Thursday, August 28, 2014

season preview

Game week means preview week.  Time to talk offense and defense and all that good stuff, now that there's a depth chart out and everything.  This year I've got a couple special guests to talk football:

Orange Kool-Aid Guy and Eeyore are gonna point and counterpoint every position for us, and then I'll tell you who to listen to.  Got it?  Great.  Also, one more thing: I'm not splitting it up into offense and defense this year.  This is going to be one really, really big post - this is due, honestly, to time constraints and the fact I failed to work fast enough this week.  On with the show.


The starter:

#11 - Greyson Lambert

The reserves:

#5 - David Watford
#15 - Matt Johns

Last year was the David Watford show, stubbornly enough that we started wondering why we were ever so adamant that Mike London pick a guy and stick with him.  The hair-trigger QB platoon didn't work, but neither did refusing to ever pull the quarterback that eventually led UVA to the worst passing offense in the country.  Watford was sent to the bench less than halfway through spring camp, and the coaches made a few of the usual noises about competitions even while sending Greyson Lambert out for every first team rep from March to forever.  It's basically a reset button, so how will this turn out?

OKAG: Pretty well, actually; let's not forget how sought-after a recruit Lambert really was.  Quite a bit of the SEC was after him - South Carolina, Georgia, Ole Miss, not to mention Clemson, Miami, and so forth.  He's got a good arm and he's really accelerated his learning curve of the offense.  The fact that he took over the offense in the spring is a great sign - it means he was ready early and seized the job, and isn't that exactly what we've been wishing our quarterbacks would do?  And besides, it is literally impossible to play worse than Watford did, considering no team in the country averaged fewer yards per attempt than UVA did last year.  Besides, even if Lambert's not a superstar, simply having average QB play will be worth a few extra wins.


EEYORE: Remind yourself that Lambert is a sophomore, and if he's so damn good, why didn't he beat Watford out last year in the first place?  It probably had something to do with his 40-ish completion percentage in the opportunities he did get, which wasn't just garbage time.  Let's face it - you can never expect it to go all that well when you throw a new guy into the fire.  Lambert is less mobile than Watford - not an asset behind this O-line - and might have done a great job at half-speed in practice, but when the rubber meets the road, that has a way of bringing forth a lot of deficiencies.  Two years in the program, two different OCs and QB coaches - simply put, Lambert is still an underclassman, new to the job, and not being set up for success.


Listen to: OKAG when he says it can't get any worse, and Eeyore when he brings up inexperience.  Lambert will be an improvement over Watford.  That much I'm sure of.  If he's not, then you can start lobbing grenades at the coaching for screwing up the development of two QBs, but that's not going to be necessary.  That said, this is an investment in the future, not now.  Yes, Lambert is the best we got for now, but patience will be called for here.  Give it time.  If Lambert is better in November than he is in September, that's really what we're aiming for.

Running backs:

The starter:

#25 - Kevin Parks

The reserves:

#23 - Khalek Shepherd
#4 - Taquan Mizzell

Fullback starter:

#41 - Connor Wingo-Reeves

Fullback reserve:

#47 - Vincent Croce

Terrific - a position with some stability.  And real production.  Kevin Parks became the first 1,000-yard rusher at UVA since, what was it, 2004?  Alvin Pearman?  Parks is back for what should be a great senior year, and he's got some depth behind him, too; Khalek Shepherd put forth a productive year last year with a six-yard average, and Taquan Mizzell still has that five-star pedigree.  What say you, panelists?


OKAG: So, yeah, 1,000 yards.  There's really no complaining about that, is there?  Parks's style is very conducive to being the workhorse that he is.  He runs low to the ground, he's powerfully built, and he doesn't take a play off - all of which means he's a very difficult tackle, and can pick up positive yards even without a lot of room.  He's the always-falls-forward type, essentially, and who can complain about having a returning senior with his kind of leadership and production?

Plus you have to like the change of pace that Khalek Shepherd brings.  He's a bit more elusive, and he, like Parks, seems to have a pretty good eye for a hole.  He's not quite as straightforward a runner, more of a one-cut back than a zero-cut back like Parks, but he's definitely a guy who didn't have a great deal of opportunity early on and forced his way into the lineup with sheer ability.  Take two productive backs like these two and add the wild card, the man they call Smoke, and see what his skills can do for the running game.  Heck, Parks might not make 1,000 yards again simply because Taquan Mizzell is starting to eat the carries.


EEYORE: Not so fast on Mizzell, for starters; he showed almost none of that promised explosiveness last year.  His longest run: 36 yards, and he averaged a meager 4.1.  He might've been a great high school back, but the college evidence is simply lacking.  And as for Parks, he needed a lot of carries to reach that vaunted 1,000 yards; Parks is neither fast nor elusive, and his average, too, is lacking.  And how often can he get hit the way he does and stay healthy?


Listen to: Look, there aren't a lot of chances, with this offense, to chug that Kool-Aid; take your chances when you can.  Parks is legitimate - he may not be the whole package, but he's legitimate, and by the way, can catch passes too - and there's absolutely nothing wrong with having a unit that's both experienced and productive.  I'm not likely to hold lack of production against a freshman who was sitting behind two juniors in the lineup, either.  We do need to see more out of Mizzell this year if he's going to live up to his five-star label.  But the position group as a whole is very strong.

Pass catchers:

Wide receiver starters:

#6 - Darius Jennings
#17 - Miles Gooch
#85 - Keeon Johnson

Wide receiver reserves:

#14 - Andre Levrone
#9 - Canaan Severin
#19 - Doni Dowling

Tight end starter:

#49 - Zachary Swanson

Tight end reserve:

#89 - Rob Burns

A much-maligned unit last year; the question is whether or not they deserved it.  It's hard to say otherwise.  Dropped passes abounded, particularly from players like Darius Jennings who were being counted on for veteran leadership and heavy production.

This, combined with Dominique Terrell's injury that may see him redshirt the season, has flung the door open for younger players (of which this unit has more than plenty) to try and make their mark.  Keeon Johnson did a really nice job last year in about half the season, and there are freshmen like Andre Levrone and Doni Dowling looking like they're ready to step up, too.  And that freshman list so far only includes the ones actually on the depth chart.  Mike London has also said Jamil Kamara will get his shot too, though for now, he looks a little buried.  And I have no idea what to read into that.

Tight end, too, sees some opportunity for other guys, with Jake McGee's transfer to Florida.  Not so many younger guys - Zach Swanson and Rob Burns have been around the program for a while - but now's their chance to make something of it.  The offense doesn't purposely feature a tight end or purposely not feature one - you saw its use of McGee, often to good effect, but they won't force the issue if it's not there to be forced.  The upshot here is that the tight ends will be used as much or as little as they deserve to be.  Wide receiver is a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing - were they making the QB worse, or was the QB making them worse? The tight ends will produce what they produce.  Panelists, to your engines:


OKAG: The really exciting thing here is who will be the ones to step up?  Smart people will be betting on Keeon Johnson, who was a real breath of fresh air last year; in fact, his 282 yards was the most for a UVA true freshman in well over a decade.  Jennings did have the dropsies last year, but that was a flukey thing for the most part; he hadn't been nearly that stonehanded earlier, and those problems should disappear this year.  And by putting guys like Johnson, Levrone, Gooch, Severin, all in important positions on the depth chart, the receiving corps is suddenly very big.  Those guys are all 6'2", 6'3" - size will be a huge (har) advantage for the receivers this year.  The same goes for the TEs - Swanson is 6'6", Burns 6'7".  This group gets a major infusion of fresh talent this year, which should wipe clean a lot of the problems of the past.


EEYORE: All that stuff about new talent infusion just means we have almost nothing in the way of experience.  Literally the only player you'd call really and truly experienced in this bunch is Jennings, and with three seasons under his belt, he is what he is: an athletic player who shows flashes of high-level skill but isn't going to put it all together and suddenly be a star.  He's not very technically sound and will have a tough time being the focus of a secondary.  And Gooch?  Three catches in two years does not make for a starting receiver all of a sudden - expect him to get passed up, and quickly.  I could go on - the fact is, of the upperclassmen listed on the depth chart, TE and WR both, none have shown themselves to be playmakers.  Largely they've gone to waste with pointless burned redshirts, and it looks like we're about to do the same to the next big-time talent to come through the program too.  You want your brand-new quarterback to have a skilled and dependable group to lean on, not a whole crew of guys who are learning as they go, same as him.


