Fair or not, the lasting image of the ACC’s 2011 season is the 70 points hung on conference champion Clemson by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
The good news for the conference is there’s plenty of talent to get beyond that image. As noted by ESPN.com ACC blogger Heather Dinich, a wealth of experienced and talented quarterbacks will return in 2012, including Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas.
Of course, there are many questions entering the spring for members of the ACC. Can Clemson stop Clemsoning itself and put together a won-loss record that matches its talent level? Can the Hokies reascend to its traditional spot atop the conference? Or, will a surprise team — London calling? — shakeup the top of league?
The answers to those questions and many, many more won’t be answered for several months, but we can take a look into some of the storylines that will be woven into the ACC’s spring story.
Tigers need to get defensive
Arguably the biggest move for Clemson this offseason was one that didn’t happen, with head coach Dabo Swinney and the athletic department’s bank account being able to beat back a significant push by Ohio State for the services of offensive coordinator Chad Morris. The biggest move that did come to fruition? Replacing defensive coordinator Kevin Steele with Oklahoma’s Brent Venables. After the 70-point bowl debacle, parting ways with Steele was inevitable and necessary outside of the bowl debacle; the Tigers finished 81st in points allowed and 71st in total yards per game in 2011. Venables’ defense will begin its implementation during the spring. While the fruits of change won’t be realized until September — at the earliest — there may not have been a more significant change in the conference, one that needs to work if Clemson wants to become more than a bit player on the national scene.
Water wet, sky blue, FSU’s back
Like flowers blooming or getting gouged by the tax man, trumpeting Florida State’s return to relevance on the national stage has become an annual rite of spring. The Seminoles were preseason sweethearts last year — some dolt had them as high as No. 2 before the start of the 2011 season — but stumbled its way to an 8-4 record in the regular season that included losses to Wake Forest and Virginia. It’s undeniable that, on paper, the talent is there with top-ten recruiting classes each of the past four years and 15 starters returning from last year’s squad. Perhaps the biggest question mark for FSU entering the spring? The offensive line, a group sorely lacking in experience and a unit that must begin to find some clarity in these upcoming offseason sessions.
Edsall, Edsel, whatever… it’s still a lemon
It seems that the embarrassing offseason at Maryland has overshadowed somewhat the abysmal on-field product during Randy Edsall‘s first season with the Terps. And what an abysmal mess it was. After opening the Edsall era — a loose term, for obvious reasons — with a win over Miami, the Terps proceeded to win just one of its next 11 games to cap a 10-loss season. And things didn’t get much better after that two-win debacle; a change at coordinator on both sides of the ball and the transfer of erstwhile starting quarterback Danny O’Brien along with both starting offensive tackles and several other key contributors makes this second spring wrought with more uncertainty than the first one. Changing offensive and defensive schemes, several quality players fleeing what looks, smells and feels like a sinking ship? Not exactly what Edsall and his program needs coming into a season that has must-have turnaround written all over it, regardless of how staunch his boss’ support is at this time.
Everything’s Hokie-dory in Blacksburg
Lather, rinse, repeat, right? Well, maybe. Here’s the known for the Hokies entering the spring: they will be really good on defense, returning nine starters from a Bud Foster-led squad that finished in the Top Ten nationally last year. On offense, there’s Thomas and… well… a lot of question marks. Starting running back David Wilson and his 1,709 yards needs replaced. As does his backup. As do the Hokies’ two leading receivers, with the departed Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin accounting for nearly half (121) of the Hokies’ 243 receptions. How to replace that offensive production — over 3,700 yards among the four out of nearly 5,800 yards of total offense in 2011 — will be the Hokies’ top priority this spring and go a long way in determining how far Tech can go this season. Then again, given the fact that Frank Beamer & Company play the plug-and-succeed game as well as anyone in the country — eight consecutive 10-win-plus seasons, 13 in his 21 seasons in Blacksburg — anything less than another division/conference crown would be more than a mild surprise even with the offensive attrition.
ACC working on London time?
Virginia doesn’t have the talent that conference foes Clemson or Virginia Tech or Florida State or Miami can throw out on any given Saturday, but it does have something those perennial ACC contenders don’t: arguably the best football coach in the conference. Mike London — and the underrated coaching staff he’s assembled — has the Cavaliers on the verge of a borderline miracle — making the Hoos a have year-in and year-out. Last year was a glimpse into what the future may hold for the Cavs as a loss in the regular-season finale to in-state rival Tech was the only thing keeping them from the Coastal’s spot in the conference title game. If the Hoos are hoping for a repeat or better in 2012, however, London must do something about a defense that will be forced to replace six starters from last year’s team.