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ACC Week: Binding Picks, Coastal Division

1. Miami
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Ambitions: Miami's division title tally is oh-fer-three as nominal favorite, so the BCS seems more of a Valhalla these days than it does a birth right. No pundit to date has Miami in the ACC Championship over Virginia Tech. But from the cesspool of mid-nineties probation, UM crawled back to the point a mere nine wins was a borderline catastrophe, and from whence the `Canes were returned to the muck, Randy Shannon is expected to return post-haste.

Turn-Ons: The Leap Year tantalizingly promised by Javarris James' pedigree and nascent freshman power ... The maturity tantalizingly promised by mercurial pass-catch talent: seniors Kyle Wright, Lance Leggett and Darnell Jenkins have a last gasp in a new system to build on flashes of recruiting hype ... Sixty career starts among the primary offensive linemen ... Everything about the defense: the beef on the line (starting front four averages 294 pounds), the ripple in your water as 6-8, 282-pound Calais Campbell closes in on his latest quarterback kill, the budding Ed Reed/Sean Taylor in prototype safety Kenny Phillips (well, minus the gun charges, natch).

Turnoffs: The frustrating inconsistency by the mercurial pass-catch talent: Wright is 2-7 in starts against ranked teams, seems to lack the arm to complement his receivers' speed downfield and combined with Kirby Freeman to throw nine interceptions in the last five, mostly miserable games of the regular season ... Replacing two late first round picks (Jon Beason and Brandon Meriweather) and the leading sacker (Kareem Brown) on defense.

Hang-Ups: Beating Oklahoma and Texas A&M in the first four games can raise the stakes of the conference season, but the priority is emerging from back-to-back October dates with Georgia Tech and Florida State with at least a split and a chance to control the fate of the division entering the double-decker finale at Virginia Tech and at Boston College, both potential killers. The former is must-win in any case, and the trip to B.C. may be, too, depending on the tiebreaker scenario.


Kyle Wright: One last time, with feeling.
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Justify Thyself: No justification needed for the defense, which is its usual fast, big, nasty self, coming off a great year harassing quarterbacks and stopping the run (2.3 per carry was third in the nation, and improved to 2.1 against the ACC) and staying in the family with Shannon and promoted secondary coach Tim Walton as coordinator. Ten of 13 opponents last year were held under 300 yards, and all but two (Louisville and Georgia Tech, the latter due to turnovers) were held under 20 points. This is a byproduct of playing in the low, low-octane ACC on one hand and just having the horses to generate a consistent rush with the front four on the other - in this regard, at least, the `Canes have not changed from the halcyon days. But they haven't been able to run the ball or protect the quarterback the last three years, and last year that led to disastrous generosity down the stretch; UM's turnover margin  was minus-ten in the coach-killing, four-game slide against Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Maryland and Virginia, all but the last of those one-score games otherwise won on the stat sheet by Miami.

If Wright beats out Freeman for the starting job, his convenient precedent is Brock Berlin, another slightly confused, iffy-armed blue chip who disappointed as a junior (Berlin threw 17 picks to 12 touchdowns in 2003) but dramatically rebounded as a senior (22 TD:6 INT; the team's turnover margin leapt from minus-three to plus-fourteen). Wright has every tool at his disposal to do the same: a truly grizzled offensive line, an identifiable workhorse, receivers that athletically rival anybody's, if years-old recruiting rankings are to be believed, and a new playcaller whose offense last fall scored more points in Blacksburg (Georgia Tech put up 38 under Patrick Nix) than Virginia Tech has allowed to any offense, anywhere, in the last three years. Wright shouldn't be expected to repeat that, but his only visit there went spectacularly well, too, because the defense thoroughly dominated the Hokies and the then-sophomore was only asked to make the easy plays off the run and keep his team out of bad situations. The result: 27-7, Miami, in a rather stunning upset. The defense here should be capable of the same and so should a more experienced Wright - at least as capable as Sean Glennon on the other side, anyway.

These, as the lovely chaps at the BBC would say, are the main points: last year's defense was a roughly average Miami D, which is to say it was very, very good, while the offense was way, way below average, by more than a touchdown, and still all but one conference loss was decided by a touchdown or less, including Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Florida State. If the defense holds court (there's no indication it won't) and the offense reverts to anywhere near the mean, even just back to the mid-twenties per game in scoring, UM will be much more competitive overall. The gap has closed in a hurry, but given the competition in the division, I still think Miami has the best players.

