CONFERENCE PREVIEW: ACC
By Simon Carroll
A team-by-team analysis of the ACC, the season ahead and final standings predictions.
1. Clemson Tigers
2018: 15-0 (13-0), ACC Champions, NATIONAL CHAMPIONS
A prediction that will surprise absolutely nobody. Clemson may have lost an abundance of talent to the NFL this offseason but there is a vast amount of talent on this roster and they ain’t going anywhere any time soon.
Most of the optimism surrounds Quarterback Trevor Lawrence who took the college football world by storm as a freshman. Seeing off Kelly Bryant as starter he threw for almost 3,300 yards and 30 touchdowns with just FOUR interceptions. There’s a reason he’s one of the Heisman favourites, and scarily Clemson have him for at least two more years. Joining him in that attack is Running Back Travis Etienne who pounded the rock for almost 1,700 yards last year. He has an impressive 39 total touchdowns in his Tigers career.
Defensively it will be interesting to see how they rebound from losing seven starters from this unit. Chrstian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell, Trayvon Mullen & Austin Bryant headline the departures. But nobody in Clemson is too concerned about any regression. Defensive End Xavier Thomas is expected to be the breakout star and replace some of the sacks that the defense has lost, and The Tigers will be in contention for the college football playoffs once more.
2. Syracuse Orange
2018: 10-3 (6-2)
It’s fair to say there’s a huge dropoff after Clemson, not just in the Atlantic Division but in the Conference. Having said that, the job that Dino Babers has done at Syracuse is impressive.
Ten wins and a final AP ranking of #15 is something you probably wouldn’t even be able to achieve on a computer game. The Orange were expected to finish dead last in the ACC but ended up runners up to Clemson. And they came closest to toppling the Tigers, pushing them extremely close in late September. The best thing about this for Syracuse is that they were really only setting the foundations in 2018. Most of their talent returns this season and in Tommy DeVito they might have one of the top ACC Quarterbacks.
They should certainly improve on defense with seven starters coming back. And with a tougher schedule than last year that might be the key to getting double-digit wins once more. But this program is on the rise. The only question is will Babers be about to finish the job if The Orange excel once more?
3. Florida State Seminoles
2018: 5-7 (3-5)
When Jimbo Fisher left Tuscaloosa last offseason, there was a surprising lack of mourning from Seminoles supporters. In 8 years at Florida State this head coach went 83-23 with one National Championship and four other bowl wins. He asked for a lot of money and didn’t get it so he left, which seemed to taint his legacy somewhat.
But fans might be pining for the good old days. A debut season for Head Coach Willie Taggart saw them finish with a 5-7 record. No bowl game, just one win against a ranked team and an absolute shellacking by bitter rivals Florida (14-41).
The biggest problem with this team was their offensive line. It couldn’t keep Deondre Francois upright and it couldn’t help the running game with any consistency whatsoever. Taggart has brought in Kendal Briles, the OC who has overseen explosive offenses in both Houston and Baylor. And with Cam Akers carrying the football they should rebound and compete for the runner up spot in the division. But there’s plenty of work to do before they’re back near the summit of college football once more.
4. NC State Wolfpack
2018: 9-4 (5-3)
It’s a one-team division at the top of the Atlantic. But a log-jam of middling programs the rest of the way that leaves it quite competitive and hard to predict. The Wolfpack are one of those teams that could finish anywhere between second and sixth dependant on how their offensive replacements fare.
Firstly, NC State’s defense could be the best in the ACC outside of Clemson. But it’s going to have to be considering the job they have on their hands on offense. This attack from 2018 has lost QB Ryan Finley, most of it’s offensive line and it’s two biggest weapons. Not only that but their renowned OC Eli Drinkwitz got the head coaching job at Appalachian State.
Head Coach Dave Doreen has done a pretty good job since he arrived in Raleigh with nine-win seasons in the last two years. But his rebuild is tougher than most and I can see them regressing a spot or two in 2019.
5. Boston College Eagles
2018: 7-5 (4-4)
An up and down year for Steve Addazio and the Eagles last term – they got off to an electric start going 7-2 and being ranked #17 in the polls early November, but truth be told the schedule was only testing for the last three games and they lost all of them to slip out of divisional contention. Their bowl game against Boise State summed up their year really – ruled a non-contest due to atrocious weather. A damp squib to end the season.
