The college football season kicks off Saturday with a partial schedule featuring some wacky road trips — Hawaii at U-Mass.! Rice vs. Stanford in Sydney! To get you ready — and to make sure your team has its moment, however brief — we’ll count down the days by ranking every Football Bowl Subdivision team by conference. Last week Patrick Stevens ran though the second-tier Group of Five leagues and independents; this week, it’s the Power Five, including his picks for the College Football Playoff.
This might not be the ACC’s year, at least not compared to last season.
The conference enjoyed a breakout in 2016. It produced the national champion (Clemson), the Heisman Trophy winner (Louisville’s Lamar Jackson) and matched a league record with 11 bowl teams. It was a culmination of two trends finally dovetailing together about as well as could be expected. First, one of its natural powerhouses was in the national title conversation from the start. When the league was mocked in the 2000s and early 2010s, the real problem was that neither Clemson nor Florida State was at the level its resources suggested it could be. Now, both have national titles within the last four seasons.
The league could get by with those two dominating, but it helps if the rest of the conference chips in, too. That happened last year, with Jackson quickly emerging as a compelling, must-see figure, Virginia Tech winning 10 games under Justin Fuente and high-end quarterbacks imbuing teams like Miami (Brad Kaaya) and North Carolina (Mitchell Trubisky) with a degree of relevance.
That’s all great, and the ACC will benefit from a perception bump as a result. But half the league will have a new starting quarterback this season and Clemson is unlikely to match last year’s greatness as it replaces program legend Deshaun Watson and several others now plying their trade in the NFL. A lot will ride on Florida State, and it opens the season against Alabama.
The ACC is healthy, and it’s not hard to envision five or six teams landing in the final top 25. But the 14 programs will collectively have a hard time accomplishing as much as last year.
1. Florida State (No. 3 nationally, 10-3 in 2016): The Seminoles or Clemson have won every ACC title since 2009. With the Tigers losing so many proven stars from their title team, it looks like it will be Jimbo Fisher’s turn to hoist the championship trophy in Charlotte this December. They’re also a pick for one of the four spots in the College Football Playoff.
You know what you’re getting here. The Seminoles are strong up front and still have more options in the secondary than anybody except perhaps Alabama. Sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois should be more at ease in his second year as a starter. The offensive line is a bit of a question, but the overall level of talent on the roster isn’t.
2. Clemson (No. 7, 14-1): It should be noted that “not as good as last year” doesn’t mean the Tigers will be bad, or average or merely good. They’ve stacked so many strong recruiting classes this decade under Dabo Swinney and are one of the most reliable programs in the country. Making the defensive front a priority helps, and the combination of Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence at tackle might be the best in the country.
There are some echoes to 2014, when the Tigers were replacing Tajh Boyd and had some holes on offense. A holdover backup (Cole Stoudt) initially won the job and faced an early-season gantlet, but eventually Watson took over. It’s possible the same sequence unfolds this time around. The schedule, which includes Auburn and Louisville in September, will be prickly enough to make it clear quickly whether Clemson has any realistic hope of a third consecutive playoff berth.
3. Louisville (No. 13, 9-4): Lamar Jackson was so overwhelming in the first 10 games of last season, a couple forgettable performances against Houston and Kentucky down the stretch didn’t cost him the Heisman. But those two games (and a bowl loss to Louisiana State) provides plenty of evidence for opponents on how to handle a quarterback who conjured comparisons to Michael Vick.
It also gave Louisville plenty of ideas on what to fix this coming year. It’s difficult for returning Heisman winners to match their production in consecutive years (just ask Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston), but the Cardinals should have more developed options around Jackson. Assuming the defense remains stout (and it should, especially in the Jaire Alexander-led secondary), Louisville will remain a threat in the Atlantic.
4. N.C. State (No. 39, 7-6): Is it possible for an under-the-radar team in the spring to become an on-the-radar team by the time August rolls around? That might be the case for N.C. State, and that could mean some dicey times this fall courtesy of the Law of the Wolfpack.
So here’s the good: There’s a lot of experience back for a team that’s played in three consecutive bowl games, including a returning quarterback (Ryan Finley), an offensive piece that can be moved around the field (Jaylen Samuels) and a stout defensive line led by Bradley Chubb that is better than most realize. Now the bad: N.C. State still has to play Clemson, Louisville and Florida State, not to mention Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and South Carolina. Keep the expectations in check; seven or eight wins sounds about right.
5. Boston College (No. 64, 7-6): Nothing terribly new here. The Eagles will stop the run, and they won’t get torched in the passing game. Harold Landry is overlooked a bit, but he’s a superb defensive end and is arguably one of the top four linemen in a conference that has plenty of good ones.
Boston College will also struggle on offense, because it’s struggled on offense this entire decade. It’s done so with plenty of returning starters and has done so with none. It has averaged more than 200 yards passing once since Matt Ryan departed after the 2007 season. It will try to ground and pound, and it will win when it succeeds and lose when it doesn’t. It sounds like a recipe for another 6-6 regular season.
6. Wake Forest (No. 67, 7-6): Presumably now using a radio analyst who will not pass along game-plan information, the Demon Deacons will try to build on their first bowl bid since 2011. Dave Clawson’s done a good job of maintaining a solid defense, and the offense finally poked above 20 points per game for the first time in five years last fall.
