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Big Preseason ACC Preview

The ACC is a conference in transition with a lot of new faces at head coach and coordinator positions around the league. A lot of teams are also sporting brand new starting quarterbacks and various players at skill positions, which adds an element of the unknown as well as hope for some. The addition of Louisville in place of Maryland and the semi-inclusion of Notre Dame make things even more interesting. Here's my take on who will finish where and why in this new era of the ACC.

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Atlantic Division
Winner: Florida State
Dark Horse: Louisville

It's pretty obvious who the power players are here. Since 2009, either Clemson or Florida State has won the Atlantic and I don't see any reason for that changing this year. The addition of Louisville adds a little more meat to this division, but I think the Cardinals are a year or so away from really challenging the top heavy Atlantic. There is a huge gap between #3 and the rest of the division, although Syracuse and NC State appear to be on the rise. Only time will tell if a change at head coach will make Wake Forest competitive in the future, but for now it's a safe bet they and a depleted Boston College team will round out the bottom half of the Atlantic.

1. Florida State Seminoles
Predicted Record: 13-0 (8-0)
Returning Starters: 7 Offense 7 Defense
Head Coach: Jimbo Fisher (45-10)
Offensive Coordinator: Lawrence Dawsey (WR '13)/Randy Sanders (QB '07-'13)
Defensive Coordinator: Charles Kelly (ST/LB '13)

This is a pretty easy one. Heisman winner Jameis Winston returns to operate an offense still loaded with weapons. They lose a few talented running backs but return Karlos Williams who was a beast last year. Replacing Kelvin Benjamin would be a problem, but Jameis still has the best tight end in the country, Nick O'Leary, and last years leading wide receiver Rashad Greene to throw it to. Not to mention the offensive line is loaded with seniors including tackle Cameron Erving and guard Tre' Jackson.

The defense should expect a little drop-off, losing top defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan and defensive back LaMarcus Joyner. Cornerback P.J. Williams will look to fill this void in the secondary. Mario Edwards will be a serious threat as well at defensive end. They are still loaded with talent on this side of the ball. Last but not least, Lou Groza winner Roberto Aguayo is back. In the end these guys are too talented and are primed for another run at the national title. The ACC is the least of their concerns. Even if they slip up somewhere in the league, I have them holding the tiebreaker over Clemson.

2. Clemson Tigers
Predicted Record: 10-2 (7-1)
Returning Starters: 4 Offense 7 Defense

Head Coach: Dabo Swinney (51-23)
Offensive Coordinator: Chad Morris (4th year)
Defensive Coordinator: Brent Venables (3rd year)

We've all heard it by now. Who will replace Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins? You don't lose that kind of talent without missing a beat. I suspect that the offense will struggle to duplicate the big numbers of last year, but will improve throughout the season. The Tigers have steady senior Cole Stoudt and talented true freshman Deshaun Watson as options under center. The running back situation is muddled but deep, if nothing else. No back has more than 100 carries in a season though, so someone amongst senior D.J. Howard, former walk on C.J. Davidson and redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman will have to step up. The wide receiving corps are just as talented across the board as previous years. I expect guys like Adam Humphries, Mike Williams and even newcomer Kyrin Priester to make a difference here.

The defense, on the other hand, should be amazing. Clemson returns most of their front 7 including All-ACC guys like Vic Beasley, Stephone Anthony and standout defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. The secondary is fairly young and untested, but bursting with potential. Veterans Martin Jenkins and Robert Smith will have to show ultra talented newcomers like Mackensie Alexander, Jayron Kearse and Korrin Wiggins the ropes. Clemson is head and shoulders above the rest of the league, but not quite up for the challenge of dethroning FSU yet.

3. Louisville Cardinals
Predicted Record: 8-4 (5-3)
Returning Starters: 7 Offense 4 Defense

Head Coach: Bobby Petrino (83-30)
Offensive Coordinator: Garrick McGee (UAB HC '12-'13)
Defensive Coordinator: Todd Grantham (Georgia DC '10-'13)

Gone is first round draft pick Teddy Bridgewater and head coach Charlie Strong. In comes former Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino, who has been a winner everywhere he's gone. Replacing Bridgewater will be Will Gardner, who has good arm strength and will have plenty of weapons to work with. An experienced group of wide receivers, led by one of the conference's best, Devante Parker, will pair with Dominique Brown and Auburn transfer Michael Dyer to make up one of the leagues better offenses. They also return four offensive line starters.

Last year, the Cardinals had one of the best defenses in the country. Former Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will be in his first year at Louisville and will have to rebuild some of that defense, as they only return 4 starters. Losing Calvin Pryor and Hakeem Smith in the secondary will hurt, but guys like James Burgess and Lorenzo Mauldin will hold down the front seven. This Louisville team should continue to play at a high level and win a bunch of football games. I have them falling to FSU and at Clemson, but I think they run the table on the rest of their conference slate with maybe a slipup along the way. Miami must come to Louisville which is a key game for the Cardinals.

