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ACC Week: Certainty and Doubt in the Atlantic Division

Boston College
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We Know: The offense is still an indistinct but consistent, serious, responsible, tax-paying, filter-changing mash of pro-style generics, two backs and shifting and a play-action-based passing game and all that, reinforced by the very NFL-ish flavor* of new hires Jeff Jagodzinski (Packers offensive coordinator) and Steve Logan, best known as the unheralded maestro of actual winners at East Carolina in the nineties but most recently of the late, great NFL Europa. His playcalling had nothing to do with the league's folding, we're sure.

Also: DeJuan Tribble can tackle, and the defense can score. Tribble had three touchdowns last year his own self.

We Think: Matt Ryan is a viable championship quarterback. Ten wins and a spot at the front of the all-ACC team have planted this notion deep into our collective [part of brain that controls memory], though nothing has nurtured it like the hazy recollection of Riley Skinner guiding a team to last year's title. Like Skinner, Ryan possibly has no talent, as it would seem, or, just as plausibly, due to his size, is a future first round draft pick, according to reliable scouts close to Kirk Herbstreit before a Thursday night game last year. Either way, the kid is tough, and that's all we really care about. Just keep getting up.

We Have No Clue: How a team built on the stability responsible for its consistently upward arc - 7, 8, 9, 8, 9, 9 and 10 wins this decade, including a December bowl win in each case - will handle the transition from the coach responsible for that arc to a guy no one outside the NFL's Ambitious Assistant listserv has ever heard of. This was not such a smashing formula in the cases of Al Groh, John Bunting and the more familiar Dave Wannstedt under similar circumstances (not mention Ron Zook), but I still think BC's veteran lineup is stable enough to compete for the division, especially because nothing changes defensively.

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We Know: C.J. Spiller is fast. If Reggie Bush is the first player to earn a perfect 100 acceleration rating on Madden, Spiller should get the same courtesy from NCAA on proof of that screen pass against Georgia Tech alone. And he's not even really the starter.

We Think: The new quarterback is going to suck. This is based on projections that he is either a) an athletic but probably bewildered true freshman (Willy Korn) or b) a fourth-year junior who's been stuck behind Will Proctor and Charlie Whitehurst (Cullen Harper). Actually, after Proctor's last six games, a reincarnation of senior Whitehurst by a first-year starter would be met with some enthusiasm.

I used to think Clemson was a pretty cool label, until it signed Korn.
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We Have No Clue: Whether Tommy Bowden hangs with the spread or tightens things up to emphasize his super hero backs. The offense ran like gangbusters through the first half of the season, averaging 5.6 per carry in five ACC games, climaxing with a lot of heavier, two tight end sets in the romp against Georgia Tech; before it played Virginia Tech, Clemson ran for 300 yards in four of its preceding five games, and for 214 against the eventual conference champion in the fifth. The Tigers were 7-1 at that point and in the top ten; from V-Tech on, passing slowly increased, scoring and first downs began to dip, and they finished 1-4. The long-term commitment to the running game, and the ability of Harper and/or Korn to make it a viable commitment, is uncertain.

Florida State
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We Know:  The defense will terrify young children. And quarterbacks, young and old. And once again the silicone-sprouting seeds of optimism are sowed in the FSU student section, hurrah. The usual. Despite perception to the contrary, the defense has slightly improved each of the last two seaons, and re-teaming Mickey Andrews and old/new linebackers coach Chuck Amato with eight returning starters, and a couple new starting linebackers with "PS#7" and "PS#9" by their names, is akin to cruel and unusual punishment for offenses.

Also: Greg Carr is appealingly tall - maybe too tall, too tantilizing, if Jeff Bowden's affinity for the lazy lob in Carr's general direction is an indication. And De'Cody Fagg returns. Heh.

We Think: It would be really great if Xavier Lee beat out Drew Weatherford for the starting job, if only because it opens the possibility of the Rodriguez spread accompanying O-line coach Rick Trickett from West Virginia, and the world can't get enough of a well-oiled option scheme. Ture, Jimbo Fisher doesn't really roll like that - his quarterbacks at LSU were all proto pocket guys, a la Weatherford, who make good ball fakes and mind their footwork and that sort of thing (except JaMarcus Russell, who could heave a ball 73 yards hopping one foot). But we've seen a great deal of Weatherford, and we're not impressed.

