Ah, yes, the perennially perplexing Atlantic Coast Conference.
Take a moment to breath in the fresh air, then dive right into the nation’s most difficult league to predict. There are any number of possible title contenders in terms of the ACC crown. This year’s edition has a couple of national title contenders as well.
But the norm in the ACC is to produce surprising and confusing results.
Look at Week 1 of 2011: Wake Forest, which finished 5-3 in conference play and 6- 7 overall (go figure) lost to Syracuse (Syracuse?!). Duke dropped its game to an FCS program. A week later, Virginia Tech escapes with a 17-10 road win against East Carolina and Clemson needs two second-half touchdowns to win at home against Wofford.
There was Georgia Tech, which began 2011 with six consecutive wins before losing back-to-back head scratchers at Virginia and Miami. Then, in the go-figure department, comes home and registers a 14-point win over No. 5 Clemson, only to lose at home by 11 to No. 10 Virginia Tech.
Florida State opened with two blowout wins, then lost three straight games to No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 21 Clemson and unranked Wake Forest. What did the Seminoles do to follow up that stretch? Finish the regular season 6-1 and defeat Notre Dame, 18- 14, in the Champs Sports Bowl.
That’s only a small sample of the wild, wacky and downright confusing ACC. So, who will emerge from both divisions in 2012? Here are my predictions.
This is definitely Florida State’s division to lose. The Noles open the year No. 7 in the country and are the most talented team in the ACC. E.J. Manuel leads a high-powered offense and the defense has held eight straight opponents to 19 points or fewer.
No. 14 Clemson could give FSU a run, but there could be a hangover from last season. The Tigers finished the regular season with three losses over their final five games, then were blown out by West Virginia, 70-33, in the No Defense Bowl – er, the Orange Bowl. (That came after they started the season 8-0, with consecutive wins over No. 21 Auburn, No. 11 FSU and on the road against No. 11 VT).
Tajh Boyd and Andre Ellington are as talented a QB-RB duo as there is in college football, but they’ll have to work their magic in Tallahassee if they want to top FSU.
NC State received five first-place votes in the conference’s preseason media poll, but it seems unlikely they’ll contend with the division’s top two teams. Wake Forest, Boston College and Maryland make up the clear third tier of this division, but watch out for the Terrapins to make some noise. That’s not to say they’ll challenge the conference’s elite teams, but they open with three less-than-stellar opponents before traveling on the road to face Jekyll and Hyde West Virginia. The Mountaineers open the season at No. 11, but they’re a difficult team to figure out. Randy Edsall will have his team ready.
Much like the Atlantic, the Coastal is a two-horse race. No. 16 Virginia Tech is certainly the favorite, but unranked Georgia Tech is a capable team. And, what do you know, the two are slated for a Labor Day matchup in Blacksburg, Va.
Frank Beamer seems to have the Hokies in the conference and national title discussions at the beginning of every season. But recent history isn’t on their side. VT dropped its conference home opener in 2011, a 23-3 loss to No. 13 Clemson that ended a 4-0 start to the year. In 2010, the Hokies lost their home opener to third- ranked Boise State. In fact, VT has dropped its home opener or home conference opener in four consecutive years.
Georgia Tech, meanwhile, is as confusing a team as there is in the ACC – partly because of its triple-option offense. As mentioned earlier, the Yellow Jackets started the year 6-0 before imploding in the second half. This year, GT opens with VT before playing four straight home games, two against conference foes. That all leads up to an Oct. 6 road showdown with Clemson. Georgia Tech will play only one other game against a team ranked in the preseason Top 25: a final-week game in Athens against No. 6 Georgia.
The other four Coastal Division teams – North Carolina, Virginia, Miami and Duke – don’t have the firepower to hang near the top. The Cavaliers did finish tied with Georgia Tech in both conference play and overall, but that was mainly due to the latter’s stumble toward the finish line. It would be surprising to see any of these four teams finish above .500 in conference play this season.
What does all this mean? This is Georgia Tech’s year to win the division and play for the conference championship.
So, like many other years, the ACC looks like a fairly simple league to figure out: two contenders in each division, a legitimate national title threat, maybe a second. But let’s not forget: This is the ACC. Anything can – and will – happen. Good luck figuring out this conference in 2012.
Who do you think will win the ACC? Let us know in the comments!