Location: Miami, Fla. Team overview: The Hurricanes have been hit hard by an NCAA investigation and early NFL Draft deflections, maybe more than any other squad in the ACC. The squad must replace its top quarterback, running back, wide receiver, linebacker, safety and three offensive linemen in 2012. A total of just 11 starters are back, including the team's specialists.
At quarterback, the battle to replace Jacory Harris is between junior Stephen Morris, who has started five games in the past two years, and redshirt sophomore Ryan Williams, a former Memphis transfer. Morris missed the spring due to back surgery, but still seems to be the favorite heading into the season.
Behind the signal caller, Miami has a few options to replace former star running back Lamar Miller, who was selected in the 2012 NFL Draft. Mike James is expected to take over the feature back role after he gained 275 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground in 2011. He played in all 12 games with two starts last fall, and also ran for 398 yards in 13 games and three starts in 2010. True freshman Randy "Duke" Johnson also joins the fray this fall with considerable hype, but Miami - with an average recruiting ranking of No. 16 over the past five years - has added highly ranked recruits every season and has lost at least six games five times in its past six chances.
The squad must also replace its top two pass catchers from last year, but junior Allen Hurns returns after he tallied 31 receptions for 415 yards and a touchdown last year. Three other players who recorded at least 100 yards receiving in 2011 are also back.
Up front, the Canes will be greatly helped out if former blue chip recruit Seantrel Henderson starts to live up to his considerable recruiting hype. The former No. 2 overall recruit ballooned up to 400 pounds, according to coach Al Golden at ACC Kickoff, but is now under 340. He'll be leading a young and inexperienced group of linemen; the projected starting five combined for just 23 starts in 2011.
Even as recently as mid-July, the NCAA investigation that forced the team to sit several players during the 2011 campaign claimed another one - star safety Ray-Ray Armstrong, who was one of the ACC's best at his position and another highly touted recruit. Armstrong's former position is just one of several question marks for the unit that returns just four starters in 2012.
The returning starters include defensive end Anthony Chickillo, linebacker Jimmy Gaines, cornerback Brandon McGee and safety Vaughn Telemaque. McGee and Telemaque will provide stability from the back line, but there's no denying the team would've been better off with Armstrong present, and the secondary must help the Canes produce more than last year' six interceptions.
Gaines, who started eight games and totaled 58 tackles with three for loss, will also be helped by the return of Denzel Perryman, who moves to middle linebacker. Despite just five starts last year, Perryman finished second on the squad with 69 tackles, including 6.5 for loss, and he also forced two fumbles. Chickillo tied for the team lead with 5.0 sacks as a true freshman last fall, and is the team's returning leader in that category, but he's also the only end on the roster with starting experience.
Despite the inexperience for the Canes, the squad will be greatly aided by one of the league's top punter and kicker combinations. Punter Dalton Botts was a preseason All-ACC pick after he averaged 42.7 yards per attempt last year, while kicker Jake Wieclaw was 11-of-14 on field goal attempts last season.
It's tough to predict how the Canes will do in 2012 with so many unknowns. They're more talented than last year's 6-6 record, but they have to prove it on the field. It will be interesting to see where this team finishes in the ACC's Coastal Division, where Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech are thought to be the front-runners and Miami, North Carolina and Virginia, are closely bunched together as the second tier.
Why NC State can win: NC State will be the favorite in this game, and it should be one that they win. The Mike Glennon-led passing attack should take advantage of the inexperienced Miami defense, and they've had trouble defending the run, as well - UM opponents averaged 161.9 yards on the ground per game last season.
The NC State defense should have no problems containing the Miami attack, and they could feast on Morris, if he wins the starting gig, because he is prone to interceptions.
Why NC State can lose: NC State is on the road, and this will be the Pack's third contest away from Carter-Finley Stadium in the first five games. If the one-two punch of James and Johnson in the backfield lives up to its hype, the Hurricanes can protect a lead while taking the air out of the ball.
Miami could surprise some people if their highly ranked recruits start to play up to their prep reputations. They're definitely better than last year's 6-6 record indicates.
Oct. 6: Florida State at NC State
Location: Raleigh Team overview: Once again, Florida State is thought to be the class of the ACC's Atlantic Division. Only one time since 2005 (when the ACC began its divisional format) has somebody other than the Seminoles been voted as the favorite in their division by the ACC media. However, there have also been just two seasons in which FSU proved the prognostications right and lived up to preseason expectations, which they have plenty of this year after Phil Steele tabbed them as his favorite to win the national title.
There is no denying that the Noles are the most talented squad in the ACC, on paper, at least. They have a league-best 19 returning starters and the 2012 roster has a combined 420 starts under its collective belt. The team also boasts four preseason All-ACC selections, tied for the best tally in the league, including defensive end Brandon Jenkins and safety Lamarcus Joyner. Kicker Dustin Hopkins, one of the nation's best, and specialist Greg Reid were also honored on the squad, but Reid was dismissed from the team on Aug. 1.
