- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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From Florida State’s veteran line to Clemson’s fearsome defensive front, the ACC projects to have some of the country’s best position groups this fall, while a few other contenders will enter 2014 with some major question marks in key areas. With that in mind, we’re looking at the ACC’s best units, a few more that might surprise in 2014 and the top teams with holes that could keep them from an ACC title.
First up: Offensive line
Best of the best: Florida State
Yes, Jameis Winston returns, which alone makes Florida State’s offense frightening for the rest of the ACC. But what really figures to set the Seminoles apart are the big guys in front of the Heisman winner. FSU returns four of five starters from last season’s line and currently projects to start five seniors, with Cameron Erving, Josue Matias and Tre' Jackson all getting some preseason All-America buzz. It’s also one of the best run-blocking groups in the nation, with FSU averaging 5.6 yards-per-carry the past two years. One area where the Seminoles could improve, however, is pass blocking. FSU QBs have been sacked once every 15.8 drop-backs the past two years, which ranks 85th nationally.
Next up: Georgia Tech
FSU leads the ACC in yards-per-rush the past two seasons, but Georgia Tech is just a tick behind at 5.4 ypc. It’s just that, thanks to the Yellow Jackets’ option offense, the line doesn’t get quite the national acclaim the unit in Tallahassee does. Still, Tech’s line has been as consistently good as any in the conference, led this fall by guard Shaq Mason. The rest of the group also returns starters Trey Braun and Bryan Chamberlain, but there’s an obvious question mark at left tackle, where redshirt freshman Chris Griffin is currently penciled in as the starter. Beyond FSU and Georgia Tech, however, the ACC looks to have a number of solid O-line units this season, including Louisville, Duke and Syracuse.
Possible sleeper: Pittsburgh
Only five teams in the country allowed more sacks per game last season than Pitt, and those five teams finished with a combined record of 6-54. So, if four of the five starters from that unit return this fall, is that really a good thing for the Panthers? It’s probably not likely that Pitt suddenly blossoms into one of the best pass-protection teams in the country, but the unit also isn’t nearly as bad as the numbers indicated a year ago. Quarterback Tom Savage was a statue in the pocket, but Chad Voytik -- this season's starter at QB -- is far more mobile. The backfield has ample experience, too, and guard Matt Rotheram has started 25 of 26 games in the past two years to provide some veteran leadership on the line.
Potential problem: North Carolina
There’s a lot to like about North Carolina’s offense, from depth at quarterback to an impressive stable of runners to a receiving corps led by talented junior Quinshad Davis. But the O-line is a concern for coach Larry Fedora, who struggled to even piece together five healthy players throughout the spring. The loss of All-ACC tackle James Hurst hurts, but center Russell Bodine’s decision to leave for the NFL early was salt in the wound. The Heels may need to rely on a true freshman (Bentley Spain) at left tackle, which is never a good sign for a team looking to compete for a division crown.
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