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ACC Week: Certainty and Doubt in the Coastal Division

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Duke
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We Know:  Duke sucks. It's Duke. The Devils haven't won an ACC game in two years; they're 3-53 since 2000. The only coach here with the slightest success since the Korean War was Steve Spurrier.

We Think: The offense will be more competitive. Duke was shut out in three of its first four games - once to a I-AA team - and didn't crack 20 until mid-October, but freshman QB Thaddeus Lewis improved and the Devils made leaps running the ball over the last month.

We Have No Clue: Why this team allows itself to get abused year after year in this conference. Well, we have some clue (it begins with 'K'), but the Devils are in a pattern now that includes almost as many winless ACC seasons (7) since its last bowl game in 1994 than actual ACC wins (9), and its average attendance (19,580, officially) is less than half that of nine of the league's other eleven teams. Villanova and St. John's and Providence play basketball in the Big East with no pretense to big time football; can't the Blue Devils join the Colonial or the MEAC in one sport? Think Temple and its lovely, fitting new gridiron home in the MAC. If they're worried about the reaction from North Carolina, it's not like UNC's so hot in football, either (see below).


Thaddeus Lewis, in the early stages of his tragic descent into the Duke quarterbacking gulag. Remember him while you still can.
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This will not happen. I'm just saying: Duke is bad. Hopelessly bad, on a much different level than Vanderbilt or Indiana or any other school in a BCS conference and all but a handful anywhere.

Georgia Tech
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We Know: Jon Tenuta is a blitzin' fool who can bury a young quarterback and thrive off his mistake-laden flesh. Philip Wheeler is the rare linebacker who generates a real pass rush from the middle (9 sacks last year, 13.5 in two years), partly because linemen can't be sure when he's coming, and partly because he's too fast to touch when he does.

Also: Tashard Choice can handle 25 carries a game, and make them count.

We Think: Taylor Bennett will represent an upgrade from Reggie Ball. He certainly did in the Gator Bowl, and can continue on this track by merely completing a majority of passes, something Ball failed to do the last three years. Searching for Ball's virtue, there really is none - save his sporadic scrambling ability, an element Tech is more than willing to trade for Bennett's arm, we're sure - but why did young Taylor sit behind him for so long? Is he going to throw two interceptions every week, or what? He'd have to to turn out a net loss at the position.

We Have No Clue: Whether a steadier passing hand will offset the departure of Calvin Johnson. It will reduce the impossible sideline acrobatics we know and love, but only by reducing the demand for that level of exertion from the new wideouts, if Tech is lukcy. Consistent, systematic execution will outpace occasional drama in the big picture, but aside from James Johnson, everyone in the passing game is awfully young for much consistency.

Miami
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We Know: The defense is still a fast, aggressive group built around the assault capabilities of its front seven - UM was seventh in the country against the run (no team averaged more than 3.3 per carry; only Virginia managed 100 yards) and led the ACC in sacks. Calais Campbell is unanimously considered the pass rusher par excellence in the conference, and in some cases the nation.

We Think: Javarris James is a chiseled, McGahee-like star in waiting. Or should J.J. only be compared to his more famous cousin? Anyway, despite his late-season fade, James had great games as the emerging chairman of UM's backfield committee against Houston, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Maryland and just looks the part of the undisputed threat the Canes have severely missed the last two years.


James: Should look familiar.
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We Have No Clue: Who will emerge as the starting quarterback, or how the influence of new OC Patrick Nix will steady his/their attempts to save face after last year's disaster; not promisingly, the evidence of Nix's rehabilitation skills is Reggie Ball, who never improved with Nix as his position coach or offensive coordinator. Kyle Wright and Kirby Freeman both have better physical skills than Ball, on top of some experience, and need only turn into efficient, interception-averse managers (15 combined picks last year) to complement the defense.

North Carolina
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We Know: There's no legitimate reason to think UNC is close to being good. Butch Davis brings optimism with him, for good reason, but this offense has averaged a measly 18 points two years running and the defense last year allowed 521 yards in the only game it won (Furman) prior to John Bunting's termination. The grasps at respectability (9-7 in-conference over 2004-05) were illusions in a sustained period of decay.

