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ACC Week: Binding Picks, Atlantic Division

1. Florida State
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Ambitions: FSU's endured basically six miserable years of atrophy since Mark Richt and Chuck Amato each bolted in a two-year span, and still won the ACC three times in the last five years, so the talent remains on a championship level and the expectations with the new offensive staff and Amato back to reunite the terrible defensive twosome with Mickey Andrews are to be back in the BCS, pronto. Last year left everyone way too skittish to say "mythical championship," including me, but this year is a step towards being back in that tier in `08.

Turn-Ons: A serious re-commitment to balance with the hire of Jimbo Fisher and the hands-on guy to make it work on the ground, Rick Trickett ... Greg Carr's ability to get up over any corner for a jump ball, like he's pulling down a rebound ... The back seven on defense: young (only one senior starter, safety Roger Williams) but major VHTs across the board with a lot of playing time already ... More specifically, Myron Rolle, imminent all-American and renaissance man.

Turnoffs: Potential quarterback shuffling for all the wrong reasons - super secret insiders tell me it's definitely Weatherford for his third year, but you got two, you really got none, etc. ... No recent history of running successfully; quite the opposite, actually ... Pass rush dipped dramatically: who is the ever-present Boulwarian bringer of doom on quarterbacks? Maybe Alex Boston, but not yet.

Hangups: The warm feelings of juggernauts past can dissipate very, very quickly in the Labor Day opener with Clemson ... Colorado and Alabama are less worrisome at the front of the schedule than Florida at the end, but the season turns on the four-game stretch that includes Miami, at Boston College and at Virginia Tech (and, uh, Duke, whom you may disregard for now): two wins in those three, assuming all goes well against the rest of the conference, and the Atlantic title is virtually assured.

Justifiy Thyself: The rest of this division, honestly, looks like you could put it in a bag, shake it around, pull teams out at random and it would all make sense, but FSU is the one team that looks like it's ahead of the 2-6 peloton. I base this almost exclusively on existing talent responding to the staff overhaul: if the Fisher/Trickett transplant is rejected by the offense, the lingering, one-dimensional cancer of the Bowden/Rix years may be declared terminable.

2. Clemson
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If only their speed was as infectious as their enthusiasm...sounds like a project for the biology department, actually.
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Ambitions: Clemson still has yet to win double-digit games under Tommy Bowden and skidded off a tailor-made road to the division championship by losing four of its last five, but not enough returns personnel-wise (read:quarterback) to make any ultimatums. The Tigers expect to compete for the Atlantic, certainly, but Bowden probably has nothing to worry about unless the conference record dips below .500, a line he's managed to skirt again and again.

Turn-Ons: Oh, C.J., C.J. Spiller, juke that `backer yes! ... On the other hand, he may not be the hot young thing, but at the end of the day, it's still James Davis bringing home the bacon ... Suturing the loss of Gaines Adams with uber-VHT Ricky Sapp and `05 standout Tramaine Billie returning at linebacker to an otherwise intact front seven that gave up 2.9 per carry.

Turnoffs: More quarterback trouble (get used to this); be it Cullen Harper or (less likely) incoming Willy Korn, he's barely played. We saw how well that worked last year with Will Proctor ... The departure of three-fifths of last year's outstanding offensive line, just as much the stars of the rushing renaissance as Davis and Spiller ... Two new sophomore corners=issues, though I'm not sure any quarterback in this league is prepared to fully exploit them.

Hangups: FSU can effectively cut the Tigers out of the championship picture before it even begins to develop ... Clemson needs to come out of the N.C. State-Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech stretch beginning in late September at least 2-2 in the conference or face a tightware act throughout November  just to qualfy for a middling bowl game.

Justify Thyself: I'm higher on Davis and Spiller as individuals than any other offensive player in the ACC, and they can take the team far in a defense-dominated, mistake-accentuating league if the line and quarterback are merely competent; things got rough last year when Proctor's interceptions went up in the last five games. If I had a guarantee of either of those requirements, I'd give Clemson another chance to break through, but as it stands, the passing game leave too much to be desired.

