The media and others may have jumped the gun by anointing Florida State as the class of the ACC’s Atlantic Division in 2011, but the rest of the division will be hard-pressed to keep the Seminoles out of the conference title game again this fall. FSU brings back nine starters from a defense that ranked among the top five in the country in several categories. The offense is led by a senior quarterback, a senior tailback and an abundance of talented skill-position players. And special teams again will be a plus, with an All-America candidate at kicker and a dangerous return specialist in Greg Reid. If the Seminoles’ offensive line is just adequate, they could be the team to beat.
Of course, at this point, it’s hard to call any team other than Virginia Tech the favorite to win the conference. The Hokies have been to five of the seven ACC title games — including four of the last five — and they should be very good again in 2012. Scoring points will be a concern in what will be a rebuilding year for the Virginia Tech offense, but Bud Foster’s defense returns nearly intact.
Clemson deserves respect for being the surprise winner of the ACC last season, but it’s difficult to imagine the Tigers pulling off a repeat. As much as everyone loves the chemistry between quarterback Tajh Boyd and receivers Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, there are major questions about who is going to block up front. And the Tigers’ defense was pretty poor all season — even before West Virginia hung 70 points on them in the Orange Bowl. New defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who was lured away from Oklahoma, will have to undo a lot of problems to make Clemson’s defense respectable in one year.
NC State and Wake Forest could make things interesting in the Atlantic — the Wolfpack won six of their last eight games last season, and the Demon Deacons should be very good on defense — but neither is much of a threat to win the division.
The biggest challenges to Virginia Tech in the Coastal likely will come from North Carolina and Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets should be very difficult to stop on offense and solid on defense, and the Tar Heels could follow that model as well. New head coach Larry Fedora has a track record of building explosive offenses, and he has some quality material to work with in Chapel Hill.
Athlon's 2012 ACC Team Previews
Georgia Tech goes deep
On the average game day at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Georgia Tech will throw the ball a little more than a dozen times. Trying to recruit wide receivers could be a challenge, but Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson can brag about a couple of receivers who have thrived despite the option offense.
In Johnson’s four seasons at Georgia Tech, Yellow Jackets receivers have been among the ACC leaders in yards per catch. First, Demariyus Thomas averaged 20.9 yards per reception in two years playing for Johnson. Although Stephen Hill never caught as many passes as Thomas in a season, he set a new standard for punishing teams crowding the line of scrimmage to stop Georgia Tech’s run game. Hill led all NCAA receivers last year — that’s NCAA, not just FBS — with 29.3 yards per catch, nearly eight yards per catch more than the next best receiver. Among receivers with enough catches to qualify, Hill’s 29.3 yards per catch was the best average since 2007.
The NFL doesn’t seem to mind the small sample size for the two Georgia Tech receivers, either. The Denver Broncos drafted Thomas with the 22nd pick in the first round in 2010. In the 2012 draft, Hill was the only Georgia Tech player selected. The New York Jets drafted him with the 11th pick in the second round.
Draft not shining on Sunshine State
Draft day used to be cause for celebration in the Sunshine State, but Florida State and Miami aren’t the powerhouses they once were in this area. Miami once set a record with a first-round selection in 14 consecutive drafts, but the Hurricanes in 2012 went without a first-rounder for the fourth consecutive year. The Miami Dolphins selected running back Lamar Miller with the fourth pick of the second round, leaving safety Kenny Phillips (31st pick in 2008) as the last Hurricane taken in the first round.
Florida State had to wait even longer to see one of its former players drafted. Linebacker Nigel Bradham wasn’t drafted until the fourth round, the first time Florida State had been shut out of the first three rounds since 1987. If there’s any consolation, rival Florida had the worst draft of the state’s Big Three with the fewest picks (two). By the time the first Gator was selected — defensive tackle Jaye Howard with the 19th pick in the fourth round — four Hurricanes and one Seminole had already been drafted.
League of linebackers
When former Boston College star Luke Kuechly (right) was selected with the ninth pick of April’s NFL Draft, he joined a long and growing list of ACC linebackers playing at the next level. In 2011, there were 45 linebackers from the conference on NFL rosters — that was the most of any college conference.
The Big Ten ranked just behind the ACC with 44, and the SEC surprisingly had only 38. It marked the third consecutive year that more NFL linebackers came from the ACC than any other conference.
While some college coaches already have banned their players from social media outlets such as Twitter, the dust-up between Clemson quarterback Cole Stoudt and 2012 signee Chad Kelly raises a new question: What about the players who aren’t even on campus yet?
Kelly, the nephew of former Buffalo Bills star Jim Kelly, took a thinly veiled shot at Stoudt just before National Signing Day on Twitter, saying the sophomore was, “on the bench for a reason,” and that Kelly was “coming soon.”
Stoudt, who is the son of former NFL quarterback Cliff Stoudt, responded almost immediately, tweeting that he didn’t like players who talk big, “when they haven’t done anything yet.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney didn’t take any public action regarding the beef, but the players did apparently patch things up the next time Kelly visited campus.
Spicing things up
Larry Fedora was born in Texas and went to college in the state, but it didn’t take him long to make himself part of the North Carolina-NC State rivalry.
While speaking to UNC boosters this spring, the first-year head coach was asked several times about the Tar Heels’ recent struggles against the Wolfpack — NC State has won five consecutive games in the series. Fedora, who was hired away from Southern Miss, explained that he understood the significance of the rivalry, but he added that he didn’t want to talk too much about it because he didn’t want to “legitimize their program.”
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