2. Virginia Tech
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Ambitions: Everybody's favorite darkhorse can set the pins up for a mythical championship run if it manages a win at LSU, but it will still have to roll four strikes in a row off a bye week against Boston College, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Miami at the end of the year. Only Georgia Tech out of that quartet is on the road, one of the main reasons Tech is considered a lock for this division and, most places, for the conference at-large. No matter what happens in Baton Rouge, though, given the Hokies' fate as the ACC's uncrowned bellwether each of the last two seasons, they'd best not take any of the BCS hype for granted. It's never been good to them.

Turn-Ons: Defensive consistency: Tech has finished in the top five nationally in scoring and total defense three years running. Pick a name out of a hat - nine returning starters from the stingiest unit in the country, every one of them an all-ACC caliber star, star-in-waiting or unsung, lunchpail-carrying citizen perpetually beating the odds to find himself in the right position ... Healthy Branden Ore ... Dagger-wielding receivers, the metaphorical shiv alternating at random among a quartet of very fast kids (Eddie Royal,  Justin Harper, Josh Morgan, Josh Hyman - heh) who have been around forever.

Turnoffs: Unreliable quarterbacking, unless "reliably handcuffed out of fear" will suffice ... Unhealthy Ore, a too-frequent reality, and drastically diminishing returns in the running game.


The more, the better.
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Hang-Ups: LSU is a season-defining game that sets the ceiling on Tech as national player or strictly regional overlord. In either case, unless there's an unforeseen wipeout in more than one of the string of games against B.C., Georgia Tech and FSU, the second defining game is of course with Miami. Tech will have to beat the 'Canes at home and win two of the three preceding it to get back to the conference championship.

Justify Thyself: Maybe because I've seen him more than I've seen Kyle Wright, I have very little faith in Glennon. He's a Craig Krenzel figure at best and has games - the limp Thursday night effort at Boston College springs immediately to mind - where it's obvious he presents no challenge to the defense. He's fine if the defense is simply overmatched, or anytime Ore finds a rhythm, but aside from Southern Miss and Clemson at midseason at Virginia later on, that was rare last year, and the usual 1(A) back never came out of the pack behind Ore. Reversion-to-mean thinking suggests the yards per carry will be significantly better than last year's truly dismal 3.2, and the defense will make Tech a favorite or a major threat, at least, to win every game; I'm not underestimating the wall offenses are running into, or attempting to throw into, whatever the case may be, because it remains one of the truly impenetrable forces in the country. But, just like Miami and so many teams in this jumbled league, the margin of error is low and the costs of a mistake in any of the four or five season-swinging games could be intensely magnified.

3. Georgia Tech
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Ambitions: Last year's conference title was sweet and remains attainable as long as the defense is what it is (very good) and ACC offenses remain what they are (very bad). Anything for the Jackets to keep their heads above the seven-win barrier so long established by Chan Gailey Equilibrium as the ultimate embodiment of an almost artistically unflinching mediocrity.

Turn-Ons: The physical dichotomy between Reggie Ball and his gleeful antithesis, Taylor Bennett ... The unheralded, load-bearing virtue of Tashard Choice ... Quarterback-tormenting sadist Jon Tenuta and his most lethal instrument of pain administration, possible giant Philip Wheeler.

Turnoffs: Bennett's inexperience, in conjunction with Calvin Johnson's absence, and the resulting offensive leash ... Severe defensive lapses against elite running games (Clemson, West Virginia).

Hang-Ups: The opener at Notre Dame is only a confidence-builder, tone-setter, etc. where the ACC is concerned. On that front, Tech can't go into the Thursday night game with Virginia Tech on Nov. 1 with more than one conference loss, which means winning three of its first four against Boston College, Virginia, Clemson, Maryland and then beating Miami. It took beating the `Canes and Hokies to win the Coastal last year, and almost certainly will again unless the Jackets plan on putting their championship fate in someone else's hands and hoping for the best.

Justify Thyself: It's assumed Tech can run again with Choice and play defense, so the roadblocks are a) Bennett's youth and b) the willingness of the offense to open up if defenses start overplaying the run. Bennett is likely to look shockingly good one week and find himself fending off clipboard duty the next; you know, he's a first-year starter with no proven go-to receiver. But he was good enough in the bowl game that the defending champs have to be considered a couple rungs above a "darkhorse," because they'll be in every game. Again, though, that works both ways.