3. Boston College
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Ambitions: Not that they're bragging or anything, of course, but the Eagles are the only team in the ACC aside from Virginia Tech with six straight eight-win seasons and have won more games by far (19) their first two years in the conference than any other team in the Atlantic division. Not that it's important in the long run, mind you, what with the war and all. They're just saying: a conference championship would complete them as human beings. That's all.

Turn-Ons: Consistency. Solidarity. Semper Fi ... Defensive tackles B.J. Raji (340) and Ron Brace (335), who side-by-side are almost like adding a twelfth man in the middle of the line - no wonder the linebackers make all the plays ... DeJuan Tribble, always around the ball ... Matt Ryan, the most drool-worthy quarterback in the ACC, apparently, and that must count for something.

Jagodzinski, please don't take our Aponovicius away.
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Turnoffs: New head coach has never been a United States Marine. Or a head coach ... Andre Callender and L.V. Whitworth, god love 'em, they're just nothing special ... And that totally adorable little kicker who could is headed for the bench to make way for some VHT freshman, says Phil Steele. How could they do that to him?

Hangups: Welcome to the ACC, Jeff Jagodzinski: defending conference champs in game one, your new team's old coach in game two, defending Coastal division champs in game three. Besides Georgia Tech, B.C.'s other inter-division draws are Miami and Virginia Tech, so no Duke-UNC freebies to be had - not that there are really any freebies, of course, nothing is free. Not in the ACC! Heh heh. How rude to think that way about a fellow conference member. It's just that, well, sometimes a schedule like this can just get to a person. Jagodzinski will earn every win and a raise if the division is still on the line in the finale against Miami.

Justify Thyself: B.C. has every chance to win the Atlantic on paper, but the combination of the meh factor on offense and the transition to a new, young coach facing the toughest possible schedule this conference could offer creates what can only be properly described as a chilling effect on its championship ambitions. That and Phil Steele thinks the Eagles are finishing last in the division, and man, I'm not going to go complete 360 against Steele unless there's a lot more to fend off his info blitz than there is here.

4. N.C. State
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Ambitions: Maybe the Pack didn't really know how good they had it with Philip Rivers, and the ensuing plummet over the last three years have exhausted whatever fumes remained from the highly optimistic atmosphere earlier in the decade. I happened on some N.C. State message boards this week, and getting back to a bowl game after last year's 3-9 disaster seems to sound pretty good to them.

Turn-Ons: Another big and improbably swift running back combo, Toney Baker (225 lbs.) and Andre Brown (232), and intact receiving corps ... VHT DeMario Pressley anchoring a veteran D-line with his last chance to live up to the hype, and to the Williams/Lawson/McCargo precedent ... A new coach with a steadying hand and a reputation of morphing far more hopeless situations than this one into consistent competitors.

Turnoffs: Daniel Evans, a young quarterback of the gritty, can-do variety, but mistake-prone (11 INTs to just 6 TDs) and ultimately lacking in bodily-kinesthetic intelligence ... Three new offensive linemen ... A recent history of mediocrity and worse: only two winning ACC records (1994 and 2002) in the league's Florida State era.

Hangups: Tom O'Brien's first three conference games here are the three teams I have above the Pack, FSU, Clemson and B.C., with Louisville thrown in for good, confidence-crushing measure. N.C. State could be 0-3 by the time it catches Virginia right before Halloween, a must-win to keep postseason aims on track.

Justify Thyself: Most of these same players were too close to winning six or seven games last year to write the whole outfit off as three-win misfits in a rebuilding year. The new staff can probably improve matters by leaning more heavily on Baker and Brown whenever possible - despite its quarterback problems, last year's Pack threw slightly more often than it ran, even though it played almost exclusively close games that allowed running well into the fourth quarter. That and a little luck alone might turn a few of those close games, but only enough for maybe the Humanitarian Bowl, and that might take an upset or two.

