ACC: 2011 key stretch

Key stretch: Wake Forest

August, 31, 2011
8/31/11
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WAKE FOREST

Key stretch: Oct. 1-Oct. 15 (at Boston College, Florida State, Virginia Tech)

Analysis: It doesn’t get much more difficult than this for the Deacs -- or for anyone else, for that matter. A road trip to Chestnut Hill, followed by back-to-back games against the defending division champs will make for a daunting start to October. Those within Wake’s program have insisted this team is better than last year’s, which finished 3-9, but this stretch could be a significant setback for the Deacs early. The good news is that they’ve got a bye week to prepare for the Eagles, and two of the toughest opponents on their schedule -- Florida State and Virginia Tech -- are home games. This stretch is definitely worth watching because it will feature some of the best running backs in the ACC, including Wake Forest running back Josh Harris. Not only will the Deacs need him healthy and churning out the yards, but they’ll also be challenged to stop the run against the likes of BC’s Montel Harris, FSU’s Chris Thompson, and Virginia Tech’s David Wilson.

Prediction: The Deacs’ best shot at a win is actually on the road against the Eagles, but this looks like an oh-fer stretch. I believe coach Jim Grobe when he says his team is better, but I don’t think it has closed the gap enough with the ACC’s best teams to come out of this stretch with a winning record. The Deacs will play a fairly evenly matched game against BC, but the Eagles’ defense will be the difference and force Tanner Price into a few mistakes. Facing FSU and Virginia Tech in back-to-back weeks is a challenge for any team in the country, but it’s one Wake Forest isn’t quite ready to overcome yet.

Key stretch: Virginia Tech

August, 30, 2011
8/30/11
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Key stretch: Nov. 10-Nov. 17 (at Georgia Tech, North Carolina)

Analysis: The Clemson and Miami games will determine the direction of the ACC race, but this key stretch will likely determine the Coastal Division winner. Clemson and Miami are both home games, while the Hokies have to take a road trip to Atlanta for a Thursday night game, followed by another Thursday night game against a talented North Carolina team in Blacksburg. The good news for the Hokies is that they have a bye week to prepare for Georgia Tech’s spread-option offense, but some seem to forget that the Jackets have the same amount of time to prepare for the Hokies. Virginia Tech went through the ACC schedule unscathed last year, but if it’s going to trip up this year, this is when it will happen.

Prediction: Virginia Tech will beat Georgia Tech on the road. The Hokies are better up front on both sides, and quarterback Logan Thomas has a more veteran supporting cast. The more difficult of the two games will actually be the home game against the Tar Heels. UNC has one of the best offensive lines the program has seen in about a decade, and the defense has reloaded with speed and NFL potential. The biggest difference will be on the sideline, where Frank Beamer will be coaching his 25th season at his alma mater, while Everett Withers will be in his first as a head coach. And of course, home-field advantage counts for at least a few points in Lane Stadium. The Tar Heels will push the Hokies to the fourth quarter, but Virginia Tech will go 2-0 in this key stretch to clinch the Coastal Division crown.

Key stretch: Virginia

August, 29, 2011
8/29/11
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Key stretch: Sept. 3-Oct. 1 (William & Mary, at Indiana, at North Carolina, Southern Miss, Idaho)

Analysis: This is a long stretch, yes, but if Virginia is going to get to a bowl game ahead of schedule, in Year 2 under Mike London, the nonconference schedule is the key. The Cavaliers have a great chance of going 4-0 against their nonconference opponents, but they’ve also got a scary chance of being upset at home this weekend by William & Mary. Back-to-back road trips to Indiana and Carolina won’t be easy, but Virginia can and should beat the Hoosiers. The road trip to Chapel Hill will be more difficult. It’s still too early in the rebuilding process for Virginia to be considered a contender in the Coastal Division, but if everything falls into place during this stretch, and the Hoos can go undefeated in nonconference play, a bowl appearance won’t look so farfetched anymore.

Prediction: Virginia coach Mike London is ready to win now. The only question is if his team is equally as ready, starting at the quarterback position. Virginia will be pushed by William & Mary, but the Hoos won’t be embarrassed at home. They’ll get a good road win in Bloomington, but fall to the Tar Heels in the first ACC game of the season before rebounding against back-to-back unheralded nonconference opponents. Virginia goes 4-1 during this stretch and puts itself in a great position to become bowl eligible.

