In predicted order of finish:
2007 record: 9-4, 5-3 ACC
Returning starters: Offense 7, Defense 8
Quarterback?: Yes. Senior Cullen Harper (27 TDs, 6 INTs)
Avoid in the ACC: UNC, Virginia Tech, Miami
Coaching situation: Tommy Bowden has won 62 percent of his games (69-42) in nine seasons at Clemson but he has yet to deliver an ACC title or BCS bowl bid, despite having the talent to do so in 2006 and 2007.
If Clemson doesn't win the ACC this year, as the heavy favorite in a weak league, Bowden might never and he might not get another chance. That seems like hyperbole but that's life at the ACC's only true pressure-cooker of a program.
Spring issues: In quarterback Cullen Harper, running back James Davis (1,064 rushing yards), running back C.J. Spiller (768 rushing yards), receiver Jacoby Ford and receiver Aaron Kelly (88 catches, 1,081 receiving yards), the Tigers have the best playmakers in the ACC by a wide margin and as good as a set of returning skill players as any team north of Gainesville.
The mystery is who'll do the blocking. Center Thomas Austin is the only returning starter from the offensive line.
Not that Spiller, Ford or Davis, who entered the draft and then changed his mind, need much more than a screen block to get loose. The Tigers scored a school-record 430 points in 2007 and that number is in jeopardy if the offensive line situation can be settled before the Aug. 30 kickoff vs. Alabama.
The early departure of end Philip Merling (second-round pick) does give Bowden pause but end Ricky Sapp, a future first-round pick, and safety Michael Hamlin lead a group of eight starters on a unit which ranked 10th in the country in scoring defense (18.7 points per game) and ninth in total defense (306.8 yards per game).
Fall outlook: Bowden would really have to screw it up to not win the ACC. The league is being served on a platter to the Tigers, who have only two potential pitfalls on the schedule — Thursday night (Oct. 9) at Wake Forest and at Florida State (Nov. 8).
Clemson would have to try, I mean actually throw games, to finish worse than 6-2 in the ACC.There isn't another team in the ACC that can keep up with Clemson's offense.
One of Clemson's problems has been padding their stats against lesser nonconference teams and then slowing down against the ACC.That won't be a problem because their nonconference schedule presents the bigger challenge with two SEC tests — the opener vs. Alabama, an SEC West favorite, and the closer against South Carolina.
How Clemson handles the two SEC teams will go a long way in determining how the rest of the world views the ACC.
Knowing Bowden and Clemson's post-FSU history in the ACC, they'll invent a way to screw it up but it's going to have to be spectacular and beyond the realm of Bowden's imagination.
2. WAKE FOREST
2007 record: 9-4, 5-3 ACC
Returning starters: Offense 5, Defense 9
Quarterback?: Yes. Riley Skinner (12 TDs, 13 INTs)
Avoid in the ACC: Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, UNC
Coaching situation: Jim Grobe's 46-39 in seven seasons at Wake. After going 20-7 in the past two seasons, and winning the ACC title in 2006, Grobe decided to stay at Wake, despite multiple offers to leave, notably from Arkansas last December. He has given every reason to believe he's a lifer.
Spring issues: The offensive line, a staple of Grobe's success in Winston-Salem, needs three new starters. The most important missing piece is All-American center Steve Justice (sixth-round pick). Trey Bailey, a fourth-year junior, gets the task of replacing Justice.
The left side of the line is new, too, which means even though quarterback Riley Skinner and leading rusher Josh Adams (953 yards, 11 TDs) are back, there will be an adjustment on offense, notably in the passing game.
Wake's quarterbacks completed 279 total passes, more than a third (98) went to the departed Kenny Moore (fifth-round pick). Sophomore Jordan Williams showed big-play potential in 2007, particularly against N.C. State with a 62-yard touchdown catch, but everyone is going to have to fill void on the short-range and intermediate routes.
While there are key pieces missing on offense, there aren few on a defense that returns nine starters, including senior corner Alphonso Smith, who led the ACC with eight interceptions, or special teams, where do-everything kicker/punter Sam Swank returns for his ninth season of college football.
What is new on defense is coordinator, where linebackers coach Brad Lambert succeeds Dean Hood, who left to take over at Eastern Kentucky.
