Overview: In recent years, the ACC has been a solid conference, but maligned nationally because it rarely has a team in contention for the BCS Championship. Two-time defending champion Virginia Tech is looking to make a mark on the nationally scene in 2009 with a tough non-conference schedule, but they will likely end up simply fighting for another ACC title. Once dominant Florida State is starting to show signs of life again, but anything short of a league title is considered a bad year in Tallahassee. Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Clemson and North Carolina State are all solid teams that will battle it out each week.
Who’s Hot?: All eyes nationally are on Virginia Tech, but it could be Georgia Tech who emerges in the Coastal Division. In their second season under head coach Paul Johnson, the Yellow Jackets return 17 starters from a team that was 9-4 in 2008. Led by Jonathan Dwyer, Georgia Tech ranked among the best running teams in the nation a year ago, but will look to be more balanced this season. Defense was a strength last season, but the loss of three draft picks will hurt the unit this season. In their third season under head coach Butch Davis North Carolina could also emerge as a challenger to the Hokies. North Carolina was 8-5 last season and has a lot of talented players returning, especially on defense.
Who Will Struggle?: With only 11 starters returning from a squad that was 8-5 a year ago, it could be a tough task for the Maryland Terrapins to return to a bowl game. Maryland does have some talented returning skill position players, including running back Da’Rel Scott(1,133 rushing yards in 2008), but they return only two starters on the offensive line. The defense returns only four starters after allowing 22.5 points per game a year ago. Following the bizarre dismissal of head coach Jeff Jagodzinski at the end of last season, it is highly unlikely that the Eagles will make a return trip to the ACC Championship Game. Sophomore Dominique Davis is the projected starter at quarterback, but he has not yet shown the ability to be a solid signal caller. The defense returns seven starters, but must replace first round draft pick B.J. Raji.
Team To Watch: The once proud University of Miami has lost some of its swagger in recent years. However, in their third season under head coach Randy Shannon, this could be the year they at least return to the upper echelon of the ACC. The opening schedule does them no favors with the first four games against teams ranked in the top 25, including a road game at Florida State on Labor Day. Sophomore quarterback Jacory Harris showed some promise a year ago and will be looked to develop into the team leader. The defense is young with seven freshmen or sophomore projected as starters, but there is a lot of talent on the field.
Offensive Players To Watch: The season ending knee injury suffered by Virginia Tech running back Darren Evans will be a challenge for the Hokies to overcome. However, junior quarterback Tyrod Taylor is an exciting player and is a threat both running and throwing the ball. As long as Riley Skinner is in the game, Wake Forest has a chance to win. He is a tough player and is the most accurate passer in ACC history having completed 67.3 percent of his passes. There is much excitement at Florida State over junior quarterback Christian Ponder, but he must be more consistent if the Seminoles hope to return to the top of the league. C.J. Spiller from Clemson is a versatile player who can change a game running the ball or returning kicks.
Defensive Players To Watch: Senior Mark Herzlich from Boston College is rated as one of the best linebackers in college football. Virginia Tech can always be counted on to produce top defensive talent and Jason Worilds and Stephan Virgil are leaders of a talented unit. Alex Wujciak and Adrian Moten are solid linebackers for the Terrapins.
Key Games: Virginia Tech will learn right away of they are indeed a national championship contender as they face the University of Alabama on September 5. North Carolina State is looking to emerge this season and will open the season September 3rd by hosting South Carolina. The biggest conference game of the season could be October 17 when Georgia Tech hosts Virginia Tech.
Predictions: There is no question that Virginia Tech is a strong team and Frank Beamer has built a tremendous program. However, the preseason loss of Darren Evans puts the Hokies on the defensive from the very start and with such a tough schedule it could be hard for them to live up to their preseason #7 ranking. Look for North Carolina to emerge from the Coastal Division and face Florida State in the ACC Championship Game.