The ACC has quietly been picking up steam over the last 5 seasons. It started with Florida State’s run to the national championship in 2013 and a berth of the playoff the year after. Clemson then took over and has become the kings of the conference. However, there are formidable challengers to the throne. The Hurricanes have engineered a re-birth under Mark Richt and are getting back to their old swag days. Virginia Tech is looking more like what they were in the late 90’s/early 2000’s when Michael Vick was the quarterback and were a top 5 program thanks to an infusion of offense by Justin Fuente. Louisville, albeit losing Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, should not be taken lightly with how their offense is run. NC State has a quality QB in Ryan Finley who could be a dark horse and could be a sleeper. And most years you always have a team that comes out of nowhere and makes noise. People will look at the likes of Wake Forest, Boston College, and even Syracuse while Duke and Georgia Tech can play spoilers. And as for the team who ran the conference for nearly 20 years in Florida State, they could really rebound under Willie Taggart, or have a year or two of growing pains. We just won’t know. But that’s what’s fun on the ACC.
(1) CLEMSON TIGERS: This has been definitely Clemson’s golden run. 40-4 in the past 3 seasons is only trumped by Alabama’s 41-3 record in that same stretch (as two of Clemson’s losses were to Alabama). They’ll rely on probably the best defense in the nation (a debate can be made with Alabama) and having Dexter Lawrence helps while 7 other starters from last year’s team returns. They will be a handful for anybody going against them. Which means the offense will be more into focus as last year the Tigers fell apart in the Sugar Bowl against the Tide in part of lackluster play on offense. Kelly Bryant will never be mistaken for DeShaun Watson but he is a good quarterback at the worst and just needs to make sure he A. keeps healthy and B. protects the ball. The running game will be solid again with Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster in the backfield and they will gain yards. This is a group that SHOULD improve from last year on offense, which is scary I believe and make a huge threat to getting their 2nd national title in 3 years. The schedule has two interesting road trips at Texas A&M and Florida State, but the Aggies aren’t as deep and struggle with ranked teams at home and the Seminoles are somewhat of a question mark this year. Barring major injuries it could be smooth sails for Clemson in 2018. BEST CASE RECORD: 12-0 WORST CASE RECORD: 10-2 MY PREDICTION: 12-0. I don’t see Clemson taking any losses to any team, as I think the talent pool is so stacked in their favor against everybody else in the ACC and on their schedule.
(2) NC STATE WOLFPACK: Say what you want, but NC State will be at least fun to watch on the offensive side with Ryan Finley and having two returning receivers, notably Kelvin Harmon. Adding on an offensive line that returns 3 starters, all able to protect Finley’s blind side and it could be a dangerous group. And the offense may also be more of a danger if Reggie Gallaspy can stay healthy as he is a multi-purpose back who can do it all. Last year it was the defense that really turned heads thanks to Bradley Chubb. But he is gone now so at least early on, the Wolfpack will have to deal with some defensive hiccups, notably on the line to replace Chubb and the secondary needs to improve and questions are abound at linebacker as well. However, the Wolfpack’s schedule really favors them as they don’t see the major powers until the 2nd half of the season so getting the defense figured out by then won’t be a major crash course (though a home tilt against West Virginia in the third week is going to be an interesting one). BEST CASE RECORD: 10-2; WORST CASE RECORD: 7-5; MY PREDICTION: 10-2. I’m leaning more towards the best case record in part because of the uncertainty of the powers not named Clemson. And I think teams will have a difficult time figuring out Finley and the passing attack.
