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2019 ACC Football Preview

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In a previous post, I broke down Clemson’s regular season schedule month by month and discussed what type of challenge each opponent could present the Tigers. In this article we’ll take a broader look at the ACC, predict where each team will finish, and give some analysis behind the picks.

Atlantic Division

1. Clemson Tigers

Athlon Pre-Season National Rank: #2

Cross-Divisional Opponents: GT, at UNC

2018 Record: 15-0 (8-0)

The Tigers return a ton of key pieces on offense including QB Trevor Lawrence, RB Travis Etienne, WRs Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, and three offensive linemen. It could be the best offense in Clemson history.

The defense will be interesting as the strength will flip from the front four to the back four. Clemson loses all four starters off a historic defensive line, as well as key backup DT Albert Huggins. Potentially compensating for those losses is the boost the secondary will get. Last year, they were viewed as the weak link on the #1 scoring defense, especially after allowing 510 yards passing to U of SC’s Jake Bentley. In 2019 they return both starting safeties as well as cornerback AJ Terrell who had the pick-six in the National Championship game. Additionally, they add five-star CB recruit Andrew Booth and are moving former 5-star and #1 recruit in the state of South Carolina – Derion Kendrick – from WR to CB. The secondary should be excellent.

Aside from a tough early road trip to Syracuse, the ACC schedule is very favorable. They play the two weakest teams in the Coastal Division.

2. Syracuse Orange

Athlon Pre-Season National Rank: #21

Cross-Divisional Opponents: Pittsburgh, at Duke

2018 Record: 10-3 (6-2)

Their leading passer and rusher departs, as QB Eric Dungey moves on. They’ll have to re-orient the offense around the more traditional pocket passer taking over – Tommy DeVito. Despite the big loss at QB, folks in Syracuse are rightfully excited about what DeVito brings to the table. During their game against FSU, Eric Dungey left with an injury, and Tommy DeVito guided them to a 30-7 win with 24 of those points coming in the second half. A few games later, Syracuse blew a big lead to UNC and Syracurse turned to DeVito to turn the tide. He threw 3 TDs in a double-OT victory.

On defense, Syracuse brings back their entire secondary with includes Safety Andre Cisco who led the nation in interceptions a year ago. Seven defensive starters return overall.

They avoid the top three teams in the Coastal division and replace Notre Dame with Maryland on the schedule. They replace three offensive linemen and their QB, which will be tough, but if they can do it without having a significant drop off from the wild 40.2 ppg they scored on offense a season ago they could win 10 games again.

3. Florida State Seminoles

Athlon Pre-Season National Rank: #33

Cross-Divisional Opponents: Miami, at Virginia

2018 Record: 5-7 (3-5)

The Seminoles only dipped from 7-6 to 5-7, but they were far from competitive last season. Only one of their seven losses was within 18 points or fewer. It was a disaster, but there is a lot of reasons to be optimistic for a major bounce back. The O-line, which was awful, should be healthier and in turn much better. The QB position should improve too. Deondre Francois has left and will play at the FCS level. James Blackman redshirted last year, but now will compete with Wisconsin-transfer Alex Hornibrook for the QB job. Whoever wins could represent and upgrade.

“(Blackman) has been starting (since) the spring, and he has the understanding that he will go in with the ones, but those guys are going to compete and get the reps and the best man is going to win the job.” - Coach Taggart

They’ll have good weapons on offense too as former five-star RB Cam Akers is a great bounce back candidate, and WR Tamorrion Terry is primed for a breakout sophomore season after hauling in 744 receiving yards as a freshman. They’ll play in Kendall Briles up-tempo offense that was successful at Baylor and FAU. We saw the big step backwards FAU took when he left before last season. I think we’ll begin to see his positive impact at FSU this season.

On defense they will have to replace DE Brian Burns, but bring back 8 starters. If the offense can stay on the field and give them a chance to catch their breath they should be respectable.

4. NC State Wolfpack

Athlon Pre-Season National Rank: #38

Cross-Divisional Opponents: North Carolina, at Georgia Tech

2018 Record: 9-4 (5-3)

NC State managed nine wins for the second year in a row, and for the second time I’m still not sure if they were actually good. They had three wins against FBS teams with winning records: Marshall (9-4), Virginia (8-5), and Boston College (7-5). After cancelling their matchup with West Virginia, their non-conference schedule included James Madison, Georgia State, at Marshall, and East Carolina (which replaced West Virginia).

