ACC action starts at full speed on Labor Day, as the 16th-ranked Virginia Tech Hokies welcome the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets to Blacksburg for a Coastal Division showdown at Lane Stadium.
Frank Beamer celebrated his 25th season at the helm at Virginia Tech last year, as his Hokies posted an 11-3 overall record, winning the Coastal Division and taking part in the ACC Championship Game. The Hokies only lost once in the regular season against Clemson (23-3), but did not finish the year on a good note, falling again to the Tigers in the title game (38-10), followed by a tough, 23-20 overtime loss to Michigan in the Sugar Bowl.
Still, Virginia Tech have been a picture of consistency under Beamer's reign, participating in 19 straight bowl seasons and posting double-digit wins in each of the last eight years.
Coming off a losing season in 2010 (6-7), Paul Johnson got his Yellow Jackets back on track, as the team finished 8-5 overall, with a 5-3 league ledger, good for second-place in the ACC's Coastal Division. Still, the year was viewed as a "what could have been" campaign, as a couple of close losses separated Georgia Tech from a 10-win season.
The team did get a bowl bid against Utah in the Sun Bowl, but like the Hokies, came out on the wrong end of a nail-biter, 30-27 in OT.
Virginia Tech holds a 6-3 advantage in the all-time series with Georgia Tech, including a 37-26 victory in Atlanta last season. These two teams have combined to win every Coastal Division crown since 2005.
It is no secret that Johnson likes to run the ball and the Yellow Jackets worked it to perfection once again in 2011, finishing second nationally in rushing (316.5 ypg). However, the team's weakness is that it is too one- dimensional. Quarterback Tevin Washington led the team in rushing (987 yards, 14 TDs), but his passing was never viewed as a threat, completing just under 50 percent of his throws, for 1,652 yards and 11 TDs.
Nothing is going to change in 2012, especially with a nice amount of returning starters on offense (7). Washington will once again line up under center and be a big part of the running game, along with junior David Sims (698 yards, 7 TDs last year) and senior Orwin Smith (615 yards, 11 TDs).
The return of four of last year's five starters up front is a plus as well, highlighted by All-ACC First-Team guard Omoregie Uzzi (6-foot-3, 300 pounds), who may be as good as it gets at the position.
Johnson recognizes the strength he has up front.
"Could possibly be the best group we've had. Now, you've still got to do it on the field, but we've got a lot of guys who have played a lot. I think that they can play a lot better and I think they will this year."
The Yellow Jackets had their ups and downs on defense in 2011, but a nice nucleus of veterans return and the hope and with it perhaps more consistency.
It will be up to senior end Izaan Cross (32 tackles) to lead the way along an otherwise inexperienced defensive line. The team is also relying on huge nose tackle T.J. Barnes (6-7, 347) to clog things in the middle and be disruptive.
Last year's leading tackler Julian Burnett (120 tackles) is no longer present in the linebacking corps, as Tech will look to junior Jeremiah Attaochu (59 tackles, six sacks) and sophomore Quayshawn Nealy (52 tackles, 2 INTs) to fill the void.
Three of the four starters return to a secondary that did its job in 2011 (197 yards passing per game). Senior Rod Sweeting (56 tackles, 3 INTs) earned Honorable Mention All-ACC last year at cornerback and will be joined on the other side by junior Louis Young (52 tackles, 1 INT). Junior Isaiah Johnson (78 tackles, 3 INTs) will once again return to his role at free safety.
The Hokies have also relied heavily on their ground game over the years and even though they did so again in 2011, the team got some balance with the emergence of a true playmaker under center.
Quarterback Logan Thomas burst on the scene as a sophomore, amassing a school- record 3,482 yards of offense. He rushed for 469 yards and a team-best 11 TDs, but really opened eyes with his precision in the pocket, completing nearly 60 percent of his throws, for 3,013 yards and 19 TDs.
Thomas will have to be sharp once again, as he is joined by only two other returning starters. Quality depth in the backfield is the biggest question mark, as Tech must replace 2011 ACC Player of the Year David Wilson, who rushed for 1,709 yards, averaging 122.1 ypg. There simply isn't a player on the roster that can adequately assuage that loss.
There are a few names missing from the receiving corps as well (Jarrett Boykin, Danny Coale and D.J. Coles), but senior Marcus Davis returns and has the talent to really shine. A big target at 6-4, 228 pounds, Davis showed flashes of dominant play last year (30 receptions, 510 yards and 5 TDs) and will need to do it on a more consistent basis as the go-to-guy.
The Hokies once again played tough defense in 2011, finishing 7th nationally in scoring defense, 10th in total defense and 14th in rush defense. Nine starters return on that side of the football and another dominating year could be on the horizon.
Playmakers are all over the field, starting up front with junior rush ends James Gayle (38 tackles, 12.5 TFLs, 7.0 sacks, 20 QBHs) and J.R. Collins (57 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 6.0 sacks).
The linebacking corps will be bolstered by the return of standout Bruce Taylor. The 6-2, 245-pounder returns to the middle after an injury-plagued 2011. Tariq Edwards (71 tackles, 8.0 TFLs, 3.5 sacks and 2 INTs) asserted himself in Taylor's absence and could have an even better 2012.
Despite some losses in the secondary, there is still talent there, led by All- ACC Second-Team cornerback Kyle Fuller (65 tackles, 14.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, 2 INTs) and All-ACC Honorable Mention safety Antone Exum (team-leading 89 tackles, 5.0 TFLs, 1 INT and 2 forced fumbles), who will make the move to corner this season.
Exum thinks he is up to the challenge of the move.
"I feel confident in my abilities and I'm comfortable with the position. I feel I've gotten better physically and mentally during the offseason. I feel like I'll be better than I was last season."
The ACC's Coastal Division crown could be decided in the first week of the season, as the two favorites get together in Blacksburg.