With National Signing Day behind us, we take our first look at how the ACC‘s teams appear to stack up heading into the 2012 season. Taken into account are returning starters, 2012 schedule and instant freshman contributors from the recent recruiting class. This will be revised monthly throughout the offseason.
1. Florida State Seminoles (2011 record: 9-4): For a team that appeared awfully talented in 2011, the ‘Noles look even more dangerous in 2012. Quarterback EJ Manuel is healthy and understands this squad has something to prove, while what’s arguably the nation’s top recruiting class may get some opportunities on both sides of the ball should they be needed. While defense was dominant last year, FSU’s offense may be just as noteworthy.
2. Clemson Tigers (2011 record: 10-4): Despite losing defensive end Andre Branch, the Tigers return their three biggest offensive weapons — Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and Andre Ellington. That alone should put the Tigers in contention to finish right where they did in 2011; the ACC title game. It’ll be up to their defense, though, to pick up the slack if they want to get past FSU in the Atlantic division.
3. Virginia Tech Hokies (2011 record: 11-3): Continuing to fight off their elite-opponent demons, the Hokies may struggle against their improved conference-mates in 2012. However, with quarterback Logan Thomas back (and likely improved), it’s hard to see how this team can’t ride him and what should be another strong defense to at least nine wins on the year.
4. NC State Wolfpack (2011 record: 8-5): While questions may loom about the receiving corps and running game, senior QB Mike Glennon and an experienced offensive line should be enough to project big things for the ‘Pack. If the defense can generate the type of pressure they managed to late in 2011, look out.
5. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (2011 record: 8-5): Returning most of their starters, including quarterback Tevin Washington, the triple-option should be as good as ever for the Yellow Jackets offense in 2011. Of course they won’t be as flashy or exciting as some of the teams above them here, remember that this team can (and will) put a flurry of points on the board. Defense be damned.
6. Miami Hurricanes (2011 record: 6-6): As mentioned previously, the Hurricanes were within a score in all six of their losses last season. And though they lose a slew of talented starters from last year as they flee from potential NCAA infractions, Miami still managed to earn themselves a top-10 recruiting class to pair with show-me-something return players like the newly minted Stephen Morris.
7. Virginia Cavaliers (2011 record: 8-5): Unexciting, yet efficient last season, the Cavaliers will have to duplicate that success without seven starters from 2011. A strikingly good recruiting class helps the cause, but the team’s a true playmaker on offense away from truly contending in the ACC.
8. North Carolina Tar Heels (2011 record: 7-6): Sure, Dwight Jones is gone, but it’s hard to believe they’ll be an extreme drop-off with Bryn Renner and Giovani Bernard returning to action. With several defensive starters gone to the NFL too, this will likely be a team remade under an offensive focus, but it can succeed with the pieces in place.
9. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (2011 record: 6-7): As good as Tanner Price will likely be again, the lack of experience on the offensive line may be a soft spot in the opening contests of 2012. At the same time, the Demon Deacons’ ball-hawking defense should further improve, possibly making up the difference.
10. Pittsburgh Panthers (2011 record: 6-7): There are lots of questions around Pitt, from the coaching staff to the running game, to the inconsistency of quarterback Tino Sunseri. If Sunseri can mature into the type of game manager that does his best not to take risks and allows his defense to take over, the Panthers can find mild success. Otherwise, this year is likely a transition year as they work the kinks out.
11. Syracuse Orange (2011 record: 5-7): Questions linger around SU’s run game, pass rush and run defense. But, returning players like Ryan Nassib and Alec Lemon likely assist in helping a shaky, inexperienced squad get back on their feet amidst a rough schedule in 2012. Among those on the Orange slate — a MetLife Stadium date with presumptive number-one team USC.
12. Boston College Eagles (2011 record: 4-8): The Eagles showed flashes of tenacity come the last four or five games of 2011, and even without Luke Kuechly, that could potentially carry over. The key, as assumed, will be the offense actually displaying a pulse, which it may if Montel Harris comes back completely healthy.
13. Duke Blue Devils (2011 record: 3-9): It’s all about Sean Renfree for Duke, and how the quarterback can deliver with minimal assets at his disposal. The Blue Devils were competitive in 2011, now they must take the next step and actually win some of those close games in the hopes of securing a bowl bid for the first time since 1994.
14. Maryland Terrapins(2011 record: 2-10): When a team plays as poorly as Maryland did in 2011, how do you pick them to finish anywhere but the cellar for the following season? Coach Randy Edsall had a salvageable recruiting class, but it will take six wins and the end of his QB controversy to quiet hot-seat talks.