by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Week 1 College Football Rankings: ACC
1. Florida State – The Seminoles enter 2011 with national title aspirations. A plethora of starters return from last season, and there’s a lot of promise surrounding new quarterback EJ Manuel. The junior has six starts under his belt, but this will be his first full year as the No. 1 quarterback. The Seminoles boast one of the nation’s best defenses, with nine starters returning, including All-American end Brandon Jenkins. Florida State should cruise the first two weeks of the year, as UL Monroe and Charleston Southern visit Tallahassee. With a huge showdown against Oklahoma in Week 3, the Seminoles can use the first two games to fine tune both sides of the ball.
2. Virginia Tech – After losing to James Madison in Week 2 last year, Virginia Tech likely won’t allow Appalachian State to sneak up on it this Saturday. However, the Mountaineers are ranked No. 5 in Athlon’s FCS poll for 2011, and quarterback DeAndre Presley is a dangerous playmaker. This Saturday’s game with the Mountaineers will feature the first start for quarterback Logan Thomas. The sophomore has played in limited snaps, but the ceiling is very high and should be a star in the ACC over the next two years. Joining Thomas as a budding star is running back David Wilson. The junior has shined in limited action and will handle the full workload for Virginia Tech in 2011.
3. Miami – There was a positive buzz emanating from Miami exiting spring practice. New coach Al Golden appears to be the perfect fit, and is the right coach to get the Hurricanes back into the BCS. However, the positive vibes were wiped out due to a NCAA investigation. A handful of players could be missing for the opener against Maryland, including quarterback Jacory Harris. Linebacker Sean Spence and safety Ray-Ray Armstrong were also mentioned in the investigation and it’s unclear if either will play in the Labor Day opener. Although Miami has a talented roster, the potential of missing several key players and the distraction of the NCAA investigation will impact this team.
4. NC State – Saturday’s game against Liberty likely won’t draw much national interest, but a lot of eyes will be on junior quarterback Mike Glennon. Coach Tom O’Brien handed the keys to the offense to the junior, after Russell Wilson missed spring ball due to baseball obligations with the Colorado Rockies’ minor league system. Although Liberty finished 8-3 last year, it should provide little resistance to the Wolfpack. Getting Glennon comfortable in a game setting is important, especially with an ACC game against Wake Forest on the slate for Week 2.
5. Maryland – The Terrapins are the ACC’s 2011 mystery team. New coach Randy Edsall has hinted he will open things up on offense, but coordinator Gary Crowton didn’t have the most prolific attacks at LSU. Quarterback Danny O’Brien had an outstanding freshman year, but loses receiver Torrey Smith and must adjust to a new scheme. The Terrapins return seven starters on defense, including All-American candidate at linebacker in Kenny Tate. The opener has added importance this year, as the Terrapins kickoff ACC play against Miami. The Hurricanes could be short-handed for this game, as some key players may be facing a suspension due to a NCAA investigation. Edsall wasn’t a flashy hire at Maryland, but was a very good coach at Connecticut. A win over Miami in the opener would be a good way for Edsall to begin his tenure in College Park.
6. North Carolina – Outside of Miami, the biggest offseason turmoil was based in Chapel Hill. North Carolina fired coach Butch Davis just before the opening of fall camp, elevating defensive coordinator Everett Withers into the full-time job. Although the Tar Heels will have a new coach, there’s a lot of potential with this team. The offense returns one of the top lines in the ACC and has playmakers with receiver Dwight Jones and running back Ryan Houston. Sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner is the key to the season. The Tar Heels open with James Madison, a team that shocked Virginia Tech in Blacksburg last year. With the offseason distractions, it will be interesting to see how North Carolina performs in the opener - especially against a FCS team capable of pulling the upset.
7. Clemson – The Tigers begin 2011 with a lot of promise and enough talent to win the ACC. Wait, haven’t we heard this before? Clemson has underachieved in the past and needs to have a big year to get coach Dabo Swinney off the hot seat. The Tigers could have one of the ACC’s most explosive offenses by the end of the year. Sophomore quarterback Tajh Boyd has a lot of potential and is surrounded by a handful of talented playmakers, including running back Andre Ellington and receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins. The Tigers will open with Athlon’s projected Sun Belt champion – Troy. The Trojans usually play well against BCS conference competition and this is no guaranteed victory for Clemson.
8. Boston College – The Eagles begin 2011 with low expectations. The offense returns six starters and will be under the direction of new coordinator Kevin Rogers. Hopes are high that sophomore quarterback Chase Rettig is ready to breakout, but the Eagles need to find consistent playmakers in the receiving corps. Running back Montel Harris has a chance to break the ACC’s career rushing record, but will be out for Saturday’s game against Northwestern due to knee surgery. However, the ground attack should be in good shape with sophomore Andre Williams. Although Saturday’s game against Northwestern is off the national radar, it’s an intriguing matchup for two teams that seem to outperform preseason expectations.
9. Georgia Tech – After a disappointing 6-7 record last year, not much is expected for Georgia Tech in 2011. The Yellow Jackets lack names on preseason all-conference teams, but don’t count out coach Paul Johnson from pulling a few surprises this year. Quarterback Tevin Washington was pushed for the starting job in fall practice, but is expected to take the first snap in the opener against Western Carolina. The backfield features a host of names, but no clear No. 1 starter. The defense should be improved in the second season of Al Groh’s 3-4 scheme. Western Carolina finished 2-9 last year and should be an easy win for the Yellow Jackets.
10. Virginia –Mike London has the Cavaliers going in the right direction and making a bowl game isn’t out of the question for 2011. Getting consistent quarterback play will be critical to Virginia’s chances of reaching six wins. Four players went into fall practice with the opportunity to start, but it appears true freshman David Watford or sophomore Michael Rocco will take the first snap. Week 1 opponent William & Mary is a dangerous FCS foe, ranking as the No. 2 team in Athlon’s 2011 preseason poll. If the Cavaliers want to go bowling, they cannot afford a loss on Saturday.
11. Duke – David Cutcliffe is slowly making strides in Durham. The Blue Devils only won three games last year, but lost their last three games by a combined 20 points. Quarterback Sean Renfree showed promise in his first year as a starter last season and should be improved in 2011. Renfree has a solid group of receivers to throw to, including a likely All-ACC performer in Conner Vernon. The offensive line suffered a blow in fall practice, as center Brian Moore suffered a broken arm and is out definitely. The Blue Devils host Richmond this Saturday.
12. Wake Forest – After posting 11 wins in 2006, the Demon Deacons have watched their win total decrease in each of the last four years. Can Wake Forest turn it around? Jim Grobe is a solid coach, but is dealing with a lot of youth in the lineup. Tanner Price was thrown into the fire last season as a true freshman, but showed promise and should be better this year. Sophomore running back Josh Harris is also a reason for optimism, after rushing for 720 yards and seven scores last season. The Demon Deacons open up with a road trip to Syracuse and then face NC State in Week 2. Wake Forest will be underdogs in both games, but don’t count out Grobe’s team from showing marked improvement from last year.