When it comes to predicting what ACC football teams will do, it’s best to keep it simple. There are best-case and worst-case scenarios, but I’ve done my best to put together a record for each team. And I threw in some fun facts about mascots, because, why not?
Season Prediction: 3-9 (1-7). The Eagles should be better offensively this year, but two of their three Coastal Division opponents are Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. The Atlantic is already stacked. And the non-conference schedule isn’t easy: besides Maine, BC travels to both Northwestern and Army before a late-season home game against Notre Dame.
Random mascot fact: Boston College adopted the Eagle mascot in 1920. Live eagle mascots were donated to Boston College, but one escaped and the other literally broke its beak trying to escape. As the BC official website points out, the eagles must not have found Chestnut Hill to their liking.
Season Prediction: 10-2 (6-2). The schedule sets up nicely for Clemson, but that does not account for, you know, Clemsoning. (Yes, it’s a verb.) Still, the Tigers’ toughest games are at home (save an early matchup with Florida State in Tallahassee). If they get through FSU, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech with a 2-1 record, the Tigers should be in good shape. They have the talent offensively to have a fantastic season. If the defense can at least be average, the Tigers could still be the best team in the league.
Random mascot fact: Clemson used to have an additional mascot roam their sidelines in the football season. He was called the “Country Gentleman”, and he was active from 1939 until 1972. What else did Clemson stop around 1972? Playing “Dixie” and displaying the Confederate Navy Jack at games.
Season Prediction: 10-2 (6-2). This is the year for Florida State to finally live up to all the preseason hype. And 10-2 would sort of do that, if FSU’s losses were close ones to Clemson and Virginia Tech. There really aren’t many other excusable losses on their schedule, particularly considering the elite talent they have returning on both sides of the ball. But if the Seminoles get past their recent nemesis Wake Forest unscathed, they should be just fine. Right?
Random mascot fact: Yes, Chief Osceola might scare the children. But a goofy-looking horse named Cimarron? Florida State added the kid-friendly mascot in May of this year. And…just…..no.
Season Prediction: 9-3 (6-2). Georgia Tech’s ACC schedule is almost ideal: besides a midseason trip to Clemson, the Yellow Jackets drew Boston College and Maryland out of the Atlantic Division. The Yellow Jackets open with Virginia Tech on Labor Day, and that game has decided the Coastal Division champion every year since the ACC started holding a championship game. It’s worth noting that both North Carolina and Duke will face Georgia Tech coming off of a bye week. The Jackets are 5-10 under head coach Paul Johnson against opponents with more than a week to prepare.
Random mascot fact: Georgia Tech students wore yellow jackets, hence the Yellow Jacket mascot. It first appeared as a costumed mascot 1972. But this is pretty cool:
Season Prediction: 1-11, 0-8. Could have just used this picture. Considering the Terps were bad to begin with and are now racked with injuries, their only likely win will be William & Mary this Saturday. And that’s not a given.
Random mascot fact: In 1933, the Testudo bronze statue was unveiled outside of the football stadium (then Ritchie Coliseum). Unfortunately, it was not secured and so it was either stolen, defaced or painted quite a bit until 1951, when Maryland stored it in a shed. They ultimately filled it with 700 pounds of cement and secured it with rods and hooks. Johns Hopkins students still wanted to paint it, so when Maryland students caught them in the act, they shaved their heads.
Season Prediction: 5-7 (4-4). This young Miami team may not be ready for the brutal non-conference schedule that features Kansas State, Notre Dame and USF. Their ACC schedule isn’t much better as the Hurricanes will face Atlantic Division foes NC State and Florida State. Miami will be a much better team soon, but probably not this year.
Random mascot fact: Sebastian the ibis was not Miami’s first mascot: It was a dog (a boxer named “Hurricane”), who once lived with Yale’s mascot, the Bulldog “Handsome Dan”. The idea for the dog mascot was likely inspired by then-Miami president Bowman F. Ashe’s roots in New Haven, Connecticut.
Season Prediction: 6-6 (3-5). Richmond, TCU, Penn State and Louisiana Tech is a sneaky-difficult non-conference schedule. It’s hard to know what to expect from Virginia this year. The Cavaliers outperformed their talent level last year, and their schedule is tougher. They do get Maryland and Wake Forest out of the Atlantic Division at home, but have to travel to NC State. Virginia might upset an ACC team or two along the way, and this is a program that will keep improving, but it’s hard to imagine a huge leap this year.
