FOOTBALL PREVIEW: No shortage of chances for ACC to improve image

By Joedy McCreary/The Associated Press

The Atlantic Coast Conference’s reputation has taken plenty of hits since it expanded to 12 teams. The league certainly has plenty of chances this year to shut those critics up.

A conference best known for its basketball can prove it belongs among college football’s big boys with a few victories in a lineup of early intersectional games that could go a long way toward reshaping its battered perception.

“There’s pride in your school, pride in your league and pride in your fraternity of (coaches),” Boston College’s Frank Spaziani said. “It’s a tough league, and I don’t think we hold a back seat to anybody.”

They’ll have several chances to prove that, all in the first month of the season: North Carolina opens with LSU, and two nights later, Virginia Tech plays Boise State. Miami visits Ohio State. Virginia travels to Southern California. Clemson is at Auburn. Florida State takes on Oklahoma.

Even Duke has the chance to pull an upset for the ages when it plays host to defending national champion Alabama.

If it pulls out a few victories in there, the ACC can strengthen its claim that football is much more than just something to pass the time until hoops season tips off.

A series of lopsided losses, though, would represent another blow to the image of a conference that has a 2-10 record in BCS games — the worst mark among the six leagues with automatic access to those glitzy bowls — and has won only one big-money bowl game since adding Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004 and BC in ’05.

“I don’t think we’ve fallen behind” the Southeastern Conference, Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “I’m going to be real blunt: I don’t think we’ve ever been ahead of the SEC or even with them, to this point. I think it’s in reverse — I think the ACC is moving upward in that model. The SEC has an older football tradition, a little stronger fan bases. I think you close the gap, you get into intense fan bases, intense growth in the interest in your sport. I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

It might help the league’s image that several of its expected marquee players this season are on the offensive side of the ball. While the ACC’s dominating force could well be a North Carolina defense packed with NFL talent, the offenses boast playmakers such as Ryan Williams and Tyrod Taylor of Virginia Tech, Miami’s Jacory Harris, and preseason player of the year Christian Ponder of Florida State.

“I’m high on ours, but there are a lot of deserving players on that list,” Hokies coach Frank Beamer said.

A capsule look at teams in predicted order of finish:

Coastal Division

VIRGINIA TECH — Key players: QB Tyrod Taylor, RB Ryan Williams, WRs Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin, DT John Graves. Returning starters: 8 offense, 5 defense.

Notes: Virginia Tech and Texas the only teams with at least 10 wins in each of last six seasons. … Traditionally stout Tech defense must find replacements for six starters, including LB Cody Grimm and DE Jason Worilds.

NORTH CAROLINA — Key players: QB T.J. Yates, DL Marvin Austin, LBs Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter, S Deunta Williams. Returning starters: 10 offense, 9 defense.

Notes: Tar Heels have an ACC-best 21 returning starters, including both specialists. … They return the bulk of the ACC’s top defense in 2009, but season could hinge on how well they handle the distraction of an NCAA probe into whether two players had improper contact with agents. … North Carolina looking for third straight bowl berth, which hasn’t happened since Tar Heels went bowling every year from 1993-98.

MIAMI — Key players: QB Jacory Harris, WR Leonard Hankerson, DE Allen Bailey, CB Brandon Harris. Returning starters: 6 offense, 8 defense.

Notes: Hurricanes hope to regain RB Graig Cooper, coming off a major knee injury from Champs Sports Bowl loss to Wisconsin. … K Matt Bosher is the nation’s most accurate returning kicker, hitting 32 of 36 field goals and 90 consecutive extra-points.

GEORGIA TECH — Key players: QB Josh Nesbitt, RBs Anthony Allen and Roddy Jones, LB Brad Jefferson. Returning starters: 6 offense, 8 defense.

Notes: Defending ACC champs are looking for replacements for their leading rusher (Jonathan Dwyer) and receiver (Demaryius Thomas). … Nesbitt is 692 yards shy of Woody Dantzler’s league record for yards rushing by a quarterback. … Yellow Jackets have last three ACC coaches of the year on their staff — head coach Paul Johnson won it in 2008 and ’09, and new defensive coordinator Al Groh was the 2007 honoree at Virginia.

DUKE — Key players: WRs Donovan Varner and Conner Vernon, CB Chris Rwabukamba. Returning starters: 9 offense, 6 defense.

Notes: Three returning Blue Devils had at least 50 receptions last year, giving new QB Sean Renfree several options as he gets comfortable replacing four-year starter Thad Lewis. … Duke’s five wins last year were its most since 1994. … Blue Devils haven’t won a game in November since 2004.

VIRGINIA — Key players: QB Marc Verica, WR Kris Burd, DB Ras-I Dowling. Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense.

Notes: New coach Mike London served two stints as an assistant coach in Charlottesville. … Cavaliers’ last-place finish in 2009 was their first since the ACC split into divisions in ’05. … Verica threw for 2,000 yards as the starter in 2008 but played behind Jameel Sewell last year.

Atlantic Division

FLORIDA STATE — Key players: QB Christian Ponder, OG Rodney Hudson, LB Nigel Bradham. Returning starters: 10 offense, 6 defense.

Notes: New coach Jimbo Fisher looking to lead Seminoles to NCAA-best 29th straight bowl appearance. … Ponder averaged nearly 322 total yards in his nine starts last season. … Florida State must replace three starters from a secondary that ranked 11th in ACC in passing yards allowed.

BOSTON COLLEGE — Key players: RB Montel Harris, LBs Mark Herzlich and Luke Kuechly. Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense.

Notes: Harris is on pace to break Derrick Knight’s school career rushing record this season. He’s 1,368 yards shy of the mark of 3,725 and has averaged nearly 1,200 in his first two seasons at BC. … Herzlich, the ACC’s defensive player of the year in 2008, returns after missing last season to fight a rare form of cancer. … Eagles looking for their 12th straight bowl trip.

CLEMSON — Key players: QB Kyle Parker, RBs Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper, DT Jarvis Jenkins. Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense.

Notes: Ellington and Harper have one of college football’s toughest jobs: replacing do-everything threat C.J. Spiller, the 2009 ACC offensive player of the year. … It helps that the Tigers return four offensive line starters. … Parker, the Colorado Rockies’ first-round draft pick, is the only player in Division I history to throw 20 touchdown passes and hit 20 home runs in the same academic year.

N.C. STATE — Key players: QB Russell Wilson, WRs Jarvis Williams and Owen Spencer, LB Nate Irving. Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense.

Notes: Wolfpack have two of the league’s top receivers, with Spencer averaging a FBS-best 25.5 yards per catch and Williams leading the ACC with 11 touchdown receptions. … The Rockies also drafted Wilson, who spent the summer playing minor-league ball. … N.C. State must find some stability in the secondary, which was a revolving door last season in allowing opponents to complete nearly 63 percent of their passes.

WAKE FOREST — Key players: RB Josh Adams, WR Marshall Williams, CB Kenny Okoro. Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense.

Notes: Demon Deacons hope they’ve found a replacement for four-year starter Riley Skinner in Skylar Jones, who is considered more of a running threat. … Five of Wake Forest’s seven losses were by a combined 13 points, while two wins came by a touchdown or less.

MARYLAND — Key players: WR Torrey Smith, RB Da’Rel Scott, LB Alex Wujciak. Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense.

Notes: Scott looking to regain his form after finishing with just 425 yards rushing during an injury-plagued junior season. … Terps’ one ACC victory in 2009 was their fewest since they were 1-7 in the league in 1998. … Projected QB Jamarr Robinson made two starts in Chris Turner’s absence last season.

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