Bill Hass on the ACC: From Trojans to Blue Hens, ACC Teams Face Diverse Opening Foes
Aug. 28, 2008
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – For the ACC, the slate of football openers may be unlike anything the league has faced before.
Four teams get an early jump and play on Thursday night. Seven more play Saturday.
Opponents range from Charleston Southern to Southern Cal.
And there are two USC foes (Southern Cal and South Carolina).
There’s Duke vs. the Dukes (the Blue Devils against James Madison).
Three games will be played at neutral sites in NFL stadiums – Charlotte, Cleveland and Atlanta.
And a fourth game will be played at an NFL stadium that’s now a permanent home for an ACC school (the University of Miami in Dolphin Stadium).
As anxious as fans are, coaches and players may be even more ready for the games after weeks of preseason practice.
“Our guys are bored right now running into each other,” said Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, echoing the thoughts of 10 of the 11 other coaches.
The only coach who doesn’t feel that way is Florida State’s Bobby Bowden. He’s glad the Seminoles don’t open until Sept. 6 because they lost some practice time to tropical storm Fay and they’re behind in preparation.
For everyone else, it’s time to start finding answers to preseason questions.
“I’m anxiously waiting to see what’s going to happen,” said Paul Johnson, who is in his first year at Georgia Tech. “I think I have an idea, but until you actually go out there and do it, you don’t really know.”
Jacksonville State at Georgia Tech, Thursday at 7:30 p.m. – Johnson unveils his option offense against a team led by a former BCS quarterback.
Johnson had considerable success with the option at Georgia Southern and Navy. Those teams didn’t throw much but the Yellow Jackets may pass more because they have quarterbacks more suited for it.
“You do some tweaking (at a new school) but quite honestly if you have good personnel you don’t have to tweak,” he said. “They can do whatever you ask them to do. The nature of things is you’re going to try to do what it takes to win.”
Jacksonville State, an FCS school (it will always be Division I-AA to me), is led by former LSU quarterback Ryan Perrilloux. It’s not lost on Johnson that the last time Perrilloux played in Atlanta, he accepted the MVP trophy for leading LSU a win in the SEC title game.
And, as a former coach at a non-BCS school, he respects his opponent.
“You better match their intensity because they’re going to come in here to play hard and not just to collect a check,” Johnson said.
Charleston Southern at Miami, Thursday at 7:30 p.m. – The Hurricanes will start true freshman Jacory Harris at quarterback for Robert Marve, who will sit out the opener. Head coach Randy Shannon said both quarterbacks will use the same approach.
“They use the players around them to win games,” he said. “They’re not trying to win the game (themselves).”
After 71 years in the Orange Bowl, Miami will move to Dolphin Stadium, an exciting time for the players. Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga has made the Hurricanes feel they’re not just renting the place.
“He built us our own private locker room, our own private training room and equipment room, so we feel right at home,” Shannon said.
NC State at South Carolina, Thursday at 8 p.m. – The Wolfpack staff has chosen red-shirt freshman Russell Wilson as the starter at quarterback.
“We’ve always been of the mindset that you have to play the guy who’s going to give you the best opportunity to win,” said coach Tom O’Brien. “Wilson is a very confident young man, he’s got a strong arm and hopefully he will lead us to victory.”
O’Brien and South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier are no strangers, dating back to the days when O’Brien was an assistant on George Welsh’s staff at Virginia and Spurrier was the offensive coordinator at Duke.
“You look at some of the things he’s doing today, he did (those) back in the 80s,” O’Brien said of Spurrier. “He has a system but like every coach you change and you tweak this and that. He understands what he wants to do and he understands when you counter what his counter is going to be.”
Wake Forest at Baylor, Thursday at 8 p.m. – The Deacons and Wolfpack are the only ACC teams to play an opening game on the opponent’s home field. That’s concern enough for Grobe, but Baylor also has a new coaching staff, which adds another measure of uncertainty.
“I heard somebody say the other day, and I think it’s really true, anybody can win the opening game,” Grobe said. “That’s when you make most of your mistakes, and typically those are magnified on the road.”
The Deacons enter the game ranked No. 23, a different perspective for a team used to being picked near the bottom of the Atlantic Division.
“We’ve enjoyed the underdog role, we’ve enjoyed being under the radar,” said Grobe, whose team is 20-7 the past two seasons. “We’ve been able to sneak up on some people. I don’t think that’s going to happen anymore. Baylor would love to knock off a ranked team. This is new territory for us, but I feel our kids are handling it well.”
Virginia Tech vs. East Carolina in Charlotte, Saturday at noon – The Hokies, ranked No. 17 in the AP poll, have a tough assignment. They weren’t exactly dominant in beating the Pirates 17-7 in Blacksburg last season. ECU went on to beat Boise State in a bowl game.
“We’ve really got our work cut out for us,” said coach Frank Beamer. “East Carolina is for real. We know how good they are up front defensively; we couldn’t get our running attack going against them last year.”
The Hokies settled their quarterback question by announcing senior Sean Glennon as the starter. The intent is to red-shirt sophomore Tyrod Taylor.
“If we can make this thing work,” Beamer said, “it’s in the best interests of Virginia Tech football for (Taylor) to have three more years of eligibility. (Deciding on a quarterback) gives our team a direction and it is full speed ahead.”
