CBSSports.com Senior Writer

ACC: Florida State leads conference renaissance

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So far, there is nothing you can touch at Florida State. No banners, no trophies, nothing tangible to show it's going to change.

Nothing different other than change itself. The NCAA had its way with the football program, then T.K. Wetherell had his way with Bobby Bowden. What's left are the smoking embers from one of the most amazing dynasties in the history of the game. FSU hopes to go from one of the best stories in the nation to one of the best comeback stories.

Jimbo Fisher has been on the job for 8½ months and completely changed the culture. Body fat is down. Everything from the team GPA to optimism is up. The Seminoles are being picked by some to win the ACC Atlantic Division, at least. A Nick Saban disciple, Fisher looks like he has the Seminoles thinking bigger, fast-tracked for a return to glory.

"A lot of people are going to be surprised at the way we look when the season starts," quarterback Christian Ponder said.

Except that there is more work to do than just in Tallahassee. FSU is a mile marker on how far the ACC has come. The preseason AP poll told us so on Saturday. For the first time since 2006, Florida, Florida State and Miami are ranked. Who knew it had been that long? The poll is merely an indicator at this point, but it's past time for the 'Canes and 'Noles to regain their place in the national landscape. It was also a reminder of how mightily the league has struggled since expansion.

The ACC basically expanded because it could get FSU and Miami under the same tent. Along with Michigan-Ohio State and North Carolina-Duke, it is one of the most valued television properties around. Remember the Labor Day night extravaganzas featuring the 'Noles and 'Canes? Seemed like a good idea at the time.

The question, now, is will all three schools be in the Top 25 at the end of the season? Florida is a given as it pursues a third national championship in five years. FSU and Miami? Put it this way: College football needs them to be good. Throw in Notre Dame, Michigan and Georgia too. They're also trying to regain lost glory. The sport is diminished without its traditional powers. In this case, we need more wide rights. We need more trash-talking. We've already lost Bobby and it doesn't feel right.

Things are looking up as Jimbo Fisher is now in charge at Florida State. (Getty Images)  
Things are looking up as Jimbo Fisher is now in charge at Florida State. (Getty Images)  
"It's all on us," Miami defensive end Allen Bailey said. "I've seen a team that has grown for the last three, four years."

It's bad enough that Florida and Miami don't meet every year. As a fan of college football it seems right to root that Miami and FSU come back. The stage is set: An argument could be made that the ACC is the third-best conference this season (after the SEC and Big Ten). The league has produced a surprising number of NFL draftees in recent years. Virginia Tech might have the deepest backfield in the country. Pending NCAA approval, North Carolina could have the best defense in the country.

But if this season is all about comebacks, then it has to end with Miami and Florida State playing twice, the second time Dec. 4 in the ACC title game in Charlotte, N.C. The 'Canes will have to get through another brutal early schedule. Win at Ohio State on Sept. 11 and we'll have to reevaluate everything. Quarterback Jacory Harris is back from a thumb injury. Ponder has his own Heisman website, having returned from shoulder surgery. There are holes in both programs. There always are. Hopefully not enough to keep from turning the tent into a circus for the ACC.

"Comeback," Ponder said, "has taken on a different meaning for me."

Offensive Player of the Year

Christian Ponder, QB, Florida State: He'll never do that again. I'm talking about taking on Clemson's DeAndre McDaniel after an interception last year. The resulting injury caused Ponder to miss the final four games of the season. After an offseason of rehab, Ponder is back stronger and itching to get the 'Noles back in the national conversation. He will have enough weapons to throw for 3,000 yards and 25 or so touchdowns. Equally important, he is strong enough as a leader to get Florida State back on track. It's hard to argue against an MBA, a 3.7 GPA -- and a rocket arm.

Defensive Player of the Year

Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina: It's hard to stand out on North Carolina's defense. It seems like all the Tar Heels can bring it. Only history will tell us how many NFL Draft choices are playing on this unit this season. Quinn was No. 15 nationally in tackles for loss (19). He was second in the ACC in sacks (11) to go along with six forced fumbles. Woe to the offensive tackles in the ACC this season.

