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August 10, 2008

Clemson a clear leader in ACC unit rankings

MORE: 2008 ACC Conference Preview

Want to know why Clemson is such a prohibitive favorite to win the Atlantic Coast Conference title that has eluded the Tigers since 1991?

Rivals.com's ACC unit rankings provide a pretty clear answer.

Clemson enters the season with arguably the best offensive backfield in the nation, but the Tigers' superiority goes beyond that. Clemson also has the top receivers, defensive backs and special-teams units in the league. On paper, the only question surrounding Clemson is its offensive line, which returns only one starter.

A look at the unit rankings also reflects the ACC's emphasis on defense. The ACC has plenty of teams with strong linebackers and secondaries. And it's a shame the ACC doesn't have many good quarterbacks because the league features a long list of impressive receivers who don't get nearly enough opportunities to showcase themselves.

Here are our ACC unit rankings entering the 2008 season:

OFFENSIVE BACKFIELD
1. CLEMSON
Cullen Harper, James Davis and C.J. Spiller give Clemson a significant edge over any of their conference rivals in the backfield. Frankly, this might be the best offensive backfield in the nation.
2. WAKE FOREST
Riley Skinner clearly is the second-best quarterback in the conference, and Josh Adams might be the second-best running back. Adams rushed for 953 yards and scored 12 touchdowns last season as the ACC offensive rookie of the year.
3. FLORIDA STATE
Drew Weatherford did a nice job of reducing his interception total last season, though he still needs more consistency. Antone Smith hopes to get more running room this season.
4. NORTH CAROLINA
The Tar Heels want running back Greg Little to pick up where he left off last season. Quarterback T.J. Yates, on the other hand, must recapture his early season 2007 form as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery.
5. VIRGINIA TECH
Sean Glennon and Tyrod Taylor give the Hokies two quality quarterbacks, but they don't have any proven running backs now that Branden Ore no longer is with the team.
6. VIRGINIA
The Cavaliers will rely heavily on the tailback tandem of Cedric Peerman and Mikell Simpson as quarterback Peter Lalich adjusts to his first year as a starter.
7. NC STATE
NCSU has plenty of experienced running backs and quarterbacks. But only the running backs inspire confidence.
8. MARYLAND
The Terrapins still must decide on a starting quarterback and a No. 1 running back, though Da'Rel Scott has shown flashes of emerging as a big-play runner.
9. MIAMI
Here comes yet another ACC team with a talented tailback tandem and an unsettled quarterback situation. The lack of experienced quarterbacks prevents the Hurricanes from ranking higher.
10. DUKE
Thaddeus Lewis probably is the third-best quarterback in the conference, but the Blue Devils also probably have the worst running backs in the league.
11. GEORGIA TECH
The lack of experience causes Georgia Tech to slip this far, though quarterback Josh Nesbitt and running back Jonathan Dwyer could make us look foolish by the end of the season.
12. BOSTON COLLEGE
For all the uncertainty surrounding how well Chris Crane will step in for first-round draft pick Matt Ryan, the biggest question may be at running back. The Eagles are going to need a big season from true freshman Josh Haden.

RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
1. CLEMSON
Aaron Kelly likely will leave school with more catches than any player in ACC history, but he's not the Tigers' only target. Clemson also returns Tyler Grisham and welcomes back speedy Jacoby Ford, who battled an ankle injury last season.
2. NORTH CAROLINA
Hakeem Nicks, Brooks Foster, Brandon Tate and tight end Zack Pianalto caught at least 24 passes each last season. Nicks had a school-record 74 catches.
3. MARYLAND
Potential first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey leads an experienced and talented receiving corps that is better than its numbers suggest. Danny Oquendo, LaQuan Williams and tight end Dan Gronkowski provide plenty of depth.
4. FLORIDA STATE
Preston Parker should be Florida State's most dangerous weapon on offense. Greg Carr hasn't quite lived up to the star potential he showed as a freshman, but it's tough to complain about a guy with 25 career touchdown catches.
5. BOSTON COLLEGE
Rich Gunnell and Brandon Robinson combined to catch 120 passes for 1,724 yards last season. They probably won't match those numbers now that Matt Ryan is gone, but they still should provide plenty of security for Crane.
6. GEORGIA TECH
The Yellow Jackets had some offseason defections in this area, but Greg Smith and Demayius Thomas are back after combining for 72 catches last season.
7. VIRGINIA
The return of wide receiver Kevin Ogletree from injury fortifies a unit that also brings back Staton Jobe and Maurice Covington, who combined for 38 catches last season. John Phillips should continue Virginia's tradition of effective pass-catching tight ends.
8. MIAMI
The good news is that Miami's highly touted freshman class includes plenty of receiving prospects. The bad news is that some of those receivers must contribute immediately because the only notable returner is Sam Shields, who occasionally has drawn the ire of coach Randy Shannon.
9. NC STATE
The Wolfpack will break in two new starting wide receivers, though they should get a boost from the return of tight end Anthony Hill. He caught 45 passes two years ago before missing the '07 season with a knee injury.
10. DUKE
Eron Riley is one of the top receivers in the conference, but the Blue Devils need someone to emerge as a secondary target.
11. WAKE FOREST
The biggest question facing the Deacons is how they will replace Kenny Moore, who caught 98 passes last year. Wake's top returning wide receiver is Chip Brinkman, who had 27 catches but failed to reach the end zone last season.
12. VIRGINIA TECH
Tight end Sam Wheeler could be a busy man early in the season because the Hokies don't have any proven wide receivers. The Hokies must replace Eddie Royal, Justin Morgan and Josh Harper, who combined for 120 catches last season.

OFFENSIVE LINES
1. MARYLAND
We don't know the identity of Maryland's starting quarterback, but we do know the guy will have time to throw. Center Edwin Williams and left tackle Scott Burley lead a veteran line that returns four senior starters.
2. VIRGINIA TECH
The Hokies gave up the most sacks in the league last year, but they should do a much better job this season now that tackle Ed Wang is healthy again. Wang and guards Sergio Render and Nick Marshman give Virginia Tech three returning starters.
3. GEORGIA TECH
Senior tackle Andrew Gardner may be the top overall lineman in the conference. Cord Howard, A.J. Smith and Dan Voss also have starting experience.
4. BOSTON COLLEGE
The Eagles will miss first-round pick Gosder Cherilus, but the cupboard isn't exactly bare. Sophomore tackle Anthony Castonzo, senior guard Clif Ramsey and junior center Matt Tennant return to a line that allowed the fewest sacks in the ACC last season.
5. NORTH CAROLINA
Tackles Garrett Reynolds and Kyle Jolly and guards Calvin Darity and Aaron Stahl have combined for 67 career starts.
6. MIAMI
The Hurricanes don't have a whole lot of experience, but junior tackle Jason Fox is a former Freshman All-America selection and guard Orlando Franklin has the look of a future star.
7. VIRGINIA
Offensive tackle Eugene Monroe is a legitimate NFL prospect and perhaps the best lineman in the league, but the Cavaliers must break in first-year starters at center and both guard spots.
8. NC STATE
Senior guard Curtis Crouch anchors a line that features three returning starters, but this veteran group must perform better. The Wolfpack ranked 111th in the nation in rushing offense last season.
9. CLEMSON
This area is the biggest question facing Clemson, which must break in four new starters. The Tigers believe the young linemen have plenty of talent, but are they ready to handle big-time college football?
10. WAKE FOREST
Guard Chris DeGeare will miss this season for academic reasons, which leaves junior guard Barrett McMillin as the Deacons' only returning starter.
11. FLORIDA STATE
Florida State has two rising stars in sophomore guard Rodney Hudson and sophomore center Ryan McMahon, but the Seminoles have a severe lack of depth and experience here.
12. DUKE
Although the Blue Devils have a trio of linemen entering their third season as starters, they need to deliver better results. Duke ranked 113th in the nation in sacks allowed and 118th in rushing offense last season.

