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Florida State, Virginia Tech headline 2012 ACC conference preview

ACC 2012 Conference Report
Has Clemson found a defense to match its potent offense? Will Virginia Tech be able to replace David Wilson's production? Is Florida State really, actually, finally back? Cory McCartney answers that and more in his 2012 ACC conference report. For more coverage, visit our preseason content archive.

Note: The projected standings reflect the author's opinion, not SI.com's.
 
How They'll Finish
 
ATLANTICConferenceOverall
Florida State 7-111-1
Clemson7-110-2
NC State5-39-3
Boston College2-64-8
Maryland1-74-8
Wake Forest1-73-9
 
COASTALConferenceOverall
Virginia Tech6-210-2
Georgia Tech6-28-4
Virginia5-38-4
North Carolina4-47-5
Miami3-54-8
Duke1-74-8
Conference championship: Florida State def. Virginia Tech
 
Offensive MVP
 
WR
Sammy Watkins
2011 stats: 82 REC, 1,219 YDS, 12 TD; 33 KR, 25.0 AVG, 1 TD
2012 projection: 84 REC, 1,260 YDS, 14 TD; 28 KR, 26.0 AVG, 1 TD
Watkins became the first freshman since Adrian Peterson to be named a first-team AP All-America after leading the ACC with 2,288 all-purpose yards. He'll begin his encore by sitting the first two games following a May arrest on drug charges, but he could be even more dynamic once he returns: Clemson coaches visited Oklahoma State this offseason to see how the Cowboys utilized two-time Biletnikoff winner Justin Blackmon.
Debate: Does the ACC have a national contender?
 
Defensive MVP
 
DE
Brandon Jenkins
2011 stats: 41 tackles, 12 TFL, 8 sacks
2012 projection: 60 TOT, 20 TFL, 12 SACK, 2 FF
Coach Jimbo Fisher calls Jenkins "home-run hitter" of FSU's formidable defensive line, as Jenkins leads all active players with 21.5 career sacks and is second with 36.5 tackles for loss. After seeing his numbers dip during his junior year (he posted just eight sacks after 13.5 in 2010), Jenkins cut 10 pounds to get around 250 and says he's regained the quick first step of his dominant sophomore season. QBs, you've been warned.
Staples: Behind Jenkins, Florida State might really be back
 
Impact Freshman
 
RB
Duke Johnson
2011 stats (high school): 208 CAR, 2,087 YDS, 29 TD
2012 projection: 100 CAR, 600 YDS, 8 TD; 15 RED, 150 YDS, 1 TD
Miami has yet to produce an ACC rookie of the year since joining the conference, but Johnson, a shifty back who ran for more than 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns at Norland (Miami, Fla.) High could change all that. While the Hurricanes return experienced runners in senior Mike James and junior Eduardo Clements, neither is as explosive as Florida's reigning Mr. Football, who should make an immediate impact as a change-of-pace back.
 
Coach On The Hot Seat
 
Frank Spaziani
Last season: 4-8 (3-5 ACC)
Career at Boston College: 20-19 (12-12 ACC)
In Spaziani's three seasons, the Eagles have seen their wins total drop from eight in 2009 to seven in '10 and four in '11, their worst season since 1995 and the first without a bowl invite since '98. They've also gone 0-5 against Top 25 teams during his tenure. Spaziani made major alterations to his staff in anticipation of what looks to be a major-or-break year, including hiring the team's fourth offensive coordinator in two seasons.
 
Three Key Nonconference Games
 
Clemson vs. Auburn
Saturday, Sept. 1
7 p.m. ET, ESPN
This Georgia Dome matchup could be trouble for Clemson, which must face Auburn while Sammy Watkins is suspended. But quarterback Tajh Boyd, running back Andre Ellington and the rest of the Clemson offense will be facing a defense that ranked 81st in the FBS a year ago. Clemson's defense, meanwhile, will look too make a statement after that 37-point pasting against West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
 
Florida at Florida State
Saturday, Nov. 24
TBD
Last year's 18-punt barrage was tough to watch. But Jimbo Fisher is the first Florida State coach to win his first two games in the series, matchups the 'Noles won by a combined 52-14. If Florida State is going to rejoin the game's elite, this could be a sticky matchup one week before the ACC title game. Even if FSU isn't in contention, this game will still be a chance to reaffirm its recent in-state dominance.
 
South Carolina at Clemson
Saturday, Nov. 24
TBD
There'll be plenty of star power in this one, with the Tigers' Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd and the Gamecocks' Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney. Both teams could still be in the BCS title conversation in late November, but the pressure will be on Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who has dropped three straight games against his in-state rivals, all by at least 17 points.
 