Predicted order of finish

Atlantic Division

1. Florida State: It's about time, right? Once FSU Nation gets over Bowden's cruel departure, it will realize that happy times are here again. Fisher's ascension means the program will once again be a national player. The offense will continue to average 400 yards and 30 points per game. The problem is the defense, which gave up that much per game. If you subscribe to the theory that things can't get much worse on that side of the ball, welcome to a 9-3/10-2 season. Am I in the tank for Jimbo? Send a snorkel. Must-see game: Oct. 9 at Miami. Please, please, please let these two teams be undefeated when they meet. Not likely with FSU playing Oklahoma and BYU in September. Miami has to play Ohio State, Pittsburgh and Clemson before the 'Noles. Still, it's a classic.

ACC Quick Hits
Best offense: Virginia Tech
Best defense: North Carolina
Sleeper team: North Carolina
Coach of the year: Jimbo Fisher, Florida State
Offensive player: Christian Ponder, Florida State
Defensive player: Robert Quinn, North Carolina
Game of the Year: Virginia Tech at Miami, Nov. 20
ACC Championship: Virginia Tech over Florida State
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2. Clemson: Thank you Kyle Parker. By picking college football over pro baseball (for now), the quarterback gave the Tigers a better chance to defend their division title. Not that there aren't folks who want to see backup Tajh Boyd. But if the first NCAA athlete to throw 20 touchdown passes and hit 20 home runs had gone to baseball, Clemson would be diminished. C.J. Spiller is off to the NFL. We'll see how his replacement, sophomore Andre Ellington, does. Ellington averaged 7.2 yards per carry. Four of five offensive line starters return. Da'Quan Bowers had 10½ tackles for loss as a sophomore. While taking out Ponder, McDaniel, an All-American safety, had one of his eight interceptions. Must-see game: Sept. 18 at Auburn. Hasn't Clemson been the de facto 13th SEC member for a while? This is where the Tigers (vs. the Tigers) get to prove it. In the last meeting three years ago, Auburn won 23-20 in overtime in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

3. Boston College: Linebacker Mark Herzlich will be the spiritual leader after returning from a battle with cancer. That solidifies a linebacking group that features freshman All-American Luke Kuechly and senior Mike Morrissey. Coach Frank Spaziani would like more consistency out of quarterback Dave Shinskie. Junior tailback Montel Harris (1,457 yards, 14 touchdowns) will take off some of the pressure. BC never seems to go away, having won at least eight games for nine straight seasons. Must-see game: Oct. 2 vs. Notre Dame. Catholics vs. Catholics. BC had won six in a row until last season's emotional four-point loss in South Bend.

4. North Carolina State: Time for Tom O'Brien to step up. No, really, step up as in if he doesn't, it's his job. The Pack have yet to finish above .500 in O'Brien's three seasons. It doesn't make sense. T.O. was consistent as hell at a private school (Boston College). Now, with supposedly more resources he can't make it go. Linebacker Nate Irving returns after missing all of '09 because of a car accident. Russell Wilson is one of the ACC's best quarterbacks not named Ponder. Could the non-con be any tougher? At Central Florida, Cincinnati and at East Carolina. T.O. is going to have to hustle to get those six wins. Must-see game: Oct. 28 vs. Florida State. Remember when a guy named Chuck Amato gave FSU fits? Hasn't happened lately. O'Brien is 0-3 vs. the FSU. This is almost a must-win game (on a Thursday night) considering the schedule.

5. Wake Forest: Four years removed from that magical ACC title, the Deacons take a step back. Jim Grobe has lost too much. It started to show last season when Wake lost seven games, five by a total of 13 points. Riley Skinner is gone. The middle of the defensive line is extremely inexperienced. Grobie will beat someone he's not supposed to beat, but that's about it. Getting five wins again might indicate progress. Must-see game: Sept. 18 at Stanford. Winners all get Rhodes scholarships.

6. Maryland: Three-fourths of the two-deep is back, but that team lost 10 games. The program seems to have lost its momentum. Look out for receiver/returner Torrey Smith (all-ACC at receiver). The opener against Navy in Baltimore will be a referendum on the season. If the Terps can win, they could start 3-1, winning more games than they did all of last season. Must-see game: Nov. 27 vs. N.C. State. If you have any respect for Fridge, you will turn out to honor him for what looks like his last game at Maryland.

Coastal

1. Virginia Tech: Loaded on offense. Not so much on defense. Doesn't matter. I'm betting on any defense that has Bud Foster as its coordinator. Frank Beamer will have to decide how to play his two franchise backs, Darren Evans and Ryan Williams. Tyrod Taylor is an East Coast Terrelle Pryor who must move up to the next level for the Hokies to challenge for a national championship. They can if they beat Boise State in that do-or-die opener. Must-see game: Nov. 20 at Miami. Showdown for Coastal.

2. Miami (Fla.): You have to assume that Harris will be great. He was merely good in '09, leading ACC quarterbacks with 3,352 yards. You have to assume that there is a chip on some shoulders after being pushed around by Wisconsin in the bowl game. You have to assume that Miami will again become Miami soon. Will it be this season? Three offensive linemen have to be replaced. The schedule is brutal. Again. If you assume Miami is back then read on ... Must-see game: Sept. 11 at Ohio State. You will know if the 'Canes are back after this one. In a rematch of the 2002 championship game, Miami must at least play well to show that Randy Shannon is making progress.

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3. Georgia Tech: Everything Paul Johnson said two years ago came true: The option would work against BCS conference defenses. His receivers would catch passes (Hello, Demaryius Thomas). What he didn't promise was an ACC title, but that came in Johnson's second season. The defending ACC champions aren't going to slip much. Quarterback Josh Nesbitt became the 49th player to rush and pass for 1,000 yards. B-back Jonathan Dwyer left, but big things are expected from former Louisville transfer Anthony Allen. Former Virginia coach Al Groh was brought in to install the 3-4. Coordinating a defense is what Groh does best. Must-see game: Sept. 18 at North Carolina. If the Yellow Jackets are going to challenge for the Coastal we'll know after this game. Tech held Carolina to 154 yards and controlled the ball for more than 42 minutes in last season's meeting.

4. North Carolina: Butch Davis is a fixer. His job at Miami should get him to the Hall of Fame. But if Carolina's coach has to do it again, well, even Davis' skills might be trumped by another NCAA investigation. As of Thursday, the NCAA was still snooping around regarding agent issues possibly involving Marvin Austin and Greg Little. On a more positive note, Carolina does have that monster D. Safety Deunta Williams picked off six passes. Quinn is a terror off the edge. Linebacker Quan Sturdivant had 11 tackles for loss. Aside from the NCAA, the key to the season is quarterback T.J. Yates. If he merely manages games, the Heels can win the division. If he continues being T.J. Yates, (14 TDs, 15 interceptions last season) his performance could negate the defense. Must-see game: Sept. 4 vs. LSU in Atlanta. Who will be eligible to play?

5. Duke: If the bar is set low enough, it's not too hard to jump over it. That's where David Cutcliffe stands at Duke heading into his third season. He has won nine games in two seasons -- five in 2009 when the Blue Devils flirted with bowl eligibility but lost their final four. Duke had to win seven because it played two I-AAs, but to be 5-3 late in the season was a major accomplishment. Nine starters return on offense. Sophomore quarterback Sean Renfree showed some flashes before tearing an ACL. Must-see game: Sept. 18 vs. Alabama. AD Kevin White and Cutcliffe want more fans at games, right? They'll sell out this one. Cut faces his alma mater, which he has beaten twice in six meetings.

6. Virginia: Former Richmond coach Mike London was the correct hire. But he doesn't have a broom big enough to clean up Virginia in one season. Marc Verica is the only QB on the roster who has thrown a pass. Unfortunately in Verica's case, it has been erratically. He has twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. The leading returning rusher (Torrey Mack) had 73 yards last season. The offense averaged less than 20 points and 300 yards. On defense, seven starters return from a unit that was 95th in rush defense. Must-see game: Sept. 4 vs. Richmond. London coached at Richmond the past two seasons.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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