Fall outlook: Let's state the obvious here: Jim Grobe is the best coach in the ACC, by a wide margin, and one of the 10 best in the country. It's impossible to overstate his ability to find players, develop them over a five-year period and prepare them on a weekly basis.
A testament to Grobe's ability — other than taking Wake to consecutive bowl games for the first time in the school's history — is in a 12-team league, Wake ranked sixth in total offense (93rd nationally) and sixth in total defense (27th nationally). Yet, the Deacs won nine of their final 11 games.
No. 1: They force turnovers. Only three teams in the country finished with more takeaways (35) in 2007.
No. 2: They have great special teams (see Swank, who was better '06 but still good in '07)
No. 3: They know how to win close games. Part of that is controlling the ball on offense, especially late in the game, and the Deacs ranked second in the country in time of possession.
No. 4: They're opportunistic. Wake scored eight defensive touchdowns and two more on special teams. Those are "free" points and the difference between 10-point losses and three-point wins.
Now, you need talent to create big plays, which Wake has, but you can't count on them as a regular part of the game plan. And as Phil Steele argues, with the aid of statistics, turnovers have a way of leveling out from year-to-year.
Even without an inordinate amount of "free" plays, and a new offensive line, the Deacs will be good enough to win at least eight games. If not for Clemson, they could play in the ACC title game.
3. FLORIDA STATE
2007 record: 7-6, 4-4 ACC
Returning starters: Offense 7, Defense 7
Quarterback?: Yes. Drew Weatherford (9 TDs, 3 INTs)
Avoid in the ACC: Duke, UNC, UVa
Coaching situation: Bobby Bowden enters his 33rd season at FSU as the all-time winningest coach in I-A history (373 wins in 42 total seasons) but with pressure to recapture the program's form from the 1990s. At 78, Bowden won't be fired but he might be asked to resign if the Noles post a third straight 7-6 season.
Second-year offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher has been designated Bowden's successor, the head-coach-in-waiting.
"I'm on a one-year basis now," Bowden said. "I'm still the head football coach, nothing has changed there. As I've looked at the end of my career, you wonder how you're going to retire. It has been a relief for me."
Spring issues: FSU almost didn't have enough bodies for the Music City Bowl after 36 players were suspended in a university-wide academic fraud scandal.
There are seven starters who will miss the first three games because of the academic suspension. Backup quarterback Xaiver Lee and defensive tackle Letroy Guion left school early to avoid further punishment from the scandal.
Linebacker Geno Hayes had other legal issues and also decided to leave the program after his junior season.After spring practice, the Noles lost starters WR Preston Parker (drug, weapons arrest), LB Marcus Bell (transfer) and OT Daron Rose (academics). Parker will return to the team after serving a two-game suspension.
That's a ton of personnel problems, especially for a program that has gone 13-12 in the past two seasons.
Of course, FSU is one of the few programs with the overall talent to sustain suspensions and early departures and still win seven, eight or nine games, depending on the improvement of quarterback Drew Weatherford — who's no longer looking over his shoulder at Lee — and an offensive line that has been the downfall of the once-proud program.
The Noles ranked 91st in the country in rushing offense (127 yards per game) and 90th in scoring (23 points per game). If you would have told an ACC coach in 1997 that FSU would sport those averages 10 years later, he would have laughed.
Fall outlook: The suspensions hurt, duh, but this might be the easiest nonconference schedule Bobby Bowden has ever played. The first two games are against I-AA teams.
In the ACC there are no breaks. For the first time since they joined the league, the Noles don't play Duke. They also miss UVa in what should be a down year for the Cavaliers. They did pick up Virginia Tech on the division crossover.
All the talk at FSU last year was on the new assistant coaches, five in all. This should be the year they start to see some of the dividends from those changes, especially with Fisher's offense.
"I'll be very disappointed if it doesn't," Bowden said. "The kids didn't the coaches. The coaches didn't know the boys. We put in a new offense. They didn't know that offense. It was a lot different this year."
2007 record: 6-7, 3-5 ACC
Returning starters: Offense 9, Defense 5
Quarterback?: Yes. Chris Turner (7 TDs, 7 INTs)
Avoid in the ACC: Duke, Georgia Tech, Miami
Coaching situation: Ralph Friedgen starts his eighth season at his alma mater (56-31) with a new offensive coordinator, James Franklin. Fridge had called the plays and held the OC title himself for the past two years.