This is not a team with a large margin of error, and Wake’s fate could be sealed in the first month of the season. Trips to Boston College and Appalachian State could lead to victories, but losses would leave the Demon Deacons at no better than 2-2 entering a five-game sequence featuring Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Louisville and Notre Dame.
7. Syracuse (No. 71, 4-8): The Orange was not dull last year, which is not to say it was good. Anyone expecting a miraculous immediate turnaround under Dino Babers had to settle for an upset of Virginia Tech and an entertaining 76-61 season-ending loss to Pittsburgh.
Syracuse finds itself in the same place as the other two teams at the bottom of the Atlantic: Unlikely to stun Clemson, Florida State or Louisville, but hopeful of stitching six wins together. It also faces a potentially demoralizing stretch similar to Wake Forest’s: Louisiana State, N.C. State, Pittsburgh, Clemson, Miami and Florida State. Babers’s work shows promise on offense, but the Orange is probably at least a year away from its next bowl bid.
1. Virginia Tech (No. 20, 10-4): The Hokies lost their starting quarterback, so did the other four teams in the Coastal that went to the postseason last year. So while first-time starting QB Josh Jackson could have a learning curve as a redshirt freshman (especially in the opener against West Virginia), he’s not dramatically inexperienced relative to the rest of the division’s signal-callers.
It’s been a Hokie tradition for a quarter-century or so to reply on defense and special teams whenever there are some offensive questions, and it almost always works out well. Jackson should develop in time, and a defense led by Terrell and Tremaine Edmunds along with Andrew Motuapuaka should provide stability.
2. Miami (No. 21, 9-4): The defining characteristic of the best Hurricanes teams — more than attitude, swagger, whatever gave them pizazz while winning five national titles between 1983 and 2001 — was talent. Gobs and gobs of talent, almost all of it homegrown in South Florida.
In Mark Walton, Miami has the most established running back in the ACC. In Ahmmon Richards, it has a sophomore on an early pace to set the school’s career receiving record in three years. That’s a great place for Mark Richt to start, and so long as the quarterback play in the post-Brad Kaaya era is solid, the Hurricanes will have a chance to finally make their first ACC title game.
3. Georgia Tech (No. 25, 9-4): A 3-0 record against the SEC East (Vanderbilt, Georgia and Kentucky) was surely savored in Atlanta last season. The Yellow Jackets would like to continue that run when they face Tennessee on Labor Day.
They’ll do so with a new quarterback and they need a new primarily ball carrier after FB Dedrick Mills was dismissed from the program last week, but there’s plenty coming back on both sides of the ball for a team that won six of its last seven a year ago. Georgia Tech won’t scatter a ton of names across an all-conference team, but it will be a difficult task for nearly everyone it faces. It’s best not to underestimate Paul Johnson, and this year is no exception.
4. Pittsburgh (No. 41, 8-5): A lingering conundrum from 2016 sure to be solved this year — were the Panthers’ massive struggles against the pass a function of facing a bunch of great quarterbacks, or because of poor coverage? And how much was a lack of interest in trying to run on Pitt a factor?
With the quarterback departures in the ACC, Pitt’s pass defense shouldn’t be quite as stressed. But with RB James Connor and especially QB Nathan Peterman gone, the Panthers might not apply as much pressure to opposing defenses. Max Browne, after being supplanted early last season at Southern California by Sam Darnold, has been named the starter as a graduate transfer as Pitt looks to push for the top spot in the Coastal.
5. North Carolina (No. 53, 8-5): Another team turning to a graduate transfer at quarterback, the Tar Heels welcome Brandon Harris to Chapel Hill after a stint at LSU. But North Carolina has plenty of other holes: Running back and receiver, to name two, with plenty of attention on the Tar Heels’ new defensive coordinator, too.
John Papuchis succeeds Gene Chizik in that role, after Chizik took an abysmal unit and at least made it stingy against the pass. But opponents have topped 200 yards per game on the ground against Carolina for the last three years, and finally finding a fix for that problem is again a priority.
6. Duke (No. 60, 4-8): It was okay when the Blue Devils’ win total declined from 10 to nine to eight. But with inexperience all over the field last season, Duke sagged to 4-8 and experienced the unusual sensation of winning at Notre Dame and beating its biggest rival (North Carolina) and still being disappointed.
A modest bounce-back appears possible, and the path is plenty clear. When Duke was going to four bowls in a row between 2012 and 2015, it was a combined 7-1 against Virginia and Wake Forest. It lost to both last year. There’s other work to do, but those two games are a priority for QB Daniel Jones and the Blue Devils.
7. Virginia (No. 84, 2-10): Most teams are good at something. That generally wasn’t the case last year with the Cavaliers, who were ranked 10th or worse in the ACC in points, rushing yards, passing yards and total yards — both amassed and allowed. No other Power Five team was 10th or worse in its league in all eight categories (though Illinois and Rutgers came close).
The bottom line is that everything has to get better in Charlottesville, and it’s going to take time after 10 years of largely crummy football. If Virginia is to enjoy a turnaround this fall while senior safety Quin Blanding is still around, it will be obvious early. With an arduous closing stretch, things could get ugly if Virginia doesn’t make it to the midpoint of the season with a winning record.
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