College Football Preview: The ACC
And in this corner, the reigning champions of college football, the Clemson Tigers.
Oh, and the rest of the ACC too.
Dabo Sweeny and company have created a unique portrayal of their conference as “Clemson and the ACC.” The cream has risen to the top and, after appearing in four straight playoffs— including 3 trips to the finals, and raising two trophies— it’s not just the Atlantic Coast Conference where the Tigers dominate, it’s college football in general.
With no signs of slowing down, Clemson is the clear-cut favorite to win the ACC once again, and this is where we begin part 3 of our Power-5 conference previews.
Clemson – It’s not a guaranteed 12-0 finish like you may expect, but they should easily win the Atlantic.
Playing a vastly improved Texas A&M team, albeit at home, is one hell of a task in only the second week of the season. They then travel to Syracuse, who always give them headaches. But aside from those two games, their schedule is relatively easy. They only hit the road five times, and their out of conference opponents are South Carolina, Wofford and Charlotte (Yes, those last two are actual schools with a football team). Still, the Tigers should roll through the season, and whether it’s 12-0 or 11-1, they win the division, win the conference and still find their way to a 5th consecutive CFP semi-finals.
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence made everyone immediately forget about Kelly Bryant last season, and it’s scary to think that Travis Etienne will be back running the ball in orange. These two combine for the best 1-2 combination in the conference, and add in wide receivers Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers and Justyn Ross and you have the most electric offense in football. Oh, and a guy named Brent Venables is still raising hell with his defense. The only coach in 2018 to figure out how to not only beat Alabama, but force the Tide to beat themselves, returns with an All-American cast that will still succeed even after losing what could go down as the best defensive line in NCAA history. They are a fun team to watch, and I expect a few 70-point outputs early on.
Syracuse – The Orange came within a drive, or maybe even a single play, of upsetting Clemson last season. Still, they managed a top-25 rating and a Camping World Bowl victory over West Virginia. It was a successful season in upstate New York, but head coach Dino Babers is bringing the band back together for another run at the Atlantic Division.
Quarterback Eric Dungy won’t be the maestro of the offense, but Tommy DeVito will be, and he has all the chords in his favor. With four of their top five receivers coming back alongside a solid offensive line, the Orange should click without missing a beat. They get Liberty and Maryland to open the season before welcoming in Clemson for homecoming on September 14th. Follow that up with Western Michigan and Holy Cross. Babers and company have a real shot to be 4-1, or maybe even 5-0 after that stretch. It’s time to believe in Syracuse, and I have faith they will finish at 9-3.
Florida State – Willie Taggart has no excuses this season. He’s not a rookie coach anymore, he has some of his own recruits, and he doesn’t have Deandre Francois and that headache he came with.
What he does have is two capable transfer quarterbacks in former Virginia Tech Hookie James Blackman, and former Wisconsin Badger starter Alex Hornibrook. He also returns a more than capable halfback in Cam Akers to be featured in new offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ playbook. He will have fun drawing up plays for Tamorrion Terry, a sophomore who averaged over 20 yards per catch in his first year in college.
Defensively, they return 8 of their top 10 tacklers from a year ago but will need to show a major improvement in stopping the rush if they will have success. One way they are going to attempt to shake things up is with their linebacker formation, moving from a 4-3 to a 3-4. The good news for the ‘Noles is they have a favorable schedule with ULM , Alabama State and Louisville as out of conference foes, and home games against NC State, Syracuse and Miami. The bad news is that they still have to travel to Clemson and up the road to Gainesville.
Still, I think it will be a good season, one where they get back to being bowl eligible. I’d say a 7-5 sophomore season for Taggart will give him some breathing room in the athletic department.
NC State – The Wolfpack have won nine games in consecutive seasons, but to make it 3 in a row Dave Doeren will have to put together his finest coaching season in his 7th year in Raleigh. His offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz is now the HC at Appalachian State, and his quarterback Ryan Finley and receivers Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers are in the NFL. NC State will work with co-coordinators (what could go wrong here?) to play call for Matthew McKay.
The sophomore threw just 13 balls last season and will rely heavily on the ground game of Ricky Person Jr to move the ball.
On defense, the entire line is now playing on Sundays, and they weren’t even a top 100 pass rushing group. They do return just about all the other starters however, and that includes leading tackler from a year ago, safety Jarius Morehead. I don’t think this will be a 9-win team, not with all the skill they have lost. I’m not even sure it’s an 8-win team, especially since they play at West Virginia for an out of conference tilt. I think they still make a bowl game though, and finish right around 7-5.