Key stretch: NC State

August, 26, 2011
8/26/11
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NC STATE

Key stretch: Oct. 29 – Nov. 12 (at Florida State, North Carolina, at Boston College)

Analysis: NC State could be one of the most deceptively good teams in the country heading into one of the biggest games in the conference race. It wouldn’t be surprising if NC State rolled into Tallahassee undefeated, and while it would still be quite an accomplishment, the toughest competition undoubtedly has yet to come. If NC State is going to build upon last year’s success and win the Atlantic Division, they’re in a must-win situation at Florida State. The Seminoles are the preseason pick to win the ACC, but a little momentum could go a long way in a series that came down to a fourth-quarter fumble last year. Regardless of what happens at Florida State, the Tar Heels will be eagerly waiting to snap their four-game losing streak in one of the ACC’s most heated rivalries. And a road trip to Boston College won’t be easy, as the Eagles are a strong home team with two players who could win the offensive and defensive player of the year awards.

Prediction: Undefeated or not, NC State won’t beat Florida State again. The Wolfpack will play well enough to push the Noles to the fourth quarter again, but Florida State is deeper and stronger across the board. The Pack will, however, edge their in-state rivals for a fifth straight time, and the difference will be on the sideline, where Tom O’Brien will have the edge over rookie interim coach Everett Withers. Boston College will be a better, more balanced team than it was a year ago, and the Eagles will get the most out of their offense, despite an impressive performance by the NC State D. The Wolfpack goes 1-2 in this stretch.

Key stretch: North Carolina

August, 25, 2011
8/25/11
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Key stretch: Oct. 22-Nov. 17 (at Clemson, Wake Forest, at NC State, at Virginia Tech)

Analysis: No, the Tar Heels shouldn’t expect their season to be derailed by the Demon Deacons, but there are some other intangibles involved in this stretch. We’ll know much earlier than this how the team has responded to interim coach Everett Withers, but it’s around this time of the season when Carolina will also have found more about where it stands in the eyes of the NCAA. School officials are scheduled to appear in front of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions on Oct. 28 in Indianapolis -- the day before the Wake Forest game. If the Tar Heels are in the mix for the Coastal Division title -- and there is certainly enough talent on the roster for that to happen -- they’ll have to overcome yet another off-field distraction AND win three of four on the road in this key stretch.

Prediction: Withers was a good enough defensive coach that he cobbled together a respectable season despite a roster picked apart by injuries and suspensions last year, and he’ll be able to do the same with the interim tag this fall. What he won’t be able to do, though, is come out of this key stretch on the winning end. Two of the toughest places to play on the road in the ACC -- Clemson and Virginia Tech -- will make the most of their home field advantage, and NC State coach Tom O’Brien’s head coaching experience will be the difference in a fifth straight win over the Tar Heels. UNC starts the season strong and proves its doubters wrong, but it finishes with a flop and goes 1-3 in this stretch.

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Key stretch: Miami

August, 24, 2011
8/24/11
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Key stretch: Oct. 8-Oct. 22 (at Virginia Tech, at North Carolina, Georgia Tech)

Analysis: It doesn’t matter who is eligible and who isn’t. If Miami is going to be a factor in the Coastal Division race in Al Golden’s first season, it must have a winning record in this key stretch. That won’t be easy with back-to-back road games, especially in Blacksburg.

Prediction: Here’s where it DOES matter who is eligible and who isn’t. If Miami’s starting lineup is decimated, forget about a win at Virginia Tech, let alone at North Carolina or home against Georgia Tech. There are some games on Miami’s schedule that are still conducive to wins with the second-string players in, but these three aren’t on the list. Miami will need its defense full strength to stop Paul Johnson’s offense, and it will need its best offensive players on the field to stand a chance against North Carolina’s defense. But nobody -- not even Al Golden -- knows right now what Miami's starting lineup will be. So here: You get two predictions. A full-strength Miami goes 2-1 in this stretch, the lone loss to Virginia Tech. A team ravaged by suspensions stumbles through this stretch winless and irrelevant in the Coastal Division race.

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Key stretch: Maryland

August, 23, 2011
8/23/11
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MARYLAND

Key stretch: Oct. 15-Oct. 29 (Clemson, at Florida State, Boston College)

Analysis: Two home games out of three isn’t bad for the key stretch, but going to Tallahassee after hosting Clemson will make for two grueling Saturdays. One could argue that the first two games of the season will be a key stretch for Maryland, and the games against Miami and West Virginia will determine which direction they’re headed, but it won’t determine the Atlantic Division race. How Maryland fares against three of the better teams in their division will. If Maryland is going to beat Clemson and/or Florida State, first-year coach Randy Edsall is going to have to win the coaching battle on the sideline, because both opponents will line up with deeper, more talented teams.

