ACC Preview: Florida State is the conference favorite despite its recent failures

Mike Huguenin
Yahoo! Sports

There was a time the ACC was Florida State's personal playground. The Seminoles won at least a share of the title in each of their first nine seasons in the conference, including its 1993 and '99 national championship seasons, and in 12 of their first 14 seasons.

But FSU hasn't won the league title since 2005, and though it was a runaway pick to win in 2011, FSU instead finish tied for second in the Atlantic Division. The Seminoles are the runaway pick this season, too, and coach Jimbo Fisher said this team "has a quiet confidence and an urgency."

Fisher said the 2011 team "pressed too hard. I hope we learned from our mistakes. You have to deal with it and move on."

The defense is the main reason for optimism. FSU was fourth nationally in total defense and scoring defense last season, and has the talent to be a top 10 unit again. But like last season, when the Seminoles were just 77th in total offense, they again could have trouble moving the ball because of questions about the line.

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There definitely is anxiety surrounding the program. After playing in a BCS bowl in six of the first eight seasons of the format, including appearances in each of the first three title games, the Seminoles haven't played in a BCS game since the 2005 season. Including that '05 season, FSU has lost at least four games in seven consecutive seasons. The Seminoles have lost 35 games in that span; from 1987-2000, they lost 19.

"We've got to do some things," Fisher said. "I think we can right now."

The top challengers should be defending league champ Clemson, which also is in the Atlantic Division, and Virginia Tech, which has won four of the past five Coastal Division titles, including each of the past two. The Hokies also have won three of the past five league titles and is the only FBS program to win at least 10 games in each of the past eight seasons.

This is the ACC's final season as a 12-team league. Pittsburgh and Syracuse are leaving the Big East and will join the conference next summer.

The order of finish

Atlantic Division: 1. Florida State; 2. Clemson; 3. North Carolina State; 4. Wake Forest; 5. Boston College; 6. Maryland
Coastal Division: 1. Virginia Tech; 2. Georgia Tech; 3. North Carolina; 4. Miami; 5. Virginia; 6. Duke

The players

Best offensive player: Clemson WR Sammy Watkins. Watkins was a five-star recruit who lived up the hype last season. He had 82 receptions for 1,219 yards (14.9 yards per catch) and 12 TDs. He also was effective on wide receiver sweeps and as a kick returner (25.0 yards per return, with a TD). Watkins had 17 touches that covered at least 30 yards and seven that covered at least 50 yards.
Best defensive player: North Carolina State CB David Amerson. Only the most ardent Wolfpack fan knew Amerson before the start of the 2011 season. Now, every college fan should know about him. Amerson had one of the best seasons in NCAA history in '11: He had 13 interceptions (one off the single-season record), more than 77 teams. He took two of those picks back for scores. Amerson also had 55 tackles and five pass breakups.
Offensive player on the spot: Florida State QB E.J. Manuel. If FSU is to break through and become nationally prominent again, Manuel needs to lead the way. Job One will be staying healthy. He has started 17 games but missed seven in the past two seasons. He is a good runner and possesses a strong arm. He threw for 2,666 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. But he has just 24 TDs and 18 picks in his career, and is looking for a strong senior campaign.
Defensive player on the spot: Florida State CB Xavier Rhodes. Though he is coming off a disappointing 2011 season, Rhodes remains a favorite of NFL scouts. He was a freshman All-America selection in 2010 but lost his starting job last season. He had 43 tackles, one interception and four pass breakups last season; he had four picks and 12 breakups in 2010. With fellow starting CB Greg Reid recently dismissed from the team, Rhodes needs to play to the level he attained in 2011 or the back end of FSU's defense could suffer.
Breakout offensive star: North Carolina WR Erik Highsmith. Highsmith, a senior, set career-highs with 51 catches and five TDs last fall. That's when he was the Heels' No. 2 option behind the since-departed Dwight Jones. Highsmith has to make the jump from complementary receiver to go-to guy. He should be a 70-catch, 10-TD guy this fall. One issue, though, is that no other returning UNC wide receiver caught more than 14 passes last season, so Highsmith will be the focal point of opposing defenses. He should thrive anyway.

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Breakout defensive star: Virginia Tech FS Detrick Bonner. Bonner started four times at cornerback as a redshirt freshman last season, including in the Sugar Bowl against Michigan, and made the move to free safety this spring. He is physical and athletic (38-inch vertical jump) and has good instincts, and his coverage abilities from his time at corner should translate well to his new position.
Best offensive newcomer: Miami RB Randy "Duke" Johnson. UM needs playmakers, and Johnson, a touted true freshman who led Miami Norland to a state title last fall, should provide just that. He rushed for 1,957 yards and 29 touchdowns last season, and Lamar Miller's decision to enter the NFL draft after his sophomore season means the Hurricanes are looking for a new starting tailback. Miami's top returning rusher is Mike James, who ran for only 275 yards last season. Johnson has more speed and more big-play potential.
Best defensive newcomer: Miami CB LaDarius Gunter. Gunter is a junior college transfer who enrolled in January and went through spring practice, leading the Hurricanes with seven tackles in the spring game. He has excellent size (6 feet 2/196 pounds) for a corner and possesses both a physical nature and the tools to be a solid man-to-man defender. Also keep an eye on UM true freshman Tracy Howard, a five-star recruit who could end up starting opposite Gunter at corner.

