It’s a new world. We don’t look up at Florida State, Virginia Tech, or Boston College (remember that?) at the top of ACC projections and hope we can find a way to break through. Clemson is now the hunted. Despite being picked to finish behind Florida State in 2015 and 2016, Clemson won the ACC both years and went 1-1 in National Championship games. They were finally favored last season and delivered. Now they’re just about everyone’s pick and they’ll have a target on their back. Opposing players say beating Clemson is like beating Cancer!
The ACC Champion has come from the Atlantic Division for each of the last seven years, so we’ll start there.
There’s strong consensus between our writers, our readers, and the ACC media. Clemson, FSU, NC State, and Boston College are projected to finish 1 through 4 by all parties. There’s some disagreement on Wake Forest and Louisville and then Syracuse is securely in last place. The strongest consensus was on the ACC Championship though. All of our writers and 185/186 reader respondents picked Clemson to win the ACC Championship (a salty FSU fan picked the Noles).
Clemson: Clemson has some freaky things going in their favor this season. They returned all four of their NFL-bound defensive linemen. All of them named to the preseason all-Atlantic Coast Conference team.
“They have a really good defensive line. I mean, they’re arguably the best defensive line to come through college football together,” - TaQuon Marshall
It’s also worth mentioning that Albert Huggins provides a potentially NFL-level reserve at DT while the depth at DE is other-worldly. The defense only lost two starters, though one was excellent SAM linebacker Dorian O’Daniel, and though they lost some depth via transfer.
The offense may not be dominant, but it’s potentially more interesting. There’s the much talked about QB battle between senior Kelly Bryant and five-star freshman Trevor Lawrence. We’ve only seen Lawrence in the Spring Game and now in a scrimmage, but his performance in the closed practices was evidently good enough to convince three other QBs to transfer away. Travis Etienne may be the most explosive running back in the nation, but will he develop his pass blocking enough to become an elite running back?
Last year, Clemson TEs produced the least receiving production they’ve had in years. Milan Richard is now a senior while Garrett Williams, who was expected to start last season before a knee injury returns. It’s a low-key position battle that will make an impact.
Then you have wide receiver, where fellow STS writer Alex Craft and I think the Tigers could take a step forward despite losing two players to the NFL draft. Tee Higgins is one of the breakout players everyone is talking about in the ACC. Several quality prospects that have paid their dues and developed in the system are also ready to make major contributions: Diondre Overton, Cornell Powell, and Trevion Thompson. Don’t forget about Hunter Renfrow in the flow. Several others will provide incredible depth.
Despite all that positive, they also have some freaky things that are not in their favor. Thanks to consecutive small recruiting classes and a rash of transfers they’ll be playing with fewer than 80 scholarship recruits. Several of those who transferred away were unlikely to contribute anyway, but the low scholarship number does limit depth. That’s really only a problem in the secondary thanks to Van Smith’s premature departure to the NFL. With him gone and Isaiah Simmons moving to SAM, there are only two proven safeties on the depth chart. At cornerback, there are only three proven options, but some highly-rated freshmen reinforcements coming. If they fail to win the division, it’ll likely be because of injuries in the defensive backfield.
Florida State: When Syracuse replaced the foul-mouthed Scott Shafer with Coach Dino Babers, it was a little weird. I was already used to loathing them, but they just weren’t that odious anymore. Now FSU, our hated rival, has replaced the coach we’ve come to associate with enabling Jameis Winston and nasty dirty football is gone.
Willile Taggart is a very good offensive coach and (welp) likable. He grew up a FSU fan and came home where his mom can watch him coach the team he grew up loving. Hard to hate that. This is still Florida State though, Clemson’s biggest threat in the Atlantic. How big is the threat?
Their offense struggled last year and it wasn’t just because injury forced them to start a true freshman QB. Their offensive line allowed a stuff rate of 23.5%, ranking 121st in the nation. That’s getting stonewalled behind the line of scrimmage before their talented RB corps has a chance to make a play. They also ranked 108th in adjusted sack rate.
They’ll have more experience at QB, their OL can only improve, and they’ll use tempo in Taggarts “Gulf Coast Offense.” This should lead to improvement from their 76th ranked (S&P+) offense.
Their defense, which ranked 33rd (S&P+) only returns three starters. Derwin James (first team all-ACC), Tavarus McFadden (second team all-ACC), and Derrick Nnadi (third team all-ACC) have all departed. They’re unlikely to improve here and may take a step back. If their defense avoids regression and their offense improves under Taggart, they could be dangerous. They certainly have the raw talent.
NC State: NC State had seven players taken in the first five rounds of the NFL draft (plus six UDFAs)! It’s an impressive player development story considering their past four recruiting classes have ranked between 34th and 53rd (2015: 35, 2016: 43, 2017: 53, 2018: 34).