(3) LOUISVILLE CARDINALS: Lamar Jackson is gone. So it is back somewhat at square one for Bobby Petrino. Jawon Pass looks to be the starter when the season begins, and his last name is what he says he will: pass. He is considered more of the prototypical passer than a scrambler as what Jackson was. Pass will have help as the offensive line returns four and will probably be better rested in having a QB who is a typical pocket-passer. And the Pass will also have 3 returning starters at receiver which means Louisville’s offense will probably click starting Week 2 (they get Alabama week 1). The running game should also improve with the backs they have if Petrino utilizes the run game. The question will be however, the defense, which has been a giant mess since Todd Grantham left. Peter Sirmon wasn’t the answer and Petrino has gone with Brian VanGorder, a career defensive coordinator. The problem with VanGorder is he isn’t around long at different places he’s been to since leaving the Atlanta Falcons in 2011 (Auburn, the Jets, and Notre Dame). The talent is lacking as well and worse is that VanGorder’s defenses have been subpar at best with the schemes he runs (it’s why he hasn’t held down a job for a long period of time). So Louisville will hope to win 41-38 games this year. The schedule for the Cardinals is a mixed bag. They draw Alabama to start the year, but then have a small window of prepping for their first ACC game, a home tilt with Florida State. If the defense can improve, they can surprise a few as the two major road games are at Boston College (who scored 45 on Louisville and beat the Cardinals last year) and at Clemson. But Louisville had a knack of really making bad offenses look great last year and losing games they shouldn’t have. BEST CASE RECORD: 9-3. WORST CASE RECORD: 4-8. MY PREDICTION: 8-4. While most are looking at the late October through the end of the season run as Louisville’s deciding factor of where they stand, I’m inclined to think that the early conference run of Virginia (road), Florida State (home), and Georgia Tech (home) will decide where the Cardinals are. If they take those three games (which is a good possibility), then things really fall in for them. But if they lose 2 of those three, uh-oh.
(4) FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES: Cam Akers will be fun to watch, especially with Willie Taggart taking over at Florida State. It seemed like last year’s locker room was poisoned thanks in part to Jimbo Fisher’s situation with the Noles and the Aggies. Also, it didn’t help Deondre Francois was lost for the season after he suffered his knee injury against Alabama. And questions will be abound of his health as there still isn’t a clear-cut favorite for starter. Him or James Blackman, who was not overly effective, so Taggart will have his work cut out. The biggest issue however will be on defense as the Noles only return 3 starters and many believe depth will be an issue at Tallahassee for once. This may be a year where the Noles aren’t fully expected to compete for either the National Championship or even the ACC title, but they will still have athletes, mostly on the offensive side, especially if they can be utilized if the QB situation is solidified. The schedule for Florida State isn’t a fun one despite having home games to Virginia Tech and Clemson, but they are at Louisville (who beat them two straight times), Miami, NC State, and Notre Dame. That is a murderous schedule right there. BEST CASE RECORD: 10-2. WORST CASE RECORD: 5-7. MY PREDICTION: 6-6. Schedule is too rough for a relatively young team even with a back like Akers and an offense that will be in transition. And sometimes talent can only get you so far.
(5) WAKE FOREST DEMON DEACONS: How the script was flipped in 2017 as Wake Forest went from being a no-offense/all-defense squad to all-offense/no defense squad. John Wolford left on a high note after years of being criticized he couldn’t play the QB position. But now the Deacs will have a new QB in Kendall Hinton, who is more of a scrambler. He will have weapons all over the place at receivers and a good, underrated running back in Matt Colburn who nearly ran for 1,000 last year. Adding on, the entire offensive line returns, so that helps out Hinton passing (if he can stay in the pocket), and Colburn running. Much like Louisville, NC State, and FSU, the defense will be the major question for Wake Forest. The passing defense was ranked 119th in the nation though they return 3 starters in the secondary. The depth is an issue though as Wake Forest has to convert receiver Chuck Wade to secondary. It may be another long year on defense. Wake’s schedule is about what you expect. They have a rough gauntlet of Clemson (home), Florida State, and Louisville (both road) as it may take the wind out of their sails as they also have a home tilt early with Notre Dame. If they can hold their heads above water and get another bowl game, it would still be a successful season. BEST CASE RECORD: 8-4. WORST CASE RECORD: 3-9. MY PREDICTION: 6-6. Wake is going to be competitive and the teams I think they lose to is really more of a depth issue and I also think Clawson is closing the gap on that.