4. Virginia
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Ambitions: The Cavs won eight games three straight years from 2002-04 and would guarantee Al Groh's continued employment with something reminiscent of those teams. Unless he flies off the handle and strangles his balsa wood cabinet guy with one of his sweatshirts for suggesting an especially knotty surface for the island in Groh's kitchen. He'd probably have to crack double digits to beat that rap.


Groh: Clearly asked for a tung oil finish, not linseed. That's a smotherin'.
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Turn-Ons: Veteran linemen: UVA is completely intact on its offensive line and front seven on defense ... Potential pass rush prowess, in the form of Jon Cooper, Jeffrey Fitzgerald, Howie Long's son Chris and Clint Smith, who return 17 sacks between them ... The inevitable growth of Jameel Sewell, who already took care of the ball well as a freshman (just 6 INTs).

Turnoffs: Who are the playmakers? The Cavs rarely ran well and may have lost their only possible receiving threat, Kevin Ogletree, for the season ... Sewell is still young and no threat to attack a defense downfield.

Hang-Ups: The Cavs have a great conference schedule, because they miss Florida State, Boston College and Clemson from the Atlantic, and could start in the range of 5-1 or 6-1. They could still be alive for double-digit wins going into November, in fact, though they won't get there with Miami and Virginia Tech bringing up the rear. There are about eight swing games that make the difference between Music City Bowl optimism and a depressing search for a new coach: at Wyoming, at North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, at Maryland, at N.C. State, Wake Forest. Your guess is as good as anyone's.

Justify Thyself: A split of those eight would leave Virginia at 6-6 and a pretty good candidate for a bowl game, which seems about right: UVA's experienced, on the one hand, but doesn't stand out in any way on the other. It was made for 6-6, actually.

5. North Carolina
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Ambitions: Lots of cautious optimism with Butch Davis on board, emphasis on the "cautious." UNC is a young team in an obvious rebuilding situation and would have to be thrilled with a bowl game. Any bowl game.

Turn-Ons: Hakeem Nicks, big-play threat: averaged 17 per catch as a freshman ... Joe Dailey, not playing quarterback ... Marvin Austin, defensive tackle of the future!


Beam UNC's defense up, Mr. Austin.
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Turnoffs: A freshman, redshirt or true, is virtually guaranteed to start at quarterback. It's either that or another year of yo-yoing with Cam Sexton (41.9 percent, 4:8 TD:INT, etc. Generally atrocious) ... Young, young, young. Everywhere. Good fake ID business in Chapel Hill, I hear.

Hang-Ups: Realistically, UNC can expect a baseline of three wins - say, James Madison, Duke and either East Carolina, Maryland, N.C. State or Wake Forest. It would be a leap for a team this young to win two of those last four, and a miracle for it to reach a bowl game.

Justify Thyself: Davis has to assume the position for a year or two and let his little Tar Heels learn the hard way how to compete. Expect a lot of admirable efforts, a couple scares against the certifiably terrible offenses of the ACC, but very few wins. Still better than Duke.

6. Duke
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Ambitions: I'm pretty sure John Edwards was hard at work at the Devils' last ACC win, trolling for valuable votes in his home state. For John Kerry.

Turn-Ons: Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis improved dramatically as his freshman season wore on, and came within a snap of beating Wake Forest, suspension-riddled Miami and North Carolina ... Literally every single offensive player returns, skill guys and linemen alike, including ex-starting QB Zack Asack, who was suspended all of last year ... Sophomore defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase, PS#18, one of the Devils' highest-rated signees in years.

Turnoffs: Uh, Duke hasn't beaten a Bowl Subdivision opponent in more than two years, the longest string of futility in the country. Dreadful talent level.

Hang-Ups: Potential streak-breakers: UConn, Northwestern, North Carolina. Not a very hopeful lineup.

Justify Thyself: The sheer number of returning starters and the few close calls at the end of last year makes Duke look like a two or even three-game winner; it's definitely an improved team. But the schedule drops the I-AA opportunity this year and takes up with every school it find starting with 'N' (Northwestern, Navy, Notre Dame), none of which the Devils are likely to beat. The depth chart looks better, the schedule looks much worse. A more competitive team could still be 0-12.