Oct. 20: NC State at Maryland
Location: College Park, Md.
Team overview: Nobody can forget the last time NC State traveled to College Park for a football game - the No. 21 Wolfpack lost to unranked Maryland, 38-31, with a chance to play in the school's first-ever ACC Championship game on the line. However, these teams are much different than the squads that met in 2010, a lot changes happen in two years of college football, and that is especially true of the Terrapins.
Gone is former coach Ralph Friedgen, who was terminated at the end of the 2010 season, and he was replaced by former UConn coach Randy Edsall. The coaching transition has been anything but smooth and 26 players have left the program since Edsall was hired in Jan. 2011, including quarterback Danny O'Brien, the 2010 ACC Rookie of the Year, and offensive tackle R.J. Dill, a three-year starter. That certainly won't help a squad that won just two games last fall, recording victories over FCS competitor Towson and a depleted Miami squad that was wiped out due to NCAA investigations.
In addition to the astounding roster turnover, the Terps have installed new offensive and defensive coordinators this year that plan to change things up, including a switch to the 3-4 on defense. Something had to be done on defense after Maryland allowed an averaged of 457.2 yards and 34.2 points per game last season, while opponents tallied at least 28 points in each of Maryland's last seven games.
However, it isn't all bad news in College Park; the defense returns ten starters, while the offense returns five. It was expected the Terps would also return quarterback C.J. Brown, who started five games and set the school record for rushing yards by a quarterback (574), but he tore his ACL on Tuesday night and will miss the season. He was the only scholarship quarterback on campus this spring, and now the Terps turn to a pair of true freshmen in Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe.
Whoever wins the starting gig will try to take advantage of preseason All-ACC tight end Matt Furstenburg, as well as returning starters at wide receiver in Kevin Dorsey and Kerry Boykins. Dorsey led the Terps with 45 receptions for 573 yards and three scores in 2011, while Boykins chipped in 37 catches for 430 yards. The team also adds the services of five-star recruit Stefon Diggs, Rivals' No. 2 receiver in the class of 2012.
A major overhaul is needed up front, where the Terps will be led by center Bennett Fulper, a veteran of 31 games and 22 starts, and the versatile Justin Gilbert, who has appeared in 18 games with three starts at left tackle and three more at right guard.
The 2012 season looks much brighter for Maryland on the defensive side of the ball, despite the change in alignment, which probably plays to the unit's strength. Second-team All-American Joe Vellano leads the way on defense, although he'll bump out to defensive end in the new scheme. However, Vellano, who led all FBS defensive linemen with an average of 7.8 tackles per game last year, might be better suited on the edge as a 6-foot-1, 185 pound athlete. Freshman All-American Andre Monroe is also back up front after he tied Joe Vellano for the team lead with 7.5 tackles for loss and paced the squad with five sacks in his debut campaign.
The linebacking corps is probably the Terps' strongest position group, which helps the move to a 3-4 make sense. Raleigh native Demetrius Hartsfield is the leader of the group and he was named honorable mention All-ACC last year after he totaled 108 tackles in just nine games, including seven for loss. Darin Drakeford, who tied for the conference lead with four forced fumbles in just eight appearances, and Alex Twine, who averaged 9.8 tackles in his four starts, are also listed as returning starters while Lorne Goree, who was named to the ACC All-Freshmen squad, is also back after four starts in 2011.
Redshirt senior Kenny Tate also returns to the linebacking corps after he was limited to just four games last year before a knee injury ended his campaign. Tate was a 2010 first-team All-ACC performer at safety, when he totaled 100 tackles, including 8.5 for loss, 3.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and three interceptions, and was on pace to total even more stops before last year's injury.
The Terps also return three experienced defensive backs, including two full-time starters from last fall. Safety Eric Franklin is a tackling machine (106 last year), who started all 12 games at safety in 2011, while cornerback Dexter McDougle is a junior who opened every game and led the team with six pass breakups and tied for the lead with three interceptions.
Sophomore A.J. Hendy is also back after he notched three starts and appeared in nine games, but he's moving from safety to cornerback this season. The youngster averaged 8.3 tackles per game in his three starts as a rookie, but one of the reasons the team moved him was the presence of safety Matt Robinson. The 6-3, 225 pound junior missed the final nine games last year after shoulder surgery, but was tied for seventh nationally with 12.0 tackles per game when he was injured after three starts.
The squad will also be aided by the return of punter/kicker Nick Ferrara, who will enter his third year as the No. 1 kicker and his second campaign as the top punter. He missed the spring while rehabbing from hip surgery, and the team may lighten his workload with a new punter, but he is one of the school's top ten kickers of all time.
Why NC State can win: With all of the deflections after coach Randy Edsall was hired, NC State simply has more talent than the Terrapins. The coach took over a team that went 9-4 in 2010, but has turned this into a major overhaul project, with an incredible amount of roster turnover.
NC State should be able to move the ball against Maryland and, more importantly, their talented secondary should bait whichever youngster wins the quarterback job into some costly turnovers. The Terps have been a thorn in NC State's side in the past, especially in College Park where the Terps have won five of the last six against State, but this should be a road victory for Tom O'Brien and company against a divisional foe.
Why NC State can lose: As mentioned above, playing in College Park has been unkind to the Wolfpack, dating back to 2000. Actually, playing Maryland period has not been a pleasant experience for NC State recently - the Terps have won eight of the last 12 between the two squads.