(6) BOSTON COLLEGE EAGLES: Boston College, alongside Wake Forest & Georgia Tech, is that on a yearly basis you don’t know what you’ll get from them. You can have them being a team that will throw a wrench into the conference contenders and make lives miserable while posting a 9-3 record. Or other times you see them struggle against the likes of Holy Cross, and then get thumped by even the weaker teams. Last year was a fun one as the Eagles ran roughshod (literally) over Florida State and Louisville, but only mustered a 7-5 record. The problem was they had a rough schedule seeing Notre Dame, Clemson, and Virginia Tech in a 4 week window. Of course, they have a similar rough go, that really lasts from October with a road game at NC State all the way through mid-November at Florida State (with Louisville, Miami, Virginia Tech, and Clemson in between; yikes!). If AJ Dillon is a wrecking ball and runs over everybody, some of those rough losses could be wins especially with holes at Louisville, NC State, and Florida State. So it may not be too bad. But the Eagles will need a passing game to balance out. And really Boston College hasn’t had once since Matt Ryan was there. Anthony Brown is supposed to be the starter, but a knee injury has hurt his chances and a possible QB battle between Brown and EJ Perry could loom. And having a QB battle in college isn’t always the best thing. Boston College relies on their defense, though it was a struggle stopping the run (94th overall). That has to be better especially in a division with good runners. But they have Zach Allen, who could be a household name by the end of the year if things go well. The corners are a key concern right now for the Eagles and it could be a huge weak link especially if the line cannot get a strong pass rush, but keep an eye out on safety Lukas Denis. He is also a beast. BEST CASE RECORD: 8-4. WORST CASE RECORD: 4-8 MY PREDICTION: 5-7. Just not sold on the passing game and I think the Eagles defense will be down slightly, but enough not being able to steal a win against a top team.
(7) SYRACUSE ORANGE: Eric Dungey is a guy in my eyes, you either love him or hate him. He was able to beat Clemson last year at home. But then he got injured and the Clemson won was the last one Syracuse had in the 2017 season. The issue that Dungey has is he still has aspirations of being Johnny Manziel, College Edition. He passes and he runs, but he sometimes runs when he shouldn’t thus getting injured. And he can get combustible and challenge defenses to fights. Not exactly what you want in a QB. And rumblings are abound that he may have competition with redshirt Tommy DeVito and it sounds like he really has gained ground on Dungey to the point that even coach Dino Babers has said such. So if Dungey starts, he may have to be a little more careful on how he plays, notaby with his decisions. It will be dependent on the receivers who are inexperienced and inconsistent right now, which is a key problem for an offense that relies on those receivers. And they also need that offense to off-set the defense, which could be a giant mess again in 2018. And if there aren’t strides made on that side, Babers may be coaching his final games with Syracuse in November. For Babers to save his job I think, he will need a bowl win. The schedule is feasible to get one if the injuries are at a minimum and Dungey makes smart decisions (assuming he starts), but Clemson won’t repeat last year in Death Valley while they do have home tilts with NC State and Louisville. It’s possible that the Orange can upset one of those teams in the Dome like they did with Clemson especially both teams being on the ropes on defense and even the Florida State game could be attained. But it will be a tough task regardless. BEST CASE RECORD: 7-5. WORST CASE RECORD: 2-10. MY PREDICTION: 3-9. For as good as Dungey can be, he can also be a knucklehead. And in Syracuse’s case where there is little margin for error, being unwise with his composure can really sting a team, and may cost Babers his job unless Babers takes Dungey’s job away from him. Then I think the Orange will have a better record.
(1) VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES: Virginia Tech had somewhat of a learning curve in 2017 on offense as Josh Jackson took over as a freshman. They weren’t awful on the offensive side as they were in the middle of the pack but not what Justin Fuente likes to be. But he will have a vastly improved offense with 7 returning starters coming back, including Jackson, two receivers (Eric Kumah, Sean Savoy), and the right side of his line. The question will have to be the running game as that has not been up to snuff last year (which is an oddity for Virginia Tech), but I think that will improve with more help on the line. If the Hokies offense still has signs of inconsistency, the defense should be fine as always under Bud Foster. The defensive line is going to be great as always and pressure the QB. Of course, the LB’s will be new, though they really feel like they have a good group there even with Tremaine Edmunds leaving. The secondary may be the biggest question as they lose 3 of 4 starters, but the Hokies like Caleb Alexander at corner while they feel like it is a young, but talented squad. The Hokies schedule isn’t a daunting one. The first game is at Florida State so it will test the defense having to deal with Cam Akers, but it’s too hard to tell what the Noles will be either. The road schedule is very forgiving and the Hokies don’t see Louisville or Clemson while they get the Hurricanes and Notre Dame at home. Both games I think are winnable It may be that jump Fuente needs. BEST CASE RECORD: 12-0. WORST CASE RECORD: 9-3. MY PREDICTION: 12-0. I just like how the pieces fall into place for the Hokies this year. They could easily be 12-0. Of course the Notre Dame and Miami games will ultimately decide their season.
(2) MIAMI HURRICANES: If we learned anything from the college football season last year we learned Miami is back again under Mark Richt. He’s recruiting like they used to when the Hurricanes were atop of the football world and the talent is slowly rivaling that of Clemson in the ACC. And I think Richt also learned from his time at Georgia how to be a different coach as he wasn’t the laid back, take-it-for-what-its-worth guy with the Bulldogs but more of an in-your-face head coach who will yell when needed. It felt like he was a far different coach than he ever was at Georgia. The strength will be the defense and getting turnovers all over the place and making key plays that ultimately changed the outcome of games. And they return nearly their entire linebackers and secondary, which created that havoc last year. The only spot with “questions” is defensive line but even that shouldn’t be too much of an issue as Miami believes the line is NFL-caliber talent from ends to tackles. So Miami could get better than what they were last year. However, the big question which really reared its ugly head at the end of the season last year was the offense. The Hurricanes were a middle-of-the-road offense and fell apart at Pittsburgh in an embarrassing loss and it got more embarrassing vs. Clemson in the ACC Championship while didn’t do too great against Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl. And most attribute it to Malik Rosier, who really scuffled down the stretch as he got a chewing by Richt in the Pittsburgh loss and is under the gun to perform. But Rosier even before that wasn’t tearing it up either and if the Canes struggle on offense, he could get replaced really quickly on a team that is talented on offense as well. Rosier has to play better as he does have the likes of Travis Homer at back and Ahhmon Richards. If he is unable to, Miami’s season could be a disappointment after the build they made in 2017. The schedule is a manageable one though slightly odd one as they have four of their first six games at home (including Florida State) and a neutral game against LSU and a road game at Toledo (yes, you read that right). But then four of their final 6 games are on the road. But the major one will be at Virginia Tech which will decide the ACC Coastal. BEST CASE RECORD: 12-0. WORST CASE RECORD: 9-3. MY PREDICTION: 11-1. The road trip to Virginia Tech has bad news written all over it. And I also think Rosier isn’t the right guy for the job at QB in Miami.
(3) GEORGIA TECH YELLOW JACKETS: Trying to figure out Georgia Tech year-by-year is one of the most impossible things to do. They have gone 10-2 in some years including road wins at Georgia and Virginia Tech. Or they will go 3-9 and lose to lowly Virginia at home. Or they go 7-5, stun Georgia on the road to off-set a loss to Duke at home. The reasoning is simple: their style of offensive play. The biggest issue that Tech always has to deal with is whenever they’re behind, they have to pass. And they are a mess when you are trying to be in the flexbone system. That’s why the Jackets failed to make a bowl game in 2017. The run game will always be stout and they will bring back all their feature backs and quarterback TaQuon Marshall as well as four of five starters on the line so that should remain their spark. But the passing game, yikes. Defensively the Jackets will make a switch from the 4-2-5 under Ted Roof (who is now gone) to a 3-4 under new coordinator Nate Woody. They hope the speed and ability will make more differences in such as the Jackets line was bullied religiously last year and gave up 38 or more points in 3 of the final 4 games last year. However, they will need help in the secondary as it is a brand new group, which makes things slightly more problematic. Tech’s schedule is never fun when the Jackets have to see Clemson and Georgia every year, but this year they also have two road trips to Louisville and Virginia Tech and have Miami at home. If Paul Johnson pulls an 8-4 record then he will obviously be safe. 7-5 may keep him around but the Tech fans are starting to get very restless of seeing a range of 7-5, 6-6, and 5-7 seasons (or so it seems) despite stealing a couple games in Athens the last few times. BEST CASE RECORD: 8-4. WORST CASE RECORD: 4-8. MY PREDICTION: 6-6. Johnson will do enough to keep his job safe by getting the Yellow Jackets into a bowl game, but the temperature on his seat will continue to escalate.
