Wednesday, August 23, 2006
2006 PREVIEW, QUICKLY: THE ACC
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Emblematic of the merger-happy, rich-get-richer ethos that drove its acquisition of the Big East's bellweathers, Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College, three years ago, the ACC has instead suffered a surprising bout of mediocrity from consecutive champions with seven combined losses between them at season's end, and not a whiff of a mythical championship appearance. Far from a "super league," its top ten contenders are now regarded as such mainly because the competition just below is in no position to stop them.
Yet SMQ ranks six ACC teams in his top 25, another of his own moves even he considers suspect. Consider it a compliment to one of the deepest, most parity-driven conferences in the country, entering this season with 11 very serious postseason contenders and two very tenuous favorites. This is a truly jumbled bunch; August projections are always consumed with salt granules, but particularly so those below.
UNDERLYING LITERARY THEMES IN THE ACC
Choices and Possibilities - John Bunting has a quarterback with a full season of starting experience - one in which said starter completed half his passes, threw 19 interceptions in 11 games and was run out of town following his team's first losing season in four decades. The other is a redshirt freshman with no experience of any kind. Certainly Bunting has a choice between Joe Dailey, more suited to an offense that can use his running ability than Bill Callahan's fledgling West Coast death trap at Nebraska, and Cam Sexton, a newbie coming off an '05 ankle injury, but the possibilities with either of these young men guiding an attack that averaged under three yards per carry last year are probably fairly limited.
Irony/Man vs. God (God mocks the individual and tortures him or her for presuming to be great) - For four years, Georgia Tech has surprised and confounded, tossed about like Odysseus on Poseidon's seas into seemingly verifying upsets of top teams combined with mysterious lapses against the likes of North Carolina, Wake Forest, NC State and Duke. Chan Gailey enters year five armed with his greatest assortment of "technology" - weapons on the order of Calvin Johnson, all-guns-firing speedsters on an aggressive defense, a fourth-year starter at quarterback, all with experience - with which to challenge the Chan Gailey Equilibrium, the cruel fate first stricken against the his proud Dallas Cowboys and that has now doomed each of his Tech teams to seven wins, no more, no less, as if dictated by the maddening whims of a higher power.
Family Conflict (Son replaces father; sibling rivalry) - In his struggle for independence, to - unlike his less competent, needy brother Jeff - make his own name in the world, Tommy Bowden has beaten father Bobby, patron saint of the genteel, politician-like arechtype of Southern coaching, twice now. But his Clemson teams still have never beaten Florida State: in the long run, where it matters, in the standings, where it's Bobby, winner of 12 of 14 conference championships since his 'Noles first rode into the ACC on their war horses in 1992 - including both seasons his team has fallen to Tommy's Tigers - who has ultimately, cagily prevailed as the league's Godfather. Chased by his middling conference record, watching his father's regime slowly weaken and employing the best defensive personnel of his tenure, Tommy's Oedipal impulses crescendo as his opportunities, in the case of further failure, face running dry.
- - - - -
You want that dadgum hat, Terry, you got to take it, son
Alienation - Duke is a full-fledged member of the league, but, like the brainy, geeky kid who's tossed in lockers, picked last in gym and ruthlessly mocked, they're not a real part of the club. Watch soon for the appropriately-named Devils to don all black uniforms, replace "Hang On, Schloopy" with Skinny Puppy during halftime shows and just not really give a shit about your corporate, conformist "winning" you to fill the abyss in your soul, you know?
SMQ MUST JUSTIFY...
Virginia is a common pick for fifth in the Coastal Division and something like ninth or tenth overall in the league, but SMQ sees the Cavs slipping into another bowl game based on a combination of talent and schedule. Both prospective quarterbacks, for instance, junior Kevin McCabe and senior Notre Dame transfer Christian Olsen, were top 15 recruits at the position, new senior tailback Michael Johnson was top five and D'Brickashaw Ferguson's replacement at left tackle, Eugene Monroe, was the top-ranked offensive line prospect last year, when he played in every game. Marcus Hamilton is apparently one of the best cornerbacks in the country (six picks, seven broken up last year, plus a few tackles and five for loss). UVA also misses Boston College and Clemson from the Atlantic Division, and their schedule sets up a long string of winnable games before a virtually assured three-game losing streak in November. Groh and Co. won't go 9-0 prior to facing Florida State, Miamai and Virginia Tech, but they might win seven.
MOST LIKELY TO PROVE SMQ WRONG
An iffy quarterback situation (Sam Hollenbach threw 15 INTs to 13 touchdowns last year) with no big play potential from the wide outs or backfield - not to mention the graduation of a 5-6 team's two legitimate stars, Vernon Davis and D'Qwell Jackson - has SMQ very, very down on Maryland following its second straight losing season. But with every starting lineman on both sides back and the ability to put together a steady power run-based attack behind big, 900-yard tailback Lance Ball, Ralph Freidgen's play-calling ESP could result in a return to the seven or eight-win plateau. The schedule is no tougher than the ones the overmatched Terps improbably navigated for nine wins a year from 2001-03.
- - - - -
SMQ doubts the Fridge at his own risk
IF ONE THING IN LIFE IS CERTAIN...