Replacing all that production will be tough, especially given their unspectacular recruiting. That’s why these results from a fan poll conducted by a professional marketing researcher out of New Orleans are so vexing. His poll is different from our projections in that it asks what the “strongest” and “weakest” teams are, regardless of schedule. Here were the results:
Fan perception in this poll (not projections from our enlightened readership) puts NC State in a tier above Georgia Tech and Boston College - a fools errand!
I’ve selected NC State to finish above Boston College in the standings for one simple reason, unbalanced scheduling. Boston College faces Miami and Virginia Tech from the Coastal. NC State gets Virginia and North Carolina. BC also plays in Raleigh, but even if they win there, a potential two-game swing against cross-division opponents erases that. The ACC should consider removing permanent cross-rivals that aren’t actually rivals (i.e., keep NC State vs. UNC, but drop BC vs. VT), but I digress.
They lost their star player, the hand towel loving defensive end, Bradley Chubb. Fortunately for them, Ryan Finley and Kelvin Harmon form the best QB/WR duo in the conference. They also return three senior starters on the offensive line. Their offense will carry them.
Boston College: The Eagles leading passer (AJ Brown), receiver (Kobay White), and rusher (AJ Dillon) were all freshmen last year. Around the mid-point of the season it started the click and they finished 5-2 down the stretch. That lends to a lot of pragmatic optimism for 2018 (and beyond). AJ Dillon was just voted pre-season ACC Player of the Year. The entire starting offensive line, already a strength, returns. The offense should be their best since Matt Ryan - if their lack of depth isn’t exposed by injuries.
The defense loses Harold Landry, but should remain strong under defensive-minded Coach Steve Addazio. Senior DE Zach Allen may be the star. Again, they’re thin, but if they remain healthy, they should be solid.
The biggest road block is their schedule. In addition to facing Clemson and Florida State, they get stuck with Virginia Tech and Miami from the Coastal Division. If they were to face an easier Coastal schedule - let’s say Virginia and UNC - this could be a year where they make a run at 10-wins. I’d have them projected 2nd or 3rd in the division. That’s not the case though.
Wake Forest: For years it had been all about Wake Forest’s solid defense trying to cover up an atrocious offense. Last year, the script flipped. They finished #2 in the ACC in scoring offense. Senior QB John Wolford was a huge part of that, and he’s gone, but redshirt freshman WR Greg Dortch was also critical and he’s back. Dortch had 9 TDs in 8 games and the offense will continue to lean on him in the passing game.
New QB Kendall Hinton is known for his running ability. With him behind the helm and all five OL starters returning their rushing attack should improve. Unfortunately, he is suspended for the first three games - which includes a home game against BC. He’ll have to hit the ground running in week 4 against Notre Dame. The Deacs should be solid, and have a cushy draw from the Coastal (Pitt and Duke), but play BC without their QB and NC State on the road. They’re part of a strong ACC middle class.
Louisville: Lamar Jackson is gone, so their offense will inevitably drop from their #5 national ranking (S&P+) last season. New QB Jawon Pass is highly-touted and he is supported by one of the better WR corps in the conference. The offense should still be strong, but the defense may not improve. They’ve replaced DC Peter Sirmon with Brian VanGorder, but he isn’t known for leading major defensive turnarounds. They only return two starters on defense and their best defensive player, CB Jaire Alexander, was a first round draft pick (Packers). This will be a rebuilding year, but they’ll also be part of a very strong ACC middle class.
Syracuse: The Orange have one of the better QBs in the conference in Eric Dungey, but he has to stay healthy. Their running game has been mediocre when they hand the ball off, putting even more pressure on the QB. They add a RT via transfer from Texas A&M and will have six seniors starting on offense. If healthy, they are dangerous when they’re clicking. They have upside and get Pittsburgh and UNC from the Coastal, so a bowl game is quite possible. Being picked last is a testament to the ACC’s depth.
Miami: It’s tricky to figure out just how good Miami was last season. They skated by with close wins (<9 points) in four of their first five P5 games, then blew the doors open against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame to reach 9-0. Then they were up and down against Virginia before losing to Pittsburgh, Clemson, and Wisconsin to end the year. The bad finish was largely due to injuries though. Their best deep threat, WR Ahmmon Richards, their star TE Chris Herndon, and the excellent RB Mark Walton were all out at points during their late season swoon.
They bring back six starters on offense including senior QB Malik Rosier. He has the play makers around him (if they can stay healthy) to be very productive. He struggled without them late last season. They’ll need better QB play to be any sort of significant threat to Clemson at the top of the ACC. Their defense loses a lot from the line, after ranking just 6th in the ACC in rushing yards allowed per game. Fortunately, they return one of the best linebacking corps in the conference, and Jaquon Johnson at safety (4 INTs).