Random mascot fact: Virginia’s first mascot was a dog named Beta. After his death, he was replaced by Seal (or The Great Seal of Virginia”), who is best known for – well, let’s let The Sabre tell it:
Seal’s claim to fame came in 1949 during halftime of the Pennsylvania football game at Franklin Field in Philadelphia. Wearing a blue blanket embossed with a large orange ‘V,’ Seal walked from the 50-yard line to the Pennsylvania sideline where the Penn cheerleaders had placed their megaphones. The rest of the event was recounted as follows in the Cavalier Daily. ‘Slowly he walked from midfield to the Quaker side. Indifferently he inspected their cheerleading appurtenances. Eighty thousand people watched with bated breath. Coolly, insolently, Seal lifted a leg–the rest is history.’
Season Prediction: 10-2 (6-2). Virginia Tech has a lot of question marks (particularly on offense), but the Hokies always seem to be there at the end of the year. The Hokies have Florida State and Clemson as their Atlantic Division foes, but they always seem to win the Coastal or come in second place. If the rest of the division lets the Hokies hang around, they’ll probably find a way to win it.
Random mascot fact: Virginia Tech was only known as the “Gobblers” for awhile. In 1913, a local resident was chosen by the students to serve as the mascot and he had a turkey pull him in a cart at a football game. That lasted just one game, unfortunately, because the school president thought it was cruel to the turkey. The man continued to walk the turkey up and down the sidelines after that, and by the early ’60’s, it was just a costumed “Gobbler”. Virginia Tech then arbitrarily changed “Gobbler” to “Hokie” in the late 1970’s. But it’s basically a turkey.
Season Prediction: 6-6 (4-4). As usual, Wake Forest is going to be a tough out for any ACC opponent this year. Avoiding Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech as a Coastal Division foe is a small victory for the Deacons. But they will (oddly enough) close the season with two straight non-conference games at Notre Dame and at home against Vanderbilt. Those games will likely determine Wake’s bowl eligibility. But you never know with Jim Grobe and company: they keep beating Florida State, so anything can happen.
Random mascot fact: The first appearance of a Demon Deacon in mascot form came when Jack Baldwin literally rode a ram into the football stadium before a matchup with North Carolina in 1941. His fraternity brothers dared him to dress up like what they thought a Demon Deacon was, and when he accepted, they outfitted him in a top hat, tails and an umbrella.
Even though cornerbacks are supposed to be able to forget bad plays, junior Ross Cockrell still remembers them. And he remembers when Duke opened the 2011 season against Richmond, taking the field for the game full of fire in their black jerseys, which were a surprise from head coach David Cutcliffe before the game.
About three hours and countless head-scratching mistakes later, Duke found themselves 0-1, having suffered an embarrassing loss to an FCS team yet again. “I think this year, we’re finally turning the curve and expecting to win,” Cockrell said. “Last year, I think we might have hoped to win more, but now we expect to win. I think now, the plays that didn’t go for us last year will start to go for us this year and we’ll see what happens.”
Cockrell is part of a Duke secondary that has been hit by a rash of injuries, particularly at safety. Taylor Sowell ruptured his Achilles and is out for the year, while projected starter Jordan Byas is out indefinitely after recent knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Walt Canty is the only experienced safety starting, and his backup, Anthony Young-Wiseman, is questionable with a leg injury. Three of the six healthy safeties on Duke’s depth chart are true freshmen, and they will almost certainly have to play on Saturday.
“What we have to watch with freshmen is cramping after pregame warmups, and that’s the truth. You expend way too energy as a young player, the anxiety, the pressure,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re going to be coming into that tunnel after pregame warmup, they’re going to be soaking wet. You’ve got to remind them to drink, take deep breaths.
“They’re pretty natural football players. I always remind them, it’s the same measurements on that field. Everything is the same that you’ve done all your life. Just forget it all when you get into the game. Then when somebody hits them really hard, all that nervousness is gone.”
In total, Duke will be down 11 scholarship players and that number could grow to 13 against a good Florida International team coming off of an eight-win season.
But this particular Duke team is prepared to face whatever lies ahead of them. When sophomore wide receiver Blair Holliday got in a watercraft accident on July 4 and suffered a serious head injury, his prognosis looked bleak at first. He has continued to improve steadily, and Duke will wear a No. 8 sticker on the back of their helmets this season.
