1. Virginia Tech — Until somebody unseats them, the Hokies are the team to beat. Virginia Tech’s opener against Alabama will determine whether or not it is a legitimate national title contender. There are no excuses for the offense not to improve, and the defense should again reload.
2. Georgia Tech — Don’t forget they were the co-Coastal Division champs a year ago, and return a league-high 19 starters from last year’s nine-win season — including nine on offense. The backfield is the deepest in the conference, and the offensive line should be better, but not even Paul Johnson knows what to expect from his defensive line.
3. Florida State — One by one, the receivers have started to come back. Felony battery charges against Richard Goodman have been dismissed, Bert Reed should have completed his community service by the end of August, and Rod Owens’ DUI case has been closed.
4. North Carolina — Until we see how the passing game unfolds with the new receivers, the Tar Heels will have to work their way up the ranking, especially with three positions on the offensive line still unsettled. The defense will be the strength of the team while the offense literally catches up.
5. NC State — The Pack is already better than it was a year ago because of its quarterback situation, but this year it needs to start strong instead of making a desperate push at the end. The absence of Irving and the transfer of safety Jimmaul Simmons leaves question marks for the defense.
6. Miami — It’s simply impossible to ignore the fact the Canes are under the direction of a third defensive coordinator in as many seasons, are learning a new offensive scheme, have a brutal schedule, and are still young. But Jacory Harris has matured as the team leader, and he’s surrounded by speed and skill.
7. Clemson — Yes, the offensive line will be better, but how much better remains to be seen. It’s the same group that paved the way for a whopping four yards against Nebraska in the bowl game. The starting quarterback has yet to be named, and the defense will be depended upon to win some games.
8. Wake Forest — This is my darkhorse candidate in the Atlantic Division (last year it was Maryland). The offense is in place. The defensive line is in place. It’s the linebackers and secondary that remain a question mark. You can’t go wrong with the winningest quarterback in school history, but replacing those defensive playmakers will take time.
9. Maryland — They think they’re better. They’re confident. But if Maryland couldn’t do it last year with a senior-laden team or in 2006 when it was one win away, why should anyone outside the program have confidence it can do it with such a young, typically inconsistent team?
10. Boston College — They found a quarterback. The question is, can he throw? The reports from Chestnut Hill say yes, but Dave Shinskie hasn’t done it in a college game yet. Is the 25-year-old minor league pitcher the answer? He’s got the supporting cast.
11. Duke — Coach David Cutcliffe said he won’t be satisfied with anything less than a bowl game, and this man means business. He’s got one of the best quarterbacks in the league to work with, a dynamic rusher in Re’quan Boyette, and some big-name players on D. But you don’t turn around two decades of losing in just two years.
12. Virginia — The linebackers are gone. The receivers are gone. The leading rusher is gone. The offensive coordinator is gone. This is going to be a big transition year, and a bowl game should be considered a good season.