The ACC is making its presence known in the world of college football. The Florida State Seminoles won the last BCS championship in 2013 and qualified for the inaugural college football playoffs in 2014. The Clemson Tigers took it a step further by making it to the championship game in 2015, so is it safe to assume that 2016 is the year that the ACC claims another champion? If so, will it be the conference favorite Tigers, or will the Seminoles bounce back after a disappointing end to last year? Maybe the Louisville Cardinals, Miami Hurricanes or a surprise team crashes this year’s conference championship party in Charlotte, NC. Either way, it should be an exciting season in the conference.
It is hard to conceive that a team can have a Top 5 ranked defense nationally and still only win three games. That’s what happened to the Boston College Eagles in 2015. The defense limited Florida State and Notre Dame to 14 and 19 points respectively, but the offense failed to score more than one touchdown in four games — including being shut out by FSU. The lack of an offensive punch led head coach Steve Addazio to bring in Scot Loeffler as new offensive coordinator — the program’s third in four seasons. Coach Addazio has to right the ship after a lackluster 2015 — if not, there could be some anxious fans in Chestnut Hill.
Everyone knows who DeShaun Watson is, but it’s the other guys on the roster that could be the key to the Clemson Tigers playoff hopes. Offensively the entire gang returns but on the other side of the ball, the new kids on the block — defensive ends Austin Bryant and Richard Yeargin along with 2016 early enrollee Dexter Lawrence — are going to have to learn on the fly. The Tigers are everyone’s pick to win the conference this year but will the defense be able to keep pace with the potent offense to make it to Tampa in January?
Head Coach Jimbo Fisher has a big decision to make in regards to the Florida State Seminoles quarterback situation; Go with the steady Sean McGuire or let redshirt freshman Deondre Francois take the reigns. FSU may win a few games with McGuire but the team could be special with Francois. Whoever starts at QB will have the luxury of handing the ball off to the best back in the conference in Dalvin Cook — who finished the season with 1,691 yards and 19 touchdowns despite dealing with lingering injuries all year. Josh Sweat and Derwin James lead a defense that is looking to continue the trend of top Seminoles defenses. Florida State’s playoff hopes hinge on three things: picking the best quarterback, keeping Cook healthy, and getting past Ole Miss to start the season.
Sometimes you have to go with the younger guy. That’s what Louisville Cardinals’ head coach Bobby Petrino did with freshman Lamar Jackson in 2015 and it worked. 453 total yards and four touchdowns in the Music City Bowl win over Texas A&M showed the nation that the Cardinals could have one of the best young quarterbacks in the nation. Defensive end Devonte Fields finally has his mojo back and has his sights set on being a first-round draft selection in 2017. If there is a team that Clemson and FSU need to be worried about its Louisville — especially if Jackson takes that next step as a signal caller.
The best way to overcome having to replace an experienced quarterback is to have a running game that can shoulder the load. Led by senior Matt Dayes, the NC State Wolfpack finished ranked in the top 30 in rushing in 2015. If the Wolfpack can have another successful year running the ball it should take the pressure off of new quarterback Jalen McClendon. Statistically, the Wolf Pack appeared to have a good defense — 29th in total defense, 36th in passing, and 39th in rushing — but were those numbers skewed because of a soft nonconference schedule that included Eastern Kentucky, Old Dominion, and South Alabama? The defensive line trio of Bradley Chubb, B.J. Hill, and Kentavius Street look to prove otherwise against a more formidable schedule this season.
Dino Babers led one of the highest scoring offenses at Bowling Green and the goal for him and the Syracuse Orange is to build that type success in western New York. Syracuse has a talented quarterback to run Babers uptempo offense in Eric Dungey but the sophomore must learn to avoid taking the big hit as it cost him four games in 2015. The transition could take longer defensively as there is not only a scheme change but also a potential personnel change as new coordinator Brian Ward wants bigger athletes who can play in space.
The Wake Forest Demon Deacons should be better defensively in 2016 as defensive tackle Josh Banks, linebackers Marquel Lee and Thomas Brown, cornerback Brad Watson, and safety Ryan Janvion all return. Head coach Dave Clawson is hoping that side of the ball can lead the team while he looks to find a quarterback. Both John Wolford and Kendall Hinton bring a different dimension to the field at the position, but both also missed time last season due to injuries. A healthy quarterback and better offense line play could be the two things that finally get the Demon Deacons back to a bowl — its first since 2011.
Expectations for a great season can be quickly dashed because of injury and the Duke Blue Devils are finding that out the hard way in 2016 as returning quarterback Thomas Sirk ruptured his Achilles tendon in February. With him in the lineup, Duke had a dual-threat option under center that was just as much of a running threat — 803 yards rushing and eight touchdowns — as he was a passer. Defensively the team will be looking to replace All-American safety Jeremy Cash; Corbin McCarthy, Alonzo Saxton, and Deondre Singleton will all be called on to try to replicate the impact that Cash had on the field. Losing Sirk hurts– especially with road games against Northwestern and Notre Dame on the schedule — and it will be interesting to see how the players handle adversity.