NC State will benefit from a soft Coastal division draw of Georgia Tech and UNC (same as Clemson’s), but they will still have trouble duplicating their win total from the past two years. Florida State should improve, and they go to Tallahassee, but more importantly they lose some huge pieces on offense: QB Ryan Finley, WR Kelvin Harmon, WR Jacobi Meyers, and RB Reggie Gallaspy. That’s a 3,900 yard passer, two 1,000 yard receivers, and a 1,000 yard rusher. Their All-American center, Garrett Bradbury, was drafted #18 overall and their offensive coordinator left to take the head coaching job at App State. They were the #1 passing offense and #3 scoring offense in the ACC. Now they only return three starters.

We’ll see if Dave Doeren has built a resilient program that quickly reloads or not. The offense is likely going to take a big step back and a defense that returns eight starters will carry the team. In fact, the defense should be enough to get them to about .500 in ACC play, but I expect at least one of Florida State and Wake Forest (they play each of them on the road) to leapfrog them this year.

5. Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Athlon Pre-Season National Rank: #60

Cross-Divisional Opponents: Duke, at Virginia Tech

2018 Record: 7-6 (3-5)

Wake Forest, in part because of their tempo and in part because of good QB-play, finished 4th in the ACC in yardage per game (449.8 yards/game). Unfortunately, they also finished 13th in yardage per game allowed (458.6 yards/game). The offense returns five starters. QB Sam Hartman began the year as the starter, but Jamie Newman took over when Hartman broke his leg and added a running element. Regardless of who starts, the Deacons will be strong at QB (see my ACC QB article here). They will have to replace three starters on the offensive line as well as their star player, WR Greg Dortch. That’ll bring challenges, but the offense should be strong under the tutelage of underrated offensive-mind Dave Clawson.

The Deacons were mediocre on defense in 2018 and only return four starters. They ranked 13th in the ACC in passing yards allowed per game and the S&P+ ranked them 61st in pass defense. The secondary should be solid, but they lose most of their defensive line that already struggled to get to the QB. They had just 25 sacks last season, good for 76th (for reference, Clemson led the country with 54). In addition to a porous defense, they go to Blacksburg, making their rotating Coastal draw one of the tougher ones.

6. Boston College

Athlon Pre-Season National Rank: #61

Cross-Divisional Opponents: Virginia Tech, at Pittsburgh

2018 Record: 7-5 (4-4)

Skip this one. They’re going to win seven games. You know. I know it. Must we discuss?

Ok, you didn’t skip, but I’ll keep it short. They return a lot of key playmakers on offense, namely QB Anthony Brown, WR Kobay White, and RB AJ Dillon. They turn over nearly their whole defense though. Only three starters return. For all the strides they may make on offense, expect them to give it back on defense and remain at approximately the same level, just with a different feel.

7. Louisville

Athlon Pre-Season National Rank: #81

Cross-Divisional Opponents: Virginia, at Miami

2018 Record: 2-10 (0-8)

Everything fell apart last year for the Cardinals. The offense cratered without QB Lamar Jackson, dropping to last place in points per game and yards per game in the ACC. QB Jawon Pass received a ton of hype coming into the season, but finished with under 2,000 passing yards and a 8-12 TD INT ratio. The Cardinals struggled to produce in the running game without Lamar Jackson and are still searching for their first strong season from a running back since Brandon Radcliff in 2016. Fortunately, their two leading rushers QB Malik Cunningham and RB Hassan Hall return. They’ll likely find ways to get Cunningham the ball even though he isn’t the starting QB. Hall is only a rising sophomore and could build upon a 303 yard campaign as a freshman.

Since losing defensive coordinator Todd Grantham following the 2016 season, the defense has been on a dramatic decline. In their first post-Grantham season, they took an immediate step back and predictably decided to move on from his replacement DC Peter Sirmon by the year’s end. They hired Brian VanGorder for the 2019 season and it went even worse. The Cardinals finished last in the ACC in scoring defense and yards per game allowed.

Head Coach Scott Satterfield comes over from Appalachian State (along with several members of his old staff) on what they surely expect to be a multi-year rebuild. They had their Spring Practice at the tail end of Winter to give themselves some extra time to figure out what they’ve got. The offense has tons of holes, but the defense returns nine starters. Last year, a lack of defensive effort was apparent in the Clemson game. With so many guys returning and a renewed spirit from the new coaching staff, they should improve, at least on defense. The Atlantic is pretty deep though so last place in the division is probable, especially with a challenging draw from the Coastal (Virginia, at Miami).

