Florida State vs. Alabama in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium
Count your blessings Clemson fans. The Tigers start the season with a noon kick off so you can make it to Clemson, celebrate the glorious National Championship and a nice win over Kent State and get back for one of the most interesting Chick-fil-A Kickoff games in a while.
Florida State is the early favorite to win the ACC - though winning in Clemson may prove daunting if the Tigers find a QB. Alabama is the early favorite to win the National Championship and like the UNC basketball team, will have vengeance on their mind as they look to top the Tar Heels in becoming the least likable redemption story in sports.
While the loser of this game will still have a puncher’s chance to make the playoff, the ripple affect of this game is huge. Would an 11-1 Clemson non-champion make the playoff if their loss came to a #1 ranked FSU? How would back-to-back Alabama losses to ACC opponents impact league perception of the SEC?
On top of all that, it’s opening week. You’ll be salivating for quality football, and it is the first meaningful game in what could turn out to be one of the best football venues in America.
How Will Lamar Jackson’s Heisman Encore Go?
Both Florida State and Alabama return their QB, but there’s a more interesting QB returning this season - Lamar Jackson. Jackson could be seen jumping over the Syracuse defense a season ago. He seemed to wrap up the Heisman after a week four demolition of Florida State. That was the peak though.
Louisville’s offensive line was poor and teams began taking advantage as the year progressed. A tough loss in Clemson was respectable, and was followed with five wins against some of the weaker teams in the ACC, but the season ended with three straight losses. They lost at Houston, at home to Kentucky, and then in their bowl game against LSU. Jackson had four turnovers in their Governor’s Cup loss to Rival Kentucky including an ugly fumble in the red zone with just 1:50 to play and a chance to take the lead.
Jackson had a great year to be sure. He set the Louisville single-season rushing yardage record and the single-season TD record for the ACC, but with with the way it ended, it’ll be fascinating to see if he develops and becomes even better than last season or stagnates and is the QB we saw over the final month of the season.
Where Did All the ACC Coastal QBs Go?
The ACC took a huge leap forward last year. The Tigers gave the ACC their second National Champion in four seasons and excellent QB play across the league helped provide the depth previously seen only in the SEC.
GT bounced back from a terrible 2015 as QB Justin Thomas led an option-attack that earned wins over VT and UGA down the stretch. With Tennessee transfer QB Nathan Peterman, the Pitt Panthers boasted one of the best offenses in the country picking up wins over Penn State and Clemson in 2016.
Under new coach Justin Fuente, VT looked revitalized, but it was largely thanks to the JUCO transfer QB he brought in - Jerod Evans.
Brad Kaaya was a mostly successful three-year starter who took a step forward as a junior throwing 27 TD to 7 INTs. Mitchell Trubisky took over following the matriculation of Marquise Williams and continued the good QB play in Chapel Hill.
Thomas and Peterman have exhausted their eligibility and while their respective schools seem to have solid replacements lined-up, uncertainty at QB is sub-optimal. Jerod Evans left early for the NFL, a decision many questioned. He went undrafted and the Hokies offense will likely take a step back without the unique, physical running threat he brought (not to mention TE Bucky Hodges and WR Isaiah Ford departing).
Brad Kaaya’s early departure was also a little vexing. He was taken by the Detroit Lions in the 6th round, and Miami may have a hard time replacing him and WR Stacey Coley.
Mitchell Trubisky, though, may be the toughest to replace. He was selected #2 overall after the Bears traded up a pick to get him.
With the top five teams in the Coastal Division all breaking in new QBs (sorry Duke and Virginia), the Coastal Division will be even more unpredictable than usual!
Conference on the rise is likely to take temporary step back
New coaches and great QBs elevated the level of play and depth in the ACC last season. In fact, it’s easy to argue that the best QB-play in the nation (Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, and all the Coastal QBs we just discussed) was in the ACC.
Now, with so much talent departing, the ACC may take a step back. That doesn’t mean the ACC doesn’t still have a bright future. The conference is on an upward trajectory and it was no accident that it was the strongest conference in America last season. There will likely be more parity across then conferences than we’ve seen over the past decade of SEC dominance. However, when the “middle-class” of the ACC is GT, UNC, and Pittsburgh, it’s unreasonable to expect the conference to be better than the SEC in most years (You could argue their middle-class includes Tennessee, Georgia, and Texas A&M).
With so much great QB talent departing, expect the ACC to drop back a bit this year, but don’t worry. Long-term parity is the goal and that’s what appears to have been achieved with the outstanding coaching hires (does the ACC have the best coaches in America?) and the replacement of Maryland with Louisville.
Defending National Champions to Replace Greatest QB in School History
When a veteran star like Alex Rodriguez, Michael Jordan, or Wayne Gretzky retires, it’s generally about looking back at their career. There often isn’t a major void left in their wake because they generally don’t go out at their peak. College football is so much more interesting because the holes that must be filled are much bigger than what is typical in professional sports. It’s almost by rule in college football that it’s the best players who depart each year, creating situations where up-and-coming players often have big shoes to fill. This will be the case for the next QB at Clemson.
Clemson will replace the greatest QB, and likely the greatest player to ever don the paw, as Deshaun Watson leaves after being selected in the first round by the Houston Texans. Clemson has a slew of talent ready to replace them, but it’s all completely unproven.
Kelly Bryant has the early edge among the three QBs competing for the job. The junior has proven his ability to pick up yards on the ground, but has yet to show any serious passing threat in mop-up duty as a back-up or in the Spring Game (where he broke his finger).
Zerrick Cooper is a redshirt freshman from Jonesboro, GA. The only a glimpse of him we’ve seen was in the Spring Game. It was hard to tell much due to issues with his offensive line, but he didn’t make any spectacular plays to catch your attention. Likewise, true freshman QB Hunter Johnson, was on his Spring Game team and was constantly hurried behind the tattered offensive line. He made one deep TD pass into a small window that got the crowd excited, but overall had an up-and-down day showing some happy feet at times and failing to get through all of his progressions (again, he’s not totally to blame due to a porous O-line).
The most interesting QB battle in the country is undoubtedly in Clemson, SC where the defending National Champions look to replace their greatest offensive player ever.
While the glory of Clemson’s National Title has delayed the usual anxiousness for a new football season, that anxiousness is now returning. We still almost two months before the Tigers unveil their new Death Valley Championship signage during the season opener against Kent State. Until then, we’ll continue to bring you these conference story line articles! If you missed the last one, the Big 12 has some intrigue to offer.