ACC spring football primer: Burning questions for each team
It finally happened. The ACC took its great leap forward. The league boasts the defending national champion in Florida State and an additional BCS bowl winner in Clemson. The conference still has a long way to go -- the SEC remains worlds ahead in recruiting and the Pac-12 appears deeper from top to bottom -- but commissioner John Swofford's game of realignment Risk seems to be paying dividends.
With Pittsburgh and Syracuse fully acclimated and Louisville now in the fold (not to mention Maryland's departure for the Big Ten), the ACC looks far different today than it did a few years ago. It's almost completely unrecognizable from the league that the Seminoles joined back in 1991.
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.
OK, so maybe Bob Dylan doesn't care about sports. But with the weather a-changin' as well, here are the burning questions for each ACC team this spring.
• Boston College: What are the expectations in year two under Steve Addazio?
Expectations were low in Chestnut Hill last year. That's not a knock on Addazio, but an indictment of just how bad things were toward the end of former coach Frank Spaziani's tenure. The Eagles bottomed out at 2-10 in Spaziani's final season in 2012, and Addazio was left to pick up the pieces. His approach -- heavy on fundamentals, light on flash -- netted him a Heisman Trophy finalist in Andre Williams and a seven-win campaign, with an appearance in the Independence Bowl. With both Williams and quarterback Chase Rettig gone, this spring is the time to see what some of the "dudes" Addazio brought in on the recruiting trail can do.
The Tigers put one narrative to rest with last season's Orange Bowl triumph over Ohio State, but one big specter remains in their way -- and in their own division, no less. Clemson isn't paying big money to coach Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris to be content with where the program is now. It has its sights set on a national championship. Still, to reach Florida State's level, the Tigers must replace a lot of production. The defense is almost there; it ranked 12th in S&P+ ratings last fall, and defensive end Vic Beasley returns. Morris' reputation for innovation suggests that scoring won't be a problem for the offense in 2014 ... but without quarterback Boyd and wide receivers Watkins and Martavis Bryant, who (or what) is next?
• Duke: Can the Blue Devils avoid a letdown?
Among last season's biggest and most pleasant surprises was Duke's run to the ACC title game. While coach David Cutcliffe might have seen it coming, no one else did, and anyone who suggests otherwise is lying. Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has left to help clean up the mess at Florida, but his departure shouldn't slow the Blue Devils. Quarterbacks Brandon Connette and Anthony Boone formed a dynamic one-two punch last year, and Connette threw for two scores in Duke's spring game. (Yes, it has already been played.) Shaquille Powell turned in a solid effort as well, running hard and sprinting free for a 36-yard touchdown. Powell will be counted on to step up with leading rusher Jela Duncan academically ineligible until at least the spring of 2015.
• Florida State: How will the Seminoles reload after several key departures?
Florida State knows that every team in the ACC will be gunning for them. The question is: Does it matter? Heisman winner Jameis Winston, who is also playing baseball, will look to build off his incredible success as a redshirt freshman. The Seminoles must replace a ton of defensive talent (Timmy Jernigan, Lamarcus Joyner and Christion Jones, among others), but they faced a similar challenge last year and went on to win a sparkly new crystal trophy. With blue-chip recruits all over the roster, and more on the way, the 'Noles are (finally) back. Following some turnover, including the loss of defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, can they keep improving?
• Georgia Tech: Can the Yellow Jackets raise their ceiling?
It's safe to say that the Georgia Tech faithful aren't exactly thrilled with how things have been going of late. One fan's final wish, mentioned in his obituary, was to see coach Paul Johnson fired. The Yellow Jackets have won an average of seven games in each of the past four seasons, but bowl eligibility is no longer cutting it. In fact, they've lost three of their last four bowl games (with the lone victory coming in the 2012 Sun Bowl against a USC squad that had pretty much given up). While the triple-option remains effective, the defense under Ted Roof has left much to be desired. This spring will offer an opportunity for Tech to begin to build an ACC contender.
• Louisville: How will the Cardinals adapt to change in their first year in the ACC?
Louisville sat on top of the world entering the 2013 campaign: a Heisman candidate at quarterback; a head coach who had won 25 games over three years and was fresh off a Sugar Bowl beatdown of Florida; and a move to the ACC only a few months away. What a difference a year makes. Before this spring, Teddy Bridgewater left for the NFL draft, Charlie Strong bolted to Texas and many of the Cardinals' top recruits scattered to programs across the nation. New (and former) coach Bobby Petrino faces a major adjustment. Louisville might be a bit shell-shocked now, but there's no time to feel sick. The learning curve will be steep.
• Miami: Are the Hurricanes ready to become a consistent Top 25 team again?
With Miami finally out from under the NCAA's microscope, coach Al Golden and company can focus on football this spring without fearing the destruction of everything they've built. This also means excuses are gone; it's time to put it all together and make a run. Tailback Duke Johnson will miss spring practice while recovering from an ankle injury, but that could provide opportunities for other young skill players to gain experience. In 2013, the Hurricanes dropped four of their last six games. Over the next few weeks, look for them to take the first steps toward staying strong for a full year.
• North Carolina: Can the Tar Heels pick up where they left off?
North Carolina was a trendy pick to win the ACC Coastal Division heading into last season. Then the Tar Heels limped to a 1-5 start. However, North Carolina won six of its last seven games, including the Belk Bowl against Cincinnati, and will look to carry that momentum into the spring. Keep an eye on the continued emergence of quarterback Marquise Williams and wide receiver Quinshad Davis. Davis should become the Tar Heels' go-to target following the departure of tight end Eric Ebron to the NFL draft.
• NC State: Are the Wolfpack ready to start turning things around?
If you weren't paying attention last year, you might have missed just how awful NC State really was. It went 3-9, with the three wins coming against Louisiana Tech, Richmond and Central Michigan. The Wolfpack lost eight ACC games by an average of 17 points. However, coach Dave Doeren's crew endured a hospital wing's worth of injuries. Entering spring practice in his second season at the helm, he can begin to build a foundation. Tops on that list: Integrating quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who should assume the starting role after transferring to Raleigh from Florida.
• Pittsburgh: Can the Panthers establish an identity?
It must be tough to be a Pitt fan. The stadium is a rental. Coaching change has been the dominant storyline for a long time. The BBVA Compass Bowl became a rite of passage. Add joining a new conference into the mix, and the past few seasons seem downright unfair. To coach Paul Chryst's credit, he's done a pretty admirable job. His staff underwent more change this winter, and now Chryst will oversee the quarterbacks, most notably Chad Voytik as he seeks to fill the role vacated by Tom Savage. The Panthers were last a 10-win team in 2009 under Dave Wannstedt. If they hope to get back to that point, they need to figure out exactly who they want to be this spring.
• Syracuse: What is Terrel Hunt's true potential?
It can be difficult to gauge whether bowl performances are truly indicative of a player's future prospects. But if Hunt can continue to play the way he did in the Orange's 21-17 Texas Bowl win over Minnesota, when he accounted for 262 total yards (188 passing, 74 rushing) and two touchdowns, he may be set to make a jump in his redshirt junior campaign. Few expected Syracuse to go 4-4 in conference play in coach Scott Shafer's debut season. Moving forward, 'Cuse might fit into the ACC football landscape far better than anyone anticipated.
• Virginia: Will the Cavaliers' star recruits help save Mike London's job?
Ignore the fact that the Wahoos somehow beat BYU on Aug. 31 in one of last year's more inexplicable results. Virginia subsequently dropped 10 of its next 11 games, including blowout losses of 59-10 to both Oregon and Clemson. Landing several big-time recruits could help London turn things around. Five-star defensive tackle Andrew Brown from Chesapeake, Va., enrolled early and should vie for a starting spot. Touted safety Quin Blanding and wide receiver Jamil Kamara should also contribute when they arrive on campus in the fall.
For all the complaining about Thomas' inconsistency under center, he was a three-year starter who was incredibly durable. He was never an elite passer, and his decision-making was certainly spotty, but the Hokies could pretty much anticipate what they were going to get from him most of the time. With Thomas out of the picture, the unknown is equal parts exciting and frightening. Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer is on his way, and he'll be eligible this fall. There were a few voices clamoring for Mark Leal, who will be a senior, as well. If Tech can establish a solid option at quarterback, an ACC Coastal Division title isn't out of the question. That's how consistently great coordinator Bud Foster's defense is.
• Wake Forest: How empty was the cupboard Jim Grobe left behind?
It's no secret that the coach was fading by the end of his tenure at Wake Forest. In his final press conference, he mentioned how the Demon Deacons needed new energy. The school's failures to recruit ACC-caliber players over the past few seasons were evident, and that's why new coach Dave Clawson's commitment to bringing in talent must be a refreshing change for Wake fans. This spring, Clawson will look to sift through the rubble and build a foundation. If he can do that, the Demon Deacons could have a bright future ahead of them.