Listen to: The donkey.  Look, it is exciting to see a bunch of new faces and names on the field, but largely for its own sake, not because they're all going to come in and instantly ride on to glory.  Who do you point to and say, there's our 800-yard receiver, right there?  Remember when we were talking about Tim Smith like, man, it's kind of disappointing he hasn't yet lived up to his potential?  He was going for 565 yards at the time, something Jennings calls his best season ever.  (OK, 568 for DJ.)

I do like the size factor.  That should help.  It gives Lambert just that little bit extra margin for error.  But this group overall was so bad last year that it's got to be show-me time this year.  There's not one single proven, consistent playmaker.  Nobody that puts even a tiny fright into a defensive coordinator.  Maybe Keeon Johnson becomes that guy?  Maybe Levrone, Dowling, or Kamara?  But all this uncertainty on both ends of a pass play just isn't a good sign.

Offensive line:

The starters:

#76 - Michael Mooney
#63 - Ryan Doull
#65 - Ross Burbank
#74 - Conner Davis
#72 - Eric Smith

The reserves:

#75 - Sadiq Olanrewaju
#61 - Cody Wallace
#68 - Eric Tetlow
#71 - Jack McDonald
#62 - Sean Karl

Another unit with a bad rap for a good reason.  I'd say it was the Pitt game last year when we realized: jeez, these guys can't move a gerbil off the line of scrimmage.  How many times did a short-yardage power play actually work?  Very few, if any.

This year, injuries have already taken their toll.  Jay Whitmire is almost certainly out for the season and Sadiq Olanrewaju - who was expected to play a big role - will miss a few weeks as well.  Conner Davis is the lone senior in the starting lineup, and after some shuffling, the depth chart is as above, except that I replaced LT second-stringer Jackson Matteo with Olanrewaju.  Still, it's way, way unlikely that what you see above is going to stay that way all season.  Reluctantly, we go to the panelists yet again, afraid of what we'll hear.


OKAG: Let's give credit where credit is due: the line didn't actually play as badly as it looked, at all.  You don't churn out a 1,000-yard season with crappy line play, do you?  Truth is, the line was good at a lot of the technical skills of blocking, and when asked to steer a defender somewhere rather than shove him somewhere, they did very well.  The pass protection wasn't bad at all, and would've looked better on the stat sheet if David Watford had decent instincts and didn't panic half the time during a pocket collapse.  Conner Davis is the kind of steady, highly dependable player you want on your line, and Eric Smith looked really good when called into action last year, especially for a true freshman.


EEYORE: This is a joke, right?  Have you noticed the crazy number of questionable moves that this coaching staff has pulled off just in the last two weeks?  Jackson Matteo works at center for a year and a half and suddenly he's the backup LT.  Ross Burbank loses the center job twice, works exclusively at guard for a year, and he's suddenly the starting center.  Jack English, all 260 pounds of him, is now an offensive lineman for some reason.  WHAT IS THIS I DON'T EVEN.

All this betrays the stunning lack of depth at this position.  The starting left tackle has played 23 offensive snaps in his college career against teams not named VMI.  The starting left guard has zero such snaps, having been almost exclusively on kick protection, which is where you stash your third-stringers.  Michael Mooney and Ryan Doull may well turn out to be perfectly good players, but we're tossing them in the fire against UCLA's defensive line and crossing our fingers til they prove anything.  The line was not at all a strong point last year and now it's lost its two best players (Morgan Moses to the NFL and Whitmire to injury) and we're supposed to believe it's gonna be better?  Nuh-uh.


Listen to: Let's break the fourth wall for just a second.  Here's how this has gone for me so far.  Both the sunshine and the gloom are things I actually do think about the team, so you can take both of them as my opinion.  Even when writing the wide receivers one, I actually almost had myself convinced when OKAG was speaking, and even more so for the other ones.  This time?  Jeez, what a reach that one was.  It's all true, mind you - I do like what we saw out of Eric Smith, for example, and he's the reason our line was one spot ahead of Wake in the ACC rankings I did.  But man was I reaching for good things, all the while thinking about how to keep Eeyore's section from being a ten-page manifesto.

Long and short, this is not good.  At all.  Depth is nonexistent, and the multiple position shuffling is a sign of an unhealthy and unsure unit.  I actually think the jury is out still on Scott Wachenheim as a coach, because I haven't been wildly enamored with, but haven't disliked, the long-term development of players.  You look at Luke Bowanko, doing nicely with the Jaguars.  Wach's been handed a mess, though, frankly.  I can't figure out how the offense is supposed to function like this.

Defensive line:

The starters:

#32 - Mike Moore
#55 - David Dean
#93 - Donte Wilkins
#7 - Eli Harold

The reserves:

#34 - Kwontie Moore
#92 - Greg Gallop
#9 - Andrew Brown
#43 - Trent Corney

One thing that's fun to watch is when you have a pass rush.  A blindsided quarterback is a thing of beauty.  Last year's D-line managed to do this more than a reasonable amount, thanks greatly to the gentleman above.  There were some graduation losses and such, but a healthy unit takes those and keeps on ticking, and it looks as though the D-line will be able to do that this year.


OKAG: You should be brimming with excitement here.  The knock on Eli Harold has been that yeah, he can get into the backfield and all, but he can't hold up against the run.  Well, he's up to 250 pounds now, a gain of 30-35 from when he first got here.  A guy with the speed he's always had, and that size, is a frightening thought.  He and David Dean are both entering their junior years, right when you expect talent like them to flip that switch and go from good to great.

And then we're adding Andrew Brown to the mix?  Donte Wilkins looks like he ought to be a solid enough player, so not only does Brown have potential from here to Mars, every inch of it is basically icing on the cake.  It's almost enough to make you forget that the other DE spot has a couple of highly-touted Moores being given their chance to jump into the spotlight.  Almost.  This unit is gon b gud.


EEYORE: As long as Andrew Brown's multiple injuries, both of the type that can really nag, don't hold him back.  And Brown and Dean haven't made that leap just yet, so it's not quite fair to assume it's already happened.  They wouldn't be the first UVA players whose development stalled out.  Depth at DE is a trouble spot, as the position consists basically of Harold and a bunch of athletes who haven't made it happen yet in terms of actual football.  Come to think of it, depth at DT is a trouble spot too if Brown doesn't stay healthy; you're looking at a converted O-lineman with not much field time, and a very large walk-on.


Listen to: Not the wet blanket, not this time.  I think the deal with D-lines is this: One really good player is nice, but most OCs will figure that out.  Two, and you've hit a critical mass.  You can't scheme around them both without sacrificing quite a bit somewhere else.  They'll start to disrupt things and really make their teammates better.  Three is a mess for an offense.  At that point your fourth guy can be a fluffy bunny rabbit, and Peter Cottontail would probably still finish the year with 2.5 sacks and 6 TFL.

Well, we've got two for (almost) sure, and several candidates for #3.  Brown is the obvious one, but I wouldn't give up on Mike Moore.  I think DE depth is a legit concern, given the lack of proven options other than Harold.  But barring injury, this is a disruptive group that'll challenge every O-line on the schedule.  Harold can hit double digits in sacks if he really gets after it, and I think we'll see multiple all-ACC honors here by the end of the year.


The starters:

#88 - Max Valles
#44 - Henry Coley
#13 - Daquan Romero

The reserves:

#59 - Mark Hall
#53 - Micah Kiser
#29 - D.J. Hill

Early last year, after watching Daquan Romero fly around the field like he'd been doing this forever, I made a prediction that Romero would lead the team in tackles for the year.  I was off by two; Henry Coley took the crown.  Still.  I guess it's a little weird being nostalgic for the very up-and-down Al Groh era, but those two were a terrific throwback to awesome linebackers of yore.


OKAG: The stats here speak for themselves.  Coley and Romero simply make the top linebacker tandem in the ACC.  Coley seems like he's been here forever, which is a good thing.  He's making the whole defense better with his play and leadership in the middle.  And Romero seems to have a knack for this - he seemed a little more natural and quick in his progression, and it's evident in things like, the way he blows up screen passes.  Then you've got Max Valles; he's been acting more as a pass-rushing athlete, almost a fifth D-lineman, or a way to go to a 4-2-5 without taking a linebacker off the field.  The terms in which he's talked about by his teammates are no less than glowing; if, or when, he points his athleticism in the right direction, and learns a few of the finer points of linebacking, he could be a frightening player.


EEYORE: As with Brown, we can slow up a bit on Valles.  He's still largely one-dimensional, and has a ton to learn yet.  Otherwise....I'm struggling here.


