r years, the ACC was maligned as one of, if not the, weakest conferences in the BCS (now Power 5). They've improved in recent years as Florida State and Clemson both won BCS bowls in 2013, but there is a great deal of parity, particularly in the middle of the conference. This preview is intended to give a brief overview of Clemson's conference foes and discuss how each team shapes up for the upcoming season.
Boston College—I’ll start this by saying I’m a big fan of what Steve Addazio has done at BC. While the whole "Dude" thing he has going might seem a little corny his players have bought in. BC has been troublesome for Clemson the past two seasons and I expect it to continue in the future, however I think BC will take a step back this season. Not only do they lose Tyler Murphy at QB, but they also lose their entire offensive line and leading wide receiver. On defense they return a decent bit of their front 7 but do lose 3 players that combined for nearly 12 sacks and must replace most of their secondary. Their weakness on defense will be pass defense, which matches up very well for us with Clemson's strength . So while I do expect BC to be a tough out most years, this year is not that year.
Florida State—Due to their talented youth, the Seminoles are an unknown heading into this season. I could honestly see this team winning anywhere from 7 to 11 games. While I am glad that the division title game won’t be until November, an early season game would actually be most beneficial for Clemson. While they do lose quite a bit of talent, Florida State does bring back a bevy of talented youngsters on offense and All-World defensive back Jalen Ramsey. Their quarterback battle reminds undecided, with Sean Maguire and Everett Golson have pros and cons. When the Clemson offense faces the FSU defense it should be strength against strength with the passing game vs the secondary. Clemson, with apparent deficiencies along the offensive line, does not appear ready to take advantage of FSU's major weakness at linebacker. I expect Florida State to be consistently inconsistent, with both talent and inexperience showing.
Louisville—The Cardinals have been an awesome addition to the ACC. Not only is their athletic department one of the strongest in the nation, but they also have great fans and place a priority on football. The Thursday night road trip up to Louisville scares me to death. Louisville should have one of the nation’s best front 7. Sheldon Rankins is a monster on the line and Davonte Fields should also be a force to be reckoned with. The Cardinal’s ballhawking secondary experiences a lot of turnover but talented Georgia transfers Shaq Wiggins and Josh Harvey-Clemmons are eligible to play this season. I wouldn’t be surprised if Reggie Bonnafon is the starter at quarterback. Brandon Radcliffe, the human bowling ball, should get 1,000 yards even if their offensive line only marginally improves. Speaking of the offensive line, it appears to be a weakness for this Cardinals team. Louisville loses their best overall player, Devante Parker, from their receiving corp. They return James Quick and bring in some unproven and inexperienced talent. Will the offense improve in the second year under Petrino or will it be held back by the offensive line and inexperience at receiver?
NC State—Even though Clemson has won 10/11 against the Wolfpack, a trip up to Raleigh is never something to scoff at, especially on Halloween. Jacoby Brissett is a solid quarterback and their run game should be good but NC State has some questions at receiver and on the offensive line. The Wolfpack also lose some of teir better defensive linemen off a unit that struggled against the run, but returns a secondary that could be quite good. I think Dave Doeren is on the right track in Raleigh but I’m not very optimistic about his chances to build a regular contender in the conference’s toughest division. Clemson could, and probably will, have a tough opponent but I expect the Tigers to win.
Syracuse—The banter between the fan bases is generally more exciting than the past two games have been between 'Cuse and Clemson. Their offensive loses their top two running backs and their best wide receiver. While the offensive line should be decent it was revealed that they only used one snap count the entire season because linemen were jumping offsides. Yikes! The defense was the one bright spot about this team and they will experience a lot of turnover heading into this season, losing four of their top five linemen, 3 of their top five linebackers, and their top four defensive backs. Clemson travels to Syracuse after the Orange play at Florida State and at Louisville in back-to-back weeks. I could see the defense potentially holding 'Cuse in the game for a quarter or two but ultimately Clemson should pull away.
Wake Forest—I think Dave Clawson is a good coach but Wake is one of the hardest gigs in Power 5 conferences. Their offense was dreadful last year, especially with regards to the run game, and I don't know how much it will improve this year. Their front 7 could be solid, with almost their entire two-deep returning. However, they lost their two best players, corners Merrill Noel and Kevin Johnson, to the NFL. The defense will still be a top-50 type unit overall but they'll probably give away more big pass plays, which will be problematic against the Clemson offense. I think this well be Clemson's easiest conference opponent and good game to have the week before Thanksgiving.
Duke—While David Cutcliffe has done at great job at Duke the Blue Devils might suffer a step back this season. Duke loses Anthony Boone, Jamison Crowder, and 1st round draft pick Left Tackle Laken Tomlinson. On defense they lose five of their top eight linemen and both starting linebackers. Pretty much their entire secondary returns however. Duke could have a say in the division race but I think this team will have to fight to reach six or seven wins this season. But, with a program history like Duke has being bowl eligible almost every year is a good thing.