Prediction: Maryland has shocked Clemson before, but the Terps won’t do it again. Clemson’s defensive line will be the difference in this game, and as good as Danny O’Brien is, he won’t get enough time to show it under this pressure. The road trip to Florida State will be even more difficult, as Maryland will struggle to stop the run and depend too heavily on their own passing game against one of the most talented secondaries in the ACC. The home game against Boston College will be Maryland’s best chance to stop a slide, as it will be BC’s second straight road trip. This one can go either way, but the Terps don’t fare better than 1-2 during this stretch.

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Key stretch: Georgia Tech

August, 22, 2011
8/22/11
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GEORGIA TECH

Key stretch: Oct. 22- Nov. 10 (at Miami, Clemson, Virginia Tech)

Analysis: We’ll know earlier than this stretch if Georgia Tech is a contender or not when it faces North Carolina and NC State, two teams that will present challenges for the Jackets early in the ACC race. It’s later in the schedule, though, that Georgia Tech’s ACC season will be defined. It all starts with the road trip to Miami. Again, we go back to the what-ifs surrounding Miami’s program, but let’s stick with what we know, and that’s of right now, the team is intact. Miami’s defense is talented and fast, but is it disciplined enough to stop the spread option offense? Under the new coaching regime, odds are it will be. The series with Clemson has been one of the more entertaining in the ACC, and this year should be no exception. While Georgia Tech’s defense should be much improved in the second season under Al Groh, Clemson’s defense is better from top to bottom and will be the difference in the game. Historically, the game against Virginia Tech has decided the Coastal Division winner. Georgia Tech will have home-field advantage in this Thursday night game, but the Hokies will have the advantage up front.

Prediction: Georgia Tech could be better than people will expect this season and that’s because of the defense. It won’t be good enough, though, to come out of this stretch with a winning record. Best-case scenario is they pick up one win, either on the road against a downtrodden Miami team, or at home in an exciting down-to-the-wire game against Clemson. They’ve got a bye week to prepare for Virginia Tech, but that works both ways. Unless Miami’s program is devastated by this point, the Jackets go 0-fer in their key stretch, but are still bowl eligible.

Key stretch: Florida State

August, 19, 2011
8/19/11
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FLORIDA STATE

Key stretch: Sept. 17-24 (Oklahoma, at Clemson)

Analysis: This is when Florida State’s season will be defined. Are the Seminoles a national title contender, an ACC frontrunner, or the league’s latest disappointment? A home win over Oklahoma and Florida State is immediately in the conversation for the national title. A road win over Clemson and they’ve knocked off the biggest obstacle in the Atlantic Division. Florida State hasn’t won on Clemson’s turf since 2001. These two games will establish early which direction Florida State is headed both nationally and in the conference race.

Prediction: Florida State is going to look like a different team than the one that took the field at Oklahoma last season. The Noles will be better prepared defensively, will have home field advantage, and will likely have the edge in the kicking game in what should be a fourth-quarter game. Florida State will look to exploit the loss of Oklahoma leading tackler Travis Lewis, who will miss the game with a broken foot. But they won’t win.

Oklahoma has the edge at quarterback with Landry Jones, and receiver Ryan Broyles makes them one of the top pass-catching duos in the country. Defensively, they should be strong even without Lewis, although losing a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate won’t be easy to replace. Florida State won’t let the loss to Oklahoma beat them twice, though. They’ll roll into Death Valley confident in their chances of winning the ACC title, and the Noles’ defense will be the difference. Florida State will force quarterback Tajh Boyd into one or two costly mistakes, and the Noles will start the season atop the Atlantic Division standings.

Key stretch: Duke

August, 18, 2011
8/18/11
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DUKE

Key stretch: Nov. 12-Nov. 19 (at Virginia, Georgia Tech)

Analysis: Duke will exponentially increase its odds of reaching the postseason if it can go 3-1 in its nonconference schedule. Given that it’s David Cutcliffe’s fourth season, it’s not an unreasonable expectation. So I’ll give Duke the benefit of the doubt there, but the team needs to find three more wins to become bowl eligible. Wake Forest and Virginia are two of the better chances for Ws, despite the Deacs’ lopsided advantage in that series.