Not everyone in the fan base is enamored of The Fridge, but he's still another losing season, probably two, away from being in serious jeopardy of losing his job.
Spring issues: With four starters back on a good offensive line, three above-average options at quarterback and the ACC's best receiver, the Terps are in solid shape on offense.Who'll take the snaps — Turner, Jordan Steffy or Josh Portis — and how different Franklin's offense is from Fridge's are concerns but minor compared to most of Maryland's ACC brethren.
Running back could be a problem, Keon Lattimore and Lance Ball are gone, but Da'Rel Scott has better speed than either.In Darrius Heyward-Bey (51 catches) and Isaiah Williams, there's no shortage of receiving talent. It's just of question of getting the ball to them and taking chances downfield.
Defensively, there are more starting holes to fill, but there's enough experience returning from a unit that ranked 24th in the country in scoring defense to improve on last season's 6-7 record.
Fall outlook: The offensive line was in shambles for much of the second half of the season yet the Terps still found a way to win six games and get to a bowl.They had to beat a good Boston College team, 42-35, in College Park and then embarrass N.C. State, 37-0, in the season-finale to get to Emerald Bowl, where they lost, but they did it.
This team should be better. Other than Cal, who travels cross-country in Week 3, there are no challenges on the nonconference schedule.
In the league, they travel to the two best teams, which means they get their coin-toss games at home, which is good. Depending on how bad Virginia and Boston College are, they could find as many as eight wins.
5. N.C. STATE
2007 record: 5-7, 3-5 ACC
Returning starters: Offense 6, Defense 4
Quarterback?: Maybe. Daniel Evans (12 TDs, 13 INTs), Harrison Beck (2 TDs, 9 INTs)
Avoid in the ACC: Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, UVa
Coaching situation: Tom O'Brien couldn't be much safer in his second season in Raleigh, even with a 37-0 loss to Maryland in the season-finale with a bowl berth on the line.
Spring issues: The popular question is who will be the quarterback, but the real question is who will play defense? There are only four returning starters, which actually might not be a bad thing considering State ranked 91st nationally in run defense, allowing more than 186 rushing yards per game, and 66th in total defense.
The Pack breaks in a new set of linebackers and safeties. Sophomore outside linebacker Nate Irving will make a lot plays and so will freshman Dwayne Maddox, who has the potential to be a four-year starter.
As for quarterback, Daniel Evans started the 2007 opener but was replaced by Harrison Beck, who started the next four games. Then Beck hurt his shoulder and Evans started the final seven games, winning four.
Neither was overwhelming, leaving the starting spot up in the air for the spring with Beck, Justin Burke and redshirt freshman Russell Wilson jockeying for position. Evans, who has the most experience, missed the spring recovering from surgery on his shoulder, which would help explain his performance against Maryland in the finale.
Freshman Mike Glennon, rated as the fifth-best quarterback in his high school class, will also be given a chance when practice begins in August.
Last year, O'Brien didn't announce his starter until the Monday before the opener. There's no reason to think this QB race couldn't go the same way this season. Of course, Evans was benched before halftime of the opener, so even if O'Brien makes a decision, it can change at anytime.
Evans, Beck and Burke are the knowns, while Wilson, undersized at 5-11 but with a live arm, is the wild card of the group. With an increased number of reps during spring practice, Wilson impressed the coaching staff with his talent and ability to make plays.
Fall outlook: The team, and offense in particular, will be better in its second season under O'Brien.The running game, which ranked 110th nationally and only ahead of Duke in the ACC, should improve dramatically with the healthy return of backs Toney Baker and Andre Brown, not to mention tight end Anthony Hill, the team's best blocker.
After Brown's injury against FSU in the sixth game, Jamelle Eugene was responsible for the entire running game, when State ran — the Pack attempted at least 40 passes in each of the final six games.
Just as the 2007 team improved from the start of the season to the end, this one will get better as it understands what O'Brien wants. But the final record may not show just how much progress State makes. The Pack could be better and win five games again, or maybe six, but no more than seven.
The reason? This is the oddest schedule State has played in the past 15 years.There are seven home games, including four straight, and two of the road games are in the Triangle (at UNC and at Duke), but other than William & Mary, there are no breaks, and that includes the date with Duke, whose series with State defies logic.