Three Key Conference Games
 
Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech
Monday, Sept. 3
8 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Yellow Jackets return all the key pieces from the league's top-ranked rushing attack of 2011, while the Hokies defense could be the best in years behind All-ACC picks corner Kyle Fuller, end James Gayle and linebacker Bruce Taylor. Since the ACC's 2005 expansion, the winner of this matchup has gone on to win the division each season.
 
Clemson at Florida State
Saturday, Sept. 22
TBD
This contest will clarify the Atlantic Division picture and whittle down the league's BCS contenders. It's a clash of the league's top quarterbacks in Tajh Boyd and EJ Manuel, and two top defenses in the Seminoles' vaunted unit and a Tigers' group that figures to be improved under new coordinator Brent Venables.
 
Florida State at Virginia Tech
Thursday, Nov. 8
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Few atmospheres in college football rival Lane Stadium on a Thursday night. This could be a preview of the ACC Championship Game, and the Seminoles will come in rested after a week off. Considering Brandon Jenkins' and FSU's success against the run (82.6 YPG), the Hokies' hopes may come down to quarterback Logan Thomas' ability to stretch a Florida State secondary with limited depth after the dismissal of corner Greg Reid.
 
Five Key Questions
 
How will Florida State handle the expectations of another "Is FSU finally back?" season? The Seminoles rose as high as No. 5 in the AP Poll last season, but ultimately limped to a 2-3 start, including back-to-back losses to the only ranked teams they faced, Oklahoma and Clemson. But the hype returns as Florida State brings back 17 starters, including EJ Manuel and all but one of a defensive front seven that helped the Seminoles end 2011 ranked second against the rush and fourth in total defense and scoring defense. Brandon Jenkins said the Seminoles learned their lesson after last year's early struggles. "I felt like after the first three or four games [last year] we just started playing football and not worrying about the pressure and the expectation of everything," Jenkins said. "We were just taking it back to the childhood days and having fun." We should know where Florida State is mentally after a tough three-week stretch against Clemson (Sept. 22), at South Florida (Sept. 29) and at NC State (Oct. 6).
Seminoles headline SI.com's preseason All-ACC Team
Is Brent Venables the answer to Clemson's defensive troubles? After eight years as Oklahoma's coordinator, Venables is now charged with trying to fix a Tigers unit that was 71st in the FBS in total defense last season and gave up 28 or more points in seven of its last eight games, including 70 to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. Schematically the Tigers won't look much different, as Venables operates out of the same 4-3 base as predecessor Kevin Steele. But coach Dabo Swinney said this system is less complex and more instinct-based. Clemson will be working with a young group, as just four starters return, including only one up front in senior end Malliciah Goodman. Venables' impact will be tested early as the Tigers will have to slow down the offenses of Auburn, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech over the first seven games.
How will Virginia Tech replace David Wilson? A year ago, Wilson set a single-season school rushing record with 1,709 yards. His job will most likely go to redshirt freshman Michael Holmes, a 6-foot, 208-pounder who lacks Wilson's penchant for jaw-dropping plays but may be a reliable compliment to quarterback Logan Thomas. The lack of experience at the position may force Frank Beamer to go with a committee, however, like in 2010 when Wilson, Darren Evans and Ryan Williams teamed for 1,950 yards and 25 TDs. This year, that could include senior Martin Scales, a converted fullback, junior Tony Gregory, true freshmen J.C. Coleman and Trey Edmunds and Chris Mangus. The Hokies have options, but they're unproven. It'll be difficult to replicate Wilson's production, whether Virginia Tech leans on one player or a host of them.
How will Larry Fedora fare in Year 1 at North Carolina? So far everyone's saying all the right things in Chapel Hill as the Tar Heels, who are ineligible for a bowl game due to NCAA sanctions, adapt to their new coach's up-tempo offense and aggressive 4-2-5 defensive scheme. "We really don't worry about the bowl game," quarterback Bryn Renner said. "We're just focused on the 12 games that we have." Renner and running back Giovani Bernard could make some noise in the attack, and North Carolina has a manageable schedule that includes one team that posted a winning 2011 record in the first five games. If motivation doesn't become a problem, the Tar Heels could make a run at nine wins.
Is there a surprise team lurking? There's reason for optimism in Tom O'Brien's sixth season at NC State. The defense features one of the league's top secondaries behind corner David Amerson; quarterback Mike Glennon is coming off a solid first season as a starter with 3,054 yards and 31touchdowns; Mustafa Greene, who hasn't played since the 2010 Champs Sports Bowl, will add depth to a running game that was 109th nationally last season; and the offensive line boasts 112 combined starts, second-most in the FBS. Plus, the Wolfpack avoid Virginia Tech out of the Atlantic. Getting through Clemson or Florida State may be too much, but this has the potential to be O'Brien's best NC State team.
 
ACC Video Preview
Debate: Does the ACC have a national contender?
Source: SI
Andy Staples and Stewart Mandel evaluate the ACC's top teams and discuss Florida State's chances in 2012.
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