Even more than in years past, this football season, at least as far as the ACC is concerned, looks to be a complete mystery. There are too many new quarterbacks, new coaches, and new scandals to know how things are going to work out in advance. So, I've decided to preview the season not by predicting what will happen, but to lay out a timeline of when things happen. For the rest of this week, I'll put together what we can expect to know at any given point this fall, beginning with September.
September gives us four weeks of football, with 33 non-conference games and six conference matches. Maryland and Miami have byes the second week of the season, while Wake takes theirs in the fourth. Come the end of next month, here's what we'll have learned:
Whether the ACC Is a Laughingstock Again: 12 of the 13 games against FCS opponents – thank State for the humiliating 13th – are played in September, including the excruciating opening week when five of the six Coastal Division teams all play lesser foes. The ACC has lost to three FCS schools in the past two seasons, and had two close calls in 2008. In recent years the conference has consistently flopped right out of the gate.
If you're looking for teams to go down against FCS teams this season, a good place to start would be with Virginia and Duke, who are playing the same teams – William & Mary and Richmond, respectively – who beat them in 2009. Also in danger is North Carolina, unfortunately, facing the James Madison team that upset Virginia Tech last season in the opening week. It'll be the Heels first game of the post-Butch Davis era, and although I don't expect anything to go wrong, it's happened before.
Whether FSU Is a National Championship Contender: I think I only follow one Florida State fan on Twitter, but there must be an awful lot of retweets, because I get the impression the entire Seminole fan base is really high on this year's team. We'll find out how overoptimistic they are when FSU faces preseason #1 Oklahoma on September 17th. The Seminoles were taken to the woodshed by the Sooners last season, losing 47-17, so they're plenty motivated, but I don't see it doing much good. This year's game should be considerably closer, but OU is the current favorite to win the national championship, while FSU is still rebuilding. If that's not enough, they immediately follow this game with a conference challenge at Clemson. A pair of wins here, and we'll learn we seriously underestimated Jimbo Fisher.
If Wake Forest Has a Defense: Unlike a lot of other teams, Wake at least scheduled a decent start to the season. They start with a Thursday game against Syracuse followed by conference foe N.C. State the following week. (Then, a breather against Gardner-Webb.) Wake has a decent QB, and possibly the strongest healthy running back in the ACC; the question remains, can they defend against anyone? I'm optimistic; Wake should be able to win of the two and come out of their bye week with a winning record.
Will N.C. State Be Able to Survive Without Mustafa Greene: Already breaking in a new quarterback with scrambling sensation Russell Wilson sent packing, the Wolfpack now have to make it through September with out their star running back. They haven't settled on a replacement, and while the soft schedule start of Liberty, Wake, and South Alabama will give them time to break someone in, we'll still know if State is truly in trouble by the Wake and Cincinnati games. While they could still enter October at 4-0, they could also easily stumble.
How UNC Looks Under Everett Withers: The opening slate can hide some flaws, but we'll know enough to answer some questions. Is John Shoop just going to get crazier? Will Bryn Renner be able to perform under center? Can the running game, always a surprise, succeed with Ryan Houston doing the job full time, or will we see a lot of A.J. Blue? And will Carolina finally figure out the Georgia tech offense that so stymied Butch Davis? I think the Heels can make it through the month undefeated with the help of their schedule, but it's no sure thing. Between the Yellow Jackets and UVa, the Heels cn play themselves right out of the conference race if they're not careful.
Finally, it's worth keeping in mind what we won't know. Anything about Virginia tech, really, who won't be tested much during September. Boston College likewise will be a mystery, unless they fall on their face. And Clemson could easily lose tough games to Auburn and FSU and still be a contender or run the table and flop in October. We're only going to weed a couple of teams out this early; for the rest you have to wait until the moths ahead.
Predicted Record on September 31st: