Early picks: Clemson, FSU the ACC's best

January, 26, 2012
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A lot can and will change for each ACC roster between now and the opening kickoff. There are position battles to be won and lost, unfortunately injuries almost always occur, and you never know how teams will adjust to offseason hires and new philosophies. Based on what we know now, though, here are my top picks for the best of the best in the ACC heading into 2012:

OFFENSE: Clemson. It was a record-setting first season for offensive coordinator Chad Morris. The Tigers finished second in the ACC and No. 24 in the country in scoring offense with 33.57 points per game last year. Yes, the offensive line must be rebuilt, and that will be the key to Clemson's offensive success, but with playmakers like quarterback Tajh Boyd, receiver Sammy Watkins and running back Andre Ellington all returning, you can't go wrong with this pick.

Runner-up: NC State. The Wolfpack returns four starters on the offensive line, quarterback Mike Glennon, and running back Mustafa Greene should be back from an injury.

DEFENSE: Florida State. This should really be a tie with Virginia Tech. Both return nine starters, both allowed Clemson to score at least 35 points, and both were ranked among the top 10 in the nation last year in scoring defense. The Seminoles, though, were No. 4 in the country in both scoring defense and total defense, and No. 2 against the run. What separates Florida State right now is the depth the staff is building on the defensive line. With the additions expected in the 2012 recruiting class, the Noles should have one of the deepest and most talented defensive lines in the country.

Runner-up: Virginia Tech. If Bud Foster worked that magic with last year's young group, what will he do with a more experienced bunch? The rest of the ACC should be concerned.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Florida State. Yes, the departure of punter Shawn Powell, the nation's top punter in 2011, will be a huge loss, but the Noles still have one of the country's top kickers in Dustin Hopkins, and there are plenty of athletes on the roster to highlight the return game. In 2011, the Noles were No. 1 in the ACC in kickoff returns, No. 4 in punt return average, No. 1 in kickoff coverage, and tied for No. 1 in field goals and PAT kicking. Hopkins led the ACC in scoring, and with the departures of Virginia Tech's Jayron Hosley and NC State's T.J. Graham, FSU's Greg Reid is the league's leading punt returner.

COACHING: Clemson. This isn't just about the head coach, it's about three guys -- the main man and both coordinators. And when you factor in Dabo Swinney's recent hire of Brent Venables, and last year's hire of Chad Morris, the Tigers should now have one of the better staffs in the country. Of course, it's up to Swinney to put it all together, but don't forget that he has already won two Atlantic Division titles and the school's first conference title since 1991.

Runner-up: Virginia Tech. Frank Beamer is the best coach in the ACC and the winningest active coach in the FBS. He's also got one of the best defensive coordinators in the country in Foster. But offensively, the Hokies continue to have some head-scratching games (East Carolina, Clemson I, Clemson II).

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