1. Florida State
Week 1: Oklahoma State (Arlington)
FSU starting at #1 in our power rankings is really a no-brainer. Sure, they lost a first round pick in Kelvin Benjamin (Carolina) and six others in the draft, but they've recruited at a high enough level that they have the depth to replace star players without missing a beat. Last year, they were tasked with replacing an amazing 11 NFL draft picks including three first round picks (Manuel, Werner, Rhodes). On top of that, they lost OC James Cooley to Miami (where he is given more responsibility) and DC Mark Stoops to Kentucky, and obviously they were extremely successful anyway.
While I'd love to point out the loss of CB Lamarcus Joyner (St. Louis) and DC Jeremy Pruitt, who got a $290,000 raise to join Mark Richt's UGA staff, the reality is they lost more after last season and somehow improved. Their schedule is much tougher than last season's and chemistry can change (especially with the focus of the public eye), but until proven otherwise, they'll hold the top spot in the STS ACC Power Rankings.
Week 1: at Georgia
A great Southern football rivalry is about to write another chapter as Clemson opens the season in Athens, GA. We just learned that it'll be at least four years until these teams meet again as Clemson will face Notre Dame in 2015 and then Auburn in 2016 and 2017, so enjoy it while you can. We'll have a primer on Athens being published on game week for those of you who want to make the trip.
Coming into the opener a couple questions still linger for Clemson. Will anyone hold down the RT spot with reliability? Entering Fall Camp, Shaq Anthony weighted in somewhat lighter than desired and is suspended from the Georgia game. Joe Gore, one of the big X-factors in our earlier Clemson X-Factor Series, has an opportunity to be the guy at RT and has received positive reviews early in Fall camp. I'm cautiously optimistic for him this season.
Guard is another position of uncertainty. David Beasley is suspended from the Georgia game opening the door for Tyrone Crowder and/or Eric Mac Lain to step up. Crowder, who needed to cut some weight, is down to 322 lbs which is encouraging.
The level of play QB is another question mark. Some level of regression from a program great is to be expected, especially if the aforementioned question marks on the offensive line are not answered positively.
Finally, the secondary is thin after losing cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland and Darius Robinson from a unit that struggled at times last season. Youngsters Mackensie Alexander and Cordrea Tankersley hope to maintain or improve last year's level of productions while the safety play improves with the maturation of Jayron Kearse and Robert Smith and the emergence of Jadar Johnson.
While those are the question marks, one near certainty is Clemson's defensive line. The Tigers led the nation in tackles for loss and were second in three-and-outs last season. Defensive end Vic Beasley decided to return for his senior year and will have an opportunity to put up Heisman type numbers. Corey Crawford and Tavaris Barnes are also seniors at defensive end and on top of them, sophomore Shaq Lawson gives Clemson a fourth top-notch DE. Crawford is suspended from the season opener, but the incredible depth at the position can absorb the blow with little drop off in play.
In the middle, seniors Grady Jarrett and Josh Watson hold the starting spots. DeShawn Williams returns for his senior year while Carlos Watkins returns from injuries sustained in an auto accident combining to provide great depth. Finally, D.J. Reader who was doing double-duty playing on the baseball and football teams has supposedly taken big strides since giving up baseball. If you lost count, that's six seniors on the defensive line!
Clemson has earned the reputation of being "Wide Receiver U" and with freshman Artavis Scott and Kyrin Priester looking good in camp, the tradition should continue. Additionally, another high potential pass catcher, tight end Jordan Leggett, appears to be entering the season on a positive note with a weigh in of 251 lbs, indicating that he may be an improved blocker.
Overall, Clemson holds a sizeable talent advantage over everyone in the conference - save Florida State and Notre Dame - and shouldn't lose more than one or two conference games.
3. Notre Dame
Week 1: Rice
I asked you, our readers, if you'd like to see Notre Dame included in the STS ACC Power Rankings. Three quarters said yes, so we've included them here.
I wrestled with putting them right above Clemson, as the Tigers' question marks appear to be the Irish's strengths. They have depth in the secondary, a stout offensive line, and an expected upgrade at QB with Everett Golson returning from suspension.
Clemson said goodbye to Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant, Rod McDowell, Bashaud Breeland, and Brandon Thomas, but Notre Dame lost some big pieces as well. Both coordinators - Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco (now UConn HC) and Offensive Coordinator Chuck Martin (now Miami of Ohio HC) - have taken new jobs. QB Tommy Rees, OT Zack Martin, DE Stephon Tuitt, and TE Troy Niklas have also departed. Meanwhile, Clemson still boasts the best duo of coordinators in the country and one of the deepest defensive lines in the entire nation.
Week 1: Liberty
After Clemson and Notre Dame the top four teams in the Coastal Division plus Louisville make up the next cluster. The Tar Heels are ranked in the pre-season polls, but they may be a shade overrated. A big reason for that is their deceptively strong finish. They won six of their final seven games including a solid enough Belk Bowl win over Cincinnati, but the other five wins were just: BC, NCSU, UVa, Pitt, and Old Dominion. They lost to South Carolina, Georgia Tech, East Carolina, Virginia Tech, Miami, and Duke - nearly every quality opponent they faced.