Listen to: Eeyore, because if that's all he's got to say, things are looking fine indeed.  Frankly, I'm having a tough time containing my enthusiasm about this linebacking corps.  By which I really mean Coley and Romero.  Even with Eli Harold, Kevin Parks, and Ant Harris around, I'm calling them the two best players on the team.  No need to overanalyze or parse the statements for meaning.


The starters:

#21 - Brandon Phelps
#26 - Maurice Canady
#3 - Quin Blanding
#8 - Anthony Harris

The reserves:

#5 - Tim Harris
#22 - DreQuan Hoskey
#28 - Wil Wahee
#38 - Kelvin Rainey

There's only one really notable position change on the defensive depth chart: Brandon Phelps's move from safety to corner.  The idea is twofold: one, Demetrious Nicholson is in the Jay Whitmire boat, and looks likely to miss the season.  And two, Quin Blanding.  Cover up a loss and make room for a wildly talented freshman at the same time - not every position change is a bad thing.  One last time to our panelists:


OKAG: Here's another statement that needs no parsing for meaning: Ant Harris led the whole damn country in interceptions last year.  So that's one star player in the secondary.  Quin Blanding only counts as one potential star even though he had five of them from the recruiting services.  UVA just put elite athletic ability into the secondary, the kind usually seen at Alabama.

And despite the probable loss of Nicholson, cornerback depth is outstanding.  You need three of 'em anyway, if you ever want to run a nickel defense, and UVA has four that it can trust.  This is to say nothing of the fifth one on the chart, Divante Walker, who played sparingly last year as a true freshman but did not make an ass of himself when he did.  Didn't look out of place at all.  That's all you ask for out of a freshman DB, frankly.  So Mike London's wild overrecruitment of the position has at least paid off.


EEYORE: Here's the problem with the Blanding hype: Free safety is the position on the field where you can least afford to have a true freshman.  I don't care how athletic you are, freshman safeties are notorious for running in the wrong direction, so sometimes this will mean all Blanding will accomplish is getting to the wrong place quicker.  It's also the position, except for probably strong safety, where athletic ability means the least.  Safety is about reading plays and being at the right spot.  Blanding's speed and athleticism will come in handy occasionally for jump balls and chasing down fly routes, but mainly it's just for laying people out.

Losing Nicholson clearly hurts, by the way, because ultimately it sapped the depth at safety.  Having a third one in Phelps would've been very, very handy, and we'd still have had the four CBs too.  Now we're looking at really, really unproven options on the second string.  And by the way, eight interceptions is an unrepeatable season.


Listen to: Sip, but don't chug, the Kool-Aid.  You should've already chugged most of it for the linebackers anyway.  There are some legit concerns here, a freshman safety being the big one.  Not that I'm looking a five-star gift horse in the mouth, but safety is the one position where I'd take an unathletic senior over an athletic freshman, every time.  That and quarterback, actually.  They're the only two positions where you can't cover up any mistakes and you can never get by just on raw athletic ability.

This said, this is certainly a solid unit.  Not elite, but you can win with a group like this.  That's the bottom line.  They can even weather another injury or two; if a safety gets hurt, most likely they'd just move Phelps back there.  I'm not overly worried about this group's performance, and only two things are holding me back from the same enthusiasm I had elsewhere on the defense: freshman safety, and need more interceptions from the cornerbacks.


Alright then: what's it all add up to?  Well, ESPN just went out on a limb and said UVA would go bowling.  The other day, I boldly predicted otherwise.  I don't think so.

There are three main reasons for that.  One is the O-line, which is in such bad shape that it could submarine the whole offense.  Two is the schedule.  The ACC did UVA no favors, and neither did UCLA by turning from a mediocre stumbler to a Pac-12 contender in between scheduling them and playing them.  And three is coaching.  We don't need to rehash the gaffes, and the truth is that a lot of the time-management stuff is only a symptom rather than a cause of the losing.  I just find it hard to have any faith that the team is receiving quality coaching, and game management in general (not just the clock) is a severe weak point of this staff.

The best-case scenario for this team is about an 8-4 record; chug enough of the orange stuff, and you can find eight wins.  The second-best case scenario is a 3-9 disaster.  Hang out with Eeyore long enough and that's not hard to envision either.  But at least that just about guarantees the regime change we'd certainly be clamoring for after that.  The worst-case scenario is a 5-7 season that doesn't result in a change at the top.

Is that plausible?  I don't know.  There are some who seem to think 5-7, if it's "a good 5-7" - that is, maybe a bunch of close losses - is enough to keep Mike London around.  To me that's a scenario so pathetically frightening I'd rather not think about it.  To say that four losing seasons in five years is good enough to warrant the reward of an extension?  (London's contract is too short not to extend if you don't fire him.)  I don't think Craig Littlepage thinks that way, but it's scary that some people think he does.

Hold a gun to my head and demand a number out of me, and I'll say this: London stays with eight wins, seven if one is in Blacksburg.  Six and a fourth-tier bowl - I just can't see myself supporting that.  It's not enough for a coach's fifth season, and while you see a lot of lowered standards after that two-win calamity (hence people saying five wins is enough) I maintain that last year forced the threshold to keep London upwards, not downwards.

This year, there's that tough schedule, but excuses are otherwise removed.  It's the second year of a new wave of assistant coaches, so no more new systems to learn.  Tons of seniors and juniors, so no more talking about how it's just inexperience.  London recruited nearly every single one of these guys.  And so on.  Regardless of what happens, it's a turning-point season - that's why there's a clock up there.  That's how long there is for London to fix things, or have them fixed for him.


Sincere apologies, but there won't be a UCLA preview.  I'm hopping a plane Thursday afternoon and I've simply run out of time.  It's partly my own procrastination and partly just plain damn being busy.  Come Monday I'll get right into the rhythm of the football season, for real.

Monday, August 25, 2014

full-fledged 2014 ACC preview

Whew.  All 13 opposing-team previews are out - finally - after busting my butt all weekend on that stuff.  Because of that I'm letting myself brag again: if you can find a more in-depth free preview, lemme know so I can beat it next year.  I mean, sure, Phil Steele kicks my ass, but you gotta pay him for the privilege.

We're not all the way done, though, because it's time to put the whole thing together.  I liked how this worked last year so I'm only making a few tweaks.  Your table of contents is:

-- Positional rankings
-- Cumulative rankings
-- Schedule rankings
-- Hot-seat coaches
-- Bowl predictions

For reference, here are the links to the individual previews:

Boston College
Florida State
Georgia Tech
North Carolina
NC State
Virginia Tech
Wake Forest

Time to get crackin'.

Positional rankings

-- Quarterback:

1. Florida State - Jameis Winston
2. Duke - Anthony Boone
3. North Carolina - Marquise Williams
4. Clemson - Cole Stoudt
5. Syracuse - Terrel Hunt
6. NC State - Jacoby Brissett
7. Pittsburgh - Chad Voytik
8. Boston College - Tyler Murphy
9. Miami - Brad Kaaya
10. Virginia - Greyson Lambert
11. Louisville - Will Gardner
12. Georgia Tech - Justin Thomas
13. Virginia Tech - Michael Brewer
14. Wake Forest - John Wolford

Yeesh.  Do you realize that 10 of 14 ACC teams will be breaking in a new starting quarterback this year?  And that doesn't even count UNC, which still has an OR on the QB depth chart and apparently plans to either platoon Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky, or hide their intentions as long as they can.  If Trubisky starts for UNC this weekend, there'll be three freshman starters in the ACC, to go with five redshirt sophomores.

This is a long way of saying that half of this ranking is voodoo magic.  OK, Jameis Winston goes up top.  A little bonus for returning starters, and then a huge helping of my own opinion.  Chad Voytik?  Brad Kaaya?  Greyson Lambert?  Who knows, man.  With all but the very top and the very bottom, almost just pull 'em out of a hat.

-- Pass catchers (WR/TE)

1. Pittsburgh - Tyler Boyd, Manasseh Garner
2. Duke - Jamison Crowder, Max McCaffrey
3. Louisville - DeVante Parker, Eli Rogers
4. Florida State - Rashad Greene, Nick O'Leary
5. North Carolina - Quinshad Davis, Ryan Switzer
6. Miami - Phillip Dorsett, Stacy Coley
7. Clemson - Charone Peake, Mike Williams
8. Syracuse - Ashton Broyld, Jarrod West
9. Virginia Tech - Joshua Stanford, Willie Byrn
10. NC State - Bryan Underwood, Jumichael Ramos
11. Georgia Tech - DeAndre Smelter, Micheal Summers
12. Virginia - Darius Jennings, Keeon Johnson
13. Boston College - Bobby Swigert, Shakim Phillips
14. Wake Forest - Matt James, E.J. Scott

Another tough ranking, and here it's a matter of philosophy.  Do you like a team with a proven big-time star but little depth, or do you prefer a team with a couple of decent players but some five-star freshmen waiting in the wings?  To make things worse, there aren't many impact tight ends in the conference, a situation only exacerbated when Duke lost Braxton Deaver for the season.

