Most of the 12 teams in the ACC will be playing easy non-conference openers, but two games stand out as marquee matchups. In Atlanta, NC State plays Tennessee, while Clemson matches up against Auburn on Saturday night. Although neither game means anything for the ACC Championship, it's an opportunity for both teams to earn a huge non-conference victory.
ACC's Top Storylines to Watch in Week 1:
After finishing 9-16 in games against BCS conference opponents last year, the ACC has a chance to earn some national respect with two huge non-conference games in Atlanta. NC State plays Tennessee on Friday night, while Clemson takes on Auburn on Saturday. Outside of these two games, there’s much in the way of marquee non-conference tests for the ACC in Week 1. Most consider the ACC the No. 5 conference in college football and for it to move up the pecking order, its teams need to win non-conference games such as the ones taking place this weekend in Atlanta.
2. ACC Coastal Championship on the line?
With Miami rebuilding and North Carolina ineligible for the Coastal title, the division is essentially a three-team battle between Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Virginia. Considering the Cavaliers have to play both teams on the road, the Hokies and Yellow Jackets have to be considered the favorites to win the Coastal. The winner of this matchup has went on to play for the ACC Championship every year since the conference split into two divisions. The Hokies have won four out of the last five, including a 37-26 contest in Atlanta last season. Having a full offseason to prepare for Georgia Tech’s option attack should give Virginia Tech an edge in this game.
3. Will Clemson’s offense struggle without Sammy Watkins?
An arrest in early May will force Watkins to miss the first two games of the season. As a freshman last year, Watkins was one of the conference’s top players, recording 82 receptions for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns. The good news for Clemson? Quarterback Tajh Boyd is back, while the receiving corps still has plenty of weapons. Junior DeAndre Hopkins is an All-ACC candidate, and sophomore Charone Peak is capable of a breakout season. The biggest question mark for the Tigers’ offense is a line that must replace three starters, especially against a talented and deep Auburn defensive line. Clemson has plenty of skill players to makeup for the loss of Watkins. However, if Auburn’s defensive line spends most of the night in the backfield, Boyd will struggle to find his rhythm, and Clemson will start the year 0-1.
4. How much has Florida State’s offensive line improved?
The biggest question mark facing the Seminoles is an offensive line that struggled mightily last season. The line barely opened up any holes for the rushing attack, as Florida State rushers averaged only 3.3 yards per carry on 437 attempts. EJ Manuel and Clint Trickett were sacked 41 times last season, which ranked 110th nationally. Youth and injuries played a large role in the struggles, but this unit needs to make major strides for Florida State to contend for a national championship. Although Murray State won’t be the toughest challenge in the trenches, this will be an important game for the Seminoles to evaluate their new starting five. Left tackle Cameron Erving switched from defensive in the spring, while right tackle Menelik Watson has never played a snap on the FBS level. The other three starters (Josue Matias, Bryan Stork and Tre’ Jackson) have a combined 12 starts. With a huge ACC test against Clemson on the horizon, Florida State needs the game action against Murray State and Savannah State to find the right mix up front.
5. The first start for Maryland quarterback Perry Hills
After another spring filled with players leaving the team, things appeared to be headed in the right direction for Maryland. The Terrapins had a relatively quiet fall camp, until quarterback C.J. Brown suffered a torn ACL. Brown was the team’s only experienced quarterback, leaving freshmen Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe to battle for the No. 1 spot. Hills edged Rowe in fall camp and will make his first start on Saturday against William & Mary. The Tribe is coming off a losing season (5-6) but should not be taken lightly, especially with Maryland starting a true freshman. This will also be the Terrapins’ first look at how both sides of the ball will respond with new coordinators (Mike Locksley and Brian Stewart). While there is plenty of uncertainty surrounding the freshmen quarterbacks, Locksley and his offensive staff are ready to unleash freshman receiver Stefon Diggs. With a young signal-caller, expect to see Diggs and the running backs lay a huge role in the offense. After a disappointing 2-10 season, there’s a lot of pressure on coach Randy Edsall to produce in 2012 – which won’t be easy with a true freshman starting at quarterback.
6. What to expect out of Boston College and Miami?
Considering these two teams played each other in the 2011 season finale, there should be plenty of familiarity on Saturday. The Hurricanes and Eagles are coming off disappointing 2011 campaigns, and it’s hard to get a read on both teams going into 2012. Boston College is looking for a spark on offense but has been hit hard by injuries in fall camp. The Hurricanes have some promising young talent, but there’s a NCAA investigation hanging over the program and a lot of inexperience on the depth chart. While it may seem crazy to be thinking about bowl eligibility in Week 1, both teams have a tough schedule this year, which makes this game even more important. It’s also important for both teams to get the year started off with a victory, especially after both teams did not finish above .500 in 2011.
7. Larry Fedora’s debut at North Carolina
With a ban on postseason play and a bowl game, the Tar Heels really have nothing to play for in 2012. It’s fair to wonder how motivated this team will be, but the offense could be one of the best in the ACC. New coach Larry Fedora will bring a new spread, up-tempo attack to Chapel Hill, which should score plenty of points. Quarterback Bryn Renner quietly had a good season last year, throwing for 3,086 yards and 26 scores. He will be joined by All-ACC running back Giovani Bernard and the conference’s best offensive line. Elon finished 5-6 last season, so the Tar Heels should have no trouble winning easily on Saturday night. Even though there’s nothing to play for in 2012, if North Carolina is motivated, this team could push for nine wins.
8. Injuries adding up at Duke - faces key non-conference test against FIU
If the Blue Devils want to end a bowl drought that has lasted 17 seasons, Saturday’s game against FIU is a must-win contest. Duke has a non-conference trip to Stanford in Week 2, while playing Florida State and Clemson in crossover games with the Atlantic Division. The Blue Devils will be without 11 scholarship players on Saturday against the Golden Panthers. Projected defensive starters Jamal Bruce (DT), Jordon Byas (S), and Kelby Brown (LB) are huge losses for a defense that allowed 31.2 points a game last year. Even without T.Y. Hilton at receiver, FIU is still a dangerous Week 1 opponent. It’s a long season, but a loss to the Golden Panthers in the opener would be a huge setback to Duke’s chances at a winning record and bowl appearance.
Week 1 ACC Predictions
Week 1 ACC Games
Tennessee (-3) vs. NC State (Atlanta)
NC State 17-14
NC State 31-27
Elon at North Carolina
William & Mary at Maryland
Richmond at Virginia
Miami (Fla.) (-2) at Boston College
Murray State at Florida State
Florida State 42-7
Florida State 38-3
Florida State 48-10
Florida State 44-10
Liberty at Wake Forest
Wake Forest 35-13
Wake Forest 34-10
Wake Forest 38-13
Wake Forest 31-17
FIU at Duke (-3.5)
Clemson (-3) vs. Auburn (Atlanta)
Ga. Tech at Va. Tech (-7.5)
Virginia Tech 28-14
Virginia Tech 31-21
Virginia Tech 31-24
Virginia Tech 24-17
by Steven Lassan
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