5. Wake Forest
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Ambitions: Once you've tasted champagne, you can't go back to Busch Lite. Well, you can, but only grudgingly, and with head hung low when the quarterback and an actual running back (!) are among the 16 starters returning from the conference champion.

Turn-Ons: Riley Skinner, underdog, for hitting his marks (66 percent) at the right time and not getting his team beat when he had every excuse for doing so ... Kenneth Moore, back at receiver for now, but ready wherever you need him, really ... A deceptively fast defense (cause they're Wake Forest, not cause they're white, which they aren't) led by OLBs Stanley Arnoux and Aaron Curry ... Invaluably clutch kicker Sam Swank, game-winner extaordinaire against N.C. State (three 50-plus-yard field goals in two-point win) and Georgia Tech (all nine Wake points, game-winner with less than two minutes).

Turnoffs: Spotty but significant departures on defense, especially the baffling early exit of short, slow, undrafted tackle machine Jon Abbate ... Cutting it close, though it makes for great theater. Historical trends (by "historical," I mean "since 2001," Jim Grobe's first year here) and general talent level are extremely hostile to the concept of turnovers turning so many evenly-played games in Wake's favor again - the Deacs were 5-0 in one-score games last year, outgained and on the plus side of the giveaway/takeaway at the end of every one of them, and that doesn't include the statistically lopsided (against Wake) 24-13 win at UConn.

Hangups: Boston College is an immediate test of this team's mettle as a contender, but it will be the games against Maryland, North Carolina, Clemson and N.C. State - all of which played Wake to a virtual dead heat last year but were cut down by mistakes, with the exception of Gaines Adams-inspirted Clemson -  that determines whether this is the old 4-7 Wake Forest or a new December bowl perennial.

Justify Thyself: Though it celebrates it in others, this blog generally swears off superstition and gut-level guessing itself. But wth the numbers telling a tale of very fortunate mediocrity, I'm supplementing them with my instincts in this case, which tell me Wake was at least as lucky in a very down year for the conference as it was good, and it doesn't have the manpower to hold its position as the wounded powers pull out every stop to re-establish their respective perches. This has never been a good team to bet against under Grobe, though.

6. Maryland
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Ambitions: Maryland's averaged eight wins in six years under Ralph Friedgen after a decade of undistinguished bowl-lessness, and last year's return to form, record-wise, after a couple 5-6 disappointments likely means Friedgen is in a cuddly position for the forseeable future as long as the bowl games keep coming. He does not want three unhappy holidays in four years.

Turn-Ons: Lightning-in-the-dark deep threat Darrius Heyward-Bey, occasionally the only thing the offense had going for it last year ... Tremendously active linebacker Erin Henderson, little brother of ex-all-American E.J. ... Friedgen's consistent ability to field an overachieving surprise.

Don't take it personal, coach. I'm just a stupid blogger.
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Turnoffs: More suspiciously close shaving to keep away from: the Terps were outgained in 11 of 12 regular season games last year, sometimes significantly, and won seven of them by an average of four points; they were outgained by about 50 yards per game all year, including the Florida Internationals and Middle Tennessees, which, as Steele might say, sounds a lot like a last place team already.

Hangups:  Likely defeats to Rutgers and West Virginia outside of the conference mean the Terps need to break even within it to get back to the postseason, which is most likely to happen against some combination of Wake Forest, Virginia, North Carolina, Boston College and N.C. State. Instinctually, again, because this is such a muddied, any-goven-Saturday sort of conference, I wouldn't give UMD better than 3-2 in that stretch.

Justify Thyself: Maryland's every-down performance last year justifies it; the Terps did nothing well - they were tenth of 12 teams in all four major defensive categories and never really came alive offensively until the regular season finale against Wake (a loss) and its first actually impressive win of the season, over Purdue in the Champs Sports Bowl. But with a new quarterback and no room for error in this division, I see very little reason for optimism unless the Terps are just going to be physically better, when the trend the last three years is the opposite.

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Extremely late now, but Coastal picks will close out ACC Week on the morrow.