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Aug. 31, 2012
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) -- Opening weekend of the college football season contains an interesting mix of opponents, and the ACC is no different than any other conference.
There are marquee national games, some FCS opponents and some “mid-major” Division I opponents. But the two games that will have the most impact on the season are conference openers: Miami at Boston College on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. and the Labor Day night matchup sending Georgia Tech to Virginia Tech at 8 o’clock.
Coaches’ opinions vary on beginning the season against a league foe. Most would rather play a few games to let their teams get sharp rather than play a game that counts in the standings right away.
“I think it makes it a little tougher when it's a conference opponent because the ramifications are double,” said Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher. “I’ve never been crazy about conference games as openers, (but) that's something we do in this league, something that's part of it.”
Maryland’s Randy Edsall played in last year’s Labor Day opener and beat Miami, but he would prefer not to schedule that way.
“I would much rather have our nonconference games first before we get into the conference schedule,” he said.
The coaches involved in this year’s games insist it’s no big deal.
“The playing field is the same for both of us,” said Frank Spaziani of Boston College. “Practice times are the same. You’ve got to play them sometime, so you might as well play them now. It doesn't matter to me.”
Miami’s Al Golden said he plays the schedule as it comes.
“The time to complain about the schedule is when it's being made, and not when it's released,” he said.
While Miami and BC are in different divisions, the Georgia Tech-Virginia Tech game is between the teams most observers consider the strongest in the Coastal Division. Since the ACC went to divisions in 2005, those are the only two teams to have represented the Coastal in the championship game.
“Certainly it's an important game,” said Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson. “We want to win the game. I don't know that whoever wins that game (means) that the other team's out. There are still seven other conference games to play and some good teams in our league. Certainly it gives you a leg up because it's a division game.”
An aspect about openers that’s different from the regular season is longer preparation time. Does that make a difference when getting ready for a triple-option offense like Georgia Tech’s?
“Yeah, I think that's helpful,” said the Hokies’ Frank Beamer. “You see this offense once a year and having a little extra time to work on that part of it, I do think that is a benefit.
“The other thing is no matter who you put out there, our scout team can't run it like their team, that's for sure. When you get on the field with it live, things happen fast. So it takes a little getting used to even in the game, I think.”
Of course, that works both ways.
“We have more time to get ready for them, so it works out pretty much the same,” Johnson said. “I might be in the minority, but that part I've never really worried much about that. I think if you really looked up the stats, you'd find the extra time thing is a little more of a myth than you think it is.”
Another myth, at least to coaches, is that teams might hold back their playbook against “lesser” opponents in openers but can’t afford to do that against a conference foe.
“I don't think anybody holds back anything,” Spaziani said. “As far as easier opponents, I always get a kick out of that one because when you start the season the bad teams don't know they're bad teams.”
Golden doesn’t buy into that, either.
“If we were going to hold anything back, it would be because of how young we are and because we don't want to make mental errors and confuse them,” he said.
Beamer said his team doesn’t hold back, either.
“We go out there and … whoever it is, try to win,” he said. “Certainly with Georgia Tech that's a really important game for both of us. To start the season, I think both of us will do what we think we need to win that football game.”
* * *
Some quick notes from the other ACC openers:
CLEMSON (vs. Auburn in Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta, Saturday, 7 p.m.): Clemson has split with Auburn the past two seasons. Coach Dabo Swinney’s team will have to play this marquee game without wide receiver and return man Sammy Watkins, suspended for two games.
Swinney: “If we're not good enough to win without Sammy Watkins, we're not good enough to win without him. It's not worth sitting and worrying about it. I'm very confident in the guys that we have to fill that void. I've said a few times, I don't think one guy replaces Sammy. But collectively, as a group, we can get that done. We've prepared for it. That's just where we are. Here in a couple weeks, hopefully people will recognize the fact that we got other good players other than just Sammy Watkins.”
DUKE (home vs. Florida International, Saturday, 7 p.m.): The Blue Devils will have a new kicker, true freshman Ross Martin, and a new punter, redshirt freshman Will Monday.
Coach David Cutcliffe: “When the margin of error is not very big, which it isn't for us at this point, you've got to be particularly good in all phases of the kicking game. But when we can get points, we've got to get points. That's why we recruited so diligently in that area. We really felt like everybody we evaluated, saw in person, that there wasn't anyone close to Ross Martin, and I still feel that way.”
FLORIDA STATE (home vs. Murray State, Saturday, 6 p.m.): Quarterback E.J. Manuel has been mentioned as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate. He’ll be better than 2011, but his performance hinges on something else.
Coach Jimbo Fisher: “I think the people around him will be better. I think we'll be more consistent around him. For any quarterback, you have to have guys around you play consistent. I think from that standpoint the trust factor around him will let him settle, be his own self. I was pleased with his camp. All of our reads and runs, things he has to do, I feel comfortable (with).”
MARYLAND (home vs. William & Mary, Saturday, 3 p.m.): C.J. Brown, the expected starting quarterback, suffered a torn ACL in camp and is out for the year. So coach Randy Edsall turns to true freshman Perry Hills from Pittsburgh as the starter. Another true freshman, Caleb Rowe, and sophomore Devin Burns will be the backups. Edsall: “I feel very comfortable with Perry Hills. We just see him keep ge
tting better day to day. Perry is a guy that can do all the things we want him to do in terms of executing our offense. Very heady young man, good arm, can make all the throws. Just a student of the game. He's somebody who works very hard, very poised, somebody that has command and the respect of his teammates in a very short period of time.”
NORTH CAROLINA (home vs. Elon, Saturday, 12:30 p.m.): Guard Jonathan Cooper is one of the ACC’s elite offensive linemen. He has impressed new coach Larry Fedora, even though Fedora didn’t look at any film from last year and Cooper missed spring practice.
Fedora: “So I really didn't get a feel for who Jonathan really was until fall camp. A tremendous leader, very, very intelligent young man, understands the game and is really going to be a good football player for us. He's got great feet, great agility, has a will to succeed. Just really works well with those other four guys up front.”
NC STATE (vs. Tennessee in Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta, Friday, 7 p.m.): This is the first of two Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games in the Georgia Dome and the first of two ACC-SEC matchups this weekend. The SEC has won six straight national titles, yet when the NFL draft rolls around, the two leagues annually have about the same number of players selected. Wolfpack coach Tom O’Brien has an interesting take on that.
O’Brien: “To be a great football team, even a good football team, the core of your football team doesn't have to be draftable guys, they have to be really good football players. That comes down to the numbers. You need many, many, many guys that are just really good football players. When you surround them with great football players, then you have a great football team.”
VIRGINIA (home vs. Richmond, Saturday, 3 p.m.): Michael Rocco, a junior, won a spirited three-way competition to be the starting quarterback for the second straight year. He beat out sophomore Phillip Sims, a transfer from Alabama, and sophomore Nick Watney. Coach Mike London would like to play Sims some but, if possible, red-shirt Watney.
London on why Rocco won the job: “I think with the accumulated amount of reps over the last couple of years, understanding the system, executing the system, and just the maturation process with him also improved. So I think Michael won it because he was more consistent. He understands the philosophy of it, and his accuracy improved during the course of camp. He's worked hard for this opportunity to start our first game.”
WAKE FOREST (home vs. Liberty, Saturday, 6:30 p.m.): The Deacons have a veteran quarterback in Tanner Price and some good skill players. But the question mark on offense lies in the line:
Coach Jim Grobe: “I think the key is going to be can we get them blocked up front? We want to try to be a better running football team this year. That means you have to have guys coming off the football. With a quarterback that can throw the football, the key is can you protect him?”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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