As we inch closer and closer to opening day (The season starts Thursday, Aug. 28), the battles on the practice field heat up for starting spots. Here's the battle to watch for each team.
Clemson -- The Tigers appear to be the class of the conference this season, led by Thunder and Lightning in the backfield -- James Davis and C.J. Spiller. Add incoming freshman Jamie Harper to the mix and Clemson has no shortage of weapons in the backfield behind senior QB Cullen Harper. But if the Tigers want to continue to pound it on the ground, they will have to shore up their offensive line. It's a unit that has four new spots to fill, including replacing two Sporting News All-Americans. The Tigers also have to find some playmakers on defense, particularly at the linebacker positions. The biggest battle at LB will wage in the middle, where the only senior linebacker Josh Miller competes with RS-freshman Brandon Maye, who has been the more impressive of the two and seems to have the upper hand on the starting position, currently sitting atop the depth chart. Regardless, the LB corps will be assisted with the talented and experienced secondary behind them.
Wake Forest -- The Demon Deacons find themselves in much the same position as the Clemson Tigers. Along with Clemson, Wake figures to challenge for the ACC crown, the problem is they are in the same division. But just as the Tigers, the Deacons return both a proven quarterback and running back from last year. And they too will have some holes to plug on the offensive line. But when you see that the players in contention for the jobs all have plenty of time in the program, you see the reason for such optimism in Winston-Salem. Out of the projected starters at the five offensive line positions, nobody has less than three years in the program, that is RS-sophomore LG Russell Nenon. The more important part, though, for Jim Grobe, is to develop suitable backups from a mostly green group. If injuries strike on the line, you will likely see freshmen be asked to step in and play the important minutes.
Florida State -- The Seminoles haven't been spectacular on offense, but they do return QB Drew Weatherford, RB Antone Smith and WRs Preston Parker (who will serve a suspension to start the year) and Gregg Carr. Defensively, under Mickey Andrews the Noles have never really had to worry much. By default (although not a token default) the battles will be on the offensive line. Former West Virginia assistant Rick Trickett was brought in before last season to improve a unit that has been sub-par for a few seasons, but FSU didn't see vast improvement in his first year. This year, the Noles only return two starters on that line, so they will be looking for some big hosses to step up and take the bull by the horns. With a second year under Jimbo Fisher and multiple players familiar with the system, the play from the O-Line should determine how FSU's season will play out, whether they can get back as a solid Top 25 team or if it will be another disappointing season in Tallahassee.
Maryland -- Maryland is an interesting team this preseason. My out of the box camp battle? Ralph Friedgen vs. James Franklin, the new offensive coordinator. Of course, Friedgen gave up his play calling duties and brought in Franklin to run the offense, but anytime coaches hand over the reigns, you have to wonder how much they can commit to not running the show. The Terps will have a battle at QB to decide, but it's of the good variety where both have game experience. Jordan Steffy started the first three games last year before suffering an injury, so Chris Turner came in and performed very well. Add in Florida transfer Josh Portis, and you have a healthy battle. The running back position is slightly in limbo too, but they have their candidates down Da'Rel Scott and Morgan Green prepared to share the role. Defensively, the linebackers should be very strong again, something that has become a tradition in College Park. But there are questions to be answered in the secondary where only one spot has a returning starter. They will need to shore up a couple of safety spots and a corner. If they do? Who knows, Maryland could surprise some people this season. Too bad for them they are in the tougher of the two divisions with FSU, Clemson and Wake.
Boston College -- This is another team with multiple positions to watch, the quarterback not being one of them. Of course Matt Ryan is gone, but BC already has a replacement prepped to step in without a hitch as Chris Crane will have his senior season to lead the Eagles. But who will be in the backfield with him? That remains the big question on offense in Chestnut Hill is who will carry the ball? Both Andre Callendar and L.V. Whitworth left with Ryan, so there's a hole that needs to be filled but no candidate has really taken control. Freshman Josh Haden looks to be the frontrunner right now -- thanks in part to his early enrolement -- but he will be pushed at the position throughout the season unless he really establishes himself. Sophomore Dan Mulrooney would be a bigger threat if he weren't battling through injuries. BC also has to completely revamp what was a spectacular secondary with Jamie Silva and DeJuan Tribble no longer around. Look for coach Jagodzinski to play around with his corners and safeties for awhile until he finds the right combination of defensive backs because the unit as a whole is a big question mark.
North Carolina State -- Now this is a camp battle. Tom O'Brien is searching for a starting quarterback, and he has no shortage of candidates to look at. There are five quarterbacks trying to earn the nod, including Harrison Beck -- who started four games last year -- and highly touted freshman Mike Glennon, the younger brother of Virginia Tech QB Sean Glennon. But don't forget about Daniel Evans, Russell Wilson and Justin Burke in the battle as well. Right now, it's really a mystery in Raleigh on who will sit atop the depth chart. Both Beck and Glennon put up good numbers in the first scrimmage game, but that means little, there is still hardly any seperation in the battle. If I had to pick a winner right now, I'd say it will be Beck, but that's hardly a safe bet.