DEFENSIVE LINES
1. GEORGIA TECH
Vance Walker earned Rivals.com third-team All-America honors last year and teams up with Darryl Richard to give the Jackets a formidable duo inside. Senior end Michael Johnson is a potential first-round pick. That trio helped Georgia Tech lead the nation in sacks last season.
2. BOSTON COLLEGE
Mammoth senior tackle Ron Brace returns to lead a line that helped the Eagles rank second in the nation against the run in '07. The Eagles could be even tougher this season now that senior tackle B.J. Raji is back after sitting out last season. Alex Albright gives the Eagles a dangerous pass rusher.
3. CLEMSON
The Tigers return three starters in junior end Ricky Sapp, senior nose tackle Dorell Scott and senior tackle Rashaad Jackson. And that's before we add highly touted true freshman end DaQuan Bowers to the mix.
4. NORTH CAROLINA
Hilee Taylor and first-round draft pick Kentwan Balmer could prove tough to replace, but tackles Marvin Austin, Aleric Mullins and Cam Thomas and end E.J. Wilson give the Heels plenty of talented players in the front four.
5. FLORIDA STATE
If end Everette Brown can recapture his early season form from 2007, he could lead the ACC in sacks. Budd Thacker gives the Seminoles a hard-nosed presence in the middle.
6. MIAMI
The Hurricanes lack their characteristic star power across the roster, but senior end Eric Moncur is a guy who could emerge as a big-name performer by the end of the season. Big things are expected from some freshmen linemen.
7. VIRGINIA TECH
This may seem a little high for a unit with only one returning starter (senior end Orion Martin), but the Hokies' track record suggests they'll warrant an even higher ranking by the end of the season.
8. WAKE FOREST
The Deacons welcome back senior end Matt Robinson and junior nose tackle Boo Robinson (no relation), but they'll miss the pass-rushing ability of the departed Jeremy Thompson.
9. NC STATE
End Willie Young is an All-ACC candidate and junior tackle Alan-Michael Cash also returns, but the Wolfpack must improve a run defense that ranked last in the league last season.
10. MARYLAND
Senior end Jeremy Navarre is the only returning starter, and the departures of Dre Moore and Carlos Feliciano left a giant hole in the middle of the line.
11. DUKE
Junior tackle Vince Oghobaase, junior nose tackle Ayanga Okpokowuruk, sophomore end Wesley Oglesby and senior end Greg Akinbiyi are returning starters, but Duke ranked 11th in the league in run defense and tied for last in sacks a year ago.
12. VIRGINIA
The Cavaliers don't have any returning starters on the line and must fill two giant holes at end now that Chris Long and Jeffrey Fitzgerald aren't rushing the quarterback anymore.

LINEBACKERS
1. VIRGINIA
Virginia might survive its inexperience in the line because its linebackers are so good. Clint Sintim, Jon Copper and Antonio Appleby combined for 246 tackles last season.
2. WAKE FOREST
The Deacons return all three starters, including junior standout Aaron Curry - who may be the best overall linebacker in the conference. Curry picked off four passes and forced two fumbles last year.
3. BOSTON COLLEGE
When Brian Toal sat out the 2007 season, Mark Herzlich picked up the slack by recording 97 tackles including 12.5 behind the line of scrimmage. Now that Toal is back to join forces with Herzlich, the Eagles won't be missing many tackles this season.
4. FLORIDA STATE
It's a testament to this conference's overall strength at linebacker that the Seminoles are this far down the list. Dekoda Watson and Derek Nicholson give Florida State a one-two punch that rivals Toal and Herzlich.
5. MARYLAND
Maryland must replace one of the league's most prolific tacklers in Erin Henderson, but the Terps rarely have trouble reloading at this position. Dave Philistin leads a unit that features plenty of talent and depth.
6. MIAMI
Colin McCarthy showed signs of developing into a star last season in his first year as a starter. The Hurricanes also return Darryl Sharpton and could get immediate contributions from true freshmen Sean Spence and Arthur Brown.
7. VIRGINIA TECH
Cam Martin is a returning starter and Brett Warren earned plenty of playing time last year while filling in for an injured Vince Hall. They're not as good as the departed duo of Adibi and Hall. Then again, who is?
8. DUKE
This might be the strongest area of Duke's team. Michael Tauiliili and Vincent Rey each made more than 100 tackles last season.
9. CLEMSON
The Tigers don't have a returning starter at this position. Kavell Conner and Scotty Cooper showed plenty of promise in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, but we want to see them perform for a sustained period before we rank them higher.
10. GEORGIA TECH
Shane Bowen is the only returning starter for Tech. It will be interesting to see how often the linebackers blitz now that former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta is gone.
11. NORTH CAROLINA
The Tar Heels have returning starters Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant, but the lack of depth is a major concern.
12. NC STATE
The Wolfpack don't return any starters and will be depending heavily on sophomore Nate Irving and junior Ray Michel to take giant steps forward this season.

