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January 12, 2010

ACC Breakdown: Balance of power shifts

MORE POSTSEASON BREAKDOWNS: Big East | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC

The balance of power in the ACC shifted to the Coastal Division this season.

Expect a similar tilt in 2010.

The ACC's top three teams in the final Associated Press poll - No. 10 Virginia Tech, No. 13 Georgia Tech and No. 19 Miami - came from the Coastal Division. No. 24 Clemson was the only Atlantic Division team to crack the final AP poll.

C.J. Spiller averaged 191.4 all-purpose yards per game this season.

Player of the year: Clemson RB C.J. Spiller.
Spiller, who finished sixth in Heisman voting, became the first player in college football history to gain 3,000 yards rushing, 2,000 yards in kickoff returns, 1,000 yards in receiving and 500 in punt returns in a career. He broke a 41-year-old conference record by averaging 191.4 all-purpose yards per game this season and became the first player in league history to gain 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in the same season. He also was the only player in the nation to score a touchdown in every game he played.

Rivals.com 2009 All-ACC Team
Next season, the top four teams in the ACC could come from the Coastal.

Virginia Tech returns most of its skill-position players on offense and should boast the nation's best running-back tandem next season in Ryan Williams and Darren Evans. Georgia Tech won the ACC title this season despite having just six seniors on scholarship, though the Yellow Jackets will lose four top juniors to the NFL draft. Miami has a young nucleus that features promising quarterback Jacory Harris, while North Carolina returns 10 of the top 12 tacklers from a defense that ranked sixth in the nation in yards allowed this season.

Here's a recap of the 2009 season in the ACC that also offers some clues on what to expect in 2010.

Coach of the year: Frank Spaziani, Boston College. No team in the conference overachieved as much as Spaziani's Eagles. Boston College went through a brutal offseason in which its coach was fired, its starting quarterback transferred and its star linebacker was diagnosed with cancer. The Eagles were picked to finish last in the Atlantic Division. They instead finished second while posting a respectable 8-5 record. Honorable mention goes to Paul Johnson, who led Georgia Tech to the ACC title despite dealing with an inconsistent defense.

Freshman of the year: Boston College LB Luke Kuechly. Kuechly, a former three-star prospect, made quite a splash as a true freshman. Kuechly had 158 overall tackles and 87 solos to rank second in the nation in both categories. His emergence helped the Eagles withstand the loss of 2008 ACC defensive player of the year Mark Herzlich, who was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma before the season. Kuechly and Herzlich should form quite a tandem next season.

Offensive coordinator of the year: Mark Whipple, Miami. This honor actually should go to Georgia Tech's Johnson, the architect of the option attack that led the ACC in points and yards per game. But because we can't hand it out to a head coach, we instead will salute Whipple. Miami ranked 89th in the nation in total offense and 50th in scoring last season without Whipple. In Whipple's first year on the job, the Hurricanes improved to 31st in scoring and 45th in total offense. And he did all that with an offense that featured Harris, a first-year starter, at quarterback.

Defensive coordinator of the year: Everett Withers, North Carolina. Granted, he was working with more talent than just about any coordinator in the conference, but Withers deserves credit for making the most of his assets. North Carolina ranked sixth in the nation in total defense and 13th in scoring defense. The Heels figure to be even better on defense next season now that all their key underclassmen have announced their plans to stay in school.

Biggest surprise: All those points. A league that had been known as perhaps the most defense-minded of the six major conferences suddenly started producing shootouts every weekend. Six ACC schools ranked among the nation's top 32 teams in scoring, while three teams ranked 94th or worse in scoring defense. In each of the previous four seasons, the ACC had only one team ranked higher than 43rd in the nation in scoring.

Biggest disappointment: Florida State's defense. FSU defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews said before the season that this was probably the fastest defense he ever had coached, but the Seminoles still struggled to stop teams. Florida State ranked 108th in the nation in total defense and 94th in scoring defense. Washington State was the only team from any of the six major conferences that allowed more yards per game than the Seminoles.

Best postseason performance: Florida State. After underachieving all season, the Seminoles capped the year by sending legendary coach Bobby Bowden out in style. With hundreds of Bowden's former players on hand to watch his final game, FSU delivered a solid all-around performance in a 33-21 Gator Bowl victory over West Virginia. Virginia Tech also deserves plenty of credit for a 37-14 victory over Tennessee that ended the ACC's four-year run of frustration in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Worst postseason performance: Miami. The Hurricanes headed into the Champs Sports Bowl as three-point favorites over Wisconsin, which had been whipped by Florida State in this game a year earlier. When Miami scored a touchdown on its opening drive, the Hurricanes seemed headed toward a fairly easy victory. But they didn't score again until the final two minutes of a 20-14 loss that could cost the Hurricanes a preseason top-10 ranking.

Underclassmen liable to leave early: Georgia Tech SS Morgan Burnett (has announced), Maryland OT Bruce Campbell (has announced), Georgia Tech RB Jonathan Dwyer (has announced), Georgia Tech DE Derrick Morgan (has announced), Georgia Tech WR Demaryius Thomas (has announced), Virginia Tech DE Jason Worilds (has announced), N.C. State QB Russell Wilson.

Next season's breakout offensive player: Clemson RB Andre Ellington. The Tigers will have a tough time replacing Spiller, but Ellington figures to make the most of his opportunity. Ellington rushed for 491 yards and averaged 7.1 yards per carry while backing up Spiller this season. Don't be surprised if he gains twice as many yards next season while splitting carries with Jamie Harper.

Next season's breakout defensive player: Florida State CB Greg Reid. This former five-star prospect earned plenty of playing time on defense this season, but he made a bigger name for himself on special teams as he led the nation in punt-return average. FSU won't win the Atlantic Division next season unless its defense improves significantly. And that upgrade probably won't happen unless Reid develops into a star performer in the secondary.

Player most on the spot next season: North Carolina QB T.J. Yates. UNC should have one of the nation's top defenses next season, so the Tar Heels could make a serious run at an ACC title if their offense is merely respectable. The key to an upgraded offense is an improved season from Yates, who threw 15 interceptions and only 14 touchdown passes this season. Yates needs to assert himself or risk losing his job to redshirt freshman Bryn Renner, the No. 5 pro-style quarterback in the 2009 recruiting class.

Next season's conference champ/division winners: Virginia Tech. Consider it the unofficial rule of predicting the ACC in the post-expansion era: When in doubt, go with the Hokies. They're always in contention, and that shouldn't change in 2010. The Coastal Division should produce the league champion. Georgia Tech would've been the clear-cut favorite if all its top juniors returned, but they all left. I was leaning toward picking Miami until watching the Hurricanes struggle against Wisconsin. North Carolina has too many questions on offense. That leaves the Hokies. Virginia Tech has to plug some holes on the offensive line and on defense, but the Hokies should be able to run the ball on just about anyone. As for the Atlantic Division, we'll go with Florida State, which should have one of the most potent offenses in the conference with QB Christian Ponder working behind a veteran line. We're counting on Florida State's defense to regain respectability after a dismal 2009 season.

National title contenders: None. Virginia Tech can put itself in the national title picture by knocking off Boise State in early October and Miami could enter the race if it pulls an upset at Ohio State on Sept. 11. But the safe guess is that all the ACC teams once again will be out of the national title sweepstakes by mid-November.

MORE POSTSEASON BREAKDOWNS: Big East | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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