Virginia Tech -- For a division favorite, there are a surprising amount of question marks with the Hokies. As was the case last season, look for the quarterback battle between Tyrod Taylor and Sean Glennon to wage all season long. The two were in constant competition last year, but unfortunately it wasn't a situation of two strengths, but instead trying to find the better quarterback. During the spring, however, the quarterbacks were much improved and are still fighting it out for the job -- and remember, Taylor was just a true freshman last seaosn, so take his struggles sandwiched between his brilliant moments with a grain of salt. Frank Beamer did show last year that if he has to, he will use both QBs without much trepidation. But the Hokies will also have to find a running back to fill in for Brandon Ore. It really is a six-man competition after the injuries to perceived front runners Kenny Lewis Jr. and Jahre Cheeseman in the spring. Freshman Darren Evans has impressed since coming to campus and will likely work his way into seeing reps at the position. But much like the QBs, you could see a variety of tailbacks getting in the mix this season. But with Bud Black still in Blacksburg, the Hokies should be just fine, despite the backfield uncertainties.
North Carolina -- Butch Davis' Tar Heels are taking shape as an ACC contender maybe faster than Tar Heel fans anticipated. While they seem unlikely to make the ACC Championship game in Tampa this year, they are shoring up a solid unit in Davis' second year in Chapel Hill. Most of the team seems pretty set entering the season, but there are a couple of questions on the interior of the offensive line. Converted center Aaron Stahl has taken to the position very well and seems to be the frontrunner over Lowell Dyer. At left guard, senior Bryon Bishop is trying to hold off sophomore Alan Pelc. There are some questions as to who will line up with Marvin Austin on the defensive line as well. At the other tackle spot, juniors Aleric Mullins and Cam Thomas are in competition over the second starting DT spot, but either way, expect both to rotate in plenty at the demanding position. Also on the line. sophomore Greg Ellerby and Darrius Massenberg are taking aim at the left end spot.
Miami -- At Miami, the question is, what position isn't under an intense battle? The only positions that are pretty much set for the Canes are on the offensive line -- which figures to be the strongest unit on the team -- and at tailback, with a nice duo of Javarris James and Graig Cooper. But no matter what is happening in battles at receiver or on the defensive side of the ball, all eyes are on the quarterback battle. Miami is guaranteed to trot out a freshman under center, with the battle waging between three according to Randy Shannon, but in all reality two -- RS freshman Robert Marve and true freshman Jacory Harris. Marve was considered the heavy favorite entering camp given his one-year advantage on Harris and he still is the odds-on favorite to start, but Harris has made it an interesting fight in camp. Both quarterbacks have shown plenty of promise so far and while lumps are anticipated given their freshmen status, QB play figures to improve with the infusion of young talent. Regardless of who wins the starting job, both Marve and Harris will see time this season as Shannon works on building much needed depth.
Virginia -- Surprise, surprise, another ACC team with a big question mark at quarterback. Is there any wonder why the conference has been down the past few seasons? Of course, Virginia didn't figure to have this problem entering this year because starter Jameel Sewell was supposed to returrn, but academic issues resulted in his leaving UVA. His career as a Cavalier may not be over, though, as Sewell has expressed interest in readmitting for 2009. But that does nothing for this year, so a battle has broken out betwen Peter Lalich, Scott Deke and Mark Verica. The good news is that at least Lalich has some game experience, going 35-for-61 in his eight appearances. The experience would figure to give Lalich the advantage. Either way, the starting QB will get a little help easing into the position thanks to Cedric Peerman and Mikell Simpson at the running back position.
Georgia Tech -- There is a lot of uncertainty in Atlanta this preseason as Paul Johnson comes in from Navy and adopts not only a brand new offensive system (his option offense he ran with so much success at Navy) but a new defensive scheme as well. While that's not to be underestimated, the eyes are on the offensive side of the ball. Georgia Tech has to break in a new QB after Taylor Bennett led the team last year. The Jackets will also be looking for a new running back after the underrated Tashard Choice's tenure finished. Because of uncertainty at both positions and the nature of the offense, I'm going to take the easy way out here and say both position battles are worth watching. Right now Josh Nesbitt seems to be the clear favorite at QB, and for good reason -- he showed a nice ability to run the ball in his limited playing time last season. The running back position seems pretty much squared away too as sophomore Jonathan Dwyer looks to be the feature back. But the positions will still be the most intriguing to watch simply because of the complete system overhaul and the reliance on the QB and RBs.
Duke -- The Blue Devils are one of the few teams in the conference that don't have to worry about a battle under center as Thaddeus Lewis is back. Quietly, he and receiver Eron Riley have become a very nice connection. If they get some help from the running back position, Duke has potential to put up some points with David Cutcliffe in town. We may not see much from Duke this year, but for once, things actually looking positive in Durham for the future. But as far as battles go, honestly the biggest question mark is probably at kicker, a position that was atricious last year. Duke kickers missed eight of their 11 tries last year, including a game-winning attempt vs. arch-rival North Carolina. You can dismiss the kicker position all you want, but a team that played a lot of close games last year could have used a reliable kicker. One of Cutcliffe's jobs will be to find a kicker he can turn to -- and it might be freshman Paul Asack. If nobody steps into the role, don't be surprised to see Duke go for it in seemingly obvious kicking situations.