SECONDARIES
1. CLEMSON
All four starters return from a secondary that helped the Tigers rank 12th in the nation in pass efficiency defense last season. Opposing receivers will have a tough time outrunning speedy cornerbacks Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor.
2. WAKE FOREST
The Deacons also return all four starters, including All-America candidate Alphonso Smith at cornerback and All-ACC candidate Chip Vaughn at free safety.
3. VIRGINIA TECH
The Hokies will miss departed cornerback Brandon Flowers, but they still have plenty of talent here. Victor Harris is one of the top cornerbacks in the nation, and free safety Kam Chancellor is a rising star.
4. FLORIDA STATE
Patrick Robinson and Tony Carter give the Seminoles a nice duo at cornerback, and Myron Rolle returns at the rover position (strong safety). Robinson picked off a pass in five consecutive games last season.
5. NC STATE
Jeremy Gray and DeAndre Morgan return at cornerback, but the Pack will miss departed safety DaJuan Morgan.
6. NORTH CAROLINA
The Tar Heels return four starters in the secondary including Rivals.com Freshman All-America free safety Deunta Williams but three are sophomores. The Heels ranked 11th in the league in pass efficiency defense last season.
7. MIAMI
Bruce Johnson and DeMarcus Van Dyke are back at cornerback, but the Hurricanes might have problems at safety.
8. VIRGINIA
The unexpected loss of cornerback Chris Cook hurts, but Vic Hall is a quality cornerback and Ras-I Dowling showed promise as a freshman last year.
9. BOSTON COLLEGE
The Eagles will have a hard time replacing 2006 Rivals.com All-America cornerback DeJuan Tribble and free safety Jamie Silva. Strong safety Paul Anderson is the Eagles' only returning starter in the secondary.
10. MARYLAND
Senior cornerback Kevin Barnes had a team-high four interceptions last year, but he's the Terps' only returning starter in the secondary.
11. GEORGIA TECH
The Jackets ranked ninth in the league in pass efficiency defense last season and have only one returning starter cornerback Jahi Word-Daniels.
12. DUKE
Although the Blue Devils return three starters, that's not necessarily a good thing. Duke ranked 102nd in the nation last year in pass efficiency defense, 27 spots below anyone else in the conference.

