While researching for this article, I had the opportunity to attend the 2010 Can't Wait Until Kickoff Luncheon for Georgia Tech football at the Cobb Galleria.
Coach Paul Johnson said he is "cautiously optimistic" and emphasized the Jackets are still a young team. He also promised an "improved offense." Well ... an improvement over 2009 spells nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators.
However, each team listed below has the potential to claim a top 20 defense by the end of the season. If so, Johnson's prediction of an improved offense will need to come true.
Now, on to my assignment.
WILD CARD: at Georgia Bulldogs, Nov. 27
(First let me get one point addressed. This will sound sacrilegious to most Jackets -- it is hard for me to even write this part -- but bear with me. For 50 years UGA has been the first game circled on my calendar. However, under the current format, the road to a BCS game runs through the ACC -- Clean Old-Fashioned Hate does not count. So considering that, while having a tough time placing them this far down the list, I came up with a compromise: we have the top BCS-relevant games listed one through four, and here's the one game that impacts the Georgia Tech emotional equilibrium more than any other. Tech fans, feel free to slot Georgia wherever you'd like.)
I find it amusing how short the Dawgs' memory must be. Just a couple of years ago or so, the average Georgia fan would have been ready to place a crown on Mark Richt's head. Last year I was on a flight sitting a couple of rows behind a Georgia fan that spent the entire flight from Baltimore telling everyone who wanted to listen, and those who did not, how Richt had "lost it." Winning 90 games in 10 years ain't too shabby. The guy is a quality coach and a quality man off of the field. He will lead them back to where they should be.
The Dawgs return five starters off of a line that only allowed 12 sacks last year. Wide receiver A.J. Green is regarded as one of the best in the nation, and a probable top 10 NFL draft pick. Tech is unlikely to be able to avoid Green this year, as they did last year when he was injured.
New defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has brought along a 3-4 scheme. Reports are that the 3-4 will be a much better fit for the athletes on hand. The players are looking to play a much more open and aggressive defense. Hmmm, sounds a lot like the new defense at Tech.
Last year, even with as bad as the Jackets played for the majority of the game, they were in a terrific position to steal the game with about 90 seconds to go. That game should remind Jacket fans to not count their chickens before they hatch. By all accounts Tech had the better team, but for this game it did not show. When these two rivals meet, anything can happen.
4. at North Carolina Tar Heels (Sept. 18)
North Carolina fans are interesting. Unless they think they have something special in football, they are so quiet in the fall you would not know they exist. They are all too busy daydreaming about basketball season. But they are loud this year.
The whole starting defensive 11: nothing but top draft choices! Don't even try to play offense! You'll be better off just punting every time you get the ball! Just like the answer to every Miami question is speed, the answer to every UNC question is defense. Of course, all that defense won't do much good if it's all on the sideline due to academic infractions.
The Tar Heel offense? Offense must be for basketball season. However, I will let you in on a secret -- the O has nine returning starters. The offense is young, and even though they did not overwhelm last year, they are gaining valuable experience fast. Some are expecting redshirt freshman Bryn Renner to eventually replace their fifth-year senior, T.J. Yates, at quarterback. Renner is bringing a zip and confidence that UNC has not been accustomed to seeing.
I originally had this game higher. However with the latest news of players in trouble and the new academic scandal reports, I would suspect they might be ripe for the picking. The Jackets get the Tar Heels early in the year. This might be good or bad. We could get them while they are distracted, or head coach Butch Davis might be able to use Tech as a rallying point.
3. at Clemson Tigers (Oct. 23)
The Clemson-Georgia Tech series has been tight for decades. One stretch had seven or eight straight games decided by three points or less. For many Jacket fans, hating Clemson is a fall tradition as important as almost any other.
The rest of the Tiger offense was extremely glad to see quarterback Kyle Parker turn down pro baseball for a return for his senior year. They will need him since they lost nine starters from last year, including Tech's all-world nemesis C.J. Spiller. The strong area for their offense will be along the line, where they return four starters. This will be the year many Tigers decide whether Coach Dabo Swinney can get it done. Can he replace that much talent at one time?
The heart of the Clemson attack will be on defense this year, which is predicted to be in the top three in the ACC. The line is solid and deep, with two probable high draft picks. The only deficiency on paper looks to be at linebacker, where they only return one starter and do not posses the depth they have elsewhere. However that one starter, Brandon Maye, is a stud and has been called one of the ACC's most intimidating players.
Having lost the last four against the Jackets, Clemson feels they are due for a win. Since Swinney is a bit of a hyper guy, he will probably have them on a serious emotional high for this game. If so, I hope he calls some of those botched trick plays like last year's regular season game.
2. Miami Hurricanes (Nov. 13)
I have to travel to south Florida regularly, and am tired of hearing "The U is BACK." These guys are doing some serious talking. One guy told me this may be the fastest Hurricane team ever. Lindy's Sports says "The Hurricanes have perhaps the best collection of athletes in the ACC."
Two years ago Tech ran all over them at Grant Field. Last year they had their way at Landshark. As ugly as that game was on TV, I can promise you it was even uglier in person. I did not enjoy going into our office outside of Ft. Lauderdale that next day.
The Miami offense goes through quarterback Jacory Harris. Harris showed flashes of brilliance last year, and the logical conclusion is he will only go farther and become more consistent. The guy can throw a laser. Evaluating the rest of their roster is simple. At running back: speed. At wide receiver: speed. Defense: speed. Miami plays faster than you can think.
Tech gets the Canes in Atlanta this year. Plus the Jackets don't have to play Miami as their third game in 13 days, like last year. Thank TV scheduling for that. Somebody in the ACC scheduling hierarchy should have been able to see something might not have been kosher with that arrangement. How well Al Groh's 3-4 deals with all that speed may decide the next chapter of a growing rivalry.
1. at Virginia Tech Hokies (November 4)
It seems most every pundit and know-it-all across the country has already declared Virginia Tech the ACC champions. [Editor's note: Including most of SBN ATL.] Seems most of them thought the same thing last year, and the Jackets had something else to say about that.
Virginia Tech has the top running back tandem in the country: Ryan Williams and Darren Evans. Both separately rushed for over 1,000 yards. Now with both entering the season healthy, Hokie fans are salivating. Couple them with dual threat quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and Frank Beamer has a loaded offense. Period.
On defense, highly touted coordinator Bud Foster has to replace six starters. Some reports are calling this a rebuilding year on defense. Sorry guys, I don't buy it. Count on seeing the same solid defense VPI has played for years.
Virginia Tech has averaged over ten wins a season lately by producing a solid, technically (pun intended) sound team that does not beat itself. Frank Beamer will not allow otherwise. The road to Tech's second straight conference title goes through Blacksburg, and we've got our hands full.