ACC Football Primed to Bounce Back in 2012


The future once looked so bright for the Atlantic Coast Conference. Rewind to 1999, just the second season of the Bowl Championship Series. Florida State marched to the national championship with one of the strongest top-to-bottom rosters in program history, and Georgia Tech quarterback Joe Hamilton finished second in Heisman voting after an incredible individual season. He was one of three ACC players to finish in the top 10, along with Virginia running back Thomas Jones and FSU wide receiver Peter Warrick.

That season, future ACC members Virginia Tech and Miami finished in the top 15, Tech reaching the BCS title game. The U. was on the brink of beginning a four-year run of BCS berths. Their inclusion just a few years later would seem like the formula for a top flight football conference.

Placing three in the top 10 of Heisman voting? Forget about it; this year, the conference had zero. Miami went on a steady decline since its ACC arrival. FSU is still on a road filled with potholes and roadblacks back to the nation’s top tier. Va. Tech has been consistent: consistent in winning double digit games, but losing in the postseason.

Much has been made recently of the ACC’s gridiron woes. The conference just announced a lucrative new television contract that some believe isn’t lucrative enough. Another league is wooing its marquee football member, per Seminole great and Board of Trustees member Derrick Brooks. And on the field, the conference has drawn derision for a lackluster 2-13 overall BCS record.

The conference could use some good news, and it just may come this autumn. Winning cures all ills, so they say, and the ACC finally could be on a collectively victorious path.

Said path begins in Miami, scene of the conference’s last game. It was an ugly one, with league champion Clemson sustaining a #BEATEMDOWN against West Virginia. An Orange Bowl that included 70 points surrendered to Dana Holgorsen’s Mountaineers may seem an odd prologue for a great season, but consider it the Luke Skywalker Loses His Hand, Han Solo Frozen in Carbonite Empire Strikes Back necessary for Return of the Jedi triumph.

Clemson should come bouncing back, with Dabo Swinney returning a pair of Heisman candidates in quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver/return man Sammy Watkins. Solidifying the defense will be an obvious concern after the Orange Bowl, and Swinney responded with the hiring of Brent Venables. The Venables hire was one of the more eyebrow raising stories from the winter, because here was an ACC program landing a top assistant from a national powerhouse. Though circumstances in Oklahoma facilitated Venables’ departure, it has to be seen as a coup for Swinney.

Venables does have pieces with which to work, too. The stellar recruiting class Swinney inked in 2011 includes pieces on defense that should emerge into vital contributors, like defensive end Corey Crawford and linebacker Stephone Anthony.

And while the Tigers’ Orange Bowl rout and Virgina Tech’s offensively anemic Sugar Bowl showing were the ACC’s headline events, the conference fared well elsewhere during bowl season.

Take the presumptive league favorite, FSU. The Seminoles exhibited why they are a top rated defense, stifling Notre Dame in a CHAMPS Sports Bowl victory. Defensive coordinator Mark Stoops returns to oversee another defense that should rank in the top 10 across multiple categories.

Pundits and fans alike have awaited FSU’s reemergence as a national powerhouse, and “this could be the year” is becoming a redundant, meaningless term. But…this could be the year. EJ Manuel is back for his senior campaign. Assuming he remains healthy, the Seminole offense should pack a more substantial punch to supplement that impressive defense.

Virginia Tech will factor into the conference title race, as it does every season. Expect a typically stout defense from Frank Beamer’s Hokies, but also be prepared for plenty of wow momens on the offensive end. Quarterback Logan Thomas is dually explosive, capable of drawing comparisons to Cam Newton.

The conference’s three frontrunners are well known, but its the next step down that makes this an intriguing campaign in the ACC. NC State’s strong finish to 2011 bodes well for Tom O’Brien and the Wolfpack. NCSU is a team on my radar as a dark horse contender, returning one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC (Mike Glennon) and the nation’s best defensive back (David Amerson). That duo headlines an experienced group coming off a Belk Bowl victory.

Georgia Tech is another team that intrigues me. The Yellow Jackets cooled after a hot start, ultimately dropping their Sun Bowl affair to a Utah team on an opposite trajectory from them. Tech’s slow finish has forced Paul Johnson to reevaluate some things, including quarterback. Tevin Washington had his share of struggles last season, which opened the door for Vlad Lee. The redshirt freshman was impressive in spring workouts, and at the very least gives Johnson and Co. options (no pun intended).

The mystery most fascinating in Tech’s offense is Orwin Smith. He showed the most explosion in leading Tech with an astounding 10.1 yards per carry. His speed was exhibited in a record setting, 95-yard touchdown rush against Kansas.

Yet, Smith had just 61 carries all season, deferring to Washington and David Sims. How prominent Smith’s role becomes in the Tech offense is an interesting storyline to follow.

The ACC will get two opportunities to score major victories immediately. The SEC comes calling, with Tennessee drawing NC State in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff, and Clemson-Auburn renewing their rivalry. A 2-0 start against the nation’s premiere conference would be a great starting point.