4. Syracuse Orange
Predicted Record: 6-6 (3-5)
Returning Starters: 8 Offense 7 Defense
Head Coach: Scott Shafer (7-6)
Offensive Coordinator: George McDonald (2nd year)
Defensive Coordinator: Chuck Bullough (2nd year)

The offense last year was very average but returns eight starters. Dual threat quarterback Terell Hunt returns behind a veteran offensive line led by tackle Sean Hickey. He is a threat running the ball, but if Hunt can improve in the passing game, this offense can become more potent. It would help to find a true threat at wide receiver, something they seriously lacked last year. Look for Jarrod West or Ashton Broyld to step up and have a big year. Prince-Tyson Gulley will be expected to make a big difference at running back.

The defense last year was pretty good, but inconsistent. They were able to shut down teams with bad offenses, but gave a lot of points to the elite offenses like Clemson and FSU. They have plenty of experience on defense, especially in the back seven. Their primary loss is middle linebacker Marquis Spruill, a hole which Cameron Lynch will attempt to fill. A stout secondary is led by safety Durell Eskridge, who led the team in tackles and interceptions. Three starters return on the line to make up for the loss of Jay Bromley. They will take a small step forward this year but the record won't reflect it due to a more challenging schedule with Notre Dame on it.

5. N.C. State Wolfpack
Predicted Record: 6-6 (2-6)
Returning Starters: 7 Offense 7 Defense

Head Coach: Dave Doeren (26-13)
Offensive Coordinator: Matt Canada (2nd year)
Defensive Coordinator: Dave Huxtable (2nd year)

Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett should get the start at quarterback, who should be an upgrade over last years hot mess at this position. They also return outstanding running back Shadrach Thornton, who the offense should be built around. They have some experience on the line which was very iffy last year. If they can improve on that and find a go to wide receiver, then the offense could take a giant leap forward in Dave Doeren's second year.

They return plenty of experience up front and have some talent coming in a guy like Kentavius Street. They also return three starters in the secondary including Jack Tocho. The biggest task will be replacing linebacker Robert Caldwell. All in all, they are likely to suffer little drop off on defense. A soft out of conference schedule should build confidence early on in the year, but I expect them to be barely bowl eligible. This will still be an upgrade over going winless in the ACC last year.

6. Boston College Eagles
Predicted Record: 5-7 (2-6)
Returning Starters: 3 Offense 6 Defense

Head Coach: Steve Addazio (20-17)
Offensive Coordinator: Ryan Day ( 2nd year)
Defensive Coordinator: Don Brown (2nd year)

No other team in the Atlantic loses as much firepower on offense as the Eagles. They lose their leading passer, rusher and top 3 receivers. Florida transfer Tyler Murphy will likely get the start at quarterback, replacing Chase Rettig. He will have to find someone else reliable to throw the ball to after losing the school's all time receiver Alex Amidon. They will also have to find a way to duplicate the production of Heisman candidate running back Andre Williams. Center Andy Gallik will lead an experienced offensive line.

BC also loses a lot at linebacker and two starters on the defensive line. Steven Daniels and Kasim Edebali should anchor the front seven. The secondary returns all of its starters, although it's from a pass defense that finished last in the ACC last year. They even lose record setting kicker Nate Freese. After grinding their way to 7 wins last year, I doubt the Eagles will be bowl eligible. This year will be a rebuilding effort.

7. Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Predicted Record: 2-10 (0-8)
Returning Starters: 5 Offense 5 Defense

Head Coach: Dave Clawson (90-80)
Offensive Coordinator: Warren Ruggiero (Bowling Green OC '09-'13)
Defensive Coordinator: Mike Elko (Bowling Green DC '09-'13)

First year head coach Dave Clawson from Bowling Green has his work cut out for him. First on offense they lose four year starter Tanner Price. True freshman quarterback John Wolford was recently named the starter. To make matters worse, they are extremely thin at running back with the loss of Josh Harris. They lose wide receiver Michael Campanaro, who was a major part of the offense last year. Their offensive line play was also very poor last year and will need to improve.

On defense, Wake Forest returns only five starters. They are inexperienced in the front seven but have a strong secondary. Nikita Whitlock will be difficult to replace at tackle, but senior corners Kevin Johnson and Merrill Noel will pair with last years leading tackler, safety Ryan Janvion, to form a formidable group of defensive backs. I believe Clawson is a program builder and will have Wake winning quite a few football games in the near future, but this year will be tough for him with very little to work with.