(4) DUKE BLUE DEVILS: Duke is one of those teams that you go “how do they do it?” when they aren’t being a recruiting haven in football. With David Cutcliffe coaching them, you figure the offense would click and the defense would have their struggles. Last year, the Blue Devils defense is what got them to a bowl game. They finished in the top 25 in scoring defense, against the pass, and ranked 21st in the nation in overall defense. And that is what they will rely on this year as they bring 7 starters, including 5 in the front six. The guy who anchors that group is linebacker Joe Giles-Harris who is All-American potential. He had 125 tackles and the team leader. Questions however will be in the secondary though they have a stud in Mark Gilbert. It will be the other spots in the secondary that’s a problem, so you may see more pass rushes with Duke in 2018. However, the question will be if the Blue Devils offense can take a step forward, which may actually be a problem losing 3 starters on the line, which could be a problem protecting Daniel Jones, who will have a surplus of weapons at receiver such as TJ Rahming. But the running game will be in question if Brittain Brown can continue his upward trend and take pressure off of Jones. But the line may be a problem especially seeing the likes of Miami, Clemson, Virginia Tech, etc. where they could really get to Jones. And that will be a key issue moving forward in Duke’s progress. BEST CASE RECORD: 8-4. WORST CASE RECORD: 3-9. MY PREDICTION: 5-7. I don’t see Duke really having the same kind of talent as the others, even with the likes of Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech. And I don’t see them winning away from Wallace Wade Stadium this year.
(5) VIRGINIA CAVALIERS: People want to just think the Cavaliers are just going to be this brutally bad team in the ACC and quite possibly the worst team year in and year out. And for a while that has been the case. But Bronco Mendenhall is righting the ship in Charlottesville. He’s trying to bring that physical prowess back that he had working for him at BYU and he may end up doing it as the Cavaliers showed signs of improvement on defense (notably against the pass; the run was still a mess), being ranked 2nd in the ACC and 7th overall. They have players in the secondary who can make plays (though losing Quin Blanding hurts), and have linebackers who can rush quarterbacks (Chris Peace). But the defensive line needs to step up and not get pushed around, and that may be hard given the losses of both ends. The question will be the offense and if they can get the right guys in there, where they finished near the bottom of the nation in total offense. The Cavaliers hope Arizona State transfer Bryce Perkins can be that answer and he seems more of a Mendenhall type of guy anyway. He could have success early on and it may carry Virginia. Expect the run game to improve with Perkins there too as Jordan Ellis can be a 1,000 yard rusher. But Perkins will need help on the line to keep him doing his thing. They only return two and that is a concern on a line that is a mess. It could be more of Perkins running for his life as opposed to running for big plays. Virginia’s schedule is more of “can they get back to a bowl game” than anything this year. It’s possible, but may not be probable, but there are a few games that can go their way if they do well. There is a stretch they could roll off 5 wins in a row with a 3-game home stretch with UNC, Pittsburgh, and Liberty while road trips to Duke and Georgia Tech before and after their home stand. If they can do that and take care of business with their non-conference games to Richmond and Ohio (and if lucky, Indiana), they could see a 2nd straight bowl appearance, but they will have to make improvements all the way through the season. BEST CASE RECORD: 8-4. WORST CASE RECORD: 2-10. MY PREDICTION: 5-7. The Cavaliers are on the right track, but too many questions abound on the offense.
(6) PITTSBURGH PANTHERS: There had been hope Pat Narduzzi was the guy to get Pittsburgh off the snide when he arrived. And in his first two years, he gave the base hope. The hope isn’t as high as it has been (wouldn’t say it’s declining), but issues at quarterback, the offensive line, and not having key playmakers have stunted Pitt’s growth under Narduzzi. Kenny Pickett did show signs of great promise as Pitt stunned Miami late and many hope he is the next great Pittsburgh QB, something they’ve lacked since, Dan Marino. But it seems like there isn’t a lot to work with so Pickett may have some growing pains in 2018. The defense has to improve, which was stunning given that Narduzzi had run one of the best defenses at Michigan State in 2013-14, especially against the pass. The Panthers defense was 106th nationally against the pass and was religiously shredded up. However, there is hope. The linebacking crew returns and and with the new defensive coordinator Randy Bates being a former linebackers coach at Northwestern producing Paddy Fisher, it could be a huge jolt. The line should be okay with Shane Roy though that has to improve, but the question will have to be the secondary, which still may be a problem especially against the pass. The schedule may be manageable and Pitt has pulled upsets off in each of the last few seasons (Penn State, Clemson, Miami) and may have one in place with Virginia Tech late in the year at home. But they need to take some teams down, especially on the road. Or else Pitt’s honeymoon period with Narduzzi will be over. BEST CASE RECORD: 9-3. WORST CASE RECORD: 3-9. MY PREDICTION: 5-7. Too many holes on both sides for me to think Pittsburgh is a legit threat right now. Maybe next year they get back at it, assuming they keep Narduzzi around.