Boston College – The Eagles have won seven games in three straight seasons, and the alumni at Chestnut Hill share a lot of excitement going into a 2019 campaign that features returning stars AJ Dillion, Anthony Brown and Kobay White on offense. They have lost three offensive linemen, which should prove to be a growing pain on the season, but playing Richmond, Kansas, Rutgers, Wake Forest and Louisville in 5 consecutive weeks in the first half will help ease the pain. They will need a hot start to give them a cushion to finish above .500 as road trips to Clemson, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh back end their schedule.
AJ Dillion is as exciting of a player as you will find in the ACC, and he should be running with purpose in likely the Junior’s last season in college. Look for him to find his way into the Heisman conversation early on. The Eagles start hot, fizzle at the end. Forgive me if you’ve heard that story before, like maybe every year since 2014. I’ll give them a 7-5 prediction here.
Wake Forest - Last year the Demon Deacons were a mess at quarterback, yet still finished with 7 wins and a top-50 offense. Now with experience on their resume, Jamie Newman and Sam Hartman enter summer practice battling for the first-team snaps. Both guys can run the ball, but Newman has more size and a better arm. Cade Carney returns off a 1,000-yard rushing season and will need to carry the load early on as the offense learns to live without their star playmaker Greg Dortch who was drafted in the spring.
Defensively, Wake Forest was, and still will be, bad. They were the 2nd worst in the conference in both yards and points allowed per game. They will focus on the middle of the field with 6’5”, 270-pound nose tackle Carlos Basham being the motor of the defense. Getting Rice and Elon on the schedule give them a nice cushion, and hosting Louisville, North Carolina and Duke are other games where Wake Forest should be favored. I’m not sure they win many more games than these however, so I think a 6-6 season will be the outcome.
Louisville – Boy is it a mess in Louisville. Former coach Bobby Petrino left the program in shambles and newly hired Scott Satterfield has come in to dig through the ashes.
He has nine returning starters on defense, but that’s not much to brag about, considering they gave up fifty, yes fifty, points per game in ACC play. In nine conference tilts, six teams scored over the half-century mark on the Cardinals. It was a real rough tread last season, and while those nine starters return with experience, they were also the same guys who gave up on plays, didn’t complete tackles and watched opponents walk into the end zone. Not much to be excited about here. Quarterback Jawon Pass looks to improve on a scary first season on which he completed just 162 passes in 11 starts. He threw 12 picks and only 8 touchdowns. If Satterfield wills these guys to win 3 games, it will be impressive.
What will excite Louisville fans is that even though they won’t see their team win, they will get to sit in the stands at Cardinal Stadium and see teams like Notre Dame, Clemson, Syracuse and Virginia roll through. Satterfield begins his slow turnaround here with a 3-9 record.
Miami – This could be the most wide-open division in the Power-5, and you can probably make an argument for any of these top 4, maybe 5, teams to win the Coastal, but something about this 2019 Miami team seems familiar.
I get the sense they are getting their swagger back, and much has to do with the hiring of Manny Diaz as head coach. The players seem to really like him, the alumni are behind him and he has a roster deep with athletes to put up 8 or 9 wins.
All of this of course hinges on the development of Ohio State transfer Tate Martell. The 5-star recruit earned immediate eligibility after his transfer and will take over an offense desperate for life. Martell isn’t the only new Hurricane here either, as Alabama’s quarterback coach Dan Enos joins him in Coral Gables and will attempt to institute a QB-friendly playbook like he had last year with the Tide.
Miami’s defense was solid last year, likely the reason why Diaz got promoted, and they return monster pass rusher Jonathan Garvin. Keep an eye on linebackers Shaquille Quarterman and Michael Pickney, two seniors set on making a name for themselves before the draft. With the new excitement around the program, I expect it to carry over onto the field. Miami has the tough opening week test with Florida, but then play North Carolina, Bethune-Cookman and Central Michigan before a bye week.
I expect the offense to be in full swing by the time ACC play comes around, which is why I am taking Miami to win the division with a 9-3 record.
Virginia – Not only does head coach Bronco Mendenhall have the best name in the ACC, but he could have one of the better teams in the conference as well.
With quarterback Bryce Perkins headlining an experienced offensive group of skill players, this team has the makings of a top-25, maybe top-15 team. Remember, just two seasons ago they went from 2 wins to 6, and last year from that 6 to 8. They keep getting better under Mendenall, and there is no reason to believe it’s slowing down.
Defensively, this team keeps improving. They return 8 starters and a secondary that should be one of the best in the country.
They don’t have an easy start to the season, opening on the road in Pittsburgh, a week 3 meeting with Florida State and then two weeks later a trip to South Bend to visit the Fighting Irish. They also have to travel to Miami but do get Virginia Tech at home. Vegas predicts them to finish 8-4, but I’ll do them one better. I think Mendenhall can really coach, and an improved recruiting class pays dividends. Give me 9 wins, with an upset win over the Hookies to end the season.