Coastal Division
Winner: Virginia Tech
Dark Horse: Pittsburgh

I've seen a lot of different predictions for the Coastal champion. I suspect the final standings will be pretty tight similar to last year and will have to go to some tiebreakers. You can really only make a case for Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Duke or Miami in my opinion. A lot of people are riding the UNC bandwagon right now but I'm going a different route. Pittsburgh could sneak in there, but Georgia Tech loses too much in my opinion and Virginia seems to be stuck in a rut until a head coaching change is made.

1. Virginia Tech Hokies
Predicted Record: 9-4 (6-2)
Returning Starters: 9 Offense 5 Defense
Head Coach: Frank Beamer (266-132-4)
Offensive Coordinator: Scott Loeffler (2nd year)
Defensive Coordinator: Bud Foster (20th year)

Inconsistent starting quarterback Thomas Logan is gone. Brendan Motley, Mark Leal and Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer will be competing for the job. Tech returns their entire offensive line and leading rusher Trey Edmunds. The top three receivers Josh Stanford, Willie Byrn and Demitri Knowles all return. They also have a talented group of tight ends. Ryan Malleck returns from a shoulder injury and could develop into a threat. The offense should get better this year, mainly because it would be very difficult to be any worse.

The defense loses a lot from one of the better defensive units in the country last year. Bud Foster's defenses seemingly just reload though. Defensive tackle Luther Maddy will be a difference maker this year. Redshirt freshman Seth Dooley should make an impact too. The secondary does return most of their starters including Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson. What was Tech's only saving grace last year, should still be it's strong suit. On top of all that they have one of the best punters in the ACC in A.J. Hughes, who could help get them back to their dominant special teams ways. The Hokies may not be the best team in the Coastal, but a Charmin soft conference schedule causes me to give them the nod to win the division this year.

2. Miami-Florida Hurricanes
Predicted Record: 9-3 (5-3)
Returning Starters: 10 Offense 10 Defense

Head Coach: Al Golden (49-49)
Offensive Coordinator: James Coley (2nd year)
Defensive Coordinator: Mark D'Onofrio (4th year)

Miami has questions at quarterback with the departure of Stephen Morris. With Ryan Williams potentially missing a lot of time due to a torn ACL, the Canes hope true Freshman Brad Kaaya will be the answer. There is talent and depth across the board at wide receiver including Phillip Dorsett and Stacy Coley. Coley is a dangerous weapon, amassing 1,100 all purpose yards and returning a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown last year. The strength of the offense will be returning All-ACC running back Duke Johnson. He will be running behind a good offensive line anchored by outstanding left tackle Ereck Flowers and center Shane McDermott.

There are questions on defense, particularly the front seven. They do have help coming in the form of JUCO transfer Michael Wyche and five star recruit Chad Thomas. They also return All-ACC Denzel Perryman at middle linebacker, a guy who accounted for 105 tackles last year. The secondary is led by Tracy Howard who had four picks last year. They will have to improve on defense to win the Coastal. As always, there is talent in Miami, but I think the schedule is too tough to win the Coastal with cross divisional opponent Louisville on the road and Florida State leaving little margin for error.

3. Duke Blue Devils
Predicted Record: 8-4 (5-3)
Returning Starters: 8 Offense 6 Defense
Head Coach: David Cutcliffe (75-73)
Offensive Coordinator: Scottie Montgomery (2nd year)
Defensive Coordinator: Jim Knowles (5th year)

Duke will take a small step back this year with the rest of the Coastal improving and the lack of the element of surprise. They snuck up on a lot of people last year and had a lot of breaks go their way. They return sometimes starter Anthony Boone at quarterback and lose depth due to the transfer of Brandon Connette, who accounted for 14 touchdowns on the ground. The offensive line returns three starters, including Laken Tomlinson, and should open up some holes for Josh Snead, a solid runner. Ultra talented wide receiver Jamison Crowder is also in the mix.

The Blue Devils lose a lot of experience from an already shaky defensive line. The secondary was bad last year but should improve this year with most starters returning, including safety Jeremy Cash. They also return both linebackers; pre-season All-ACC Kelby Brown (now out with a torn ACL) and David Helton. Jamison Crowder will also make some noise in the return game and they have a fantastic kicker in Ross Martin. Duke will have to work harder this year to duplicate last year's success. They will easily be bowl eligible again this year, but I don't think they will make a return appearance in the ACC title game.

4. North Carolina Tar Heels
Predicted Record: 8-4 (5-3)
Returning Starters: 8 Offense 7 Defense

Head Coach: Larry Fedora (49-29)
Offensive Coordinator: Seth Littrell (Indiana OC '12-'13)
Defensive Coordinator: Vic Koenning (3rd year)/ Dan Disch (3rd year)

The favorite to win the Coastal, Larry Fedora's squad has high expectations this year. They closed last year out strong and return quarterback Marquise Williams, who is perfect for their fast paced attack. Starting running back T.J. Logan returns and highly touted recruit Elijah Hood, who will almost certainly pass Logan up, comes into the mix. North Carolina returns Quinshad Davis, but loses tight end Eric Ebron to the NFL. Wide receiver Ryan Switzer is one of the most dangerous kick returners in the ACC, netting five touchdowns this way last year. The one thing that can hold this offense back is their shaky offensive line, which needs to gel quickly to open up holes for the running game and protect Williams.