Still, they boast a solid group of talented skill position players. Elijah Hood, an early-enrolle five-star freshman from Charlotte joins TJ Logan and a few other talented backs in an especilaly deep backfield. Another Charlottean, Marquise Williams was impressive after taking over at QB when Bryn Renner was lost for the season with shoulder injury. He is a good runner and with Mitch Trubisky giving the Heels depth at the position, he can run a bit more aggressively. Quindhas Davis gives the Heels receiving target to replace TE Eric Ebron who was drafted 10th overall by the Detroit Lions in this past season's draft, and Ryan Switzer can do this.
The Heels have 15 returning starters, tied for the most in the ACC, but only two on the defensive line. In fact, their defense is their biggest question mark and may be an Achilles heel that prevents them from winning the Coastal.
Week 1: Miami (Labor Day)
Louisville loses one of their all-time greats with Teddy Bridgewater now on the Minnesota Vikings, however Will Gardner is expected to be a capable back-up and DeVante Parker provides a great target. There is a lot of turnover for the Cardinals who have a new quarterback, coach, and conference.
They ended last season by demolishing Miami in the Champ Sports Bowl. It was an impressive win that surely boosts expectations for them in the ACC, but it was their only impressive win of the year, as they lost to UCF, squeaked by Cincinnati, and didn't play anyone else of note.
Week 1: Elon
At some point I may have to move Duke higher, but I still fail to believe they're quite as good as advertised. They'll race to a 4-0 start against soft competition this season before traveling to Miami and Atlanta. At that point we'll begin to learn how much they will be able to replicate last season's historic success.
Goal line quarterback, Brandon Connette announced his decision to transfer to FSU (Fresno State University) this offseason, but redshirt senior Anthony Boone should be ready to handle the load and in fact be one of the better quarterbacks in the conference. Of course it helps to have Jamison Crowder to throw to and David Cutcliffe on your sideline.
Duke still isn't in the top half of the conference as far as pure talent, but they're well coached, have a veteran QB, get a lucky draw from the Atlantic, and get both VT and UNC at home (both of who they beat on the road last season). Most of all they proved they can win the division and shouldn't be counted out to compete for it once again.
7. Virginia Tech
Week 1: William and Mary
The Hokies have won just 15 games over the past two seasons after enjoying eight straight double-digit win seasons. Now, they try to reverse that trend while replacing Logan Thomas, who was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals. Fortunately for them, they added Michael Brewer via transfer from Texas Tech who along with RS senior Mark Leal gives the Hokies some depth and a ability at QB. Brewer won two state championships as the starting QB for Chad Morris's Lake Travis High School football team.
Trey Edmunds could be a very solid running back and they'll need to work hard to establish the running game, even if their new QB gives them improvement from Logan Thomas's 57% completion percentage last season (for comparison, Tajh Boyd finished at 68.5% last season).
With Virginia Tech you can always count on ridiculously hideous helmets and solid defenses. Thus it's no surprise that they have a great cornerback duo in Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson. They've been recruiting at a solid level, clearly below FSU, Clemson, and Miami, but at least on par with as the rest of the ACC.
Power rankings are not meant to be divisional predictions, and I'm not completely sold on them getting back to their winning ways of year's past, but in the wide open Coastal Division they the talent to be in the thick of the race and with the two weakest teams from the Atlantic finding their way onto the Hokie schedule (while Miami plays FSU and UNC plays Clemson) they have a good shot at the division.
Week 1: at Louisville (Labor Day)
Miami has been recruiting at a high level for quite some time, but they've never been able to do anything with it. Injuries (an being overrated) took a toll on Miami down the stretch, but they return pre-season All-ACC running back Duke Johnson and talented WR Phillip Dorsett, both who will be returning from injury, along with WR Stacey Coley giving some some real talent at the skill positions (they haven't been recruiting for nothing).
Miami's problems begin at quarterback. Senior Ryan Williams was slated to start, but tore his ACL. Fortunately, intra-division play doesn't begin for the 'Canes until Week 5 when they host the defending Coastal Champion Blue Devils. At that point, Williams should be back. Until then Jake Heaps, a graduate transfer from Kansas, or a true freshman will have to steer the ship.
Miami returns three offensive lineman, so if QB play is good, the offense should click, but the defense is another story. The Hurricane D-line is far removed from the days of having guys like Warren Sapp and the defense simply wasn't that great last season. They gave up 26.8 PPG (compare: Clemson 22.2 PPG with a higher tempo), allowed 4.40 YPC (compare: Clemson 3.73) and 5.75 per play (compare: 5.03 per play). They also allowed opponents to convert on third down 42.4% of the time (compare: Clemson 30.8%). Even if they do sort out the QB position, will they play defense at the level their recruiting says they should?