The three I-A nonconference games are South Carolina, ECU and South Florida.In the conference, the Atlantic is stronger than the Coastal, which is a bad break because even though the Pack picked up Duke, it doesn't get a shot at rebuilding teams like Georgia Tech or Virginia.
There's no such thing as a perfect schedule, but given where State is as a program, this one doesn't leave much room for error.
There will be emotional games with ECU, Boston College, UNC, Duke and Wake. South Carolina and South Florida will open the season ranked in the Top 25 and then there are trips to Clemson and Maryland, two teams that beat State by a combined score of 79-20 last season.
That all adds up to a quest to add up to six wins by the last Saturday of November.
6. BOSTON COLLEGE
2007 record: 11-3, 6-2 (Atlantic Division champs)
Returning starters: Offense 6, Defense 6
Quarterback?: No. Matt Ryan was the third overall pick (Atlanta) in the NFL Draft
Avoid in the ACC: UVa, Duke, Miami
Coaching situation: Jeff Jagodzinski enters Year 2 but really he's starting over without Ryan, the ACC Player of the Year. The cupboard is not completely bare but the real world, and work, begins for Jags.
Spring issues: If Steve Logan can do anything, it's find and coach-up a quarterback and the Eagles' offensive coordinator has had a year to work with senior Chris Crane, who'll likely start ahead of juco transfer Codi Boek or redshirt freshmen Dominique Davis and Chris Johnson.
Obviously, Crane won't be able to duplicate Ryan's numbers — 4,507 passing yards and 31 touchdowns — nor will he have his grasp of the offense but if Logan's track record is any indicator, he'll be competent.
Crane has good size at 6-4, 240 and he's from a good town for a quarterback — Mechanicsburg, Pa. — but little experience for a senior. He threw four passes in 2007, which, given the number of blowouts BC enjoyed last season, is low and should raise flags about the coaching staff's intentions for Crane. He did start a game in 2006, as a sophomore, completing 17 of 26 passes in a 41-0 win over a pathetic, Duke-like Buffalo program.
BC, albeit a different coaching staff, has had luck going the juco route before in finding Paul Peterson, a two-year starter from 2003 to 2004. Boek, 6-3 and 220 pounds, began his college career at Idaho State, which doesn't inspire a lot of confidence.
The Eagles are counting on freshman Josh Haden, a January enrollee, to assume the running back responsibilities of the departed Andre Callender and L.V. Whitworth, who combined for 302 of the team's 335 carries by running backs. Callender also led the team with 76 receptions.
Defensively, the Eagles lost senior playmakers safety Jamie Silva (eight interceptions), corner DeJuan Tribble and linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar. That trio was as important to BC's 11-win season as Ryan.
The Eagles lost another expected starter at the end of April, when defensive end Brady Smith was kicked off the team for an on-campus sexual assault charge.
The good news is senior linebacker Brian Toal, who missed last season with a medical redshirt (shoulder), returns as does defensive tackle B.J. Raji, who was academically ineligible. That gives the Eagles a boost of leadership and talent but they will be hard-pressed to produce as many takeaways (33) as last year's defense.
Fall outlook: Motivation will be Jags' best friend. The Eagles, division champs a year ago, will likely be picked to finish last in the Atlantic. Disrespect can go a long way for a team, especially for a program that has been as successful as BC, which has won eight straight bowl games.
Even a fired-up Eagles team will be hard-pressed to win six games and get to a bowl to continue their impressive streak. The schedule starts soft with a neutral site game against Kent State (at Cleveland) and then three home games — a rebuilding Georgia Tech, a rebuilding Central Florida and I-AA Rhode Island. They should start no worse than 3-1. Then business picks up.
The Eagles will be underdogs in six of their final eight games (they'll be favored at home against Maryland and Notre Dame). They get both conference favorites — Clemson and Virginia Tech — at home but both teams will be looking to repay 2007 regular-season defeats.
The Eagles have to travel to N.C. State, UNC, Florida State and Wake — all coin-toss games. You'd rather have your coin-toss games at home and sure-losses (Clemson in particular) on the road.
With a new quarterback, new running back, the same mediocre receivers and new defensive leaders, BC will be lucky to prove the preseason prognosticators wrong.