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September 4, 2009

Mailbag: UNC could be a contender in ACC

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Years from now, the 2000s also known as the "oughts" likely will be remembered as the decade of dynasties.

Well, it will in college football, anyway.

This has been a decade when one team has emerged as a dominant force in most conferences. And in most cases, that dominance is expected to continue this season.

USC has won or shared seven consecutive Pac-10 championships. Oklahoma has won five of the past seven Big 12 crowns. Ohio State has won or shared five of the past seven Big Ten titles. Boise State has won or shared six of the past seven WAC championships. Florida has won two of the past three SEC championships and is an overwhelming favorite to do so again. Troy has had a piece of three consecutive Sun Belt titles.

All are favorites or at least strong contenders to win again in '09.

So is Virginia Tech, which is seeking a third consecutive ACC title. The recent trends and an experienced returning team make the Hokies an obvious preseason pick to win the ACC. But as you'll see in this week's mailbag, some wonder why another team isn't being trumpeted as a strong contender to win the ACC.

How about them Heels?

From Darrick in Winston Salem, N.C.: When it comes to the ACC, everyone talks about Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. North Carolina gets no love. Carolina was leading Virginia Tech last season until quarterback T.J. Yates got hurt, and bad quarterback play lost that game. The Heels dominated Georgia Tech the whole game. I know the Heels are ranked, but I feel like they should be talked about more when it comes to contending for the ACC title and a BCS bid?

The Tar Heels obviously are a rising program under coach Butch Davis. In fact, if North Carolina were in the Atlantic Division, they'd likely be picked to reach the ACC championship game.

That's not to say Carolina won't win the stronger Coastal Division. Dismissing the Heels as a contender would be a mistake, especially with nine defensive starters and six offensive starters - including Yates - coming back from team that finished 8-5 a year ago.

Preseason predictions come with no guarantees because no one knows what players will perform better or worse than the previous year, what key players may be injured or what teams will have great chemistry, that hard-to-define intangible that's so vital to success. Each season, data is compiled - returning starters, previous season performance, rising prospects, home-field advantages, streaks and trends, etc. - to make educated guesses on how conference races will unfold.

Virginia Tech has eight offensive regulars and seven defensive regulars back from a 10-4 ACC championship team. The Hokies closed last season by winning five of their final six games. Frank Beamer's teams have won at least 10 games in five consecutive seasons. The Hokies face Miami and North Carolina in Blacksburg, Va., where they are 30-4 in the past five seasons. How can that be ignored?

Georgia Tech also looks strong, with Heisman candidate Jonathan Dwyer heading a list of 10 offensive regulars and eight defensive regulars that were on last season's 9-4 team. The Yellow Jackets closed the regular season by winning three of their last four games, including a come-from-behind victory over Georgia. They also get North Carolina and Virginia Tech in Atlanta. They're in their second season under coach Paul Johnson, so they figure to be even better this season as they become better acclimated to his schemes.

North Carolina won't be a pushover. Davis won't allow it. The defense could be downright nasty. But don't forget the Tar Heels closed last season by losing three of their last four, including a 41-10 blowout at the hands of N.C. State. And that game was at home.

In addition, don't forget the Tar Heels no longer have explosive receivers Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate; together, they accounted for 15 touchdown catches. Tate also was a big-time threat as a kick returner. Greg Little is moving from running back to receiver, but he's had issues holding on to the football in the past. Sophomore Dwight Jones is an intriguing prospect, but he did not have a reception in limited action last year.

Will the Tar Heels be able to replace the production that Nicks and Tate provided? That's doubtful - and the main reason UNC was picked behind Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech in most preseason predictions.

A&M gets no respect

From Rusty in Tyler, Texas: Texas A&M is the most underestimated team in the Big 12 South. What are the Aggies' chances of making a bowl? After all, they should win all of their non-conference games and are playing the three teams from the Big 12 North that didn't make a bowl last season. That should give them six or seven wins.

Has it come to this? Are Aggies really basing their hopes of reaching a bowl on the weakness of schedule rather than the strength of their team?

Well, perhaps that's understandable after enduring three losing seasons in the past six and even falling to Arkansas State at home a year ago. Now, it seems like eons ago when guys such as Sam Adams, Aaron Glenn and Reggie Brown were starring on the "Wrecking Crew," one of the premier defensive units in the country in the '90s.