Georgia Tech—Tech is an interesting team heading into the 2015 season. The Jackets were a very good team (8th in F/+ last year) and they return most of their offensive line and one of the conference’s best players, quarterback Justin Thomas. On the other hand they lose the giants they had at receiver, pretty much all of their top A-Backs and B-Backs, as well as their best offensive linemen, Shaq Mason. While I do think that the backs will be easy to replace, the receivers won’t be. And how will the line do now that Mason is gone? The Yellow Jackets return eight starters on defense from last year and Jabari Hunt-Days returns to the field this season as well. The defense has speed at the expense of size but they struggled to get pressure on the quarterback last year and its a testament to their secondary that they didn't give up any more big pass plays than they did. Depending on how the losses affect them, Georgia Tech could win anywhere from 8 to 11 games. Their schedule is a bit challenging but they're more than likely going to be one of the surest bets to win the division.
Miami—I’m not as high on Brad Kaaya as some other people are for this season, mainly because THA U loses Duke Johnson, Clive Walford, and Philip Dorsett. I also think the offensive line will be mediocre at best this season due to the departure of 3 starters from a line that struggled last year. On defense they lose Anthony chickillo and Denzel Perryman from the front seven, but return Deon Bush as the leader of what could be a nasty secondary. Clemson travels to Miami the week after the Canes finish the rough two week stretch of Florida State and Virignia Tech. Judging by past years, if the 'Canes lose to the Seminoles the bottom might fall out. This is a make or break year for Al Golden and I don’t expect him to hold onto his job.
North Carolina—Seemingly every year for the past five or six years people talk about North Carolina being the best team in the Coastal and a contender for the ACC title and every single year the Tar Heels disappoint. The one year they won the division was the year. They return almost every player of consequence on offense this season so knowing the Coastal and knowing the Tar Heels they'll probably end up with 6 or 7 wins. The UNC defense last year was definitely a case of the whole sum being worse than the individual parts. They have some decent players but they just gave up way too many big pass plays. They're replacing almost their entire coaching staff and bringing in Gene Chizik as their new defensive coordinator. Once upon a time Chizik was one of the most sought after defensive assistants. So will he be able to improve this defense just enough? Honestly this Tar Heels squad go win anywhere from 4 to 10 games. I want to think this could be a good team but the way they ended last season with losses to NC State (35-7) and Rutgers (40-21) and locker room infighting gives me doubt. The opener against South Carolina will tell us a lot about this team.
Pitt—The Panthers bring back two of the best offensive players in the conference, WR Tyler Boyd and RB James Connor. Returning QB Chad Voytik improved a decent bit down the stretch last season as well. They lose two All-ACC linemen but return four guys with double digit starts. Defense is the calling card for new head coach Pat Narduzzi (former Michigan State defensive coordinator) and he has a deep secondary to work with. This team has a good bit of potential and if all the pieces are able to come together they could challenge as a dark horse for the ACC Coastal title. It mainly comes down to Voytik's progression and the ability of the defense to adapt to Narduzzi's defense.
Virginia—The crazy thing about Virginia is that even though they missed a bowl, the Cavaliers improved a decent bit from 2013 to 2014 (82nd to 39th in F/+ rankings.) UVA has recruited well so they have talent, particularly guys like FS Quin Blanding and RB Taquan Mizzell, however, they lose QB Grayson Lambert to transfer (UGA) and have to rebuild their linebacker corp. The Cavaliers also have a difficult schedule, including a road trip to UCLA (seriously why did you do this Cavs?) so even if the Cavs improve they could potentially miss out on another bowl game.
Virginia Tech—The Hokies had the most #goacc two week span this past season, upsetting Ohio State on the road before losing at home to East Carolina the next week. Once again, Virginia Tech should have a scary defense. Their front 7, especially the defensive line, should be one of the best in the country. Luther Maddy returns from injury and Dadi Nicholas developed into a monster this past season. They also have Kendall Fuller back at corner so every level of this defense should be outstanding, which should be expected from a Bud Foster defense. On offense they return Michael Brewer at quarterback and some good pieces at the skill positions. However, Scott Loeffler is still their offensive coordinator and their offensive line will most likely be mediocre. If the offense improves enough after an injury riddled season then Virginia Tech could win the division and nine or ten games. They have a shot at upsetting Ohio State at home to begin the season, but I'm a bit doubtful about that.
The ACC appears to be a wide open conference this year. There is tremendous parity in the middle, with plenty of teams having the potential to impact division title races. With another decent showing in the out of conference slate and bowl season, the ACC could be well on its way to respectability. However, that could take a hit if the ACC doesn't place a team in the playoff, a real possibility this season. Hopefully the ACC does get a team into the playoff, and that team is Clemson.
Also, if you want a place to read up some more on the ACC competition this season I highly recommend Bill Connelly's ACC Preview.