CFT predicts: the ACC

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Like the Big East, the ACC’s reputation in football has taken a dive in recent years. The conference has an insulting BCS bowl record and traditional powers (i.e, Florida State and Miami) can’t get back into the national championship picture.

That has an opportunity to change this season. Florida State is one of those preseason media darlings getting the “Watch out, this team’s back!” treatment. The Seminoles have fallen flat in the face of high expectations, though. Will this year be any different?

Looking ahead to the 2012 season, here’s how the ACC should shake out:

(Let it be known that I reserve the right to change my mind at any time without notice.)

Atlantic Division

1. Florida State (last season: 9-4; won Champs Sports Bowl) 
I know, I know. This is the year the Seminoles finally get back in the BCS championship picture, right? Eh, I’ve heard that musical number before. Florida State should be good this season, but that good? The defense, though? Holy cow. One of the best in the nation last year in points allowed should be equally stout this time around. My concern continues to be the FSU offense. The ‘Noles couldn’t run the ball at all last year and the offensive line was downright awful at times. While the O-line should be more cohesive this season, the emphasis is currently on “should.”

2. Clemson (last season: 10-4; lost Orange Bowl) 
Clemson returns practically all its offensive weapons from a year ago, minus tight end Dwayne Allen and backup running back Mike Bellamy. The real loss for the Tigers is in the trenches along the offensive and defensive line — not to mention receiver Sammy Watkins for the first two games of the season due to a drug-related suspension. That could end up being problematic, and to me, that’s the difference between the Tigers and the ‘Noles. Tajh Boyd put up good numbers last year, but he can’t be under pressure the whole year. New defensive coordinator Brent Venables will try to turn the defense around.

3. North Carolina State (last season: 8-5; won Belk Bowl) 
The Wolfpack has one of the best players in the secondary in all of college football in David Amerson … who somehow was not a unanimous preseason All-ACC first-team selection. Anyway, N.C. State also has one of the better, yet under-the-radar quarterbacks in Mike Glennon. The Wolfpack return most of their starters from a year ago and get the benefit of skipping Virginia Tech on this season’s schedule.

4. Wake Forest (last season: 6-7; lost Music City Bowl) 
Jim Grobe enters his 12th season as the head coach of Wake Forest with an overall record of 68-67. The Demon Deacons were trending down for a few years after their 2007 Orange Bowl appearance, but this program seems to have regained some of its mojo last season. There’s some heavy turnover on the offense, especially along the O-line, but conference slate is manageable enough that Wake can manage a middle-of-the-pack finish.

5. Maryland (last season: 2-10) 
Things couldn’t have gone much worse for Randy Edsall in his first season with Maryland. As much as I don’t think Edsall is the right fit for the Terps, he’s too good a coach — yes, he is; he took UConn (UConn!) to a BCS bowl — to have another season as disastrous as his first. In fact, Maryland can get off to a good start with an easy non-conference schedule (save West Virginia) to give the Terps some confidence heading into their Oct. 6 game against Wake Forest. Once November rolls around, though, things get tough with games against Georgia Tech, Clemson, Florida State and North Carolina.

6. Boston College (last season: 4-8)
Boston College lost its two best players on either side of the ball — running back Montel Harris (rushed for 3,735 career yards) and linebacker Luke Kuechly — and Frank Spaziani has a grueling year ahead of him to try to save his job. BC’s program has tanked fast.

Coastal Division

1. Virginia Tech (last season: 11-3; lost Sugar Bowl) 
The Hokies are almost always the favorite to win the Coastal, and this year is no exception. Logan Thomas is gaining a lot of offseason whispers as a potential high-round NFL draft pick because of his size, but keep in mind this will only be his second full year as a starter. Tech is just one of those teams that always knows who they are, which is why Frank Beamer enjoys annual success. The back-end of the schedule features two big games for the Hokies: at Clemson on Oct. 20 — the Tigers swept Va. Tech in two games last year — and at home against Florida State Nov. 8. According to these projections, and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking this, it could be the first of two games between the Hokies and the Seminoles.

2. North Carolina (last season: 7-6; lost Independence Bowl)
Larry Fedora takes over a program that was firmly in the crosshairs of NCAA — the Tar Heels aren’t eligible to go to a bowl this season. The offense has playmakers in quarterback Bryn Renner and running back Giovani Bernard, so the scoring potential for Fedora’s spread offense is certainly there. Protecting Renner will be an offensive line featuring two all-conference selections in James Hurst and Jonathan Cooper.

3. Georgia Tech (last season: 8-5; lost Sun Bowl) 
The ACC Coastal field levels off and fast here. Georgia Tech returns 17 starters from a year ago, including quarterback Tevin Washington. Who Washington will throw to — when the Yellow Jackets throw — remains a question mark. For a team that runs the triple option, Ga. Tech has had some good receivers come out of the program in recent years, most recently Stephen Hill. The defense is a veteran group led by linebacker Julian Burnett.

4. Virginia (last season: 8-5; lost Chick-fil-A Bowl)
The Cavaliers upgrade their quarterback spot with Alabama transfer Phillip Sims. Linebacker Steve Greer returns after earning all-conference honors last year. I like the direction Mike London has Virginia headed and the schedule this season sets up well. No Florida State. No Clemson.

5. Miami (last season: 6-6)
The Hurricanes are dealing with a lot of turnover on offense and losing Ray-Ray Armstrong due to off-the-field issues hurts this team’s secondary. There really aren’t any guaranteed wins between mid-September and the season-ending game against Duke, either. Al Golden has one year under his belt in Miami, but this could shape up to be a rough one.

6. Duke (last season: 3-9)
The Blue Devils have 16 returning starters. Unfortunately, this team will be playing with wide receiver Blair Holliday on its mind. Holliday was involved in an offseason jet ski accident that put him temporarily in a coma. Coach David Cutcliffe will use it as a rallying point for his team, but it looks like another tough season for the Blue Devils. The final six games for this team (at VT, UNC, at FSU, Clemson, at GT, Miami) are brutal.

ACC champion: Virginia Tech

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Interested in our other 10 conference projections along with Division 1-A (FBS) Independents? View ’em all below by clicking the individual links or our projections landing page HERE. And don’t forget to check out CFT’s preseason Top 25.

Big East
Big Ten
Big 12
Conference USA
MAC
Mountain West
Pac-12
SEC
Sun Belt
WAC
Independents

Oregon State reportedly finds new head coach in Beau Baldwin

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As coaching vacancies are opening up, one report Friday night says Oregon State has filled their vacancy in the football program. Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin is reported to be slated as the next head coach of the Beavers, according to Football Scoop.

The hire is expected to happen quickly at the conclusion of this weekend’s Pac-12 action. Cal is playing UCLA Friday night in the season finale for the Bears, and Oregon State plays Oregon on Saturday.

Baldwin joined the Cal staff under new head coach Justin Wilcox after eight seasons as the head coach at Eastern Washington, one of the top FCS programs over that span. Baldwin will be no stranger to the Pac-12 North, having competed against a handful of Pac-12 opponents over the years and even winning. As a head coach at Eastern Washington, and before that at Division 2 Central Washington, Baldwin has a record of 95-35 with a national championship at Eastern Washington in 2010.

Oregon State’s head coaching position opened up on October 9 when Gary Andersen mutually agreed with the university to part ways, leaving behind a buyout as part of the agreement.

No. 25 Virginia Tech defeats Virginia for 14th straight year

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It’s been a long time since the last time Virginia handed their in-state rivals from Blacksburg a loss, and it will be at least another year more until they do so again. No. 25 Virginia Tech (9-3, 5-3 ACC) extended their winning streak against Virginia (6-6, 3-5 ACC) to 14 with a 10-0 win in Charlottesville on Friday night.

Josh Jackson‘s eight-yard touchdown pass to Chris Cunningham was the only touchdown scored in the game and padded a lead to 10-0 for Virginia Tech in the third quarter. A week after making big plays for a half against Miami, Virginia’s offense was finding little opportunity with the football. Virginia Tech held the hosts to fewer than 200 yards of offense.

The last time Virginia Tech lost to Virginia was in 2003. The Cavaliers upset the No. 21 Hokies 35-21 with a 28-7 advantage in the second half. Virgina Tech’s shutout of Virginia was the third shutout victory in the series for the Hokies since 2006, all with Bud Foster as defensive coordinator.

Both Virginia Tech and Virginia will be participating in the bowl season this year. What bowl games that are heading to remains to be determined.