Duke still needs to find one win against an opponent it’s not “supposed” to beat. That could be Georgia Tech. The Jackets are coming off a losing season and Duke will have the edge at quarterback in that game. The question is whether the defense can stop one of the nation’s best running games. If it can, it could be a monumental season for Duke. That’s a big ‘if.’

Prediction: Virginia is going to give Duke fits. The Hoos have lost to Duke in each of the past three seasons, and they’re likely going to do the best they can to make darn sure it doesn’t happen again. But it will. Because Duke will have the better quarterback. It’s going to be a great matchup, though, because Virginia’s defense should be the real deal this season, and particularly stronger up front. If that’s the case, and Duke takes care of business in its other “winnable” games, bowl eligibility will come down to the final two games.

Don’t discount a win at rival North Carolina, but Duke had a 13-6 halftime lead over Georgia Tech last season and looked capable of winning that game -- at least for a half. Duke has been flirting with a bigger win over one of its Coastal Division opponents, but has made too many mistakes in the past and let leads slip away. Those within the program are convinced they’re better than that now. Of course, they still have to prove it. The prediction is they will with a 2-0 record in this Coastal key stretch.

Key stretch: Clemson

August, 16, 2011
8/16/11
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This series will take a look at which weeks in the season will present the biggest challenges for each program in the ACC, and predict how each team will fare during that stretch.

CLEMSON

Key stretch: Sept. 17-Oct. 1 (Auburn, Florida State, at Virginia Tech)

Analysis: It doesn’t get much more difficult than this: the defending national champs, and the defending ACC division champs. Clearly, though, this isn’t the same Auburn team that won the national title last season, as the roster has gone through significant turnover and lost its best two players in former quarterback Cam Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Florida State, however, has reloaded and is the favorite to win this season’s ACC title and Virginia Tech has been the most consistent winner in the ACC since it joined the league. If Clemson is going to avoid back-to-back losing seasons, the Tigers most likely will have to avoid a third straight 2-3 start to the season. In order to do that, they can’t afford to go o-fer in this key stretch.

Prediction: Clemson’s entire seasons hinges on how well the Tigers execute a dramatically different offense under first-year coordinator Chad Morris and first-year starting quarterback Tajh Boyd. The timing of this key stretch doesn’t allow a window to work the kinks out, other than the opener against Troy and game against Wofford in Week 2. Auburn, though, will be going through a transition of its own, which could level the playing field a bit. If Clemson manages the win against Auburn, it could set the tone for its entire season and give the Tigers some big-time momentum heading into the Florida State game. A road trip to Blacksburg won’t be easy, but the talent on Clemson’s roster shouldn’t be underestimated against any of these teams. Still, the hiccups in the offense will be the difference, and Clemson comes out of this stretch 1-2 with a win against Auburn.

Key stretch: Boston College

August, 15, 2011
8/15/11
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If you look closely at every team’s schedule, you’ll find a stretch of games that is more difficult than any other consecutive weeks in the fall -- a key stretch that will define the season, and make or break championship hopes. This series will take a look at which weeks in the season will present the biggest challenges for each program in the ACC, and predict how each team will fare during that stretch. We’ll go in alphabetical order, starting with Boston College:

BOSTON COLLEGE

Key stretch: Oct. 22-Nov. 12 (at Virginia Tech, at Maryland, Florida State, NC State).

Analysis: The Eagles don’t get any break in the second half of the season, as they end the schedule with four of six games on the road, and the first four games following the Oct. 15 bye week will determine whether or not the Eagles are a contender for the Atlantic Division title. While the game at Virginia Tech won’t derail their hopes of winning the division title, it will affect BC’s overall record, confidence and momentum heading into three straight division games. If BC can upset the Hokies in Blacksburg, they’re suddenly a legitimate title team. A road trip to Maryland won’t be easy, but the home games against Florida State (Thursday night) and NC State will be the true test of where BC stands in the Atlantic Division.

Prediction: Boston College has been notorious for its road struggles recently, but it has been tough to beat at home. The Eagles won’t win in Blacksburg, but they could beat Maryland in College Park. With a little momentum, they could surprise Florida State. It’s been done before in Chestnut Hill, but the more likely win would come against the Wolfpack on Nov. 12. The Eagles go 2-2 during this key stretch and play the role of spoiler against NC State, but can’t muster enough to knock the Noles off their perch.

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