Week 1: Villanova (Friday)
Syracuse returns 15 starters (tied for most in the ACC) including four on the offensive line. Redshirt junior Terrel Hunt is the expected starter at quarterback giving them a bit more stability than last season. On the other hand, they don't have any play makers that jump out at you and the defensive line isn't good enough for their blitz-heavy scheme to work against the top teams in the conference. They're probably a notch below teams like Louisville and North Carolina, but they should make a bowl game.
Week 1: Delaware
The Panthers only had three players taken in the NFL Draft last season, but they were major keys. Quarterback Tom Savage was taken in the fourth round by Houston. Chad Voytik, a redshirt sophomore, is set to fill his old position and as a mobile four-star QB should do a respectable job. Also gone is the Panthers all-time reception leader, WR Devin Street. Of course, DT Aaron Donald was taken with the 13th overall pick by the St. Louis Rams and simply cannot be replaced.
With a new quarterback and the team's lone superstar gone, notable improvement is not expected. Boston College and Syracuse make for a soft draw from the Atlantic division and the non-conference schedule features just one game against another Power Five conference school - and it's Iowa. Because of that, they should make a bowl game and maybe even surpass seven wins, but that doesn't prove they are "better" than the teams ranked above them here.
11. Georgia Tech
Week 1: Wofford
Paul Johnson's lack of progress on the recruiting trail, Vad Lee's transfer, and Jeremiah Attaochu's graduation leave Georgia Tech in tenuous position to keep their 17 year bowl streak alive. The Jackets simply do not have the talent that their coastal foes - UNC, VT, or Miami - can boast. While Paul Johnson's offense took the league by storm and won* it in 2009, teams have adjusted and the Jacket's talent level has dropped. They're a borderline bowl team now and reach the postseason they'll likely need to reach 6-4 in their first 10 games, because they close the season with Clemson and Georgia.
12. NC State
Week 1: Georgia Southern
NC State played eight home games last season and avoids playing another team from a power five conference in the OOC slate this season. Fortunately, new rules will force their hand moving forward, but this year they'll hope to start 4-0 before playing Florida State and Clemson in back-to-back weeks. To do that they'll have to start off by beating Georgia Southern in the Eagles first game as an FBS school.
A 4-0 start is probably needed if they hope to make a bowl. If healthy both are possible. Last season injuries struck hard and early and their lack of depth was exposed. They'll have a new QB this season with Jacoby Brissett eligible after sitting last season. He transferred from the Muschamp offense at UF and is viewed as a notable upgrade from last year's duo of Pete Thomas and Brandon Mitchell - the later of which was hurt for a large chunk of last season. With a fast start and a little luck, they could make a bowl given their schedule and the excess number of bowl games, but they're not a good team, yet.
Week 1: UCLA
Last season Virginia scheduled Oregon and BYU. This year they have UCLA and BYU on the slate. Why they choose to play teams from out West which they won't be competitive against is curious to say the least, but I applaud them for not scheduling four OOC snoozers.
Their fluke home win against BYU last season was their high point, and this year the Cougars will be looking for revenge. UCLA for the opener, even in Charlottesville, if probably unwinnable. Additionally they drew FSU and Louisville from the Atlantic meaning they'll have to go 6-2 in their other eight games to make a bowl if they lose those four.
Mike London just pulled in a great recruiting class, but they may not improve enough fast enough for it all to play out. This team could be better than their record indicates the end of the season.
14. Boston College
Week 1: at UMass
You simply do not lose your best players from an over-achieving squad and maintain the same level of success. QB Chase Rettig, WR Alex Amidon, and Heisman Trophy Finalist RB Andre Williams have all departed, meaning the rebuilding job truly starts for Steve Addazio.
Last season I ranked Boston College 14th (which was last without Notre Dame) to start the season and they made me look foolish. I'll try it again this year and see if they treat me differently.
Week 1: at UL Monroe
Arguably the greatest coach in Wake Forest football history, Jim Grobe (77-82), stepped down after a 4-8 season in 2013. Although he did some great things for the program in his tenure (including winning one of the school's two ACC Championships), the last couple years have started a downward trend that isn't likely to end this season. Recruiting classes have been especially weak the last few seasons and with veteran starters QB Tanner Price, WR Michael Campanaro, and NT Nikita Whitlock now gone, the cupboard is relatively bare for Coach Dave Clawson, who will be starting a true freshman at quarterback.
Clawson joins Wake Forest after a successful five year stint at Bowling Green, which was capped with a MAC Championship last season. In his three coaching stops before Wake Forest, he hit some rough waters before steadying the ship and leaving the program much better than he found it. In 1999 and 2000 at Fordham, his first two years on the job, the Rams were 3-19. They were 26-10 over his last three years. At Richmond, the Spiders were 3-8 in his first year, before going 26-12 over his last three. At Bowling Green, the story was the same, 14-23 in his first three seasons, 18-8 in his last two. I expect a similar trend with Dave Clawson at Wake Forest.