We'll go with the big-timers on top, since Tyler Boyd and Jamison Crowder are clearly the top two receivers in the conference, and they have at least one dependable secondary target to take some of the defensive edge off the coverage.  I'll just have to accept the possibility that teams like Clemson and FSU will use their freshman talent to make me look silly by November.

-- Running backs

1. Miami - Duke Johnson, Gus Edwards
2. Pittsburgh - James Conner, Isaac Bennett
3. Florida State - Karlos Williams, Dalvin Cook
4. Louisville - Dominique Brown, Michael Dyer
5. Virginia - Kevin Parks, Taquan Mizzell
6. North Carolina - T.J. Logan, Elijah Hood
7. Duke - Shaq Powell, Josh Snead
8. Syracuse - Prince-Tyson Gulley, George Morris
9. Virginia Tech - Trey Edmunds, J.C. Coleman
10. Georgia Tech - Zach Laskey, Tony Zenon
11. NC State - Shadrach Thornton, Tony Creecy
12. Clemson - D.J. Howard, C.J. Davidson
13. Boston College - Myles Willis, Tyler Rouse
14. Wake Forest - Orville Reynolds, Dominique Gibson

This might the skill position where the ACC is deepest.  A couple star receivers, but not too many - maybe wait til November to see who else emerges.  But at running back, Duke Johnson is a superstar if healthy and Karlos Williams might turn out to be one too.  Pitt boasts two quality, proven backs, one of whom is completely huge.  Michael Dyer is a former MVP of the BCS CG and he's not even the best on his team right now.  Kevin Parks ground out 1,000 yards last year, and the possibilities for Elijah Hood are through the roof.  I enjoy this state of affairs, because a dominant running back is my favorite thing in football.  Last year I underestimated things, for example by putting eventual 2,000-yard rusher Andre Williams of BC 10th.  Nice work.  This year I'm sippin' on the Kool-Aid.

-- Offensive line

1. Florida State - LT Cameron Erving
2. Boston College - C Andy Gallik
3. Louisville - LG John Miller
4. Duke - RG Laken Tomlinson
5. Syracuse - LT Sean Hickey
6. Clemson - C Ryan Norton
7. Miami - LG Jon Feliciano
8. Virginia Tech - LG David Wang
9. NC State - RT Tyson Chandler
10. North Carolina - RG Landon Turner
11. Pittsburgh - LG Matt Rotheram
12. Georgia Tech - RG Shaquille Mason
13. Virginia - RG Conner Davis
14. Wake Forest - RT Dylan Intemann

What struck me in going through the O-line rankings was how many of the ACC's lines have guards as their experienced anchors.  Not too many big-time left tackles.  That's nice for the running games, I suppose - it's probably also nice for the ACC's defensive ends.

Also: thank heavens for Wake Forest, because I look at some of these lines in this league and then I look at ours and I go: well crap.  BC and FSU don't start a single player who isn't a senior.  Isn't that kind of the goal?  Our injury-riddled mess is saved from the cellar by the fact that Wake is starting a true freshman at center.  That was the tiebreaker right there.  But anyone consumed with optimism over our O-line, well, should probably take a look at the upper echelons of those rankings to see what things look like if you've been doing it right.

-- Defensive line

1. Clemson - Vic Beasley
2. Virginia Tech - Luther Maddy
3. NC State - Thomas Teal
4. Virginia - Eli Harold
5. Florida State - Mario Edwards
6. Boston College - Connor Wujciak
7. Miami - Anthony Chickillo
8. Syracuse - Robert Welsh
9. North Carolina - Norkeithus Otis
10. Louisville - B.J. Dubose
11. Pittsburgh - Shakir Soto
12. Georgia Tech - Adam Gotsis
13. Duke - Jamal Bruce
14. Wake Forest - Zachary Allen

If there's a saving grace for UVA's offensive line, it's the state of defensive lines in the conference.  Lots of graduation means lots of inexperience up and down the coast, and frankly, just some plain bad defensive lines here.  Again, Wake is stinking up the joint.  Duke is full of career backups.  GT would be worse than both of those two if not for the star power of Adam Gotsis, who will probably be quadruple-teamed on every play.  It gives the Hoos, with Eli Harold and David Dean, and major potential in Andrew Brown, a chance to shine.

Up top, Clemson gets the nod not only because Vic Beasley is disgustingly good, but the line is completely loaded down with seniors, and Grady Jarrett is almost as good as Beasley.  The Clemson-Wake Forest game - oh dear God.

-- Linebackers

1. Virginia - Henry Coley
2. Clemson - Stephone Anthony
3. Syracuse - Cameron Lynch
4. Louisville - Lorenzo Mauldin
5. North Carolina - Travis Hughes
6. Georgia Tech - Quayshawn Nealy
7. Pittsburgh - Anthony Gonzalez
8. Boston College - Steven Daniels
9. Florida State - Terrance Smith
10. Duke - David Helton
11. Wake Forest - Brandon Chubb
12. Miami - Denzel Perryman
13. NC State - Brandon Pittman
14. Virginia Tech - Deon Clarke

Well, well.  This is not the orange glasses talking here; I legitimately think UVA has the best linebackers in the conference.  Only a small handful of teams can claim they return two top-producing LBs the way UVA does, and when they do they're not the tackle monsters Coley and Romero are; those two got into way too many backfields to ignore what they do.  Clemson's Stephone Anthony is probably the best individual 'backer in the ACC, and there are some solid players up and down the list.  Even Wake gets in on the act, finally getting out of the cellar and leaving that to VT(!), where inexperience abounds.

The sudden proliferation of 4-2-5 nickel defenses in the ACC admittedly clouds up the evaluation a little bit here.  Something like five or six teams are headed that way, and that's just who's announced it; there's probably more coaches figuring they'll be in a nickel at least two-thirds of the time.  Why cover a tight end or a slot receiver with a linebacker when you can use an extra safety?  Sometimes it's as simple as renaming the Sam the Rover or something like that, but that also tends to make a smaller player out of that position, too.  At any rate, teams are not developing the linebacker depth that they used to.

Duke, by the way, lost something like six spots in this ranking when Kelby Brown was lost for the season.  David Helton is a solid player but that's a huge loss regardless.

-- Secondaries

1. Virginia Tech - Kendall Fuller
2. Wake Forest - Ryan Janvion
3. Florida State - Nate Andrews
4. Boston College - Sean Sylvia
5. Duke - Jeremy Cash
6. North Carolina - Tim Scott
7. Louisville - Terrell Floyd
8. Virginia - Anthony Harris
9. Miami - Tracy Howard
10. Syracuse - Durell Eskridge
11. NC State - Jarvis Byrd
12. Georgia Tech - Isaiah Johnson
13. Clemson - Robert Smith
14. Pittsburgh - Ray Vinopal

Finally, Wake gets their day in the sun.  That is a very impressive secondary they run, and most years it'd be the best in the conference without any doubt.  Unfortunately, VT's is even better.  You have two extremely experienced safeties and two ballhawking cornerbacks, with depth behind them to boot.  It's probably the best unit of any kind in the conference, and makes a strong case for the same on a national level.

As for UVA's ranking, Demetrious Nicholson's complete absence from the depth chart - which may or may not stretch into December - is worth a bump downwards.  More production in the form of INTs from someone like Maurice Canady would've helped.  There's depth, and a hell of a lot of intrigue with Quin Blanding lining up as a starter, but athletic abilities aside, freshman safeties have a tendency to run really fast in the wrong direction.  The conference is hardly bereft of quality defensive backs, so it's hard to justify moving us any higher for now.

