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2011 ACC conference preview

ACC 2011 Conference Report
Is Florida State really back? Will Virginia Tech's reign ever end? Can Al Golden return Miami to prominence? SI.com's Andy Staples tackles that and much more in his 2011 ACC conference preview.
 
How They'll Finish
 
COASTALConferenceOverall
Virginia Tech 7-111-1
Miami5-38-4
Georgia Tech5-38-4
North Carolina3-56-6
Virginia1-75-7
Duke1-74-8
 
ATLANTICConferenceOverall
Florida State7-110-2
Maryland6-28-4
Clemson4-48-4
NC State4-48-4
Boston College4-46-6
Wake Forest1-75-7
Conference Championship: Florida State def. Virginia Tech
 
Offensive MVP
 
QB
Logan Thomas
2010 stats (backup): 107 pass yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs; 6 carries, 22 yards
2011 projection: 3,250 yds, 28 TDs, 7 INTs; 125 carries, 650 yds, 10 TDs
Florida State's E.J. Manuel is grabbing more headlines, but another native Virginian might wind up as the league's best quarterback. Thomas played quarterback in high school, but thought he'd make a better H-back in college. When he arrived in Blacksburg, Hokies coaches asked him to play quarterback. Now, after an apprenticeship behind Tyrod Taylor, the 6-foot-6, 254-pound Thomas is ready to take over. With a deep receiving corps led by Jarrett Boykin, Thomas will have plenty of capable targets.
 
Defensive MVP
 
LB
Luke Kuechly
2010 stats: 183 tackles (110 solo), 10.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 3 INTs, 3 FR, 2 FF
2011 projection: 175 tackles (105), 12 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 INTs, 3 FR, 3 FF
Kuechly led the nation in tackles (183) and solo tackles (110) last season. At the time, the former high school safety weighed 225 pounds. Kuechly has bulked up to 237 now, but his speed remains the same and his instincts remain sharp. Punt returners should beware as well; Kuechly is also BC's backup long snapper.
Kuechly headlines SI.com's preseason All-ACC Team
 
Impact Freshman
 
DT
Tim Jernigan
2010 stats (high school): 77 tackles, 32 TFL, 14 sacks, 1 INT
2011 projection: 65 tackles, 12 TFL, 6 sacks, 2 FF
At least one member of Florida State's stellar recruiting class should make an immediate impact. But which one? Will it be jumbo receiver Kelvin Benjamin? Will it be tight end Nick O'Leary, the grandson of golfer Jack Nicklaus? The safest bet is the 6-3, 297-pound Jernigan, who has spent the first few days of FSU's practices throwing offensive linemen around. And remember, FSU has a good offensive line.
Debate: Can Florida State dethrone Virginia Tech?
 
Coach On The Hot Seat
 
Dabo Swinney
Last Season: 6-7 (4-4 ACC)
Career at Clemson: 19-14 (13-8 ACC)
Since taking over for Tommy Bowden, Swinney is 19-14. That's not good enough for the most passionate fan base in the league. Given its resources and support, Clemson should be in the conference title hunt almost every year. Swinney has scored some big wins on the recruiting trail, but he needs to produce some big wins on the field.
 
Three Key Nonconference Games
 
West Virginia at Maryland
Saturday, Sept. 17
12 p.m. ET
After opening against Miami on Labor Day, Randy Edsall and the Terrapins get another early-season test when the Big East favorite comes to College Park.
Alter: Terps hope new coach, budding QB form winning duo
 
Oklahoma at Florida State
Saturday, Sept. 17
TBD
This one could have an impact on the national title race. FSU will have to play a lot better than it did last year in Norman, when Oklahoma raced to a 44-7 lead and could have crushed the Seminoles by far more than the eventual 30-point margin of victory.
 
Ohio State at Miami
Saturday, Sept. 17
TBD
For Miami, this game represents a chance to start the Al Golden era with a bang. For Ohio State, it will be the first test against a quality opponent for a team that will still be without four of its best players because of NCAA suspensions.
 
Three Key Conference Games
 
Florida State at Clemson
Saturday, Sept. 24
TBD
This is the ultimate trap game. If FSU beats Oklahoma the week before, the Seminoles will be the nation's "it" team. Overconfidence and a trip to Death Valley are a poor combination. If FSU loses to Oklahoma, the Seminoles can't lick their wounds for too long. A slip at Clemson would put them in a hole in the Atlantic Division.
 
Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech
Thursday, Nov. 10
8 p.m. ET
Given Virginia Tech's schedule, there is a good chance the Hokies will roll into Atlanta undefeated. Given the fact that weird things happen on Thursday night, it's entirely probable the goal posts wind up at the Georgia Tech president's house and everyone wakes up hung over with the taste of chili dogs from The Varsity in the back of their throats.
 
Miami at Florida State
Saturday, Nov. 12
TBD
This game hasn't been truly meaningful for a long time. It might be this year. That's good for college football. But if I were Florida State kicker Dustin Hopkins, it might make me a little nervous.
 
Five Key Questions
 
You idiots in the media say Florida State is back every year. Why should anyone believe you this year? That's a great question. As faithful readers know, I tend to refer to the league that stretches along the Atlantic coast as the Virginia Tech Conference, and I will continue to do so unless some other program proves that the Hokies aren't going to dominate the league year after year. Florida State looks like that program. Jimbo Fisher seems to be moving along the same trajectory as mentor Nick Saban did at Alabama. For the first time in years, FSU should take the field with superior athletes in every conference game. E.J. Manuel is about as seasoned as a first-year starting quarterback gets. Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid should make plays in the secondary. Youngsters such as 6-6, 240-pound receiver Kelvin Benjamin should contribute quickly. FSU won't ever dominate the conference the way it did during its first 10 years in the league, but as long as Fisher keeps doing what he's doing, the Seminoles should be in the title hunt most years.
So does that mean Virginia Tech is going to slide? Not exactly. As noted above, Logan Thomas looks like the real deal. He'll have the Hokies' top five pass-catchers from 2010 as targets. The passing game may have to make up some of the production the running game lost when Darren Evans and Ryan Williams turned pro, but tailback David Wilson did average 5.5 yards per carry last year. An opposing quarterback would be a fool to throw in the direction of cornerback Jayron Hosley, who led the nation last year in interceptions with nine. Virginia Tech still has plenty of talent and a weak nonconference schedule that leaves open the possibility of an undefeated regular season.
Can Al Golden bring Miami back to prominence? That's going to be tough. If Florida State were still down, Golden's job wouldn't be so hard. Miami plays divisional games against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech every year, and the Hurricanes also have the misfortune of an annual interdivisional rivalry with the Seminoles. Miami still has plenty of talent, but Golden is going to have to get more out of the Hurricanes than Randy Shannon did. Golden would like to name a starting quarterback (Jacory Harris or Stephen Morris) by Aug. 22, but the strength of Miami's offense might be its running game. Lamar Miller and Mike James combined to average 5.9 yards per carry in 2010. Grinding out drives on the ground could help Miami's offense and its defense.
Georgia Tech was the last non-Virginia Tech team to win the VTC. How will the Yellow Jackets fare? If you could bottle coach Paul Johnson's rage toward the NCAA and administer a few drops on each player's tongue before each game, Georgia Tech would go undefeated and win the national championship. So get on that, engineers. Failing that, Georgia Tech still may impact the title race. Only one team faces the Yellow Jackets after an open date. It's Virginia Tech, on a Thursday, and Georgia Tech also has an open date before the game. That means everyone else will have only a standard game week to prepare for Georgia Tech's option. For defenses that listen to their coaches and don't freelance, that's manageable. For defenses that rely on athleticism more than scheme, that's a big problem.
What happens to North Carolina in the wake of the Butch Davis firing? North Carolina's players have been through the wringer. Last season, they saw a team that could possibly have competed for a national title dismantled by an NCAA scandal. Then, in their infinite wisdom, North Carolina officials allowed coach Butch Davis to keep his job. After going through the entire offseason, North Carolina officials, in their infinite wisdom, fired Butch Davis. The Tar Heels are in an awful spot, but they still have some good players. Defensive end Quinton Coples is one of the ACC's best defenders. Many of North Carolina's defenders were thrown into the fire last season to replace suspended teammates, and that experience should benefit the Tar Heels this season.
 
ACC Video Preview
Top ACC contenders
Source:SI
SI.com breaks down why Florida State, Virginia Tech and Miami look like the ACC's top contenders.

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