image1In the first installment of my weekly “Breakin’ It Down” series, I’ll take a gander at the ACC in total.

The ACC football landscape is wide open heading into the start of the 2014 season. Well, if you take out those Seminoles down in Tallahassee. If you remove No. 1-ranked defending national champion Florida State, you have quite a fight for conference supremacy.

For now, it appears that, barring a miraculous fall from grace or a rash of key injuries, Clemson is the only possible threat to FSU in the Atlantic division. That Sept. 20th showdown will likely be under the lights at Doak Campbell Stadium in primetime.

Sorry Louisville, Boston College, N.C. State, Wake Forest and Syracuse fans – you’re playing for second. But that’s no insult. Most teams across the nation would be relegated to this ugly truth.

With nearly all of the key playmakers returning to a loaded FSU squad armed with a prolific offense led by Heisman trophy winner Jameis Winston and a ferociously opportunistic defense, the Seminoles should be a sight to behold. The better question for the ACC may just be: can any conference member stay within a couple touchdowns of Jimbo Fisher’s squad?

imageBut as a whole, it’s a great thing for the ACC. Having a dominant FSU back in the saddle reminiscent of the Bobby Bowden teams of the 90’s is a beautiful development.

Having a regular national title contender does wonders for everybody. It attracts attention to the conference, and in turn, the rest of the schools. It’s a trickle-down effect. The top recruits want to play in premier leagues. For years, the ACC was an afterthought in football. But after suffering through the obscurity and doldrums of the mid-2000s, conference commissioner John Swofford is smiling again.

Well, enough of that. We know who’s likely to have already booked their plane tickets to Charlotte for the ACC Championship game out of the Atlantic division. But what about the Coastal?

As easy as FSU is to pick out of the other side, we’ve got the complete opposite in the Coastal. Pick your favorite team. Heck, draw straws. You’ll probably have just as good of a chance at selecting the ultimate winner out of the parity-ridden and crowded Coastal race.

Although Miami was reluctantly tabbed by the media as most likely to face off with in-state rival FSU in the ACC title game, both UNC and Duke garnered more first-place votes. Try that one on for size. The voting tally highlights how wide open things really are. In fact, numerous veteran ACC reporters at the ACC Kickoff event in Greensboro couldn’t recall a time a division was more up for grabs.

So, in lieu of this, I’ll make a case for four different schools claiming the division championship.

First up is Miami. Head coach Al Golden has plenty of talent returning to Coral Gables this fall, but none more dangerous than stud running back Duke Johnson. Johnson went down to injury a season ago, but now that he’s back healthy, look for the Hurricane rushing attack to be humming along nicely. The question mark remains with the surrounding cast at the quarterback and receiver slots. What happens when defenses clamp down on Johnson? Who else can step up at big-time moments in the clutch for the Canes this fall?

Another division title contender is Duke. The Blue Devils are receiving plenty of respect, and deservedly so, after a trip to the ACC championship game in 2013 and a wildly competitive contest against Texas A&M in their bowl game. Head coach David Cutcliffe has transformed the struggling Duke program into a formidable force, capable of pushing everybody in the conference to the limits with their tricky offensive schemes, impressive discipline and uncommon tenacity. Durham is buzzing these days, and not just for hoops. But the Blue Devils lost a couple key veteran offensive linemen who were so vital to the offense’s success a year ago. And what’s more, the news of starters in LB Kelby Brown and TE Braxton Deaver being ruled out for the season due to injuries makes things even worse. Can the confident Blue Devils overcome it all and back up the program’s first 10-win season with another notable campaign in 2014? Quarterback Anthony Boone and top-notch wide receiver Jamison Crowder will certainly have their hands full.

Virginia Tech just hasn’t been, well, Virginia Tech the past couple seasons. The Hokies are used to 10-win seasons at minimum and making their annual pilgrimage to the conference title game. But there’s been a disturbance in the force of late. Bud Foster’s defense has seemed to lose some of its dominant edge, the offense has lacked an elite signal caller, and head coach Frank Beamer just isn’t willing his team to trademark gritty wins like he routinely used to do like clockwork, especially in ACC action. The decline in high-caliber recruits has seemingly caught up to the Hokies. But in a season with no clear-cut favorite, is the time ripe for a VT re-emergence? Parity is perfect for Beamer ball. One thing is for sure: the Hokies will be riding running back Trey Edmunds’ legs as far as they will carry them.

image2Who’s that fourth contender for the Coastal crown? That’s the Tar Heels. Head coach Larry Fedora enters his third season at the helm of Carolina football preaching that the time is now. A sense of urgency and focus has pervaded the UNC preseason training camp. But do the Tar Heels have the necessary ingredients to make a run? At the skill positions, the answer is an emphatic “yes.” With return specialist Ryan Switzer now doubling as a fully-fledged wide receiver, the electricity inside Kenan Stadium could be at a fever pitch. What’s more, offensive guru Fedora has not one, but two signal callers tailor made for his warp-speed system. Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky may both be shuffled in and out with new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell having the luxury of going with the hot hand. The question marks for UNC remain up front. The defensive and offensive lines took massive hits with the losses of James Hurst and Kareem Martin. Will these holes be patched up enough to allow the potent Carolina attack to shine? Time will tell.

2014 ACC Predictions:

Atlantic: FSU

Coastal: UNC

Conference Title Game: FSU over UNC, 38-21


Keep up with all the latest on ACC and UNC sports by following Matt on Twitter @moakes3