(7) NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS: What a difference two years makes. North Carolina went 11-1 in 2015 and then reversed course to 3-9 in 2017. Injuries and rebuilding took its toll on the Heels. Also, a controversy at quarterback as either Chazz Surratt or Nathan Elliott will take the helm. The running game should improve as Jordon Brown and Michael Carter should get a lot of touches to take the pressure off the quarterback. However, the line is a giant mess which will make life difficult for the quarterbacks and the running backs. So the rebuild may remain despite having a standout receiver in Anthony Ratliff-Williams. The defense is still a problem despite returning 7. The linebacking crew is new though Jonathan Smith looks to be one to step in, but the line is where the concerns are as the Heels struggle to stop anybody on the ground. And that’s very bad given who they see on a yearly basis. They start out in Cal, where they beat them in Chapel Hill last year and I don’t know if the Tar Heels will exact revenge given how the Golden Bears do offense there. Worse, they see Miami and Virginia Tech in back-to-back weeks. The road schedule has them at Syracuse and Virginia, games they can win and could find some home wins against Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh. BEST CASE RECORD: 8-4. WORST CASE RECORD: 1-11. MY PREDICTION: 4-8. It’s just they aren’t deep, the defense is shoddy, and whoever is at QB will run for their lives all season I believe. And it may be Fedora’s last season if there isn’t improvement.
ACC CHAMPIONSHIP: VIRGINIA TECH VS. CLEMSON: It would be the 2nd time out of 3 years the Hokies and Tigers would face off. And it may be winner gets in the Playoff. IF both go 12-0 and somehow the SEC Championship doesn’t feature two teams undefeated, it could be a playoff seeding there too. The game could be a close one and a game that could be a physically, defensive-minded game. However, I think Clemson would win on the virtue of depth, but I think Tech is continuing to close the gap on them. MY PREDICTION: CLEMSON 20, VIRGINIA TECH 17
TOP 3 QUESTIONS:
WHO IS ON THE HOTTEST SEAT IN THE ACC RIGHT NOW? More like who isn’t? Swinney, Richt, and Fuente are safe as safe can be. Taggart is on a grace period but if he isn’t getting the Noles rolling by year two, he will be zeroed in. Cutcliffe by the sake that he can get Duke competitive is safe. Dave Clawson may be safe too as he really has made Wake Forest relevant. But everybody else? Their back ends are warm all around. Petrino, Babers, Doeren (if NC State falls back), Johnson, Narduzzi, Fedora, and to a lesser extent Mendenhall if there isn’t significant improvement. I’d have to say it is Dino Babers at this point. While Syracuse is an exciting team to watch, they haven’t produced many wins in his three seasons. Anything less than a 5-7 run will probably put him out. Georgia Tech fans think Paul Johnson will be forever on the hot seat, but it doesn’t seem like that will happen. But you could see some places have an overhaul on the coaching front.
CAN EITHER MIAMI OR VIRGINIA TECH UNSEAT CLEMSON IN 2018? Both have a shot, but I think Clemson is just too experienced and too deep for either one just yet. And in Miami’s case, issues at QB that can’t be overlooked. So, not yet.
CAN CLEMSON DO WHAT FLORIDA STATE DID ALL THOSE YEARS OF DOMINATING THE CONFERENCE? Yes. They are recruiting at the same levels like Alabama, Georgia, USC, etc. thanks to Dabo Swinney. As long as Dabo is there, Clemson will be at the top of the heap. The ONLY concern would be is if Saban retires and Alabama tries to lure their alum Swinney to join. That said, given what he has built and what he has meant to the University, I doubt he leaves.
That’s it for the ACC. See you next week!
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat