The Obstructed ACC (& Notre Dame) Preview-2019

The ACC was and up-and-down conference last year. Clemson won another national championship while Syracuse and Virginia rose through the ranks. However, the likes of Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech, and Louisville pretty much imploded early on and got knocked on its rear end the rest of the way. Adding on top of it with them, Duke, Georgia Tech, NC State, Pitt, Wake Forest, and Boston College could not generate any consistency to their seasons while North Carolina was just awful. So it is one extreme or the other in the ACC last year. Will it change this year?

Clemson is the king of the mountain while there really isn’t much of a viable contender right now. Syracuse has given them fits the last two seasons including a win in 2017. Will the Orange give Clemson a legitimate shot in the standings? Can Florida State rebound? Can the ACC Coastal have a shot of being a legitimate threat?

I’m going to try a different format so I don’t kill myself on the weekends from now on. Instead of giving a team capsule (which takes forever for me) I’m going to put out a key question for each team and then give my projected record. So let’s try it and see how it goes.

ACC ATLANTIC

Lawrence is widely regardesd as the Heisman favorite

CLEMSON: Can the Tigers repeat another undefeated season? Despite the ACC powers being really down, there is one game that still is going to be watched: Syracuse. And this may be a huge game September 14 in the Carrier Dome because both teams have very favorable schedules. However, Trevor Lawrence is the quarterback and 6 other starters return including 4 linemen and very underrated running back Travis Etienne. Add in the receivers who just can dominate at any point, and you may have the best offense in the nation. It’s going to be the defense in question early up front. That’s why I think that game in Syracuse might pose a problem. They got a great secondary, but can they push up on the line? That will be the key issue. But aside from that, Clemson should pretty much dominate most if not all their games in 2019. Maybe keep an eye on their rival game in South Carolina given how the Gamecocks did throw it around pretty well on them, but even then I don’t see Clemson losing that. BEST CASE RECORD: 12-0 WORST CASE RECORD: 10-2. MY PREDICTION: 12-0. That game will be a fight in the Carrier Dome I believe.

Robinson and Syracuse are really chasing after Clemson in 2019

SYRACUSE: Can Syracuse be the sleeper in the Playoff picture? Only if they can beat Clemson. But they do bring a lot of starters back and a quarterback in Tommy DeVito who has experience, but yet to gain consistency. However, he will have a different offense to go with since Eric Dungey’s mobility will not be there. He will throw to experienced receivers and have Moe Neal in the backfield. But the question needs to be can they make huge strides on defense? The Orange struggled in the passing game in 2018 (116th) but bring back their entire secondary and they do have great pass-rushers in Kendall Coleman and Alton Robinson, which will be interesting if they can get to Lawrence in their Clemson match. So I expect Syracuse’s defense to play a huge role this year and if they do upset Clemson, that will be the reason why. BEST CASE RECORD: 12-0 WORST CASE RECORD: 9-3 MY PREDICTION: 10-2 IF Syracuse beats Clemson, I can see them running the table or at least going 11-1 (don’t know if they can beat Florida State in Tallahassee though). Either way a New Year’s Six Bowl is a likely with a record like that.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons defensive back Essang Bassey (21) on defense during first half action against the Boston College Eagles at BB&T Field on September 13, 2018 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Eagles defeated the Demon Deacons 41-34. (Brian Westerholt/Sports On Film)

WAKE FOREST: Can the Deacons continue stability in the program? Interesting is that Wake Forest has strung together a decent run under Dave Clawson in the last few years. Clawson has turned a program around that was vying with Virginia as the worst program in the ACC. Granted 6-7 wins every year isn’t like wowing, but better than where they were. Wake Forest has some uphill challenges to build off of their run. Do they use Jamie Newman who played well down the stretch or incumbent starter Sam Hartman who injured his leg? Both played well last year though it seems like Newman is more of a playmaker. More questions are abound with the defense however as it has been a mess the last few seasons. They only bring back 4 starters which is a problem. However, two of the starters are at corners and there are hopes that Essang Bassey is the guy there and one of the best in the ACC. But given consistency issues and not much upgrade on defense, don’t figure the Deacons to be in the race for an ACC Championship game appearance (not with Clemson there obviously). That said, they could take another step up in the right direction. BEST CASE RECORD: 8-4 WORST CASE RECORD: 6-6 MY PREDICTION: 8-4. Deacons will continue to push upwards, but only if that defense makes progress

Akers will need an offensive line to make a major impact

FLORIDA STATE: Will Willie Taggart survive the 2019 season? It all depends on how they play. The Noles last year failed to make a bowl game for the first time in 36 years. Even a berth to a bowl is not necessarily a life saver to Taggart. The biggest issue is that the offensive line was putrid. Deondre Francois is still alive, but I wondered at times if he would be during the season. But a new quarterback will take over whether it is James Blackman or Alex Hornibrook. Blackman has the inside track and played well for the Noles when he was in. Cam Akers. much like Francois, was pretty much unable to do what he could have done thanks to the line. So it will all depend on the line, which may be a problem in the ACC. Offensive coordinator Kendall Briles hopes the offensive line can improve so he can install the systems he wants. The other thing is going to be can the defense step up as they were pretty weak there as well too. But they like the linebacking crew to really get things going. However, it will have to take major jumps on both sides of the ball to really feel like Florida State is legit again. The good news is they have the talent. They just need to utilize it. So a 7-5 season and possible blowout losses to Clemson and Florida may not keep Taggart around. BEST CASE RECORD: 10-2 WORST CASE RECORD: 4-8 MY PREDICTION: 7-5. I don’t think it will be enough for Taggart to survive the high demand of winning in Tallahassee.

Dillon needs to stay healthy if the Eagles are to be a legit threat

BOSTON COLLEGE: Will the Eagles ever get out of the rut of being a 6-7 win team? Hard to say. Boston College in recent memory was known as being a run-first, run-often and play physical defense in the process. They have AJ Dillon at running back and when healthy is one of the best backs in the nation. Anthony Brown can be a quality quarterback if he continues to step up. But the defense kinda went backwards in a big way as they were pretty much middle-of-the-pack to bottom-half in the college world. Not good when right now the Eagles offense has been relatively one-dimensional. The defense and Brown needs to step up and if Dillon is not in the game either due to injury or because they’re down, Boston College will keep struggling if they can’t get the defense worked out or if Brown doesn’t improve. BEST CASE RECORD: 9-3 WORST CASE RECORD: 5-7 MY PREDICTION: 6-6. The Eagles could get off to a nice start being 6-1 before the second half is doomsday (Clemson/Syracuse/Florida State/Notre Dame in four straight games) By then, they may just run out of gas at Pittsburgh.

If Smith-Williams is a dominant force at NC State, the Wolfpack could surprise a few people.

NC STATE: How far will the Wolfpack take a step back with the exits of Ryan Finley, Jakobi Meyers, and Kelvin Harmon on offense? I think it is a nice drop and when you add in losing Bradley Chubb the year before, you really get hit a lot. The Wolfpack will have to rely on their defense a bit more. Good if it means stopping the run, but if the passing defense continues its mishaps you could see NC State near the bottom of the ACC in 2019 It is hard to replace a guy like Finley at Raleigh. But when the key weapons on offense are also gone with Finley and the running game on top of it is gone too, problems will occur. But if the defense improves especially against the pass, look no further than James Smith-Williams on the line going after quarterbacks. But it may not be a fun year in Raleigh if you are a Wolfpack fan. BEST CASE RECORD: 8-4 WORST CASE RECORD: 4-8 MY PREDICTION: 6-6 NC State will have a few games they should win, but they will fall behind a good chunk of the ACC for at least this year.

Hassan Hall should be a bright spot for Louisville

LOUISVILLE: How long will it take Scott Satterfield to get the Cardinals back to respectability? Hard to say, but don’t expect a massive rebound in Louisville in 2019. Yeah, the Cardinals couldn’t really do anything last year and Bobby Petrino was kicked out of the door (which was a nice thing given how he ups and leaves programs). It’s really hard to figure out where Louisville will be, though I don’t know if the talent is there on either side of the ball at this point. It will be a nice long rebuild if there isn’t a quarterback to go for. Seems like there isn’t a cut favorite and just woes all over the place. Hassan Hall may be the focal point of the offense at running back. They do have a group of linebackers who have a lot of seasoning, but nobody stands out, save maybe CJ Avery. So what you will see in Louisville will not be an about-face. And worse, the teams they see are more talented the Cardinals. BEST CASE RECORD: 4-8 WORST CASE RECORD 1-11 MY PREDICTION: 2-10. They may put up a stronger fight with Satterfield, but Rome wasn’t built in a day and Louisville’s program isn’t going to be rebuilt in a year.

ACC COASTAL

Williams figures to be a huge improvement at quarterback in Miami

MIAMI: Can the Hurricanes get that needed quarterback to compete? Well, the hope WAS that Ohio State transfer Tate Martell would be the guy to get Miami in that direction, but Jarren Williams will take over when the Hurricanes play Florida to start the season. So you already have that as a bit of an issue. And that is why probably the Hurricanes collapse late in 2017 and not really be a serious threat in 2018 because of the poor play of Malik Rosier. It is also why Mark Richt (who was pressured to fire his son who was coaching the offense) had enough and retired. So Manny Diaz takes over in what kinda feels like of a messy situation despite the talent pool in Miami. Williams will have Dan Enos as his offensive coordinator so that may be very helpful, though the offensive line is going to be a major question mark in 2019. DeeJay Dallas could be a star in the making but if the line can’t block for him, it may be pointless. So Miami once again will rely on the defense, which ranked #1 against the pass and looks to be aggressive as ever and the linebacking corps may be the best around. So again, Miami may end up winning some games on defense until the offense figures things out. BEST CASE RECORD: 12-0 WORST CASE RECORD: 8-4 MY PREDICTION: 10-2 (Disclaimer: I did put this prediction up before the Florida game and said Florida would win so nothing really changes here) Miami may end up winning it through defense once again and has both Virginia schools coming down to Hard Rock Stadium. That’s a huge advantage.

Perkins play may decide how big of a year the Cavaliers have

VIRGINIA: Can Bronco Mendenhall get the Cavaliers to that next step? It’s hard to think that at one time Virginia was a legit football program after years and years of futility in the ACC. Yeah, probably not a national contender, but in the 90’s they had some excellent teams. But Mendenhall provides stability and he’s a proven coach with how well he did out at BYU. But right now the “biggest thing” Virginia fans want from Mendenhall is a win over rival Virginia Tech who have just slapped the Cavaliers silly for so long now. A win over the Hokies for the Cavaliers may be what the Cavaliers need to really up the program. Virginia has a defense that has been improving and could only get better in 2019 with linebackers who are strong and Jordan Mack at linebacker may be a name to watch. So if that upgrades and the offense moves up from being a mediocre one. High hopes are set on Bryce Perkins, a true dual-threat quarterback and could have a monster year again. But they need a run game to replace Jordan Ellis. If the Cavaliers can upgrade both sides, which they should as the talent level is rising in Charlottesville, Virginia could be a tough out, even perhaps for Clemson should they see each other in the ACC Championship game. BEST CASE RECORD: 11-1 WORST CASE RECORD: 8-4 MY PREDICTION: 10-2. Virginia may be the biggest sleeper in college football in 2019, assuming the run game improves.

More pressure is on Dax Hollifield and the Hokies defense than the offense in 2019

VIRGINIA TECH: Can the Hokies recover from last year’s disaster of a season? My answer is yes. The Hokies do return everybody back from last year on defense, which will be Bud Foster’s last season running that group. But last year on defense was an absolute nightmare for the Hokies. They should be much better on defense if they stay healthy. The experience is there, but what got them was the injury as they were depleted. But the offense also has questions notably in the run game and blocking. Ryan Willis played admirably at quarterback last year after Josh Jackson got injured, but the line has to improve but with questions with experience, it could be hit or miss. So, Virginia Tech, if the defense led by Rayshard Ashby and Dax Hollifield at linebackers can get back to what we know at Blacksburg about Bud Foster’s defense, could be a threat once again in the ACC. BEST CASE RECORD: 10-2 WORST CASE RECORD: 7-5 MY PREDICTION: 9-3. It may come down to Virginia in the last week of the season but I just am concerned the shift of talent may fall in Charlottesville.

Jackson will be a major focal point for Duke in 2019

DUKE: Can Duke compete without Daniel Jones? Whether you think Daniel Jones will be an adequate NFL quarterback or not one thing will be true: Duke will miss him. Quentin Harris will take over for Jones this year and Duke brings back 4 starters on the line to protect him and a running back in Deon Jackson to take pressure off of him. But the issue will be at receiver where they are vastly inexperienced. So Harris has his work cut out for him, especially to open the year against Alabama in Atlanta. If Duke is to win, it will be on defense….somewhat. The Blue Devils are solid against the pass, but they are also thin outside of their starters, where 9 return so any key injuries will be a major issue on defense for Duke, especially up front where they could get obliterated by the better blocking teams in the ACC with the offensive line. So to answer the Jones question, yes. But even if Jones was there for another year, he’d struggle with what he has to work with in Durham. BEST CASE RECORD: 6-6 WORST CASE RECORD: 2-10 MY PREDICTION: 4-8. Duke doesn’t have the same talent as the others in the conference. They will get the weaker squads like Pitt and Georgia Tech, but the after that run will be murder and possibly looking at an 0-6 second half.

Rashad Weaver will be counted on to pressure the quarterback

PITTSBURGH: Is Pat Narduzzi in trouble at Pitt? I’d say yes. Questions are all over with the offense starting with replacing starters on the line and two running backs tallying over 1,000 yards and Kenny Pickett who was inconsistent as inconsistent could get out. Can Pickett do well? Can the line protect Pickett? Can AJ Davis be a feature back? The defense isn’t much better. Narduzzi was a stout defensive coordinator at Michigan State before getting the Panthers job. They played strong down the stretch last year but only return five. The linebacker play will have to massively improve but will be hard to do so with missing two guys. The secondary is solid with Damar Hamlin at safety who is very underrated. And if Rashad Weaver & company get to that quarterback like he did last year (6.5 sacks in 2018), the Panthers may have something cooking and could keep Narduzzi around a little bit longer. BEST CASE RECORD: 7-5 WORST CASE RECORD: 3-9 MY PREDICTION: 4-8. Just too many questions on offense to make me seriously think the Panthers have much of a shot, if any in 2019.

Mason will be in a very different offensive system at Georgia Tech

GEORGIA TECH: How long of an adjustment will it take for Geoff Collins to get the offense in rhythm? That’s the million dollar question in Atlanta. We’ve seen Georgia Tech play in the triple-option offense for the past decade with mixed results. But now that Johnson has retired, the new coach will put in a more modern offense. But any program that has used the triple option and then go more modern has taken a very long time to get going. Nebraska is at the top of that list while Georgia Southern (Johnson’s old school) opted to try the modern one for a while and was just a disaster. The likely starter is Tobias Oliver, but didn’t throw much and when he did was streaky (under 50%). Oliver does have a dynamic playmaking ability though. Jordan Mason should be the feature back though teams will zero in on him more instead with no option. The defense will be a work in process as the Jackets bring back only three guys so if you expect the Jackets to rely on defense this year, it may not be the year to do so. The offense I think will have major issues all season and it will be a long season in Atlanta in 2019. BEST CASE RECORD: 8-4 WORST CASE RECORD: 3-9 MY PREDICTION: 4-8 If the Jackets can find a way to get any rhythm down the stretch, the record won’t speak for itself, but I don’t see Georgia Tech flipping the script on offense.

Hopes are high for North Carolina in the future with Mack Brown and Sam Howell

NORTH CAROLINA: How quick can Mack Brown get the Tar Heels back? Maybe not this season as there is going to be a lot of turnover for the Heels, especially on offense with a freshman at quarterback in Sam Howell. But the hopes that UNC’s offense won’t slowing down from Larry Fedora to Brown is high as Brown wants to keep that up-tempo, quick strike offense going on. Where they will be hoping good things to happen is with the running game as a lot of the backs return so there is depth. But the issue will be can they get better on defense? That is the problem and up-tempo style offenses when they aren’t doing well leaves defenses out high and dry (see Oregon and Texas Tech). So if you are all hoping for UNC to get rolling and improving to a bowl game this year, it may not be it. There are questions on that defense, though I do believe if there is a strength it has to be the secondary with starters in three spots, but the depth is a concern. So Brown’s return to UNC will probably not be gumdrops and lollipops in the first year, but if the Heels can keep their high school stand-outs in the state and in Chapel Hill, they will be well enough to get back to “normal.” BEST CASE RECORD: 4-8 WORST CASE RECORD: 1-11 MY PREDICTION: 3-9 Heels could get a W against rival Duke and FCS Mercer, but it will take another year before North Carolina sees a bowl game at least. Just too high of a turnover for the Heels.

Etienne could have a big day in the ACC Championship

ACC CHAMPIONSHIP: CLEMSON VS. MIAMI: I’m going to sum it up nicely on this one: Miami needs turnovers from its defense to win. That is how they are built. They are good at doing so especially wearing the gold turnover chain, but Clemson is on another level overall. They do not make silly mistakes on offense and/or defense. I cannot see a way this game is super-competitive though Jarren Williams is a far better option than Malik Rosier ever was. Clemson should claim their 5th straight ACC title. CLEMSON 45, MIAMI 21

NOTRE DAME

Okwara will be a nightmare for opposing offenses

NOTRE DAME: Can the Irish repeat last year’s performance of a Playoff? Hard to say. They return 9 starters on offense including quarterback Ian Book and four offensive linemen. So that shouldn’t be an issue They bring six back on defense which was pretty good at keeping teams out of the end zone (until Clemson), but the issue isn’t who they have, don’t have, miss. It’s the issue of who they face on the road, which is Michigan and Georgia. Both teams have high hopes in 2019 for the Playoff. That is not going to be easy and the Irish didn’t have a team on the road last year that could legitimately stop them until Clemson, who slapped them silly. So it is going to be a task. If the Irish defense keeps up the pace under Chuck Lea like they had with Mike Elko, then they have a shot at at least stealing one in Ann Arbor or Athens, especially if Julian Okwara can create havoc on the end and get after quarterbacks. BEST CASE RECORD: 11-1 WORST CASE RECORD: 8-4 MY PREDICTION: 9-3 . I don’t see the Irish winning at Georgia at all. I don’t see Michigan losing to them either but that game may be closer. And that game in Stanford isn’t going to be a fun one. But no Playoff for Notre Dame.

-Fan in the Obstructed Seat

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