Cumulative rankings

-- Atlantic offense

1. Florida State
2. Louisville
3. Syracuse
4. Clemson
5. Boston College
6. NC State
7. Wake Forest

-- Coastal offense

1. Duke
2. Pittsburgh
3. Miami
4. North Carolina
5. Virginia Tech
6. Virginia
7. Georgia Tech

-- Conference offense

1. Florida State
2. Duke
3. Louisville
4. Pittsburgh
5. Miami
6. North Carolina
7. Syracuse
8. Clemson
9. Boston College
10. NC State
11. Virginia Tech
12. Virginia
13. Georgia Tech
14. Wake Forest

I think it's a little odd that Pitt ended up with the Coastal's 2nd best offense, ranking above Miami, UNC, Clemson, etc.  You can move them down a few spots if, for example, you like Brad Kaaya better than Chad Voytik.  I'm not offended if you do, but do keep in mind Tyler Boyd as well.  Clemson is down that far primarily because there's so little proven talent at WR and RB, particularly the latter.  I already did mention that their WRs could make me look dumb, but the RBs look rather less dynamic.

-- Atlantic defense

1. Clemson
2. Florida State
3. Boston College
4. Louisville
5. Syracuse
6. NC State
7. Wake Forest

-- Coastal defense

1. Virginia
2. Virginia Tech
3. North Carolina
4. Duke
5. Miami
6. Georgia Tech
7. Pittsburgh

-- Conference defense

1. Virginia
2. Clemson
3. Florida State
4. Virginia Tech
5. Boston College
6. North Carolina
7. Louisville
8. Syracuse
9. NC State
10. Wake Forest
11. Duke
12. Miami
13. Georgia Tech
14. Pittsburgh

Call me a homer, call me what you will.  I admit that the flaw in the methodology here is that if you have one really good unit or one really bad one, you're probably gonna look better or worse than you should.  Hence Wake, whose massive defensive flaws up front won't be entirely covered up by their secondary, and VT, who can probably cover up their linebackers (and Bud Foster will probably have them crapping thunder by October anyway but whatever.)  And none of this takes into account coaching.

Still, it's UVA with the top linebackers, last year's national INT leader, depth in the secondary, a solid and improving defensive line, and two elite recruits jumping right in.  There's very little separation in the top five anyway.  Also, it's interesting that the four worst defenses are all Coastal teams - now you know why nobody can figure out who's supposed to win the damn thing.

-- Atlantic overall

1. Florida State
2. Louisville
3. Clemson
4. Syracuse
5. Boston College
6. NC State
7. Wake Forest

-- Coastal overall

1. Duke
2. North Carolina
3. Miami
4. Virginia
5. Pittsburgh
6. Virginia Tech
7. Georgia Tech

-- Conference overall

1. Florida State
2. Louisville
3. Duke
4. North Carolina
5. Clemson
6. Syracuse
7. Miami
8. Virginia
9. Pittsburgh
10. Boston College
11. Virginia Tech
12. NC State
13. Georgia Tech
14. Wake Forest

Yes, VT looks awfully odd down there on the bottom, below that crappy 2-10 team from last year.  I can't help that Texas Tech's 3rd-string QB is now their starter.  Just know that coaching matters, this doesn't take into account coaching, and if they had even middling linebackers (they probably will by October; that's where that coaching stuff comes in) they'd jump to 3rd in the division.

However, I am willing to draw the following conclusions from this:

- Louisville could unseat Clemson as FSU's primary challenger, more easily than people might think.  It's close, though.
- Duke is still pretty good, and won't be a flash in the pan.  But defense wins championships, so I've got UNC as the actual favorite in the Coastal.
- GT is primed for a huge fall.  It won't be purty.
- If Wake so much as wins four games, Dave Clawson should be COY.
- Miami is probably not as good as people think.  Not bad, but not ready for the ACC CG.

Schedule rankings

For these, I'll simply build on the above, and use the point totals - not the rankings, but the point totals, which is to say, FSU's rankings add up to 26 - to divine the toughest and easiest conference schedules.  A multiplier of 0.75 is applied to road games and 1.25 to home games.  This is just simple math.  Easiest schedules listed first.

1. Florida State
2. Duke
3. Virginia Tech
4. North Carolina
5. NC State
6. Louisville
7. Pittsburgh
8. Clemson
9. Boston College
10. Georgia Tech
11. Syracuse
12. Virginia
13. Wake Forest
14. Miami

- All the more reason not to like Miami as a contender - crossovers against Louisville and FSU.
- And all the more reason not to see Duke as a flash in the pan.
- I swear VT has incriminating pictures of people in the ACC scheduling department - look who got Wake Forest this year.
- FSU gets the easiest schedule simply because they're the only Atlantic team not to have to play FSU.

Hot seat coaches

Broken down into three groups: safe, safe-ish, and look out below.  First, the guys with job security:

Steve Addazio - BC
Frank Beamer - VT
Paul Chryst - Pitt
Dave Clawson - Wake
David Cutcliffe - Duke
Dave Doeren - NC State
Larry Fedora - UNC
Jimbo Fisher - FSU
Al Golden - Miami
Bobby Petrino - Louisville
Scott Shafer - Syracuse
Dabo Swinney - Clemson

OK, so, that's most of the conference.  Many of them (Addazio, Chryst, Clawson, Doeren, Fedora, Petrino, Shafer) are too new to be in much danger no matter what happens.  Beamer's got a few years of mediocrity cushion before the natives get too restless.  Golden steered the program through scandal and has improved every year.  Addazio got a team to a bowl game that didn't think they could buy tickets to one.  Fisher won a trophy of some kind, which should buy him a few years; ordinarily, the FSU coach just sort of occupies a perpetually warm seat just because.  Of these, Swinney is probably the closest to anything like a hot seat, but he's had plenty of success lately.

One coach resides in the land where he's probably not out the door after this year, but can't afford a bad season or the headhunters will start gearing up: Paul Johnson.  A really bad season could see him canned; he's burned through a couple DCs now, and the program has trended pretty flat, if not a bit downward.

So I think you can figure out the rest on your own.  The Syracuse newspaper wasn't wrong when they wrote that there was only one real hot-seat coach in the ACC this year.

Bowl predictions

That brings us to brass tacks.  Real reputation-on-the-line stuff.  First, the actual predicted order of finish, or, how I'd vote in a preseason media poll:

-- Atlantic

1. Florida State
2. Clemson
3. Louisville
4. Syracuse
5. Boston College
6. NC State
7. Wake Forest

-- Coastal

1. North Carolina
2. Duke
3. Virginia Tech
4. Miami
5. Pittsburgh
6. Virginia
7. Georgia Tech

Most of the deviation from the rankings above has to do with 1. schedule strength and 2. coaching.

And finally, the bowls - not forgetting that Notre Dame gets to piggyback:

Sugar Bowl: Florida State (playoff)
Orange Bowl: Clemson
ex-Citrus: Louisville
ex-Tangerine (RA): Notre Dame
ex-Tire: North Carolina
Pinstripe: Syracuse
Sun: Miami
Military: Virginia Tech
QL: NC State**
Independence: Boston College
St. Petersburg: Pittsburgh

No bowl: Virginia, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech

**This is the bowl game in Detroit.  I believe it's actually supposed to be announced Tuesday (today, that is, when you're most likely to be reading this) but the bowl has a name which I'd probably irritate my employer by saying out loud before that happens.

Coming this week: actual UVA previews!

2014 season preview: Wake Forest Demon Deacons


8/28: @ Louisiana-Monroe (Thu.)
9/6: Gardner-Webb
9/13: @ Utah State
9/20: Army
9/27: @ Louisville
10/4: @ Florida State
10/11: BYE
10/18: Syracuse
10/25: Boston College
11/1: BYE
11/6: Clemson (Thu.)
11/15: @ NC State
11/22: Virginia Tech
11/29 @ Duke

Skip: Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Virginia

2013 results:

Presbyterian: W, 31-7
Boston College: L, 24-10
Louisiana-Monroe: L, 21-19
Army: W, 25-11
Clemson: L, 56-7
NC State: W, 28-13
Maryland: W, 34-10
Miami: L, 24-21
Syracuse: L, 13-0
Florida State: L, 59-3
Duke: L, 28-21
Vanderbilt: L, 23-21

Record: 4-8 (2-6); 6th, Atlantic

Projected starters:

QB: John Wolford (Fr.)
RB: Orville Reynolds (Sr.)
WR: Matt James (5Sr.)
WR: E.J. Scott (5Sr.)
WR: Tyree Harris (So.)
TE: Devin Pike (Fr.)
LT: Antonio Ford (5Sr.)
LG: Cory Helms (So.)
C: A'Lique Terry (Fr.)
RG: Josh Harris (So.)
RT: Dylan Intemann (rJr.)

DE: Zachary Allen (5Sr.)
DT: Josh Banks (rSo.)
DT: Tylor Harris (Jr.)
DE: Desmond Floyd (rJr.)
LB: Brandon Chubb (rJr.)
LB: Marquel Lee (So.)
CB: Kevin Johnson (5Sr.)
CB: Merrill Noel (5Sr.)
RS: Hunter Williams (rJr.)
SS: Ryan Janvion (rSo.)
FS: Anthony Wooding (Sr.)

