Blink and it'll be September. At least it feels that way to me right now what with ACC Football Kickoff later this week in Charlotte and Panthers Training Camp and fall camps not all that far behind. Football is closer than you think.
I'll be headed to CLT with intrepid sports photographer Charlie Mickens. There's plenty to talk about, the trick is whether the coaches or players will actually want to discuss anything in depth. Here's hoping they're in a sharing mood. In any case - here are my Top 11 (get it, because ABC11) things worth discussing at ACC Kickoff:
1) Who believes in the Pack? Dave Doeren has made no secret that he does, zeroing in on this season as a real breakthrough opportunity. Tons of returning experience at most every key position is one reason to be optimistic. Also feeding the fun - near wins last year against the ACC's big dogs, Clemson and FSU. The Pack absolutely should've beaten the eventual National Champs in Death Valley and had the Noles squarely on the ropes before falling by four. Throw in an impressive bowl performance and takedown of the Tar Heels and things seem to be looking up. (For our purposes, ECU and BC and Louisville never happened) The D-Line should feast, Jaylen Samuels should have TDs in abundance and Kelvin Harmon could go for 1,000 yards receiving. These are all good things. That unfortunately is the problem. State doesn't do expectations well in general. We'll find out right away if the Pack is serious. They must beat South Carolina.
2) Just how foolproof is the Larry Fedora offensive system? We'll find out for sure this year as the Heels replace basically every notable offensive piece from last year. Gone are the QB, two RBs, two WRs etc etc. It seems impossible to imagine that a Nathan Elliott or Brandon Harris led unit will come anywhere near to matching the prowess we've seen the last couple seasons, but maybe this'll be the year Fed works miracles. No more Gene Chizik makes for an interesting defensive transition, especially in the likely absence of an offense that can outscore opponents when necessary. I'm not very bullish on the Tar Heels as you can tell.
3) Daniel Jones is one of just two returning starting QBs in the Coastal and he certainly looks to have the tools to be an exceptional college QB for 2-3 more years. Having most of his top pass catchers back will be a plus, TJ Rahming especially. Duke's defense wasn't up to snuff last year, especially in the closing weeks of the season. There is promise on that side of the ball, most prominently in the form of young LBs Ben Humphreys and Joe Giles-Harris, but the line and secondary needs to be much better. September's schedule could be an early make or break for the Devils to get back to a bowl game.
4) Clemson moves into the post-Deshaun era. The reigning national champs lose their talisman QB, about the only guy in the country who could run circles around Alabama's defense. Replacing him is obviously a huge task, nevermind the likes of Mike Williams and Wayne Gallman. I could go on. It's a rebuild on offense. The defense though figures to be terrifying again, starting right at the point of attack with Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins. The guess here is that Dabo's gang will be just fine.
5) Orrrr - will Florida State reassert itself as the class of the conference? Deondre Francois will likely improve in his second year as the starting QB. The trick will be trying to even approximate what Dalvin Cook brought to the table. Have fun with that Cam Akers and Jacque Patrick. No better way to find out where you are after fall camp than starting the season with Bama. If the Noles win that one? Look out.
6) The Coastal is clustered again. UNC was an easy choice to repeat last year in my opinion. Obviously that didn't work out as planned. Picking a winner this year is plain guesswork. Duke and Virginia have to come off the mat. Miami has never managed to do it. Carolina's in a restructuring year. Virginia Tech is the defending champ but has a QB question. There's never any knowing what GT is going to do from year to year. That leaves me with Pittsburgh. The Panthers have the easiest schedule and I think Max Browne and Qadree Ollison will be effective, so I'll give them a spot in Charlotte.
7) How do you improve on a Heisman season? Lamar Jackson was flatly insane for stretches last season, but then he and the Cards lost their way late in the season. I have a hard time imagining him matching his TD totals from last year, but I would expect improved accuracy and ball security. Never mind the fact that his O-line can't possibly perform any worse than last year. He's going to be a sorcerer again this season, but I don't think the Cards have enough elsewhere to overtake Clemson or FSU.
8) After Lamar - who becomes the league's breakout sensation this year? Everyone has Dexter Lawrence ticketed for the top pick in the NFL draft in 2019, but interior linemen aren't all that sexy. There will be plenty of spots up for grabs on the All-ACC teams this year.
9) Speaking of - there hasn't been much to enjoy about BC football these past few seasons, but Harold Landry is surely an exception. The Pine Forest grad is a flat out menace coming off the edge. I wouldn't bet against him improving on his 16.5 sacks from last year.
10) Can Wake make a second straight bowl? Dave Clawson's group made a breakthrough last year. How to maintain the buzz is the job now. Former Southern Durham gamebreaker Kendall Hinton is back at QB and can hopefully stay healthy. John Wolford is also back for what seems like his 11th year of eligibility, so the Deacs again dabble in double QBs. Whoever's taking the snaps needs to produce more points. Wake was oftentimes starved for offense last year, making the 7-6 mark perhaps even more impressive. Also: Duke Ejiofor is very good.
11) Please don't play any more games in monsoons. Thanks.