Southern Cal at Virginia, Saturday at 3:30 p.m. – The Cavaliers accelerated their pace in preseason practice for two reasons. One, they’re young, with only 10 starters returning, and there’s a lot to learn. And two, the Trojans are coming to town. USC is the only team to play in six straight BCS bowl and this year’s edition is ranked third in the AP poll and second in the coaches’ poll.
“Everybody is excited about the season opener,” said coach Al Groh, “and when you play the marquee team in college football – which USC has certainly earned the right to be – it puts an added level of challenge and interest on the game for our team.
“Seldom do you ever have an opener against a team that’s currently ranked as No. 3, and arguably at this stage is as good as anybody, so it probably tightens the focus on every little detail as far as the players are concerned. Everybody recognizes the need to get our game as finely tuned as possible.”
Delaware at Maryland, Saturday at 3:45 p.m. – This is another opener against an FCS team, but Terps coach Ralph Friedgen said his players are well aware of last year’s shocker when Appalachian toppled Michigan. Delaware made it to the FCS championship game last year, losing only to that same Appalachian team. The Blue Hens are bolstered by numerous transfers from BCS schools.
“I know what type of football team they are,” Friedgen said. “They won’t come in here and be in awe, I can tell you that. They’ve been in big games before; they beat Navy last year, a good Navy team, so we know what we’re in for.”
Maryland was one of many ACC teams that had to settle its quarterback position. The Terps chose Jordan Steffy over Chris Turner in what Friedgen said was a difficult decision.
“Jordan had a better spring practice and a better fall.” Friedgen said. “We base that (decision) on things like passing stats, mental errors, scoring drives in scrimmages, big plays and interceptions.”
McNeese State at North Carolina, Saturday at 6 p.m. – The Cowboys are ranked 10th in the preseason FCS poll and are coming off an 11-1 season. Tar Heels coach Butch Davis has schooled his players on what to expect through intense film study, where McNeese’s team speed stands out.
“You try to pride your players on the idea that you disregard the name of the opponent,” Davis said, “and watch the tape and watch the players and how they play and as soon as you do, you start to appreciate what they’re capable of doing.”
UNC went 4-8 last year and, although Davis sees improvement, he warns against premature expectations.
“There are lots of steps to fixing this program,” he said. “It’s not going to be a quick fix, it’s not going to be a one-year deal or a two-year thing. There’re still going to be growing pains this year. We’re going to take some lumps and learn some lessons. If we can avoid injuries, it gives us a chance to get better.”
James Madison at Duke, Saturday at 7 p.m. – New coach David Cutcliffe hopes to see 30,000 or more fans in Wallace Wade Stadium for this opener. But no matter what the size of the crowd, he will get a familiar feeling.
“I have felt (butterflies) for 33 years,” he said. “I think it’s because of this group of kids, they’ve worked so hard and that’s why the butterflies are maybe a little bigger. I’ve had a lot of opening days and I think there have always been butterflies, whether I was a head coach or an assistant.
“I’ve never been with this group of young men before on game day so there’s a little uncertainty about how they will respond. Any nervousness I feel is just in the hopes that they do well.”
James Madison made the FCS playoffs last season, but it wouldn’t matter if it hadn’t.
“When you’re at Duke in our situation everybody is a quality opponent, so that’s not an issue,” Cutcliffe said. “All you have to do is put on a projector to see James Madison and the players see exactly what we’re talking about. They don’t take anybody for granted. Our problem is the other way, having enough confidence to play.”
Boston College vs. Kent State in Cleveland, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. – Perhaps no ACC player will feel the glare of the spotlight, at least initially, more than Eagles quarterback Chris Crane. All he has to do is take the place of Matt Ryan, the No. 3 pick in the 2008 NFL draft.
“He’s done a nice job in practice (and) it will be real telling when the lights are on, how he responds,” said coach Jeff Jagodzinski. “I think he’ll handle it well. He’s mobile, he gets out of the bad spots, he can run and get out on the edge. We’re going to move the quarterback around the pocket a lot more than we did with Matt because that’s one of Chris’ strengths.”
It would be unfair to expect a Ryan-like performance from Crane, and Jagodzinski doesn’t.
“We want to see his decision-making and how he manages the game,” the coach said. “That’s what we’re asking him to do this season – manage the game, manage the offense, stay within the parameters of what we’ve taught you and I think he’ll be fine. If he starts going off course and doing his own thing, I think we’ll have some problems.”
Clemson vs. Alabama in Atlanta, Saturday at 8 p.m. – Playing in the Georgia Dome, where a sold-out crowd will be evenly split in its loyalties, gives this game a special edge.
“It kind of reminds me of a mini-bowl,” said coach Tommy Bownden. “The atmosphere seems to be of a bowl, and I know tickets cost about the same as a bowl and they’re hard to get.”
But an opener of this magnitude shouldn’t bother Clemson, which played ACC foe Florida State in its first game in 2007.
“You have to play at a higher level of efficiency,” Bowden said. “If we were playing a lesser opponent, you wouldn’t have to be as sharp mentally; you could have some busted assignments, a turnover or two, and probably still win the game. In a game like this, you can’t. You have to take high level of concentration into the game.”
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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