K: Chad Hedlund (rJr.)
P: Alex Kinal (Jr.)

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Coach: Dave Clawson (1st season)

Media prediction: 7th, Atlantic


2013 1st team: DT Nikita Whitlock
2013 2nd team: WR Michael Campanaro
2013 3rd team: none
2013 HM: CB Kevin Johnson, S Ryan Janvion
2014 preseason: none

The Jim Grobe era is over at Wake Forest.  Grobe's heyday, in the middle of the last decade, saw the Deacons win an ACC title and go to three straight bowls, but they went to just one in the last five years and Grobe's win total declined from six to five to four in the last three.  Dave Clawson was plucked from Bowling Green to bring his no-huddle offense to Winston-Salem, and he faces a very large rebuilding challenge in his first year.

-- Offense

Evidence of that rebuilding project is under center, where true freshman John Wolford won the job in fall camp after the only other experienced option, Tyler Cameron, had a miserable beginning to go with a miserable spring.  Cameron wasn't all that good in spot duty last year, either, meaning that Wake gives VT a serious run for their money for worst quarterback situation.

Quite a bit will be placed on Wolford's shoulders, because Wake had hardly any running game last year and doesn't look like they'll have much this year, either.  Hardly anyone with any production to speak of returns; the leading returning rusher is Dominique Gibson with 138 yards and a 2.6 ypc average, but the starting role for now looks like it belongs to senior Orville Reynolds, who has bounced back and forth between receiver and tailback during his career.  Reynolds caught 12 passes last year as a receiver, but his best season carrying the ball was back in 2011.

Wake loses all-conference receiver Michael Campanaro, and nobody with more than 23 catches returns - which by the way, was good for second on the team last year.  That's possession receiver Tyree Harris, who, along with sophomore Jared Crump, owns most of Wake's returning production in the pass-catching department.  Clawson intends to use fifth-year senior Matt James rather heavily; James has eight receptions over three years in his career so far.  Wake is also getting reinforcements in the form of E.J. Scott, who was rather disappointingly underused at UVA and should give the receiving corps at Wake a talent boost.  At tight end, the position battle is so totally up in the air - and not helped by contender Zach Gordon's spinal injury that might end his football career - that true freshman Devin Pike is as good a guess as any for the job.

The offensive line also sees a true freshman jump into the most crucial position, as A'Lique Terry appears to have won the center job in fall camp.  That pushes last year's starter, Cory Helms, over to left guard.  Wake has apparently settled on Antonio Ford as the left tackle; Ford has some starts under his belt, but some are at guard rather than tackle, and he's not yet been able to hold on to a starting job for a full season.  Right guard Josh Harris (no relation to the running back that just graduated) got one start last year as a true freshman, but not a ton of snaps over the course of the season overall.  The only returning player to have started all 12 games last year is RT Dylan Intemann, making him essentially the default anchor for the line.  Wake does have Tyler Hayworth to fall back on should they need to make a change; Hayworth started eight games in 2013 as a true freshman.

Still, this line is awfully scary and it's still by far the most experienced and steady position unit on the offense.  There's honestly no reason to believe this offense can be at all consistent or productive.  Wait til next year with this group.

-- Defense

There's more hope here than on the other side of the ball, despite a totally rebuilt defensive line.  Wake is making a drastic change from a 3-4 to a 4-2-5, which moves linebacker Zachary Allen up to the defensive line to play end.  Allen missed last season after being ruled ineligible to play in 2013; before that, he was gearing up for a breakout season, and could yet have one this year.  Allen had already played with his hand on the ground quite a bit in the 3-4.  The other end of the line is a bit up in the air, with junior Desmond Floyd being just about the only experienced option but being pushed by a pair of redshirt freshmen and rather in danger of being passed up if he can't get (and stay) healthy.  Wendell Dunn is getting the biggest shot at taking that job from Floyd.  Up the middle, the Deacs likely don't have a prayer of replacing the outstanding production they got from Nikita Whitlock.  Prospective starters Josh Banks and Tylor Harris are coming from fringe rotation roles.  Banks, at least, flashed some playmaking ability last year as a reserve, collecting a sack and forcing a fumble as well.

Linebacker is a mite thin due to the change to the nickel defense, but Brandon Chubb does give the Deacs an anchoring presence.  Chubb had 88 tackles playing in the middle last year, and he'll play next to sophomore Marquel Lee.  Lee is only a sophomore and doesn't have a lot of experience, but his is a name that pops up a lot when the Wake coaches talk about which new contributors excite them.

The secondary, though, will be the strength of the defense.  Cornerbacks Kevin Johnson and Merrill Noel each have a whole load of experience, and each intercepted three passes last year.  There's a lot to choose from at safety, too.  Former outside linebacker and walk-on Hunter Williams will play the rover position that characterizes the 4-2-5; Williams stepped into the starting lineup early last season and never let go of the job.  Wake also got solid work from Anthony Wooding last year, who was a starter at Air Force before transferring to Wake.  Wooding started four games for the Deacs, and is working to hold off sophomore Thomas Brown, who looks to have a bright future ahead, for his starting role.  The prize of the safety corps, though, is sophomore Ryan Janvion, who had a real breakout freshman season last year, leading the team in tackles last year with 95.

It's a strong-looking back seven, and it stacks up favorably against a lot that the league has to offer; the biggest question is for the pass rushers, because of their 23 sacks last year, Wake returns precious few of them.  Nobody with more than one, in fact.  The defensive line needs to grow up fast.  There's good coverage in the back, but the line is staking its name almost entirely on potential right now.

-- Special teams

Punter Alex Kinal is a busy boy; if he keeps up at the pace he's been going, he'll smash the NCAA record for most punts in a career sometime in the 2015 season.  He only gets 40 yards even per punt, but maybe his leg is tired.  With this offense, it looks like he'll pile up plenty more chances this year.  Chad Hedlund was only 8-for-12 on field goals last year and is locked in a battle with freshman Adam Centers for that job.

-- Outlook

Not so good, as the eight ball says.  It's gotten to where people whisper occasionally about a winless season.  That would require a loss to Gardner-Webb, which is sort of preposterous because the defense is worth a few wins and is not going to lose to Gardner-Webb.  That said, you could see this gang going 2-2 in the OOC.  And then, a fairly tough ACC crossover schedule comprised of the defending Coastal champ and VT, to go along with the Atlantic sked.  Even though I think the defense is decent, it's not going to be enough to keep Wake in the hunt most weeks.  An 0-8 ACC season is entirely within the realm of possibility, because it's really hard to see where they'll find a win.  Bowling is not in the cards, to say the least.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

2014 season preview: Virginia Tech Hokies


8/30: William & Mary
9/6: @ Ohio State
9/13: East Carolina
9/20: Georgia Tech
9/27: Western Michigan
10/4: @ North Carolina
10/11: BYE
10/16: @ Pittsburgh (Thu.)
10/23: Miami (Thu.)
11/1: Boston College
11/8: BYE
11/15: @ Duke
11/22: @ Wake Forest
11/28: Virginia (Fri.)

Skip: Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, NC State, Syracuse

2013 results:

Alabama: L, 35-10
Western Carolina: W, 45-3
East Carolina: W, 15-10
Marshall: W, 29-21
Georgia Tech: W, 17-10
North Carolina: W, 27-17
Pittsburgh: W, 19-9
Duke: L, 13-10
Boston College: L, 34-27
Miami: W, 42-24
Maryland: L, 27-24
Virginia: W, 16-6
UCLA: L, 42-12 (Sun Bowl)

Record: 8-5 (5-3); 2nd, Coastal

Projected starters:

QB: Michael Brewer (rJr.)
RB: Trey Edmunds (rSo.)
WR: Joshua Stanford (rSo.)
WR: Willie Byrn (5Sr.)
WR: Isaiah Ford (Fr.)
TE: Ryan Malleck (rJr.)
LT: Laurence Gibson (5Sr.)
LG: David Wang (6Sr.)
C: Caleb Farris (5Sr.)
RG: Augie Conte (rSo.)
RT: Jonathan McLaughlin (rSo.)

