The ACC’s Surprise Teams
By Matthew Osborne
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A pair of North Carolina schools are poised to be the ACC's surprise teams in 2012.
With less than 80 days until the start of the 2012 college football regular season, the anticipation continues to grow for what will unquestionably be another exciting and unpredictable year on the gridiron.
As we continue to assess the potential for each team heading into the 2012 season, here are two ACC programs which could be in for surprisingly successful campaigns this fall.
ACC Atlantic: NC State Wolfpack
The Wolfpack are undoubtedly expecting great production out of an offense led by senior QB Mike Glennon. Projected as a sure-fire NFL draft pick by professional scouts, Glennon threw for over 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns last season, despite his offensive line ranking 95th in the FBS in sacks allowed. Although the Wolfpack do not have a great deal of experience at receiver, NC State has fared well in the past when forced to break in new players out wide. Tobias Palmer and Bryan Underwood will provide exceptional speed and quickness on the perimeter, while Quinton Payton will use his 6-4 frame to make tough catches down the field.
The offensive line was a glaring weakness for the Wolfpack in 2011, but they are hopeful that it will turn into a strength this fall. Four starters are back on the offensive line, with the lone new starter being former five-star prospect Rob Crisp. Tony Creecy, James Washington and Mustafa Greene have all proven to be capable runners at the collegiate level, and each back brings a unique skill set to the table.
NC State was 54th in the nation in scoring offense last season (28.2 points per game). With equally talented playmakers at the skill positions and a vastly improved offensive line, the Wolfpack should be expected to produce more than 30 points a game this fall.
Defensively, there is no question that NC State’s strength lies with its talented secondary. Led by All-American CB David Amerson, who led the FBS with 13 interceptions, the Wolfpack were the most prolific team in the country at picking off opposing quarterbacks in 2011, registering an impressive 27 interceptions in 13 games. With all four starters returning in the secondary, it is safe to assume that teams will be looking to stay out of obvious passing situations when lining up against the Wolfpack.
Although NC State returns just two starters on the defensive front seven, the Wolfpack’s rash of injuries on the defensive line last season afforded many of their young players an opportunity to gain valuable game experience. Art Norman led the Wolfpack with seven sacks last season, and pairs with senior Brian Slay to give NC State a formidable combination at defensive end. DT Deylan Buntyn and LB Robert Caldwell have never played a snap at NC State, but both have two years of playing experience at junior college, which should better prepare them for the rigors of ACC competition.
Looking at the schedule, the Wolfpack are set up nicely to have a very successful season this fall. Other than their season-opening contest against Tennessee, the Wolfpack will almost certainly be huge favorites in their three other non-conference games (at Connecticut, South Alabama and The Citadel). NC State has its annual contest with North Carolina, whom the Wolfpack have beaten five years in a row, and its other cross-divisional contests come against Miami and Virginia, both of whom are projected to finish in the bottom half of the Coastal Division.
It is still difficult to imagine that NC State will be able to compete with Clemson or Florida State for the Atlantic Division crown, but the Wolfpack have a talented roster and a very manageable schedule. The team won eight games last year, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them top that win total in 2012.
ACC Coastal: UNC Tar Heels
There would never be a better time for Larry Fedora and Blake Anderson to bring their dynamic spread offense to Chapel Hill. In his first year as a starter, QB Bryn Renner completed greater than 68% of his passes and finished in the top 10 nationally in efficiency rating. Amazingly, he accomplished all of that while still throwing 13 picks as a sophomore. With an additional year of experience and a proven offensive scheme, Renner should be in for a huge 2012 season. WR Erik Highsmith caught 51 passes last season and will almost certainly be an NFL Draft pick following his senior campaign. T.J. Thorpe and Jheranie Boyd will fill the other starting slots at receiver. Boyd was ranked by ESPN as the No. 7 workout warrior in all of college football, and he could be poised for a breakout year in this new system, while Thorpe is ready to turn his attention to wide receiver after excelling as a return specialist last fall. A player to keep an eye on will be sophomore TE Eric Ebron, who caught 20 passes as a true freshman in 2011.
There is no questioning that UNC will have the top offensive line in the conference this season. With four returning starters that are all projected to be future NFL linemen, the Tar Heels should be able to control the line of scrimmage behind their massive starting front which averages 316 pounds per man. In addition to a talented offensive line, UNC also returns RB Giovani Bernard, who led the nation in rushing yards by a true freshman last season. Coach Anderson always looks for balance out of his offense, so both Bernard and A.J. Blue can expect to see a heavy dosage of carries this fall.
On defense, the Tar Heels have become well-known for their ability to produce NFL talent. Despite that wealth of talent, UNC has typically underperformed in comparison to its preseason expectations. Larry Disch joined Fedora and Anderson in coming to Chapel Hill from Southern Miss, and he will install his 4-2-5 scheme this summer.
LB Kevin Reddick will be the leader of the UNC defense. Ranked as one of the top linebacker prospects in next year’s draft, Reddick was UNC’s leading tackler two seasons ago and finished second on the team in that category last season. Reddick will receive tremendous help from veteran defensive linemen Sylvester Williams and Kareem Martin, who will combine to give the Tar Heels a quality pair of pass rushers up front. Outside of redshirt freshman Sam Smiley, the Tar Heels will also have outstanding experience in the secondary, led by junior Tre Boston, who finished third on the team in tackles and tied for the team lead in interceptions last fall.
If there is one biggest factor contributing to UNC’s inclusion on this list, it would undoubtedly be the Tar Heels’ schedule. The Tar Heels have four very winnable non-conference games (Elon, at Louisville, East Carolina and Idaho) and avoid playing Clemson and Florida State in cross-divisional contests. UNC’s four conference road games this season will come at Wake Forest, Miami, Duke and Virginia, giving the Tar Heels a realistic chance to go undefeated away from home. Even though the Tar Heels are ineligible for postseason play, eight or nine wins should be expected out of this UNC team, and it would not be shocking to see the Tar Heels reach into double-digits in the win column.