Virginia Tech – Ryan Willis quieted all of the doubters last season when he took over for an injured Josh Jackson and put up numbers that have those in Blacksburg jumping in the stands. He threw 26 touchdowns to only 9 interceptions and had the conference’s 4th highest QB rating. His targets, Eric Kumah, Damon Hazelton and Chris Cunningham all return, and you can expect this unit to improve on their 29.8 points per game they notched last year.
On defense, Bud Foster’s group got run over all year. They allowed more than 440 yards and 30 points per game and forced Willis and company to take chances week in and week out just to keep up on the score board. They started only 2 upper classmen on defense and now that inexperience turns into experience and you can expect linebackers Rayshard Ashby and Dax Hollifield to lead an improved group. While their line has some depth concerns, their secondary does not, and it will be hard for teams to pass on them. I don’t think Tech can win the division, but they will make a bowl and sniff top-25 when all is said and done. I’ll take Tech to finish 7-5.
Pittsburgh - The defending Coastal Division champions should be the favorites, right? Wrong.
Pat Narduzzi will have his hands full replacing not just one, but two 1,000-yard running backs and while quarterback Kenny Pickett played well in key moments last season, he needs to evolve as a stronger passer. New offensive coordinator Mark Whipple was brought in to improve a unit that finished outside of the top 100 in passing, total offense and points. Defensively the team made vast improvements throughout the season and safety Damar Hamlin and linebacker Elias Reynolds have NFL talent. Is it enough for the Panthers to finish in the top-25 for the first time in 10 years? They do have a favorable schedule and avoid some of the ACC big guns, but I just don’t think the team is as dynamic as the ones above. They won’t beat you with the pass and they won’t keep you under 20 points.
They win if opponents can’t stop the run, and best believe Miami, Virginia and Virginia Tech will be ready. While 6-6 was enough to get them the division last season, it won’t in 2019. Panthers finish at .500.
Duke – Last year was a fun start for the Blue Devils. They opened 4-0 and reached a top 25 ranking in October. They beat a ranked Army team by 20 and scored road victories over Northwestern and Baylor. With that start, the nation started to believe in David Cutcliffe’s team. Don’t expect a similar start for Duke in 2019.
They get the honor of being the first sacrificial lamb on the Nick Saban revenge tour. One of the greatest and smartest coaches in football history has had months to stew over that embarrassing loss to Clemson in the national title game, and you can bet your entire bank account he has been counting down the minutes until kick off with Duke. Saban also gets to face them without the quarterback who completed 237 passes for 2,674 yards last season, as Daniel Jones is now in the NFL. It will be a trying season for Duke with a new look offense, and I don’t expect it be a fun one down in Durham.
If they get to a bowl, and it’s a big if, then it won’t be a wasted season. I don’t think they will get there though and see a 5-7 record in their future.
North Carolina – 67-year old Mack Brown is back on the sidelines at Chapel Hill after a 22-year break from the Tar Heels. With an all-time record of 244-122 as a head coach, the former ACC coach of the year hopes to instill winning ways back at North Carolina.
To start the rebuild, you can count on Brown to implement an air-attack similar to that of Washington State or any of the pass-happy Big-12 schools. His motto for 2019 is “don’t blink” and that is how the offense will roll. He has a three-way competition at quarterback to see who will line up in their shotgun formation next to running backs Michael Carter and Antonio Williams.
On defense, Brown teams up with former Army defensive coordinator Jay Bateman and his heavy blitz attack schemes. I think the pieces are falling into place here and while the head coach may not have the energy, he had two decades ago, he is filling out his coaching staff with those who do. UNC will be a contender in this division in a short time, but not this season. Growing pains are real, and a 4-8 season is going to sting.
Georgia Tech – This is a new look Yellow Jackets team. Gone are the days of the option, and here to stay is a balanced, conventional style offense under Dave Patenaude. Sure, they were the country’s top rushing attack a season ago, averaging over 400 yards per game, but they finished 7-6. So, with a new style of offense, comes a new type of quarterback. Enter Lucas Johnson, a 6-3, 215-pound pocket passer with poise to stay in and take hits.
Defensively, is where things get troublesome. With only 4 starters returning, experience is a real concern. Not only are they missing guys with actual minutes played, but the current roster only registered 4 sacks all of last season. So, this new look offense and inexperienced defense gets the pleasure of being the first opponent of the season for the reigning national champion Clemson Tigers. Talk about getting your feet wet in week one. With the uncertainty on both sides of the ball and the daunting schedule, I would not be surprised if Tech finished with a 4-8 record. Aside from Temple and Citadel, everyone else on the schedule is a tough team.
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