The coaches

Coach on the hottest seat: Boston College's Frank Spaziani. In his three seasons, BCS has gone from eight wins in 2009 to seven in 2010 to four last season. The Eagles have had pitiful offenses under Spaziani, and the passing attack has been an embarrassment. The Eagles have continued to have good defenses, but when you can't score, you don't win. The offense looks iffy again this season.
Best coaching staff: Virginia Tech. Coach Frank Beamer has done a masterful job of making the Hokies into a national power, and staff continuity has helped the Hokies rank eighth in the nation in winning percentage this century. Virginia Tech annually contends for the league title using the same basic plan: strong rushing attack, tough defense, good special teams.
Best offensive coordinator: Clemson's Chad Morris. He worked his magic with the Tigers last season, helping them lead the league in pass offense and rank second in total offense and scoring offense. His version of the spread appeals to recruits. This will be just his third season as a college assistant; he was successful high school coach in Texas when he was named Tulsa's OC in 2010, and moved on to Clemson after that season.
Best defensive coordinator: Virginia Tech's Bud Foster. He is entering his 18th season as the Hokies' coordinator. His defenses annually rank among the nation's best, especially against the run. Tech has ranked outside the top 12 nationally in total defense only once in the past eight seasons.

The schedules

Game of the year: Clemson at Florida State, Sept. 22. This should determine who wins the Atlantic Division championship. Clemson should have the best offense in the league; FSU will have the best defense. Clemson has won four of the past six and six of the past nine in the series.
Toughest schedule: Duke. There are three easy non-conference games at home. But that's it for the good news. The other non-conference matchup is at Stanford. The Blue Devils go on the road to face Florida State, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. And each of the conference home games is difficult: Clemson, Miami, North Carolina and Virginia. Have fun, David Cutcliffe.

[Also: NCAA football countdown: Can No. 3 Alabama repeat as national champs?]

Easiest schedule: North Carolina. There is a tough non-conference test against Big East preseason favorite Louisville. But the other non-conference games aren't tough. The Heels don't play Clemson and Florida State, the best teams in the league. The toughest Coastal Division games are at home (Miami and Virginia Tech). In addition, the Heels end the season with three of their final four games at home.
The 10 best conference games:
10. Florida State at Miami, Oct. 20
9. North Carolina State at North Carolina, Oct. 27
8. Virginia Tech at North Carolina, Oct. 6
7. North Carolina State at Clemson, Nov. 17
6. Georgia Tech at Clemson, Oct. 6
5. Florida State at North Carolina State, Oct. 6
4. Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech, Sept. 3
3. Virginia Tech at Clemson, Oct. 20
2. Florida State at Virginia Tech, Nov. 8
1. Clemson at Florida State, Sept. 22
The 10 best non-conference games:
10. Penn State at Virginia, Sept. 8
9. Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh, Sept. 15
8. Florida State at USF, Sept. 29
7. Miami vs. Notre Dame in Chicago, Oct. 6
6. BYU at Georgia Tech, Oct. 27
5. Georgia Tech at Georgia, Nov. 24
4. Auburn vs. Clemson in Atlanta, Sept. 1
3. North Carolina State vs. Tennessee in Atlanta, Aug. 31
2. Florida at Florida State, Nov. 24
1. South Carolina at Clemson, Nov. 24

The preseason All-ACC team

First team Offense
QB Tajh Boyd, Clemson
RB Gio Bernard, North Carolina
RB Andre Ellington, Clemson
WR Erik Highsmith, North Carolina
WR Conner Vernon, Duke
WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson
T Oday Aboushi, Virginia
T James Hurst, North Carolina
G Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina
G Omoregie Uzzi, Georgia Tech
C Dalton Freeman, Clemson
E Brandon Jenkins, Florida State
T Sylvester Williams, North Carolina
E Bjoern Werner, Florida State
LB Christian Jones, Florida State
LB Denzel Perryman, Miami
LB Kevin Pierre-Louis, Boston College
LB Kevin Reddick, North Carolina
CB David Amerson, NC State
CB Kyle Fuller, Virginia Tech
FS Brandon Bishop, North Carolina State
SS Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State
Special teams
K Dustin Hopkins, Florida State
P Dalton Botts, Miami
KR T.J. Thorpe, North Carolina
PR Jamison Crowder, Duke
Second team
QB Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech
RB Perry Jones, Virginia
RB Orwin Smith, Georgia Tech
WR Michael Campanaro, Wake Forest
WR Rashad Greene, Florida State
WR DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson
T R.J. Mattes, North Carolina State
T Morgan Moses, Virginia
G Zach Allen, North Carolina State
G Will Jackson, Georgia Tech
C Andrew Miller, Virginia Tech
E James Gayle, Virginia Tech
T Kaleb Ramsey, Boston College
E Joe Vellano, Maryland
LB Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech
LB Steve Greer, Virginia
LB Demetrius Hartsfield, Maryland
LB Bruce Taylor, Virginia Tech
CB Merrill Noel, Wake Forest
CB Xavier Rhodes, Florida State
FS Isaiah Johnson, Georgia Tech
SS Earl Wolff, North Carolina State
Special teams
K Casey Barth, North Carolina
P Alex Wulfeck, Wake Forest
KR Sammy Watkins, Clemson
PR Bobby Swigert, Boston College

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