DE: Dadi Nicolas (rJr.)
DT: Corey Marshall (rJr.)
DT: Luther Maddy (Sr.)
DE: Ken Ekanem (rSo.)
LB: Chase Williams (5Sr.)
LB: Deon Clarke (Jr.)
LB: Josh Trimble (rJr.)
CB: Kendall Fuller (So.)
CB: Brandon Facyson (So.)
SS: Kyshoen Jarrett (Sr.)
FS: Detrick Bonner (5Sr.)

K: Michael Santamaria (Fr.)
P: A.J. Hughes (Jr.)

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Coach: Frank Beamer (28th season)

Media prediction: 3rd, Coastal


2013 1st team: none
2013 2nd team: DT Derrick Hopkins, LB Jack Tyler, CB Kendall Fuller, P A.J. Hughes
2013 3rd team: DT Luther Maddy, CB Kyle Fuller, CB Brandon Facyson
2013 HM: OG Andrew Miller, C David Wang, DE James Gayle, S Kyshoen Jarrett
2014 preseason: DT Luther Maddy, CB Kendall Fuller, P A.J. Hughes

By appearance, VT rebounded from their 6-6 2012 to post an eight-win season last year, but the rebound was also a bit deceiving; the Hokies won a lot of close games thanks to a still-strong defense and wildly inconsistent offense.  The challenges increase this year as the defensive front seven is almost entirely revamped, and a new quarterback helms the offense.

-- Offense

The quarterback competition was full of pretty underwhelming candidates.  Mark Leal played ineffectively in the Sun Bowl in relief of Logan Thomas, and has never been a really serious candidate for a starting role until this fall.  Brenden Motley got a laughable vote for ACC POY in the preseason by some reporter who isn't interested in taking his job seriously, but between a rumored move to defense (which never happened) and a back injury, Motley was never in the running this fall.  The winner was Michael Brewer, who graduated from Texas Tech in three years and transferred to VT in the summer; Brewer fell from the Red Raiders' second-string in 2012 to third-string in 2013.  Unless Brewer is a huge surprise in the coming months, VT has what looks like the conference's worst QB situation.

Some injuries are plaguing their skill position corps; Trey Edmunds would probably be the starting running back if not for a nagging stress fracture, which leaves primary ballcarrying responsibilities to J.C. Coleman.  Coleman is a sturdy player with some speed and receiving skills, but he suffered through a major sophomore slump last season while Edmunds took over the workhorse duties.  This might also be the year where former five-star prospect Joel Caleb finally finds his way to the field for some carries.

Also, 2013's second-leading receiver, Demetri Knowles, has been dealing with an ankle injury, opening the door for true freshman Isaiah Ford; Ford has been impressing the VT coaches in camp and should see a fair amount of playing time.  He'll join Willie Byrn and Joshua Stanford atop the WR depth chart; Byrn, going into his senior year, could remind some people of Danny Coale, while Stanford is used to stretch the field a bit more.  VT will also get back tight end Ryan Malleck, who hurt his knee just before the season began last year and missed the whole season, though they had a solid replacement in Kalvin Cline, who gave them 26 catches.  With those two, plus the Bucky Hodges experiment, VT has solid depth at tight end.

The offensive line has taken some heat lately, but for this year, the group brings quite a bit of experience.  Only redshirt sophomore Augie Conte is a brand-new starter, and that at right guard.  David Wang - who has a sixth year of eligibility this year - and Caleb Farris have switched spots on the depth chart, with Farris taking over the center duties that he began his career taking.  At tackle, Laurence Gibson moved into the rotation last year after a career spent on kick protection, and started six games; he's listed as the starting left tackle for now, which moves impressive underclassman Jonathan McLaughlin to the right side.

This offense has some pieces, starting with an experienced O-line and some good depth among the pass-catchers.  The running backs have been less than impressive though (which in turn casts some doubt on the actual effectiveness of the line), and it's tough to tell how good the receivers really are when the QB play from Logan Thomas was so inconsistent.  It's hard to see that changing this year, and VT wasn't all that great at protecting the supposedly mobile Thomas, either, bringing up questions about how well Brewer will fare.  VT had one of the country's worst running games last year - worse then UVA's, yes - and even with Thomas's penchant for launching howitzers several feet over the head of his receivers, the passing game was decent - which is to say that a new quarterback in the system might have a tough time improving on things.

-- Defense

For most defenses, the presence of so many new starters in the front seven would be troubling.  DT Luther Maddy is the one real holdover from the starting lineup, and Maddy is a truly legitimate player.  In 2013 he racked up 55 tackles, 13 TFLs, and 6.5 sacks, all very big numbers for a DT.  And though he's new to the starting lineup, there's little reason to doubt that DE Dadi Nicolas can be a big-time playmaker; Nicolas had four sacks of his own last year while being a regular in the rotation.  The Hokies also hope to get some good work out of DT Corey Marshall.  Marshall is a bit undersized for a defensive tackle, but spent two years in the rotation before missing last season.  His redshirt was the result of a three-week absence from the team that was variously characterized as "disciplinary" and "taking care of personal matters."  If Marshall's head is in the game, he should be a quality complement to Maddy in the middle; else, Nigel Williams got some experience last year and should be capable as well.  The other starting DE, though, is Ken Ekanem, who spent last year mostly on special teams, which remains the story for the rest of the depth at DE as well.  On most teams this would be a problem, but with Tech, we have to at least account for the Foster factor, so it shouldn't be automatic to call the DE depth lacking just yet.

Linebacker is a possible trouble spot, even accouting for the Foster factor here.  Getting first crack at a starting role is fifth-year senior Chase Williams, who's been mainly a career special teamer; it wouldn't surprise if someone like redshirt freshman Andrew Motuapuaka gave him a huge push early on.  Deon Clarke is another starter, and like Williams, Clarke is an upperclassman with only a smattering of defensive experience.  The "whip" position is still a battle between Ronny Vandyke, who got some decent experience in 2012 but missed all of 2013 with a shoulder injury, and redshirt soph Quinton Taylor, who has yet to play a college snap.

The big saving grace from a player standpoint for the VT defense: a secondary which ought to be the best in the conference.  Cornerbacks Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson combined for 11 picks and 19 PBUs in 2013, giving VT the best pair of CBs in the conference by far, and both are only sophomores.  Senior safeties Kyshoen Jarrett and Detrick Bonner are no slouches either.  Both are tremendously experienced - Jarrett has 26 career starts and Bonner 30 - and both also intercepted a pair of passes last year.  Even if given time to throw, opposing quarterbacks will have a long day trying to pass on this group.

Even with that good of a secondary, though, it's mainly Bud Foster that scares you on defense.  This is by far one of the least experienced front sevens we've covered, especially at linebacker, and this could be another year where the Hokies go heavy on the nickel package.  The D-line took several huge blows from graduation, and looks like it should be at least good, but probably not like last year's.  VT defenses have a way of developing in a hurry, though.

-- Special teams

Punter A.J. Hughes is considered the conference's top returning punter, with a 2013 average of over 44 yards and 20 50+ yarders.  VT has been holding a kicking competition in camp among freshmen, with Michael Santamaria appearing to have the upper hand for now.

-- Outlook

As usual, the defense looks like the strong point here.  You might say this team will go only as far as the offense will carry them, but truthfully they went further than that last year, with the defense dragging the offense kicking and screaming through a few games.  The question about this year's defense is: with all the inexperience in the front seven, are they good enough to do that again?  The offense will probably need the help.  The Coastal, as ever, is full of flawed teams, so seeing VT in the ACC CG isn't at all out of the question.  But part of the reason the Coastal is so wide open is that VT is just as massively flawed as the rest, mainly on offense where the quarterback situation is so terribly shaky.  The likeliness here is another 7 or 8 win season, maybe nine considering the Hokies skip anyone worth much of anything in the Atlantic.

2014 season preview: Syracuse Orange


8/29: Villanova (Fri.)
9/6: BYE
9/13: @ Central Michigan
9/20: Maryland
9/27: Notre Dame
10/3: Louisville (Fri.)
10/11: Florida State
10/18: @ Wake Forest
10/25: @ Clemson
11/1: NC State
11/8: Duke
11/15: BYE
11/22: @ Pittsburgh
11/29: @ Boston College

Skip: Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech

2013 results:

Penn State: L, 23-17
Northwestern: L, 48-27
Wagner: W, 54-0
Tulane: W, 52-17
Clemson: L, 49-14
NC State: W, 24-10
Georgia Tech: L, 56-0
Wake Forest: W, 13-0
Maryland: W, 20-3
Florida State: L, 59-3
Pittsburgh: L, 17-16
Boston College: W, 34-31
Minnesota: W, 21-17 (Texas Bowl)

Record: 7-6 (4-4); 3rd, Atlantic

Projected starters:

QB: Terrel Hunt (rJr.)
RB: Prince-Tyson Gulley (5Sr.)
WR: Ashton Broyld (Jr.)
WR: Jarrod West (5Sr.)
WR: Brisly Estime (So.)
TE: Josh Parris (rSo.)
LT: Sean Hickey (5Sr.)
LG: Rob Trudo (rJr.)
C: John Miller (Sr.)
RG: Nick Robinson (rJr.)
RT: Ivan Foy (rJr.)