Jenkins will lead one of the nation's top defensive lines, which helped the Noles rank in the top ten nationally for sacks (t-8th, 3.08 per game) and tackles for loss (10th, 7.58) in 2011. The squad also led the nation by allowing an average of just 2.35 yards per carry and ranked fourth with an average of 15.1 points allowed per game. The front also includes junior end Bjoern Werner, who finished second to Jenkins with seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss last year, and defensive tackles Anthony McCloud and Everett Dawkins, who both started last year.
Sophomore Timmy Jernigan is also back after he earned freshman All-America honors and paced all interior linemen on the team with 30 tackles, including six for loss, and end Cornellius Carradine, the former JuCo National Defensive Player of the Year who tallied 5.5 sacks last year, is good enough that he would start on most other ACC teams.
In addition, the defense returns two starting linebackers from last year, including Christian Jones and Vince Williams, in addition to a pair of starting defensive backs - Joyner and junior cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who has five picks and 17 passes defended in his career.
Former hard-hitting safety Nick Moody, who has started for parts of three years on the back line, is expected to move down and take the vacated linebacker spot, while Telvin Smith, who registered 42 stops, including eight for loss, last year, is also expected to compete for playing time in the middle.
Although there is a ton of experience returning on defense, the offense is in a nearly identical position, with eight of last year's starters back on the roster. Quarterback E.J. Manuel leads the way, and he will reap the benefits of seven returning linemen who started last year, as well as starting running back Devonta Freeman.
Manuel served as the understudy to future first-round pick Christian Ponder for two seasons - when he played a large role in a pair of bowl victories - and then took the reigns last season. Manuel led the team to nine victories in 11 starts, including another postseason win, and completed 65.3 percent of his passes for 18 touchdowns against just eight interceptions. He also enters the year on a streak of 121 pass attempts without a pick, which stretched over the team's final five contests of 2011, when the Noles went 4-1.
In addition to Freeman in the backfield, the squad also returns five of last year's top six backs, which accounted for 1,073 rushing yards and 18 scores. The sophomore Freeman, who rushed for 579 yards and eight touchdowns, will be pushed by senior Chris Thompson, who paced the team on the ground in 2010 but missed most of last year with a back injury, sophomore James Wilder Jr., who checks in at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, and early enrollee Mario Pender. Fullback Lonnie Pryor, the owner of 15 career scores, is back to pave the way for whoever is carrying the ball.
Up front, the line is full of talented mammoths - the projected starters average 310 pounds, and several are just beginning to scratch their potential. Four freshmen started in last year's Champs Sports Bowl and three of those sophomores began the summer atop the depth chart.
Out wide, Manuel's pass catchers may not possess a ton of experience at this point, but there are several intriguing options, and nearly all of them stand 6-feet or taller. The team returns six of last year's top seven wide outs, including four athletes looking to build off of seasons in which they tallied at least 400 yards through the air. Tight end Nick O'Leary, who started just twice as a true freshmen but led his position with 12 receptions for 164 yards and a score, is also back.
FSU is a legitimate contender to carry the ACC flag on the national stage, and help turn around the league's record in BCS games. The squad has a manageable schedule - the out-of-conference slate includes Murray State, Savannah State, USF and Florida (at home) - and they also host Clemson, while missing Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Virginia in the crossover games.
Why NC State can win: NC State draws FSU at home, which is obviously an advantage - Tom O'Brien's squads are 66-29 at home in his career and his Wolfpack teams have put up a 23-12 mark at Carter-Finley Stadium. The last time the Seminoles traveled to Raleigh resulted in one of O'Brien's biggest wins at the school, a 28-24 victory for the Red and White over the 16th-ranked visitors. State has actually upended FSU in two of their last three home tilts, and both victories came when the unranked Pack hosted a highly ranked Noles' squad; former coach Chuck Amato's team upset the country's No. 9 group in 2005.
NC State's defense, led by their talented and experienced secondary, should be able to handle Manuel and the Seminoles' offensive attack. It's going to come down to quarterback Mike Glennon staying upright, and the signal caller leading his troops to success against the Noles' defense. Last year against FSU was one of Glennon's worst performances, but he is a much different quarterback than he was in the first meeting, and will be motivated to prove it against one of the land's stingiest units.
Why NC State can lose: Florida State handled the visiting Wolfpack last year, 34-0, and it was obviously not pretty. The Noles scored on three of its first four possession and pitched the first shutout of the Pack in 45 games. It was the perfect storm for FSU, their offense got off to the explosive start they are always capable of, while the defense did not allow their opponents to cross midfield until the second quarter.
NC State's defensive success relies heavily on creating turnovers, and they only forced one last year against FSU. If the Noles' defense plays lights out like they did in 2011 when they allowed the Pack to gain just 166 yards of total offense, and their offense gets off to a fast start once again, things could take a turn for the worst in Raleigh.