By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
At the midpoint of the 2011 season, it's time to take a look at the first half and predict how the second half will turn out in the ACC.
Coach of the Year – Dabo Swinney, Clemson
A strong case could be made for Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe, but Swinney gets the nod. Clemson heads into Week 8 at 7-0 and ranked among the top 10 teams in college football. Swinney entered 2011 on the hot seat, posting a 19-15 record in two-plus seasons in Death Valley. However, his decision to hire Chad Morris as offensive coordinator has paid big dividends, as the Tigers are averaging 38 points a game this season. Although Swinney has had his ups and downs at Clemson, he deserves credit for putting the pieces together with the coaching staff and bringing in top prospects on the recruiting trail.
Freshman of the Year – Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Watkins has not only been the top freshman in the ACC, he’s arguably been the top first-year player in college football. He has grabbed 46 receptions for 728 yards and seven scores, posted 127 rushing yards and is averaging 30.7 yards per kickoff return. Although Tajh Boyd’s emergence at quarterback has been huge for the Clemson offense, Watkins has brought a much-needed playmaking threat to the passing game.
Newcomer of the Year
This spot is usually reserved for transfers and JUCO players that have stepped up this year, but there’s no standout candidate. Florida State’s Tank Carradine and offensive lineman Jacob Fahrenkrug have been solid contributors this year. Also, North Carolina’s Sylvester Williams is having a productive season in his first since transferring from Coffeyville Community College.
Offensive Player of the Year – David Wilson, RB, Virginia Tech
A strong case could be made for Miami’s Lamar Miller or Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, but we’ll give the midseason edge to Wilson. He has posted 903 rushing yards and six touchdowns through seven games and caught 12 passes for 80 yards. Wilson’s 903 yards rank third nationally, just behind Pittsburgh’s Ray Graham and Alabama’s Trent Richardson. With quarterback Logan Thomas struggling early in the year, it was up to Wilson to carry the team. Thomas has stepped up the last two weeks, which should take some of the pressure off of Wilson the rest of the way.
Defensive Player of the Year – Andre Branch, DE, Clemson
Branch edges out Boston College’s Luke Kuechly and Miami’s Sean Spence for this honor at the midpoint of the season. Branch leads the ACC with 12 tackles for a loss and seven sacks this year. The senior was a key reason why Clemson had no trouble beating Virginia Tech on the road, as he registered four sacks against the Hokies. Branch’s performance in Blacksburg was enough for him to earn National Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Midseason Disappointment – Florida State
With 17 returning starters and a favorable schedule, the Seminoles were picked as a darkhorse national title candidate. However, Florida State watched a promising season dissipate with a three-game losing streak. The Seminoles stood tall against Oklahoma, but fell short and lost quarterback EJ Manuel to a shoulder injury. Manuel did not play in the loss to Clemson and did not start in the five-point defeat to Wake Forest. Florida State still has a chance to finish 9-3, but many expected this team to win the ACC Atlantic and compete for a spot among the top five teams in college football.
Midseason Disappointment – Danny O’Brien, QB, Maryland
Most preseason all-conference teams had O’Brien pegged as the No. 1 quarterback in the ACC. After all, he was the ACC’s Rookie of the Year last season. The sophomore began the year by throwing for 348 yards and one score in a 32-24 win over Miami. However, it’s been all downhill since. O’Brien tossed three interceptions in the loss to West Virginia and was benched against Georgia Tech. With C.J. Brown’s impressive showing against Clemson, it’s unlikely O’Brien will regain his starting spot. The sophomore could explore a transfer at the end of the season.
Midseason Surprise – Wake Forest
Coming off a 3-9 season and a depth chart littered with youth, the Demon Deacons were not expected to be in the thick of the ACC Atlantic race. However, after seven weeks, Wake Forest is just a game behind Clemson in the Atlantic and gets a shot at the Tigers on Nov. 12. Even if the Demon Deacons fall short of winning the division crown, it’s been quite a turnaround for coach Jim Grobe and one that should result in a bowl appearance for the first time since 2008.
Midseason Surprise – Bryn Renner/Giovani Bernard, North Carolina
There was no question about the talent regarding either player, it’s just a surprise they have become all-conference candidates in their first year of starting. Renner ranks seventh in the ACC in total offense per game, completing 75.3 percent of his throws and tossing 14 scores on the year. Bernard ranks third in the conference with an average of 109.6 rushing yards per game. The redshirt freshman has posted five straight 100-yard performances going into Saturday’s game against Clemson.
What Athlon Sports got right – There’s a long ways to go in the ACC race, but our preseason picks had Virginia Tech pegged to win the Coastal. The Hokies need to beat Georgia Tech in November, but that prediction looks solid after the last two weeks.
What Athlon Sports got wrong – A lot. And we aren’t afraid to admit it. Our preseason picks had Florida State as the team to beat in the Atlantic, Clemson and Georgia Tech finishing 6-6, and Maryland posting an 8-4 record. There’s a lot of games to be played, but it looks like we will strike out on our ACC picks.
Athlon projects the wins and losses for each team for the rest of the season. Here's how we think the final standings will look before the ACC Championship.
1. Clemson 11-1 (7-1)
2. Florida State 9-3 (6-2)
3. Wake Forest 7-5 (5-3)
4. NC State 6-6 (3-5)
5. Maryland 4-8 (3-5)
6. Boston College 1-11 (0-8)
1. Virginia Tech 11-1 (7-1)
2. Georgia Tech 9-3 (6-2)
3. Miami 7-5 (4-4)
4. North Carolina 7-5, 3-5
5. Virginia 6-6 (3-5)
6. Duke 3-9 (1-7)
ACC Championship: Clemson vs. Virginia Tech
Three Things to Watch
Who will win the ACC Coastal? – Four teams have one loss in ACC play heading into Saturday’s action. Georgia Tech has the most conference wins (3), while Virginia and Duke are tied at one. Miami is 1-2, but it’s too early to write off the Hurricanes in the Coastal. Miami gets a shot at Georgia Tech this Saturday and its only remaining conference road game is on Nov. 12 at Florida State. The Hurricanes need some help, but it’s not out of the question, considering Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech still have to matchup in November.
Coaching changes – NC State and Boston College are the only two teams without a conference win heading into Week 8. And both coaches – Tom O’Brien (NC State) and Frank Spaziani (Boston College) – find themselves on the hot seat. O’Brien has a little more leeway than Spaziani, but the Wolfpack have won more than six games only once during his tenure. The Eagles have been hit by some key injuries, but a tough schedule could mean a 1-11 finish.
Battle for bowl positioning – Heading into Week 8, the ACC has three teams bowl eligible, but none of the remaining nine schools have been eliminated. The conference has eight bowl tie-ins available for 2011 and should be able to fill all of them. However, can teams like Virginia and Duke end its recent bowl drought? With two wins over FCS’ opponents, NC State needs to get seven victories in order to get bowl eligible. Can the Wolfpack get back into the postseason? Will the ACC get two teams into the BCS?