Boston College will qualify for another bowl. The Eagles didn't collect enough votes to appear in the preseason BlogPoll, but B.C. got a vote from SMQ, who scoffed at its prospects in its first season in the ACC, only to watch the Eagles win eight for the fifth straight year, and nine for the third time in four. This program has been on a steady upward trend underTom O'Brien, and even if breaking double digits is a leap too far, it is better all-around on paper entering this season than last season, even without Will Blackmon and Matthias Kiwanuka. Always better than expected.
If it screws its head on straight and conquers Nature and Nature's God, the biggest challenge to Miami in the Coastal may actually be the sneaky, veteran Georgia Tech squad, which is in much better position to replace three departed draft picks, rather than the other Tech, which has to replace nine draftees, a number that does not include its entire offensive backfield. On the other side, Boston College and especially Clemson are legit threats to Florida State's universally assumed division title, though both have to play at Tallahassee relatively early in the season, i.e., less chance Clemson will get the benefit of the myriad injuries - like those that destroyed the 'Nole offensive line - that helped it beat Papa Bowden last year. Maryland and NC State may be the reflexive bowl "locks" behind those top three, but the league's biggest middle-of-the-pack sleeper is always-scrappy Wake Forest, which returns in the range of 19 starters.
PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH (SMQ's BlogPoll Ranking)
This is not a power poll...
1. Florida State (#8)
Was 5-0 in '05 before half the starting offensive line went kerplop, and still rebounded from its worst-ever month under Bowden to win the conference title game and give No. 3 Penn State hell in the Orange Bowl. The defense is never in question here (it had 44 sacks last year), so given Drew Weatherford's record-breaking debut and full set of returning skill talent, FSU could be favored in every game, so long as it keeps its big guys healthy.
2. Miami (#11)
Much less of a bad-ass after falling to North Carolina, Clemson and Georgia Tech in a two-year span and getting walloped by 37 points against a backup quarterback in a non-New Year's Day bowl. But SMQ goes back to last year's Virginia Tech game, on the road, as an underdog in the cold, where the defense played flawlessly, lights out, and the offense was in steady back-breaking mode, as the model for how good the 'Canes can possibly be. The offense has some issues, but still too talented to be considered anything other than the class of a somewhat sickly-looking Coastal Division.
3. Clemson (#17)
Clemson's had high expectations before and not handled them very well over the past six years. Provided senior Will Proctor gets some time behind a fully intact offensive line, the defense has a chance to be a strength for a change on a potential double-digit winner.
4. Virginia Tech (#19)
Quarterback and offensive line drop the Hokies, who are also punished for a very puffy non-league schedule and no Florida State in-conference. Top-notch speed at receiver and especially linebacker (go ahead and include heavy-hitting safety Aaron Rouse in there) keep Tech from dropping out of the top 20, but only barely.
5. Boston College (#23)
The strong, silent type, with the right combination of collective backfield talent and offensive line experience to continue its usual run-based, balanced attack. The defense held opponents to 2.6 yards a carry, and would have to collapse totally to make that a bad-looking number this year. Seriously: can win the Atlantic Division.
6. Georgia Tech (#24)
A lot of speed here, an awful lot to like in terms of balance, talent, and experience - on paper. But in reality, the Jackets are stuck on that seven-win thing, and there's Notre Dame and Georgia outside of the conference. Middle-of-the-pack until further notice.
Probably higher here than most guesses would place them, but again, has a good chance to be a part of everyone's top 25 with a few breaks before it hits the brutal triumverate to end the schedule.
8. Wake Forest
SMQ hasn't gone through every lineup to count, but the Deacons could be the nation's most experienced team in terms of returning starters. Everybody is back, with the big exception of Chris Barclay, but his backup, Micah Andrews, ran for 621 on 5.6 yards a carry after putting up 885 as a true freshman in '04. "Everybody" returning, in this case, of course, is not nearly enough to overcome the talent gap with the rest of the league's contenders, but a bottom-rung bowl game is a good likelihood with just a little defensive improvement.
- - - - -
Flying quarterbacks get the benefit of the doubt
9. North Carolina
Benefits from playing three 2005 bowl teams in its out-of-conference schedule, with an opportunity to beat two of them (Rutgers and South Florida). In the league, not likely to be favored at all (except against Duke), but that hasn't stopped Bunting's teams from pulling a random stunner or two out of its hat before. This sort of finish still is probably not enough to keep Bunting's job, but maybe should be, all things considered.
10. NC State
Dreadful offense + three first round draft picks gone from defense = rebuilding year. Again. Until the Wolfpack get more firepower, or another Philip Rivers, they're doomed to "scrappy, wannabe bowl team" status.
A risky move to drop the Terps this far, given the surprises they've pulled out of their, um, shells in the past. But Maryland was only an overtime field goal away from dropping its last five game last year, with a turnover prone quarterback who's since lost his top four weapons from a decent passing game. One of those, Vernon Davis, meant a lot, and so did D'Qwell Jackson on defense. Nothing suggests this is a program on the rise.
12. A Gaping Chasm of Talent and Competitiveness
For accuracy's sake, just to accentuate that Maryland, or any other of the above teams, doesn't deserve to be associated with...
Nice guys and all, SMQ supposes, smart, but not so good at the football. Might put a scare into one of the weaker teams, but no legitimate chance to compete.
- - - - -
11 days until UM...