Sam Burnham, Curator
I detest preseason polls and most preseason predictions. Getting too specific in choosing a champion or four particular playoff teams strikes me as hubris. I look at how many times the preseason #1 has fallen, sometimes completely out of the poll compared to how infrequently that chosen favorite has lived up to the expectations and won the title.
But discussing possibilities and predictions can be fun and the allure can be hard to resist. The trick is to not get silly or predictable with it. It is easy to say you are going to pick your playoff teams and then put Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Oregon in a hat to draw out 4 names. That surprises no one. It's predictable. But one thing fans love about college football is that it is unpredictable. Something crazy is bound to happen.
There are teams in each conference who will likely play a major role in the way this season plays out. While writers, TV personalities, radio call-in show hosts, and other specialists are focusing on Bama, UGA, Ohio State, Clemson, and Oklahoma, I would like to point out the others, the upsets, the spoilers, the dark horses, those who can make a difference in one of the favorites making or missing the playoffs.
This conference in general is a dark horse. With the talk mostly circling around the SEC and the Big Ten, the ACC is being left in the shadows. Back in the 1980's, The conference was not a collegiate football powerhouse. The football season consisted of Clemson and some basketball schools. Occasionally Georgia Tech or another school might have a decent or even a strong year. But the only consistent power was Clemson. In the 1990's, Florida State joined up, Clemson seemed to falter a bit and the one team scenario continued. But expansion brought in Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College, and Louisville. With two divisions and a championship game, the ACC took on a new importance.
While Clemson is the obvious favorite, they aren't going to go unchallenged.
Mark Richt has resurrected his alma mater's program and I expect the Hurricanes to be competitive for the ACC title this year.
With Florida State and Virginia Tech opening the season facing each other, the ACC will have an early jockeying for position in the dark horse race. Justin Fuente is going to have the Hokies ready. With Willie Taggart getting an opportunity with his dream job, he's going to want to make a strong first impression as well.
North Carolina State always hangs around. They usually disappoint the faithful before the season ends but not before messing things up for another contender. Head Coach Dave Doeren's staff has been hard at work strengthening the Wolfpack depth chart. If they have been successful, this could be the difference between playing spoiler and becoming an actual contender.
Don't write Clemson in ink yet, but pencil them in.
The talk in the conference is, understandably, all about Bama and UGA. If I just go with my gut, that's who you'll see in Atlanta, and perhaps at Levi's Stadium in January. But the ball bounces funny.
Jeremy Pruitt comes into Knoxville for his first head coaching assignment. No one can argue that he is one of the finest defensive minds in college football. His work as DC at Georgia and Alabama speaks for itself. But we've seen a lot of defensive coordinators that didn't pan out as head coaches. Will he be able to rise to the challenge? I think he will but I'm not expecting the sort of miracle that will be needed to get him to Atlanta in his first season.
Speaking of genius defensive coordinators that made poor head coaches, Will Muschamp has made some progress as South Carolina. But how long can it last before we see what we've already seen at Florida? Looking at his calloused and angry responses to the recent questions about the D.J. Durkin situation at Maryland, where one of the "unhappy players" is the one who died, I'd say it is a matter of time before Coach Boom melts down in Columbia. He's a strategic genius but lacks the people skills to be successful as a head coach. You just can't get players to win for you with that mindset at the helm.
Dan Mullen is looking pretty promising in Florida. He had Mississippi State looking stronger than expected and drew the attention to get one of the most coveted jobs in the sport. But his work in Starkeville, while impressive, did not return the Bulldogs to the level they enjoyed under Jackie Sherrill. To succeed in Gainesville (and stay employed there) he has to get beyond gloating around a celebratory cigar about sweeping recruits out from powerhouses like "UT-Chattanooga." Florida will offer him excellent opportunities to prove himself. That all being said, I think he has the best chance to play spoiler in the SEC this year.
I love Ed Orgeron. I mean, who wouldn't? And he seems like a fantastic fit in his home state of Louisiana. But he's been tossed around the conference before. And I am concerned that we've seen this story before at Ole Miss. The Tigers are hoping we'll see more of the interim head coach from Southern Cal. Frankly, I'd love to see that myself. I want to see him win at LSU. But I'm skeptical. We'll see how this season goes for him.
That's a good start on this topic. I'll be back to go through some more in the near future.