2013 NCAA Football Preview: Atlantic Coast Conference

August 2, 2013
By K. Becks

I’ve been complaining to an essentially non-existent fan base about my inability to produce articles on a regular basis this summer. But with August comes the realization that college football is just around the corner, and an end to the aforementioned complaining.

This article is the first of my college football previews broken down by conference. Those of you that have been following the blog since its inception understand that I work my way through the college football landscape in a geographical manner, starting on the Eastern half of the country. That means we’ll start with the Atlantic Coast Conference, shoot up to the American Athletic Conference, head west for the Big Ten and so on finishing up with the Pac-12.

I’m excited for college football to begin. You’re excited for college football to begin. So let’s stop wasting time with filler content and get to the meat of the Atlantic Coast Conference preview.

Overview

The Atlantic Coast Conference hasn’t always been treated very nicely on Around The Corn. Normally, the overview reads something like this: “it is a collective of several decent teams, but no one team is great”. Although I’m not going to pretend that this year is drastically different, at least there is a bit of a shake up to keep people on their toes this year.

The addition of Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the conference from the Big East may not have a profound effect at the top of either ACC division, but it could have subtle ramifications that either has us thinking very highly of the conference in December or have us mouthing the words “same old story”. Neither program is a college football power, one just hired a new coach and the other has gone through so many coaching changes the past few seasons that it is worth mentioning that the current head man is in his second season as head coach.

But they are the kind of teams that have the ability to knock off one of the big boys on any given week, which is extremely important to a conference with essentially one true national title threat. It may be unlikely, but if past years are any indication, unlikely isn’t a word that should be used much to describe potential ACC upsets. Anything is possible with this conference.

So I’ll leave it at that. Anything is possible. It’s up to you whether you want to leave that on the table and write off the ACC from the onset. Just don’t come back to me saying I told you to if things get really interesting.

Team(s) With the Best Shot at a National Championship Bid

Clemson

There’s no need to scroll down, because you won’t find any other team under this heading (sorry, Florida State fans). The Tigers have been clawing their way to the top of the ACC for the past two seasons for an opportunity like the one they have this year, and they’ll have the chance to prove themselves very early into the 2013 campaign. A statement game against Georgia awaits on August 31st, which happens to be Week 1.

With Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins leading the charge, Dabo Swinney won’t have to worry about going blow for blow with any team in the nation offensively. However, it’s the defense, which was vastly improved in 2012 and returns seven starters that will ultimately dictate how high Clemson can climb in the national rankings. More specifically, it’s the defensive secondary, which was a pedestrian 71st in the nation in pass defense last season and will be looking to replace nearly every starter.

If the Tigers can manage to get past Georgia, the schedule really opens up until, naturally, the final game of the season against rival South Carolina. Perhaps it’s fitting that for the ACC to break through with a national title contender, it will first have to dispatch of two of the better teams in the nation’s best conference. It can be done, and if it is, it’ll be hard to deny Clemson a spot in Pasadena.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

North Carolina

Tar Heels head coach Larry Fedora does not get nearly enough credit for his ability to consistently produce winning football wherever he goes. But this year he may finally receive what he is due.

The Tar Heels were suspended from postseason play and ineligible to play for the ACC title game last season, which is undeniably one of the reasons why North Carolina didn’t get much coverage in 2012. However, if it weren’t for Clemson, North Carolina would arguably have the best offense in the conference. Quarterback Bryn Renner can be the sort of catalyst Duke quarterback Sean Renfree was last season; in other words, his smart play can translate into lots of points and help overcome the inadequacies of the defense.

North Carolina may be a below average team defensively, and that’s going to hurt in games against teams like Georgia Tech, which can really take advantage of sub-par defenses. But thanks to Renner, the offense will be good enough in other games to completely surprise solid defensive teams. In a division where several teams will vie for the top spot, an upset or two could send a team like the Tar Heels to the ACC Championship Game.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player To Watch)

Duke Johnson (So.), Miami Running Back

With quarterback Stephen Morris getting most of the attention from opposing defenses, the Hurricanes may have the opportunity to capitalize on one of the best kept secrets in the ACC. Duke Johnson broke Miami’s freshman rushing record last season (previously held by Clinton Portis), but didn’t even have to start to do so. This year, he’ll be the feature back that will get to run behind an offensive line that returns all five starters.

If his freshman season is any indication, Johnson is going to give a lot of defenses fits, especially those that instruct their linebackers to focus first and foremost on Morris. Johnson’s speed is just too much for most players, and he is a threat not only in the running game but also in the passing game. If Miami begins to put together a solid campaign in 2013, Morris & Johnson could become one of the more well-known tandems in college football.

Out-Of-Conference Game To Watch

Georgia vs. Clemson (August 31st)

A Top 10 battle between teams on college football’s opening weekend is exactly what fans want, and that’s what they’ll get with this matchup. The battle between quarterbacks Aaron Murray and Tajh Boyd is certainly intriguing, but as much as that will be fun to watch, this game will ultimately come down to which defensive secondary is more prepared for the gunslinger on the other side.

Georgia must replace the bulk of a defense that was one of the best at defending the pass last season, while Clemson is hoping to continue to improve upon a defensive effort that was fairly bad just a couple of seasons ago. As much as the average SEC fan would love to disagree, it’s going to be hard for Georgia’s defense to figure out Clemson’s offense with so many young faces. Because this is an early season matchup, coaching will also play a large part in this one, an area where I give the advantage to Georgia. In other words, don’t be surprised if this game closely resembles the one Clemson capped the 2012 season with in Atlanta: down to the wire.

In-Conference Game To Watch

Miami vs. North Carolina (October 17th)

This Thursday night showdown is exactly the kind of game that you’ll look back on and pat yourself on the back for deciding to stay in and watch rather than go out to the bars. Both Miami and North Carolina should have the ability to put a lot of points on the board this season thanks to several returning starters and solid quarterbacks. Also, both have a legitimate shot at the ACC Coastal crown, and this game will have a lot of impact on that prize.

By this point in the season we’ll have a pretty good feel for how much Miami’s defense has improved from last season, if at all (for the Hurricanes’ sake, hopefully it has considering it was one of the worst in the country in 2012). If it has, then North Carolina might have to play the role of underdog. But if both teams are porous defensively, hang onto your seats and prepare for a night full of offensive fireworks.

Conference Predictions

Atlantic Division

1. Clemson (11-1, [8-0])

2. Florida State (9-3, [6-2])

3. North Carolina State (8-4, [4-4])

4. Maryland (6-6, [4-4])

5. Syracuse (4-8, [2-6])

6. Boston College (3-9, [1-7])

7. Wake Forest (3-9, [1-7])

Coastal Division

1. Miami (10-2, [7-1])

2. Georgia Tech (8-4, [6-2])

3. North Carolina (8-4, [5-3])

4. Virginia Tech (8-4, [5-3])

5. Pittsburgh (6-6, [4-4])

6. Duke (4-8, [1-7])

7. Virginia (3-9, [1-7])

Championship Game (Clemson vs. Miami)

Winner: Clemson

Questions from the Readers

This is a section dedicated to the readers, where I will answer the questions you have sent me through Facebook, Twitter (@KBecks_ATC) or email (kbecks@aroundthecorn.com). Unfortunately, there were no questions sent regarding the ACC or its teams. Feel free to ask multiple questions, as I will answer any appropriate question that is submitted in time. Thanks guys.

- K. Becks

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