We Think: The Heels might be best off taking their lumps as a young team with an eye to competing over the next three-four years. Davis' first recruiting class was great, and its potential stars - DTs Marvin Austin and Tydeke Powell, QB Mike Paulus, RB Ryan Houston, WRs Greg Little and Dwight Jones - will be in a position to play immediately. Based on the incoming hype of Bunting's last few classes, the highest-rated talent on the returning roster is young, too, notably sophomore receiver Hakeem Nicks. His big-play ability was about all that was notable about last year's Heels, generally, so the patient plan dictates dumping the rest of those zeroes and installing some (hopefully) future heroes.

We Have No Clue: How UNC plans to function at quarterback if Paulus isn't ready to handle the position, and by "ready," I mean "capable of enduring a learn-as-you-go pounding under the concept of delayed gratification." Because the position did not function at all last year with the grim revolving masochism of Joe Dailey and Cam Sexton, not even a little, so much so that Dailey is playing a different position and Sexton is looking up at redshirt freshman T.J. Yates. How bad was Yates in practice, though, that a lame duck administration opted to keep him on the bench rather than take a stab at alleviating the on-field horror show? If Paulus shows any promise, he should get his chance.

Virginia
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We Know: Al Groh's continued employment depends on UVA getting back into a bowl, at least, and maybe something better than the Humanitarian or Emerald out west, to thoroughly cleanse the program of the lingering taste of 2006, the year Groh's early recruiting karma officially dried up amid losses to Western Michigan and East Carolina and an o-fer against teams (Georgia Tech, Maryland, Virginia Tech) with a winning record in the league.

We Think: Jameel Sewell will complete a few passes outside of the flat. He may still be most comfortable throwing from the bootleg, but Sewell was the worst starter in the ACC as a freshman in terms of yards per attempt, yards per completion and touchdowns, and only one of Virginia's top seven receivers averaged double digit yards per catch (Kevin Ogletree returns as the big play man at a whopping 11.2, placing him somewhere around 27th in the conference). Phil Steele points out the longest pass after five games was 20 yards. But Sewell didn't put the ball at risk - only six interceptions - and has the size (6-3, 220) and athleticism to be a much better quarterback with experience.


In Jameel's defense, he couldn't really step into it.
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We Have No Clue: If Cedric Peerman is the answer at running back, or its corollary, if experience will facilitate improvement in an intact but undistinguished offensive line. Like every team in the ACC, Virginia was terrible when in tried to run last year, and outside of a three-game tear by converted fullback Jason Snelling in October, the Cavs had virtually no success moving on the ground, only adding to Sewell's woes. Peerman's yards per carry matched the team's: 3.3. Not so good, but there are no other immediately appealing options.

Virginia Tech
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We Know: The defense will completely and totally rock in the macro, based on the highly scientific conflagration of awesome stat jobs since Tech moved into the ACC - best nationally in total and scoring defense last year, first and second in 2005, fourth and second in 2004, and best in the conference by both measures all three years - and the umpteenth return of Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi, linebackers to whom I'm willing to attribute a wildly disproportionate level of responsibility for those numbers in return for their pledge of peace. Mad love for the secondary (second in pass efficiency D and intact to the fourth corner), unless "mad love" has a covert, subversive meaning that escapes me.

We Think: The running game will improve toward the mean. Brandon Ore peaked with 200-yard games against Southern Miss and Clemson at midseason, but he struggled in the losses to Boston College and Georgia Tech was largely an instrument of keep-away in a 29-carry slog at Miami. He wasn't particularly missed against Wake or Virginia, because of the defense, but over the season, 113 per game and 3.2 per carry are huge departures from the norm here, which recently has been more in the neighborhood

We Have No Clue: If Sean Glennon will be a significantly better - that is, a championship level - quarterback as a junior. Glennon hung on to the job throughout an atrocious five-game cloud that encompassed the entire month of October, remitted for his best game at Wake Forest and a serviceable effort against Virginia, and descended again in the bowl game. Expectations of competency accompany the proverbial maturity/year in the offense, but also the assumption Glennon can't really be much worse than he was against North Carolina (66 yards), Boston College (2 INT), Southern Miss (4 of 11), Miami (5-19, 1 INT) and Georgia (96 yards, 3 INT); the offense was typically best when he did the least (Clemson, Wake, Virginia), but he returns with the receivers, with (probably) the running game, with the incumbent's mandate to succeed. The half-long funks have to end.