A big factor in holding them back last year was their defense, which should improve slightly under Vic Koening and co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch. This defense is aggressive but lacks proven star. Even after losing Kareem Martin they still had pretty good depth on the line. That is until Shawn Underwood and Greg Webb were ruled ineligible. The closest thing to a breakout player the Tar Heels feature is cornerback Brian Walker. The defensive issues and getting Clemson as a cross divisional opponent while playing Duke and Miami on the road probably prevent the Heels from winning the Coastal this year.

5. Pittsburgh Panthers
Predicted Record: 8-4 (5-3)
Returning Starters: 8 Offense 5 Defense
Head Coach: Paul Chryst (13-13)
Offensive Coordinator: Joe Rudolph (3rd year)
Defensive Coordinator: Matt House (3rd year)

After losing Tom Savage, the Panthers have a new starter at quarterback, dual threat Chad Voytik. He's unproven, but played well in their bowl game last year. He will be throwing to one of the ACC's best, Tyler Boyd. Boyd had over 1,000 yards as a freshman last year. A struggling offensive line returns four starters to try and open up some holes for solid running backs James Conner and Isaac Bennett.

On defense, there will be no way to replace the production of Aaron Donald, who won pretty much every defensive award that exists last year. In fact, they only return five starters on defense period. The linebackers should be solid under the leadership of Anthony Gonzales and Todd Thomas. A decent schedule sets them up to be in the discussion this year and I wouldn't be shocked to see them win the division with a few breaks as bunched up as everyone will be in the final standings.

6. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Predicted Record: 6-6 (3-5)
Returning Starters: 7 Offense 5 Defense
Head Coach: Paul Johnson (154-71)
Offensive Coordinator: Paul Johnson (7th year)
Defensive Coordinator: Ted Roof (2nd year)

The offense will most likely struggle this year with starting quarterback Vad Lee transferring. They will be breaking in new starter Justin Thomas who is talented but unproven. They will also have to replace 3 starters on an inexperienced offensive line. Offensive guard Shaquille Mason will be a bright spot here. There is no true threat at wide receiver other than DeAndre Smelter or at running back after losing David Simms and Travis Custis. This is a bad thing for a team that makes running the ball their bread and butter.

On defense, most of last year's backups will be this year's starters. They lose six starters including All-American linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu and linebacker Jabari Hunt-Days due to eligibility issues. An experienced guy like three year starter Quayshawn Nealy will have to step up in their place. Adam Gotsis returns on the defensive line after leading the team in tackles for loss last year. They also have some experience in the secondary, particularly cornerback D.J. White. If the defense doesn't improve and Justin Thomas doesn't settle into Paul Johnson's system quickly, it could be a long year for the Jackets.

7. Virginia Cavaliers
Predicted Record: 2-10 (0-8)
Returning Starters: 7 Offense 9 Defense

Head Coach: Mike London (42-36)
Offensive Coordinator: Steve Fairchild (2nd year)
Defensive Coordinator: Jon Tenuta (2nd year)

The quarterback battle will be between Greyson Lambert and David Watford, neither of which is a proven winner. Kevin Parks returns at running back. Last year's leading rusher in the ACC will be a lone bright spot in an anemic offense. To make matters worse, they will be sporting a rebuilt offensive line and an unproven wide receiving corps, which lost their only proven playmaker, tight end Jake McGee, when he transferred to Florida.

On a positive note, they return almost everyone on defense. They have some talent on the defensive line and at linebacker with defensive end Eli Harold and outside linebacker Max Valles. Safety Anthony Harris is back for his senior year after leading the nation in picks last year. He will have help from Virginia's top incoming recruit, safety Quin Blanding. With their schedule, any improvement will be noticed in the closeness of games but not their final record. It will not be enough to avoid the basement of the Coastal or to save Mike London's job.

ACC Title Game Prediction: Florida State over Virginia Tech

I honestly think Miami or UNC would give Florida State a better game. I have Virginia Tech here by default thanks to their soft conference schedule. Their defense might hold Florida State at bay for a quarter or so, but Florida State's talent and depth will break the game wide open before halftime. The Hokies don't have the horses on offense anymore to run with the Seminoles, who will put the clamp down on them with their star studded defense. Virginia Tech will have little to offer in the way of challenging the reigning champs who will steamroll the Hokies en route to another ACC title.