Five Questions Facing the ACC in 2011

Previously, we looked at the SEC, the Big Ten, the Pac 12 and the Big 12. Now, we look at the ACC. The projected super conference fizzled with the fortunes of Florida State and Miami. Steady Virginia Tech has not made noise outside the conference. Clemson has been…well…Clemson. There are a few plausible candidates to make this conference relevant next year, though none of them is a sure thing.

Can Florida State Contend for a BCS Title? Jimbo Fisher assumed control from Bobby Bowden last season and Florida State won 10 games for the first time since 2003. With better luck and a healthy Christian Ponder, that could have been 12 or even 13. The Seminoles return 16 starters from that team, eight on each side of the ball. They have a ton of talent behind them with consecutive top-five recruiting classes.

E.J. Manuel is technically a new starter, though he got significant experience last year. He also has a strong running game and every receiver coming back.

The Seminoles should be Orange Bowl favorites, but will have to earn their way beyond that with non-conference games against Oklahoma (home) and Florida (away).

Can Al Golden Bring Miami Back? The Hurricanes haven’t been the storm the ACC expected. Miami has not won a title since joining the conference in 2004. They haven’t even reached the title game. The school has awful fan support, funding and facilities. It has tradition but also the ludicrous expectations that come with it. Miami’s real strength is home-field advantage in one of the nation’s most fertile recruiting grounds. How he competes there will determine his long-term success.

The good news for 2011 is Golden can compete immediately. Randy Shannon recruited well. He left the program in a stable position. His flaw was game day coaching and not being able to win. Miami was just a seven-win team last year, but had the pieces to be far more competitive than they were. The fabled 2008 recruiting class are now seniors. Miami returns four offensive line starters and a top-flight back in Lamar Miller. It’s a big if, but if the Hurricanes receive even adequate quarterback play from either Jacory Harris or Stephen Morris this team should win games.

Will Clemson pull a Clemson? The Tigers seem mired in a perpetual cycle of hope and disappointment. They entered last season with hype, went toe toe with eventual title winners Auburn, but crashed and burned much of the way to finish with a 6-7 record. Dabo Swinney has ramped up the hype again with a strong recruiting class, but if he can’t reach expectations this season, it may be former Clemson offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez who raises them up in 2012.

Clemson has had a Top 20 defense every year under Swinney, but they need productivity on the other side of the ball. Four offensive line starters and all the skill players return, though sophomore quarterback Tajh Boyd is a significant question mark, especially in a new system. First-year coordinator Chad Morris was a high-school coach in Texas, who put up huge numbers in his one season as Tulsa’ coordinator last year. Tiger fans will hope Morris is the next Malzahn and Swinney will give him the autonomy not given to previous coordinators.

The Tigers have a capable team, but the schedule works against them. They have non-conference games against Auburn and South Carolina. Their first two conference games are against Florida State and Virginia Tech. This team could be swirling after three-straight losses by October 1st.

How will Randy Edsall fare at Maryland? Maryland wanted to revitalize its football program, yet it cut off flirtation with Mike Leach to hire steady Randy Edsall, valued more for his floor than his ceiling. Edsall turned Connecticut from a I-AA program into a decent, AQ conference team. What’s known is whether he can recruit and coach well enough to turn a decent program into a perennial Top 25 one. Edsall will have a better recruiting base and better resources than he did at UConn, but he will also face stiffer competition.

The defense should be solid. They return seven starters from a Top 20 group last year. Edsall emphasizes that side of the ball. Todd Bradford ran respectable units at Southern Miss. The offense could be interesting as well. Gary Crowton was maligned the last two years at LSU, though he had no quarterback. He’s known for creative play-calling (even if it led to short-side options). He has material to work with in freshman All-American quarterback Danny O’Brien.

The team will need to start hot for success though. They face Miami, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Florida State and Boston College in their first five conference games. They also play Notre Dame and West Virginia non-conference. A rough patch early in the conference season could leave the scrambling to make a bowl game.

What Happens to Georgia Tech? The Yellow Jackets followed 2009’s 11-win ACC title campaign with a 6-7 record and their third-straight bowl loss under Paul Johnson. Even that six-win total was boosted against stalwarts such as South Carolina State and Middle Tennessee State. They were one of the three in 3-9 Kansas. The worrisome stat? They ran the ball better than they did in 2009.

Tech could be in worse trouble this year. They lose eleven starters, most notably quarterback Joshua Nesbitt. His presumptive replacement, Tevin Washington went 1-4 as a starter. The Yellow Jackets have never passed often running Johnson’s Triple Option, but without a Demaryius Thomas-type deep threat or even a marginally credible arm at quarterback, they have no way to keep defenses honest and stretch the field.

Georgia Tech will put a lot of strain on their defense, a unit replacing six starters, including all four in the secondary. They do bring back five of their front seven from last year, but that 3-4 yielded just 17 sacks.

[Photo via Getty]

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