We Have No Clue: Whether it will be Weatherford or Lee, or whether or not this is relevant. It seems relevant, given the presumed chasm in the nature of their respective skill sets, but it never made a difference with Bowden calling the shots. The real difference, something else we don't know, will be whether the re-commitment to the run will stick.

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We Know: For an offense that's really hit the skids the last three years, the receivers can stretch a defense. Darrius Heyward-Bey looks like he can be one of the breed of outstanding, rangy (he's only 6-2, but has the lithe, long-armed body of a small forward), go-up-and-get-it leapers, but he's still fast enough to haul in 65 and 96-yard touchdown catches in the same game against Miami. Here he is burning Purdue in the bowl game. Danny Oquendo on the other side is, well, he's on the track team, so although he only averaged about 11 yards per catch, he presumably can go. So you, defensive coordinator, might be considering the cover two about now.

We Think: The quarterback will be better. Or a better fit, at least, than immobile Sam Hollenbach and Joel Statham have been the last three years. Shaun Hill and Scott McBrien, who were not at all great passers but made good decision and could run the option, led offenses that averaged more than 31 points each of Ralph Friedgen's first three years here, but Statham and Hollenbach's more pocket-bound contributions topped out at 24.5 in `05. Jordan Steffy and Florida refugee Josh Portis are better athletes and could unlock Friedgen's previous genius.

We Have No Clue: What to make of this team. Maryland is such an incredible question mark: the Terps were bad - actually bad, outgained in eleven straight games - but won nine games for the fourth time in six years under Friedgen. Phil Steele teaches us to never trust the kind of team that wins six games by six points or less, or that relies on a plus-eight turnover margin in its non I-AA wins, but rebel against final record-worship at your own risk. More on this later.

NC State
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We Know:  The Wolfpack have two big, positively hunky juniors, Toney Baker (6-0, 232) and Andre Brown (5-10, 225) who were top ten running back recruits and have methodically slogged their way to 2,500 yards in two years.

We Think: New coordinator Dana Bible - late of the bran-infused B.C. attack - will fix whatever hitch in the playcalling mechanism led NC State to skew passward with ex-walk-on Daniel Evans and a group of receivers led by a tight end with one career touchdown catch. Evans threw nine interceptions to one touchdown in his last seven starts (all defeats) while heaving up, at various times, 37, 35, 53 and 41 passes in games eventually decided by one score. The Pack passed more often than it handed off six times last year, but it was never better off for it.

Evans: Passin' fool. Probably not his fault.
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We Have No Clue: How Tom O'Brien's stoicism will mesh with players recruited by the fiery, raspy Amato, or, more importantly, whether Evans has enough physically for the new coach's lauded motivational/disciplinary side to matter.

Wake Forest
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We Know: The defense will be more generous without Jon Abbate, Josh Gattis, leading pass rusher Jyles Tucker and both (very solid) starting corners. There's a good chance it would be more generous with last year's lynchpins, as it was plus-thirteen in turnover margin and allowed about eleven fewer points per game than Jim Grobe's first four Wake defenses, which doesn't fall under the umbrella of sustainability.

We Think: The offense will be better with actual running backs at its disposal. That the Deacons managed to cobble some quasi-coherent junk together and call it a running game after the top eight or nine or however many backs were injured was one of the minor miracles of last season, but they are welcoming Micah Andrews' healthy return with roses and parades. (But not, the lawers wish to add, an actual parade of roses; that would be presumptuous and a possible copyright violation. The flowers and revelry are all separate)

We Have No Clue: How a team that still seems physically outmanned in every conference game (except Duke, which almost won last year's 14-13 thriller with Wake) might successfully defend its title. We're not really sure how it won it to begin with - I watched every snap of the ACC championship and I can't really account for it. Rightly, for a team outgained in game after game, nobody seems to think they'll be any better than fourth place.

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*- Like delicious Kentucky Fried Chicken, smothered in a refreshing Coors marinade and sauteed by Peyton Manning over a simmering pit of money