Not much has changed offensively for the Eagles – QB Anthony Brown is back but the running game will be the bread and butter for this team with AJ Dillon hoping to maintain the form of his first two seasons where he clocked up more than 2,700 total yards for The Eagles.
Once again they’re looking at a schedule that eases them in (three home games to open then at Rutgers, hosting Wake Forest & at Louisville) but after the first bye significantly harder. They have Clemson & Syracuse on the road, host Florida State then travel for their last two games to Notre Dame & Pitt. That final stretch is brutal. Many have BC improving on their fourth place finish in 2018 but I think it could be the opposite.
6. Wake Forest Demon Deacons
2018: 7-6 (3-5)
Wake Forest have won 7 games or more for three straight seasons under Head Coach Dave Clawson. That might not sound too impressive but The Demon Deacons, like many in the ACC, are a basketball school and winning two out of three bowl games (one of which a 55-52 defeat of Texas A&M) is no mean feat for this program. I’ve got them falling one spot in the Atlantic based on Florida State bouncing back a little, but another seven win season isn’t totally out of the question.
The biggest factor in them achieving that is what they get from the Quarterback position in 2019 – Freshman Sam Hartman and Sophomore Jamie Newman shared gametime last year, predominantly due to Hartman’s injury in November. Whilst this is more common in the college game than in the NFL I’m sure the Wake Forest coaching staff would love for one of them to make the starting job their own.
They’ve got a relatively easy out-of-conference schedule to ease them in but an absolute bitch of a run-in. If I had to wager, I’d say they just fall short of six wins this year.
7. Louisville Cardinals
2018: 2-10 (0-8)
He might be a legend at Louisville, but winning just 2 games and none in the ACC last year will get anyone fired. Bobby Petrino was out the door despite 34 wins the four seasons prior and replaced by Scott Satterfield, who has a mountain of a job on his hands just to get this program relevant in the ACC this season.
Gone are the good old days of Lamar Jackson beating teams on his own and the truth is they’ve found nothing at the Quarterback position since he headed to the NFL. The whole culture surrounding the Cardinals is a mess and it will take Satterfield multiple seasons before he’s recording ten wins like he did with his previous team last year.
Travelling to Notre Dame to kick things off is just cruel, and it will be a long old road before they play their in-state rivals Kentucky on the last day in November.
1. Virginia Cavaliers
2018: 8-5 (4-4)
If the Atlantic division is the most predictable in college football, then the Coastal is the complete opposite. If Virginia wins as I’m predicting, they’ll be the seventh different team in a row to win the division. There’s only seven teams in this division! How crazy is that? The Cavaliers finished 4th in the division despite having the best overall record and they’ll have to get more consistent in conference play if they’re going to change that.
Bryce Perkins is one of the top college Quarterbacks and returns for a final season in Charlottesville but it’s Virginia’s defense that is giving fans cause for excitement this year. Three years ago they were 108th in the NCAA for yards allowed per play, and last year they were down to 44th. With many starters returning that should drop even further.
Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall (awesome name) has overseen that improvement after installing a mean defense in BYU the thirteen years previous. With one of the more forgiving schedules in the ACC and a home game against bitter rivals Virginia Tech to finish off, The Cavaliers have every chance of being whooped by Clemson in the championship game in December.
2. Miami Hurricanes
2018: 7-6 (4-4)
The Mark Richt era is over. A sorry four-game losing stretch from October to November last year saw any hopes of Miami competing with Clemson for the ACC disappear – they had a similar losing run at the end of 2017 too and it seemed that despite all the progress Richt made at his alma mater he couldn’t quite get them over the hump.
His retirement means that Defensive Co-Ordinator Manny Diaz has been promoted to Head Coach, something well deserved after the strong defenses he has produced the previous three seasons. This unit should pick up where it left off – Michael Pinckney and Shaquillle Quarterman are two Linebackers to keep an eye out for
But it’s the offense, and in particular the Quarterback, that could deny Miami an ACC title game. Tate Martell has come in from Ohio State but he isn’t guaranteed the job ahead of N’Kosi Perry who has the most experience under center, or even Freshman Jarran Williams. Offensive Co-Ordinator Dan Enos has his work cut out to allow The Hurricanes to maximise their potential.
3. Virginia Tech Hokies
2018: 6-7 (4-4)
Despite pencilling them in for third in the Coastal, the Hokies could very well be in the mix for the division if things fall their way. Probably the program with the most boom or bust potential Virginia Tech could finish anywhere between 1st and 5th dependant on if they can find more consistency on both sides of the ball.