Cutcliffe updates Holliday’s condition as often as he can, and on Wednesday, he went to see Holliday for the first time since he was moved to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. The Duke head coach saw Holliday’s mom and brother first. While he was speaking to them, he saw a tall and lanky person walking down the hallway towards him.
“He walked up and I was able to give him a big hug. It was the first time I’ve been able to hug him. You couldn’t hug him before. (He’s) free of monitors, free of wires,” Cutcliffe said. “It was pretty neat. I liked feeling small around him. He’s a big man in lots of ways.”
Holliday’s injury understandably shook his teammates. They have been inspired by his fight to recover. But even before his injury, that was a close-knit group. Since, it’s become something entirely different. They’re not just teammates and friends. There’s a deep bond that comes with shared experience.
“If a team that was out there that could handle this kind of adversity, it’s this team. And it’s a tribute to the older guys on the team, the quality of the character, the investment they’ve put into each other, the investment they’ve put into this program,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t know if people really understand the mentality here. I think it’s carried us to even another new place that we maybe needed to go, or found out we could go. There’s a closeness when you walk in our team room.”
Season Prediction: 5-7 (2-6). The final six games of the season will make or break bowl eligibility for Duke. If the Blue Devils get to that stretch of hosting Carolina, Clemson and Miami and traveling to Virginia Tech, Florida State and Georgia Tech with at least four wins, they’ll have a chance. But it’s hard to find even two more wins in that slate. It’s just the bad luck of the draw in ACC scheduling, but it may be what holds Duke back from reaching its first bowl game since 1995.
Junior quarterback Bryn Renner has been known to ride the proverbial emotional rollercoaster with the best of them. When he threw one of his 13 interceptions, his anger at himself was visible minutes later as he paced the sideline. But when he completed a long pass for a touchdown, his jubilation would be just as obvious as he fist-pumped and jumped into the waiting arms of his teammates with a big grin on his face.
His statistics often reflected his mercurial nature. In a home win over Wake Forest, Renner completed 21-of-28 passes for 338 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. The very next weekend at NC State, he completed just 9-of-17 passes for 76 yards and two interceptions.
Those two defenses were very different, but when Renner was brimming with confidence, he was difficult to stop. The NC State game was one of the first times that the pain Renner was feeling in his ankle showed on his face, and ended up leaving the game with a concussion.
And in the spring, coming off of surgery to remove bone spurs in his ankle, he tried too hard to impress new head coach Larry Fedora. “Until the spring game, I practiced like crap to be honest. I was terrible during the spring. As far as health-wise, trying to get the playbook down, it was a transition for me. But until the spring game, I practiced like crap and (the coaches) were probably saying the same thing.
“You get a new boss, so you want to go out there – if you had a regular job, you’re always going to want to impress the boss and make sure he knows you’re the right guy for the job. I put a little to much pressure on myself and I just didn’t come in and play my game.”
Renner has always been known as a gunslinger. But he also knows that in order for this team to be successful, he has to take better care of the ball. He completed 42 of his first 49 pass attempts last season, but four of those incompletions were interceptions. In Carolina’s seven wins, Renner threw 16 touchdowns to five interceptions. In six losses, he threw ten touchdowns and eight picks.
At times, it was like he wanted to push the limits of his own talent, trusting it sometimes even above his own better judgment. Now, he knows better. “I’ve got to be a game manager and protect the football first and foremost. If I do that, I think we’ve got enough skill players and enough talent around me to be a good football team,” Renner said.
“Obviously, the offense is only going to go as far as (Renner will) take us, or as far as he’s willing to take us. I know this…that guy’s got a lot of fire in him,” Fedora said. “He’s got a lot of want-to. So we’re going to be fine.”
Sophomore tailback Giovani Bernard will help that Carolina offense run smoothly, as will a very experienced offensive line (anchored by a preseason All-America selection at right guard, Jonathan Cooper). How good the wide receivers will be remains a mystery, but Carolina will have plenty of pass-catchers with a solid group of tight ends and backs. Fedora will implement his spread offense, but some pro-style elements likely will remain.
The Carolina defense, though, could struggle. Dan Disch and Vic Koenning are co-defensive coordinators, and the duo have implemented a 4-2-5 defense. The Tar Heels have two elite defenders in nose tackle Sylvester Williams and linebacker Kevin Reddick, and there are solid starters in both of those units.
While the secondary has experience returning, that’s not necessarily a good thing; Carolina’s pass defense was atrocious last season. The Tar Heels can only hope that Tre Boston’s move back to safety benefits the talented junior. Jabari Price and Tim Scott both started last season and showed flashes.