DE: Robert Welsh (5Sr.)
DT: Marcus Coleman (rSo.)
NT: Eric Crume (Sr.)
DE: Micah Robinson (5Sr.)
OLB: Dyshawn Davis (Sr.)
MLB: Marquez Hodge (So.)
OLB: Cameron Lynch (Sr.)
CB: Brandon Reddish (Sr.)
CB: Julian Whigham (Jr.)
SS: Darius Kelly (Sr.)
FS: Durell Eskridge (rJr.)

K: Ryan Norton (Jr.)
P: Riley Dixon (rJr.)

(Italics indicate departed player.)

Coach: Scott Shafer (2nd season)

Media prediction: 4th, Atlantic


2013 1st team: none
2013 2nd team: C Macky MacPherson
2013 3rd team: RB Jerome Smith, DT Jay Bromley, S Durell Eskridge
2013 HM: OT Sean Hickey, LB Marquis Spruill
2014 preseason: OT Sean Hickey

Even though it's been over five years since he coached the team, one gets the impression Syracuse fans are still happy just to be out of the shadow of the incompetent Greg Robinson.  Scott Shafer continued the work done by Doug Marrone to return the Cuse program to respectability, earning a bowl bid in the final game of last season and then pulling out a postseason win.  The fourth-place prediction from the media isn't necessarily a slap in the face considering the competition in the Atlantic, but the Orange will be looking for opportunities to take a step forward in the ACC hierarchy.

-- Offense

Terrel Hunt began last season as the second-string quarterback, but Drew Allen's penchant for interceptions moved Hunt into the starting role after a few games, and he didn't let it go.  Hunt wasn't awesome, but he was at least efficient, and he's also a pretty big running threat.  He hasn't struck much fear in anyone as a passer just yet, but a season of starting, and an offseason as the unquestioned starter, should give Hunt the tools he needs to take a few steps forward.

At running back, Prince-Tyson Gulley settled back into a clear second-option role last season after a 2012 season that had him looking like he'd at least split carries evenly going forward.  Gulley did average 5.5 yards a carry, but couldn't assert himself on the depth chart much.  This year he's the veteran option, and should at least get back over 100 carries for the season and get out of the 450-yard doldrums, but he'll also be pushed by George Morris, who occasionally gives Cuse fans a case of Keith Payne-itis.

Likewise, the receivers have had a tough time living up to the potential often ascribed to them.  Ashton Broyld has a fair amount of speed, but tends to be used more as a bubble screen or slot guy, while Jarrod West is more of the downfield threat.  Hunt doesn't always have the long-range accuracy needed to use West to full advantage, though.  Waterbug slot guy Brisly Estime had a fairly impressive freshman season in 2013, and has potential to be Syracuse's breakout star this year.

The offensive line conversation starts with its anchor, left tackle Sean Hickey.  Hickey is the Orange's lone representative on the preseason all-ACC team, and is a legit NFL prospect.  The other side should be manned by Ivan Foy, as long as he reclaims his starting spot after missing spring practice to focus on academics.  Foy started all 13 games in 2013 and a handful in 2012 and is by far the most experienced option for that spot.

Syracuse had planned to hand the center job to starting guard Rob Trudo, who had started 22 games over the past two years at left guard.  Trudo had also worked at center in his spare time, but he entered spring practice as the starter at center and left it back at left guard again; the reason was the emergence of juco transfer John Miller, who played only sparingly last season but enters this year as the starter in the middle.  Nick Robinson should easily keep his job as the starting right guard, but will have to get healthy first, as he's been ruled out of the season opener.  This leaves an opening for Omari Palmer, who played some in the rotation last year and was set to be the starting LG until Miller changed the coaches' minds.  Trudo may move to the right with Palmer on the left, until Robinson returns.

With Hickey protecting Hunt's blind side, and a reasonable amount of experience elsewhere, Syracuse's line should be at least adequate, if not a strength.  Every skill position, though, is a story of potential not yet realized.  If Hunt develops into a true dual-threat - and for that, his arm is what needs to improve - and if one of his receivers can become a go-to player, Syracuse should be able to move the ball with ease.  There's a fair amount of development to be done to get there, though.  I wouldn't bet against them, but a wait-and-see approach is the way to go here.

-- Defense

As everyone knows, it's usually a bad sign when your free safety leads the team in tackles, but Syracuse is an exception to that rule thanks to the skills of Durell Eskridge.  Eskridge "only" had 78 tackles, a low number to lead a team with, and Cuse's defense was respectable last year, though prone to being demolished at times.  Eskridge also intercepted four passes, another team lead for 2013.

Syracuse is otherwise a bit thin at safety.  Senior strong safeties Ritchy Desir and Darius Kelly have never been able to separate from one another or grab a starting role, which you can read as either having two pretty experienced options at the position, or having two flawed choices.  Kelly should be the starter, or at least, the primary option at strong safety and be backed up by Desir, but behind Eskridge, freshmen abound on the depth chart.

At cornerback, Brandon Reddish is the experienced returning starter, but though he's a senior he's only ever picked off one pass, and none last year when he was a full-time starter.  Julian Whigham joins Reddish in the starting lineup this year, after a year as a nickel corner in which he picked off three passes.  Whigham is a gambler, which boosts the turnover numbers but also sometimes forces Eskridge to make plays that he shouldn't have to.

Syracuse also gets good pass defense from their outside linebackers.  Dyshawn Davis had a great 2012 in that regard, but took a step back last year while dealing with a few nagging injuries (an ankle slowed him down); nevertheless, expectations are pretty high again this year for him to return to 2012 form.  Meantime, Cameron Lynch picked up the slack last year with four sacks, four PBUs, and two picks, proving himself a versatile defender in the passing game.  Lynch also had an impressive 12 TFLs and was second on the team in tackles overall.  In the middle, Marquez Hodge was a productive backup last year with 23 tackles in just eight games, and the dropoff from the solid but departed Marquis Spruill should be minimized.

The Orange feature a pair of senior defensive ends in Robert Welsh and Micah Robinson, with Welsh being the better playmaker of the two by far.  Listed as the third DE, Ron Thompson looked like a natural at the position last year after a switch from tight end, and he'll feature heavily in this year's rotation.  The middle remains somewhat unsettled, though.  Syracuse had an underrated playmaker at DT last year in Jay Bromley, so nose tackle Eric Crume will have to deal with a great deal more attention this year as Marcus Coleman gets used to a massive uptick in playing time.  The Orange have hopes for 330-pound juco transfer NT Wayne Williams, if he ever learns to do the work to harness the potential residing in his huge frame.

Syracuse lost some pretty big playmakers to graduation, and it'll be a bit of a challenge to replace them.  The best bet for that is at outside linebacker, plus Eskridge, and that the veteran defensive ends can boost their production somewhat and be at least a stabilizing force on the line.  There's talent, but nobody here will blow you away.  This defense was smack in the middle of the ACC rankings last year, and shouldn't move too far from that spot this season.

-- Special teams

The kicking battle was decided early in camp when Ross Krautman decided to hang up the cleats after dealing with a chronic hip injury, leaving the job to last year's mercurial starter, Ryan Norton.  Norton wasn't particularly impressive last year, and has been in the behavior doghouse lately, so his grasp on the job is tenuous.  Riley Dixon is a solid punter whose first year on the job in 2013 produced a 42-yard average.

-- Outlook

Syracuse doesn't have a lot of big-name players, guys who keep opposing coordinators awake at night.  But the impression you get here is a team with a high floor to go along with their low-ish ceiling.  I like this team's chances to stay out of the cellar and be a tough out on most schedules; I doubt very much they can climb much higher than third in the division at the most, and that would require an upset or two.  The challenge is the schedule.  They get Notre Dame in the OOC, and of course have to deal with FSU and Clemson as well.  There aren't many easy games on the slate, the majority of which is filled with similarly-talented teams like Maryland and Boston College.  They'll probably have to win more of them than they lose in order to reach bowl eligibility, and will likely need the bowl game to reach eight wins; that said, it'd be a biggish upset to see them drop below five.