They should be considered heavy favorites to win the Coastal, but may not have the firepower at DL or the production at QB to be on par with Clemson quite yet. 10 or 11 regular season wins, and a closer game in Charlotte seem reasonable.
Virginia Tech: The Hokies managed to win nine games despite starting a redshirt freshman QB with a impotent run game that averaged just 3.9 YPC. They may have a tougher task this year as they lose their all-time leading receiver, Cam Phillips, and most of the production from a defense that ranked only behind Clemson in the ACC.
The Hokies were great at causing havoc, but were also prone to allowing big plays. Improvement will be tough to find as they only return one starter from their back seven. LB Mook Reynolds would have been key (he had 70 tackles last year), but he was dismissed. Senior CBs Greg Stroman (first team all-ACC) and Brandon Facyson are gone. Two CBs expected to fill that void were Adonis Alexander and Jeremy Webb, but the former has academic issues and the latter tore his achilles. The Edmunds brothers (at LB and S) are gone too. Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster may have his toughest project in years.
The Hokies upside is likely limited, and I don’t see them as a major threat to Miami if the Canes play to anything near their potential. They get Georgia Tech in Blacksburg and should still manage about eight wins, which puts their most probable projection here at #2 in the Coastal - solid for a rebuilding year.
Georgia Tech: Last season, the Yellow Jackets had to replace QB Justin Thomas with a converted RB in TaQuon Marshall and find a replacement for B-Back Dedrick Mills who was dismissed shortly before the start of the season. Near misses against Tennessee (41-42 OT) and Miami (24-25), ruined what could have been a 6-0 start. Their second half started with a loss to Clemson. They finished 1-4 with their only win in their final five games coming (oddly) against Virginia Tech. Their matchup with UCF was cancelled (due to a hurricane) and they finished 5-6 and missed a bowl.
Now they return a boat load of talent. It could be enough to get students to look up from their statics and dynamics book and head to Bobby Dodd. Nine starters return on offense. QB TaQuon Marshall will be a senior. If he can improve as a passer, the offense could be dangerous. it’s a veteran group with all juniors and seniors in the starting lineup.
The “bend but don’t break” defensive coordinator Ted Roof is out. App State DC Nate Woody is in. If the defensive can improve, they could be pretty strong. After nearly beating Miami on the road, they get them at home this year. While they’ll likely finish around seven wins, they may be the most threatening due to the high upside of their veteran offense.
Pittsburgh: Having Pittsburgh this high (I have them above Duke, while readers, writers, and media have them below) is simply a matter of two things: favorable scheduling and Kenny Pickett. While Duke plays Clemson and NC State, Pittsburgh gets Wake Forest and Syracuse. They also get Duke at home. They could actually be solid if Pickett picks up where he left off. He took over in their second to last game at Blacksburg and played well enough to nearly steal a win. The audition was enough that he earned the start in their season finale, a game against Miami in which they upset the then #2 Hurricanes. The other QBs transferred, so Pickett is the clear starter. The defense returns seven starters and should improve under new DC Randy Bates, who comes over after coaching LBs at Northwestern.
Duke: The Blue Devils return seven starters on both sides of the ball. Junior QB Daniel Jones returns after a down year in which his TDs went down, his INTs went up, and his completion percentage dropped by six percentage points. He’ll have WR TJ Rahming and RB Brittain Brown to help move the offense. If the O-line holds ups and Jones bounces back, they should be good, but those are far from givens.
The defense, with Joe Giles-Harris (a 2017 first team all-ACC selection) should be a strength. The schedule presents challenges as they play at Clemson and host NC State. They’re upwardly mobile
Virginia: The Cavaliers improved from two wins to six wins last year. Included in those wins were victories at Boise State and against Duke early on. They collapsed down the stretch though going 1-6 including a 7-49 blowout loss to Navy in their bowl game. They’ll have a Arizona State (via JUCO) QB coming in to takeover for Kurt Benkert. Bronco Mendenhall is a good coach and will get all he can out of the roster. They get UNC at home, but draw Louisville/NCSU instead of Syracuse/NCSU from the Atlantic.
North Carolina: During the years with Marquise Williams and Mitchell Trubisky at QB, Coach Fedora led offense-first teams that scored enough to make them worthwhile. Last year was the first time they didn’t have solid QB play and the pass-oriented offense collapsed. They were 13th in rushing yards per game, 9th in passing yards per game, and 11th in scoring offense. Anthony Ratliff-Williams has proven to be a playmaker at WR and in the return game and will be a key cog for an offense that needs to improve. QB Chazz Surratt and 12 others were suspended for selling team-issued gear. With Surratt suspended for the first four games, Nathan Elliott has a shot to grab the starting role and hold onto it for the duration of the season. These suspensions cement UNC as ACC #14 (apologies to those who submitted more favorable projections before the announcement).