Coastal Division

1. Virginia Cavaliers

Athlon Pre-Season National Rank: #25

Cross-Divisional Opponents: FSU, at Louisville

2018 Record: 8-5 (4-4)

The Coastal Division has produced six different winners in the past six seasons. Virginia would make it seven in seven years. The offense has to replace their best WR in Olamide Zaccheaus and RB Jordan Ellis, but they bring back QB Bryce Perkins and two senior WRs who were 2nd and 3rd on the team in receiving yardage. Perkins ran for 923 yards and 9 TDs while throwing for 2,680 and 25 TDs with a 64% completion percentage last season. 2019 is only Perkins second year at UVA despite being a redshirt senior. He was at Arizona State for two years and then JUCO before coming becoming a Cavalier last year. He could take a step forward and bring the offensive with him.

The defense, which was already good, returns seven starters. Their pass defense was second in the ACC last season (189 yards per game) and returns CB Bryce Hall, who led the nation in pass breakups. Coming off a 28-0 shutout of U of SC, there are high-expectations for the defense coming into 2019.

UVA has never won the Coastal division, but they may not have an opportunity this good for a while. Miami has several unknowns with a new Head Coach and a redshirt freshman starting at QB. Virginia Tech should have big improvements on defense, but was only 6-7 last season and travels to Charlottesville this year. UVA has lost 19/20 to VT. If they want to win their first division, they likely have to end their 15-year losing streak to their rivals. Games at Miami and at Pittsburgh will also be key to a division championship run.

NCAA Football: Belk Bowl-South Carolina vs Virginia Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

2. Virginia Tech Hokies

Athlon Pre-Season National Rank: #26

Cross-Divisional Opponents: Wake Forest, at Boston College

2018 Record: 6-7 (4-4)

Virginia Tech is coming off a down season in which they finished below .500. This was largely due to a defense that finished ranked 77th in the S&P+ advanced stat rankings. It is widely considered DC Bud Foster’s worst defense at VT. Bud Foster announced that 2019 will be his final year as defensive coordinator and he’ll have a chance to go out with a vastly improved unit as all 11 starters return.

The ACC Media picked Miami to finished second in the Coastal above Virginia Tech. One of the main reasons I’ve put VT in this slot instead is because of QB Ryan Willis. Last season, Josh Jackson was expected to be the starting QB. When he went down with an injury, Ryan Willis filled in admirably throwing for 2,716 yards with 24 TDs and 9 INTs (despite limited playing time in the first two games). Willis is a senior and former transfer from Kansas. He brings a stability that neither N’Kosi Perry nor Tate Martell has shown they can provide at Miami. Missing out on Tavien Feaster, the former Clemson RB transfer, was a big blow for the Hokies, who have struggled to find a solid ground game. That may keep them from winning the division, but a favorable Atlantic cross-schedule gives them the edge over Miami despite playing the Hurricanes on the road.

3. Miami Hurricanes

Athlon Pre-Season National Rank: #28

Cross-Divisional Opponents: Louisville, at FSU

2018 Record: 7-6 (4-4)

Miami entered last season after their first ACC Coastal title. Things under Mark Richt seemed to be moving in the right direction, even if the Hurricanes had lost both postseason games the year prior. 2018 was a major step back as the Canes went 7-5 and headed to the Pinstripe Bowl to play Wisconsin, who they had played in the Orange Bowl the year prior. They lost.

Their biggest problem was at QB where Malik Rosier struggled and lost the job. N’Kosi Perry took over, but wasn’t much better. Not only that, but he created offseason trouble for himself when he posted pornographic material to Snapchat.

Things look much different in 2019. Mark Richt announced his surprise retirement and Manny Diaz, their defensive coordinator who was just announced as the Temple head coach, came back to lead the program.

Optimism for the offense, which ranked 13th in the ACC in yard per game last season, should be tempered though. Reports since QB Tate Martell’s arrival insinuated he wasn’t a clear upgrade over N’Kosi Perry, and folks were high on Perry’s progression, his on field struggles and off field immaturity left me skepticism. In a surprise move on August 12th, Miami announced that redshirt freshman Jarren Williams would be “QB1.”

The offense only returns four starters so major improvement at QB is all the more critical. This announcement makes me much more optimistic about the Hurricanes’ offense - adding a new upside along with the volatility of starting a freshman.