SPECIAL TEAMS
1. CLEMSON
The Tigers return kicker Mark Buchholz and punter Jimmy Maners. They also have two of the league's most dangerous return men in Spiller and Ford.
2. WAKE FOREST
Sam Swank rivals Utah's Louie Sakoda as the nation's top combination kicker/punter. The Deacons will miss Kevin Marion, who ranked third in the nation in kickoff return average last season.
3. FLORIDA STATE
The Seminoles must break in a new kicker, but Graham Gano is the league's top punter and Parker is a solid return man. Tony Carter always is a threat to block a kick.
4. VIRGINIA TECH
Even though the Hokies must find a new kicker, history tells us never to underestimate Virginia Tech's special-teams prowess during the Frank Beamer era.
5. MARYLAND
Kicker Obi Egekeze and punter Travis Baltz are back. Egekeze was 17 of 23 on field-goal attempts last year, with his longest successful kick coming from 46 yards.
6. NORTH CAROLINA
Brandon Tate gives North Carolina one of the most prolific return men in NCAA history, but the Heels could have a tough time replacing kicker Connor Barth.
7. BOSTON COLLEGE
The Eagles return kicker Steve Aponavicius but must find a new punter. Aponavicius is reliable from short distances, but he only went 7-for-13 from at least 30 yards last season and never has made a kick from beyond 45 yards.
8. GEORGIA TECH
The Jackets must find replacements for kicker Taylor Bell and punter Durant Brooks, who gave them one of the nation's top special teams duos last season. The likely combination kicker/punter is Scott Blair, who helped Tech rank second in the nation last season in kickoff-return defense.
9. MIAMI
Matt Bosher returns after ranking ninth in the ACC in punting last year. The Hurricanes' return game has lost its explosiveness since the departures of Devin Hester and Roscoe Parrish.
10. NC STATE
The Wolfpack must break in a new kicker, and could have a hard time finding a replacement for exceptional return man Darrell Blackman.
11. VIRGINIA
The Cavaliers have plenty of uncertainty here as they try to replace kicker Chris Gould and punter Ryan Weigand.
12. DUKE
This has been the home of arguably the worst special-teams units in major college football the past couple of years. Duke has gone 6-for-16 on field-goal attempts and hasn't made a kick from beyond 40 yards in the past two seasons.

COACHING
1. VIRGINIA TECH
Frank Beamer's track record speaks for itself. He even finally ended Florida State's hex on him last season. And it helps to have perhaps the nation's best defensive coordinator in Bud Foster.
2. WAKE FOREST
This may be a little high considering the Deacons lost defensive coordinator Dean Hood and quarterbacks coach Jeff Mullen during the offseason, but we have too much respect for Jim Grobe to rank Wake any lower.
3. CLEMSON
We're not ready yet to call Tommy Bowden the third-best head coach in the conference. Clemson ranks this high because its coordinator duo of Rob Spence on offense and Vic Koenning on defense is as good as any in the league.
4. NORTH CAROLINA
Butch Davis already proved his worth at Miami. It's only a matter of time before he has the Tar Heels contending for conference titles.
5. GEORGIA TECH
After working miracles at Navy, Paul Johnson is ready to prove his option attack can work in a major conference. It will be interesting to see whether the Jackets' defense gets better or worse now that they're not running former coordinator Jon Tenuta's high-risk, high-reward scheme.
6. FLORIDA STATE
Bobby Bowden's overhaul of his staff didn't result in a better won-loss record last season, but we're betting the improvement will be evident on the field the next couple of seasons.
7. MARYLAND
The Terps have endured three losing records in the past four season, but we can't discount what Ralph Friedgen did early in his tenure. Friedgen may have pulled off a coup by landing offensive coordinator James Franklin from Kansas State.
8. NCSTATE
Tom O'Brien wasted no time helping the Wolfpack regain respectability. North Carolina State's late-season surge last season suggests the Pack will be returning to annual bowl berths soon.
9. BOSTON COLLEGE
This ranking may be a little low, but we still want to see what Jeff Jagodzinski can do without Matt Ryan at quarterback. The Eagles certainly have two talented assistants in offensive coordinator Steve Logan and underrated defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani.
10. VIRGINIA
The Cavaliers' surprising success last season got Al Groh off the hot seat. Virginia will miss departed defensive coordinator Mike London, who was hired as coach at Division I-AA Richmond.
11. MIAMI
Randy Shannon did a wonderful job as Miami's defensive coordinator, but the Hurricanes won only one game after September in his first year as head coach. The hiring of defensive coordinator Bill Young from Kansas is a step in the right direction.
12. DUKE
ACC coaching staffs have upgraded themselves tremendously in the past couple of years, which explains why David Cutcliffe's staff debuts at the bottom. If Duke wins more than a couple of games this season, Cutcliffe and Co. will rank much higher on this list next season.

MORE: 2008 ACC Conference Preview

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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