Once, dominant defenses were expected at A&M. Now, they're a memory. Last season, the Aggies ranked a pitiful 95th in the nation against the pass. Yet, that looked good compared to a run defense that ranked 114th.

Frankly, there aren't a lot of reasons to think the defense will be much better. Perhaps bulked up tackles Tony Jerod-Eddie and Eddie Brown will make running more difficult and maybe Von Miller will flourish as a pass rusher. The Aggies can only hope. They also must hope that the offensive line, which was one of the worst in the nation last season, makes tremendous improvement. Maybe it will.

But A&M's non-conference opponents will be improved, too. Go ahead and chalk up victories over Utah State and UAB. New Mexico probably is a win, too. But Arkansas will be much better than a year ago and likely will be favored when it faces the Aggies in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 3. Anticipate a stronger Colorado team, too.

A&M should expect to win three non-conference games and beat Kansas State and Iowa State. But it takes six wins to gain bowl eligibility. The Aggies' postseason hopes could be dependent on beating Baylor at home Nov. 21. That once was an easy win, but the Bears blasted A&M 41-21 last season. That was just another example of how dramatically things have changed.

High hopes for Hurricanes

From Quavo in Charleston, S.C.: What are the chances that Miami starts off 4-0, with a big upset over Oklahoma in Miami? Three starters are back from injury on defense (safeties Randy Phillips and Vaughn Telemaque and linebacker Colin McCarthy), and that young offense is experienced now with a year under its belt.

Miami is stronger for the reasons listed. But are the Hurricanes strong enough to start 4-0? Don't count on it.

No team faces a more demanding early schedule than Miami, which faces No. 18 Florida State, No. 15 Georgia Tech, No. 7 Virginia Tech and No. 3 Oklahoma in a row to open the season.

Three wins would signal the Hurricanes are back among the nation's elite. Four would put them in the national championship picture.

That seems too ambitious, though. Frankly, there's a better chance Miami starts 0-4 than 4-0. Starting 2-2 would be an impressive accomplishment.

Bowden gesture a class act

From Kevin in Atlanta: In a scene from the movie "We are Marshall," Marshall coaches are looking at film of West Virginia and notice WVU players have a green cross and "MU" decals on the back of their helmets. Bobby Bowden was the WVU coach at the time. I just want to know if this depicted a true event? If so, Bobby Bowden truly is a class act.

That scene is historically accurate. The cross and "MU" decals were worn on West Virginia helmets during the following spring.

In another scene in the movie, Bowden allows Marshall coaches access to game film and playbooks to help their switch to the veer offense. That, too, is historically accurate.

And, yes, Bowden is a class act.

Pac-10 gets no credit?

From Doug in Surrey, British Columbia: Who do you foresee as USC's biggest threats this season? It seems no one outside California gives the Pac-10 any credit these days.

Please, stop with the whining about the Pac-10 not getting any credit.

Last season, USC was ranked No. 1 before losing to Oregon State, which had been trounced by Penn State. California was No. 23 before losing to Maryland, which was coming off a loss to Middle Tennessee. Oregon was ranked No. 17 before falling to Boise State. Arizona State was No. 15 before losing to UNLV. Oregon State reached as high as No. 17 despite losing three of its first five games. In fact, the Beavers were the highest-ranked team with three losses before they lost to Oregon in the regular-season finale.

This year's preseason top 25 includes three Pac-10 teams (No. 4 USC, No. 12 California and No. 16 Oregon). Only the SEC and the Big 12 have more ranked teams.

The cries of injustice seem to be based on USC's omission from the BCS national championship game last season. The argument is that USC and Florida, which won the national championship, both had a loss, but Florida fell at home and USC was beaten on the road.

USC proponents seem to forget that Florida beat more ranked opponents and defeated top-ranked Alabama in its final game before the bowls. USC's final regular-season victory was over UCLA, which was one of five Pac-10 teams that weren't bowl eligible.

Once again, USC is a national championship contender this season. The greatest threats to an undefeated season are trips to Ohio State on Sept. 12, California on Oct. 3 and Oregon on Oct. 31. An Oct. 17 trip to Notre Dame may be dicey, too.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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