Defensively I’d be very surprised if they didn’t bounce back from a torrid 2018 – Linebacker Rayshard Ashby heads into his junior year with a lot of hype and Reggie Floyd is about as solid a Safety as the ACC will produce this season. On offense they have Ryan Willis returning under center and a lot of weapons at his disposal – Justin Fuente’s roster is by no means devoid of talent.
They have a tough road slate starting with the opener at Boston College and of course the finale against rivals Virginia. But they’ve not lost to The Cavaliers since 2003 and expect division supremacy to be on the line come that final game of the year.
4. Pittsburgh Panthers
2018: 7-7 (6-2)
Last year’s division winners slipping to fourth? Quite possibly. This roster is in a complete rebuild mode after losing so many starters this offseason, but that’s not to say there’s no talent.
The tough job is mostly on offense where their strong running game has all but vanished; Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall had more than 2,300 yards between them and that will be near impossible to replace in one year. You’d expect to see some growth from second year Quarterback Kenny Pickett but he’ll be learning a new system after Offensive Co-Ordinator Shawn Wilson was let go.
But one thing about this Panthers team under Pat Narduzzi is that they can get into a groove and be very difficult to beat when their tails are up. Their schedule does them no favours with two tough out of conference games – at Penn State and then a tricky home clash with UCF. They’ll give everyone a game but asking them to repeat 2018’s success is not reasonable.
5. North Carolina Tar Heels
2018: 2-9 (1-7)
Nothing put a smile on my face more than hearing that Mack Wilson had gone back to Chapel Hill. He spent ten years there from 1988-97, turning round a program that lost ten games his first two years to winning ten games his last two. After a formidable run at Texas and a spot of TV work he’s back in the saddle, and The Tar Heels are desperate for him to bring back some of the old magic.
He’s started well, making an impact on the recruitment trail, but it’s how he and his new co-ordinators Phil Longo (OC) & Jay Bateman (DC) help develop this young and talented roster that will improve North Carolina immediately. They have a running back committee in Michael Carter, Antonio Williams and Javonte Williams that compares to any other in the ACC, and freshman Quarterback Sam Howell has turned some heads in Spring practice.
Defensively they’ll rely a lot on Defensive Tackle Jason Strowbridge and it may be too much to see them competitive immediately. Even a reasonable schedule won’t make things much smoother for Brown his second time round, and much like his first stint there might be a couple of lean seasons before North Carolina are relevant once more.
6. Duke Blue Devils
2018: 8-5 (3-5)
It might be a case of going back to the drawing board for David Cutcliffe this season as The Blue Devils lost a significant amount of talent this offseason. The biggest departure was of course Daniel Jones, their Quarterback who pretty much was the heartbeat of the offense. And most of the aerial weapons have also gone, meaning this unit will turn to Running Back Deon Jackson to pick up the slack. In a very tight division the job is probably going to be too much for him.
Defensively there’s a little more stability for Duke, but it never was an elite unit to begin with anyway – they shipped 156 points in their last four games of 2018. Safety Marquis Waters will lead the secondary but stopping the run is Cutcliffe’s biggest concern, and it’s going to take a herculean effort to reach a seventh bowl game in eight seasons.
7. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
2018: 7-6 (5-3)
Georgia Tech were one touchdown away from competing in the ACC title game last year – a 5 point loss in September to Pitt ultimately proved the difference. However the Yellow Jackets were rocked by the decision of Head Coach Paul Johnson to retire. They pivoted nicely with the hire of Temple’s Geoff Collins, but the new offense he’ll be installing is night and day compared to the option-based attack Georgia Tech have been using for the past ten years.
At Quarterback I’m not sure even Collins knows who is winning the race to start week 1 – Lucas Johnson has the most experience but Kaleb Oliver is favourited by some, and even redshirt freshman James Graham has been getting reps in Spring practice. Instead they’ll turn to RB Jordan Mason who accounted for 650 yards and 7 touchdowns in his rookie year.
On the other side of the ball Tariq Carpenter is a talented Safety but this is a unit that needs to do much better than the 32 points they shipped to division 1 schools per game last year. With a vicious schedule that starts with a trip to Clemson and ends with both Virginia schools and rivals Georgia in their last four, it’s going to be a tough old season in Atlanta.
previously the founder of nfl draft uk, simon has been covering college football and the nfl draft since 2009. based in manchester, simon is also co-creator & weekly guest of the collapsing pocket podcast.