Duke: The Blue Devils made their first bowl appearance since 1994 last year, losing the Belk Bowl in heartbreaking fashion. However, that team was 11th in the ACC in defensive yardage, and worst in points allowed per game. Who can step up to improve the Duke defense?
To make matters worse, several starters will be gone from that defensive unit. Two of Duke’s top three cornerbacks, along with two starting safeties, are gone. With all those openings, there should be fierce competition throughout the defense in camp. Many will probably have their eyes on Anthony Boone, replacing the graduated Sean Renfree at quarterback, but these defensive battles will likely have a much larger impact on how the Blue Devils fare in 2013.
Georgia Tech: Ted Roof, a former head coach at Duke (and Georgia Tech linebacker) is the new defensive coordinator for the Yellow Jackets. While his track record at Duke may not be much to write home about, his work as a defensive coordinator at various schools since then has brought him back to the ACC. At his last stop, Penn State, the Nittany Lions ranked first in the nation in red-zone defense, 15th in sacks, and 16th in scoring defense.
Georgia Tech’s defense was its weakness last season. Former defensive coordinator Al Groh was fired mid-season, following a 47-31 loss to Clemson which dropped the Yellow Jackets to 2-4 overall and 1-3 in the ACC. Georgia Tech allowed 40 or more points in five of its losses last season, as well as a 68-50 win at North Carolina. Hopefully, Roof will be able to bring some stability to the unit.
Miami: The Hurricanes were 12th in the ACC in defensive yardage and 10th in scoring defense, giving Duke a run for its money as worst defense in the league. 20 starters return for Miami, so there should be plenty of experience on both offense and defense. Hopefully, that experience will translate to improvement for the latter group.
Miami will also continue the seemingly never-ending effort of moving forward in its NCAA investigation. The last two seasons, the ‘Canes have self-imposed postseason bans, so this year could spell a return to a bowl. It will likely come with plenty of off-field drama, however, especially after the NCAA admitted to mangling the investigation.
North Carolina: Who’s going to replace Giovani Bernard? The sensational sophomore was second in ACC Player of the Year voting, rushing for 1,228 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also caught five touchdown passes and returned two punts for touchdowns, including the game-winning score against NC State.
Senior A.J. Blue and sophomore Romar Morris should be more than suitable replacements in the backfield. While backing up Bernard, the duo rushed for 819 yards and 11 touchdowns and averaged 5.4 yards per carry. Whether they can match his threat catching passes, or someone else can be the home run hitter on special teams, will have to be seen.
Pittsburgh: There will be a battle in Pittsburgh to see who will be the Panthers’ quarterback in their first season in the ACC. While Paul Chryst doesn’t have to name a starter before Pitt’s season opener on September 2, the battle should garner plenty of attention during the spring.
In one corner will be Tom Savage, a senior who missed the past two seasons due to transfers. He started as a freshman at Rutgers, passing for 2,211 yards and 14 touchdowns to only seven interceptions, but transferred after a sophomore season shortened by injury and Chas Dodd inheriting the Scarlet Knights’ quarterback role. After sitting out a season at Arizona, coaching changes and an illness in the family brought Savage back east, which cost him another season due to transfer rules. He will be competing against Chad Voytik, a redshirt freshman from Tennessee originally recruited by former Panthers’ coach Todd Graham. Voytik ran a spread offense in high school, so he will have to adjust to the pro-style offense at Pittsburgh to claim the job over Savage.
Virginia: A new wave of assistant coaches are on Mike London’s staff at Virginia. While Steve Fairchild is unlikely to bring much change to the offense for the Cavaliers, new defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta will bring a more aggressive defense than predecessor Jim Reid.
Last season, the Cavaliers were 10th in the ACC in sacks (111), intercepted only four passes, and forced eight fumbles. This, along with 26 turnovers on offense, led Virginia to a last-place finish in the conference in turnover margin. Tenuta’s defenses at Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, and NC State thrived on forcing turnovers and getting pressure on quarterbacks. Last year, the Wolfpack forced 24 turnovers and sacked opposing quarterbacks 33 times to Virginia’s 17. Clearly, the system should work, if the players can adjust to a new mindset towards playing defense starting this spring.
Virginia Tech: There’s lots to like about Virginia Tech’s defense entering 2013. The Hokies return most of its starters from last season, including five All-ACC players. Yes, they will be without cornerback Antone Exum, who tore his ACL shortly after announcing he would return to Blacksburg this season, but there’s still plenty of talent and experience on the defense.
This year, it will be up to the offense to match the defense’s success. Virginia Tech was in the bottom third of the conference in total offense and passing yardage. There is a new offensive coordinator in Scot Loeffler. Loeffler has worked with Tom Brady, Brian Griese, Chad Henne, and Tim Tebow, so it will be interesting to see what he can do with senior Logan Thomas, who is coming off a 16-interception season.