Elon likely won’t test Carolina’s secondary much, but a Week 2 trip to Wake Forest certainly will. The Elon game will gave everyone an indication of how far the Tar Heels have come on both sides of the ball in learning the new schemes.
Season Prediction: 8-4 (5-3). Carolina’s schedule is easy enough; a road game at Louisville will be tough, and Virginia Tech at home seems like a loss. It’s tough to know what exactly to expect with this team. Everything will be new. Still, Fedora’s enthusiasm combined with the talent remaining on this team (particularly offensively) should be enough for Carolina’s third 8-4 regular-season finish in the last four seasons. The Tar Heels seem like the type of team that might beat a team that is better than they are on paper (like an NC State) and lose to a team they should arguably beat (like Duke). But considering Carolina’s penchant for 8-4 finishes (and its relatively easy ACC schedule) 8-4 seems reasonable.
NC State is not heading to Atlanta carrying the ACC banner when they face Tennessee in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff game on Friday night at 7:30. “We’re going to play this for ourselves first, for this football team. We’re going to play it for our university, our student body and our faculty and our fans,” NC State head coach Tom O’Brien said. “The ACC falls in line after that.”
The ACC has lost early high-profile non-conference games in recent years that have made the league irrelevant later in the season without a national title contender. The ACC could really use a win over an SEC team. But O’Brien’s Wolfpack needs the early-season momentum even more.
Since 2007 (his first year at NC State), the Wolfpack has won their first game against an FBS opponent just once. That came in 2010 at Central Florida. And 2010 ended up being the Wolfpack’s best season under O’Brien (9-4). NC State has started the season with a winning record in its first five games just twice in the O’Brien era. Not coincidentally, the Wolfpack’s best start (4-1) also came in 2010. Last year, they started 2-3 (0-3 against FBS foes) but rallied with six wins in their final eight games.
Two of NC State’s five season-openers under O’Brien were against South Carolina, and NC State lost both. South Carolina was on the rise, and Tennessee was just 5-7 last season. But the Volunteers are rebuilding under third-year coach Derek Dooley. And Tennessee is still, as O’Brien put it, a brand-name program.
“It’s the third time in six years that we’ve opened with an SEC team, so it’s not like we haven’t been there before,” O’Brien said. “I think it’ll give us a great measuring stick of where we are and where we’re headed. It’ll be a big challenge but I think our kids are looking forward to the challenge.”
O’Brien knows better than anyone that the start of the season doesn’t determine how it ends. But he also knows that this team is special, and that an opportunity to beat an SEC team on national television shouldn’t be taken lightly. “It’s a great opportunity for us. We’re looking at it that way,” O’Brien said. “It’s a chance to do something special with our program and we’re looking at it in that light.”
And this team is more than capable of taking advantage of a big win to start the year. NC State’s 2012 squad is loaded with talented experience, something that’s been hard to come by in recent years, particularly defensively. State’s defensive line rotation is loaded with juniors and seniors, and the linebackers don’t have a lot of depth but are led by veteran Sterling Lucas.
But it’s the secondary that is NC State’s best unit, featuring arguably the nation’s best cornerback in David Amerson, who led the nation with 13 interceptions a year ago. A lot of the Wolfpack’s starters had to play earlier in their careers than they anticipated because of injuries, and that experience is paying off now.
The Wolfpack will also have its best offensive line under O’Brien, and quarterback Mike Glennon is coming off of a stellar end to 2011. “I think just the fact that I had been through so many experiences – in the beginning part of the season I hadn’t gone through particular situations, and then by the end of the season I had pretty much seen everything I could see,” Glennon said of his late-season surge. “The speed of the game continued to slow down and my managing of the game really started to improve.”
The only question marks are at running back, wide receiver and tight end. And O’Brien hopes to fill those roles by committee. At tight end, it was assumed junior Asa Watson would start, but he’s listed as third on the depth chart behind senior Mario Carter and junior Anthony Talbert. O’Brien says all of them will get work.
At wide receiver, Tobais Palmer is the only known commodity returning with Bryan Underwood out indefinitely. Junior Quintin Payton will start at the other wide receiver spot, and some freshmen will figure in to the mix as well. Sophomore running back Tony Creecy ended 2011 on a hot streak and after a strong spring and fall, he was named the starter. But sophomore Mustafa Greene and senior James Washington will also carry the load.
