Can Mack get it on track?
Coach Mack Brown’s much-celebrated return to North Carolina begins its turn toward the field this week. Brown has built plenty of positive momentum in Chapel Hill since he arrived seven months ago, hiring a solid cast of assistants and raising the profile in recruiting. The question now is whether he can save the football program for a second time, and despite going 2-9 last season there’s reason to believe Carolina is closer to becoming a bowl team than it might appear.
Offense has been the main issue over the past two seasons, and if Sam Howell can be even average at quarterback, Carolina has a host of playmakers: Michael Carter and Antonio Williams at running back and Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome at receiver.
New leaders of the Pack
With 11 players chosen in the NFL Draft over the past two seasons, this is the start of a new era for N.C. State — one without those familiar faces such as Ryan Finley, Kelvin Harmon, Reggie Gallaspy, Germaine Pratt or Garrett Bradbury to lead the way.
So, what’s in store? Good question. It’s clear that Coach Dave Doeren has raised the level of talent in Raleigh, bringing in two top-30 recruiting classes in a row while dominating in-state recruiting in the most recent class. Matt McKay is the favorite to win the starting quarterback job, and he’ll have weapons Emeka Emezie and Thayer Thomas.
Ultimately, State’s ability to be a bowl team could come down to whether a defense that struggled last season can improve from 66th in total defense and 45th in scoring.
How good is Wake Forest?
As good as its defense.
Coach Dave Clawson has built the program up to a standard of being a bowl team, having won three straight, but the Deacons are in need of major improvement defensively to take the next step. That could happen this season with the return of several key players, but Wake Forest has work to do along the line aside from Boogie Basham.
Either way, the Deacons should be good enough offensively to overcome defensive struggles, whether it's Sam Hartman or Jamie Newman who wins the starting job at quarterback. Cade Carney will be a workhorse at running back, and Sage Surratt, Scotty Washington and Nolan Groulx make up a solid group of receivers.
Replacing Daniel Jones
Somehow, finding a replacement for a quarterback that went sixth in the NFL Draft isn’t Duke’s biggest concern this season. As good as Daniel Jones was for the Blue Devils over the past three seasons, his numbers weren’t astronomical and it wouldn’t be impossible for Quentin Harris to replicate them.
Instead, the issue for Duke is a lack of proven playmakers at receiver, a shaky offensive line and inexperience at linebacker and on the edge.
There’s a lot of uncertainty for the Blue Devils this season, and while David Cutcliffe continues to do magical (seriously, magical) work in Durham, the schedule doesn’t set up well for a team that will be feeling things out this season.
ACC Network launch nearing
There won’t be much news on the ACC Network front, but with a month remaining until it goes live, there will be plenty of reflection about the long road that brought the league here. This is what expansion was all about, realigning the ACC for the future as television revenues went nuts in the early 2000s, ending the old round-robin format and bringing uncomfortable changes. The new source of income stands to change the league significantly within the next several years.
Virginia Tech has dominated the commonwealth for two decades, winning 15 straight meetings with Virginia and 19 of 20 dating to 1999. That could change this season as Coach Bronco Mendenhall has the Cavaliers on the upswing while the future is blurry for Justin Fuente and the Hokies.
Virginia Tech dipped to 6-7 last season after Fuente won 19 games in the previous two seasons, and with recruiting off to a slow start for 2020, there are questions about the future after 13 transfers left the program this spring.
Meanwhile in Charlottesville, Mendenhall returns one of the league’s top quarterbacks, Bryce Perkins, and the majority of a group that ranked 20th in total defense.
State of Florida State
By the lofty standards set by the Seminoles over the past 35 years, the 2018 season was an abject disaster, as Coach Willie Taggart’s maiden voyage in Tallahassee ended with the program missing a bowl game for the first time since 1981 and FSU’s first losing season since 1976.
Everything went wrong: Offense, defense, scoring and turnovers. The managers probably had bad days inflating the footballs.
But, there’s at least a reasonable explanation after a Bleacher Report story detailed exactly what Taggart was up against in his first season, looking to change the culture left behind by Jimbo Fisher. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture of what FSU had become, and if Taggart’s track record is any indication, the program’s culture will be back on the right track soon.
A few new faces
Former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz takes over a ready-made program in Miami with the potential to win the Coastal Division behind a group that ranked fourth nationally in total offense. It’ll be up to Diaz and his staff to find a way for either N’Kosi Perry or Tate Martell to improve an offense that was 66th in scoring, 113th in passing and 105th in total offense.
The league’s other newcomers face steeper climbs. Scott Satterfield, 40-11 over the past four seasons coaching at Appalachian State, will be cleaning up a mess left behind after the bottom fell out on Bobby Petrino and Louisville. In Atlanta, Geoff Collins, 15-10 in two seasons at Temple, will rebuild the program from the ground up as Georgia Tech moves away from the triple option.
The second best team is...
Dino Babers has his program set up to win 10 games for a second straight season, which last happened in 1992 when Syracuse finished the season ranked No. 6.
Tommy DeVito takes over an offense that ranked 11th in scoring and 19th in total offense last season while tallying 20 plays from scrimmage of 40 or more yards. Defense was shaky at times last season, but Babers will have seven starters back this season and Syracuse should again be in line for a nice bowl trip.
Can anyone challenge Clemson?
Let’s not get silly.
The Tigers are one of two truly elite programs in college football and this doesn’t end until Dabo Swinney is no longer coaching in Death Valley.