year, he grabbed 40 receptions for 625 yards and four touchdowns. Ebron will be matched up against a South Carolina defense that has three new starters at linebacker. Considering quarterback Bryn Renner will be under pressure from the Gamecocks’ defensive line, Ebron is a nice safety valve to have in the middle of the field.
Jonathan McLaughlin, OT, Virginia Tech
A true freshman starting at left tackle is never a good feeling for any head coach. But that task is an even bigger nightmare when Alabama is the Week 1 opponent. McLaughlin won the starting left tackle job this fall and is tasked with protecting the blindside of quarterback Logan Thomas. Expect the Crimson Tide to use plenty of different looks to confuse McLaughlin on Saturday night.
Jerome Smith, RB, Syracuse
Regardless of whether it’s Drew Allen or Terrel Hunt at quarterback on Saturday, Syracuse should plan on a heavy dose of Smith. The junior rushed for 1,171 yards and three scores last season and will test a Penn State defensive line that is thin on proven depth. If Smith can keep the chains moving, he will take some of the pressure off of Syracuse’s inexperienced quarterbacks.
David Watford, QB, Virginia
There’s not much separating Virginia and BYU this Saturday, but both teams have some uncertainty at quarterback. Watford redshirted after throwing for 346 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman in 2011. BYU ranked third nationally in total defense last season and should be solid up front once again in 2013. However, the secondary has been hit hard by injuries and could be vulnerable to the Cavaliers’ passing attack.
ACC Week 1 Predictions
UNC (+12) at South Carolina
So. Carolina 24-14
So. Carolina 28-13
So. Carolina 31-23
So. Carolina 28-15
Presbyterian (+38) at Wake Forest
Wake Forest 42-7
Wake Forest 34-7
Wake Forest 45-7
Wake Forest 40-10
FAU (+32.5) at Miami
Villanova (+16.5) at Boston College
Elon (+46) at Georgia Tech
Ga. Tech 52-10
Ga. Tech 51-10
Ga. Tech 51-10
Ga. Tech 53-12
La. Tech (+14) at NC State
NC State 28-10
NC State 30-17
NC State 34-20
NC State 31-14
FIU (+22) at Maryland
Penn State (-8) vs. Syracuse
Penn State 17-7
Penn State 24-17
Penn State 24-17
Penn State 20-10
BYU (-1) at Virginia
N.C. Central (+33) at Duke
Alabama (-20) vs. Virginia Tech
Georgia (-2) at Clemson
FSU (-10.5) at Pittsburgh