Iowa clobbers Nebraska in what appears to be end of the road for Mike Riley

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The Iowa Hawkeyes have been one of the weirdest teams to figure out this season. On Friday, the Hawkeye faithful were thankful the good Iowa showed up in Lincoln. Iowa (7-5, 4-5 Big Ten) blasted Nebraska (4-8, 306 Big Ten) on the strength of a 28-point outburst in the third quarter of a 56-14 victory over the Huskers. For Nebraska, it was a fitting end to a disappointing season and perhaps the final nail in the coffin of the Mike Riley era in Lincoln.

Iowa became the third team to win three straight games played in Lincoln, Nebraska in the last 40 years. Oklahoma and Texas are the only two programs to pull off that once-unthinkable feat. But since Nebraska joined the Big Ten and paired up with Iowa for a regular season rivalry in the Big Ten schedule, the Hawkeyes have enjoyed their trips to Nebraska. This just happened to be the biggest blowout in the Big Ten series, and it came one year after Iowa blew out Nebraska by a 40-10 score the previous season. For those counting at home, Nebraska has now lost two straight games to Iowa by a combined score of 96-34.

Nebraska managed to show some fight late in their road game at Penn State last week, but Iowa was having none of that this week. The Hawkeyes out-gained Nebraska 505-267 in offensive yardage and Iowa forced three Nebraska turnovers while picking up 23 first downs and allowing just 12. Nebraska went the entire second half without scoring a point, while Iowa went on a roll. This game was tied 14-14 at halftime, believe it or not.

Iowa running back Akrum Wadley took over the game for the Hawkeyes. Wadley rushed for 165 yards and three touchdowns, with two of those scores coming in the third quarter.

Iowa will now go to a bowl game, while Nebraska is tasked with figuring out what to do next. Unlike at Arkansas, where the plug was pulled on Bret Bielema minutes after losing a regular season finale at home, Mike Riley is still employed by Nebraska. But for how much longer? Rumors about where Nebraska is going next continue to swirl, with UCF head coach Scott Frost being a trendy name to attach to the Nebraska job (Frost just completed an undefeated 11-0 season at UCF), but there has been no official change just yet in Lincoln.

But with an AD change this year and the way this season devolved, Riley’s days are all but over in Lincoln.

No. 15 UCF remains perfect after wild win over USF clinches AAC East

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I’ll allow you to try catching your breath before we try to recap exactly what happened in the final minutes of the War on I-4 between two AAC championship contenders. No. 15 UCF (11-0, 8-0 AAC) came out on the positive end of a wild and crazy ending to keep the regular season spotless in the loss column. UCF scored a go-ahead touchdown, gave up a tying touchdown, scored the game-winning touchdown and recovered a late fumble to close the books on a 49-42 victory over rival USF (9-2, 6-2 AAC) in the span of just two minutes.

UCF and USF combined for over 1,100 yards of offense in the back-and-forth game, but UCF scored three touchdowns in the first and fourth quarters to get off to a fast start and find a way to grab the game by the horns and drive it home. McKinzie Milton passed for 373 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 56 yards and a score to help the Knights outlast a valiant effort from Quinton Flowers and a record-setting day for USF wide receiver Tyre McCants. Flowers passed for 503 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 102 yards and a score. McCants broke the USF record for most receiving yards in a game in the first half, but ended his day with 227 yards.

USF had their opportunities to win this game. The Bulls missed a field goal in the first half and Flowers threw his only interception late in the first half when it appeared the Bulls could have taken a lead into halftime. The fumble by Mitchell Wilcox came at the end of a play that was moving the ball across midfield in the final moments. USF, the preseason favorite in the AAC, will still be going to a bowl game and should be a threat to whomever they face, but two losses along the way prevented them from living up to the lofty expectations placed on them this season.

UCF will host Memphis in the AAC Championship Game next week. The winner of that game will be nearly guaranteed a spot in the New Years Six bowl line-up as both teams are currently the highest-ranked teams in the playoff selection committee’s weekly rankings. UCF defeated Memphis earlier in the season with a 40-13 victory in Orlando, but the Tigers have been playing much better since that game. The rematch should be much more competitive next week.

UCF wrapped up a perfect regular season on the same day No., 2 Miami suffered its first loss of the year. UCF is now the only undefeated team in the state of Florida this season.