The defense, which ranked #1 in the ACC in yards per game and #14 nationally in the S&P+ advanced stat rankings, should remain stout. They’ll start three seniors at linebacker: Michael Pinckney, Shaq Quarterman, and Zach McCloud. It may be the best linebacking corps in the country. The secondary will take a big hit as they lose both starting safeties and a starting CB. Safety Jaquan Johnson will be hard to replace after leading the team in tackles and snatching two INTs.

They get both Virginia schools at home, which gives them the inside edge to win the Coastal division, but the offense may not be good enough for them to take advantage, especially if there is a little regression on defense with all the losses in the secondary.

4. Pittsburgh Panthers

Athlon Pre-Season National Rank: #54

Cross-Divisional Opponents: BC, at Syracuse

2018 Record: 7-7 (6-2)

Last year, Pittsburgh earned their first Coastal Division title since joining the ACC. They did it behind an experienced offensive line and on the backs of two 1,000 yard rushers. Four of their starters on the offensive line and both of their key running backs are gone!

QB Kenny Pickett only threw for 1,969 yards as the Panthers leaned heavily on the run game. Pittsburgh ranked 13th in the ACC in passing yards per game last season. He will have to make major strides if the Pittsburgh offense is to avoid disaster. The defense could be solid with DE Rashad Weaver (6.5 sacks) and safety Damar Hamlin (2 INT, 90 tackles) returning.

5. Duke Blue Devils

Athlon Pre-Season National Rank: #66

Cross-Divisional Opponents: Syracuse, at WF

2018 Record: 8-5 (3-5)

After blowouts at the hands of Clemson and Wake Forest to close the regular season, Duke ended the year on a high note, blowing out Temple in the Independence Bowl. Even with Daniel Jones, the offense was mediocre, ranking 53rd in the S&P+. He was selected with the 6th pick by the New York Giants. Quentin Harris appears ready, but a thin WR corps may make it tough. The offense could have issues.

The defense returns nine starters, but has to replace some of their best players at linebacker: Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humphreys. They should be fine defensively, but a brutal schedule that includes Alabama and Notre Dame in the non-conference and Syracuse and Wake Forest from the Atlantic division will make earning a bowl berth a close call.

6. North Carolina Tar Heels

Athlon Pre-Season National Rank: #68

Cross-Divisional Opponents: Clemson, at NCSU

2018 Record: 2-10 (1-7)

Mack Brown returns to Chapel Hill to rebuild a program that won only two games last season. The rebuild may not be too daunting though. Seven of their nine losses last season came by 10 points or fewer. Still, it won’t be a one-year project.

UNC only returns four starters on offense. Sam Howell is competing with two RS freshman at QB and while the QB play could actually improve with a freshman taking over (they moved QB Chazz Surratt to linebacker to accommodate incoming talent), there aren’t many weapons around him. Michael Carter, an explosive running back, may be about it.

The defense returns six starters and should improve, but it was just 95th (S&P+) last year and they aren’t going to jump 50 spots. It’s a rebuilding year but momentum headed in the right direction.

7. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Athlon Pre-Season National Rank: #75

Cross-Divisional Opponents: NCSU, at Clemson

2018 Record: 7-6 (5-3)

The Yellow Jackets weren’t bad last year. During a four game win streak in the season they won at Virginia and UNC and beat Miami and Virginia at home. The skepticism for 2019 is due to three things: personnel turnover, coaching and scheme changes, and a tough schedule.

The Yellow Jackets only bring back four starters on offense and just three on defense. This was likely to be a rebuilding year regardless of other changes.

Folks are excited about Head Coach Geoff Collins. He’s brought excitement back to the “404,” but he takes over a team that isn’t built for a traditional offense. He had literally no tight ends when he took over. They landed a UConn transfer to help there, but the QB position lacks anyone recruited to pass it more than 10 times per game and their leading receiver had 186 yards last year.

Lastly, Georgia Tech plays their annual Atlantic Divsion rival Clemson in the season opener. They miss out on a potential win against Louisville or even Boston College and instead get NC State with their other cross-division game (though it is a Thursday night home game). As always, they play UGA to close the season too. The S&P+ only gives them >50% odds against the Citadel and projects just 3.7 wins.

ACC Championship Prediction

Clemson over Virginia

Virginia could have a big year and Bryce Perkins could be better than Kellen Mond, Tommy DeVito, and Jake Bentley - the best QBs on Clemson’s schedule. That said, even if Virginia hits their upside potential, slowing down Clemson’s offense enough to pull off an upset will be near impossible as long as Clemson’s offense is relatively healthy.


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