Injuries are never a good thing for a team but head coach Paul Johnson embraced the unfortunate circumstance in 2015 as it opened the door for playing time for his young Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets players. One upperclassman he will be able to rely on is quarterback Justin Thomas. If the senior quarterback can replicate his 2014 stats — 1,719 passing yards and 1,086 rushing yards and 26 total touchdowns — Georgia Tech will be fine. Defensively, the team has to do better than the 14 sacks from last season. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof is looking for anyone on the roster that can get to the quarterback and hopes that defensive end KeShun Freeman finally puts it all together.
Is this the year that the Miami Hurricanes finally make it to an ACC championship game. New head coach Mark Richt has a quarterback in Brad Kaaya that is talented enough to keep the team in games all season. The Hurricanes defense will sink or swim based on the success of its two defensive ends– Al-Quadin Muhammad and Chad Thomas. Both were high profile recruits before heading to Coral Gables but only Muhammad has started to reach his potential as he had 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks as a backup in 2015. According to new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, Thomas has impressed during the spring, so he may still avoid that bust title with a huge 2016. Is Richt ready to taste the success of conference championships that eluded him in the SEC… Hurricanes fans sure hope so.
Head coach Pat Narduzzi did a great job in instilling some Michigan St. toughness with the Pitt Panthers and it resulted in a successful 8-5 season. The biggest change on the defensive side of the ball as the team finished ranked 16th in the nation in sacks with 2.85 per game including a five-sack performance from defensive end Ejuan Price against Louisville. James Connor — the heart and soul of the team — returns to the offense after missing the entire 2015 season due to an MCL injury and chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. If he can regain his 2014 form — 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns — the Panthers will be a formidable foe all season; if not, they still have ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year Qadree Ollison that could make the team dangerous.
The UNC Tar Heels made to the 2015 ACC Championship game last season and some are saying that this year’s team could be more talented. Running back Elijah Hood looks to build upon a 1,463-yard 2015 season and cement his name on a list of running backs that could be selected in the first three rounds of next year’s NFL Draft — if he chooses to declare. The strength of the defense in 2015 was it’s pass defense and that looks to be the same this year with the return of cornerbacks Des Lawrence and MJ Stewart. UNC surprised many by making it to the ACC title game last year and they could return again if new quarterback Matt Trubinsky can repeat last year’s success — 85% completion rate, 555 passing yards, six touchdowns, and zero interceptions– over a full season.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall brings a resume of success to Charlottesville and Virginia Cavaliers’ fans are excited to see what he can do with the talent already on the roster. Running back Taquan Mizzell is one player Mendenhall should be excited to let loose in his offense as the former five-star running back finally looks to be coming into his own after totaling 1,392 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns last year. With uncertainty at the quarterback position, he could easily reach that number by just rushing the ball. Junior safety Quin Blanding could be the most talented player on the defense but is looking to bounce back from a 2015 season where he tallied only one interception and one tackle for loss. Mendenhall is no longer confined by the structure of BYU but will that translate into more wins for the Wahoos?
JUCO quarterback Jerod Evans was initially recruited by Justin Fuente and the Memphis Tigers out of high school and now Evans could be the guy to lead Fuente’s uptempo spread offense for the Virginia Tech Hokies. The top three pass catchers from last season — Isaiah Ford, Cam Phillips, and tight end Bucky Hodges — all return which should help the Evans get acclimated. Bud Foster stayed on as defensive coordinator and looks to have a better year for a Hokies’ defense that was only ranked 75th in rush defense and 59th in scoring defense. The program hated to see Frank Beamer retire but having new blood infused into the program could be the thing to gets Virginia Tech back in the mix as ACC contenders.
Clemson vs. Miami
Even with the uncertainty on the defensive side of the ball, Clemson is too talented of a team to be derailed this year. Deshaun Watson has another great season and ends up hoisting the Heisman Trophy at the end of the regular season. Miami uses the Mark Richt effect to find toughness on defense which leads to the program’s first division championship since it was a member of the Big East. The battle for the ACC Championship is a lot closer than expected but Clemson finds a way to pull away late. Clemson 45 Miami 31
Clemson vs. Pitt
Clemson finds a way to get past Florida St. in the regular season which clears a path for the Tigers out of the Coastal Division. Pitt takes the next step under the guidance of Coach Narduzzi and surprises many by winning the Atlantic Division. Clemson’s journey back to the College Football Playoffs is an easy one as it dominates the Panthers in Charlotte. Clemson 51 Pitt 28