Five Big Questions: ACC

It’s ACC Week here at Crystal Ball Run, and with it, time to ask the biggest questions entering the 2012 season.

Is this the year Florida State emerges? The year Virginia Tech takes a step back? Can anyone come out of the deep dark basement and surprise some folks?

It’s time to take a look by digging into “Five Big Questions,” ACC style…

5. Can Anyone From The Bottom of the Conference Emerge?

My, oh my. Looking at the bottom of the projected ACC standings is a lot like looking directly into Will Muschamp’s eyes: It’s scary and disturbing, and there’s an 87 percent chance you won’t sleep well for weeks. Wake Forest, Duke, Boston College and Maryland are all bad. Really bad. But can any of them steal a few games and figure out a way to get bowl eligible?

Looking over the rosters of each, a compelling case could be made that Duke actually has the most returning talent out of all four. Unfortunately they also play in the deeper Coastal Division (with Virginia Tech, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia Tech amongst others), and with cross-divisional games against Clemson and Florida State, getting to six wins doesn’t seem likely. Wake Forest has tough non-conference games with Vanderbilt and Notre Dame making their path hard, and it’s likewise for Boston College which will play at Northwestern and home against the Irish as well.

Meaning it’s actually Maryland- and Crystal Ball Run’s favorite whipping boy Randy Edsall- who could make the biggest leap. Will they? Probably not. But with nine of their top 11 tacklers returning on defense and C.J. Brown now a bit more seasoned at quarterback, it isn’t totally inconceivable. You know, unless the entire team transfers out before the beginning of the season of course (sorry, I had to get that cheap shot in there).

It will likely be a long year for all four teams at the bottom of the ACC barrel. It does seem like the Terrapins have the easiest path toward respectability though.

4. How Good Are Miami’s Freshmen?

For all the bad things that happened in Al Golden’s first calendar year at Miami, one of the few bright spots was his first full recruiting class at the school. Despite a looming NCAA investigation, a disappointing 6-6 2011 season, and a general perception that the program is in decline, Golden still hauled in a class that was unanimously believed to be Top 10 nationally.

Of course while the group looks good on paper, few programs actually need their freshman to contribute more than Miami does. The Hurricanes lost a bunch of seniors off last year’s team as well as a staggering six underclassmen to the pros, meaning that playing time is available for just about anyone on the roster… even guys who just got out of Senior Prom a few weeks back. Look for immediate impact from running back Randy “Duke” Johnson, safety Tracy Howard and wide receivers Malcolm Lewis and Robert Lockhart, with other true freshmen sprinkled in throughout the season.

Nobody expects the freshmen to be great, but their impact could be the difference between the Canes getting to .500 and going to a bowl game or staying at home for the holidays.

More importantly, they could set the tone for the future at The U.

3. Is This The Year Virginia Tech Takes A Step Back?

We do this every year. Every year we look at Virginia Tech, look over their roster and say to ourselves, “Hmm, so, is this the year they finally take a step back and fall out of college football’s elite?” Then the Hokies go on to win a ho-hum 10 games, go to a BCS bowl game, and make us all feel stupid for questioning them. Good times for Virginia Tech. Not so much for those of us who predict their demise every fall. Again, we should’ve learned our lesson by now.

Except that as we enter 2012, this really does seem like the year that maybe, just maybe the Hokies take a step back. The defense isn’t quite as stacked as usual, and on offense, Virginia Tech returns Logan Thomas and… well, actually that’s just about it. Center Andrew Miller is the only other returning starter on that side of the ball.

Now understand, nobody around these parts is saying that Virginia Tech is going to fall off the map and go 3-9. At the same time, Blacksburg is one of the few places in college football where an 8-4 record would be a disappointment. And honestly, that seems like about where Tech may end up.

2. Can Clemson Avoid A Clemson-ish Downfall?

Look, look, we’ve all made the bad jokes about Clemson before. They can’t get out of their own way. They’re choke artists. The second that an ounce of praise is placed upon them, they crumble LeBron Jam— oh wait, a second, I guess I can’t use that analogy anymore. Regardless, Clemson might be the least trustworthy team in major college football.

But this year? Things really do seem different. The Tigers return a boatload of talent on offense, including Heisman candidates Tajh Boyd at quarterback and wide receiver Sammy Watkins. And despite getting lit up by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, the defense should be improved too. They return seven starters off last year’s club, and that was before the addition of Brent Venables at defensive coordinator.

Simply put, there is no reason this team shouldn’t be good again this year. Really good. Like maybe, potentially, “Darkhorse National Champion” good.

But can they avoid, umm, being Clemson? That’s the biggest question on the Tigers entering 2012.

1. Is Florida State Ready to Make The Leap?

For years now, we’ve been waiting for someone, anyone really, to make the jump from “really good” to “elite, BCS National Championship Contender” in the ACC. Virginia Tech has had their windows but never broke through. Same with Clemson. For a half a second, we thought it might be Miami. But is it finally the time that Florida State makes the leap?

Things have never looked better.

The Seminoles are stacked, talented and experienced on defense, where seven starters return off one of the best units in the country from last year. Offensively quarterback E.J. Manuel should be ready, and he returns most of the key skill position players around him. Meaning that if the line can hold up, this team will score points.

And oh by the way, to add insult to injury for the rest of the ACC, their schedule is nothing if not manageable. The Seminoles should be 3-0 headed into a showdown against Clemson in Tallahassee, and if they win there, seem poised to be 9-0 with a trip to Blacksburg on the line November 8.

All the pieces are there for Florida State to make a BCS run. But will they?

That is the ACC’s biggest question entering 2012.

For all his opinion, insight and articles on college football and beyond, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.