“There’s three guys, I’m not sure how they’re all going to play but they all will be in the game probably in the first half sometime on Friday night,” O’Brien said. “I think it’s a thing that as we play and go on, it will shake itself out. How it’s going to end up, it might be different certainly midyear than it is starting the year off. But those three kids all will be given opportunities and maybe the hottest guy will be the guy that plays in the second half.”
Season Prediction: 9-3 (5-3). Considering how slowly NC State has started some of its past seasons, so much depends on this first game. As O’Brien said, there are 11 more left after the Tennessee tilt, but it feels like NC State needs it to get some momentum. Win that, and the Wolfpack is likely to start out 4-0 and could be 5-0 by the time Florida State comes to town on October 6. And after that, only games at North Carolina and at Clemson remain as potential road blocks. Strange things happen in ACC football, and the Wolfpack has struggled with teams it should beat like Wake Forest and Boston College in the past. But it’s reasonable to think that if NC State wins its first game, barring a few strange happening in the ACC, the schedule sets up nicely.
It seems unimaginable that a Duke football team would have so much depth at a skill position like running back that it could afford to lose a three-year starter, but that’s how far the program has come under head coach David Cutcliffe.
Senior Desmond Scott became the 39th player in Duke history to rush for 1,000 career yards last season, but Duke is nine-deep at running back without him. As injuries have decimated the wide receiver corps, Scott has been called upon to help fill that void.
“There are a lot of goals that I have in mind and a lot of statements that I want to make and moving to receiver just makes those goals a lot more accomplishable and everything else achievable,” Scott said. When asked what those goals were, Scott said, “I’m pretty sure if you really look at the research and see from a player standpoint, you can probably figure out what those goals are.”
He has 548 receiving yards and 2,821 all-purpose yards, but perhaps most impressively, Scott has caught at least one pass in 26 straight games. It’s the sixth-longest active streak in the country and first among running backs.
He played wide receiver in high school, but as he put it, he just “ran the right route, caught the ball and ran.” Playing wide receiver in college is much tougher, and it’s a different animal than catching the ball out of the backfield as a running back.
“The biggest adjustment has been reading things on the go. From the running back position, you’re looking at a defense from the backfield and then whatever it is before the ball is snapped is what it is,” Scott said. “That’s not the same thing at receiver. You’ve got to read it on the go. They might roll the Cover 2. They might go to man. You never know pre-snap what it is going to be. You have to be ready to do it on the go.”
The position switch is really geared towards doing what Cutcliffe has strived to do since he came to Duke in 2008 – get all of his best playmakers on the field. “Desmond is a really good football player. … My whole thought process from January on is to find the people that are going to make those plays I was referring to. Finding our best six, if you will – counting the quarterback – playmakers,” Cutcliffe said.
Right now, Scott is learning the Y position (essentially the slot receiver). But he’s also learning a hybrid running back position where he might run some variations of the trendy Wildcat package. And he said that his experience at running back will help as he transitions to wide receiver.
He’s been going over the playbook on his brand new Duke-issued iPad since he got it a few weeks ago, studying everything from fellow wideout Conner Vernon’s technique to just the ins and outs of a play from the wide receiver perspective.
“I know now the entirety of the play. At running back, you’re just looking at a portion of the hand signals, a portion of the play. At wide receiver, you’re looking at a portion. But from being from both positions, I know the entirety of the play and I know what a linebacker will do, what the d-lineman might do. So I kind of know where everybody’s going to be on the field at one time,” Scott said.
Scott saw some action at wide receiver in the spring, but he wasn’t sure of his position switch until Monday when offensive coordinator Kurt Roper made it official. But knowing it might come, he spent the summer running routes with quarterback Sean Renfree. Every Sunday, the two would meet up to practice for an hour or so.
And his enthusiasm for the switch didn’t seem like a front for the media. He’s the first to admit that it won’t be easy. But in his career at Duke, both from a team and an individual perspective, nothing has.
“I’m not going to say it’s been easy because it hasn’t, but I’m embracing it. It’s my senior year. Life waits for no one,” Scott said. The assembled media had a chuckle at the notion of a 22-year-old reflecting on getting older.
“You laugh, but I’m so serious because just the other day I was in high school playing football and as a freshman, you it was like, ‘I’m going to be here for a long time. Man, these practices are hard and it’s hot outside.’ But it’s my senior season and I’m trying to take every moment in. I’m taking pictures to try to have them for the future. I’m doing everything that I can to savor these moments and with wide receiver, yes it’s been hard but I’m taking it all in.”