This Maryland defense could surprise some people, if guys return from injury at full strength and the athletes adapt to the 3-4 scheme quickly. The squad should have all of its kinks worked out by Oct. 20, and the offense should be on the same page by this date, as well. Road games against a division foe are never a given in college football, and if everything falls their way, Maryland could find a way to squeak out a win here.
Oct. 27: NC State at North Carolina
Location: Chapel Hill, N.C.
Team overview: It's a new era so to speak in the NC State-North Carolina rivalry. Former coaches Butch Davis and Everett Withers are gone, replaced by new head man Larry Fedora. Fedora brings a much different style than his two predecessors, who have dropped five straight against the Wolfpack.
On offense, Fedora wants his high-octane spread attack to get as many snaps as possible, and he'll have a capable trigger man in quarterback Bryn Renner. The coach also enjoys the luxury of seven returning starters on offense, including a stud running back in Giovani Bernard and a front with plenty of NFL potential, including guard Jonathan Cooper and tackle James Hurst.
Renner threw for a school-record 26 touchdown passes last season despite the tough circumstances surrounding the season (Davis' dismissal, NCAA investigation) while he led the team to a 7-6 record and their fourth-straight bowl game. Meanwhile, Bernard was one of the top rookies in the land, setting a UNC freshman record with 1,253 rushing yards. The 5-10, 205 pound consensus Freshman All-American also hauled in 45 passes for 362 yards and totaled 14 scores. Renner and Bernard will be operating behind an offensive line that returns four starters, led by second-team All-ACC honorees Cooper and Hurst.
Depth could be a concern for the Tar Heels, though. Renner had ankle surgery immediately after the 2011 campaign, and is the only signal caller on the roster with game experience. After Bernard is former quarterback A.J. Blue, who has career totals of 51 rushes for 171 yards. The offensive line went through several surgeries this offseason, with Cooper undergoing shoulder surgery, fellow returning starter Brennan Williams, a tackle, having his knee operated on and expected starting center Russell Bodine dealing with a knee injury. All three missed the spring game.
There are also major question marks at receiver, where Erik Highsmith leads the way for a group that must replace last year's leading receiver, Dwight Jones. Bernard is the second-leading returning pass catcher, and senior Jheranie Boyd has experience, but must improve on his total of 40 career receptions.
The defensive unit probably has even more question marks than the offense. Five starters return, led by linebacker Kevin Reddick and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, but all of the players will be adjusting to a new 4-2-5 scheme that features a, "bandit," which is a hybrid linebacker/defensive end, and a, "ram," which is a hybrid linebacker/safety.
Several preseason magazines and prognosticators are predicting a big year from Reddick, which the Tar Heels will desperately need from the three-year starter. Last year, he fought through ankle and abdominal injuries to post 71 tackles, including six for loss, one sack and one fumble recovery. Reddick is the only experienced linebacker on the roster, as he will be surrounded by inexperienced players in the middle of the defense.
Williams will lead the way up front for the UNC defense. The former Junior College transfer enjoyed a successful debut at the FBS level last year, and totaled 54 tackles, including seven for loss, and one interception. Junior defensive end Kareem Martin is also back after he recorded 40 tackles, including seven for loss, and four sacks a year ago.
The secondary returns a pair of starters in safety Tre Boston and cornerback Tim Scott. Boston, a junior, finished third on the team with 70 tackles in 2011 and tied for the team lead with three interceptions, in addition to forcing a fumble and recovering two loose balls. Meanwhile, Scott started eight games as a true freshman and tallied 43 tackles, and ranked second on the team with six pass breakups, as well as an interception.
Senior Gene Robinson is the favorite to take over at Ram and is the veteran of ten career starts. Last year, he notched 49 tackles, including four for loss, two forced fumbles and an interception.
Carolina is not eligible for a bowl game this year, but they have a good enough team that they should reach bowl eligibility. The Coastal Division is hard to predict, with a lot of question marks, and a tightly bunched group of competitors behind favorite Virginia Tech, including Georgia Tech, Virginia, North Carolina and possibly Miami.
Why NC State can win: For starters, NC State has won the past five times against North Carolina, and coach Tom O'Brien has not shied away from saying that this is his deepest team in Raleigh during his tenure. On paper, NC State is probably a more talented team, but the paper can be thrown out in this type of rivalry game, where emotions are high - NC State overcame a perceived disadvantage on paper in some of the previous contests during their current winning streak.
North Carolina's biggest strength might be their offensive line, so it will be interesting to see how the Wolfpack front seven handles their opponents. However, the Pack secondary should have the advantage when the Heels take to the air, and that might be the difference in this one.
Why NC State can lose: This is the close of a challenging three-game stretch for NC State (not to take anything away from Virginia, but at least that game is at home), where they host Florida State then play on the road in back-to-back weeks against Maryland and North Carolina. The good news for State is their bye week is sandwiched between Florida State and Maryland.
Also, because of the UNC bowl ban and five straight losses to the Red and White, this will be the Tar Heels' Super Bowl, and probably the date that the team circled on their calendar from day one - coach Larry Fedora basically admitted as much when he said at the Triangle Pigskin Preview in July that the game was 99 days away when asked about the rivalry.
North Carolina may not have a shot at the ACC Championship or the postseason this year, but they are still talented. They have an NFL line that is one of the most seasoned in the ACC, and they have plenty of weapons for Fedora's new spread attack. Their offense should be on the same page by this point in the season, and their defense, while it is nowhere near the Tar Heel units of the past couple of years, still has some playmakers.
Other parts in this series:
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